There are people all around the world waking up each morning ready to pray, ‘Thank God I was born as a man.’ There are also people earnestly praying, even as you read this, that in the next life they will return as a man to speed their path to enlightenment. And even in more familiar social and cultural contexts, there are countless people who quote unselfconsciously assume that their maleness not only gives them privileges but is itself a privilege.
For all that, there is so much to celebrate about being a woman. And perhaps the prayer that I would have on my lips is that more women could thoroughly enjoy it; could support other women more heartily; could inspire girls about how delicious it is to see the world through women’s eyes; could envy or emulate men less; could take with greater good humour some of the tougher biological challenges that come with womanhood; could love their bodies and looks far, far more; and could see that where there are distinctive features about being a woman, the good far outreaches the bad.
The sexual politics revolution was at least as much about valuing yourself as a woman as it was about work, parenting and educational choices. But decades later many women continue to struggle with the most fundamental issues of entitlement. An absence of basic self-acceptance drives many of the issues that dominate their lives. It’s tempting to be mean, malicious, bitchy or unkind when you are not sure what your own life adds up to. And it is difficult to make wise relationship choices when you are starving for approval.
A myriad of body image, eating and anxiety disorders remain painfully prominent on our social landscape. Fat has never ceased to be a feminist issue, but the social pressures on women to be thin, weak and physically insignificant have never been greater. I heard fashion commentator Lee Tulloch talk on the radio recently about a young model who had dropped dead in Europe after eating ‘nothing but green leaves’ for several months. The young woman’s death is appalling. But it is just as shocking that women collectively don’t rise up and declare this thinness fetish to be the total farce and misogynistic sadism that it is. When we care so much about what goes into our mouths, how ironic that we are literally swallowing the lie that the value of our lives is related to our weight, or that we become more lovable or even more beautiful when we resemble a puny, undeveloped boy, rather than a healthy, resilient adult woman.
I have become much more cautious than I once was about making generalisations on the basis of gender. Nevertheless, I believe it is still possible to suggest that the reason women are particularly vulnerable about issues of appearance and acceptance is because far more women than men continue to look outside themselves for approval, security and even for their sense of self. There is a painful irony in this, because younger women are, in general, more intuitive and a lot savvier than younger men. Nevertheless, needing validation from the outside, and giving superficial issues of appearance a significance they absolutely do not deserve, women make themselves vulnerable in ways that men will rarely understand – because there is no logic to it. Their qualities, achievements and especially their fundamental goodness may seem to many women to count for nothing when someone else discounts or rejects them. In twenty-first century life, women remain far more likely than men to give away their power to others, especially the power to judge whether or not their lives matter.
On the positive side of the ledger, women have extraordinary capacities to network, inform, empathise – and create change. When it comes to these profound issues of self-worth, women can and indeed must be each other’s best friends. Supporting other women to value themselves from the inside out, a woman cannot fail also to support herself. This takes nothing from men. In fact, it eases relations between the sexes. But most crucially of all, women benefit.