Sunday, February 26, 2012
The Southern Belle Ideal
Regional identity may not hold the same prominence it once did, but its distinctions are often extremely pronounced. Since I’ve lived elsewhere, I’ve been able to attain some needed distance and perspective. I still feel as though I am a foreigner, living in a strange land, one with very different societal priorities.
Though it has been years since I lived close to the place of my birth, I find I still carry with me a particular way of looking at the world. Over the past few weeks, my thoughts have returned to the particular mix of gender roles and gender expectations commonplace to a part of the country I will always call home.
Where I grew up, the roles of women were frequently stratified and closely governed. It was unusual to observe much overlap between social groups. The popular girls, for example, were held accountable to a set of very specific rules. Many of these had to do with educational achievement. They could be smart, but not too smart. They could make passing grades in school, but were careful to never make all A’s.
Intelligence and intellect came second to cosmetics pursuits like wearing fashionable clothing, flawlessly applying makeup, and other behaviors that placed a particularly emphatic priority upon outward appearances.
Girls who couldn’t inhabit this world felt like second best, shunned and ignored. Some focused on their studies in defiance of the system of priorities that had been long established. This attitude barely disguised a frequent anxiety caused by not belonging and not being good enough. Some young women saw outside the world of mean girls, competition, and power grabs. They went about their lives accordingly.
Others were forever resentful that they were not included and were made to feel shame because of it. Sometimes a profound fear of rejection and inadequacy were lasting side effects. It was my experience that these beliefs rarely stopped at high school. Often they were carried forward for years.
I didn’t need to look far to observe prominent examples of these traditional attitudes. Yet, I rarely observed gendered opinions and life stories that didn’t often include conflicting points of view. My grandmother, for example, in many ways defied the stereotypes of her age. Raised by four brothers in the middle of the Depression, she’d had to be tough in order to survive. To many, she was seen as the dictionary definition of a strong woman.
However, her opinions towards gender roles were extremely indicative of the time in which she came of age. My sisters, in addition to all existent female cousins, were regularly given two especially questionable pieces of advice and commentary. Her attempts towards indoctrination, if you will, began at a very young age. Each of her female progeny were told that to get a man, all a woman needed to do was dress up and act dumb.
And, rather frequently, they were belittled about their supposedly oversized hips and thighs. All of this was part of the Southern Belle ideal. Men were not supposed to have their intelligence threatened or challenged. Beauty standards were an element of a similarly unreachable ideal of body image.
I’m sure that cultural standards like these are not entirely unknown elsewhere. It’s been my observation that, elsewhere, overlap within identity groups was quite possible. I’ve been told that in other cities, states, and regions, it was entirely possible to be both a cheerleader and a valedictorian. As I listen to the stories and anecdotes of others, I wonder how and where things are changing, and for the better. Every hierarchical social system, in adult life and in adolescence, elevates a few and leaves out many others.
The examples learned early in life make a powerful impact upon young women. These formative years often determine the direction of future interpersonal decisions and ideas about the self. The challenges that lie before us vary considerably. Some of them are true more or less everywhere, and some of them are very specific to location. Any strategies adopted will have to take both into account.