Chains around our necks

Kelly Spencer

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Be a lady, they said.

Remove your body hair. Shave your legs. Shave your armpits. Shave your bikini line. Wax your face. Wax your arms. Wax your eyebrows. Get rid of your mustache. Bleach this. Bleach that. Lighten your skin. Tan your skin. Eradicate your scars. Cover your stretch marks. Tighten your abs. Plump your lips. Botox your wrinkles. Lift your face. Tuck your tummy. Thin your thighs. Tone your calves. Perk up your boobs. Look natural. Be yourself. Be genuine. Be confident. You’re trying too hard. You look overdone. Men don’t like girls who try too hard.

Be a lady, they said.

Wear makeup. Prime your face. Conceal your blemishes. Contour your nose. Highlight your cheekbones. Line your lids. Fill in your brows. Lengthen your lashes. Color your lips. Powder, blush, bronze, highlight. Your hair is too short. Your hair is too long. Your ends are split. Highlight your hair. Your roots are showing. Dye your hair. Not blue, that looks unnatural. You’re going grey. You look so old. Look young. Look youthful. Look ageless. Don’t get old. Women don’t get old. Old is ugly. Men don’t like ugly.

Be a lady, they said.

Save yourself. Be pure. Be virginal. Don’t talk about sex. Don’t flirt. Don’t be a skank. Don’t be a whore. Don’t sleep around. Don’t lose your dignity. Don’t have sex with too many men. Don’t give yourself away. Men don’t like sluts. Don’t be a prude. Don’t be so uptight. Have a little fun. Smile more. Pleasure men. Be experienced. Be sexual. Be innocent. Be dirty. Be virginal. Be sexy. Be the cool girl. Don’t be like the other girls.

Be a lady, they said.

Don’t talk too loudly. Don’t talk too much. Don’t take up space. Don’t sit like that. Don’t stand like that. Don’t be intimidating. Why are you so miserable? Don’t be so bossy. Don’t be assertive. Don’t overact. Don’t be so emotional. Don’t cry. Don’t yell. Don’t swear. Be passive. Be obedient. Endure the pain. Be pleasing. Don’t complain. Let him down easy. Boost his ego. Make him fall for you. Men want what they can’t have. Don’t give yourself away. Make him work for it. Men love the chase. Fold his clothes. Cook his dinner. Keep him happy. That’s a woman’s job. You’ll make a good wife some day. Take his last name. You hyphenated your name? Crazy feminist. Give him children. You don’t want children? You will some day. You’ll change your mind.

Be a lady, they said.

Don’t get raped. Protect yourself. Don’t drink too much. Don’t walk alone. Don’t go out too late. Don’t dress like that. Don’t show too much. Don’t get drunk. Don’t leave your drink. Have a buddy. Walk where it is well lit. Stay in the safe neighborhoods. Tell someone where you’re going. Bring pepper spray. Buy a rape whistle. Hold your keys like a weapon. Take a self-defence course. Check your trunk. Lock your doors. Don’t go out alone. Don’t make eye contact. Don’t bat your eyelashes. Don’t look easy. Don’t attract attention. Don’t work late. Don’t crack dirty jokes. Don’t smile at strangers. Don’t go out at night. Don’t trust anyone. Don’t say yes. Don’t say no.

“Just ‘be a lady’ they said.” – Author Unknown

This powerful poem untruths the often toxic chains we wrap around a child’s neck to carry with them their whole lives. These socially conditioned stereotypes and programing chains weighing us down and leaving most of us feeling like we are not enough.

Lauretta Leone, a local artist and owner of Discovery Art Studio offers the “Flow from the Soul” practices, assisting people to find and celebrate their uniqueness and creativity and letting go of the norms, comparisons and judgments we place on ourselves and on each other.

Leone expresses, “HOW does one feel enough in this culture? With these messages everywhere since a child? We need to call them out! Step out of cultural programming, one step at a time.”

And while these conversations are about women, in fairness we have to address the norms we have placed on men in society.

I have heard women complain that men are closed, unemotional, can’t communicate, can’t express how they feel and too macho. But is it any surprise when a little boy is told to toughen up, don’t cry like a baby or don’t be a momma’s boy?

When a little boy falls, skins his knee and cries, many are quick to say, “you’re fine, get up, wipe it off, quit crying.” The opposite has been witnessed time and again for little girls in the same scenario. “Poor little thing, poor sweetie, come here and let me kiss it,” while getting big hugs and being nurtured while they cry.

This has left little room for little boys to express hurt and feelings leaving them to bottle up emotions and either blow a fuse in anger because they have no open dialogue or opportunity to self-express, or they don’t how to communicate what they are experiencing or they are called a sissy if they do. While little girls can be left confused what to do with assertiveness or even anger, since how can you be as sweet girl if you are argumentative or angry without getting called a bitch?

Unfortunately, that narrative and belief does not allow room for our holistic being, which includes our heart. Our health and happiness must include mental, emotional, physical and spiritual inventory to be whole. This anecdote can leave us no opportunity to have a voice when we’re hurt, angry, sad, scared, lonely or feeling the need to be assertive or vulnerable.

“When I was born, they looked at me and said

what a good boy, what a smart boy, what a strong boy.

And when you were born, they looked at you and said,

What a good girl, what a smart girl, what a pretty girl.

We’ve got these chains that hang around our necks,

people want to strangle us with them before we take our first breath.”

– Song, “What a Good Boy” by Canadian band Barenaked Ladies.

We can get caught up in placing genders in a categorical box of what society expects: Boys, strong and brave, and girls, pretty and nice.

What if we helped each other, no matter the gender or age, to honor all of ourselves, our emotions, our goals, our aspirations, where we feel blocked, limited and so on? What if we opened this conversation a little, allowing ourselves to live our fullest version with no chains of expectations holding us heavily back through unrealistic societal benchmarks?