Do you ever feel pressure to be a woman?
Of course not. You ARE a woman.
Assuming you’re cisgender, you’ve probably never felt you had to prove you were a woman.
Even when I was one of the flat-chested girls in junior high, having to change into my gym clothes next to a preternaturally bosomed 12-year-old, I never felt my femininity was in doubt. All I had to do was wait to become the woman I was born to be.
Men have a different experience.
Even as boys, they feel pressure to be a man.
A man needs to be virile, muscular, tall, powerful, and wealthy. He should have a quick quip for every situation and never lose his cool.
Men who don’t live up to this ideal know it. Other men call them out. And one of the favorite insults for a man who’s not manly enough is …
Er, being a girl is awesome? Come on, guys!
Former professional football player Lewis Howes grew up feeling he had to prove himself. He wasn’t going to let anyone call him a girl.
By the time he reached his thirties, he was sick of it. Achieving success as a man’s man hadn’t helped him keep a relationship or feel better in himself. He still felt just as insecure as he had as a kid.
So he decided to rip off the masks he’d been wearing to see what was underneath. If he didn’t have to “be a man,” who would he be?
His quest led him to therapy and emotional intelligence workshops. He had a lot to unlearn.
I realized my entire life I was doing things to win—and everyone else needed to lose in order for that to happen. I wanted to be right and everyone else needed to be wrong.”
He documents his journey in The Mask of Masculinity, a must-read for men and anyone who loves a man.
As I was reading Howes’ story, I felt sympathetic.
It must be so hard to be a man.
I was grateful I didn’t feel that kind of pressure growing up. I remember being called a tomboy once, but I took it as a compliment. Tomboys were tough and could do anything boys could do.
As a female, I had the best of both worlds. I could be sensitive and feminine and girly, AND I could be tough and competitive and curt. I had jeans AND dresses in my closet. I could wear my hair short or long. I could go out to work or stay at home with my kid.
Did that mean women don’t have any masks?
That we don’t feel pressure to conform to gender ideals?
And that’s where I started to feel uncomfortable.
Women do have a lot to live up to.
We have to be slim yet curvy. We have to be sexy but never slutty. We have to be successful yet willing to drop everything for our kids. We have to be married to the perfect husband and live in the perfect house.
What turns these from expectations into masks is our willingness to fake it if we’re not meeting those ideals.
Don’t have big breasts? Then good luck finding a bra that doesn’t try to amplify your assets with padding.
Don’t have a life you’re proud of? I’ll bet that doesn’t show on social media.
Feeling angry and pissed off about something? That’s okay. You can talk about how much love you feel towards your haters and how sorry you are that they’re such negative people.
We hide behind masks ALL the time.
Our masks make us feel safe. They help us fit in. They let other people know, “Hey, I’m not weird. I’m one of you.”
And they protect us from those turbulent, ugly, uncomfortable feelings inside that we don’t want to deal with.
Howes believes that the masks we wear have their origins in our early emotional life.
“Remember those boxes we stuffed our emotions into when we were younger?” he writes. “As we outgrew the boxes, they transformed into masks that hold us back and hurt our friends, family, career partners, and intimate lovers.”
A girl who’s too competitive might get told off by her parents. A girl who’s aggressive might be told to be nice. A girl who likes to play with her brother’s friends might be told that she should play with her own kind.
All those feelings of rejection, of feeling like we’re not following the approved script, get buried. We try even harder to do it right. We deny our competitive urges, channel our aggression into bitchy gossip, and become the girlfriend to gain access to the boys’ inner circle.
We’re no longer honest. Why would we be? Our new persona works for us. Guys prefer girls who know they’re girls. Parents prefer daughters who act like young ladies. Employers prefers women who pick up pastries for the office party and stay afterwards to clean up.
Everyone benefits when we stay in our approved roles…
So how do we break free from the expectations that have ruled us all our lives?
We name the masks.
Here are 5 masks I’ve experienced. Are these masks familiar to you?
1. The Sweetheart Mask
The Sweetheart is the most important mask for women.
All women must be someone’s sweetheart. If no one loves her, how can she ever feel like a real woman? No matter what she’s accomplished in life, all that matters is whether she can win the heart of a man.
This is the mask that feminism has worked for decades to rip away.
Has it succeeded? Or do you still feel as if you’re judged based on your relationship status?
2. The Sugar-And-Spice-And-Everything-Nice Mask
Growing up with Disney has a big impact on girls.
We see old-school Disney princesses suffer without complaint, sing to songbirds, and win the heart of the prince through their natural beauty.
So we try hard to be good, kind, and sweet. Maybe if we’re good enough, someone will hand us a crown.
3. The Seductress Mask
Blame it on MTV.
Though the Seductress has been an archetype throughout history—Cleopatra, the Sirens, Salome, Mata Hari—she wasn’t as accessible to young girls as she is today.
Today, a girl simply has to watch a music video to see the Seductress in action. The Seductress tempts men. She allows them to look but not touch. She doesn’t give away sex. She gives away a sexual performance, delighting in being seen.
Few of us would be that sexual in public. We know what people would think. But we also know that all men desire the Seductress. If we don’t own our inner Seductress, will our men leave us?
4. The Saint Mask
Women are endlessly self-sacrificing. We take care of everyone at the expense of ourselves.
And we’re adored for it. Everyone can depend on us. We never get mad, never say no, and never assert any boundaries.
But saints rarely get rewarded in this lifetime. They have to wait for heaven before they’re truly appreciated.
Being saintly here on earth may make you feel good about yourself, and it may win you the temporary devotion of fans, but it can also make you miserable. Try some selfishness on for size.
5. The Superheroine Mask
The ideal woman does it all.
She has a successful career, a beautiful family, a slim and fit body, and a husband who dotes on her. She volunteers, bakes gorgeous birthday cakes, and plays the piano in her spare time. She makes it seem easy.
Obviously, the Superheroine is a robot. She can’t be human.
Human beings have limits. They get worn out. They have to pick where to focus their energy. They have messy homes and don’t clean out their inbox and have children who talk back.
Unfortunately, knowing you can’t do it all doesn’t mean you don’t beat yourself up for it.
The worst thing about these masks is their appeal. Of course you don’t have to be someone’s sweetheart, or be nice all the time, or say yes to everyone, or know how to shake your booty.
But do you feel less because of it?
What might your life be like if you stopped giving those masks so much power?
Keep the conversation going in the comments.