February 1, 2009

Politics & Social Issues

What Do You Look Like?

by Christine Stoddard

See that black icon standing stiffly outside of the public restroom? The one with the round head teetering over an inverted triangle meant to resemble a dowdy dress? She---yes, that is what she supposedly represents, a she---sports two stubby legs. Underneath her strangely geometric figure lies a single word: WOMEN. Printed exactly like that. All capital letters.

As a small child, I thought nothing of this figure. She served only one purpose: to show me which restroom was for those who squat and which one was for those who simply unzip their pants. I saw the word “WOMEN” and knew that that bathroom was designed for me and anyone else who wore a skirt or dress or sometimes pants. There was no confusion.

Yet now, at the age of twenty, I am confused. This seemingly plain and simple icon baffles me. She, without realizing it, prompts a series of questions within my head (which is not as perfectly round as a soccer ball, mind you): Why does she look the way she does? Why is she wearing a dress? Why does she look so nondescript? Why does she look like me any more than the icon designating the men’s restroom? At what point should I be offended?

I mull over these questions again and again. Each time, slightly revised answers flood back. After my most current reflection on the topic, my responses were as follows:

  • She looks that way because she represents the Western female ideal: a pear or hourglass shape in feminine clothing that may not be practical but surely distinguishes her from men---which is far more important in the eyes of the patriarchy.

  • She wears a dress because the patriarchy wants women to wear dresses. Dresses are less comfortable and often more confining than pants or trousers. Dresses and women’s general interest in fashion play up what the patriarchy would describe as women’s natural weaknesses.

  • She looks so nondescript because she is an Every Woman. She does not represent any particular woman but rather Western woman as idealized by the patriarchy.

  • She doesn’t really look any more like me than the icon designating the men’s restroom. The main difference lies in her broader hips, which her skirt accentuates. I could and should just as easily be wearing pants as a skirt. Yet I cannot so easily walk into a men’s bathroom without complaints or stares.

  • In the grand scheme of things, this little icon is trivial. She, herself, should not offend me. But the ideas and social norms that have essentially dictated her form should concern me.

None of these answers, however, are as complete as I would like them to be. None of these answers provide solutions. This frustrates me because I tend to be pro-active. When I encounter problems in my life, I’m eager to solve them. Yet solving the problem of this icon representing so many expectations for my physical being and my behavior is much more complicated than simply changing the icon to something else. A re-design alone won’t achieve much. First, Western society must change the way it regards women’s bodies and their responsibilities as citizens of the world. Not in part but entirely, from Hollywood to housewives.

But if I sat on the toilet waiting for that kind of change to occur, I’d likely need enough toilet paper to last me a lifetime.

Christine Stoddard is a writer and interdisciplinary artist from the Washington, D.C. area. Her creative interests including writing fiction, creative non-fiction, poetry, and fashion articles in addition to acting/modeling and making collages. Her work has appeared in a wide variety in venues, both online and in print, such as George Mason University's So to Speak, The Grinnell Review, The Louisville Review, and over 20 issues of Teen Ink. You can learn more about Christine and her work at her website, ChristineStoddard.com.