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Missing my instruction manual

March 17th, 2005 · 4 Comments

When I heard the report on NPR, Imagining the Exterior of the Ideal Man, describing cultural differences between the definition of masculinity and expectations for men’s bodies in Taiwan and the United States, I felt strangely reassured. Not that I am happy to hear how American men struggle with perceived body image or become obsessed by amounts of muscle mass. But as a woman, I have always felt I fit a bit outside the definitions of femininity in our culture.

At the moment, I am experiencing this again but in a new way, as the mother of a ballet dancer preparing for a performance. According to the written instructions I have received, I must put my daughter’s hair in a neat bun by utilizing various hair products. I am also supposed to apply cosmetics such as powder, blush and lipstick to her face. With embarrassment in my voice, I asked Abigail’s teacher for advice, confessing that I am not familiar with cosmetics. In the store I stared at the racks of colored tubes and compacts, scrutinizing labels as if I were learning a new language, overwhelmed and undereducated. Although I know in my mind that makeup doesn’t make up a woman, I feel I must be less than feminine, especially at my age and as a mother, not to know how to put hair in a bun or powder on a face. I feel I must have missed my female instruction manual.

From my earliest memories I was not a stereotypical girl. I didn’t like dolls. I hugged imaginary and stuffed animals instead. I never had a Barbie. I didn’t look like Barbie. Or have her voice. One time I answered the phone and was told I sounded like a boy. Little words but big impact in my memory. I didn’t like pink. Or lace. I couldn’t twirl on bars or dance on balance beams. I lacked grace. When I looked in the mirror and when I looked inside myself, I feared I was a failure in my own gender. I feared I wasn’t the way a woman was supposed to be.

Now I’m raising three girls. We spend most of the days together, my daughters and I, side by side. What it means to be a woman is a crucial question, one that I am answering, sometimes in words but all the time in actions, in the way I live each day, an example before their eyes. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found freedom in femininity. I’m more comfortable with myself, whether or not I look like a model in a magazine or fit what various marriage books say a wife should be. There’s a range, not rules, and a spectrum of possibilities, despite what may be publicized or glorified in society.

Yet it is in moments of mothering my own daughters I can feel insecure about my femininity again. I want an instruction manual so I will feel I will fit the expected standards accorded my chromosomes. But rather than being afraid or embarrassed, it is these times I should seize as examples, opportunities to demonstrate to my daughters what matters most. Maybe they’ll see that their mom needs help with combs and cosmetics. And maybe my daughters will also discover that what it means to be a woman is more than what eyes can see.

Tags: women

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 liz // Mar 17, 2005 at 6:33 pm

    I grew up in an era and setting where using cosmetics etc. wasn’t cool. I also rebelled against my mother’s obsession with appearance, so, while I can “clean up good” in the cowboy phrase, I go through the day bare-faced and un-coiffure’d.

    My daughter, now 16, happily likes her girly self and her athletic self, and sees no reason to chose between the two.

    I am not sure why a ballet recital requires makeup. But a performance surely would require stage makeup — to overcome the distance, to make the face real at a distance.

    Being able to contain one’s long hair into a tidy round knob is a good skill, not necessarily girly. Mine’s as long as it was in 1968 — no reason, I just like it long.

  • 2 Julie // Mar 18, 2005 at 2:01 am

    Bob Vis sent me this comment during the time comments were not working:

    Julie, you are not alone. Perhaps most of the women I
    know would be equally clueless about these matters. I
    tend to get along with them better. Who are they
    though? You’ve mentioned some of the characteristics,
    but they lack a name. “Tomboy” isn’t it. I have
    tried calling you a “nerd” before:

    What you are describing here isn’t quite nerd-ness.
    It has similar characteristics. It is different in a
    way we secretly feel is better. It causes problems on
    those occasions on which we wish to fit in. It is
    also different from just being a nerd. It is gender
    specific and is characterized by an indifference* to
    the slew of characteristics of womanhood described in
    this post and the one linked to in the prior
    paragraph. If you could come up with a name for these
    people and a description that resonates with them, you
    might create a phenomenon!

    * “Indifference” should be distinguished from
    “rejection.” A rejection of traditional
    characteristics is nothing new. The nonjudgmental
    indifference you use distinguishes the women I refer to.

  • 3 Julie // Mar 18, 2005 at 2:09 am

    Kirsten Bole (http://crowstoburnaby.com)sent me the following comment in email during the time comments were broken on the blog:

    Ah, this does sound familiar. I was put in ballet classes briefly
    around age 6, in an optimistic attempt to get me some semblance of
    coordination and grace. The only thing I remember from those classes
    was an exercise where we had to run around the room kicking our heels
    against our bums. A quarter of a century later, I still feel like
    that’s about the extent of my elegance.

    Like you, I sometimes think I missed something about femininity along
    the line. From about grade 9 on, most of my friends have been male. I
    usually seem to have one or two close female friends but never a gaggle
    of girls to bond with. My daily make-up routine clocks at about 5
    minutes, maybe 10 if it’s a special occasion; I’ve never understood why
    so many women supposedly take an hour to get ready in the morning.
    What are they doing? Are they laughing at me because I forgot a step?

    I see a lot of blog posts pondering what it means to be female, and how
    we function in a male-oriented society, and I draw a blank. I’m happy
    to be female. But I just am what I am. I don’t know how to define
    womanness, but it seems like we’re all expected to explain ourselves.
    I’d rather just *be*, and not get too hung up on the whole thing.

  • 4 Jean // Mar 18, 2005 at 2:19 am

    I think the most important gift you can give your daughters is the model of your own joy in your unique self. That and unconditional love and acceptance of their unique selves. And both of these also from their dad. I’m not sure much else matters. Yes, maybe the sense, from an early age, that, although their parents’ love is all they need, their parents’ skills and points of view are not the only ones, and they themselves may turn out to be different, and that’s fine…

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