Are you woman enough to stay soft in a hard world?
Four years ago I wrote an opinion post about International Women’s Day and I still stand behind every single word of it. In that post I complained about the metaphorical annual chafing of my shoe every 8th of March and unfortunately, it is high time for a follow up, because my shoe is starting to chafe in a whole new way.
You might have noticed that the world has rapidly changed in the past couple of years, as social media has facilitated online activism and community organising, which then led to increasing awareness of social and mental health issues, more inclusivity and diversity, and, of course, the wonders of political correctness and cancel culture. For better or for worse, capitalism machines and marketing have also caught up to it and it is now a definite bad practice if a company doesn’t acknowledge all the designated world holidays, current events and all the latest social media empathy fads.
Cue Women’s Day 2022 and now 2023
I don’t know if these years were particularly bad or if I just hadn’t been paying as much attention before, but all the social media feeds, radio waves, email inboxes and TV screens were suddenly telling me what a strong, independent, fierce, powerful, unstoppable queen I am – all while trying to sell me completely unrelated feminine products and services. It was as if capitalism and virtue signalling had a baby or, as the woman behind Vulga Drawings put it, a total Christmas for girl bosses. Now, I don’t know about all my fellow women, but personally I’d rather not be a queen, because it sounds like a lot of responsibility and you need to be on your best behaviour all the time, so I am quite happy with my non-royalty status. Besides, if growing up in a post socialist country has taught me anything, it is that if we are all queens, then none of us are.
Yes, marketing tends to run wild and it has already totally ruined Christmas, so you might be wondering why I am complaining about it at all. Well, one of the things that really struck me this year was how close the supposedly empowering, “feminist” commercial rhetoric has come to very classic patriarchic one that we are supposed to be fighting against with Women’s Day.
- “Are you woman enough for our contact lenses?”
- “Strong women run the world – with our deodorant.”
- “Take control of your pleasure, you independent woman, you – 20 % off vibrators”.
- “Women run the world – get your fake tan today!”
- “Girlboss energy – of course, but only in our power clothes.”
- “#Breakthebias – with teeth whitening.”
- “You control your own life, get a bikini wax.”
- “Women are unStoppable, Tough, poweRful, cOnfident, teNacious, enouGh – all on a make up palette.”
- “Be assertive – with the right lipstick shade.”
- “Celebrate Women’s Day with the Equality filter – because you are not enough as you are.”
- “Slay in your new shoes, queen!”
- “Conquer the world with your fierce look – only with our mascara.”
You might think I am exaggerating, but these are almost literally examples of actual ads targeting women on Women’s day. I won’t even start about how Women’s Day should be more than flowers and discounted tampons, but isn’t it all starting to sound awfully familiar?
Man up, because real men don’t cry
Also, cuddling is gay; admitting to your feelings makes you look weak; strong men don’t need anyone; be the man, find your inner alpha male; mental health is for pussies; you should always be in control, because the man wears the pants and is the master of the house and his dominion… Yes, we women can do anything and we should be empowered further, but what we shouldn’t do, is get caught up in the very trap of expectations that men have been caught in for the past couple of centuries. The traditional definitions of strength, power and dominance are not working out well for men and they won’t work out well for us either.
When I first started studying Mechanical Engineering, I was suddenly lost in a sea of mostly insecure, nerdy, conservative 20 somethings and not a lot of us were female. I was often underestimated, dismissed and objectified and it didn’t help that I also felt like I didn’t belong, because I didn’t have a solid previous background in tech, so I had to learn a lot of things from scratch. This is a common experience for women starting out in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields in most parts of the world and it is usually a very formative experience. A lot of us think that we need to become tough, hardass bitches and channelling all that male bravado did help me survive, because it got competitive very fast, but it was a while before I stopped feeling like a failure every time I had to ask for help. It was also a while before I was able to reconcile myself with the traditional image of femininity, but that is a whole other topic which I will cover soon.
Eventually I grew out of the hormonal turbulence and became comfortable with my expertise and limitations, but I think it wasn’t until I started teaching students myself that I finally understood what I had been missing often during my studies: some old fashioned compassion, both from my fellow students and my professors. That might be very millennial of me, but I could always tell who was there to teach you something and who was just on a power trip. While physicists have the luxury of being quirky chaotic bohemians, we as engineers here in Slovenia (and as far as I’ve seen, also aboard) are always told that a mechanical engineer is always punctual, disciplined, hard working, independent, resourceful, super tough and capable of solving any challenge. All very useful qualities, but while that can be motivational, it also creates expectations that make it harder to ask for help and lead to impostor syndrome, particularly in higher levels of academia. We are often expected to give 110% and there’s a reason why we tend to wear our burnouts like badges of honour, compete who’s had the least sleep in a week and can be notoriously bad in multidisciplinary teams. A lot of these bad habits of course also apply to other fields, so feel free to relate to this no matter your professional background.
So, even though I am not a man, I am quite intimately familiar with the concept and pressure of “manning up”, at least as far as I can be, and I can imagine that it is actually much, much worse for everyone socialised as men. Although we women want to be equal, I don’t think we need to be this equal. I think it is time that we all collectively toss the strong, tough, unfeeling perfect persona in the trash and redefine the concept of strength. In a world which is constantly battering us on the head like we are taking part in a giant whack-a-mole game, we all need a little softness and ductility so that we don’t crack under pressure.
It is a hundred times harder to be vulnerable than it is to reject vulnerability altogether
There is strength in feeling and processing your feelings, in admitting that you don’t know something but are willing to learn, and in honest communication. I am not suggesting we all go overcooked spaghetti weak and build our whole personalities around our defining “trauma” as is the popular trend right now, but personal growth is the only sure way to take control of your life. In order to really “man up”, you need to face your inner self first and then actually commit to building the changes you want to see in your life, and you need to be pretty damn tough to hold yourself accountable.
If we go back to those Women’s Day ads that sparked this whole post, you are probably starting to see my point right about now. Women’s Day is supposed to be about commemorating the Women’s rights movement and about highlighting the inequality gap still left to be closed, not about imposing fresh, unreasonable expectations of how women should be yet again. We don’t all have to be absolute queens, visionaries, thought leaders, magnificent bitches, goddesses and girlbosses and it is totally OK if you are not feeling like one right now. Although we tend to dismiss ads as irrelevant, they often reflect the accepted mainstream rhetoric and personally I think this particular aspect is beyond alarming, on other days as well, not just on the 8th of March.
Women don’t need or want to be celebrated for the fact that we are women or to be treated as special beings, because all we ask is to be treated as equal human beings with equal rights and live in a system that allows us to exist safely. Personally, I don’t think that we have to turn into strong, tough womanly women in order to get that and we don’t need more traditionally male “warrior” qualities – rather we should all take care to balance out the traditional characteristics and toxic behaviours that no longer serve us regardless of our gender, because that would be truly empowering. We should be breaking the cycle, not just shifting it towards the other end of the spectrum. We all need each other and we still have a long way to go towards true, non-destructive equality for all genders, because right now it feels like we are just passing around unhealthy expectations and behaviours on a seesaw.
We don’t need to fight fire with fire and destroy each other in the process, when we can simply put out the fire with some fresh water and find a new, better path, together. So, hug your loved ones today, hug yourself and spread some softness around the next time you interact with others, because that takes strength too and it is something that we desperately need to teach people if we ever want a better world.