Sunday, January 29, 2012

British Women Slouch

In my last post I mentioned how sick I get of having the virtues of supposedly perfect French women rammed down my throat by British/American writers. I was discussing this with a friend over supper last Friday, and we wondered why British women 1) buy books that show them to be worse than everyone else; 2) never have books written about them which hold them up as paragons compared to another nation's women; 3) bond with each other by comparing how bad they are as women/mothers/wives.

If you have any thoughts on this, I'd love to hear about them. To start with, I never buy those books, mainly because I live in France, see French women every day and don't need to read about someone else's fantasy based on her own insecurities, and this is what it boils down to - insecurity. British women, I believe, are deeply insecure.

Before the swinging sixties British society was structured, women knew their place (even if they didn't like it) and if you were going to bring up your children according to society's rules you knew that they had to behave in a certain way, know certain things and respect authority. When the sixties threw out much of what society was based on - rules, social norms, respect for authority, a woman's place - anything became possible.

With anything becoming possible, out went the confidence of knowing how you functioned in relation to your social group. You could decide how to bring up your child, choosing the child-centred environment that was the latest trend, but what did that mean? How did it work with regard to feeding, discipline, playing, potty training, sleeping etc.? Before, new mothers used to ask their mothers, aunts, friends, grandmothers and refer to Dr Spock when faced with a child-rearing issue. There were traditional ways of bringing up children that were easy to pass on and understood by everyone for generations.

In the brave new world, the older generation couldn't help, and mostly looked on aghast. So saw the rise of kooky child-rearing books often written by childless gurus. Mothers became slaves to the system described in the book because they were unable to get help from anywhere else, and lacked the confidence to go it alone. Common sense was thrown out as being an unreliable indicator of what to do, and mothers embraced the writings of someone they'd never met who suggested their baby should be brought up according to a one-size-fits-all method.

Grandparents saw the failings of the child-centred approach (undisciplined, rude, disrespectful kids) and criticised their daughters for getting it wrong, suggesting that the old ways were better ("in my day..."). While pooh poohing the criticism, mothers absorbed it and felt the gnaw of insecurity question their proficiency as mothers.

I wonder if mothers in the fifties compared with their friends the slovenly state of their homes, their crap cooking, their laissez-aller attitudes, or their bad mother behaviour. Modern mothers wear (some of) these behaviours as badges of honour even if they don't really believe what they're saying. In the society of no common rules parenting, boasting about your way of doing things is the way to lose all your friends. Go onto Twitter and do a search on #BadMother and you'll see what I mean about this way of bonding (and then try looking up #GoodMother).

British women don't really believe they are bad mothers, but so as to make no one feel worse about themselves, they suggest that mothering is all too much sometimes (which it is). This means that standards can be lowered without invoking group disapproval. If they're all down at the slummy mummy bottom, there's no competition to be better or to strive to be elitist. Competitive Alpha mummies are awful; terrifying (successful) women seen as traitors to their sex. Slummy mummies seek to bond, not compete to be better even though they actually want the best for their children.

I suppose it puts something of a strain on British mothers, this non-competitive competition. No wonder they feel insecure!

They feel insecure as mothers, and also as women. Insecure women slouch; they make themselves look insignificant, invisible, unattractive. Or they might feel they are sticking two fingers up at conventions of femininity because they want to rebel. But it boils down to insecurity. So does much of why women get really fat once you take away medical reasons. "I'm unattractive and unlovable. Comfort eating helps me cope with myself." or "I'm fat so I'm unattractive and unlovable so there's no point depriving myself of my comfort food". It's often wrapped up in moral justification - "Don't judge me on my looks but on my personality and intelligence (so if I am fat and dress unattractively it shouldn't matter), and pass the biscuits".

The point is, when there are no simple social norms, the result is emotional chaos and the price of freedom from social norms is insecurity because no one knows if what they are doing is really the right thing to do or the best way to be.

French society, despite the social revolution of 1968, didn't go as far in destroying social norms as the swinging sixties did in Britain. French women (except the ones right at the bottom, and peasants who don't give a toss) know that they should keep themselves attractive and sexy, keep a clean house and cook well to keep their husband. If they are/do not, they know that their entourage will not be surprised if he strays. He might do it anyway, but people will probably suggest it's her fault; that she didn't maintain standards.

They know that their children should behave in a certain way and they know how to go about trying to ensure they do (as outlined by our Pam). They may get it wrong, but it's not for want of trying. French mothers feel more secure because of the pressure to conform which is still strong in France.

They also feel more secure as women because 'how to be a woman' in France is fairly simple and centres around keeping your husband. Read Caitlin Moran's book 'How to be a Woman' to see just how complicated it is being British and female.

The way to start throwing off the need to buy 'they are better than us' books, however, is to stop slouching. You are Woman, stand up straight and Roar!