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Anjali Sareen Headshot

Is Modesty in Women Overrated?

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Alamy
Alamy

When I got engaged, my friends and family expected me to celebrate endlessly and make myself the center of attention for as long as possible. In fact, it was encouraged. I was the bride, after all, so I was allowed to do whatever I wanted. I was supposed to fawn over lacy tablecloths and pink floral bouquets. I was supposed to spend my days obsessing over white dresses and matching rings. What I wasn't supposed to do was have a rational, logical brain and say it was stupid to be so materialistic to focus on the wedding instead of the marriage. What I wasn't supposed to do was deny myself the grand princess wedding that so many women dream about.

Conversely, when I graduated law school, passed the bar exam and got into MENSA (a useless goal perhaps but a lifelong dream of mine), I was expected to barely acknowledge my accomplishments. I remember mentioning to my then-fiancé that I thought it was incredibly stupid that I could go to a store and pick out gifts for other people to buy me when I got married, but I could barely tell people I was proud of being a new lawyer without being called "arrogant." At the time, I thought it was just me.

Then, I happened to catch one of Kathie Lee and Hoda's year-end wrap-up shows. They were discussing strategies to get ahead in the workplace and noted that for men, it was acceptable to "talk up" their accomplishments, throw modesty out the window and be proud of everything they had done. For women, it was nearly the exact opposite: being bold and unabashed about your skills and performance turned people off. Aha, I thought. So I wasn't alone.

As women, why are we allowed to celebrate "traditional" events like getting married and having children, but expected to humbly ignore our personal and professional accomplishments? My now-husband had to drag me to our wedding celebration nearly kicking and screaming; not because I didn't want to marry him, but because I was resentful that I couldn't have the city hall wedding I wanted and have a giant party for becoming a lawyer instead, which I was much more proud of.

Don't get me wrong: I was happy to have met someone I wanted to be with forever. But the reality is, it was pure chance. I happened to have stumbled upon someone with the same vision for his life, the same values and same goals as me. I could just as easily have never met him and never gotten married. What wasn't chance was the incredible amount of work I put into getting my two degrees. What wasn't chance was being recognized for my hard work at my new law firm. What wasn't chance was realizing I wanted to be a writer, working hard and making my dream happen. As a woman, must the other accomplishments in my life necessarily be eclipsed by finding a husband or having children?

Marriage and children should be celebrated, sure. But what about women who become CEO's of companies or run their own businesses or don't want to get married or have children? Are those women never allowed to throw themselves huge parties or celebrate their accomplishments simply because they haven't found a man or chosen to make babies? Why do we still look at those women as though they aren't contributing to society, as though their achievements aren't worthy of mentioning unless they involve giving birth or becoming someone's wife?

This distinction was never as sharp to me as when my husband and I were both invited to a couple's baby shower. I was excited he would be there; usually, baby showers were deemed "for women only" and as a woman who never wanted children, I found these events painful. When we got there however, I realized that I, as the female, was expected to stay and ooh and aah over tiny baby things, while my husband and the other men left to talk about work and play video games. What the hell was this, the 1950's? Because I was a woman, I couldn't talk about work or want to leave a party about babies? All it took for me to be ignored by the other women was for a table full of mothers to ask me when I was planning to start a family and hear that I wasn't. So that's it, I thought. I don't want to be a mother so I must be useless to chat with.

The double standard still exists. And it's still ridiculous. Women are still largely relegated to "women's" roles: fawning over wedding stuff, loving baby chat and being modest about everything else. Men, on the other hand, can do whatever they want. They can completely ignore the planning of their own wedding, they can leave baby parties, they can be as arrogant as they please - and all of this is just "men being men."

Even writing this article, I was worried at the impression I might be putting out to other women. I wondered several times, is it possible I'm too arrogant? Is it possible there's something important about women's modesty that I'm missing? Maybe, but then shouldn't there be something important about men's modesty, too? Which is more likely -- that men are too bold or that women are too silenced?

I quit being scared by the time I wrote the first word. I'm a woman, damn it, and I'm allowed to be proud of everything I've done in my life -- even the things that don't involve my "traditional" gender roles.