Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The complicated endeavor of being a woman and also being yourself

A hard thing as a human is when you don't live up to your own boldly-toted values.  I am a feminist, and someone who cares deeply about gender issues.  I'm also a person who usually sees the world in grays (you see what I did there with "usually?" That's exactly indicative of what it means to be a gray-wave-surfer. Things are often usually and almost never always.)  But- I still have values--things I hold dear to me.  One of these values among others, is that I value equality---racial equality, gender equality,....  As a white American, I am a witness of racism, but never a victim.  As a woman, I'm privy to both witnessing and experiencing all the complicated implications of what it means to be a woman.

As a woman, I'm expected to look like a young girl.  As a woman, I'm expected to look pretty and thin and desirable but not slutty.  As a woman, I'm expected to please others, to be soft, nurturing, kind, sympathetic, giving.  To complicate this, as an individual human, I also have a tendency towards being a people-pleaser and a peace-maker (and in the past, a push-over).  Furthermore, I very often feel joy when I can fulfill this role of supplying joy and peace.  But, because these are also traditionally stereotyped 'female' roles, I have sometimes felt like my essential Ilse-ness is false and pandering if after all it's just me living up to my role as a woman.  On the flip-side, I boldly fail at many traditional 'female' attributes such as neatness, domesticity, willingness to comb my hair...I'm disheveled, messy, more interested in playing sports than cheering, less than interested in tidying, cleaning, playing host.  I love wearing dresses, having long hair, and playing the ukelele.  Like all humans, I am a lovely and nonsensical combination of traits and tendencies that are at odds with each other.  I am a paradox.  This is who I am, and who I have always been, long before the appropriate gendered messages had reached my brain and stuck there.  Am I sending the wrong message?  (And why do I need a message?) Should I cut off my hair, wear overalls, start being gruff?  I like playing soccer, drinking beer, and not small- talking to people, because I can also have the other half of me that likes feeling pretty in a red dress.  It's complicated stuff.  I was and am lucky enough to have family who never enforced these gender stereotypes or expectations, but nonetheless, all these messages are still sent and received as a woman living in America or elsewhere.

I tried to write some of these common experiences/expectations below: 

As a woman, I'm supposed to be soft
soft of mind, soft of resolve
but not too soft
actually thin is better
thin enough to see a collar bone
but not too thin

as a woman, I'm supposed to be agreeable
in the right context, of course
not too agreeable
that's just pathetic

As a woman, I'm supposed to look like a young girl
bare legs, long hair, smooth skin
but not too young
because that's just creepy

As a woman, I'm supposed to be pretty
when I wake up in the morning,
in the afternoon,
in the evening,
when I'm asleep,
I'm given compliments on days when I look my best.
I notice.

As a woman, I'm supposed to please
the man's pleasure comes first
but I shouldn't be too focused on pleasing
because that's weird 

As a woman, I should be ready to have sex
when I don't want it
but when I do want it, I shouldn't show it

As a woman, I should be ready with a meal or a drink,
Welcoming to guests,
A gracious hostess,
making small talk,
it's rude otherwise

As a woman, I should be smart
but not too smart
No one likes a Hermione
I should read the news
but not voice my opinion

As a woman, I should be fun
laid back, adventurous
at first
but ready to settle and give it up
the freedom

of just being myself.

**The first person used here not to necessarily refer to my personal experience, but more to capture what are perhaps common experiences of many women.      


  1. So true. But in this world full of people caring about what people think of them instead of actually thinking....it's a ray of light knowing there is a grey paradox like you in it. Word of an unmalist male.

  2. thanks for writing this ilse