What Does It Mean To Be A ‘Real Woman’?

This originally appeared on Eat The Damn Cake. Republished here with permission.

“Real woman” is beginning to sound a little like an accusation. Like a failing. You’re the cold, pimply truth. And there’s no mistaking it: Being a “real” woman is all about what you look like.

I got an email from one of those extremely popular TV shows that no one I know actually watches. I was trying to feed myself with one hand and spooning sweet potato into the baby’s mouth with the other. The email had come up on my phone and I thumbed over it messily, unable to resist.

Would I be interested in coming on the show, the email asked, to talk about my experience as a real woman?

I was interested! Yes! I will talk about being a woman on national television! It’s a powerful, sometimes difficult, confusing, meaningful experience! 

But wait. There was a little more.

They were looking specifically for someone size 12-14, who isn’t comfortable with her appearance. This, succinctly, was the working definition of “real woman.”

So, how about it? The emailer was obviously in a hurry, but she was friendly.

I laughed at my phone. Then, immediately, without thinking, I wrote back. And then I thought for a minute.

I am generally a proponent of the “we all know what was meant” school of thought. I think maybe this is an underrepresented group on the Internet—generally I pretend I’m not a member, in order to avoid being unnecessarily yelled at. Political correctness in language has become so nit-pickingly obsessive that it can sound a lot like a desperate effort to make up for the wanton callousness of the in-person world. Some pieces have so many disclaimers, you can hardly find the subject text.

I also totally appreciate how tempting it can be, as a relatively smart person who reads a lot, to quibble over semantics. You feel like you’re accomplishing something, doing nerdy battle against the forces of ignorance and oversimplification and raising the red pen of equality. I spot a typo in The New York Times, sometimes, and a small, smug smile seizes my lips and I shake my head disapprovingly. “Ha! Gotcha!” The writer assumes that everyone is male—I roll my eyes and resist the urge to leave a pithy, biting comment. I AM NOT A MAN, thanks very much. (I need to maybe work on my biting comments, anyway).

So when you say “real woman,” giant TV show, I know what you’re talking about.

You’re talking about someone who doesn’t look like the photoshopped, glistening-limbed, ultra-thin, poreless–skinned, preternaturally bright-eyed, perky-boobed visions of femininity we’re all constantly presented with to the point of tear leaking saturation.

Real women are the rest of us. The underrepresented majority of us. The ones who will never be arranged, mostly naked, on a billboard. We are only supposed to feel bad about this, I think, because we are expected to have been convinced, simultaneously, that this sort of thing is synonymous with female success.

Look at the timeless, classic arrangement: rich, famous man dates/marries abnormally gorgeous young woman. Often a model or someone has “done a little modeling” (which is maybe even cooler). These things, we’ve learned, are equivalent: A man is powerful in the world through his social and financial achievements, a woman through the chance and strict maintenance of her physical composition, her surfaces, extending only as deep as her “bone structure.” Even though this type of success is complicated by how poorly so many professional beauties are treated and how expendable and brief most careers based on a girl/woman’s appearance are, we’re taught to be jealous.

We are the lucky ones, their heavy-lidded eyes seem to suggest from the glossy ad pages that outnumber the quick content in every women’s magazine. Real women are not so fortunate. We are the 99%.

And we are a size 12 to 14, apparently.

Maybe this is the clothing size range of the average American woman these days? I remember once hearing that 12 was the average size and that number has been sitting around in my head ever since, taking up space I could definitely use for something better.

I don’t think the person who emailed me meant it this way, but it seems totally possible that the TV show did: If you are a size 12-14, you are probably feeling pretty sad on some level, about your body. You are also fit to represent all of the women who feel left behind by the cruel whims of fashion, by virtue of being approximately the size they probably are too. Woe unto the women who exceed a size 14! (Unless a separate email went out to a different group?) And the women who are smaller than a size 12—how triumphant they must be feeling! (Unless they will also be represented, being sad, too, because they are still not perfect or thin enough.)

Actually, I don’t want to pick at the TV show and the email. They are simply pointing out something that’s already everywhere. They only exist because of something much more pressing—this tendency to divide women along the line of our sizes. The practice of pretending a compliment by calling some of us “real.” The fact that “thinner” has come to mean “more attractive,” generally speaking, and the effort to address that through ostensibly supporting the ones who don’t cut it by defining them as more authentic, if not actually better.

No, no, we’re reassured, SOME people think “real” women are even better! It’s just the big, bad beauty-media-machine, churning out images of impossible-looking fantasy girls faster than the speed of light—THEY are the ones we’re fighting against. The people who tell us these things mean well (I have been one of them, and I definitely know I mean well!), but I can’t help noticing that “real woman” is beginning to sound a little like an accusation. Like a failing. You’re the gritty, honest item. You’re the slums. You’re the cold, pimply truth. And there’s no mistaking it: Being a “real” woman is all about what you look like. Our appearances, even when they can’t lead to that kind of success we’re all supposed to want most, are still the first thing. They are the tag hanging off us that shows which section of the store we belong in. We literally are our clothing size. 

The email isn’t original in its accidental offensiveness—it’s earnestly piggybacking off the unavoidable idea that we must be sad, when we are real. Real=sad, now. Of course it does, because “real” is the opposite of “stunningly beautiful.” And stunningly beautiful is the constant, often unspoken desire.

The TV show is, I think, trying to help. There will be a special, I’m guessing, about how damaging the media’s portrayal of beauty can be. About how much pressure women are under to look a certain way. Real issues for real people. I write about them a lot, too. I think these are really important topics. They’ve become increasingly popular topics. Which is opening up new, interesting issues.

Because this is happening, I think it’s also important to look at what it means to call someone a “real woman” right now, today, in this environment. What are we saying about women? About what matters? About the way we are expected to already feel? About the way we’re supposed to feel about other women, who look different from us? Despite my best efforts to sit tight in the “we all know what was meant” camp, I can’t help but write this piece. This is me giving in. This is me standing up. Or at least standing up halfway from my seat, sweet potato smeared everywhere.

“The thing is,” I wrote back, “I just don’t feel that bad about the way I look. But if you ever want to talk to a real woman, a new mom, who is feeling better and better about herself, let me know!”

I was surprised when I got the response, “Will do, thanks!”

It was very nice of her.

Still, I kind of doubt I’ll ever appear on national TV to discuss the topic of being a real woman of my particular size (which is not, by the way, 12 to 14, so I am automatically disqualified anyway), life, happiness, and challenges. But if I ever do, I hope I remember to point out that, while we’re getting into semantics, absolutely every woman is “real.” Even the models on the billboards. Even the women who aren’t actually on billboards but look similar to the ones who are. And being among the 99% of women who don’t look like that doesn’t have to mean automatic self-hatred or even mild self-dislike.

Some of us “real women” love ourselves, size 12 and up bodies and all. Size whatever-we-happen-to-be bodies and all. Some of us love our bodies for instead of despite their deviations from the standard pretty line. Some of us are just not paying a ton of attention to exactly how our bodies fit or don’t fit into the random mold we’re always shown.

But if we do care, and if we do care terribly, painfully, as we too often do, then we all need to address this issue not by continuing to divide women up into groups based on how we look but by emphasizing how much more than our appearances we are and always have been. That’s what’s real, people.

Kate Fridkis blogs at Eat the Damn Cake. Her new book about her pregnancy is now available. Her work has appeared in Cosmopolitan, Salon, Tablet, and many more. She lives in Brooklyn, where it’s not totally weird to be as obsessed with sandwiches as she is. You can follow her on Twitter here.

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