“What’s your little boy’s name?” someone asked my mother. I was 5 at the time, and had a bowl haircut. I remember the feeling of shock and horror as I realized I had been labeled for something I was not. I had been labeled based on how I looked. This was the first time I remember experiencing the stigma of gender expectations.
As a woman, the messages continued as I grew up. Messages came from everywhere. Messages like, “Sit like a lady.” “Little girls play with dolls, because one day you’ll be a mommy – the greatest thing you could ever be.” “In order to be a woman you must learn to cook right. Because if you don’t cook right, you’ll never be able to make a man happy.” “As a woman, you must learn to sew – there’s no greater joy than sewing your own clothes, or the clothes of your loved ones.” “Ooh” and “awe” at baby showers – and you will love holding babies. You must love shopping. Don’t burp, fart or swear…at least in public. Don’t talk loud. Always be a “lady”… (whatever that means…)
These are just some of the messages regarding gender expectations that have surrounded me as a female growing up. And they are still there, and change with the rise of technology and the modernization of our culture – “You should want to be a mother – every woman’s biological clock ticks.” “You haven’t had kids yet? I know a doctor who could help you.” “You work full time – and you enjoy it? Well, if you don’t have kids, I guess that’s ok…” And websites like Pinterest is the seal of approval that raises you to a new standard as a woman in certain circles. Or you should spend 3 or more hours cooking or baking for any event. And around holidays, women should be in the kitchen cooking and men are in the living room chatting, and/or watching the game (which sounds so much more fun, to me at least). Clean the house. Do the laundry. Greet your husband with a kiss. Wear high heels. Always smile. Keep your body in shape. And the list goes on…
But these gender roles and expectations are not just regarding women. I was talking with my brother about this subject and he brought up a great point: that to be seen as a legitimate male in this society you are expected to be a certain way and talk about certain things. For example, to be a “man” you should always be up-to-date on the sport’s world and news. And God forbid that you don’t like sports as a man. You should have a favorite sport team and know all the stats of that team. As a man, you should always somewhat objectify women around other men, or laugh at raunchy jokes. Men are raised with messages like: “Real men don’t cry,” and if they get hurt, “suck it up like a man.” In some circles it’s a huge risk for a man to admit that he enjoys art, poetry or nature.
And then it gets really fun when you throw religion in the mix. People use scripture or tradition to back up gender expectations that have actually come from human society and not from God. Some place the heavy boot of religious oppression upon gender roles, a boot that doesn’t come from God, but rather comes from humanity that is unclear of their identity in the eyes of God, and have blurred lines regarding their bigoted views of men and women. And so to back up the roles of women and men that they have unconsciously adopted from society, they pick the right Bible verses or other religious quotes to ensure that all play within the roles that we are “supposed to”. I mean, we have to keep control of this human race, right?
When did we forget to be human? Where did all these roles and expectations come from? I’m in the middle of researching this. But one thing I’m realizing is how it bombards us every day, without us even realizing it. We play to the roles, almost subconsciously. And as I’ve pondered this question I believe it comes down to the fact that we are in search of our greatest need as humans: We are searching for love. And so we are willing to trade in the very thing that could make us loved – we trade in our unique and beautiful, sacred identity -the only one that will ever exist – we trade in our identity to receive the facade of being loved, if only for a season. We long for acceptance from our human family, and so we play to the roles and expectations, not realizing that we are perpetuating the problem. Because in playing the role we legitimize the game. We buy into the lie and put our stamp of approval on the man-made expectations of what it means to be loved and accepted. For example, if as a woman, I am told that to be loved by a man I must look, act, or dress a certain way, I could do these things to receive the love I was created to crave for. But I also receive the judgement and disapproval of others who say I am not acting or behaving correctly. I also receive an empty feeling as I neglect my true self and “sell my soul” to falsely gain what I perceive as love – but it only lasts as long as I continue playing the game and denying my true self, and so I never am actually truly loved. And so this dichotomy is created in the fact that we are never happy – because we are constantly hiding from our true selves by trying to receive the acceptance and love that society has told us we will receive if we only play the roles and fulfill the gender expectations.
Recently I was having a conversation with my husband about this. As I was talking I referred to myself as a “tomboy”. My husband pointed something out to me, and revealed to me that I had even fallen prey to the game. He said, “why are you calling yourself a tomboy?” He then made a great point. He said that I had just taken myself out of one box and put myself into another box, titled “tomboy.” Where did the term “tomboy” come from? I’m not sure, but my husband said that to him it was as if I was belittling myself and still using society’s terms to define myself. And how can I define myself with society’s terms, if I am the only human being like me? If there is no one else in the world like me, or you, or anyone, how can we use terms that are created to label someone, when every human being is a mystery within themselves? My husband then said that he saw me as me, with my name attached. That I am a complete and beautiful woman. That I am a female in body form, and yet it is my personality that sets me aside and defies the labels, roles and expectations that others throw at me. That in my beauty I cannot be boxed.
So this is my confession. I cannot be whittled down into a label. I cannot fit inside an expectation. I am not a tomboy. And I am not a “normal” woman, from society’s standards. I am so much more. And I would guess that I am more like most women, if we would only put aside the roles, expectations and games that society throws at us. Because what unites us all is that we are humans. We share pain, and joy and love. We all, whether men or women, love beauty, art and childlikeness. We all cry, whether in public or in the privacy of our own pain. We all laugh. We all wonder and question and feel alone in our beautiful authentic selves, not realizing that this loneliness was caused by the boxes we created and could be shattered if we just confessed who we really are, apart from the expected roles we hope to please others with.
So here I am. I am me. What does that mean? I’m still discovering the answer to this question, and I believe I will be discovering it til the day I die. To be me means that I am not defined by my cooking skills, or the fact that I don’t sew. I am not defined by my body parts, my choice of fashion, or my hairstyle. I am not defined by my non-existent Pinterest account, or by the fact that I have no children.
I AM defined by the fact that I am child of the Divine – and so are you. I am defined by my unique voice and passions and skills that have been given to me by Love – God, the greatest Force. I am divine woman. I have a beating heart – evidence that something beyond the expectations of others drives me. I am moved by good jazz. I dislike cooking – and that’s ok, especially when my husband loves to cook. I haven’t been on Pinterest yet – and I am still happy. I am a fighter – I fight against anything that will water down the beauty of what it means to be human. I am a rebel – I rebel against the voices of this world that try to box the human spirit or the Spirit of the Divine – perhaps they are one and the same? I am a wild human soul. I love to laugh. I am moved to tears with music, poetry, nature, silence, or moments of wonder. I love to use my body to play, to dance, to explore, to run, to create movement, to be a work of art for this world. And the list could go on and on and on. I’m still discovering the creation of me – and it’s a beautiful thing to explore. Because the Divine Spirit has created me for such a time as this – and so only the Divine can define me. Only the Divine can define you. And so, away with the boxes we try to house each other in! I cannot be defined by anyone or anything. In fact, perhaps part of our duty on this earth is to become ourselves. Perhaps the biggest way we deny God our Creator is to run from His creation – to run from ourselves. As Saint Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is humanity fully alive.”
So the quest continues. And perhaps it’s time we did some confessing. Perhaps it’s time we stood up for the creation we have control over – ourselves. Will you join me? Let’s stop the games. Let’s stop shoving each other into boxes we’ve created. Let’s embrace the beauty of the mystery of our identity. And so I ask: Who are you?