Great Expectations: On Women’s Unequal Burden Of Prescribed Social Norms

“One is not born, but rather becomes a woman,” – Simone de Beauvoir.

We live in a world where the everyday lives of men and women are defined and dictated by rigid social constructs. Women are indeed biologically and physiologically different from men, but it is also true that those differences have been used by a phallocentric society to keep women shackled for centuries.

They have neither been respected nor given equal social standing as men but what is worse is that it is not just the men who have confined the women and told them how to live their lives, but women themselves have become cogs-in-the-wheel in this patriarchy as they continue to impose a parochial frame of mind upon other women.

As a woman, there are, of course, several things that we can speak up against. But one of the things that I feel affects our day-to-day lives is our burden of social expectations and the fact that we are judged for it if we seem remiss in the slightest.

From the length of our dresses to the way we conduct ourselves, to whether our legs are shaved, and of course, how many boyfriends we have or whether we have decided against having children—there is not a single thing we are not judged for. And interestingly, it is the women, even more than men at times, who judge the most.

It was only when I joined this new school that I was thrust into a space where not having shapely eyebrows or smooth arms and legs became crucial to my existence, and not in a good way.

As a young girl, an experience that traumatized me was in high school, at the plus two level. I had left my old school after my board exams and moved to a girls’ school to pursue the arts. Although academically I did well here, in hindsight, the girls’ school was a bad idea. I had always been a bit of a nerd and had never given too much thought to my appearance (unless I was trying to impress a crush, which was a different matter altogether!). For instance, I hadn’t yet started getting my eyebrows shaped or my legs shaved. 

It was only when I joined this new school that I was thrust into a space where not having shapely eyebrows or smooth arms and legs became crucial to my existence, and not in a good way. I was judged for it and made fun of; on top of everything else I was a shy girl and couldn’t always find the right words to get back at someone, and I also happened to be a serious student thus unwittingly giving rise to a lot of jealousy. I was dead meat. For a teenager to become a topic of gossip and to be made to feel small can be traumatizing, and I began hating school.

This, of course, sounds like a scene from Mean Girls, and I am aware that high school ‘mean girls’ are nothing new. But for me, as I am sure for many others, this experience was a bit like a baptism in fire. Until then, I had been a person. But after my time in this school, I became more conscious of my gender and that as a girl, I needed to look a certain way. One can argue that this was a good thing, for it helped me become feminine in the more conventional ways. But at the time, as I got judged daily, it was not fun!

The reason I narrate this experience is that these girls are a product of the society we live in. A society where the arch of an eyebrow takes precedence over grades for a girl. A society where an adolescent is made to feel as if she doesn’t belong if she doesn’t care enough about looking pretty. I do not say that boys do not experience the same things in school, especially those who might not adhere to the so-called heteronormative notions of the masculine. It is because they do not live up to the social expectations, the conditioning that boys should only look and behave a certain way.

From the length of our dresses to the way we conduct ourselves, to whether our legs are shaved, and of course, how many boyfriends we have—there is not a single thing we are not judged for.

The burden of social conventions guides and binds us every step of the way. I’ve seen middle-aged female colleagues judge younger ones based on what they wear and how they speak to boys. I’ve noticed double standards in how a girl is called a slut for responding flirtatiously to a man who flirted with her first. And I’ve seen how getting married becomes an essential ‘accomplishment’ once a girl reaches a ‘marriageable age’. It doesn’t stop there, of course. Next, you have to become a mother.

The thing is, these social norms have become part of our collective social conscience; it is ingrained in our social psyche to the extent that if there is a delay in say, getting a boyfriend, or getting married, or having babies, then it inevitably starts affecting us. Even a woman who claims to not be bothered by what others say is made to feel depressed because that is how we are conditioned.

There are certain stages in a woman’s life, and if one does not wish to follow them to the tee, or if there is simply a delay in any one of them, then an avalanche of gossip is bound to follow. So much so that the woman begins to question her own identity—as if she is robbed of her very self-worth if she cannot live up to society’s expectations.

This is not to say that men are not judged. But the yardstick for judging a man is different from a woman’s. A man at least does not have to contend with looking good, he can also take his own sweet time to marry, if at all. A woman, though, even if she earns enough to support her parents is not considered settled until she marries. And while the age when women are expected to marry has gone up considerably over the years, the pressure remains, often reaching disturbing levels.

As a woman, I struggle with these social expectations, and I see others struggling with them daily. It is not that I am against any of these things—I am a married woman myself—but I do not see the rationale behind defining ourselves solely based on these gender identities. I certainly do not see why a woman should be ashamed for not looking a certain way and for choosing to live life her way. I wish that women would be seen as people first, and women later, even by those who love us the most.

Featured image only for representation.
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

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With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

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Read more about the campaign here.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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