"How are you defined by your gender and your age?" the teacher of my women's studies class asked. "So many ways!" I wanted to cry. But, still restrained from years of soft-spoken upbringing, I held my tongue. I smiled knowingly when the young, female students commented on the expected clothing styles of today; I nodded sympathetically when they observed that they are unable to walk through campus alone at night without feeling scared. "It doesn't end here!" I wanted to warn them. "It's only beginning!"
As a child, I truly felt that I was given every opportunity to excel in any area that caught my interest. My parents never gender-trapped me, and openly discussed the sexism that many girls fall victim to, such as short skirts for the dance team, girls acting dumb to get attention, and wearing too much make-up. However, try as they might to make me aware and scornful of such practices, I fell victim to each one of those actions listed. I loved the attention, to put it plainly. People defined me in adjectives such as pretty, popular, sweet, and I felt bound to those descriptive words just as I was bound to my own gender. Once I was out of high school and in college, however, I found a new thrill -- anonymity. I could cease my sexy/preppy clothing habits, begin talking in full sentences in a confident voice, and could even (although this was the hardest for me) go to school without makeup and nobody would look at me differently. This was the key -- nobody would look at me -- that I had to get past. Once I did, however, I found that I enjoyed paying attention to myself instead of waiting for others to pay attention to me. That was the most empowering lesson I ever learned.
So here I am, years later, with children, a husband, and career goals of my own. Is it all behind me? All the posturing and pretending -- can I now be myself, a human being equal to all the rest, or am I still confined to the limiting expectations of my peers? My answer is, yes and no. I have fully crossed the finish line into becoming confident with my physical state; whether I am attractive at the moment or not does not usually faze me. However, women in my age group have an image idolatry that is subtler. For instance, we live in a middle-class neighborhood where most of the residents are traditional, two-parent families. I am a stay-at-home mother to our two young children, and aside from the occasional college course I take, my social circle mostly consists of my immediate surroundings -- our neighbors. For the most part, I love it, but every now and then, a feeling seeps in that I don't belong in this shiny, perfect neighborhood of ours. Perhaps nobody does. The women here view me as they view themselves, which is through the eyes of their children and their husbands.
One woman in the neighborhood is particularly ruthless in her attempt to be the perfect wife and mother, and giggled none-too-subtly to me one evening that all of her husbands' friends "are jealous" because she is such a good wife, and that his friends' wives snub her at get-togethers because they had heard about what a good wife she is. This was stated with some pride, obviously, and I found myself questioning my own "bad wife" habits and wondering how I stacked up against the competition. I had to tell myself, "No, my husband loves me because of who I am, not the wife I am. I do not need to be noticed for my performance as a homemaker." But as I write these words, I wonder how true it is. I look around my living room, and I see a color-coordinated space. I see chairs thoughtfully positioned, chairs that we never sit in, to maximize the perception of ambiance. I see vases and pillows that match the curtains, photos of all of us looking picturesquely happy. This is an image I am creating. For the life of me, I do not care if my living room pillows match the curtains.
Because I am a homemaker, it seems logical that I would have had the power to create our home, not drawn its color-coordinated space out of a furniture catalog. If our home were created to my liking, there would be adult-sized beanbags and huge, soft pillows everywhere and no couches with small useless pillows. The art on the walls would be made by my children, and the photos that I frame would be the dreamy ones that are never staged. I want to live, more than anything, in my life, not be formed and framed. I don't want to match; I don't want to dust useless treasures, and I don't want to pretend my family is something they are not. Why is my daughter's hair so shiny and pretty in the photo that I framed? Because I brushed it for the one day that month before the photo was taken, that's why. Otherwise, her hair is tangled and in her eyes, which is just to her liking. Her socks don't match a thing she has on, and most of the time her shorts are on backwards because she likes the pockets in the back. Who cares? Not me, but apparently many people that I feel obligated to please do, otherwise those photos would be framed and not these ones that don't represent anyone.
At this moment, I have a deep desire to burn my matching rugs. I want to take them outside, set fire to them, and replace them with hand-hooked rugs made out of old, soft dishrags. Wouldn't that be much more comfy to lie on, and wouldn't it wash easily? I can't do it. I like it that I am acceptable. I like the praise of friends when they walk in the house and remark on my good decorating sense. The same feeling I had in the past is still true today -- I like the attention. What would the rumors be, who would judge me if I threw away my couches and rugs and had rag-rugs and bean bags? Honestly, how would that change my social standing and affect my "friendships?"
To do myself justice, I know that I have to liberate myself from these silly standards. I must be free to be a human, not a magazine-combing home decorator. I must not expect myself to fulfill the expectations of every other woman's husband. I must photograph my daughter when she is dirty and happy, and I should hang or even tape those pictures on the wall. As I recite these lines to myself like a war cry, I know that it is a battle. Perhaps it is a fruitless one but to me, in my small world of 2000 square feet, it is direly important.
Today, as I sit here in my blue living room and look around at the photos of my smiling family, I have the sudden, poignant feeling that I've been swallowed up again by my desire to be noticed by others. As I look for scraps of myself in my surroundings, I find that I'm nowhere in sight. But of all the places in my life where I can control my environment, my home is at the top of the list. I have the ultimate say about what comes in and what goes out. I must see my role as a homemaker as a powerful one because truly it is, more so than most jobs. I can dictate our environment or I can allow all of us the freedom of expression. Like everything else in life, it won't happen overnight. It will be a slow process, but it can happen… piece by piece and picture by picture.
Mmo : November 2006