“Mommy, I know it’s a girl on TV when she has big eyelashes,” my 4-year-old said confidently during a reluctant potty break from her favorite show.
She’s totally right — though men and women actually have the same eyelashes when they wake up in the morning. Girls, both cartoons and real, are portrayed on television with a signature trait: eye makeup. Even our beloved baby Margaret on “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” has enhanced eyelashes when compared to her brother. And don’t even get me started on Elsa.
It hit me that my daughter’s first identifier of femininity was, in reality, fake.
I started thinking about all the other steps a typical woman takes, beyond what a typical man would do, just to get ready for the day. The list goes something like this:
Shave legs (basically, shave everything below the nostrils)
Strive for the “right” skin tone through creams, tanning beds, or staying out of the sun
Use five different products to address wrinkles, under eye bags, acne, and clogged pores
Dye or highlight hair
Put on foundation, blush, bronzer and make eyes look twice their actual size
Paint finger and toenails
Apply lotion all over
Curl or straighten hair
No naturally-sagging body parts allowed — so work out and eat like a bird
Sure, men are not completely free from concerns about image—they may have to trim an unruly nose hair. However, they are generally accepted in public with starkly less maintenance. Just look at the number of beauty products created for women if you need more evidence.
As a new employee in one of my first office jobs, a group of women scoffed about a coworker.
“I cannot believe she came to work without her toenails painted. That is just gross. Someone should send her home.” Natural toenails, the one’s you were born with? UNACCEPTABLE! As a result of this eavesdropping and my need to remain socially acceptable, my toenails didn’t leave the house naked for the next decade.
Why is it that women feel the need to change our natural state to such a degree while men are essentially accepted as they are?
There seems to be something about the honest, authentic humanness of a woman that our society struggles to accept.
My 92-year-old grandmother reminisces with an air of gloom on the day she was told not to come back to her office position at an aluminum factory after she started “showing” during pregnancy. There seems to be something about the honest, authentic humanness of a woman that our society struggles to accept. The hairy legs and armpits, the periods, the pregnancy, the bloody and painful labor that produces a miracle, and the way we roll out of bed in the morning all seem cause for offense.
But women are, in fact, human — however much history or media objectification obscures that fact.
One potent reality is that sex sells content and perhaps the definition of femininity has been taken captive by such pursuits, turning the female body into an object of perfection and desire. Many companies reduce the dignity of women to sell more cars, shoes, and cheeseburgers (ahem, Carl’s Jr.).
Society has made strides since the day my grandmother was gracefully canned for being pregnant. However, after seeing thousands of advertisements with female sexiness and perfection, women now self-objectify. We fall prey to the complex of needing to be gorgeous, and forever under the age of 30 to have value. It’s like telling men they need to be as slick and ripped as Michael Phelps before heading to the pool. For women, one sighting of that unruly body hair and she risks pool exile.
On top of the impossible struggle to mirror the photo-shopped models we see around every corner, women are also expected to be perfectly-patient-always-nurturing mothers, flawlessly organized homemakers, servants to their children’s schools and communities, and breaking the corporate glass ceiling ― all at once. Who has time to keep their nails perfectly manicured, let alone brush their teeth with all of that on their plate? If we don’t start treating ourselves with equal humanity we risk losing our minds.
In fact, too many of us are.
If we don’t start treating ourselves with equal humanity we risk losing our minds. In fact, too many of us are.
Beginning in early adolescence, females are 1.5 to 3 times more likely to develop major depressive disorder than males and twice as likely to experience anxiety disorders (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
Daniel Freeman, author of “The Stressed Sex” and Oxford professor of Psychiatry, thinks these higher rates of depression and anxiety could be due in part to the high demands of a woman’s social role (of being everything to everyone) all the while being barraged with images of female flawlessness.
I’m not saying I’ll never wear makeup again or that we all need to wear turtleneck sweaters and go French style with our body hair. Expressing style can be fun and a way to show your personality and foundation can double as amazing sunscreen.
What I am saying is this: When women feel trapped to the point that they cannot go about normal life unless they have a picture perfect image or the picture perfect home, then we are living in a weird sort of captivity. We should seriously ask ourselves what needs to change for women to be valued for who they are rather than for their visual appeal.
We need to reverse the system we were all socialized in ― which largely measures feminine worth in beauty points ― and create a reality where women can be proud and confident in an authentic way. We can each take our own small step by thinking one thing we can do to accept ourselves the way we are and spend less time stressing about perfection. If we each do this for ourselves, and allow ― even support ― our friends and colleagues in their efforts to do the same, it will be a step in the right direction. Our health depends on it.
For me, I’m trying to invite friends into my home even if it looks embarrassingly like I have 15 preschoolers when I actually have two. And for the past year I’ve been exposing my natural toenails all over town as I happily imagine my former coworkers squirming nervously in their cubicles. The upside is my daughter has stopped the frequent begging to have hers painted too.
So rather than ostracize, let’s high-five the women who have the guts to rock the hairy legs and stand on the front lines of destigmatization. Let’s give our daughters, nieces, sisters and friends the chance to feel great about being a girl ― by feeling great about ourselves first (pimples, wrinkles, and stretch marks included). Because we are, after all, only human.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.