I’d rather be a first-class woman than a second-class man.
— A former patient, who had an “I wanted a boy” father, expressing the crowning insight of her entire therapy.
So much is thought, and written, about ‘becoming a man’ in our society, what it means, what it looks like, what it is and isn’t. But not a heck of a lot is said about becoming a woman. What is a “real woman,” nowadays? We know the old strictures are passe: wife and mother, housewife, chief cook and bottle washer – all gone (or are they?). We know things have changed, but what have they changed into?
What I do know is what women (especially young women) talk about in therapy, ‘behind closed doors’: The pressure to get married, have a baby, judgment by others about how they keep the house, how (and if) they use makeup, their history of makeup and dress-up: Did anyone teach them how and when to use makeup? Show them how, expect them to, diss them for using it, judge them by how they dress, their stylishness,or lack of? All things men rarely have to deal with.
Women are under scrutiny for looks, manners, their sexual practices (‘tramp’ is still very much in use). Approaching womanhood is like threading your way through an incredibly complex slalom course, and if you hit the pole markers, you’re a bad girl (this can be good), a good girl (this can be bad), wrong, odd, frigid, loose, immature, too serious, dykie, girly, etc, etc.
We (mostly) don’t call women ‘girls’ anymore – all good, except does that mean the ‘girl’ is not supposed to be there anymore? You can say ‘boys will be boys’ and that gives a kind of benign non-judged permission to be a ‘boy’, because, somehow, it’s all part of being a man. But is being a girl still okay? Have we thrown out the baby (the girl within) with the bathwater (pejorative use of ‘girl’ as a male putdown or dismissive)? Women are judged by women more than they’re judged by men, and more than men judge men – ‘girls’ turn on their own kind! Girls are nasty to each other in middle school through high school, in ways men aren’t. Just read Queen Bees and Wannabes, or Mean Girls, or any number of other books about the nasty stuff girls have to go through on their way through middle and high school, or listen to the heartbreaking stores of female patients, who recount years of ugly whispering, judging, comparing, exclusion from cliques, freeze-outs, put-downs, broken friendships and lies, not from guys, but from other girls.
And then, in the business world, it’s an unwinnable game once again – you have to be ‘like the men’ to be accepted, but you never really are anyway, plus when you’re ‘like a man’ you’ve lost part of the woman inside, as well as some of the best parts of being a woman, parts that are NEEDED by our society. You want to be ‘one of the guys’ but you never will be, plus along the way you lose being ‘one of the girls’ (oops – there’s that word again)…
What is being an ‘adult’, especially for a woman? Consider this work encounter reported by a female patient, a very bright mid-level accounting executive at a large corporation. She was sitting at her desk when the (male) COO walked by, spying a stuffed bunny on her desk, and barked, “Lose the bunny.”
She said, “That’s the girl in me.”
He said, “Lose the bunny – and the girl.”
Can you be taken seriously if you don’t ‘lose the girl’? Why does a male get a ‘boys will be boys’ hall pass, and still get taken seriously despite immature behavior, while a female has to “lose the bunny and the girl”? So the girl inside can be one more sad casualty of our idiotic concept of being an ‘adult’. It means being serious, being exact, being precise, being on time, not being silly or quixotic, or inane, or funny, or anything that is outside of normal shipping channels.
Recently a female patient told me that she always knew her father really wanted a boy. She said that during her childhood, and even into her teens, she used to look at herself in the mirror, and pull her hair back, so she could see what she would have been if she was a boy. She also used to push up her breasts, to see what her body would look like as a male. Do boys (other than those with actual gender identity issues) worry that they should have been a girl? Do they stuff Kleenex in their shirts to see what they would look like with breasts? Judging by what I hear in therapy: No.
What is a woman told to be by our society?
You have to be pretty, and you have to be smart, but don’t be too smart because that’s unfeminine and might scare guys off, and don’t be too pretty because then you think you’re better than other people, but you do have to look good, and hopefully have some style, but not be a slave to style because that’s shallow, and whatever you do, don’t be fat because nobody likes that, although you’re not really supposed to care what guys think about your looks, but of course you know they’re supposed to like your looks, but not to the exclusion of the other things about you, but since looks is all you have when you haven’t met the guy, of course you need that to get his attention, but don’t emphasize it too much, because that’s cheap and self-involved, so emphasize it in a subtle way, but not too subtle, because guys aren’t that subtle, and oh yeah you have to do well in school and be able to support yourself, because you might not find a guy to support you, although you’re not supposed to think that way of course, because that’s so 1950’s, so definitely aim for a career, but don’t get so into it that there’s no space in your life for being married with children, because marriage and children are a given of course, unless you’re not normal, in which case we need to find out what’s wrong with you and fix it, because of course you’re supposed to be fulfilled by having a husband and children and making a nice home for them, though of course you’re not supposed to do only that, because that’s so 1950’s, but it’s still supposed to fulfill you, and you hope you don’t have to be the main financial support of your family, when you of course have one, because your husband is actually supposed to do that, though of course you shouldn’t expect that, because that’s so 1950’s, so to be safe you should really have a great career, and a great marriage, and be a great Mom, because if you don’t, you’re weird and we will worry about you and wonder why you didn’t do the regular thing, though you really want to be a lot more than just regular, but don’t do it in a weird way – is that clear?
Whew – good luck with that, ladies! (Oops – ‘ladies’ is out, too)…
Hey, little girl,
Comb your hair, fix your makeup,
Soon he will come through the door.
Don’t think because,
There’s a ring on your finger,You needn’t try anymore…
For wives should always be lovers, too
Run to his arms, the moment he comes home to you,
He’s almost here…
Yes, folks, this song was a huge hit in 1963, and won the singer, Jack Jones, a Grammy for best performance of the year. It was covered, successfully, by many female singers, including Dionne Warwick. This is called ‘acceptance’, and this means women, as well as men, endorsed the sentiments expressed in the song. At least until the mid 80’s, when a very funny female patient of mine changed it to:
For wives must always be cockatoos,
Run to his arms, just as your kid throws up his stew,
All over you…
(Well, maybe you had to be there.)
One would hope that, as the years pass, we would all loosen the boundaries of what a ‘normal’ woman is, and allow people to be who they are, and what they are. It certainly seems to be happening in the Bay Area, where I practice. In the old days of my practice, almost every woman agonized about whether she measured up to the ideal of womanhood – looks, having a baby, getting married, the whole mishmosh.
Now, there seems to be much more focus on current relationship problems (but not in the “wives and lovers” way), personal identity (what should i do for a living, what should I major in, but not “Is it okay for me as a woman, to become a ___________?”), and that is all for the better – but there is still a lot of pressure put on women from the ‘outside’, about family, marriage, children, being a heterosexual (yes, even in the Bay Area), keeping one’s house clean and ‘presentable’, etc.
Women alcoholics still have to face the prejudice and assumption/suspicion that any women who is a drunk is also a __________; women who are heavy still face constant judgment and commentary, verbal and non, about not only their weight, but what being heavy ‘means’ about them as a woman; women who are tall still feel “like a horse” at times, and are acutely aware that this limits their choices, and for that matter, ‘girly girls’ still face prejudice from other women as well; the assumption that they are dingbats, politically incorrect and dummies is still pretty prevalent. More ‘advanced’ women often imply that the girly girls are ‘traitors to the cause’, by still playing the old roles, although ofttimes they are only being themselves.
Anyway, things have changed since those days, but while I don’t think most women nowadays would feel they should ‘run to his arms’ when their husband comes home, I’m not sure we haven’t just taken those old expectations and grafted our modern ones onto them: Now, a woman is supposed to keep the house nice (statistics say women still do by far the majority of the housework), and work, and raise the kids (statistics say women spent considerably more time in child rearing than men), and look good in the bargain. Is that progress, or enlightened bondage?
I don’t know what statistics say, but it sounds like a bum deal to me.
I hope that someday, just as boys will be boys, women can just be women.
Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.