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July 31, 2017 | by  | in Opinion |
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Great Expectations? Yeah, right.

Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.

— Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

 

I have often found myself doing just this — considering the various influences that have shaped my development as a person, and as a woman. While I cannot identify when the first “link” was formed, throughout my life I have certainly felt bound. Except my “chain” consisted not of flowers or of gold, but a variety of proverbial “somethings” I felt I had to embody at any given time. An endless string of expectations and standards for how to be female — the catty, cliquey behaviour of teenage girls; the images of exquisite, airbrushed women saturating media and pop culture; societal and religious idolisation of virginity and purity. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t feel the weight of some expectation hanging over me, and each one shaped how I felt about myself and how I built my identity. I spent a long time attempting to find a definition of myself as a woman that was “acceptable”.

A lot of these expectations are, I’m sure, familiar to most women. We must be passive, graceful, flawless, perfect, pure — both physically and in action. We must put others first. We must defer to men. These conceptions of how women should behave have long been a feature of our culture. They are the attitudes that feminists have fought against for years, and they have made some significant headway: there is more space in society today for women to be independent, outspoken, intelligent, and diverse than there ever has been.

However, due to society’s love for putting people in tiny little boxes, feminism has been twisted to confront women with another set of expectations about who they should be, expectations that are in direct opposition to those they seek to replace — independence, strength, assertiveness, leadership, denial of men, rejection of all traditional female roles and rituals. A contrasting judgement of who the “right” woman is, but a judgement nonetheless.

Women today find themselves deafened by a cacophony of conflicting standards. They are also provided with much less guidance on how to navigate these expectations and exposed to more censure should they do it “wrong”. It’s confusing, and over the years I’ve had an endless stream of questions scrolling through my brain trying to figure out how to do it “right”:

Should I pursue and maintain a successful career? Should I want a family? What if I find I don’t? And if I do, should I try to do both? What if I can’t? Do I have to choose — cold career bitch or ’50s housewife?

Should I be trying to love my body unconditionally? How do I do that? And what about all the fashion and beauty products that tell me to hate my body, to change it?

What if I like shaving my legs and painting my nails? Am I conforming to the beauty myth? Am I a bad feminist?

Should I strive to be utterly strong and independent? What if I want to be looked after, cared for? Does that make me “weak”?

Should I be sexually free? Or does that mean I’m a slut? What if I don’t want to have lots of sex? Do I then become frigid and a prude?

There is no way to win. Humans are dimensional beings, not categorical. And yet, for some reason, we feel such a need to dichotomise people: if you choose to pursue a career over having children, you’re betraying your “womanhood”; if you shave your legs, you’re betraying the feminist agenda. Whoever you choose to be, you’ll be falling short of someone’s idea of “female”.

This constant sense of not being good enough is psychologically damaging. It’s no wonder women have higher rates of depression, anxiety, and eating disorders than men do! It makes sense that in the face of such confusion and uncertainty, a young woman might throw her hands up in despair, feel constantly worried, or attempt to reclaim some power by obsessing over weight and food — one of the few things that still feels within her control. It’s understandable that she might have such desperate reactions to a culture that constantly implies her inadequacy.

It hurts. Cultural expectations for what constitutes “woman” are limiting, destructive, and unforgiving. It is unfeasible to think we could all fit a single pattern. There is no “right way” to be female.

And if there’s no “right way”, then surely we can choose our own way. Right? We can stop trying so hard to squeeze ourselves into ill-fitting boxes. To change ourselves inside and out to make the label fit. We can stop wasting our precious time and brainpower caught up in the infinite spiral of guilt that we’re not “woman-ing right”. We can aim to live and love by no one’s philosophy but our own. We can do our best to love ourselves as women, regardless of whose standards we meet and which expectations we disappoint.

I certainly hope so.

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