Icons Away!

Writer: 
January 31, 2004

 

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It finally hit me on a Saturday morning during my junior year at Duke. I was on the phone with my parents, in tears because I didn't seem to fit the mold of a female student on a college campus, when I suddenly realized--I didn't even want to any more. I was tired of trying to be perfect at everything I did. I was tired of feeling that I had to play my role as the "good female." I was tired of watching men championed for their weekend escapades with different women, while watching women chastised for similar behavior.

Most of all, I was tired of being reminded repeatedly that my role as a female student had been defined for me long before I set foot on campus. In the classroom or at the lunch table, I often felt as if I were expected to sit quietly and nod as the men argued about politics or sports. At parties, it seemed that my assigned role as a woman was to be attractive, wear minimal clothing, act dumb, and drink excessively. Somehow, I was expected to maintain a status quo that favored men over women and caused great harm to both. And above all else, I wasn't supposed to question this unwritten social code.

During my senior year, though, I was presented with an opportunity to examine this code--an opportunity to find out whether my observations and experiences were shared by other females. I found out I was not alone.

I was asked by President Nannerl O. Keohane to chair the undergraduate committee of the Duke Women's Initiative, an extensive project launched to examine the status of women at Duke. Our committee was charged with assessing the role of gender in the academic and social lives of Duke students. We conducted twenty focus groups, speaking with hundreds of male and female students throughout the campus. The results were troubling. We quickly found that most women with whom we spoke were dissatisfied in varying degrees with the gender expectations that are placed upon them--on campus and in the broader world.

Many women, for example, said they felt under intense pressure to achieve academically and socially. They believed they had to be at once smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful, and popular, and to do it all with no visible sign of effort--to live lives, as one student described it, "of effortless perfection." For me, the quest for perfection had known no bounds, even if it sometimes meant sleeping only four hours so I could squeeze in class, studying, a party, hitting the gym, and keeping up with friends, all while appearing unstressed and happy.

Other women talked about the roles they were supposed to play in their relationships with men. Female students, it seemed, get more attention from members of the opposite sex when they "dummy up," acting needier and less intelligent than they are. As difficult as it may be to believe, some women at one of the pre-eminent universities in America believe they must downplay their intelligence or risk intimidating--and losing the attention of--men.

Apparently, they're right: Men who participated in the focus groups agreed that women students can get more attention by appearing less intelligent. Many men said they felt more important and needed when women acted this way. I wasn't surprised. During my undergraduate years at Duke, I was lucky to have a lot of close guy friends. I had asked them, "Would you want to go out with a woman who acted like this?" Although they would be apologetic, some of them said they would go right along with the stereotypes.

The women in our focus groups also talked about many other aspects of gender that characterize life on university campuses today: the prevalence of a near-anonymous "hook-up" culture between men and women, acquaintance rape, alcohol abuse, and excessive concern with weight and body image. In one focus group, a senior told us how a small frozen yogurt had become the standard dinner among her peers and how she felt guilty for wanting to eat an actual meal. Her story struck a nerve, as I had also done the frozen-yogurt diet when I arrived at Duke my freshman year, losing fifteen pounds in about three months. It wasn't necessarily a conscious effort to lose weight but, rather, an attempt to fit a mold of what I and other women once considered "normal" at Duke.

Many women said they had never thought about gender issues before. The roles and expectations they experienced left them deeply conflicted and prevented them from living the lives they truly want to live. Yet these forces, these unspoken expectations, were so pervasive that few women challenged them or could even imagine a life without them. As I look back now, I realize how powerful these forces had been in my life, too. When I first came to Duke, I was like most other freshman women, seeing no option other than to play into them. The combination of studying abroad my junior year and simply maturing socially and academically allowed me finally to see outside this "freshman wall" of expectations.

I was very fortunate to have the advice and support of my parents and friends as I began to have these feelings of wanting to break out of the norm. When I was on the phone with my parents, in tears, that Saturday morning junior year, they could easily have said, "Go and fit in." But they were so supportive. My dad kept telling me that it was okay to question these things--it was part of becoming mature.

And that's the good news from our research: The same women who have been quietly fitting in are now questioning and challenging these ideals. The women in our focus groups thanked us for the opportunity to discuss these issues and bring them to the forefront. Many said it was the first time they had talked about the impact of gender in their lives.

I am proud of Duke for having the courage to take a hard look at the lives of its students. The report from the Women's Initiative, released in September, is a gift to universities everywhere, an opportunity for all students to rethink and to challenge these roles and expectations. One of the most powerful conclusions that I drew from my involvement with the Women's Initiative was the notion that only with efforts from both men and women can we break down long-standing guidelines for how women "should" live their lives.

Can a college woman today be healthy and strong while trying to live up to the idealized body images that today's media tell her she should have? Can she pursue her own dreams while trying to live a life of "effortless perfection"? Can she display her intelligence without intimidating men?

We should be working together to establish roles for women that have no inherent limitations. Instead of asking if a woman can meet our society's gender expectations, we should instead create a society in which these expectations no longer exist.