When I get dressed in the morning the overriding thing I consider is whether or not my husband will like what he sees. It’s archaic of me I know, but there you have it. Modesty is no longer an issue not because I dress immodestly, but because hyper-focusing on that often meant that I was dressed in a way that my husband hated. I looked religious enough, but was unattractive to my husband. This was counter intuitive.
Once that phase passed I found myself in another one, where I always seemed to be overdressed compared to the other suburban mothers at the park, the PTA, and the supermarket. Every day when I went out I met the same refrain: “You look nice. Where are you going today?” I was going right where I was, and no place else usually. It go so that I became self-conscious about it even though I was happy with my attire and my husband was pleased as well. Still, I tried to dress down a bit, find a more balanced way to look nice. That failed, too. Why it mattered to me whether I fit in with the sweats and flip flops brigade is a mystery.
Actually, it’s not a mystery. A few years ago, right around the time I started blogging in fact, it became clear to me that we (women, that is) are fairly well obsessed with performing for others. It feels uncomfortable to describe it that way and we may not want to acknowledge it, but that’s what it is. Forget the bravado you hear from those women who claim they could care less what anyone thinks of them. It is simply not true. We can learn to rise above the tendency, but it requires conscious effort.
I don’t get out much to do things or go places that don’t involve my family. That’s not a complaint. It’s simply a reality of life as a wife and mother of 5 children. There isn’t a lot of time for socializing and lunch dates with friends. As a result I’ve been pretty good at shaking off that innate feminine tendency to want to fit in with other women, but I’m not immune to the whispers of inadequacy that can come as a result of being the only one who (insert anomaly here). When I was a young bride I was dogged by the whispers, but now they don’t last long when they get through at all. I’ve learned to silence them quickly, by narrowing my focus.
The adult I spend the most time with is my husband, so it’s natural that I turn my energies toward what he likes and needs. Paul admonished those wanting to be married that it would be so, and there’s nothing wrong with that. He also admonished women to encourage one another in our home endeavors. Full time wives and mothers are a minority, so it’s hard to find others to build camaraderie with. It’s challenging being a relic in a world where value and productivity are measured chiefly in dollars and cents. Finding like-minded ladies can create a sense of belonging, but can also open the door to dangerous comparisons.
When you combine this with the innate feminine tendency to compare and measure ourselves against anything and everything, it can make for a disquieting existence. I realize that men can be competitive and experience stress, and all of those things, but it’s different for us. The fact that there networks of blogs, websites, magazines, talk shows, and books with the express intent of advising and encouraging women makes it obvious that women are more prone to this tendency than men are. Men have their own sets of challenges, but this is about us.
It’s taken me a while, but I’ve learned a valuable lesson from watching my husband over the past 2 decades. That lesson is that it’s better to set your goals, set your sights, and stay focused without allowing the opinions of others to toss you this way and that. I’ve found that men tend to be better in general at doing this.
I would usually go out of my way to tell women not to try to be like men, but this is one area where I’ll make an exception. Thankfully as it turns out, this ability to keep one’s eye on the prize isn’t one that only men should cultivate. The idea of singleness of heart is found throughout Scripture, and as long as our hearts are turned toward the thing that God has called us to, we have the ability to tune out the voices that call to us to ignore those things that are most important in an attempt to fit in.
For the Christian wife, the opinions of the ladies at the PTA or mid-week Bible study are irrelevant when there are no clear issues of sin and righteousness up for discussion. We are to submit to God and our own husbands. Have you ever noticed that men tend to respect another man’s right to run his home as he sees fit? Women on the other hand, hold one another up to impossible standards. Impossible because we’re daughters of Eve, chronically discontent without a lot of prayer and internal work.
We go from being at ease in our own skin to being convinced that the sister with the floor-length dresses and head coverings is more holy, and emulate that. Suddenly the husband we respected and looked up to is flawed because he plays XBox on Saturday mornings while Sis. Smith’s husband leads the Saturday morning men’s prayer gathering. We get out of our place and start using our “godly influence” to nudge him in the right direction: away from his video game and toward the path to church ministry. We hate our house, our bodies, our jobs, and on and on it goes.
Life becomes one big performance depending on who is watching. There’s no peace in our hearts, no joy in our walk, no intimacy in our marriages, but we look good to those on the outside looking in. My life forever changed when I recognized the fruitlessness of religious theater. Experts say that women are unhappy, and they have myriad questions and theories about why. There’s no mystery here, really. It’s round the clock performance anxiety. It’s enough to make anyone stressed, irritable, and crazy. Even professional actors get days off.
Once you cease to care about owing anyone anything but the debt of love, the pressure to perform goes away. The drive to measure up to whichever arbitrary standard you’re face with today dissipates.
Hang up the mask, and put on the sundress if it’s what your husband prefer no matter what Sis. Smith has to say about it. You’ll eventually learn to rise above the subtle criticisms and judgmental looks.
Simply refuse to play the game. It’s the cure for feminine performance anxiety.