Scrutiny is the daily experience of women.
The most obvious scrutiny is the ubiquitous male gaze, always assessing women for sexual desirability and availability.
Being a woman is a terribly difficult task,
since it consists principally in dealing with men.
— Joseph Conrad
This male gaze also requires men to watch over his women in a protective way, keeping them decent so that threats can be eliminated. This keeps women safer in a world of men, but it also keeps us subject to the scrutiny and discipline of those who can often be jealous or over protective, limiting our options and creating other risks. In the end, just being a woman makes us vulnerable to those who want to act out their own psychodramas onto us.
As Deborah Tannen tells us, women are “marked” in a way that men are not. We express ourselves in detailed, nuanced, colourful ways which signal to others who we are and what role we are willing — or not willing — to play.
Women learn to scrutinize and judge the markings of other women, sensing both commonalities and threats in an instant. Propriety lets us create social orders where we express our group identification though our markings, revealing how we will comply with the social pressures and where we will stand up to them.
Men’s expression is much more generic and utilitarian. It is almost impossible for a man to feel dressed improperly for an occasion, but very easy for a woman to feel her expression marks her as out of place, disrespectful, or worthy of scorn.
This means that women are almost always negotiating a fine balance, and not just because their shoes may have stiletto heels. As Danielle Campoamor writes, being a woman is difficult because it is so easy to get one’s choices marked as wrong, too much of this or that.
Going through high school teaches women one key thing about other women: they can be judgmental and bitchy, asserting their place in the power structure by putting other women down. Young women are taught that they are always in a competition for status, their beauty and behaviour claiming them the best boys, the best friends, and the best reputation.
To be a woman is something so strange, so confusing and so complicated that only a woman would put up with it.
— Søren Kierkegaard
Men mostly don’t understand this dance of challenged expression, the experience of always walking the tightrope under scrutiny, just as women mostly don’t understand the social pressures that exist in the culture of men, where toughness & compliance is valued, however it is achieved.
For those who claim their womanhood in later life, being denied the truth of their heart when they were younger, this living under scrutiny, having to negotiate the close inspection of every expression and choice, often does not come with ease and grace.
A key marker for transwomen is if they have begun to understand and operate in this key women’s communication system, the skills of reading and creating marking in the world.
For many, expression is shaped based on only on their own internalized desires, claiming the power to not having to listen to no, to social pressure after many years of being forced to hide their own nature. It is very hard to understand the codes of women’s markings without the kind of immersive education that mothers and high school gives a woman, one problem that immigrants have.
Learning to negotiate the daily scrutiny is the only way to live as a woman in the world. This is one reason why crossdressers, even those who do it regularly, and other men, even those actors who take the parts of trans women, will never learn to shape their own expression with the angst, nuance and detail employed by those transwomen who have been immersed in the challenges of women.
Girlfriends are a key part of learning to navigate scrutiny. They can tell you what they see, convey feedback in a measured way and generally have your back. Without peers, though, other women going through the same stages as you are, the lack of effective mirroring can leave you stunted, helpless and without any confidence.
Women learn to be women from other women. It is women who set and uphold the standards of womanhood, women who enforce those standards. While the codes may be conveyed in many ways, from television to magazines to discussions with other women, your personal compliance with the code is assessed in the eyes of almost every woman who sees you (though some are more political and judgmental than others.)
It is this enforcement structure that identity politics purveyors leverage to shame others into compliance, knowing that anyone marginalized knows they are under scrutiny and finds it hard to live outside the approval of community. Shaming only works when it threatens to remove us from an identity that we see as key to our safety, success or happiness.
Asking to have the benefits of an identity position without being willing to pay the dues to fit into that social role is never going to work well. It will always seem desirable to have the benefits without the costs, to say that what we claim to be just demands whatever we say it should, but that has never been how social roles work.
There is a price to be paid for being a woman. The obvious part of that price is in the scrutiny, the attention which can feel so good, inclusive and affirming, the attention which can feel so cold, isolating and judgmental. (1998)
Underneath the surface, though, the real price is paid in the furious paddling every woman does to maintain her appearances, to negotiate tricky challenges, to be both sweet & tame, pleasant & demure while also being sharp & wild, authentic & bold. Wild and tame is the primary duality, so the way we stay copacetic with group while also standing out & standing up for ourselves is a challenge.
This functioning under scrutiny, shaping, showing and reading the markings of women is how we take feminine power in the world. It delivers all the delights of being able to show yourself, get attention, of flirting and being flirted with while it delivers all the challenges of being seen and challenged for status & place in the community.
Feeling this pressure is just feeling a welcome to woman. Come in and join everyone else negotiating the daily experience being scrutinized as a woman in the world.
(NB: “Woman” is not a monolithic identity. There are many flavours of womanhood as defined by the specific group in the interlocking and intersectional sea of women. Republican women in Wasilla have a different idea of what makes a good woman than the women who attended Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival did, for example. Negotiating between these diverse and often conflicting definitions, though, is just another challenge that every individual woman has in the world.)