When I was in 6th grade, I had a best friend. She wore t-shirts to school every day, and as an 11-year-old struggling to understand femininity in the awkward transition between childhood and adolescence, I decided one day that this was a great offense. During recess, I gave my best effort to correct her. I subtly shamed her and explained that it simply was not right for a girl to just wear big t-shirts every day.
This friend, a better example of womanhood than me, while also being fully capable of rivaling my own spunk, boldly but gracefully explained that she dressed that way because she liked to. She stated that she was not going to dress differently because someone else thought she should. I am sorry to say that I was not wise enough to appreciate that for the pure gold that it was. I argued with her. And when the whistle blew, I walked away frustrated and annoyed.
I look back on this memory in full cringe.
I had used my voice to put a shaming and negative energy into the world, and even targeted it at womanhood. I shamed a fellow female – a fellow human – for being authentic, and for that I am greatly sorry.
To this day, I do not understand the logic behind this flawed and faulted opinions, which I so willingly expressed as inherent law. I had decided somehow that 1) There was a universal obligation to make every possible effort to meet a certain standard of “beauty”, 2) that this friend was not doing her due diligence as a girl to put forth that effort, and 3) that as a fellow female, I had the right to point this out. I have since then learned that all three of those things were – are- false.
Let’s address this idea that we, as women, owe it to womanhood to hold other women responsible for our expectation of femininity, especially by means such as correcting their representation of it. This is absolutely false. Now, I’m sure most women would not argue with that – in theory. But in practice? Do our behaviors and our interactions with other women show that we truly believe that statement to be false?
When we use out interactions with other women to correct their representation of femininity, we are acting under a false pretense that we are preserving and even strengthening femininity, when in fact, we are doing the opposite. By forcing an “obligation to beauty” onto womanhood in general, we are actually destroying the standard and value of womanhood. The more we narrow the standard of womanhood, the more shallow the contents must become in order to fit. There is a difference between a high standard and a narrow standard. While both imply elevated value, one is all-inclusive as it does not have limited space, and it encourages strength, humility, and a genuine desire to be a good person. The other is exclusive, and shames any woman who does not naturally fit within its narrow bounds, while being deliberate in making it clear to them that they never will. Instead of strength, it initiates perpetual weakness and failure; instead of humility, it encourages and requires pride; instead of a genuine desire to be a good person, it creates a desperate need to the the right person. As the level of exclusivity increases, the understood value of womanhood decreases. We are tainting it. We are skewing it. And therefore, we are partly responsible for the world’s misunderstanding of it, Every time we force the narrow expectation of femininity onto another woman, whether vocally or implied, we cast another blow onto womanhood as a whole.
So we must honestly and vulnerably ask ourselves: Do we hold the women around us responsible for a standard of beauty that we have chosen for them? To a standard that has been chosen for us but that we have foolishly accepted? Do we hold ourselves to that standard?
This is one of the most dangerous things we can do and also one of the most difficult to recognize. But when we hold ourselves to that standard, the same damage done to womanhood is done to ourselves – to the parts of us that are already the saddest and the most afraid – the most vulnerable. This damage happens in a painful, dark, and scary place, one that we tend to avoid at all costs. This begs the question: which of our habits of “beauty” are born here – in this place of sadness, fear, and perpetual shame? How many of those habits are the result of self-love and how many are actually a desperate attempt to obtain self-love? Be careful – they look almost identical. However, they feel very different.
Each woman must discover what it means to her as an individual to be not just authentic, but vulnerably so. Vulnerable authenticity is a whole different brand of authenticity, and it requires that we go to that dark place. Our purpose is to create a safe place and a safe process for all women to wade a little into that place. And as we learn to honor womanhood, we will attempt to redefine beauty.