When my daughter was about 2, she asked me why I was shaving my legs.. Like many other women, this was something that I had never questioned. I hit puberty, I grew hair on my body, and then I spent the next twenty odd years spending my time and money removing it. It was only when she asked me why that I started to think about the ideals of femininity which drove me to make that decision. I questioned those ideals even more when she hit three and started watching Disney movies, and started to wish she had blonde hair. When my son came home one day from nursery and told me people are ‘only allowed to cry if they’ve hurt themselves’, we talked about how many different ways you can be hurt – not just physically. As my second child, I was less wary of him hurting himself and can see the confidence he has in his body which may be related to the freedom this gave him. But that’s made me mindful of people assuming this is the case because he’s a boy. There have been times when I feel my children have been completely bombarded with messages about how they should look, how they should be. They are constantly directed to making choices related to their gender, from magazines in supermarkets divided into boys and girls across an aisle, to pink and blue Kinder Eggs, to hearing ‘boys will be boys’ and ‘that’s not ladylike’.
In the past few months, more has been revealed about these kind of gendered ideals than I think ever before in my lifetime. In the last fortnight alone, I saw this brilliant Stylist article on skin positivity, which made me question what made me think I needed to wear make up in the first place. Then today I saw this post from the ever-inspiring Megan Crabbe (Bodyposipanda), adding to the growing questioning of the pursuit of thinness. The Me Too campaign has not only lifted the lid on abuse and harassment in many different industries, but left us rightly wondering where the boundary lies between flirting and harassment, leading to a new wave of anger for many women about the treatment they have been brought up to see as normal. Men are also questioning the pressures they have faced – to hide their feelings and prioritise career over family – beautifully described by Robert Webb in his book ‘How Not to Be a Boy‘.
There has already been a huge shift in our generation in questioning norms around work and gender. While for our mothers, ‘having it all’ meant having a successful career and raising children with whatever help was on offer, our generation saw the burn-out result of that and are increasingly choosing to try and create a balance around work and family life. However, as Charlotte Philby noted recently, the onus often remains on women to find that balance with little support in policy – which increasingly pushes parents back to work for the longest hours at the earliest opportunity.
And of course, these sort of gender ideals get played out so starkly when heterosexual couples become parents for the first time. Despite Ann Oakley first describing inequality in household labour back in the 1970’s, we’re still talking about an unequal mental load , usually borne by the women (although not always, which perhaps reflects more the role of whoever is at home more frequently than a gender issue…although the person at home more is still most often a woman).
I write a lot about how important talking is in resolving emotional difficulties. By airing what hurts us, it both becomes less frightening and helps us unpack it, explore it and then pack it away again in a way that feels more settling. We do this for family stories too, identifying what stories exist helps us to then question them (see this post for more on that). Why shouldn’t the same principal be applied societally? And it’s clear that, the more we’re talking about it, the more we’re unravelling.
We’re in the airing stage at the moment, it seems. We’re unravelling all the layers and seeing what’s at the core. It feels like peeling the layers off an onion. We discover that men and women are not treated equally (and further that anyone who isn’t a white heterosexual male is treated differently). Then we go a little deeper and discover that this is reflected in a huge range of areas – such as pay, safety and confidence. Then we go a little deeper and find that this also affects us in seemingly minor ways, like beauty norms and tone of speech. Then we go even deeper and discover that everyone’s losing, that these differences cause conflict, cause mental health difficulties (which incidentally are manifested very differently in men and women). And perhaps where we end up is looking at the fundamental ‘truth’ which lies underneath all of this completely artificial difference – which in my view of course involves very long standing patriarchal ideals – and then we can question that ‘truth’ at its very heart, and find it’s probably not very true. And then perhaps we can build on a new understanding and create new layers. For the psychologists reading, I suppose I’m talking about CBT for a society!
Every time we tell our little girls that they are more than their appearance, we question that ‘truth’ before it even has a chance to settle in. When we tell our little boys that we want to hear about their feelings – and all of their feelings, not just anger but sadness too (and equally, when we accept our girls’ anger) – then a different layer forms. The world in many ways might feel more gendered than ever, but by pointing out these messages, we teach our children to always look for the layers instead of just seeing the onion.
My lovely friend Jen Gerber is asking women to share their stories about mental load with her. You can email her at email@example.com