I follow many rules in my life. There are the obvious ones, like the law, and the expected ones, like the specifications my professors give for how to complete assignments. I also follow some other rules: You don’t like to wear tank tops, short shorts, leggings or V-necks because they show off your body. You’re not interested in love or romance because you have more important priorities. If you let down your inhibitions, someone will take advantage of you.
I’ve spent lots of time wondering if other people—especially young women—feel this way. Whether it’s the clothes they wear, the activities they enjoy doing or even the way they speak, young women are often criticized for their choices. In some ways, I think my “rules” are all grounded in a sort of internalized misogyny that I’ve absorbed from the world around me. Hearing others toss around criticisms like “basic” and “shallow” to describe women who follow trends or express their femininity freely made me feel like I had to be different from other girls by remaining academically-minded. Hearing offhanded comments about what other women wear made me feel glad that I feel most comfortable in modest clothing. Hearing these things made me feel glad to not be the object of scrutiny and especially warped my perception of romantic relationships and sexuality. Young women are so often shamed and mistreated in these kinds of situations that I became very afraid of them.
A personal example of when my rule-following was positively reinforced by my peers was when I was called a prude at school. I felt a weird sense of pride at the fact that others knew I was being “good.” While my natural inclination to be reserved when it comes to physical intimacy is not something I’m looking to drastically change, this instance caused me to wonder why I felt so good about being “different from the norm.”
This female desire to protect oneself by following society’s rules seems to be backed by statistics. A 2019 study of French people found that 81% of women say that they are modest—especially regarding their bodies—compared to only 66% of men. In addition to the standards set for a woman’s bodily presence, a special term exists for women who like popular things: basic. Men are infrequently met with this same critique, causing women to feel inferior if their interests are not “mentally stimulating” enough. Genophobia and other fears of intimacy are often attributed to a person’s environment, which can be full of religious, legal or unspoken rules.
While society seems to prefer when women “follow the rules,” there are plenty of examples of the “rule follower breaking the rules” trope in popular media. The ever-studious Hermione Granger infamously remarked that being expelled would be worse than being killed, yet she abandoned this conservatism to help Harry Potter triumph over evil. Fiery feminist Jo March turned down Theodore Laurence to maintain her independence, yet she is married off by the end of “Little Women.” Young women are met with mixed signals about how to be most palatable for the world around them.
What if I were to break my rules? This is a complicated question. If I were to lower my inhibitions, I’m not sure if I’d enjoy the things I do in life or not. I have no doubt that there are many of my rules I don’t want to break. Some of them are simply reflections of my personality. But sometimes I wish I could wear trendy clothes without feeling self-conscious or talk to a friend about my dream wedding without feeling frivolous. The idea of breaking rules scares me because I wonder: who am I if not the person I’ve specifically curated for the world to see?
Though I feel that my self-imposed stereotype will stick with me for a long time, I am working on retiring it. I try to allow myself to enjoy putting on makeup to accentuate my features, running the risk of “falsely advertising” myself. When I find myself judging another woman based on a choice she makes, I remind myself that no rules actually exist to define the “correct” way to live life, and that personal expression and freedom is important. I hope that those of us who feel horrifically inexperienced at commonplace intimacy and who take ridiculously long amounts of time to open up to someone can realize that these things do not make us any less worthy of the things we desire in our lives. Our values and personalities do not have to be compromised to fit a standard, and when we’re ready, our rules can be broken.