Playing Our Designated Gender Roles

In one of my classes this week we spent significant time addressing gender issues. One of the readings we discussed was an essay by Robyn Ochs, in which she explains how she spent “several years unfolding and unraveling the layers of misinformation” she had internalized regarding her own behavior: “I realized how I had been performing my designated gender role….I never questioned my standards of measurement, never realized that these standards are determined by a male-dominated culture and reinforced by a multibillion-dollar ‘femininity’ industry…. I took my inability to live up to these standards as personal failure and never drew any connections between my experience and that of other women.” Despite the fact that she grew up believing in gender equality and considered herself a feminist, she was not able to escape female socialization. My students have not been able to escape it either. Neither have I.
I was so moved by these students’ responses to the issues raised by Ochs that I wanted to share some of their comments here. My hope is that by sharing the pressures we feel to live according to scripts that have been determined for us, we can start moving from awareness toward action in order to create a more genuine path for ourselves.
Here is a sampling of responses from the women in my class:
  • I was raised to be passive and sweet—say please and thank you, don’t yell, don’t run, don’t be brash. Speak softly. Be smart but don’t overwhelm someone with your opinions. Wear this makeup, but don’t wear too short dresses. Say yes to that guy who asked you out that you don’t like; he was sweet to ask. Have you put on a few pounds? Why did you give that man a dirty look for wolf whistling, you should have said thank you. Boys don’t like women’s studies majors, is anyone ever going to love you? Every single one of these statements has been told to me at some point or another in my life, and every single one I have internalized and it has become part of who I am. Och’s article felt like I was talking to an older sister about my own life. Is this the shared spirit of womanhood—hating our thighs, and hoping that some man will eventually love us?
  • I loved this article because it made me take a step back to think about my own life. I then questioned my own role in my personal relationship with others. Do I clean because that’s what women are supposed to do? Do I wear make-up/dress for the male eye? Do I constantly apologize for something that is out of my control? Do I inwardly criticize my weight? Do I compare myself to other females on social media? Most importantly, do I love my own body? After reflecting on my own actions, I found my situation fairly similar to Ochs’s. While most of the questions above were answered with a yes, I believe that the majority of the female population would have the exact same answers. This is the result of a patriarchal society where women are devalued and seen as objects. We are constantly competing against one another instead of lifting each other up.
  • While reading this piece, I found myself keenly agreeing with Ochs on several counts. For instance, society teaches us that as women, we need to pay attention to our “biological clocks” and strive to obtain a decent man, because sooner or later we’ll need a man in our life. In fact, this type of mentality is relevant in my life. I have three aunts beyond the age of 35 who are unmarried and childless by choice; yet I often hear family members remarking, “Oh she’s waited far too long; now she’ll never find a decent guy. She’ll never have kids. Her life must be really sad and empty. Poor thing.” Or I often find that my younger female relatives are encouraged to quickly find a man after college and get married. My grandmother often advises, “Don’t be too picky, or else you’ll end up tying the knot when you’re too old.” The power that men hold in society gets carried over into relationships and can further encourage women’s subservience.
  • After many years of being single, I still get asked “why?” as if it’s a disease I haven’t cured yet. Sadly, twenty years after this article, having a boyfriend or significant other can be a measure of self-worth; and for most, it is.
  • When I was in middle school, I was called a cow and any food I ate at lunch never went unnoticed. Once I actually put duct tape around my hips so that kids at school wouldn’t poke at my muffin tops. Maybe I could have saved my teenage years if there was a class that taught girls and boys to love themselves. So many hours spent straightening my hair, so much time wasted putting make up on, and so much useless stress spent on finding “cute” clothes. I’m not even a mother yet and I’m worried about how can I teach my future children to be in love with being themselves.
  • I was never comfortable with my body, even when I was a pre-teen and hadn’t started developing any curves. I measured my worth by the opinions of others, and by the amount of attention I got from boys. I wish I’d had some sort of awakening, as the author had through her sexuality, but I’m still struggling with allowing myself to shake off these standards that are ingrained into us at a very young age.
  • The self-loathing of my own body has been taught to me from birth onward and is shoved in my face every day. There are constant advertisements bombarding girls reinforcing this; things like diet pills, workout tapes, visually slimming clothing, creams, cosmetics, jewelry, anything and everything to make you prettier, more appealing to a man. And I can’t even pretend to be above it, because I’ve bought into it. I’ve gotten the tapes, the makeup, the lotions, the clothes, all in attempt to match the unattainable standard of beauty marketed to me since birth.
  • The idea that I’m not pretty enough or skinny enough or anything “enough” has affected me every single day for as long as I can remember. It’s sad to me to realize that I have spent a good portion of every day of my life, if not all day, worrying about the way I appear to others, worrying about my makeup not looking spot on or my fat showing or any imperfection being evident. Even after spending so much time and money and effort on looking the part of a perfect woman, I still don’t see myself comparing to the girls in the magazines I used to read religiously in middle school. My friends and I would all try to uncover all the secret tricks to being beautiful. I still have at least one conversation a day with a girlfriend picking out the flaws in our own bodies, complimenting each other yet rejecting any good thing to be true, because that would be conceited.
  • I’ve been in one relationship and I remember how my boyfriend at the time was in control of everything we did. He chose where we would eat, and what our plans would be that night. Whenever we would go out to eat I knew he was going to pay because society has taught me that that is what men do when they take a girl on a date. I never paid for a meal, never chose where we ate, and never made our plans. I grew up with the assumption that this is how a normal relationship is, men are the ones in control. People may not realize it but society has a huge impact on not only the things we buy, wear, and eat but it even dictates how we act in a relationship. To reduce the oppression between men and women we need to realize these things and take action. Women need to change the script, make the script our own, and create our own expectations and standards.
  • Once we are aware of the social constructs that society has built around women, then we can begin to deconstruct them. Women should not have a biological clock, or a playboy body. We are taught that we should believe that we’re beautiful just the way we are, but we should try to be skinnier, quieter, less rowdy, more graceful, more obedient. Then we convince ourselves that we already love ourselves, all while checking every day to determine whether we’re skinny enough, if we’re talking too much, how we look in a certain light. We should not censor ourselves; we should unlearn this behavior that society has forced us to learn, and then we will truly be empowered.
And one from a male student:
  • This article truly took me by storm, as it left me rather puzzled and a little uncomfortable. I think this speaks volumes about how deep the social scripts have taken root. We are taught from birth to occupy these roles that we blindly accept despite many of their obvious negative effects. The part of this article which then spoke the loudest to me was the section dealing with the unrealistic standard of beauty both men and women expect of other women. This is a theme I have witnessed time and time again in my own life as I witness women coating themselves in makeup always striving toward this goal of “perfection.” The hardest way I have had to witness this pursuit of perfection has manifested itself as eating disorders. Watching good friends wither away, always dissatisfied with their appearance, never thinking they are good enough broke my heart. I truly began to see how unnecessary this “standard” of beauty really is. It also disheartens me to see my younger sister growing up and embracing this perception of beauty without even realizing it, knowing how badly it could affect her. This begs the question of how can we allow these social scripts to profoundly impact the lives of women in such a negative way?
His question is one that haunts me, particularly as I watch my daughter struggle to keep her footing on her own path. There are too many forces currently working to knock her off course. I continue to do my best to support her, and to be a steadying force for my students. But the scripts are so much bigger than I am. We all need to stand in support of the women and men of the next generation. We need to help them identify the socially constructed scripts so that, like Ochs, they can move toward critical self-awareness and the realization that they can shape and define their own lives. Don’t we owe them at least that – the benefit of our own lessons learned?
Ochs, Robyn. “Bisexuality, Feminism, Men, and Me.”

Diane DeBella

As a writer, teacher, and speaker Diane has spent over twenty years examining women’s issues. She is the author of the collective memoir *I Am Subject: Sharing Our Truths to Reclaim Our Selves*, and editor of the anthology *I Am Subject Stories: Women Awakening*. As a long-time faculty member at the University of Colorado, she received the CU Women Who Make a Difference Award and the CU-LEAD Alliance Faculty Appreciation Award. Through her organization I Am Subject, Diane helps us understand how we—as women—are impacted by the society in which we live. By claiming ourselves as subjects of our own lives, we become empowered and also provide strong role models for other women and girls. In healing ourselves we help others—a beautiful way for women to create nurturing, supportive communities.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Wendy Metcalfe

    I’ve always avoided having my appearance and life dictated by others. I was married for 18 years, but I got married in the same year I left work as a mature student to study for a law degree. I qualified as an English Solicitor (attorney), and immediately earned more than my husband. I’ve never wanted children, and eighteen years later when my husband pressured me into having them I divorced him. Since then I’ve lived alone and have no plans to change this. I find myself questioning and challenging men’s behaviour more frequently now. I think I managed not to internalise most of the usual gender messages because my mother was a strong woman who always supported my life choices.

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