Please Stop Telling Me What A “Real Woman” Is

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. TC mark

 

image – Neal Sanche

Chelsea Fagan

Chelsea Fagan founded the blog The Financial Diet. She is on Twitter.

Trace the scars life has left you. It will remind you that at one point, you fought for something. You believed.

“You are the only person who gets to decide if you are happy or not—do not put your happiness into the hands of other people. Do not make it contingent on their acceptance of you or their feelings for you. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if someone dislikes you or if someone doesn’t want to be with you. All that matters is that you are happy with the person you are becoming. All that matters is that you like yourself, that you are proud of what you are putting out into the world. You are in charge of your joy, of your worth. You get to be your own validation. Please don’t ever forget that.” — Bianca Sparacino

Excerpted from The Strength In Our Scars by Bianca Sparacino.

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  • anon

    this is wonderful.

  • http://heartofablonde.com Molly

    Well, well said. There is no “ideal” that we should all attempt to copy. We are all our own “real” self, or real woman. What fun would it be if every woman were the same?

  • michaelwg

    I blame Barbie Dollas and Walt Disney princesses. It starts early. I just thank god my G.I Joe action figures weren’t anotomically correct or who knows how i’d feel about myself now.

  • Cecil

    Amen.

  • http://shaunaward.wordpress.com s

    Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  • alanapaints

    This is brilliant. Objectification is objectification, no matter who is the target. We have to stop reducing ourselves, and one another to pieces of meat. Having run the gamut from “ideal weight” thin to stacked to pregnant to obese to athletic – and now being a round woman of a certain age – I’ve been a “real woman” the whole way through. I think it’s because I have a vagina. And I’d like to welcome any vagina-hopeful tranny readers to that mix as well.

    P.S. I’m very amused because this particular page, at this particular moment, features an American Apparel ad for bodysuits. Model is sticking her butt out and shaking her hair. And I (not so secretly now) want to look like that when I stick out my butt and shake my hair, but I never, ever will. Is that irony or just idiocy on my part? Decide for yourself. :-)

    • SLP

      I was thinking the same thing about the AA models!

  • http://www.kenzadm.tumblr.com Kenza

    I 100% agree, except maybe not quite as eloquently: http://kenzamoller.com/post/27222424599/how-pinteresting

  • Lexi

    Nice idea, but it will never happen. There will always be woman so beautiful that even I would do them (I am heterosexual), breast so big, you can’t help but look twice and just “the whole package” that makes you just step back and say DAMN!

    There will always be guys so gorgeous that you swoon when you pass them (yes, I said swoon), are so charismatic and charming that it takes your breath away. Again step back and say DAMN!

    And I hate to even type it, but there will always be people so obese, that people can’t help but stare or pick-on (especially those evil creatures called teenagers), people so unattractive that they seem to attract as much attention as “the beautiful people”

    They will ALWAYS be there. What has to change is your image of yourself. If you’re happy with yourself, great. If you are not happy with yourself, change. Screw what other people think, all that should matter is what you think.

    • http://menarcheintheuk.tumblr.com Liz (@cheezliz)

      This comment confuses me. You may not have quite grasped the article – the point is that those people exist, they are all real people, and the idea of “real women” and “real men” is harmful.

  • anon

    Thank you for this!! As usual, you artfully capture a feeling that I (and I’m sure others) have often experienced but failed to articulate. I never fully understood my insurmountable discomfort with the RW concept – you managed to explain it to me. Your writing is beautiful – of course – but what you may not realize is that you often illuminate sentiments for your readers that reside in them but that they can’t fully identify until they read your work. That’s special.

  • RB

    I think the term “real” becomes especially problematic when applied by women who attempt to combat the obsession with being thin. “Real women are a size 6, 8,10, etc.” This troubles me. Even though I’m physically female and identify with the female gender, I’m not “real” because I actually am a size 0? Good intentions can be executed poorly, and semantics matter.

    • http://twitter.com/JessicusFinch Jess (@JessicusFinch)

      I agree with this. I’m of smaller frame myself and I have much curvier girls tell me that they are what a real woman looks like and not me. The shaming goes both ways. Making fun of someone else’s frame by over sensationalizing your own isn’t going to make your body better or theirs worse. The media teaches us to constantly compare to the point where we compare ourselves to people we don’t even know, and for what reason really?

      • Clara

        Agreed. I’m not slim (not obese either but not skinny) and I would never tell my skinny friends “oh whatever, you might be skinny but I’m a real woman.” I simply cannot see the burning need for people to tell others what they should look like. A person wouldn’t tell another “I’m a real person because I’m blond, not ginger/brunette”, so why comment on weight? It contributes nothing whatsoever.

  • gee

    waited for this for a long time

  • fred johnsen

    bitter much?

  • Alecksandruh

    YES. THANK YOU. I’m petite and often feel like a 13 year old boy than a 24 year old woman, and the last thing I need to see every freaking say is reminders that I’m not womanly enough.

  • CMFD

    If you are truly disgusted with an article on the web I suggest not linking it to increase it’s traffic. Just sayin. Still got nothin’ but love Thought Catalog and it’s writers!

  • ADOLF HIPSTER

    Yes yes yes. Other guys have started arguing with me when I’ve called out the fact that someone has said the whole ‘Hey, I’m not into skinny chicks REAL women have curves!’ The worst thing is, they’re obviously trying to put the whole ‘all women should be thin’ image that our media loves to the sword, but they completely miss the point that they’re still discriminating against women who aren’t naturally curvy. I’ve never understood why people insist on using the term ‘real’ especially when it’s clearly in reference to your own mis-informed opinion. As a guy, this shit infuriates me.

  • http://menarcheintheuk.tumblr.com Liz (@cheezliz)

    Watching your opinions on feminism change has been fascinating! Tumblr feminism has made this topic trite to me, but it seems it needed to be explained. I’m glad the TC masses will have the opportunity to digest this.

  • http://womandrogyne.wordpress.com womandrogyne

    Thanks, good stuff to read. Of course, the point is that *everybody* is real, including the people who don’t identify as man or woman. We just happen to be stuck with a culture that’s binary-gender-identity-obsessed (there’s got to be a shorter way of saying that…)
    As a trans woman who’s not feminine (whatever the hell all that means), I keep finding myself lately having to point out to people that “normal” isn’t “More Normal” – it’s merely more common. But you try and take people’s sense of hierarchy away from them, and watch the fur and feathers fly. Sigh.

  • ann

    This is great. You’re great.

  • m.

    This is amazing. Thank you.

  • Connor

    Ahhh! Chelsea, how did you ever make me love you this much? Agreed with Liz, watching your opinions on feminism change has been awesome & inspiring. And the shout-out to trans women as real women – yr the best!

  • http://bethaniethewookie.wordpress.com Bethanie the Wookie

    Very well written. And thank you, thank you, for saying what needs to be said.

  • ilikeghouls

    It’s so important to put into perspective that we are all real humans outside of all the social constructs and messages. Thanks for writing this :)

  • http://twitter.com/mung_beans Mung Beans (@mung_beans)

    BOXY TORSO 4 LIFE

  • Rachel

    Thank you. As someone who is naturally a size 0 or 2, I constantly feel judged for not measuring up to the “real woman” ideal. Many of my friends have made comments about my small breasts or “stick-like” figure, somehow not realizing that laughing at a thin woman’s weight is just as rude as laughing at an overweight individual’s. And those people who think they are being pro-woman by saying we should have curves drive me crazy. I know they mean well, but they still expect all women to conform to a body shape that is only natural for a few. Thin women are also self-conscious about their bodies, and this “real woman” concept is both hurtful and chauvinistic.

  • Nemea

    Thanks for this excellent article that is just what I was looking for tonight! I only wish that the format of this website made for a good Facebook post. No image or even a proper title. I would love to shout it from the rooftops, but in this state no-one would see it. :(

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