Negotiating Gender

This section describes the experience and the meaning of gender roles for participants. The focus is on the complex tensions among the female body, masculinity and femininity. The term ‘radiance’ is chosen to represent female beauty which is magnetic and luminous aspect of beauty because it transcends physical attributes. Participants distinguished between attractiveness which was natural or innate to a woman (true radiance) and that which was derived from the fashion industry, cosmetics or diets (false radiance).

Participants described true radiance as stemming from a woman’s unique sense and expression of herself, particularly with respect to personal style of dress. Therefore, even though elements of fashion are being consumed, participants were clear in their emphasis that real beauty results from applying those external elements in a way that mirrors your own uniqueness. In the following, Sandy relates a typical conversation with her best friend acknowledging this aspect of true radiance, and the attention it generates:

“I mean I’m sure we have other sayings, I had a fat day, I had an ugly day … I had … we have good days. (laughs) I had a pretty day. And she’ll call …she (laughs) does this more often than I do … which is good … and she’ll call and she’ll go, ‘Sandy, I wore the most amazing outfit today, I kind of put it together,’ because she puts really good outfits together a lot of the times. And she’ll go, ‘And I went out and people were looking, and I had a really good day, like I had a really good dress day, or I had a really good…’ you know, just anything day.” (Sandy)

Participants associated true radiance with a certain effortlessness and ease around appearance issues, a lack of adherence to mainstream beauty ideals, and the absence of competition with other women, as is indicated in this quote by Sandy in her discussion of her best friend:

“…she says she never compares herself to anybody…and she’s just so cute, smart, attractive, you know. Like she doesn’t try, she doesn’t blow-dry her hair, she lets it dry naturally. She wears glasses, she doesn’t wear makeup, barely. She wears some but nothing … like 2 minutes later she’s done. And … she’ll go dancing in a pair of jeans and a tank top.” (Sandy)

False radiance on the other hand, tended to be associated with components of appearance (rather than the overall sense of beauty described in true radiance). It also led to self-criticism and competition with other women:

“… the attention that I get, like if I go out with B., if anybody notices anything about her, it’s her muscles, it’s her size. If anybody notices anything about me it’s either my hair or what I’m wearing. When I’m with D. … sometimes I think … I notice that sometimes I think, ‘Yeesh, why did I wear this?’ Like I think my outfit has to overdo everybody else’s, so that people kind of notice it. And then I know when I get to work my outfit is not going to outdo (co-worker’s), ever. So … [text removed] Like I’m totally … dressed well but nobody in the salon dresses like (co-worker). But …even sometimes …just anything anybody wears, I think … not that I’m necessarily jealous but I just get to work and go, ‘Oh, how did they throw that together?’ Or, I wish I could be as confident to put something together like (co-worker) although not the same look. Like I would never … those shoes, no, I couldn’t walk in those.” (Sandy)

Very closely aligned with true and false radiance are the themes of honouring and objectifying the female body. Honouring of the female body was associated with true radiance, and objectification was associated with both false radiance. That is, when participants spoke about the female body from the honouring discourse, it was associated with feeling seen and valued as uniquely beautiful beyond physical appearance or sex appeal (true radiance). Conversely, the objectification discourse referred to attention to the female body that evoked a homogenous, sexualized external standard disregarding of elements of attractiveness beyond the physical (false radiance), or criticism of the body (diminished radiance).

The following quotation is an example of honouring the body. This young woman describes the experience of shopping for clothes that are size 14 as follows:

“ … some of the clothes I mean are just, unquestionably, you can’t wear them…but women that are even larger than I am look fabulous in some of these outfits that you can kind of put together and make look good for yourself, I mean you can wear Capris and not have to have this little white tank-top with it…you can have … a blouse or anything, and it’ll still look good. I mean sometimes it is depressing to kind of go out and not be able to wear the little tank-top that everybody else is wearing. But I… will find something else that I feel comfortable in. And I guess I’ve always been like that. You know, throughout high school I was never … not necessarily wearing what everybody else was wearing. I mean, during high school I probably wore jeans … 20 times. I’d always be wearing a skirt. Always. So … I would just… what I feel comfortable in I’ll wear…” (Sandy)

The following quotation also reflects the theme of false radiance since the speaker relies totally on external aspects of the beauty industry to feel attractive:

“Like if I make myself up and I have nice clothes on and I have things that are flattering and they hide my weight gain, I’m like, wow, and I feel so good about myself and I walk down the street and I have so much confidence. And … I could wear big heels because it makes me look taller and thinner. Then I’m like wow, and I feel so good, I’m like … more confident. But when I feel ugly I don’t want to see anyone I know.” (Madeline)

By comparison, participants reported objectification as having a negative impact. Objectification which was equated with constantly being judged for their appearance was much more common than honouring of the female body. In the following quotation a 14 year old girl describes what it feels like to be constantly on display:

“[Right. What does it mean to you …that you do even think about these

issues?] Mmm, it means a lot, because you’re getting judged all the time … and just … there’s nothing you can do to change. [Mm hm …right. How does it affect you, knowing that you’re being judged?] It hurts.” (Tess)

One young woman mentioned frequently during the interview objectifying comments by her own mother. For example:

“She wants me to exercise and stuff. She was talking to me, she was like, yeah, you know, maybe that’s why you’ve gotten chubby and that just hurt my feelings so much. [Mmmm.] Oh, my God, I’ve gotten chubby. Or she’ll be like, you’ve got to tone up your abs, they’re starting to hang out. And I just went, oh, my God. [That’s hurtful.] Yeah. Wow, other people acknowledge this. And like, she’s being honest because she’s my Mom, it’s not like she’s this person who hates me or wants to destroy my self esteem… It was really hurtful! But I’m not going to get mad at her because it’s just, she always told me, when I was a kid that I hated hearing criticism and I hated hearing the truth…She’s like, ahhh, all you should do is do more sit-ups.” (Madeline)

There were many negative consequences of the objectification theme for participants such as: feeling “sick and tired” of sexual harassment that occurred “once an hour,” feeling like hiding their bodies, feeling afraid to live their life, feeling “degraded” and “gross”, comparing themselves with other women and feeling inadequate, blaming women for inviting sexual comments with their dress style, feeling self conscious,not wanting to eat, criticizing men for not living up to appearance standards themselves, feeling mistrustful of men’s intentions, and feeling disgusted with men.

The following quotation reflects another theme in this section —men are pigs vs male integrity. Similar to the theme of objectification described above, the young women felt they lived in a climate of men as pigs the majority of the time. Male integrity was reserved for their boyfriends or male friends:

“Yeah, but on the other hand they do it in such a rude, ignorant way. Like they shout things across the mall so that everybody around can hear. And then everybody looks at you and you’re like, ohhhh [laughs]. So in some ways it’s a compliment, in other ways I hate it. [It’s too much attention…] Yeah. Very much. [So you kind of feel …] Disgusted. [Is there a part of you that kind of wants to hide from it?] Yeah … I wish it would all just go away. I wish it was a women-only mall. [laughs] Like … men disgust me. The only one I care about is mine. The rest can all walk off the face of the earth … in my opinion, I hate them, they’re all disgusting. [You’ve had a lot of negative experiences …] Oh yeah. Like I’ll be walking into the mall holding my boyfriend’s hand and somebody goes, ‘Geez, you’re hot.’ Right in front of my boyfriend, I’m like, ‘Excuse me?’ Like I’ve had so many rude experiences, it makes me angry. My boyfriend almost got in a fight on Saturday night … because we were waiting for the train and some man came up and rubbed right up against me. Yeah. And my boyfriend’s like, excuse me? And they almost got in a fight. I was the only one that stopped it. Like I go through things like that at least 10 times a day, like just disgusting comments and …I hate it. I’m just to the point that I don’t even want to leave the house because I don’t know what’s going to happen to me today. [Right. So it makes you afraid to just live your life.] Yeah, Because I could come home from work one day and heaven knows what could happen to me. So … that’s why my boyfriend’s cautious, he picks me up every day, drops me off where I’ve got to go …” (Anita)

The final theme in this section concerns the young women’s experience of the power associated with femininity. There are two kinds of feminine power described—dangerous femininity and powerful femininity. The most common theme experienced is dangerous femininity.

In the following quotation, one young woman describes how other females express anger at her because of her ability to attract boys:

“Um … well I had boyfriends that other girls had wanted, and they’re jealous , how come she can have him and I can’t. So, [voices overlap] that’s pretty much the only problem I’ve ever had. [And do you think, was it related to the way you look?] I don’t really know. [text removed] Yeah, like I’d go out with somebody, and he’d just, I didn’t know, but he had just broken up with some girl and she comes up ‘You stole my boyfriend!’ I’m like, ‘Who? Huh? What?’ Yeah, that stuff occurs a lot, like girls do get jealous of other girls, and beat them up because of it. That is a big problem in high school.” (Anita)

Powerful femininity was limited to two types of power. The first is the power women hold in the household and the second is the power women can have from being beautiful. Neither of these types of power were described as common among the women interviewed. In the following quotation, this young woman distinguishes between power that comes from beauty and other types of power:

“I don’t know if I would see myself as powerful. [long pause] Maybe I’m like … trying to be like beautiful powerful, you know. Not … or influential powerful, not so much …I don’t know …I mean it’s a good thing I guess as long as it’s positive. But …[What does being powerful …mean?] When I think powerful I think confident, and self-sufficient and able to do things on your own. [pause] Just really independent, you depend on yourself for anything, that if you have nobody to turn to, that you’re OK. Because you know that you’re comfortable enough with yourself that … you can get through it, on your own … might be difficult but you still can. And you don’t give up.”(Sandy)