I didn’t know the second I was born I would have my life laid out in front of me. I didn’t know that one seemingly small piece of me would dictate my entire life. “It’s a girl.” The moment the doctor uttered those three words the way my life would go was basically already laid out in front of me. Whether I like it or not, being a woman in today’s world defines me. My sex dictates virtually every aspect of my life: my future career, how I dress, how I act, who I spend most of my time with and just about everything else. In fact, I could — and will — go as far to say that I am a slave to my gender. Every decision I have made up until this point has been influenced in some way by my gender and the sex roles that come along with it. My femininity is so deeply ingrained in who I am that I would probably have an identity crisis without it. However, there are times when I find comfort in my femininity: the fact that I know how to act in certain situations, some of my flaws are just pushed off as stereotypes of my gender and having it socially acceptable to be taken care of once in a while.
With this being said, I am by no means completely okay with my role as a woman in the eyes of society. I often feel trapped by my gender, as if it were a cage that I am contained in. Sometimes it prohibits me from going places that I want to go and doing things that I want to do. Sometimes it makes things a lot harder than they should be. For example, I spend too much of my time trying to prove to others that I can be just as smart and capable as my male counterparts. I shouldn’t have to waste this kind of time and energy on something that shouldn’t even need to be proven. I often put way too much pressure on myself to go above and beyond what it means to be a woman.
But what exactly does it mean to be a woman in America today? An ideal American woman is strong. She is sexy, capable, outgoing, a good mother and a great wife. An ideal American woman is someone who can juggle family and work and still have the time to maintain her flawless figure. This is the perfect American woman. The question is, though, does she really exist? And more importantly, can she? This is the question that real American women struggle to answer every day, myself included. The pressure on American women today continues to grow and can often be crippling. We are expected to be strong and independent, yet a supporting wife. We are taught to be smart, but not too smart because that’ll chase the men away. However, these are not that bad, in my opinion, in comparison to the issue that I have been struggling with all my life. What has impacted me most in my life as a woman is the body standard that society sets for women. The way a woman should look is so deeply ingrained in my head that I was willing to sacrifice my health in order to achieve this model of perfection.
I have a chronic illness. When this chronic illness flares up the only way to treat these flare-ups is to take steroids. The particular steroid that it takes to treat the illness causes weight gain. The last time I had a flare-up and had to take steroids I gained 60 lbs. in three months. I remember feeling a loss of self. I remember feeling horrible about who I was and what I looked like, and this is all because of the intense pressure that society puts on women to look a certain way. To me, the heavier I got, the more femininity I lost, the less of a woman I was becoming. As I lost my femininity I began to lose my sense of self. I could feel my agency slipping away with my ability to think and make decisions on my own. Everything I did was to lose weight in order to feel more feminine again. I began to live in a detached state. This was not me. This was not the person I wanted to be and this was not the life that I wanted to live.
While I am currently in a state of recovery, it took me a while to get healthy again because of my reluctance to go back on steroids. I dealt with the severe symptoms of my illness for three months before I decided that I had to go back on steroids. I was in excruciating pain daily and I waited so long just because I did not want to gain weight. I sacrificed my health simply because I did not want to stray any further from society’s ideal body. Gaining weight to me seemed even worse sometimes than dealing with the daily pain from the illness. I eventually had to go on steroids — it was that or take a medical leave from school — and just accept the fact that I was going to gain weight and have yet another potential identity crisis. However, this time I was more curious and contemplative about my decision to wait so long.
Why is society’s standard of beauty more important than my health? Why is my feminine identity so deeply ingrained in me to the point where I don’t know who I am without it? Surely this can’t just be me, I would think. I eventually realized that the issue I was facing regarding body image was not entirely my fault. There are aspects of the self that are so influenced by the outside world that sometimes our “self” does not reflect our true core beliefs. For example, I believe that a women should feel beautiful regardless of her size, yet I still strain to achieve that ideal body.
However, although I struggle with body image, there are other aspects of me that defy society’s standards of what it means to be feminine and I am perfectly okay with that. I consider myself lucky that no matter how bad my body image and sense of femininity is, I will never surrender any power that I have for the sake of my femininity. My health? Yes. My status and influence in society? Never. The reason why I will never surrender my influence in society is because I see just how oppressed women are by men. I see how much harder women have to work just to achieve the same things as men. In the eyes of society, once considered prestigious professions are losing their prestige because more women are joining the field. This is something that is deeply disturbing to me and definitely something that needs to change.
From an early age children are introduced to sexism. From the toys that they play with to the movies they watch, gender roles are strictly enforced in the lives of American adolescents. Patriarchal societies have always been the norm and they continue to be. This is a pattern that needs to be broken. Together as a society we need to strive for equality.
If anything, my venture away from my femininity, through gaining weight due to steroids, has brought me closer to understanding myself. Ironically, my journey away from my old identity helped me forge a stronger, new one. This time I wanted to know why I was so desperate to maintain my femininity that I would sacrifice my health. I slowly learned that maybe I don’t really want to or have to fit into the mold of the perfect American woman. I want to create my own path and do whatever I want to do regardless of my sex. The sex that you are born with should have absolutely no effect on the type of opportunities you have available to you throughout the course of your life. I want to break through the pink box that society has trapped me in. I think it would do the world some good to have everyone break out of the boxes that they’re in. No pink, no blue, but clear. Within clarity is acceptance and within acceptance is progress. As Malala Yousafazi once said, “we cannot all succeed when half of us are held back.”