My birthday was Monday, the 30th. It used to be, until very recently, that birthdays were just fun. I didn’t think about them much. Then again, I didn’t have certain adverts aimed at my head like cannons until now.
You see, the advertisers tell me “you’re getting old. Here, have some wrinkle cream. Shall we line up your Botox appointments for the next five years for you? Oh! And you’ll need a diet, too.”
“But… I’m 27. I don’t need wrinkle cream!”
“Tut, tut. Look at you. There are smile lines around your eyes! Of course you’ll need wrinkle cream! They’re tiny now, but you don’t want them to grow, do you?!”
“But smile lines mean I smile a lot. I like them.”
“But does your boss like them? Your boyfriend?”
At which point I turn on this cultural/advertising voice and snap its neck– because I am not a doll for my boss or for my loves, and how dare they presume I’m straight. Voices like this don’t die so easily, though. They crop up anew, whether I like it or not, in magazines, on billboards, in my own head. No matter the medium, I can’t seem to avoid them. They abound on Facebook. They exist in the subtext of conversations.
“Y’know, those clothes are too young for you. Only college girls wear them.”
“I just graduated college.”
“Exactly. You need something more matronly, because you’re getting old. You can’t go around wearing hip-huggers. You’ll look like a fat cow. Besides, your kids will think you’re trying to be like them.”
“Me? I weigh a 115 lbs. I look like a freakin’ scarecrow. And I don’t have kids.”
“That’s 15 lbs. too many. You need to go on a diet– here, have some diet soda. It’s carbohydrate free! You’ll be too thin to get any wrinkles! And every woman has kids.”
If only it were as easy as saying, “You know, you’re a really stupid voice. You’re talking from within a social class to which I don’t even belong, and you’re outside my subculture. Gamer geeks don’t give a shit about wrinkles. And I’m not going to have kids!”
But the rebuttal always comes, whether I voice the complaint or not, “Maybe you should rethink where you belong. I mean, you’re a woman after all, and all women care about wrinkles and how they look and the cute little babies. Salad?”
“Why don’t you come here and play me PvP in World of Warcraft? Huh? I will pwn your ass with my twink rogue in Warsong Gulch!”
“Women don’t play World of Warcraft, sweetie, and neither do mommies or disembodied cultural/advertising voices or the subtexts of ‘friendly’ conversations. Smoothie? It’s chock full of B vitamins for baby and you!”
Dammit, the voice had a point. Disembodied voices don’t play World of Warcraft… I would have to find some other way of defeating it.
“You’ve squandered your youth, darling. Now you need makeup. Here, this foundation can erase wrinkles!”
“I don’t have time for that. I’m DMing a game tonight.”
“But you want to look sexy, right? And women don’t DM.”
“No, not really. I’d like to look like me. And act like me.”
This stops the voice dead for a moment or three. “To look sexy, you have to aspire to youth,” it continues, as if I hadn’t answered at all. It was then that I figured something out, a fragment of the puzzle became clear. In my corner of the world, as a student, you could belong to different subcultures, you could (limitedly) express yourself within them, belong to a group and identify with the people in them (so long as you’re enough like them– the same economically, racially). Once school is done? Once the show is over? Oh, those subcultures still exist. But women don’t belong to them. Not in the mind of the larger culture. Women only belong to the group “women” no matter their differences, their individualities, their communities or affiliations.
And all women look the same. “You really should try wearing high heels. You do know they’re required in the workplace? Only hip young things can get away with not wearing them.”
“They can’t require me to wear something that has such proven detrimental health effects. Besides, they look stupid.”
All women look the same and want the same things. “You need laser hair removal and a baby bump. Can’t have hairy legs, now can we? What will your boyfriend think?”
“The girl I’m crushing on has hairy legs too. I don’t think she cares. And neither do either of my boyfriends. And I’m looking into getting sterilized.”
Really, what else could a woman want? “Don’t do that! You’ll regret it!”
“Regret what? I don’t want kids.”
“Every woman wants kids! You have to have kids! Think of the babies!”
“I’d rather not. I’m not very fond of babies. Kids are okay once they can talk and show personality, but I think that would make me a better aunt, don’t you?”
It’s like a sledgehammer. Individual choices are only valid if they conform to the accepted ideal. “Mother. You’re going to be a mother. You have to be a mother. Baby bump! Hip! Cute! See the little onesie? Isn’t it cute? You want a baby to go with it?”
“I want to play D&D. And get my PhD. And write. And blacksmith. And live with a bunch of friends on a farm commune or in a city co-op. There are some other things too, but that’s a pretty comprehensive list at the moment. No babies. Eventually, I’d like to be a crazy aunt. But no, not a mother.”
And this is met with indifference from advertisers– they still lob the same old things at my head. Wedding rings! Diamonds! Babies! Make-up! Fashion! Botox! And this is also met with shock and horror from the people I talk to daily. But you’re a woman! Women only want these things!
Is it any wonder I sought out feminism? But even here, among those who have tried to carve out an enclave safe from those incessant voices telling us we’re abominable for not wanting what women are supposed to want, even here, the flip side is true. How many mothers have I talked to who feel alienated from feminism because they made choices that made them feel powerful? For choosing to become mothers? No, that can’t be a valid choice, never. Sometimes either side feels just as narrow.
With every birthday, it feels as though I am asked louder and louder to justify my desires, to justify why I don’t fit the supposed pattern women are “meant” to follow. With every birthday, I feel as though I am screaming myself hoarse trying to defend my actions and my existance, and it’s still not good enough.
Dear culture, dear advertisers, dear well-meaning acquaintances– may I ask one birthday present from you? It’s a little belated, I know, but I just want one thing. Blessed silence.