No “Right Way” to be a Woman

by

Like most people who identify as a woman, some days you just feel so tired. You ask yourself, “How did you lose my way?” It seems like so long ago since you felt you were full of energy and had a sense of direction – you knew what you wanted and you went for it. Sure, things weren’t perfect, but you set goals and you achieved them. Maybe you got that promotion you wanted. Perhaps you worked hard and improved your physical fitness. Maybe you improved your ability to communicate with your partner. But now you feel stuck, and your motivation is lacking. It seems you just can’t get out of your own way!

What happened? Well, regardless of the unique challenges going on in our lives, we are bombarded by all kinds of messages telling us how to be a woman. Many of those messages do not serve us well. It started when we were just kids, often in school. and even though some things have changed, we still get messages telling us how to be a woman. 

Woman at computer working to show there is no right way to be a womanA survey conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that respondents’ most valued trait for a woman is physical attractiveness followed by empathy/nurturing. It also reveals that about half of all women say it’s important to be seen as feminine by others. Think about that for a second. Gendered messages defining “femininity” tell women to be pretty and whatever else. About half of women in the survey felt they needed to be seen as feminine. If you identify as a woman, which half are you in? I would argue that it could depend on the day. Sometimes you might feel strong and clear – you “see” and ignore the messages – but at other times, you just take them in unknowingly. Instead of asking, “What do I want, and who do I want to be?” we fall prey to the messages we receive and we, unknowingly, try to become those things. Then, over time, we lose our connection with ourselves. 

In chasing the idea of the perfect woman, we tend to compare ourselves to others, and (often unknowingly) we start to think they are what we should be. Even if we are crystal clear and we do not believe there are specific characteristics we need to strive for to be a woman, when we consume content highlighting them over and over again, it does get into our heads. The fact of the matter is there’s no right way to be a woman. Regardless of how healthy and strong we are, those insidious messages about how to be a woman do, in time, take a toll. We get off course. But being off course does not mean you don’t know who you are. It’s a temporary reaction to your own unique challenges and to being bombarded with covert and overt messages about who to be.

As you start getting back on track, it’s helpful to be reflective about who you are and where you want to be. So take a little “assessment”! Ask yourself a few questions and then take a look at some of the suggestions to try.

  1. Where do you get messages about how to be a “good woman”? 
    1. Consider distancing from or detaching from those sources.
    2. Social media can be particularly problematic, but it can be helpful if you think carefully about what you consume. 
  2. Take a few moments to write down your core values. 
    1. Are you living a life that is congruent with your core values despite what feedback you might be getting that pulls you away from them? 
    2. Define some clear, small steps for enacting your values day to day. 
    3. Share your action plan with those who support you and who can help you.
  3. Remember a time when you felt very connected with yourself and “on track”.
    1. What were you doing exactly?
    2. How were you feeling?
    3. Create a clear action plan with deadlines for doing more now of what you did back then! 
    4. Share your action plan with those who support you and who can help you stay “on track”. 
  4. Get very focused on what you CAN do vs thinking about what is out of your control

As I have written before, gendered messages are like the air we breathe, invisible yet we take them in all the time. It is inevitable that we lose our way as we (often unconsciously) strive to be “good” women. Yet there is no right path for all of us. We need to blaze our own trails and live our lives congruent with our own values. If you are a woman pioneering your own course and you can use some help along the way, reach out to learn about how I can help!

*Note: While this blog focuses on messages about being a woman, it’s important to note that people of all gender identities are impacted by gender stereotypes.

Contributor Statement: Melanie Garcia (mgarcia02@wesleyan.edu) contributed to the research and writing of this blog. Melanie is an undergraduate student majoring in English and is interested in women’s health and domestic violence advocacy.