Illustrator: Brooke McEachern
Since the primary schools of long ago, girls have been classified by their appearance and talents into type-casted roles that align with stratified popularity: The ‘pretty girl’, the ‘nerdy girl’ and the ‘tomboy’. And it is a process that continues well beyond the schoolyard – the labels may change but the practice does not.
You would think that we were beyond the days of labels, considering the progress we have made, but alas, women today are still grappling with these stereotypes. What is significant, however, is that since the 1980s movement of women ‘having it all’, there is now the expectation that women adhere to and perform more than just one label.
Ironically, while we now have more choices than ever, we must satisfy all those expectations lest we wish to be classed a failure. This unrealistic standard limits autonomy in a subtler yet more powerful way than ever before.
Women today are required to adhere to a transcendent nurturer role, but also to demonstrate their various other accomplishments. Achieving impressive university results, satisfying superiors in the workplace, having a storybook relationship, maintaining a physique that’s healthy but not too skinny, muscly, curvy … It can be exhausting to navigate and choose between the various stereotypes that we are expected to perform. Ironically, while we now have more choices than ever, we must satisfy all those expectations lest we wish to be classed a failure. This unrealistic standard limits autonomy in a subtler yet more powerful way than ever before.
In reality, our choices are still limited. There is often little consideration of what women might actually want to do, based on the assumption that we wouldn’t know any better. Whether it be the delegation of sibling minding responsibilities to the older sister rather than the older brother, or the placement of ‘appealing’ females in customer service positions, there exists the supposition that women universally have the same attributes, silencing their individual voices. This makes deviations from those norms – perhaps in STEM fields or on the sporting field – even more shocking and therefore harder to achieve.
But, to some degree, it is our fault too; women may not have created the labels themselves, but we often fall into the trap of reinforcing them in a struggle to live up to the standards they impose. One disappointing characteristic of some modern female interactions is the innate competitiveness that underlies it. Fostered by numerical statistics on social media platforms, it seems that young girls in particular are determined to ‘one-up’ each other for the sake of reigning supreme in social approval, because the alternative of invisibility or scrutiny is quite scary. Older women, on the other hand, often refrain from helping each other climb academic and corporate ladders in fear that there is just not enough room for more women at the top.
And what is it for? The admiration of men? The dutiful respect of other women?
It doesn’t stop there either – not only is there competition amongst women with similar personality types and aspirations, but also amongst groups of women. There is a growing division between collectives of women fuelled by differing social priorities and values. These encompass the full spectrum of life arrangements and priorities – corporate women, freelancing women; stay-at-home mums, working mums; female sportswomen, female academics … Each group critiques the other for an abandonment of what it deems to be the ‘right’ principles. In the end, many women find that the insecurity and anxiety of being deemed ‘acceptable’ overrides their desire to support each other. Competing constructs of what it is to be a woman are pushed into a perverted mish-mash of messages, which are then propelled at vulnerable and impressionable young women just entering adulthood, who come away from the experience feeling stressed and inadequate.
We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.
In recent years, even those who somehow manage to adapt to and shine in multiple areas are met with criticism. Even those who excel in meeting the demands of internal competition, as well as external societal expectation, are not unscathed. Now, however, it is centred around an appearance of inauthenticity. It seems that society finds it difficult to accept that a woman can truly possess a multifaceted personality without some pretence or deception involved. So while women were traditionally shut out from many roles and domains, their relatively recent access to modern labels has resulted in a pressure to perform in more than one area, and an underlying disbelief that they could ever successful do so. Women, therefore, cannot really win at this game.
Those who are genuinely able to ‘block out the haters’ are truly the unsung heroes of our time – those who do what they want and what makes them happy, whether it aligns with common societal priorities or not.
Even introspective re-evaluation of the ‘ideal women’ in feminist theory has brought its own burdens into the conversation. Where housewifery was once deemed the enemy in the era of the burgeoning Women’s Movement, third wave thinkers pride themselves on empowering each other to choose motherhood if that’s what they want. Each wave, however, does not completely supersede its predecessor, meaning that elements of older principles hang around to confuse and undermine updated ones, despite the benefits of engagement and discussion.
It is valuable and reinvigorating to take a look at those who have reclaimed their autonomy by making decisions to say no to either traditional or modern pressures. These people are everywhere. The promising law graduate who decided she wanted kids in her 20s before pursuing a career; the former bookworm who turned to pin-up modelling as a more reliable source of income; the triathlete who chooses to dress modestly based on her religious beliefs. We should avoid putting people into boxes and let them embrace whatever makes them happy.
Those who are genuinely able to ‘block out the haters’ are truly the unsung heroes of our time – those who do what they want and what makes them happy, whether it aligns with common societal priorities or not. Having picked a path, it is an admirable feat to allow your own personal measures of success to prevail, rather than being dictated by others.
As a woman you can feel like you’re constantly being put on trial, where decisions made and areas neglected are rigorously interrogated – whether directly by peers or indirectly by ideals promoted by information outlets. The best way to not only be kind to one another, but also to be content with ourselves, is to let go of grudges relating to our perceived inferiority and praise each other where credit is due – even if the achievements of others do not align with our own ideals. By doing so, we can challenge the assumptions espoused by our world of what a woman ‘should’ be whilst simultaneously creating a more harmonious and united female front.