Culture

The myth of the naturally better woman

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The myth of the perfect woman

You’ve probably seen some eye-roll-inducing think pieces about how American women eat, dress, walk, boink, date, work, look, breathe, and how it is ALL WRONG. That if only Americans learned from their more feminine brethren all over the world, they wouldn’t have to read stupid think pieces about how to be women. Those women, we’re told, are just naturally, effortlessly better.

So what is it about these other women? According to these articles, they attract men easily, are flawless mothers, are stylish without overinvestment of time or money, and flourish within the restrains of appropriate femininity without complaint.

I have some news for you: the woman who seems to achieve all this is simply a woman you don’t know well.

Let’s banish the idea that femininity is effortless. You can like participating in traditionally feminine pursuits, even find joy and meaning in them, but they aren’t effortless. Having and raising a family is not effortless. Cooking an elaborate dinner is not effortless. Looking amazing all the time is not effortless. A practiced hand or a private person can make these things look effortless, because the time and energy they put in is hidden.

To say that a particular country is populated by naturally better women – better due to looks, outlook on life, or “traditional” sensibilities – does a disservice not only to American women, but the women we’re compared to.

Starting with the whole looks and style thing, these articles are focusing on a small subset of the population: the well off, thin, young, straight, cis, and white (or light skinned, depending on the country.) Everything else – the mannerisms, the scarves, the statement pieces, the uniform wardrobes, the heels, skincare regimens, exercises, make-up or lack thereof – is window dressing. We’re told there’s one way to look or be French, Russian, Brazilian, etc., and it’s the same look and lifestyle that’s sold nearly everywhere. There are women living in these countries that cannot live up to these expectations, and they are not considered aspirational. Implicitly, similar women in the U.S. are told that they also cannot perform femininity correctly.

When it comes to how culture affects one’s outlook on life, there are differences from country to country and even within cities. That’s how culture works. It can be interesting and informative to see how other countries view femininity, family, food, art, and so on. Understanding that there are various ways to approach life is good. But privileging one country’s take on femininity over another’s is silly. You don’t get to adopt one part of a culture into your life and expect it to work the same way as in its native country.

Relaxed attitudes about motherhood and childcare come from places with robust social services. Being easy-going about love and sex requires a culture that doesn’t stigmatize birth control and doesn’t prize virginity. All these facets of a culture inform each other and affect how people view things. And if American women have a tendency to be uptight or anxious about love, sex, or parenthood, it’s not that they’re defective; it’s that they live in America.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple because, as I say over and over again, people are individuals. While there is cultural reinforcement in all our lives, it doesn’t determine the entirety of who we are. And for that matter, neither does motherhood, style, or beauty, which brings me to my last point.

The focus of these articles is about how to be better women, but they usually focus on romance, food, style, and family. This makes for entertaining, light reading, but the omission of other aspects of a person’s life is telling. As much as we’re told that changing ourselves is for ourselves, the things we’re supposed to learn is how to accommodate other people better – visually, gastronomically, or sexually.

Any person is more than how much she pleases others. And as insulting as it is to say that American women are dysfunctional because we’re too business like, too anxious, too big, or too loud, it’s just as insulting to say a woman from Japan, France, Poland, or Mexico is better because she’s never disruptive and is happy knowing her place.

Crystal is a questioner of many things and a writer of essays and fiction. She loves ballet and opera almost as much as football.