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It is the time of year when–in a normal year–someone I know (youth or child) gets sent home from school for a “dress code violation.” This makes no sense when one takes the time to think about the message it is sending girls and women in our world. (This is also the time when I usually take time to point to the inequality and unfairness of such dress codes, but that’s not my point here.) This year I assumed would be different, yet I just got a snippet of a grad school-aged friend’s zoom lecture where the professor called her out for her outfit “being distracting.” Now there are some social norms at play, so before getting angry or upset, I took a moment to watch the video to see what happened. The outfit was something I see every day on campus at William and Mary in a normal year; I will call it the “I rolled out of bed 10 minutes before class” look. All you can see on camera is a face and what is clearly a yellow tank top. Her comment was, “I wore this in person to their class last year. What is different on video?” This of course opened a discussion of systems and how they react in times of chaos or anxiety, but that again is not what I want to focus on here. What I do want to talk about is how we still today think and talk about femininity.
The following reflections are based on essays by Stephanie Arel and Naomi Wolf as well as observations of my best friends from childhood until today.
The Destructive Impact of Shame and Competition
The patriarchal feminine ideal is not about controlling image, but about controlling behavior, particularly in ways that create shame and competition. The pitting of women against each other and their own selves are at the core of many issues (i.e., self-image, unhealthy relationships with food/eating, anxiety, etc.) that are epidemic for women in our culture.
This social norm changes natural language and thoughts from ones of sustenance and community built on the joy of being and sharing in the Divine within each of us to shackled terms that direct us to judge ourselves most deeply. These voices call to question amounts and types of food available to help justify eating less or making choices that seem to provide the least potential shame (often subconsciously), rather than enjoying the food (and often communal fellowship) as much as we are willing/able. It is not just making healthy choices to sustain us or that bring us joy, but questioning ourselves and thus others’ choices as to their enjoyment. The words may seem innocent but are created by shame of self-image built on an ideal set of behaviors. This is the same shame than maintains the oppressiveness of Purity Culture, or the words that make teenage and adult women seen as “bossy" if they are confident or driven. The social norms not only set women against each other but also against themselves.
The isolation formed through internal shame leads to a self-judging and destructive pattern. Our society says that women should not share their burdens if they hope to form healthy communal relationships with other women. This is systemic violence against women, and against femininity. It is abusive to its core; shame and guilt used to control.
The Healing Power of Empathy and Community
Yet it is the sharing of feelings that bring together and create true “sisterhood.” The ability to grapple collectively with what each person’s own body (and bodies and personalities as a whole) means both socially and emotionally while looking at how outside forces have made us question ourselves and how we look and act, allow a reclaiming of one’s own narrative, built on empathy and community. Empathy allows us to move away from competition and community can overcome shame but moving in this direction is risky in a society that has built-in controls to maintain such behaviors. It is not enough for women to seek empathetic communities; males must take active support roles aiming to overturn the societal norms completely.
This is not easy work, but we who do not face this same struggle are called to walk alongside our sisters and to encourage and be part of rituals, processes, reconciliation, and celebration as they move forward and reclaim themselves. It also means we must give up space to those who can most help change society for the good and break the cycle for future generations. This is important, and needs all our time and energy if we hope for all people to be whole, well, and cared for fully. May we all act to create true equality and community for all.
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