Little Whispers

I've been thinking a lot lately about how being a woman created a unique experience for me. I always felt that I had to work harder, smarter, and always seemed to have more to prove on the job. I had to prove that I could not only do the job as well as a man, but could be a single parent, go home after working all day and cook, clean, launder, food shop, do homework with my daughter, raise her alone and have all the right answers and in my spare time, save the world.

It wasn't until a recent injury forced me to slow down, or actually stop completely, that I had time to even reflect on why I felt that I had so much to prove. It was then that the flood of voices surfaced. You know, all those well-meaning phrases whispered into our ears as little girls. I am talking about things like, "don't be too smart, boys don't like that" and "don't be funnier than the boys or no one will want to date you" and my favorite, "don't ever be better than the boys at anything or they won't like you"

My mother had been a single parent with three children for years. She worked hard and was one of those super-women mentality females who did it all. She made three meals a day, cleaned her house, and worked hard, really hard. Even after re-marrying, she still kept up this encompassing all, mother of the universe attitude. What I found peculiar in her statements, was that she still had this fixation on marriage. All her advice to me was about getting "boys" to like me so I could find a husband. The focus was never on what I could accomplish as my own person. It was not only all about a male presence in my life, but how to trick someone into liking, dating and ultimately marrying me. This told me I wasn't good enough on my own to attract someone but needed these magic tricks to get someone to like me.

The disconnect for me was that the thing I prided myself on more than any other attribute was being funny and smart. I was a skinny little kid with buck teeth, glasses and eventually braces. I had a forehead the size of a melon and hair that went wild no matter how hard I tried to tame it. For me, being funny and smart was the way out of being a four-eyed bucky beaver. Even after puberty when the braces came off, and I somehow miraculously became attractive, I still would rather read a book than go on a date. It all just seemed like too much work. I had to be funny, but only so funny. I had to be smart enough to not be boring, but not too smart to make the boy feel dumb. I soon realized the part about dating that I liked the most was the hunt. The flirting and teasing and excitement of the chase. After that, it all seemed boring and I was so focused on the "getting" that I didn't know what to do when I finally "got."

Adolescence is always tough terrain. I mastered a lot of it, but I got to the point where I was really not interested in all the work that went into dating. My mother had made it too much for me. Always measuring, gaging and thinking about what and how I said everything. I measured it all out afterward to be sure I hadn't crossed this stupid line that didn't even exist. I soon realized I was way too much of an individual to care about all that stuff. All I wanted to do was sit on a beach, read a good book and write poetry. If a boy, or anyone, liked me I wanted it to be because they saw me and not some filtered version of who I really was.

But this idea of how much of myself to show others had become so ingrained in me that I didn't even realize those whispers were still in my head. They were smart too, they changed themselves ever so slightly to adapt to jobs, friendships and other relationships along the way. They caused me to doubt myself and question myself way too much about everything. It was like I was at battle all the time trying to figure out how much of myself to reveal. What not to reveal. I began to view the weight of experiences and things in my life and worried how people would feel about me in relation to the things that happened around me. And, ultimately, I got lost.

I can't blame my mother though, the '50's were about family, or at least the television media advertisements of family. All little girls wanted to grow up and have the best hair with Prell shampoo and Aquanet hairspray. The best complexion with 99.9% pure Ivory soap. They wanted to get married like Donna Reed, have the cleanest house, be the best hostess and always be ready for any catastrophe with a smile and a healing response while dressed in pearls and pumps. But, to my mother's dismay, I became a product of the '60's. I was the hippie sitting next to you on the bus smoking black cigarettes. I had long wild hair, wore love beads, peace signs and American flags. I had rings on all my fingers and the toes of my shoeless feet. I had flowers painted on my face and smelled of patchouli and freedom. I tossed out my bra, my girdle, my hair spray, my pearls and dared to expand myself to reach who I really was inside. All I really ever wanted was to be real.

4 comments:

lindacassidylewis said...

Excellent post, Joan. In my current WIP, my character Meredith is this woman.

I am a fan of the AMC series Mad Men which starts at the end of the 50's. At first it was painful to watch because of the sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. The sexism was particularly painful to me, as a woman, because even the women accepted it as just the way life was.

It's amazing how much can change in a decade, isn't it?

Joan Hanna said...

Thanks so much. I think there are a lot of us out there. I am working on several pieces that might turn into a collected set of essays on this.

I had the same problem with Mad Men. Has it improved any? I found myself getting frustrated and yelling at my TV screen.

lindacassidylewis said...

Yes, as they move into the 60's there are the beginnings of change, at least for some characters. I'm hoping Joan (the redheaded office manager) will be the one to really breakout as a feminist.

The scriptwriters for Mad Men are excellent though.

Joan Hanna said...

Maybe i'll have to start tuning in again. They are doing such a great job creating the time period, i can't imagine they could not explore that as well.