Strong and Independent. I have heard those two words put together to describe women my entire life. I have been personally called such a person on multiple occasions and have referred to myself as strong and independent numerous times. I was proud of it. As a woman, it defined me. It separated me from the pack. When online dating became all the rage as the new hook up culture, somewhere around the turn of the 21st Century, my profile actually stated that.
“Single, Strong and Independent Woman. Athletic. Early Thirties. Blonde.”
That’s how my profile read. Admittedly not very catchy, as I was just learning how to navigate the internet, but as I look back, I realize not how much I sold myself short, but how much I played the script I needed to play. In hindsight, I realize that I described myself not based on my own opinion of myself, but the opinion of others stereotypes and my desire to fulfill those roles. I also defined myself by what I hated in other women. My hatred toward those “traditional” roles women played, forced me to go the other direction. I now I realize how wrong I was.
“Feisty?” Yep. As a woman, I’m as feisty as hell.
“Bitch?” Certainly. On bad days? Absolutely.
“Fag hag?” Oh yeah. I had my favorite gay man, who frequently took me to every gay bar in the Tampa Bay area. I think I spent most of my thirties in gay bars.
“Passionate.” Of course, I am. You give me the right cause and I’ll show you nothing but.
In describing other women, I’ve heard:
Man-eater, Bitch on wheels, Attention whore, Trophy Wife, Girl next door, Complicated, Motherly, Matronly, Drop dead gorgeous, Natural beauty, Fat, plump, sizable
On the other side of the coin, men get labeled handsome, rugged, dashing, determined, business-like, teddy bear-like chubby, professional, well dressed and tough.
When a man is overweight, he is often called a teddy bear. It denotes that he is a lovable man of size. In the gay community, they call them “bears.” As a woman, it is simply just called fat. Sometimes it’s “gross” or “disgusting.”
The reality is that when I look back, I hate that I allowed myself to not just let people constantly refer to me by those names, but I let myself truly believe it and when I put the words into context, then they seem actually demeaning, sexist, and diminishes who I really am.
Let’s start with “strong and independent.” I am strong and independent, but you want to know something? So is every woman I know. Every single one of them. From the stay at home mom to the working professional, the woman raising a child on her own, the college student, the lesbian, the wife who escaped domestic violence, and everyone else in between. Women are simply women and they are all my friends. We aren’t strong and independent as individuals. We are strong and independent as a species. It’s in our nature as the species that populates the earth through a painful childbirth.
I regret the years I let myself be called and I called myself a fag hag. The suggestion of the word denotes that there is a woman who follows her gay male friend around and will most likely fall for him, believing there is a future between the two. It implies that a woman who has a low self-esteem lives in the shadow of a lifestyle that welcomes her, but only on the fringes. You know what it really is? Friendship. Simple and clean. Sometimes they hang out and just watch tv. Sometimes they have brunch. Sometimes they go to gay bars. Many times, they cry on each other’s shoulders. They are just simply friends. And just to be clear, many women go to gay bars, because the music is better, the cocktails are stronger, and she can usually avoid getting hit on.
What about passionate and feisty? Both of those words are used to describe women who are vocal and willing to fight, (both physically and with their words) for a strongly held belief. They are condescending and patronizing. I hate to be called passionate, because when someone says it to me, it always seems to follow a very ardent conversation in a professional setting. “You’re so passionate. Remember, you don’t want to come across overbearing.” I heard that just the other day. The reality is that if a man acts in the exact same way, he wouldn’t be passionate, he would be “taking charge of his professional career.” When a woman takes charge of her professional career it gets classified as if it is something that is somewhat rare in the workplace. I’ve also heard the word “passionate” while being compared to other women.
“I’ve never met a more passionate woman.” I always respond with, “Then you have never met a mother protecting her young.”
What seems like a compliment to a woman, is often times a way to make sure she remembers that she’s just a woman. In an organization I use to be a part of, I was once told by another staff member that they “had never meant a woman with such an ability to be a likable bitch.” I was like, “What!” I didn’t even know what that meant and at the time actually took it as a compliment. I never once heard that word use to describe any male staff. Yeah. I was a bitch and proud of it…or I thought. Looking back, it simply meant that when I asserted myself, I had to follow it with humor and wit. “Bitch.” It’s the word that most likely is used for a woman who defends her opinion, asserts her dominance, or argues a point. “Emotional” is the word that often follows “Bitch” and is meant to describe the woman who yells or cries as if emotion is something we should be afraid of. “Emotional” often follows the inevitable, “It must be that time of the month.”
My most recent favorite is, “Wow. You look so good for your age.” As if trying to tell me that most women in their mid-forties don’t and that age is something a woman should be ashamed of. How about just simply, “Wow. You look great.”
Finally, there is the word “Motherly.” It is a word that as a woman, I use to run from. I have never considered myself very motherly. In fact, it’s something I use to take a lot of pride in. Most people expect women to be warm, loving, compassionate, gentle, and demure. Mother’s bake cupcakes, drive mini vans, stay at home, cook healthy meals, and are happy to do it all, while they stand at their over-sized kitchen island thrilled to see her 8-year-old son track mud all over her freshly cleaned floor. The reality is that I’m often cold, hate the touchy feely shit, and am far from demure. I look awkward holding babies and babies usually sense some sort of attachment to evil when they are in my arms. I don’t bake, sometimes feed my child Apple Jacks for dinner, and deplore minivans. Personally, I would rather have a tarantula gnaw on my eyes than do some do it yourself stay-at-home staycation activity. When I had my son, I cried in the hospital when I had to breastfeed. I didn’t want to do it and couldn’t do it. I thought it was me because I wasn’t motherly. When it was time to go back to work, I was actually happy to be back in the land of the living. I thought that was wrong as well. It took me years to get comfortable with the idea that being motherly could not and would not be defined by the script written by a patriarchal society. I would define it. My son is educated, well fed, wants for nothing, and through his mother sees that a woman can be a professional, wife, mother, and friend all in one. I now embrace the word “motherly.” It defines a part of me, simply because I didn’t let someone else hand me the script.
Just the other day, I heard the word “matronly” to describe a dress a woman was wearing. The comment came from a woman and was in reference that her clothes made her look frumpy and old. Dear God! Can’t women catch a break? If the dress is too short, we are sluts. If it’s the wrong fabric and too long, we are matronly.
The list goes on and on. When I look back on my life, I realize how much I defined myself by the standards of a society that didn’t see me as the typical woman and often chastised me for the role I played. I realize that I was just as much a part of the problem as society because I allowed it. Part of it was that I wanted to seem like “one of the boys.” Sometimes I didn’t feel that I had enough power to stop it. Maybe it was because as a Southern woman I was raised to keep my expectations low. Most times, however, I just simply didn’t even recognize it.
When we are born life hands us a script and in that script is a play called “Woman.” It took me a lifetime to change the title to something much more appropriate and individualistic. I simply call it, Shelba” and the profile reads, “Just me. Professional. Activist. Writer. Mother. Sister. Wife. Woman.”