Kiwi women ignore the feminine standard

Hannah August, writer, says ideals are dangerous.
Jenna Todd

Hannah August, writer, says ideals are dangerous.

Following a look into what makes the ideal Kiwi man, Siena Yates delves into standards placed upon Kiwi women and how New Zealanders are better at shrugging off social pressure than most.

At school, I was perceived as a loner and a lesbian.

Back then, "lesbian" was inexplicably perceived as an insult, one which went hand in hand with a girl who was more masculine than feminine.

I was a lesbian because I was taller than most of the boys, didn't wear makeup, wear my hair down, dress femininely, or talk about the usual "girls' stuff".

In short, there was a feminine standard I didn't fit. And there was a space where that could've been my be-all and end-all, but I just found another space, where it was fine to do what I wanted.

Much like there was a time when everything aimed at women online would be how to lose weight, how to achieve so-and-so's look, get better hair, skin, makeup, partners.

And now, the opposite is happening. Throw a hashtag in front of anything that promotes love instead of hate, and you've got yourself an internet movement.

That's the space to do what you want, to be accepted. And it's the space New Zealand is moving into.

Last week,  we discussed the male ideal in New Zealand – the physical, emotional, and professional standards Kiwi men felt they should live up to.

We found that Kiwi men were starting to push back against these standards, and to learn to speak out when the pressures of fitting in were getting a bit too much.

Ad Feedback

Kiwi women, it seems, figured this out some time ago, but are only now just starting to push back as one.

Is there still pressure on women to look, dress and act a certain way? Yes. Is it as all consuming as some once believed it to be? Absolutely not.

Venus in a paua shell.  Illustration: Alistair Hughes

In another piece earlier this year (by Michelle Duff, Nikki MacDonald and Beck Eleven), Kiwi kids were asked who their heroes were.

There were the usual suspects – singers, sports stars, a few famous scientists – but the reasons were more about the kinds of people they were, not what they did and especially not what they looked like.

People who "use mistakes to make good things", who don't brag, who are smart, friendly, persistent, leaders, self-sacrificing and tenacious.

And this mindset is thanks, in large part, to our settler tradition.

READ MORE: What makes the ideal male?

Auckland University's Dr Misha Kavka, says the Kiwi female ideal used to be very easily identifiable.

"Practical and close to nature, not giving in to getting dolled up and self-ornamentation. There used to be this understanding of the New Zealand woman as being very pragmatic and getting things done, cutting through things and not being interested in the sort of femininity for show," she says.

But that all changed, particularly around the early 90s when different kinds of television programming started to come more from overseas.

Kavka says while media culture perpetuates the same old representations of masculinity (think blokey TV ads), representations of femininity have been globalised and are ever-changing according to worldwide trends.

From curves and blonde curls in the 50s through to stick-thin and grungy in the 90s, whatever the physical ideal for women is in mainstream media applies to New Zealanders as much as anyone else.

So does all this mean that Kiwi women no longer have a separate identity the same way Kiwi men do?

Probably. Which on one hand Kavka says is good, because women can feel more at home elsewhere in the world, but there's still a sense of not having one's own gendered national identity, which can be worrying.

However, Auckland University's Dr Suzanne Woodward says there are still a couple of areas where Kiwi women are set apart.

"It's more about being part of a family – maybe that's part of the cultural influence of indigenous values about family," says Woodward.

"There's that idea of being down to earth – which is part of Kiwi masculinity as well – and there is value in that, being tied into your community. Individualism is not something I think is particularly well-favoured in New Zealand society – being all about yourself and out for your own success is not particularly admirable."

She adds that while the global standards of beauty were "ruthlessly enforced" overseas, we might have a bit of "wiggle room" here in New Zealand.

"It interests me because I didn't grow up here so when I moved here I found it refreshing that people were much more accepting of different body types, that there wasn't this ruthless enforcement of a very skinny, blonde Barbie doll that still is quite often the ideal," she says.

"There seems to be more openness to being yourself, expressing yourself and being comfortable in your body even if it doesn't fit that stringent model."

This isn't all just wishful thinking or far-removed expert speculation either.

Writer and researcher Hannah August wrote her book No Country for Old Maids after interviewing 22 women about the supposed "man drought" affecting New Zealand.

"Talking about ideals in general is dangerous, particularly within the dating market – they feel like they have to mould themselves into something that's supposedly more ideal," says August.

But even with those appearance-based anxieties, the main thread August discovered in her research was a resistance to those ideals.

"Most rejected it. They described feeling anxious about it at stages but then realised that actually the right person for them was going to be someone who would appreciate them for who they were," she says.

She says New Zealand has a tradition of women being "strong and sure of themselves", which may have contributed to a rejection of these ideas of the feminine ideal.

But for some, it's a little more personal and straight-forward than that.

Renee Liang is a second-generation Chinese New Zealander, a poet, playwright, paediatrician, medical researcher, writer and mother.

Frankly, she doesn't have time to care about ideals and beauty standards, and besides, she says, half of them don't apply to her anyway.

Woodward and Kavka both say the global beauty standards for Kiwi women are more a "white" standard of beauty, giving Maori, Pacific Island, Asian or any other non-white women more room to reject them.

Renee Liang, a poet, playwright, paediatrician, medical researcher, writer and mother.

"What I see is lots of celebrities celebrated by New Zealand media, and it's the fairly standard Western beauty ideal. Generally wearing makeup, well groomed, slim, busty, can wear designer clothing without it looking ridiculous – that's what I see as representations," says Liang.

"When I was about 13 I realised the cool kids were only cool because they said so, and I didn't have to subscribe to that. I look at fashion and beauty now and say yeah, that's for somebody else, not for me."

That plus long, manicured nails, perfect hair and makeup and flashy outfits aren't practical for a doctor, or even for a playwright hanging out with "teenagers in ripped shirts".

Besides, the other thing Liang sees in media is New Zealand celebrating women who are "ready to step out of the usual".

"People like Madeleine Sami; she's been given a voice in the media for being different, sassy, able to speak out. She recently married her long-time partner who was also a well-known New Zealander who happened to be a woman, and that was celebrated as well," says Liang.

As far as Chinese women go, Liang says traditional Chinese  women are slim, well-educated and more likely to defer to authority such as parents or partners, while she says Asian New Zealanders are celebrated for breaking the mould as much as any other Kiwi.

"Asian New Zealanders are different because some of them have broken tradition by moving to a Western country so tend to emphasise a strong, independent spirit a little bit more, so particularly within the younger group, that is celebrated – having a job, being in a position of leadership and power," she says.

"For example, Mai Chen. She's not somebody that you pull out when people talk about beautiful Asian women but she is definitely seen as a role model, strong and independent, and able to speak her mind when the time comes, but still able to function within the constraints of society."

Even for a pretty, blonde 21-year-old with an athletic body and an international sporting career, the standards hold little weight.

Rose Keddell, of the Black Sticks,  is someone who, despite fitting the global beauty standard, still feels pressured by it, while also realising it's to be taken with a grain of salt.

"Growing up, I never had anything like Facebook or Instagram. What you saw was what was on the news, and usually if someone was on the news it was because they were successful at something, whereas now you can actually be famous for the way that you look," she says.

"I actually feel a bit sorry for some of the younger people at the moment who have only really been exposed to that. While I definitely get caught up in some of that now, I can still step back from it."

The plus side is that settler attitude is still prevalent, particularly for the younger generation wedged between that and a "feminist resurgence" happening today.

"It's become a lot more normal for girls to do whatever they want in this new era. If you want to teach you can, if you want to be a doctor you can – no-one's going to look at you differently for being a female," says Keddell.

Hockey star Rose Kendall.

"Women can do anything. And as New Zealanders, we have the confidence to actually go out and do it."

And according to Kavka, it's young women like Keddell who are driving the "resurgence of feminist interest around the world".

"Young women are driving this feminist return. It's a very active conversation on social media. We haven't by any means seen where that's going to get to, and it may be there'll be a push out of that for thinking about what it means here [in New Zealand]," says Kavka.

"The pressure isn't lessening, but there's a lot of arguments being had out there... there's a lot of angry discussion going on. If anything's going to start changing, it's because there are people invested in talking about it and they're angry.

"New Zealand has that long history of gender equality, so we do have a long-standing sense that women are perfectly capable of anything. It would be nice to think in line with these global trends toward feminist conversation, that there would be the capacity to pick back up on New Zealand's own legacy."

Georgina Beyer realised the feminine ideals she tried to conform to were as superficial as the masculine ones she'd just sidelined.

While we're talking about the pressures of and push-backs against gender ideals in New Zealand, it's easy to talk about men and women and forget about those who fall between or outside those definitions.

The pressures on straight, cisgender Kiwis are tough enough, but they're tougher still for our LGBTI community.

While being gay, lesbian or bi may place people outside gender ideals based on traditional relationships, representations and identifications of gender are still made easily enough within this sphere.

Being transgender intersexual though, (traditionally speaking) puts you right outside the genders themselves, let alone the ideals attached to them.

Auckland University's Dr Suzanne Woodward says part of the problem is the "almost invisibility" of such people in New Zealand media, which means they're looking mainly at representations of masculinity and femininity and feeling like they have to fit into those.

However, there's hope that the fact Kiwis are starting to shrug off gender ideals might mean trans or intersex people have more room to develop their own ideas.

"There is increasingly that acknowledgement that people aren't just going to fit neatly into these categories and there's quite a lot in the middle," says Woodward.

She also adds that Pacific cultures might influence Kiwi acceptance.

"Indigenous cultures have much more open-minded ways of understanding gender, there's more awareness of the fact that other cultures don't follow that Western binary," she says.  "Fa'afafine, for example, are a perfectly normal part of culture. The more that can be represented, the better."

And while that's still fairly rare, certain trans representations are making it into mainstream media and are being quite widely and easily accepted – think Caitlyn Jenner, for example.

"Because she's presented in a very confident way, there doesn't seem to have been an enormous backlash. And she's certainly modelled her appearance on a very conventional standard of beauty," she says.

Which is great, as Jenner's being visible and confident will help to normalise trans representations in mainstream entertainment, but her story is far from ordinary.

"It isn't like that for everyone. If you don't have the kind of resources or support network she has  – and I'm not suggesting it was easy; to do something like that in the public spotlight takes enormous courage – but it's maybe a false idea of how easy it can be to transition," says Woodward.

Dr Misha Kavka adds that the experiences of trans women are very different to those of trans men, or people who prefer to identify as androgynous, and New Zealand "isn't quite there yet" in terms of openly discussing these.

One woman who does know what it's like, though, and has been a long-standing and powerful representation for trans Kiwis is Georgina Beyer, who became the world's first openly trans mayor and member of Parliament in the 1990s.

Born in 1957 as George Bertrand, Beyer soon discovered the trials of trying to fit into the Kiwi male ideal.

As a child, she was "put through the hoops of what a good boy was supposed to be", and was punished and abused for falling short.

"People were trying to encode into me, you know; 'you're a bloke, you're meant to do blokey things, we'll chuck you out with the uncles and send you hunting, you go play rugby and we'll give you a bit of a hiding every now and again'," she says.

"But none of that stuff stopped me from feeling compelled to be a woman and to manifest it.

"If I got punished, I just did it in secret. When I got to college I just suppressed it and complied with the conventions of what a guy was supposed to do, but all it did was reinforce the feeling that this was wrong for me."

At around 16 or 17 years old, Beyer estranged herself from her family to gain some breathing room while she transitioned.

"The liberation was fantastic. I never looked back. Never. Because I was totally comfortable with who I was and who I needed to be."

Beyer then immediately found herself conforming instead to the global feminine ideal; a conventional standard of beauty based on the usual imagery of beautiful women.

But she soon realised those feminine ideals were as superficial as the masculine ones she'd just sidelined.

"At first, beauty equated with greater acceptance. Now I'm not so compelled by that. I'm quite happy walking around without all the added extras and still feel comfortable and like a wonderful woman," she says.

"I must have learned after a while to stop trying to please others – just be happy with yourself and comfortable, you don't have to always go around looking like a million bucks."

How did she get to a point where she was confident enough to flout not one but two sets of gender ideals and then throw herself into the public arena?

She was used to fighting.

"After quite a lot of being marginalised and put down for being a queer and all of that, you soon learned to build an inner strength about that stuff. Instead of taking it and feeling ashamed and worthless, I soon learned to push back, because if you let them get away with it, they've won, you've lost."

"At the end of the day, if people just stop worrying what their specific gender role is supposed to be and recognise that we have the capability of both genders within us all, we can embrace all sides of it."

Head to our Facebook page for more from Stuff Life & Style

 - Stuff


Ad Feedback
special offers
Ad Feedback