To Be Feminine in the Time of Now

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Cousin V and I frequently chat thanks to her patience and my eagerness to show her pictures of my son. Somehow, we’ve managed to slip little moments of pure, girly-cousin talks in between work, groceries, meals and nappy changes. I have a lot to thank her for this entry because she reminded me of some thoughts I posted in my old college blog. Honestly, I thought she confused me with another cousin! I remember the blog, but not the specific article she was talking about. Well, it turns out that she couldn’t forget how I wrote about how “girls could still be feminine even when they laugh with their gums in full view”. I believe that what I was trying to say then was that we should not be afraid to accept that the idea of femininity is evolving to fit the new roles women wish to play in this modern society. 

An astounding reality

Last May 20th, I attended an event organized by the French Pôle Emploi (Employment Center) oriented for young, digital women (Jeunes Femmes et Numérique). During the opening conference, the two guest speakers (both women under 40) were asked about the toughest obstacles they have had to beat. One of them said that the toughest enemies she had was herself suffering the Cinderella Complex. She explained that in her case, she believed that she just had to continue working very hard and be patient because soon enough “someone” will see her efforts, “save” her and give her the reward she deserves. That concept has been tattooed on my mind ever since.

I started reading about the Cinderella Complex (Syndrome) and even though it’s not a clinical term, I believe it is useful in helping women understand ourselves. And this deeper understanding of myself is allowing me to be kinder towards other people- especially with my fellow women.

The term was coined in the early 80’s by Colette Dowling, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. Wikipedia summarizes the concept well: “It is based on the idea of femininity portrayed in that story, where a woman is beautiful, graceful, polite, supportive, hardworking, independent… but she is not capable of changing her situations with her own actions and must be helped by an outside force, usually a male.”

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One of the many hypothesis says that this condition is caused by the modern women’s fear of losing their femininity if deemed “too independent”- if they are single, they might not find a partner (because what would a man do with a woman who is beautiful, intelligent and independent all at the same time? Hahaha!) and if they are in a relationship, they might suddenly become unlovable to their partners.

Threat to Femininity?

The author/therapist herself wrote: “Women’s leanings toward dependence are, for the most part, deeply buried… it has its roots in infancy, when we were indeed helpless… that part, buried and denied, is the troublemaker. It affects the way women think and act and speak – and not just some women, but, to varying degrees, virtually all women. Hidden dependency needs are causing problems for the protected housewife who has to ask her husband for permission to buy a dress as well as for the career woman with a six-figure income who is unable to sleep at night when her mate is out of town.

The Cinderella Complex leads to inappropriate or ineffectual behavior on the job, to anxiety about success, to the fear that independence will lead to loss of femininity. These fears are not surprising, considering that only a generation ago dependency was inextricably linked with what it meant to be feminine. Caught in transition between two vastly different concepts of femininity, women are still emotionally reluctant to commit themselves to independence.

This idea equating femininity to dependency (and at a certain point, to weakness) has been present for generations and can be witnessed not only through real-life situations: the movies we watch, the series we love, the books we read, the magazines we leaf through… somehow, there is always this image of a woman portrayed as being feminine using the very narrow criteria of delicacy, daintiness and fragility. However, we only have to look across the globe and throughout history, to see that this is not the only definition of femininity. In fact, there exists a whole spectrum of how a woman’s essence could be described.

Femininity is inherent to being a woman

In prehistorical times, women were gatherers and shelter-keepers. When the men went out to hunt women were left alone in the settlement with no adult male company, except perhaps the witch doctor. Some hunting expeditions would last for several “moons” and these women did not depend on their men to defend them or procure food for the “family”. They did all these by themselves, aside from the very important task to guard their shelters from beasts and/or bad weather.

In places where running water and modern fuel are still considered luxury, women are tasked to gather these supplies from wherever they are available. Sometimes the wells or springs are located kilometers away from their dwellings, and sometimes wood or animal manure have to be carefully chosen to be efficient combustible. Any of the two cases would require a lot of legwork, backstretching and patience before the work could be considered done. Can you imagine the amount physical strength and tenacity needed? Not to mention the risks these women are exposed to, may they be accidents or man-induced …

In my whole life, how many girls have I known who have taken the place of breadwinners in their families? These ladies would end up working in countries far away from their families, they have sacrificed their own happiness and the pursuit of their own dreams just to give their loved ones a more comfortable life. They are currently living a life away from their comfort zone, trying to win the littlest battles with not even their mothers’ cooking to console them…

My very dear friend, M is one of those women who chose to be a mother even without a partner. She is the sole parent and guardian of her son whom she met when he was 9 years old. (Now he is on his way to college, a kind, responsible and noble-hearted young man.)

There are also those women who are very much driven by their ambitions, most of the times tagged as “bitches”,  “status seekers”, “self-servers” and more… They fiercely fight to achieve what they believe they deserve, they channel their energy and their determination to fulfill their desire for success.

Somewhere in China and Mongolia, there are still traces of matriarchal societies. They are heads of the households and make business decisions.

And of course, we cannot forget our LGBT sisters who are fighting everyday for their right to be accepted as they are, to be acknowledged as members of the society. Just as the women fought for their rights in the 19th century, the struggle that they (males and females) are currently engaged in could be just as ardous and just as relentless.

All of the types of women mentioned above presented different situations and are living very contrasting circumstances. Yet, all of them are feminine because all of them are women. I have no intention of starting a philosophical essay about the subject, but common sense dictates that: it is in being a woman that a person becomes feminine. Therefore, a limited definition of femininity should not be the only determinant of what it means to be a woman.

Maybe only some of them posess the qualities of daintiness and delicacy in etiquette but I don’t think any of them are fragile! these are strong, independent women and I choose to believe that they are lovable to their husbands (for those who chose to marry) and/or their lovers.

An honest evaluation

I have always gone by the saying: “Live and Let Live”. This means that I do not judge however anyone chooses to define “femininity”. What’s important is that people like me have a chance to make space for a more dynamic, evolving idea of what it is like to be a woman in the “now”. A very honest self-evaluation is critical for this action to even begin. In my case, I fully admit the confusion I got myself (and my husband) into in the past because my attitude was that of, “Let me live my life but also take care of me”. I was one of those suffering from the Cinderella Complex, a feeling fed by my fear to be unlovable once I became “too” independent.

One logical solution is for one to know what one wants. Alas! if only it were that easy. It isn’t really, especially when living in a society such as ours- where individualism and uniqueness are useful only as marketing slogans. So one suggestion that could perhaps alleviate the pains from our struggles is for us to be genuinely kind, fiercely loyal and unendingly encouraging to our fellow women.

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I have no doubt that Ms Dowling and her colleagues are already helping a lot of women overcome the Cinderella Complex. I am sure that they are also giving tips that would help raise their daughters without conflicting principles. In the meantime as this type of wound takes time to heal, women need to be present for one another until then. And when that time comes, our bond will be stronger and we can truly be unified and unanimous in our continuing fight for equality.

 

 Sources:

  1. The Cinderella Syndrome, available at: http://www.nytimes.com/1981/03/22/magazine/the-cinderella-syndrome.html?pagewanted=al
  2. Cinderella Complex, available at: http://www.womens-wellbeing-and-mental-health.com/the-cinderella-complex.html
  3. Wikipedia