I Know What Dowdy Housewives Are Made Of.
I know what dowdy housewives are made of. It’s a recipe I’ve committed to memory, bled and experienced.
It sort of feels like drowning, like losing, like letting go, because, in essence, it is. It is giving up.
Dowdy housewives begin, innocently enough, as young girls for whom the world is full of possibilities. We fill the heads of these beautiful young creatures with rumors that anything is possible and that, in this day and age, they can have whatever they choose — a career, a family, Hell, even both!
We whisper to them that they can live all their dreams, all while still meeting the expectations the world has for them — the need to be pretty and sweet and humble and caring. This is the first lie of girlhood.
We tell little girls that, as long as they don’t forget to be these things — be all things for all people — and don’t expect much from others, they can fulfill their wildest dreams. After all, it’s all about balance. This is the second, and, perhaps, the most insidious lie of them all.
So we send these ripe young things off into the world, flush with excitement and possibility, where they encounter the first of several demons on their journey to self-actualization, demands on their behavior.
Be sweet, be polite, be independent but not self-absorbed, self-confident but humble, daring yet reserved, assertive but not bitchy, giving, nurturing and kind. And this is where, in the heroine’s journey, our tender, impressionable little girl begins to scratch her head a bit…
As she grows older, perhaps around her preteen years, she meets the monster that is Expectations About Her Body. Almost as soon as she learns what sex is and perhaps even before, it becomes clear that how a woman looks determines a good portion of her societal worth.
It’s important, she learns from the Universities of Marketing and Advertising, to always be beautiful, pulled together and made up, thin but voluptuous, sexy but not slutty.
The tools she is provided with for achieving this are composed of an enormous variety of makeups, perfumes, clothing and personal care items. She is taught to carry these, accept them as her arsenal in the defense against becoming fat, ugly and unremarkable.
They quickly become overwhelming in the sheer scope of choices, each promising her that they are the one true way to avoid the pain and loneliness if she slips, if she becomes unlovable. And so she begins to consume.
Through the years, this once promising little girl begins to drown in these media-driven cultural messages. When she enters the realms of work and relationships, there are an entirely new set of challenges thrust in her direction.
She might lose sight of what she actually wants as she strives to meet those behavioral expectations of her youth and make her parents proud with her choice of a college major.
Her definition of success might adapt as she feels forced between the choice of work she finds fulfilling and work that pays the bills.
She might have a hard time making the right choice in a mate as she considers whether love ought to weigh out over security, whether a person’s ability to be a good parent and provider means more than their ability to be generous, thoughtful and kind.
So she makes a choice, stepping (almost) blindly into a future where she may not be so sure anymore if anything really is possible, if dreams are really worth having.
Around this point, she may or may not have children. Whether she chose career or the mommy-track, eventually the once hopeful little girl begins to see that life really isn’t about her. Especially if she has children, she discovers that no material thing she has really belongs to her.
Not even her time is her own anymore.
She starts to see herself cast in a supporting role, either doing the often thankless — but by no means unimportant — job of raising the next generation of souls, which she fears may grow up to feel the same intense confusion and fading hope, or in the business world where, try as she might, she can’t work hard enough to make the same wage as her male counterparts doing the same job.
She stands voiceless, unable to demand sovereignty for herself, lest she break those (by now deeply internalized) norms she learned regarding how to behave.
After years of trying, of hoping, dreaming, rearranging priorities and prayer, one day she loses her will to fight for that dream of being able to have it all, her ideal of balance. One day she wakes up, says Fuck It, and stops trying so hard. She skips the makeup.
She pulls on a t-shirt instead of that dress that makes her feel pretty because it’s easier to wash and no one notices anyway.
She disappears, suddenly lost in the loneliness promised her by the cosmetic companies, a self-fulfilling prophecy, and lost in a world of self-loathing, where she begins to distrust even herself and her very ability to make decisions — for look at where those decisions have brought her.
She shrinks back into herself, shuts herself off, unravels.
This is how dowdy housewives are made.
But there’s hope. It doesn’t have to be the end of the story. The good news is that the little princess that dwells inside each of us can still be rescued, that the pit that is dowdiness has a ladder hanging over the edge, one that exists, even if it is nearly impossible to see in the dark.
We can climb back out whenever we choose. We just have to reclaim our rights and become the fearless warriors we were as children.
We can get out by choosing to do something everyday that makes us feel beautiful, even if — especially if — no one but us notices or cares. That might be the first rung on the ladder for you, as it was for me.
We can learn something new just for the knowledge, whether or not it brings in any money or any career advancement. We can take time for ourselves, demand it, and spend an afternoon attending to our needs, doing things that feed our souls, that make us sing, that light us up.
We can make art for art’s sake, be silly and dream, and we can decide that no one has the power to diminish or belittle us. They have no right to extinguish our light. We can turn the notion of balance on its head and prioritize what makes us come alive, what makes life worth living.
We can walk away from what no longer serves us, slay the dragons of not-enough-ness and stop allowing other people to have the ability to determine our worth.
We can be strong. We can be warriors. We can learn from any homeliness we’ve experienced and own it, rise above it. We can toss all our coping mechanisms, all the overeating, overexercising, over drinking, overcompensating for what we think we should be. We can let it all go.
We can just be ourselves and stop trying so damned hard to achieve and accomplish what doesn’t make us happy.
When I was a little girl, though I received all these same messages about how I should be, I could feel in my soul there was more to life. So I never stopped searching.
And across the years, from beyond the veil, my creative hero said to me something I always remember, even when the nights are cold and dark and damp and all I want is an old housecoat and to give up. He said:
“To be nobody but yourself in a world that’s doing its best to make you somebody else, is to fight the hardest battle you are ever going to fight. Never stop fighting.” ~ E. E. Cummings
Never stop fighting to save yourself. Never give in. Never be dowdy.
Be radiantly, beautifully you, because only you can, and the world needs more heroines and fewer dowdy housewives who just gave up and let the world win.