Living Up to Stereotypes and Breaking Them Down


A post from Sarah Van Name, Duke Write(H)ers participant

            When my first boyfriend broke up with me at the beginning of my sophomore year of high school, I decided I would stop crying. By that I don’t mean that I had been constantly in tears for the past several weeks and finally wiped my eyes; I had done my fair share of crying, but I was functional. No, I decided that I would simply not cry anymore – about him or anything else. The messed-up thought process that led to this choice went something like this: crying was a stupid, silly thing to do, and he would probably make fun of it if he knew how upset I had been.

            It was actually a great success. For the middle two years of high school, long after I got over my first boyfriend, I did not cry. This strategy served me well until someone close to me died in my junior year and I had no recourse for physical catharsis. Not being able to cry made everything hurt more. All because I’d thought that appearing emotionless and strong was more important than expressing what I felt.

            I realize now that there’s one more pejorative adjective I should tack on to the reasons I thought crying was bad: feminine. Silly, weak, overemotional, feminine. By getting so upset over a guy, I was fulfilling the stereotype of a teenage girl, and I hated that. The same thing happened when I started having awful PMS because of my birth control – I was furious that my body was making me the living embodiment of one of the most laughed-at female stereotypes. (I wrote a lot more about birth control in my last Develle Dish post.)

            Oddly enough, though, I didn’t mind when I fulfilled other feminine stereotypes. I was bad at science but had great handwriting, so I wrote down results while my male partners did the labs in honors physics. I was bad at almost all forms of exercise, so I laughed about how slow and weak I was. Why I chose these things to be okay with, I had no idea. Maybe it was because I thought science and sports were matters of natural aptitude, set from birth, and my emotions were things I should be able to control.

             There is an endless web of stereotypes to which women, especially young women, are expected to conform. Some of them, like being overemotional, are fodder for jokes. Others, like always looking nice and being friendly, are looked on with approval. Almost all of them are insults when applied to men: guys who exhibit any of the wide variety of “feminine” traits are mocked and told they aren’t real men.

            Many of them are contradictory. I’m supposed to be weak, okay, but I’m also supposed to be thin and fit. I’m supposed to be sweet and sexual and available, but I’m also supposed to be virginal and unattainable. No woman in the world could fulfill everything a woman is supposed to be. It’s a rigged game.

            The worst part is, we regularly tell women what they should be and then turn around and laugh at them for it. We guide girls away from math and science, then tell them they should have chosen more lucrative careers when they’re women. We teach girls to be soft-spoken, then tell them they need to be assertive if they want to be heard (and then we tell them they’re being too pushy). Jill Filipovic’s takedown of a recent NYT Style piece on women who plan their weddings before they’re engaged is a perfect example of this happening in the recent news.[1] It is shameful, she says, that we set women up to think of their wedding as the most important day of their lives and then criticize them when they act on that idea.

            All of us – women and men, but especially women – are trapped in this web of stereotypes, and I don’t know how to get out. I wish I could figure out a solution. All I know is that it is impossible for me to be everything this world tells me I need to be. While we slowly work to break down these stereotypes and expose them for the ridiculous standards they are, let’s surround ourselves with people who accept our complexities, regardless of how they fall in line with the image of the perfect woman.