In light of Donald Trump’s recent change to the White House dress code, which now states that female employees must “dress like women”, I thought it would be interesting to think about what a real woman is.
Do real women wear skirts and dresses? Do they love the color pink and high heels?
Are real women loud and proud or quiet and polite?
Do real women wear makeup? Or do they refuse to wear it because they don’t want to deceive others?
Do real women have long, flowing locks or a Tinkerbell-like pixie cut?
Are real women modest?
Do real women have curves? Or is a slim body more womanly?
Are real women interested in fashion and gossip or sports and technology?
Did you think of any responses to these questions? Were some of the mentioned traits more associated to being a woman in your mind?
Simone de Beauvoir’s famous book The Second Sex (1949) can help us understand why a specific set of traits is considered the norm for women. The “Eternal Feminine“, that is, a static set of ideas on how women should be, govern the way women are perceived. Instead of looking to the actual living women in the world to understand what exactly a woman is like, these myths propagate an ideal woman suited to a patriarchal society: “if the myth is contradicted by the behavior of flesh-and-blood women, then the accusing finger is pointed not at the myth but at the woman concerned: their behavior is considered unfeminine” (Vintges 1996, 28). I’m sure we can all think of numerous instances when a woman was called “unfeminine” or “not lady-like” because of how she acted or what she was wearing.
Wasn’t it common in centuries past for women to read manuals on how to dress and behave properly? Some of the qualities they advocated for included “modesty, gracefulness, purity, delicacy, civility, compliancy, reticence, chastity, affability [and] politeness” (Gilbert and Gubar 2000, 23). Although it might seem like an outdated practice, this phenomenon hasn’t abandoned us completely. The media, including women’s magazines and social media, bombard us with images of the ideal woman. The yearly pre-summer campaign to burn fat and reduce calories in order to achieve the perfect “bikini body” is just one example of how women are encouraged to adhere to an ideal. (Now, there’s nothing wrong with leading a healthy lifestyle, but that has to be a lifestyle change and not a get-slim-quick gimmick.) Luckily, this is slowly changing with positive role models such as Iskra Lawrence and her #everyBODYisbeautiful campaign. Not only does she constantly remind her followers that any and every body is beautiful, but she also brings other related issues into the spotlight, such as the photoshopping of stretch marks, cellulite and anything short of a flat stomach. The ads she stars in for Aerie feature unretouched images of women along with slogans such as “the real you is sexy”.
So, what is a woman? For the real answer, just look around. Anyone who identifies as a woman is doing it right. Women come in all shapes and sizes, they dress in an infinite number of styles and enjoy all kinds of hobbies. They are loud and quiet, shy and outgoing. A woman is whatever she wants to be.
Yes, it can be hard to forget all the prejudices society has taught us. Years and years of consuming these ideas can’t be erased in an instant. Sometimes you’ll see a woman down the street and think she isn’t properly performing as a woman. If you realize your mistake, you are fighting back.
Gilbert, Sandra M. and Gubar, Susan. 2000. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. Yale University Press. <https://books.google.es/books?id=3oxf7_BsD_sC&source=gbs_navlinks_s>.
Vintges, Karen. 1996. Philosophy as Passion: The Thinking of Simone de Beauvoir. Indiana University Press. <https://books.google.es/books?id=q6UFTrNYHTsC&dq=eternal+feminine+simone+de+beauvoir&lr=&source=gbs_navlinks_s>.
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