Thoughts: essays galore

How to Be a Selfish Woman

by Ariana Ortiz, Hannah Gore

Various cosmetics litter my godmother’s marble vanity countertop. I am four years old, and today she dresses me as a bride, lace veil falling delicately over my eyes, red lipstick carefully applied to my small mouth. In a time before I know to feel biting shame in my appearance, I pose and revel in the flashes of a disposable camera.

“Preciosa!” She and my mother coo as they fawn over me, their baby girl with dark eyes and jet black curls. I hold a small bouquet of fake flowers, reverently press them to my chest. 

Marriage as I understood it then was a happy ending, a sacred day to dress up in crisp white finery and enjoy the experience of being the center of attention. As I became older, I came to know its many other faces, from television and from interactions between my own parents. I eagerly watched Desperate Housewives every Sunday evening, learned by the age of eight what the word “affair” meant among wives, and of how little I should trust handsome men. 

I watched my mother, always the most beautiful, lively woman in the world. I aspired to her easy elegance and timeless beauty: high cheekbones, full lips; almond eyes— one of the few discernible features we share. I fervently attempted to wish away her occasional Bad Moods, a somberness that would quietly fall over her and change the cadence of her voice, her demeanor suddenly nostalgic and anchored. Almost every night I watched her serve herself last at the dinner table, eat with an air of contentedness whatever was left after the rest of us took our fill. She was always the last for anything. This was normal, even comfortable. As I grew older, so began to grow my discomfort with motherhood and wifehood, like a malignant tumor. 

The perfect daughter is the perfect wife is the perfect mother.

Sons play outside and girls watch their mothers carefully, some witnessing them endure and sacrifice until there is nothing left but bitterness. We internalize our observations of Life as Women— a silent understanding that becomes the foundation for our relationships to men, our performances of feminine duty, and how the two seem almost inseparable. How many times are young girls who stray from feminine propriety threatened with the prospect of being alone, of a boy never taking interest? Women whose sexualities deviate from an exclusive attraction to men (we absorb from underlying messages and daily violence alike) are damned, said to suffer the most shameful of circumstances. 

The little sacrifices made by mothers and wives are not to be mistaken for individual faults or inherent personality flaws. As their daughters, the propensity to commit these actions of labor and love (for the two, we are told, exist hand in hand) is not embedded into our DNA. This is not our collective, immutable fate. Rather, it is an obsession poured into an inherently meaningless mold; perfected through centuries of limiting women to the role of caregiver, nurturer, and sacrificial lamb. Historically, families are carried on the backs of wives, mothers, and daughters. The perfect daughter is the perfect wife is the perfect mother. Those who dare to break from this cycle are viciously singled out and treated as morally deficient: they are called selfish women. 

We speak often of women as symbols, representative of some noble characteristic, of ultimate selflessness— both a marvel and a saintly virtue for men to exhibit. But in relation to women, it is expected, to be performed without question or complaint. We are swiftly demonized if we stray from this path of righteousness.

It is a cautionary tale for wives and mothers as well, an extreme portrayal of what the consequences are for certain types of women— she who is perceived to do as she pleases, and refuses (or fails) to be tethered to an ideal of the patient wife and mother.

A more literal case of this demonization can be found in popular mythology. Mexican folklore tells us of La Llorona, an entity that spirits away children. While there are many variations throughout the country, hers is essentially the tale of a mother who drowns her own children in a fit of rage or hysteria, and as penance, is forced to eternally wander the land in search of their bones. The version those of us who grew up in the Southwestern United States know entails a chronically unfaithful husband who drives La Llorona to her evil deeds. Disobedient children who are out past their bedtime can hear her wails echo off the Rio Grande, the same body of water in which she committed her tragic crime.

Taken at face value, La Llorona is simply a horror story used to keep curious young ones safe in the comfort of their homes. However, we can connect this to its source: an underlying anxiety that can be found not only in Mexican culture, but in any patriarchal society. It is a cautionary tale for wives and mothers as well, an extreme portrayal of what the consequences are for certain types of women— she who is perceived to do as she pleases, and refuses (or fails) to be tethered to an ideal of the patient wife and mother. This rigid standard is that of a woman who remains loving and graceful in the face of— for example— her husband’s repeated infidelity, emotional absence, and unwillingness to help raise his own children. These characteristics are, not coincidentally, considered hallmarks of masculinity and fatherhood. If a man provides for his household financially (and even if he does not succeed in this), no questions are asked by his spouse lest she be accused of embodying the nagging, delusional wife. Deserved or not, the fault for the family’s dysfunction will always lie with her. 

Femininity is forced onto us; it entraps us, its aim to absorb us all into its clean, singular, morally perfect ideal of womanhood.

La Llorona’s murder of her own flesh and blood is, without question, the most horrifying aspect of the story. She actively forsakes motherhood in the most severe way imaginable, an act culminating in the loss of both her own childrens' lives and her right to rest in peace. This act is what makes her monstrous, a frightening specter of botched motherhood that continues to steal away innocent lives.

There is an extreme reverence for—and an almost-obsession with— the image of the pregnant woman. Within these nine months, a woman is even less herself. She is transformed into the ultimate symbol and state of giving, her body a vessel for new life and its resources distributed to another being. Pregnancy is a complex, natural process that can be beautiful and wondrous for the pregnant person,  if it is wanted.

Women who dare to undergo abortions for even the most selfless of reasons, such as the child's potential quality of life, are demonized in much the same way as this mythical figure who brutally killed her children with her own hands. These women are deemed as ultimately selfish. Regardless of and especially if they live in poverty, they are still expected to be serenely selfless, carrying the baby to term and continuing to martyr themselves to pacify those around them, at the cost of their own and their child’s well being. La Llorona, for women, perhaps, represents fear of losing control: of our emotions, our children, our husbands, of our bodily agency, of our inherent goodness, and even of our mortal souls. 

What does it take to become a selfish women, one who insists on being the subject rather than solely the object to be acted upon? Clearly this ranges from the slightest disobedience to the most extreme and wretched of actions. Femininity is forced onto us; its aim to absorb us all into its clean, singular, morally perfect ideal of womanhood.

Even when we seemingly "choose" to opt into it (a frequent accusation thrown at countless trans women), it is only the illusion of choice; is the option between survival or violence and death truly a choice? To insist on nurturing ourselves first, to refuse to allow our sense of self to decay, and to deny a lifelong allotment as sacrificial lamb, is to break away. If this is selfishness, then let us all be called selfish women.