Being a woman has brought with it both heartache and joy, but mostly it has shackled me to a role that does not fit who I am or what I am about. Prejudice exists for both men and women and being recognized as a self — one independent of these categories — might be impossible for most because our evaluation of others integrates physical appearance, emotional reactivity or sexual attraction, dictated by the roles assigned to that specific sex or gender. It is the latter assessment that gets me into trouble. Like most women, past and present, I have had my fair share of struggles simply because I am female. My unconventional personality, coupled with the adversity tied to my gender, makes it that much more difficult to align myself with expectations.
Recently, I was conversing with someone who took my divergence from shallow conversation as an opportunity to brand me “intense.” I say brand because it stung and was a reluctant mark against my character that seemed to stem from the fact that I chose to speak rather than sit silent and look pretty. “Intense” was not meant as “passionate” or “driven,” rather as inconvenient and unwelcome, something I have often heard used to describe women negatively. Ironically, it was not his own “tenacity” or “assertiveness” that he recognized as “intense,” but my embodiment of those same characteristics. The interaction left me feeling as though I would always need to censor parts of myself and I left saddened and confused over how using my voice could bother someone so much.
Whether directly tied to gender expectations or not, this familiar scenario caused the harsh realization that no matter how hard I try to conform, it is still never good enough. Those small cracks where my authentic self could leak through to disrupt the dichotomized culture let slip. For that, I was chastised and disowned. Yet, the conundrum is, that even if I have the freedom to unleash those contrary parts of myself, I will still be chained by the reactions of others and the accompanying consequences, whether from a supervisor, a friend or a lover. It is the harrowing results of these attempts at sharing the parts of me deemed inadmissible that make me trepidatious, alone and depressed.
Even more perplexing, it seems the guidelines for a woman are so complicated that whether I am following them or not depends upon the comfort level of the person across the table. As a woman, my boundaries, the way I express myself and the way I look must be composed in such a way as to balance my own well-being against the prospect of being called a prude, a bitch or a whore and suffering the fate associated with these misnomers. It is the feeling of being trapped, helpless to change deep-rooted beliefs that grow up like weeds, wrapping around my feet, keeping me in place and pulling me deep into the ground where I am left to suffocate. Yet, gender roles are so ingrained in our culture that people, myself included, consciously or unconsciously, succumb to and judge by the standards laid out by these doctrines. Sometimes, it is easier to accept an establishment than it is to dismantle and rebuild it. Still, the brave pieces of me imagine what it would be like to live in a world without the constant fear that, if I act outside assigned parameters, I may lose my job, my lover or my life.
So, here is what I wish for myself and for all women out there. I wish I could have an independent thought without being labeled intense. I wish I could experience an emotion, however big or small, without being called crazy or sensitive. I wish I could have romantic relationships without being a slut or sloppy seconds. I wish I could be flawed without being bad and strong without being a bitch. I wish I could exist in a universe where women’s bodies are not treated like objects and where a man’s sexual improprieties are not my fault. I wish I could be heard and not silenced, listened to and not ignored, seen and not gawked at and felt but not touched. I know these things are possible. I know because it was not too long ago that women could not vote, could not have careers and were prevented from pursuing higher education.
Destructive gender stereotypes are nothing new, but I am hoping this article may serve as a conduit of light held to an issue that should never see darkness, a beacon to let others know they are not alone, and a reiteration of words spoken by greater women who have come before me. My hope is that someday someone from a future generation will come across this article, or one of the many written on these subjects, and be inspired to make change. Even better, I hope that in that time those women will look back on this article and have no idea what I am talking about. They will not know what if feels like to be us. To be me.
A great compliment was given to me a couple of weeks ago. A friend said, if I were a woman a few hundred years ago, I would be burnt at the stake. I am sure this is true for many women today. If society still practiced such things, that might be my fate even now. Oddly, I am okay with that prospect, for it would not be too much a misfortune if it meant the ropes that bind me would be turned to ashes. No, for me, the greatest tragedy is that I am quite certain I will be long gone from this world before I ever know what it truly means to be free.