The Notion of The Perfect Woman

I couldn’t tell you when it started, and I probably won’t be around to tell you when it ends, but I can tell you its really shaped the woman I have grown up to be. For as long as I can remember I have had the idea of womanhood, ladylike behaviors and femaleness instilled in me. You never realize as a child, and sometimes not even as a teenager or an adult. Our behaviors, attitudes, and feelings are all shaped by this “reality” that we, as young girls, are going to grow up and become women – our gender is socialized to fit this mold. But what is a woman? Why do all us girls end up at this ending point of her – the epitome of femaleness?

My mother used to tell me “beauty is pain” when I would cry over my pierced ears or complain over how my tight shoes hurt my toes. She would look at me with a sense of disgust when I went to leave the house in sweatpants and a baggy t-shirt – a look I admit is gross, but not for the same reasons she thought – the same way she looks at me with genuine surprise when I have makeup on. She was, and continues to, try to teach me and my sister the proper ways in which women act in society. She never leaves the house in her pajamas, and will do her makeup while driving if she’s late. At home, she is the opposite – slobby (in her own depiction of herself) and not put together. In this I learned the greatest thing I know about being a woman in public, something I have only recently realized to ring true in my own life; that it is an act. That ideal woman I mentioned earlier? She’s a fabricated creature – yet lives on.

Maybe we get our ears pierced because we want them to be, and we wear stilettos because they are beautiful shoes and make our legs look great, and maybe we paint our faces with makeup everyday because we enjoy it. All of this is true, for me at least (and I’m sure a lot more of us), but the truth of it is, it is all a big charade – a way for us as women to feel good about ourselves, look good, and to be “presentable” (another word my lovely mother has instilled in my brain) for the world outside of the comforts of our home.

I don’t go to class in sweats, and I never leave the house without a coat of mascara. I wear high heels because they are beautiful and make me taller, and I stand differently around guys I think are cute. All of this is fine and good for me as an individual (what’s wrong with being a better version of yourself?), but it’s a fake showing on behalf of me to be the ideal woman I see in my mind. My gender is so morphed into society’s depictions of the accurate female I can no longer differentiate between what is socialized and what is not. I see my best self as poised, pretty, clean and put together. I follow through with the actions that get me there – these things I somehow know will make me a lady. I see these things because my mother taught me what it was to be these things – and how if I was them I would always be fine.

I know some people find problems in all this – I stated above that I thought it was fake –but I don’t see them as the biggest battle. Maybe womanhood is defined by gender socialization through images in the media and instilled into little girls by their family, but is that really that detrimental? Is it really that bad to aspire to be sincere, or poised or elegant – or whatever else it is that classifies that ideal woman? I think these are all good things, and I don’t see a person (male or female) being worse off by carrying some of these characteristics in any situation. I know that some people grow to resent the image of an ideal woman – and I know a lot of people identify with different variations of their own depictions of that. My question lies in how, and why, we got this notion of being a woman – and why, despite feminist movements, liberation and education of all, mothers still want the best for their daughters, and that best is somehow associated with the ideal woman.

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Gender Socialization in Society and the Media

The blog post, Gender Socialization at University highlights one of the many gender norms one experiences at university; such as the different gym facilities. I would like to take this idea a step further and explore some other places within the society where social constructs affect gender differences.

            Queens offers a variety of specified programs such as engineering, computer science, psychology, nursing, fine arts and much more. These programs draw students from a wide cultural basis as far as Pakistan, Dubai and as close as Kingston. The Queen’s University Journal conducted a survey, which allowed them to break down the specific faculties by sexes. It is important to take into account that these ratios have a slight bias they come from the 2005 graduating class where almost 57% of their graduates were females. While taking this into account, the enrollment between females and males are still significantly different in some programs, which can be seen with the women to men ratio provided by The Journal. Some of the most significant differences can be seen in, English 3:1, French 5:1, psychology 8:1 and the most divergent is Nursing 81:2. 

One may then ask why does nursing present the most disparate enrollment between the sexes? When one hears the word nurse, the majority of people will immediately think of a woman. This is a prime example of genderization. This can also be seen with Ernest Hemmingway was seen wearing pink as a baby.  Presently, if a baby in our society would wear pink we would automatically assume that it is a girl and to be honest, probably 99% of the time we would be correct. The fact that the colour represents femininity is a social construct that our society has created. Just as though our society has created pink for girls, our society has created a social construct that nursing is a woman’s job. Accordingly, the woman to man ratio of the nursing program at Queens clearly reflects this social construct, as there are 81 females for every two males in the program.

This social construct reflects our values and gender roles in North America. In North America we view women to be the nurturers and caregivers of the household. Similarly, the job of a nurse is to care for individuals and nurse them back to health. A sexual script is the way we are suppose to behave and carry ourselves that is reflective of our gender. Accordingly, is it women’s sexual script to be the homemaker? Is this the cultural ideology within North America?

In contrast, in psychology 100 we learn that in the nation of Burburg, males are raised to take care of domestic duties and women are raised to pursue professional careers. As a result, it is evident that people of Burburg have different gender roles than most people in North America. Is it then accurate to assume that the majority of nurses in Burburg would be males? Or would this be an incorrect assumption. If the majority of nurses in North America are female because they are the caregivers of the household then I believe it would be quite accurate to assume that the majority of nurses would be men in the nation of Burburg. According to the gender roles of these places I believe this to be true, but I definitely do not agree with it.

Bringing this social construct to the outside world, we seldom to never see male nurses in media. If we take it a step further and talk about doctors there is a significant difference in gender roles. Currently, a lot more women are becoming doctors, making the male and female doctors almost a one-to-one ratio. If I think about doctors in the media I immediately think about the TV show Grey’s Anatomy. Grey’s Anatomy is a fabulous show that highlights the lives of doctors in Seattle Grace Hospital. In Grey’s Anatomy there is approximately the same amount of male and female doctors. Although this is true, throughout the eight seasons it aired many of the main female doctors suffered from mental breakdowns. In season five we see Izzie Stevens suffer from a mental breakdown as she hallucinates seeing her deceased husband around the hospital. This distracts Izzie from her job and is the beginning of her downfall on the show. In season six we see Lexie Grey traumatized by a shooting coercing her into a an unstable mental state making her be admitted to the hospital’s psychiatric ward. Lastly, in season 7 we view the strongest character, Christina Yang suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder provoking her to quit her job at the hospital. It is quite problematic that only the women in this show suffer mental breakdowns from the hardships they have to endure throughout their careers and lives. I believe this creates a strong message to the audience about the capability of women doctors. As well this theme could be extrapolated to refer to the whole female gender in general. Although Grey’s seems to incorporate male and females equally they seem to create an androcentric perspective as the men can successfully achieve their work without having mental breakdowns. This is just one of many shows in pop culture that portrays gender roles, androcentrism and gender socialization. 

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Gender Socialization at University

Growing up, I along with the majority of my peers were ingrained with gender divisions – fixed cultural and social norms and expectations, surrounding how women should behave, what activities we should take part in and how we should dress. Parents, teachers and peers would apply specific gender roles to almost everything I did. Moreover, throughout my childhood these gender roles were exemplified in my education, extra-curricular activities, and other environments. I will never forget, for example, when I was forced to wear a purple hockey jersey for my competitive hockey team named the “Lady-Wolves”. (And Canadians wonder why women’s hockey has not developed an extensive fan-base like men’s hockey…)

As much as I wish I could say that gender socialization has changed to accept a broader range of personal identities, I am reluctant to say that I have noticed much change throughout my adolescence and early adulthood with respect to gendering. My undergraduate experience thus far has been surrounded with many gender norms and expectations, some of which I would like to highlight below.

By virtue of the nature of my program, Physical and Health Education, I spend a lot of time using the athletic facilities at our university athletic and recreation centre. Being a new “state-of-the-art” fitness facility, it is no wonder that it includes features such as a “Just for Women” fitness room. A gendered gym at first thought seems quite innocent. On a positive side, it encourages women who are not comfortable exercising in a gym where there are men to become physically active. As well, some women for religious reasons, are not permitted to exercise with people of a different gender, thereby, a restricted gym would promote inclusion for different cultures and religions. In the case of the university I attend, my question is why we have a women’s only gym, however no men’s only gym? It would seem that for the same comfort reasons, and perhaps religious, certain populations of men would also be more comfortable exercising in an environment without the presence women? I would argue that having a women’s only gym with the absence of a male-only gym would be a display of androcentrism. Furthermore, what is the option then for individuals whom do not identify themselves within the stereotypical categories of women and men? Are the gyms divided based on your biological sex, or is the division based on the gender that one personally identifies with? Ultimately, I question whether the concept of a women’s only gym is guilty of discrimination.

The women’s only gym not only is different in the gender restrictions it upholds, but the physical equipment within is very different from the equipment you would find throughout the facility in the more gender-inclusive areas. For example, the maximum weight that can be found in the women’s gym is 20 pounds, and most of the weights are pink, purple, or light blue. You can find further gendered equipment with the purple jump ropes and exercise bands. I found the following link on Walmart’s website for Dumbbells, which precisely reflects what the women’s only gym at my university contains:

http://www.walmart.com/ip/CAP-Barbell-1-lb-Neoprene-Dumbbell-Pink/20750571

As you can see, as the weights get bigger, the colour becomes darker and less “fun” and “girly”. Ironically, the exact same weight sizes can be found in the “co-ed” fitness areas, however Dumbbells are entirely iron, lacking any colour, which look similar to this:

http://www.walmart.com/ip/Cap-Barbell-Cast-Iron-Dumbbell/11099738

I think it is apparent to the majority of students at university that there are gender roles that are enforced on a daily basis. From the gym, to student residences, lectures, advertisements on campus, and something as little as the Booster Juice menu on campus, gendering is unavoidable. I don’t think I stand-alone when I say that gender norms have been created and are being enforced in a university environment, and that we as a society are far from eliminating gender barriers and norms. There is plenty of change that needs to be done at institutions as influential as universities, however, where to start?