“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.
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.
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.