Sunday morning, at the 8:00 Mass on the Solemnity of Easter, as we call the Pascal Mystery in the western church, an African woman – and I mean from Africa somewhere with a beautiful accent – sat on the aisle in what was, for her, very obviously, prized formal attire. I’ve yet to figure out exactly what it is called, but her garments were indigenous to her home country and made from a finely woven cream-colored cloth with handmade embroidery, covering her from shoulder to ankle in layers, to her wrists with a headscarf. After Mass, this woman was the only person in the church to make her way to a side altar for additional prayer and to light a candle, a traditional way of observing a special intention.
I thought her entire being to be incredibly beautiful – and something that a good number of the American women that morning just missed: feminine. Truly feminine.
I will confess to being fascinated with women’s indigenous attire and comportment from cultures much older than ours. The Sari of India, Nepal and other countries in that region is one of my favorites. There is no way to forget being a woman in such an outfit. Traditional Japanese kimonos, Native American bell dresses, brightly colored peasant skirts from South America – the women who wear these know what they are and celebrate it.
In the last week or so, the “War on Women” in the USA has flared again. According to the current resident in the White House and his female sycophants who don’t pay attention to the inserts in their birth control pill packs, it’s all about men not wanting women to have access to “family planning.” After fifty years of this option – and the supposedly unintentional objectification of the female as sex object resulting from unproductive baseness – American women just don’t understand that in the rush for “equality” with men, they’ve given up the difference that made us truly free. They’ve given up the one bargaining chip that women have always had: acceptance of who we are vs. what we can be for men, and that does not mean just in the bedroom.
Yes, it is true that in times past women were thought of as less than livestock and used for contract bargaining, but the core purpose of womanhood was not betrayed. Nor was there such severe dissatisfaction with physical appearance and naturalness. Every culture celebrates their own version of beauty and women strive to be attractive, but none to the extent current American culture does. We do not, truly, get to choose who and what we are from birth. In fighting our lot in life, our place in social order, even our size and shape, we betray what was meant for us.
Currently, in the United States, there is a very specific silhouette that is promoted as the ideal – pretty much the same one that inspired famed prima ballerina Gelsey Kirkland to take to cocaine to have energy and not eat so as to be attractive to George Balanchine. The same one that was the excuse for the producers at MGM Studios to starve Judy Garland until she was downright anorexic and unhealthy all the time and, frankly, unable to perform. Nowhere to be seen are the works of art that celebrate the female form in its voluptuousness and ripeness as other cultures have produced for centuries. Instead, we have artificial perfection, an entire industry that creates works of “art” as if it were natural both in various forms of print media and on the women’s bodies…and inner cats surfacing when appearances lend themselves to beliefs that some woman “has had work done.” (See Ashley Judd’s essay on this topic. Really great read.)
It’s true that not everyone does this, and many of us are quite content with who we are, but the larger culture, dictated from somewhere other than my house, sees women as needing to conform to someone else’s vision of what we should be. Not all of us have that option, nor do we want to be what someone else wants just because they want it. In that way, we are rather stuck, culturally speaking. We have no indigenous garb to fall back on when the current fashions do not flatter our less than acceptably perfect figures. We seem to be at one of two extremes: either plain wall-flowerishness or slutty. Neither one is really all that feminine. (There are ways to counter this, but pop culture and the buyers at Macy’s don’t have much of an interest.)
There is a decades long assault on “women’s work” as if the labors of keeping a clean environment in which to live is any less civilizing than training soldiers for war. It is acceptable, in some circles, to criticize women for not working outside the home when children are young. A democratic operative this week said that Ann Romney was not qualified to discuss economic issues as she had never worked a day in her life. (I have a cousin who works for a bank – and has for a long time – and she’s not really qualified to discuss economics either.) Anyone who thinks that raising, feeding, clothing and otherwise caring for a large family is not a lesson in economics is out of their mind. The Romneys, granted, have more money than a lot of us, but they still need to pay for the basics. Walking floors with a fussy baby, teaching the basics of manners and social behavior is most definitely work. No, it isn’t glamorous, but most of the trench sorts of jobs aren’t.
The line fed to us as children, particularly to girls, was, “Be what you want to be. You can be whatever you want to be.” It is the worst sort of lie. At just under five feet and having a heavier bone structure, gymnastics and ballet were out for me, and I loved both. My hands are so small, I can’t play the piano, an instrument that would be very helpful. I can’t draw. My voice is solo quality and does not blend in small groups, so every choir director of major church choirs wants me to sing alto (finally quit doing that. It was ruining my voice). At one time, I wanted to be an engineer. The theory made sense, couldn’t get problems to work to save my soul. Be what I want to be, huh? Where I’ve had luck, work-wise, is in organizing and communications, two very specifically female roles. It’s making me a living even if I’d rather write all day long. Yes, at this point, I am subservient to the larger monied crowd, being in non-profit, and to an extent a modern day servant if you will, but I know who I am and given the chance would jump at being a stay at home mom. I am not a slave to looking good in skinny jeans and flat out refuse to cut my hair short, wear shapeless and baggy clothes simply because they are easy. I am who I am and would hope other conservative women would be the same.
The war on women is about convincing us to abandon and betray femininity and to not be happy and content with who we are. It’s about conforming to ideals put forth by those who do not care about us or who we are other than what we can be for them. What liberal women seem to not want to admit is that the keepers of the larger message – those who control mass marketing, entertainment, school textbooks and more – have purposefully co-opted cooperation in the scheme from women from the time we were little girls. They’ve tried, with no little success, to convince us that there is no difference between us and men, when nothing could be further from the truth.
Perhaps that is why in the search for authentic womanhood, I always seem to gravitate to women from much older cultures. They don’t fall for such nonsense.