Some days certain societal expectations/conventions get to be too much for me, and I have the urge to retreat, but I feel torn. There is a particular mood I get into sometimes wherein I don’t want to go out but I don’t want to stay in either. I don’t want to talk to people but I don’t want to be alone. I don’t want to be seen but I don’t want to hide.
I’m expected to go out and have “fun” all the time, to have a boyfriend, to have girlfriends, to be popular, to be clever, to know everything, to be interesting, to get good grades but not be a smartass, to look pretty, to wear nice clothes, to be happy, to be nice to everyone, to not get angry, to not have feelings, to not cry (but not be heartless either). To be independent, self-sufficient, stoic; to keep it together on my own, and not rely on others. To not get tired, to have good posture, to be fit and healthy, to eat enough but not too much, to exercise, to hold my alcohol, to know my future, to not get scared. To have a clean bedroom, to live a clean life but not be a goody-goody, to be fun and easygoing but not kiss too many strangers, to not be a prude or a virgin, but not be a slut either. To not be annoying or irritating, not like anybody too much, not be a hassle of a friend, not an attention-seeker, don’t be needy, don’t be too nice but be careful not to be selfish. To be tough, to not show weakness or naïveté or ignorance, to have an opinion but not too much of an opinion, to speak up but always know my place.
It’s this and more every single day, and it’s exacerbated by people I know and people I meet who neither acknowledge nor even try to comprehend the massive pressure placed on women in this world and the connection between that and women’s rights or (whisper the word) feminism. People who don’t get why I might want to live in a society where these pressures don’t have the power to make me, my friends, and other young women feel intensely bad about ourselves.
A discussion in my politics class this week added a whole new bundle of demands to the list: don’t go to therapy (it doesn’t work), don’t take medication (you’ll just build up a reliance), don’t like Sylvia Plath (she is a “narcissistic bitch”), don’t argue that Sylvia Plath wasn’t a narcissistic bitch (it was “just an opinion”), don’t have any constructive discussions, but rather just throw your stubborn opinions at one another.
I’m a young woman living in a country that has normalised the sexualisation and objectification of women to such an extent that the biggest-selling tabloid newspaper features a topless female model on the third page of every issue, but what some people seem to find far more objectionable is the idea of a woman pointing a mirror at herself, staring at her own reflection, and exploring more than her appearance—Plath wrote about her psyche, her pains, and her pleasures. She wrote about the limited roles in life available to her as a woman in the 1950s and early ’60s, and how those constraints drove her to despair, depression, and self-destruction. Even if her writing is not exactly to your taste, surely you can appreciate what an achievement The Bell Jar was, and you must be able to see, if not enjoy, Plath’s astonishing talent, no? But apparently some people find nothing to admire in a person who, in the midst of a culture that constantly told her that her value is as a wife and a mother, and nothing more, became well known and earned the respect of a male-dominated literary scene by writing about her private life, thoughts, and emotions—no, that just makes her a “narcissistic bitch.”
My politics class is full of strongly opinionated boys, and it is hard to make my voice heard over theirs. It’s also tough to keep my passion and anger down, to force my words into coherence, in any debate or argument that means something to me. There was a study last fall that concluded women spoke less when surrounded by men. I’ve noticed this tendency in myself, in class, at social occasions, and with family and friends. I will keep trying, though. I don’t care how small I feel, how worn down, how doubtful—I will continue to express my thoughts, feelings, and opinions, because I don’t know who I would be otherwise.
Maybe this makes me too a “narcissistic bitch.” Well then, I’m in good company. ♦