Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Pressure to Be Girly


" but I feel the pressure to be girly more here than in the US and I feel that the pressure starts early. "

This is the quote from a reader on my post Women, Media, and Power... or lack there of and I agree with it completely.

I had never considered myself unkempt before living in Rio de Janeiro. I arrived in Rio de Janeiro to women with perfectly manicured toes and nails as far as the eye could see. It was also about 3000 degrees out (which is what summer feels like to a newly arrived foreigner) and while I was considering shaving my head none of the Brazilian women were even sporting a ponytail!

I found myself in uncharted territories of girlization. There I was in plane black flip flops, jeans, a basic top, ponytail, no jewelry, and chipped nail polish. I'm surprised they even let me past customs.

People, I'm not even exaggerating this time around. The women of Rio de Janeiro take an extreme pride in their appearance. We are talking about at least bi-weekly manicures and pedicures, along with hair straightening procedures (and it is a procedure down here), waxing, gym, and styling. I'm guessing there are more steps that I haven't even heard of.

Hell, these ladies go to the gym looking good! I complained to Mr. Rant immediately when he suggested I purchases some Brazilian workout clothes. I mean seriously, I even have to look cute or hot at the gym?! Of course he was looking out for me and trying to help me blend in. Being the stubborn ass I am I refused the shopping trip and went to the gym in my raggedy old shorts and an oversized t-shirt. I couldn't have stuck out more if I was wearing pasties and body glitter.

To make matters worse, I have heard, more than a few times, men making comments about their spouse or girlfriend's body. Two occasions shocked me to the core. The first one was when a boyfriend mentioned and pointed out the additional cellulite on his girlfriend's butt and the second when a husband told the wife, at a full table, that he was watching what she was eating. As he explained to everyone who was listening, she was putting on too much weight during her pregnancy. Being pregnant myself, I mentioned that I had put on a ton. I do believe he was truly disgusted.

Of course those examples are to the extreme but sadly are quite common none-the-less. There is a special population here that has no problem judging others on something so little as chipped nail polish or not polishing your nails at all.

In the end, I did adapt to a mellower version of the Carioca woman. It does feel nice to be a bit more feminine. I love wearing the big dangly earrings and have a new sense of pride over clean and polished toenails (even though I am fairly bad at keeping them up in comparison). That being said, it isn't an image that defines me.

I refuse to believe that my most important goal is to always be "presentable." I actually find myself more comfortable in an old pair of flip flops, a ponytail, and comfy jeans... of which I have been teased about because they have holes in them.

And while I can appreciate discovering a sense of femininity in traditional terms, I am very glad that I didn't grow up with it being expected at such a young age. While all women everywhere have faced a certain amount of pressure, my youth in the US was fairly mellow in comparison to Brazil. Thank goodness I have little boys because I don't know if this former Tomboy would be able to handle the expectations of female beauty that they have here at such a young age.

What were your experiences with this? Do the girls in your country feel pressure to be beautiful or feminine? 

42 comments:

  1. Great post, Rachel. I've never been a girly girl. It doesn't mesh well with my current profession of a wildlife biologist. ;) My experience in Brazil was a muted version of what you're describing. I was a gringa living in Manaus, so I did notice that everyone was more presentable than me, but nobody gave me any crap about sporting the tomboy look. I'm assuming they didn't hold me to the same high standards as themselves. I think living in Rio is extra difficult in this sense.

    As for the message it sends to little girls, yeah, that is sad. I'll reiterate an earlier comment: Emphasize being beautiful on the inside. The rest is just icing on the cake.

    Tracy

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  2. Rachel, it´s always nice (and also fun) to read your point of view about us brazilians and our crazy ways :p I am bad at keeping my toes and hands nice and shiny also. But I must admit I admire the woman who can. The ones that always have their hair in place and a lipstick on. I guess it´s a result of growing up here... I wish I could be like them but I´m just not. Oh well... Luckly at age 35 I just stopped censoring my self. But then again, I love when a occasion appears (such as a wedding) and I get the chance getting nails, hair and make up done. Add a nice dress and some jewellery and I fell like a princess :p

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  3. agree. with everything you said (side note, who the fuck would marry such an ass who comments about their eating habbits in front of people? good god) i read in a magazine that brazilian women sadly as a percentage spend MORE than they make on beauty, clothes and upkeep. my husband (im lucky) says he's the luckiest brazilian on the planet as he saves +1000 per month from not having to pay for any upkeep! rachel im even worse than you.

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  4. Totally with you on this. I have appreciated learning to feel confident with new things. Before I was the jeans/ponytail/flip-flops/t-shirt girl all the time, and now I am half the time. The other half of the time I put on a pair of skinny jeans with heels and rock that new sweater, but I needed to learn how to feel confident to do this. I guess I just didn't think I could pull it off. But I can, I have discovered that, but I don't need to do it everyday to feel good about who I am. And Mallory, I am right there with you! My husband lets me know regularly that he is happy that I don't require all of the "upkeep" that his friends' wives pay for. One day we found ourselves at a Brazilian get together here in the US and I turned to my husband and said I felt so ugly in comparison. Me: nice enough top, nice enough jeans, flats, nothing too special. Them: Not a hair out of place, flawless makeup, perfect nails, and of course, the clothes. Paulo turned back to me and said, "Babe, they look like that because they spent two hours in front of the mirror. You have better things to do with your time, and you still put them to shame." Yay for having a husband who sees me for who I am and not what I "could be"!

    PS - But Rachel, Guess what I got for Christmas? Brazilian gym clothes. In America. HA!

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  5. I would like to have flawless long hair makeup, nails, and clothes. I would love to look as presentable as they do! The fact they take good care of their appearance doesn't mean they aren't good students or don't have good careers etc. One can have both.
    I don't understand women who are proud to look scruffy or unkempt.

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  6. I wouldn't say people are necessarily proud to be scruffy just ok not looking put together all of the time. I seriously get annoyed with friends who make me wait around for an hour as they perfectly apply mascara and lip liner just to run down for a beer with a friend

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  8. And Dani, you always look gorgeous :)

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  9. I am not saying you are proud to be scruffy or that u are scruffy. But some women are proud to look like.

    "I seriously get annoyed with friends who make me wait around for an hour as they perfectly apply mascara and lip liner just to run down for a beer with a friend"
    I think the problem in this case its not the make up but the fact they are being disrespectful to you by making you wait for one hour!

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  10. I don't think people are neccessarily proud to look scruffy its more about priorities and just feeling comfortable in your (sans make-up) skin..me if I go to the supermarket for example I couldnt care less how I look like.. A friend of mine would never do that and spends hours getting ready..to me it is just so obvious that she feels insecure without the right clothes, the look etc.

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  11. This is a really good post. I would say that in the U.S., there is less pressure on girls to be girly/feminine and more of a pressure to be "sexy" and skinny. It's splattered all over the media and into the minds of a lot of young girls. And it's in almost every music video out there- being sexy by wearing tiny, revealing clothes and dancing provocatively with an impossibly small waist. I think it's enough of an issue to where Dove started their "true beauty" campaign a few years ago featuring normal looking women with normal bodies- and they're all beautiful. But I think that this pressure is probably a growing problem. It's tough being a girl these days!

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  12. Yes - this is totally true. I've always been a tomboy, but I felt I had to up my "girliness" when I moved to Brazil... I have, yet I still feel somewhat disheveled next to all the brasileiras who are so arrumadas.

    The thing that bothers me is that with some women, the "upkeep" quite literally IS their hobby. As in they have no other interests, activities, or dreams - just going to the salao (and the shoppingvirtually every day. I feel like I can't relate to women like that, and that they have a hard time relating to me.

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  13. Great post, you put everything I was thinking into words. Ive always been a bit of a hippy and I love my torn jeans and a t-shirt. I get made fun of at the nail salon because I go once a month if I am lucky and they just dont understand that I let whatever I brought in look like that for weeks on end! My confidence had a reality check big time here, but like you, I am now managing somewhere in between. Some expat friends and I did laugh the other day at lunch when a table of twenty something girls were all five applying makeup with their compacts in the middle of lunch. I thought it was really sad to be honest, its a shame they feel they can't even make it through a lunch together without having to worry about themselves! You won't catch me dead in one of those hot pink gym one piece numbers, but I have switched over to spandex now!

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  14. @Tiffany - I had a very similar experience to yours at a party... only the party was a girl's 15th birthday and I, wearing a "normal" dress, felt shabby compared to all the teenage girls in ball gowns, stiletto heels, and with professionally done hair!

    ...but, I'd like to see any of those Little Miss Models take me on in a capoeira game or on the soccer field :-D

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  15. I disagree with Vicky. It is not obvious that she feels insecure without the right clothes. That is just your opinion not a fact.

    Why do you think you are better than her because you may not care about how you look? She may say the same about you. She might think its obvious you have low self-esteem to not that care of yourself.

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  16. Rachel, I would be that person you would be watiing on to apply her mascara perfectly just to get grab a beer....LOL Not for an hour but you would be waiting.

    I noticed this in Rio as well. Whenever I came, I would always make sure I had really nice clothes, all my cosmetic jewelry to match, nice shoes, etc. I never knew what the attire was going to be, always nervous I would not be dressed correctly.

    I maintain myself for three reasons:

    1. Because I look like Madusa without my hair fixed and without makeup on. Trust me...I could easily turn you to stone with my ugliness.

    2. Because it makes me feel better especially in social situations.

    3. It's a natural part of my personlity really but don't get me wrong, I do love my jeans, t-shirt and flip flops and luckily here, I can wear this all the time and fit right in. :)

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  17. Women would do themselves a favor by researching exactly how little it takes to turn on a man effectively and with taste. Get the basics right: correct haircut to face shape match (symetry people), color cordination and SUBTLE attention drawn to curves in attire. Women that know how to do this look pretty decent at all times and some look really good even when sporting jeans, a t-shirt and hair held back by a pencil.
    I must say though that it is sad to see girls precociously using means of attraction (make-up, revealing clothing, etc). Perhaps the challenge here is to sell to girls the image that their present is a really great time and acting your age is REALLY COOL. In other words use marketing tools, the same ones used by those who wish to convey the opposite idea and foster precocious behavior, to sell a healthy alternative by making it hip.

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  18. Well, gritty poet, you're right about the turning men on thing. But I think you're missing a point. Women don't do this just to please men, they do this at least as much to fit in with other women.

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  19. So my French boyfriend's family already knew I don't like to go shopping, and then one night at a dinner I said that I never liked to play with Barbies, their response was, "are you even a girl???" I mean, they said it jokingly, but still. I don't think you should have to like dolls to be a girl.

    Also my bf's 4 year old niece was playing with make-up. So I think the pressure to be feminine is really high in France too (especially compared to California.

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  20. Having just decided to move to Brazil with our two year old daughter, I read these posts with curiosity. Here in the States I worry about my daughter's body image as she grows up and the immense amount of pressure to be skinny and popular.

    I grew up in a small town in Nebraska and five girls from my class were sent way for treatment for eating disorders. My body is far from perfect but I attribute my own confidence to strong parental support, especially from my father who stressed that there was so much more to me than who I am physically. I married a man who is just the same.

    I have always had the the feeling that, in my limited experience, women in Brazil are more comfortable with their bodies. That said, I have to admit that I always feel "uglier" in Brazil. My hair is out of control--so much that no amount of product could tame it during my last trip (my husband's aunt would ask me if I put my "remedio" on). I do not devote much time to makeup and clothes.

    So I wonder, where will my daughter fall in all this? Currently she is not girly. No ears pierced. She likes dolls, but she loves her blocks and trucks. Which values will prevail? Luckily, she was born with a pretty defiant and independent personality and while it makes some days very difficult at age 2, I am hopeful that no matter where we are she will be able to overcome the social pressures and find who it is she wants to be.

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  21. Natalie, while there is pressure to be fit, Rio is a conundrum in that it is accepting of all types of figures. Basically the people of Rio like women in general and usually not the ones that are overly skinny (although that does not keep a society from not having anorexia...)

    As for your hair, you could always do a treatment like the Brazilian ladies do. They chemical the hell out of it at the beauty salon and then it stays down ;)

    On another note, I am surprised every year at my boys' bday parties. My MIL buys a new dress for each party, gets her hair done, and is in full make up (as well as the rest of the female relatives). Thankfully the parents from my hippie school are pretty mellow and so I wasn't the only one running around in jeans.

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  22. Like Mallory, I hardly spend anything. Only on clothes, because clothes because destroyed really easily here.

    I am pregnant three months. My aunt told me two days ago to start putting creme on my chest because I am going to become really wrinkly soon. And that I already have wrinkles on my face. I should do something about that and my mother-in-law said that I better start put stretch mark creme on my belly while I'm pregnant.

    All in three seconds of each other.

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  23. The Brazilian Blowout! How my current hairdresser pushes it on me. But after I read this article http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/09/14/brazilian-hair-treatment-comes-under-f-d-a-fire/. I have been hesitant to knowingly apply a cancer causing treatment on my hair. They all think I am over reacting and perhaps I am . . . Rio shall be the test. Who knows, I may just give in.

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  24. Ha- My comment made a post! Seriously though I do get nervous about my little girl growing up here and feeling pressure to be girly if she wants to be a tomboy. I have no problem with looking good or doing your hair and nails but I don't think it should define if you are a girl. We have so much more to offer than our looks!
    Rachel you met me at the blogger meet up when I was huge pregnant and now we should meet up sometime for lunch the next time I am in Rio!

    Sara

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  25. I totally remember you! I was wondering how your birth went. Yes, let's have lunch when you come to Rio. Do you have my email?

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  26. Yep! I will send you an email when we are in town again!
    Sara

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  27. What about us men? Do we have to be super manly in Brasil?

    Hold on, I'll be right back after I chop down a tree and kill dinner....

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  28. And gritty, don't answer this question- you wouldn't know. Only ugly guys can be manly. Like me.

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  29. I was at a Brazilian party in California, and 'friends' brought their toddler daughter to the party in high heels. I'm serious. She was 3. I was actually nauseous.

    In the USA, it is generally considered gauche to over-do the appearance and is believed to be for those with less intelligence (not my idea....years of research show this!) or the idle rich/idle poor. Unless of course you're in the South, which is a culture unto itself. Middle class, educated women who are doing it up are often viewed with suspicion by other women. That's what i love about ballroom dance- get dressed up and go feel beautiful, gliding around the dance floor!

    Out here in Rondonia, with our intense Evangelical Christian influence, women do not have as much pressure to girly it up. No make-up, no nail polish, no hair cuts, modest skirts and modest tops limits your ability to put it all on display. I haven't worn make-up since I go there b/c it's humid all_the_time. It won't stay put!!

    The non-Evangelicals sometimes look like whores to me. Now I know how people thought of me in Istanbul!

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  30. The pressure here is bigger because want it or not we are still a very patriarchal society. This means women's basic goal in life is to get married and have babies, and they are taught that from early stages in life. In other to get married you need to get, ta da, a husband. So that becomes their number 1 priority. And we are still judged by our looks much more then our character, intelligence, interests, etc. So that makes the perfect ambience for the overly girly pattern.

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  31. @ Alex

    This guy can probably answer all of your questions concerning machismo, he is the quintessential Brazilian chauvanist: Bibelô.

    http://mais.uol.com.br/view/1xu2xa5tnz3h/metropolis--angelitos-bibelo-0402356AC8816346?types=A&

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  32. I have to agree with Anon (the last one). Whereas I was taught from an early age that "you don't need a prince by your side to be a princess", my sister in law has had the greatest pressure to find Mr. Right. My MIL's greatest concern right now (as she told us in tears) is that her daughter has not found the guy and so maybe she never will. I do understand on one hand, because my SIL is 31, and so it is later than usual, but good things still happen in your thirties, whether or not that means finding the right guy or not. There is so much pressure on my SIL that any guy she is interested in is brought under such scrutiny by the family too make sure she won't be "wasting any more time" with this new one that she almost never makes it past the interest phase. If everyone would back off, let her live life, focus on the fact that she has a great career and is a beautiful/wonderful person and stop putting so much pressure on her, maybe she wouldn't have to feel so lost in the world. And this pressure starts young.

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  33. Was just having this conversation with some Americans and Brazilians. Brazil tends to be a more judgemental society in terms of outward appearance (clothes, jewlery, nails) and N. America is more judgmental towards women's body types.

    Jesus why can't we just live in a world where people are people and everyone is different and you don't have to shoot yourself if you're not the same! The fact is, self-criticism and judgement is even worse than what other people are thinking about you. We judge ourselves the hardest and that's what we need to let go of in order for us to accept ourselves.

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  34. I am obviously living under a shell, because I don't experience the same need to be ultra done up. Yeah I see those people at the mall, but I always saw people like that at the mall in California. But my day to day life here, I am a totally slouch, and I never feel like I haven't girl'd up enough. Maybe it's a difference in classes? Or maybe I'm just blind LOL. But yes, I do notice they start the glamour a bit younger hear than in the US.

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  35. Great post. I agree with all the above comments about the pressure on girls in Brazil - as the mother of a girl, I do everything in my power to prevent it from reaching her, but it is impossible to filter everything out. At three, she already wants to wear earrings, high heels and lipstick. I know kids want to imitate adults at this age, but since none (literally none, zero!) of this pressure is coming from me, I can see how strong the societal influence is, even at a very young age.

    O Jeito Brasileiro - I don't think it's a class thing, although the upkeep is not quite so over the top amongst working-class women. (The manicure may be done at a cheap salon or by a relative, but it is still done. And, as Jennifer noted, the evangelical women are a lot more understated and modest - but still never scruffy! ;) I think as foreigners we just get away with more in the name of cultural differences, and find it easier to ignore the subtle pressure. (And the not-so-subtle pressure - e.g. related to pregnancy, Nina, please feel free to IGNORE it. Especially the comments about weight gain etc that Rachel mentioned - there is a lot of out-of-date or just plain wrong information that gets repeated as fact.)

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  36. How about a new blog just on this issue? Fascinating to read everybody's comments.

    Lindsey -- amen to that, sister, about taking the glare of judgment off yourself. I'll add that I'm not crazy about being judged by other people either! Judgment of self & other is one dragon I hope to slay in myself before I'm through.

    So ojeito -- good for you! I will think of you next time I get a twitch of social pressure.

    Did anybody else grow up on "Free to Be You and Me?" I sure did -- in the early 70's Bay Area no less -- and I think that explains why I will never fit into a "presentable" culture, either here or anywhere else. I have the CD if anyone wants to borrow it. It's really an amazing relic of the end of US girliness in the 70s. The current US princess revival seems to be a big swing back in the other direction.... I do feel lucky to have been raised in such a hyper-gender-neutral moment by counter-cultural academics, but man it makes it a little tricky to navigate Rio gender roles.

    If I was staying here long I think I'd run fast in the direction of the groovy Brazilian feminist hippie chicks. Which I've already started to do in my head. Kind of fun to be the non-conformist freak again like I was in high school. It can take a lot of effort to play that part in the US, but here all I have to do is let the nails go until I feel like getting them done. Which is awfully easy given all the other things I'd rather be doing. Like thinking about this stuff and responding to your post!

    -Rachel F.

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  37. I'm happy you brought this up, Rachel. All of these commenters are right. I think what's important though is that all of these women who are agreeing that the pressure is too high stop giving in to it. Let the other women feel uncomfortable with your confidence in not being all dolled up. (I guess we have to feel that confidence first, but I think that challenge is much easier to meet than trying to live up to impossible standards of beauty.) I just finished reading a book on modern feminism called "How to Be a Woman" by Caitlin Moran. It was really good. I'll send the Kindle version to you over email!

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  38. to sum it up, their uncomfortable with us and we're uncomfortable with them. Shouldn't women be comfortable with each other? My god! it's so messed up!

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  39. Yes, Nina! But only as messed up as each of us makes it. At any time we can choose to not let it get to us, like ojeito does. This discussion reminds me to keep letting go of my self-judgment and my judgment of everybody else. George Clinton doesn't quit saying, "Free your mind and your ass will follow." Working on it.

    --Rachel F. (F for Frumpy? Frazzled? Fine as-is?)

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  40. Ironically, I was most self confident I ever had was in New Orleans where all women are accepted and considered beautiful. Your environment is really really in important influence on self love and female interaction at that! Sometimes, at in Brazil I feel 15 years old again. Other times I say, f*ck it why get upset! Your not 15, your 30!

    I think the worst is gym culture here and I love to exercise and really puts me off. I don't like the typical gym people.

    I try my hardest to just stay out of the drama of judging so so negative. We all have flaws, which flaws are better or worse, it's too relative.

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  41. After seeing this firsthand on my first trip to Brazil, I was utterly amazed that my Brazilian husband had been attracted to me in the first place. And now, eight years later, I realize that it's why my MIL has such a hard time accepting me. No matter how hard I work, I will always be a lazy slob in her eyes because I don't put effort into my appearance. I DO, but not by Brazilian standards. For now I'm not worrying about it, but I know when I'm finally living in Brazil, I'm going to have to up the ante quite a bit and try to find some makeup that doesn't slide off my face in the heat!

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