Defining Me For Me
Society robs me of the opportunity to see strong, professional, successful women almost every day. Every day as another woman is passed up for a major promotion, paid less than the man’s dollar, and reminded, once again, that she can’t be both a mother and a professional, society dismisses my need for powerful women role models.
A few weeks ago, a powerful, professional named Bibi Gnagno in the Women’s Center summarized one of Audre Lorde’s quotes to some of the women of The Bridge. The quote actually reads: “That is how I learned that if I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people's fantasies for me and eaten alive.” This quote is from Lorde’s speech to Harvard University in 1982 entitled “Learning from the 60s” (http://www.blackpast.org/1982-audre-lorde-learning-60s). Hearing Bibi reference this statement, I began to ponder the ways in which I too often let others’ expectations define me. Yet, of all these expectations, it is almost always others’ expectations of my academic and future professional life that I allow to define me the most.
As people, I believe there are many criteria that we are judged on during an interview. As women, I believe there are two specific criteria that we must navigate before interviewers can even begin to judge us using the criteria they use for men. Both physical appearance and attitude seem to sidestep communication skills, general knowledge, and work history for women more so than they ever do for men.
For women, the inability to entirely meet the arbitrary standards of physical appearance set by each and every interviewer occurs regularly. While one can infer what the standards of dress are for men, a woman never knows if pants, skirts, blouses, or blazers are what the next interview will call for. Even worse, to make the wrong choice is to make a bad impression on your interviewer.
Beauty standards for women have been regulated by men and dominant society for so long that I, as a woman, do not know what I should be wearing to an interview.
It is a common occurrence for women to ask their friends if their outfits are (insert adjective here) enough because we can’t look too (insert worse misogynistic adjective here). These questions reflect the autonomy that we, as women, still lack over our bodies. Yet, we must ask these questions.
We ask these questions looking for approval because the standards for women remain almost entirely inaccessible to women due to their arbitrary nature. These standards are individualized, varying, and often enforced by us women as well, making them therefore impossible for women to meet. These standards are even more inaccessible to women of lower socioeconomic statuses who do not have access to every possible combination of clothing that an interview might deem appropriate.
And all of this is just clothing.
It is then nearly impossible to cover all of the demands on hair and makeup, demands that are usually determined by white standards of beauty.
Straight hair over curly hair. White hair over Black hair. Light makeup over heavy makeup. “Look natural, but not too natural.”
The demands are endless. They are endless, in my opinion, because women “can,” in some regards, change our appearance. I say “can” only because women have been forced to change our appearance throughout the course of history to meet the needs and desires of men.
This belief that women can and should change our appearances has not disappeared, so here I am continuing to define my physical appearance in interviews based off of inconsistent fantasies that society has of professional women.
However, the demands do not stop with physical appearance.
While one could argue that everyone is judged on their personality during an interview, women are held to strict personality traits that are unobtainable. Women are not merely judged on whether they are personable or equipped to hold a conversation. Women are judged on our ability to walk the incredibly fine lines between friendly, but not an airhead, and determined, but not aggressive.
There are many qualities that employers look for in employees. I would argue that most interviewers want to walk away with that ambiguous feeling of “I liked them.” Yet, there are specific personality traits that make most people “like” women. Society deems women “likable” if a woman appears to be friendly or nice (did she smile?). For an interview, though, people must also be determined and powerful. Yet, for women, determination and power can easily be seen as aggressive, or worse – bitchy.
Yet, aggressive and bitchy usually hold no value as criticisms because they normally reflect a person’s discomfort with a woman being anything but demure.
Powerful, determined women do not fit society’s fantasy of women. Society does not fantasize women as bosses because a boss – someone who is in charge, powerful, motivated, determined, smart, savvy, and successful – is a man. Therefore, in order for women to fight to be in these roles, we must first tailor our behavior to be friendly, but not airheads, and determined, but not aggressive. We must be just enough, even though no one has any idea what enough looks like.
I’m inclined to believe that there is no “enough,” but if people keep telling you there is a goal then at least you feel like you can work to achieve it. Rather, I think women will never be enough in society’s eyes and we are only tailoring ourselves because society has told us that we’re almost there, has told us that we’re almost deserving.
It is, once again, a belief that conformity is key. It is a belief that women, upon demand, can easily tailor our personalities to match the expectations of the demander.
So now I feel I must think to myself. I feel I must think about this woman who is learning to define herself for herself. I must think about how even as I learn who I am, I am still learning who I am in the context of who society expects me to be.
If one is to believe that all of these thoughts and notions that I have iterated are true, the question then becomes about what women can do to rid our minds of society’s pressing fantasies and expectations. Do we stop meeting society’s demands? Do we stop interviewing? Probably not, just because we, too, want to be employed.
But what should we do?
Well, I won’t tell readers or women what to do, because that’s really the whole problem. Instead, maybe, I’ll think about Audre Lorde’s quote. I’ll think about how it seems that even though I am learning to define myself for myself, I still seem to be tailoring those definitions within the expectations that society continues to set for me.
Instead, maybe, I’ll define what a professional woman looks like, sounds like, and acts like to me, because if the problem is that society is continuing to define me with fantasies and expectations and inaccessible goals, then maybe I am in need of my own definitions.
These definitions may not work for every employer, nor will they probably score 5s in every interview, but then, at the very least, I can say:
Society, you have not eaten me alive.