I’ve spent the last month or so in an on-and- off-again conversation with my therapist about cultural norms and expectations for how women look and how that’s affected me in my daily functioning. It’s an interesting conversation with many interesting points. I’ve decided to write what I can remember about the conversations here (with the potential for a follow up experiment) to help me process it.
The most recent conversation took place this past Saturday. I’ll start there, as it’s fresher in my mind. The conversation started with me talking about how I’ve put off, for roughly a year or so, going to the doctor to have my thyroid checked. I’m a notoriously warm blooded person (my winter jacket is a fleece), my hair has thinned recently, and my temperature hovers between 95 and 96 degrees on the regular. Despite all this, I continually put off (finding, and then) going to a general practitioner to get a blood test, or a referral to an endocrinologist. We talked about why that might be. I had a not so pleasant experience at my last GP and just haven’t bothered to find a new one. I go in for all other regular check ups with my various doctors, see a therapist once a week and a chiropractor twice a month. So what is it about going to a general practitioner, or having my thyroid checked, that is so off putting to me?
After a lot of pushing (on behalf of my therapist), I relented to a train of thought that quickly spilled out of me.
If I go to the doctor and the blood test comes back that I have hypothyroidism, than there’s a reason I am a thicker woman that extends beyond poor eating, sleeping, and exercise habits – not that I want to use that as an excuse for being a size 14. If it comes back normal, than this is my body. “AND THAT’S OK,” I practically shouted at my therapist, huge crocodile tears rolling down my face, my hanky (yes, I have a handkerchief. I am apparently an 80-year- old man) covered in snot. “Is it?” he asked. “It has to be.”
Here’s what I mean by that. I am incredibly tired of living in a weight-obsessed world. I believe that as I work towards bettering my mental health, I will continue to make healthier life choices and my weight will decrease until it stabilizes at where my body will naturally be without severe deprivation. I refuse to live my life counting calories, impatiently waiting for “cheat-day”, staring at a scale and lamenting when the number shifts up or down five pounds, and spending thousands of dollars (that could better be spent – in my opinion – on a plane ticket to some foreign country) on a gym membership where I go to be publicly shamed by gym rats. I refuse to, like the majority of my co-workers, spend every day talking about my weight, what I’m eating, or how much I hate myself. I know that self-love will come with hard work, but the work I intend to do is much more focused on working through the mental barriers that I’ve created from a young age.
This is where things get a little more complicated though. I’m also aware that we live in a world that IS weight and beauty obsessed. There’s no getting around it. From Hollywood, to sports, to even politics (if you look at the nasty comments the alt-right has made about the Obama’s beautiful daughters), weight and conventional (read: white, cis-gender, European) beauty standards are all that is talked about. I’m also, at 31 and single, the bane of my Jewish mother’s existence (which brings up a whole separate issue about still being a valuable and worthy women even if I never marry or have children – something society still sees as meaning my life is “incomplete” and that I couldn’t “possibly be happy when she lives alone, isn’t in a relationship, and isn’t a mother”). I’ll take a quick moment here to state simply that I know my mother is proud of me. I am an extraordinarily accomplished person in my field and outside of it. That being said, I know how desperately she wants grandchildren. I know she knew from a young age that she wanted to be a mother and has a hard time understanding my apprehension. I know that she wants me to happy and loved, and each year that goes by that I remain single, I think her hope for me in that regard dwindles ever so slightly.
Getting back to the point at hand, as a single woman in my 30’s, navigating the dating scene is an incredibly visual task. Dating is currently based in the world of apps. Swipe left. Swipe right. Swipe up. Swipe down. Wink. Heart. Like. Whatever the variation of the app is, the opportunity to really get to know someone for who they are is impeded by the flippant task of first glance physical judgments. I am well aware that standards of attractiveness affect both men and women. We are all expected to meet a certain set of criteria, determined by the elite who have glam squads and no real responsibilities outside of looking unattainable for the masses.
Add to all of that, the beautiful efforts of the body positivity and “no make-up” movements and I’m left feeling trapped between these two worlds. A world where I feel good about my curves, my stretch marks, my overall dislike for make-up, shopping, and fashion (which has been there since the beginning), and my propensity to dress in a more casual/tom boy fashion vs. a world where I’m taught that in order to attract a man I need to wear make-up every day, wake up extra early to straighten my “unattractive” curly hair, spend thousands of dollars a year on clothes and shoes and gym memberships.
In the middle of all of these thoughts tumbling out, my therapist asked why I don’t wear make-up. My initial response was, “I never have.” “Well why not?” It’s a good question. Before anyone had really dived deep into the reasons why I don’t wear make-up, my answer has always just been, “I don’t like it”, or, “I just don’t”. I’ve always felt more on the tomboy side of feminine. I abhor shopping. I’d rather sleep an extra 5-15 minutes than straighten my hair every morning, or cause great damage to it by blow-drying it constantly. I don’t like wearing make-up. Social convention dictates that women need to get dressed up and wear make-up to be seen as desirable. It’s the norm. My push back to this line of thinking has been, “Well WHY?” Women have worn make-up almost as long as recorded history; from Kohl around the eyes in Ancient Egypt to the lead based (I’m pretty sure it was a lead based) paint Queen Elizabeth used to hide her pocks scars. You could make the argument, that like the bright and colorful feathers of male birds, make-up has essentially been used as a secondary sex characteristic (although one that is applied and not one that’s evolved over millennia of sexual selection). But again, WHY does this need to CONTINUE to be the norm? Just because something has been normalized doesn’t make it “normal”. Celebrities such as Alicia Keys have begun to push back against the cultural expectation that women, especially those in the entertainment industry, have a full face of make-up on at all times. Unfortunately for me, my natural beauty does not compare to Ms. Keys, but I feel the principle is the same. This issue seems to be a hard line in the sand for me. I WILL NOT wear make-up daily or do my hair a certain why, just because society tells me that in order to be valuable, I need to.
But again, that clever therapist of mine has a reasonable and appropriate response to that too; “You have no trouble bending or following all other cultural norms. Why is this the one that trips you up?” I wear clothes ever day because the cultural norm is to wear clothes (and the law in most places). If I didn’t, I’d most likely be brought in for drug or psychosis testing. I, very quickly, adapted to the NYC pace of living after growing up in the slow country life, because that’s the norm here. If I didn’t walk quickly and with purpose, I’d get bowled over or cursed out (most likely both) on a daily basis. I give up my seat to the elderly or women who are pregnant. It’s the norm, (not to mention respectful), but it’s not the law. Why then? Why is bowing to the fact that I should be a primped and pretty princess at all times such a difficult thing for me?
I wish the answer were simple. I wish it were reflective of what I said earlier, that just because something is the norm, doesn’t mean it’s right or has to stay the norm. I’m not entirely sure that that’s the final answer though. I’m sure, in some way, shape or form, that it’s tied up in 3 decades of self-esteem issues. I’m sure that in some way, shape or form, that it’s reflective of (subconsciously or consciously) believing that I don’t deserve whatever attention I’d receive if I presented myself differently. I’m sure that it’s tied up in a million psychoanalytic things that I’ve yet to discover about myself. I’m sure it’s tied up in a never-ending cycle of nature-vs.- nurture (DNA vs. how I grew up) arguments that I am just starting to parcel out. I think I have trouble sifting through all the emotional things because, for whatever reason, I’m incredibly resistant to this area of change. This doesn’t feel, internally, like a psychological resistance. When someone tells me I should wear make-up every day, or dress, or act, or look, a certain way, it feels like they are telling me that I, down to my very core, am not a worthy person, and that’s where I get tripped up. I can’t even begin to see the (potential) underlying issues because my immediate response is, “I can’t do that. It doesn’t feel like me”; and it doesn’t. Dressing up every day, doing my hair and make-up, it doesn’t feel like me. Am I resisting the cultural norm or am I resisting change in and of itself? I don’t know the answer.
I suppose I had hoped that writing all this out would help me see my issues more clearly. If anything, it has made me feel even more trapped. Stuck. Fighting change. Fighting norms. Fighting myself.
I think the next thing I am going to chronicle is a little experiment. I think next week, I’m going to spend the workweek getting up, doing my hair, and wearing (in the very least) some mascara. I’ll chronicle my feelings and work reactions and try to keep the already building resentment as at bay as I can.
To help understand my thoughts on this:
Here’s a link to a jezebel.com article called “Becoming Ugly”, about the double standards placed against women and how we are to move through the world.
Here’s a link to another wonderful jezebel.com article about dating and being ok alone.