In the unrelenting cultural conversation that tells women — whether through a whisper, a visually screaming billboard, or an offhand joke — that they should look a certain way, there often appear White Knights of Reassurance who are there to tell us, “No way, ladies, Real Women have curves.” It’s as though this proclamation is immediately supposed to soothe our collective brow, reminding us that, though we may be called “ugly” or “fat” by every media cue around us, we’re still winners in the eyes of men, as we are in possession of both acceptably large breasts and well-rounded buttcheeks. And yet, few things make me feel more uneasy than when a man offers this gem of body-image cheerleading. In fact, it serves only as a reminder that, no matter where we are in getting women of all kinds represented in the media, there are still two categories to fall into: Real Women, and (I can only assume) Alien Impostor Women.
And to be fair, I am aware that the whole “real man” concept exists, too. We make fun of men for not working certain kinds of jobs, for not being able to get laid, for not being good with women, for not having a certain amount of muscle, or for not having a big enough penis. Hell, even Jezebel got in on the body-judging action a few years back with this winner,
“20 Famous Big Dicks” And I am just as disgusted with this flagrant reduction of men to the size of their sex organ, with the idea that we should be openly taunting men who don’t “measure up,” or the very concept of “being a man.” But the kind of Real Woman talk that I’m addressing here — the kind that has so fully become its own cultural concept as to warrant proper noun status — is one done in response to the shifting expectations and ideals for what a woman should be. Most of the time, bestowing Real Woman status on a woman you know is done with the intention of rebuking her perceived undesirability. It’s supposed to be a compliment, whereas the “be a man” angle — one that is repugnant, no doubt — is openly derisive. It is not couched in some kind of flimsy outer layer of admiration that is meant to help the overall judgment of what their sex should be go down easy.
But the Real Woman myth is.
The Real Woman exists largely as a throwback to the days in which a woman was expected to be the walking embodiment of a very narrow definition of femininity. She has a Coke-bottle figure, wears dresses (and often aprons), cooks, cleans, is good with children, smiles, never curses, and always has a tray of snacks out for unexpected guests. Flying in the face of the Business Woman, the pressure to have a good job and a nanny and look smart in a skirt suit and keep yourself a perpetual size zero, the Real Woman takes her time and soothes, the way your mother might have, or a woman from a particularly dated fairy tale. She exists on the periphery of the conversation, there to make the occasional witty remark or compliment, and looks stunning in her cinched-waist dresses. She has curves though, so we should be grateful that she exists, and that men want her.
I have been called a Real Woman because I cook, because I rarely wear pants, and because I worked with children for a long time. But I’ve just as easily been called “unladylike,” or “manly,” because I curse liberally and make jokes, voices, or impressions that come at the expense of my overall attractiveness. And if I were concerned with falling firmly into the Real Woman category, I very well may have eliminated some of my favorite things in life — blue jokes, eating messily, going shot for shot at a bar — in the interest of being one of those women in the “before” categories. You know, the pictures of ’50s-era models running on the beach, laughing in demure bathing suits, right next to an image of scantily-clad teenagers from somewhere in the 2000s, with a mock-confused “What Happened?!?” caption. If being a Real Woman — one of those ones from the good ol’ days, before birth control and equal work for equal pay — were important to me, I would have to snip aspects from my personality the way one might branches from an overgrown tree.
Although, in all reality, my breasts probably aren’t big enough to qualify me as a Real Woman.
Which is another strange aspect of the whole RW concept — the idea that so much of it is based on a more liberal, more affectionate view of the female body and all of its rounded shapes — when that appreciation clearly only extends to a certain point. As much as the fashion industry might dictate that we not exceed a certain BMI, it’s not as though those who espouse the Real Woman ideal are welcoming all shapes and sizes with open arms. When they say that “Real Women have curves,” they mean Sofia Vergara. They don’t mean overweight women, they don’t mean women with a flat chest and big butt, they don’t mean women with a big middle-section, they don’t mean women with boxy torsos. They mean a slightly more filled-out Barbie doll figure, which — let’s be real here — is just as narrow and frustrating as the pressure to be universally thin.
It’s unlikely that everyone who’s ever identified a woman in their life as a Real Woman follows this overall Betty Draper-meets-Salma Hayek image to the letter. There is likely a middle ground with many, a degree to which they give and take on the “perfect body” or the “feminine attitude.” But the point is that they still make the distinction, and their side of “reality” looks eerily close to what we were seeing in the magazines just a half-century ago. While it may not be extremely thin and wearing avant-garde dresses, it is still an image that most do not attain, and which is certainly not a one-size-fits-all mold in which we all magically feel comfortable. The point, the one that seems so hard to understand for the people who seek to make these distinctions, is that the Real Woman does not exist. No matter how many times you post your funny memes about how trashy or skinny or workaholic women have gotten, it doesn’t make the life choices you choose to spurn any less real.
Because those very-thin models in the magazines or catwalks — even the ones who may struggle with eating disorders, as we are so quick to accuse — are real. Morbidly obese women are real. Trans women are real. Women who curse, who eat with their mouth open, who dress and act in what you perceive as a “masculine” way are real. Laughing at your jokes and knowing how to make a pot roast do not suddenly transform a woman from Pinocchio-esque facsimile into a living, breathing human overnight. And the second we stop trying to create some ideal image of what we should all be collectively shooting for — no matter how broad or how flattering we think it might be — is the second we can all just breathe, not worrying about whether or not our very existence is good enough for someone else.