The transition from student to working woman has forced me to finally deal with the conflicting messages American society has been sending my way for over two decades. It’s hit me like a brick wall, and at first all I could do was stand up and look confused, but I believe I’ve finally found a way to walk around the wall rather than attempting to go straight through it.
The Conflict: Message One
Brittney Spears, Victoria Secret, Cover Girl. Hot, Sexy, Seduction. What images do these things bring to mind? Where can you find those images in your day-to-day life?
I think of a thin but curvy woman with her hair and makeup done to perfection. She’s very flexible and knows how to move her body to make the men go crazy. She never has to pursue a man she’s interested in, and is constantly teasing men. She’s less of an angel, more of a devil, and is well practiced in the bedroom.
I can find this message plastered all over American culture and infused in the advertising industry as well. If you watch a television show, chances are you’ll see a form of this type of female not only as a character in the show but several times during commercial breaks. If you read a magazine, you’ll probably see at least one photo of a woman who fits this characterization. Same goes for movies and music. Do celebrity women fit the picture? Yes, they most certainly do! What women do men sing about? What do women sing about themselves? In the most popular music, you’ll often find references to what makes a woman “sexy” — her hips, her legs, her lips, the way she moves, etc, etc. Recently, songs will just straight up describe sex. And though I don’t have any proof of these claims here, if you don’t believe me, just look at the billboard top songs (http://www.billboard.com/charts/hot-100#/charts/hot-100) or the most popular videos on Youtube (http://www.youtube.com/music). If women aren’t described as sexbots, we’re characterized as partiers who always have a good time.
OK, so what’s the message really? What I interpret from all these images and sound bites is that in order for someone to be described as feminine, one must look like a slutty Barbie doll and one must party it up all the time.
Now this message was very difficult for me to accept for the majority of my life. My solution was to more or less just not think of myself as very feminine. But once I moved just an hour from the famed city that never sleeps, I found myself motivated to try this character on for size. I bought a few nice outfits, some pumps that were never comfortable, but made my fanny and legs look a-maz-ing! and even bothered to try wearing makeup. Here I was, ready to turn heads!
The heads turned, and the eyes gravitated to where all the movies told me they would. The eyes changed their tone altogether, in fact. And I, well I felt disgusting — like a complete sellout.
The Conflict: Message Two
Career, Intelligence, Ambition. American Dream, Feminism, Strength. What images do these things bring to mind? Where can you find those images in your day-to-day life?
These words mostly make me think of successful men, rather than a career women I can look up to. This fact in itself is rather disappointing given that I am a self-described career woman, independent and driven. However, when I apply these words to a female, this is what I see: a woman in clothes that hide her curves as much as possible with glasses and her hair pulled back. Any makeup is minimal to the point that it only slightly accentuates her eyes and lips. She isn’t someone you want to mess with, and she is very good at her job. She’s sacrificed having a family, but she knew what she was getting into in the first place. She probably lives alone with a cat or dog and has developed several hobbies to keep her busy outside of work.
I can find this image at work (I’m an engineer). Otherwise, it’s pretty hard to find. There have been some recent trends that celebrate non-traditional women, but these women still don’t fit the character of “successful woman” exactly.
OK, so what’s the message really? What I interpret from all these images is that in order for women to be successful, they need to play by the rules and look as close to a man as possible. Let go of your femininity, and they will let you soar! Remind them that you can kick ass at your job and look feminine at the same time, and they’ll demote you ASAP. Now, this reaction is clearly exaggerated. Nonetheless, I am reminded of an incident several years ago where a female banker was fired for wearing a pencil skirt that accentuated her curvacious hips to a distracting degree. Nevermind that all the flat reared ladies were also wearing these sorts of skirts. And nevermind that she was great at her job. Source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/7800778/Woman-banker-claims-she-was-sacked-for-being-too-attractive.html or http://lmgtfy.com/?q=woman+banker+fired+for+pencil+skirt.
Whether her claims of discrimination are true or not, these events highlight what every woman goes through at work. There is an undeniable force trying to convince us (women) that we must leave our femininity outside the workplace if we want to be successful. I’m not saying that men are behind this force. I don’t know where it’s coming from. But regardless of its origin, the pressure it creates is clearly present in the American work culture.
Putting One and Two Together
So if a woman must be “sexy” to be feminine and simultaneously be “masculine” to be successful, is it possible for a woman to be both successful and feminine?
Frankly, no, not if she is willing to define femininity in the narrow fashion described thus far. But this realization is what allowed me to think about femininity in a completely original way for myself. Up to this point, I’ve been describing women from the perspective of a man, because that is the POV I had been fed all of my life.
What if femininity were defined by each individual woman? What if femininity didn’t refer to the “ideal” woman, but to a woman’s character? Femininity is a state of mind, priorities, a different way of interpreting the world. My femininity isn’t defined by my physical characteristics, but by my behavior.
This way of looking at the problem introduces a new dimension altogether. Now I can logically afford to agree that sex or any distant reference to it has no place at work while simultaneously keeping my feminine identity. I can be logical and ambitious while also being empathetic and kind. Success and femininity are no longer mutually exclusive!
This realization marked a break through moment for me in my life, that allowed me to accept what it means to be a female engineer. My field is not particularly sexy, not in the traditional sense, however this fact doesn’t imply that only masculine women can succeed in the industry.
The Next Step
Now that I see clearly that engineering, science, and math can be feminine roles. I want to encourage young girls to have the same Eureka moment. I know from my involvement in the Society of Women Engineers (http://societyofwomenengineers.swe.org/) that many girls shy away from these areas often because they don’t feel it fits their image of what they’re meant to do.
I don’t know how I’ll pass the message on quite yet, but I am certain that with time all will become clear. Until then, I’m going to continue being just a little bit more comfortable in my skin — no matter where I am. I’ve stopped fooling myself about which type of woman I am and have returned to where I am most comfortable. I don’t wear makeup, and I rarely wear revealing clothes. I prefer comfortable shoes and hanging out at pubs rather than chaotic NYC clubs. I am a nerd all the way, and 100% woman.