Society imposes considerable expectations on women, shaping their daily choices and behaviors, whether they are conscious of it or not. Stephen Hinshaw’s essay “Impossible Expectations” introduces the notion of the “Triple Bind,” in which girls are anticipated to excel in both traditionally feminine and masculine realms, while also conforming to societal norms. These contradictory expectations profoundly shape girls’ lives and influence their decision-making process, impacting various aspects such as career paths and fashion choices.
According to Hinshaw, girls face conflicting societal and media expectations. They are expected to conform to a predefined image portrayed in the media, while also being encouraged to challenge these expectations. The title of his essay reflects this contradiction. However, despite this confusion, girls naturally strive to please others and seek acceptance. These societal expectations are passed down through generations. Danielle Evans’ “Virgins” and Judith Ortiz Cofer’s “The Story of My Body” provide compelling examples of how these female expectations shape young girls’ lives. In both stories, the main characters show great concern for their physical appearance and seek validation from males.
Both “Virgins” and “The Story of My Body” demonstrate the protagonist’s adherence to societal norms, as discussed by Hinshaw. However, while “Virgins” focuses on conforming to traditional female roles, “The Story of My Body” depicts the protagonist encompassing both male and female expectations in contemporary society. These narratives offer specific instances that support Hinshaw’s argument. Throughout history, girls have always been expected to conform to stereotypical female norms such as kindness, attractiveness, and prioritizing others over themselves. This expectation has resulted in significant investments of time and money in beauty products for girls to maintain their physical appearance. In contrast, the entirety of “The Story of My Body” revolves around the narrator’s own physicality.
The text demonstrates the division of topics based on color, size, and skin. According to the narrator, she gained knowledge from her mother on how to effectively move, smile, and communicate as an attractive woman (Cofer 81). During her early years, her mother emphasized the significance of being beautiful, dressing in feminine attire, and maintaining an overall acceptable appearance. Consequently, this influenced her perception of herself during adolescence and impacted her level of confidence as she already had an understanding of the expectations placed upon her by her mother. Hinshaw echoes similar ideas in his essay, highlighting the notion of “traditional girl stuff” as exemplified in “Virgins,” which emphasizes the expectation for girls to possess qualities such as kindness, attractiveness, and empathy.
Both Jasmine and Erica were focused on their looks and how they were seen by men. They would dress attractively when they wanted male attention and went to an adult club for that reason. Additionally, they tended to prioritize others’ desires over their own. Jasmine pleased men by having sex with them, while Erica aimed to keep peace among her friends: “if they had a conflict, it was my responsibility to resolve it” (Evans 704).
Erica and Jasmine conformed to traditional gender roles in their appearance, behavior, and emotions. Before going to the city club, they created fake identities. Erica pretended she was pursuing a teaching career and lied about her boyfriend’s tragic death. She said, “He’s also attending college and wants to be a doctor, but he writes love poems for me” (Evans 708). Erica played the role of a typical woman while assigning a classic male role to her made-up partner. On the other hand, Jasmine mentioned she was studying fashion and had a professional athlete boyfriend who felt jealous of her accomplishments.
The choice of role made by the woman in the text is a commonly seen one in women because they are expected to excel in fashion and personal appearance. Similarly, the role she assigned to her boyfriend, as an athlete, is a classic example of a male occupation. Hinshaw states that “maintaining relationships and prioritizing the needs of others” is at the core of these feminine skills (825). In “Virgins,” Erica’s role and her willingness to suppress her own desires in order to remain loyal and please her friends exemplify this concept. According to Hinshaw, pleasing others is a characteristic trait of women.
Erica reluctantly accompanied her friend Jasmine to the club, even though she did not enjoy the idea of flirting with guys. She felt an obligation to go with Jasmine, despite being uncomfortable with her actions. Erica chose to go along with everything to avoid conflict, but ultimately decided to leave Jasmine at the hotel when she felt unsafe. Hinshaw emphasized that in today’s society, girls are expected to excel in traditionally male activities. As a result, girls prioritize their careers and education over starting a family.
According to Hinshaw (826), in today’s competitive environment, having girl skills is not enough. In addition to possessing female skills, girls are required to be more assertive like guys, excel in school to secure admission into a good college, and excel in sports. An example of this struggle is depicted in “The Story of My Body,” where the narrator faces the challenge of fulfilling these expectations, even if it means engaging in activities she has no interest in. Despite not being interested in sports, the narrator, who is a smart girl, desires to be selected for teams in her gym class, explaining “I desired to be wanted and chosen for the teams” (Cofer 80).
As she aged, her attention shifted towards her genuine passions and talents. Numerous young females encounter significant pressure from peers, parents, and educators to meet specific expectations, causing overwhelming feelings. They exert great effort to fulfill these requirements and some may even resort to extreme measures in order to succeed. If they fall short, they experience a sense of defeat and helplessness. This stress can result in unhealthy fixations. For example, Ortiz developed an obsession with her height and desired a more robust physique similar to Wonder Woman due to frequent derogatory remarks about her short stature and lack of athletic abilities.
The obsession the narrator felt stemmed from her inability to conform to the expectations placed upon her. She vividly imagined retaliating against her enemies, using their hair as a means of control (Cofer 81). Additionally, the narrator expressed distress over her skin color and the discrimination she faced in America. Despite being born white in Puerto Rico, she became a brown girl upon moving to the United States (Cofer 77). It’s worth noting that thoughts about her complexion and height only arose when she overheard adults discussing these topics.
The expectations regarding her height and skin color were deeply ingrained in her mind during her early years, conveyed through interactions with friends, family, teachers, and even strangers in public. When women are unable to meet these expectations, it can create a feeling of powerlessness and the belief that they will never be able to fulfill them. Consequently, they may consider giving up on their aspirations. In “Virgins,” Erica’s lack of confidence about her physical appeal serves as an illustration. She thought she had no ability to improve her looks and accepted being seen as unattractive.
Erica compared herself to Jasmine and identified the attractive features they both possessed. However, she acknowledged that they would only be considered beautiful under certain conditions. This suggests that Erica assessed her appearance based on other people’s perceptions rather than her own self-image. Similarly, Jasmine was also guilty of this behavior. For instance, she didn’t allow Erica to wear her glasses when they went to the club, possibly because she believed Erica looked more attractive without them. This situation exemplifies one of Hinshaw’s arguments, emphasizing that women are expected to conform to society’s limited standards of beauty instead of embracing their unique characteristics.
Erica coped with her sense of powerlessness differently compared to Jasmine by allowing Ron to take her virginity in a more passive manner. According to Evans (712), Erica believed that there was no completely safe option and felt that if it didn’t happen now, it would happen later, but not necessarily any better. She viewed losing her virginity as something to get over with and not particularly significant. Despite lacking feelings for Ron, Erica allowed him to take her virginity as a kind of rite of passage into womanhood. In contrast, Jasmine addressed the powerlessness she experienced due to unmet expectations by seeking revenge.
The protagonist, who had lost her virginity to a boy named Eddie during the summer, was devastated when she learned that he started dating someone else. Witnessing them together in public made her feel useless: “Probably no one ever will buy me a singing teddy bear” (Evans 707). In response, she engaged in sexual encounters with older men to boost her self-esteem and to seek validation from males. This action served both as a way of getting back at Eddie and a method of reclaiming her confidence by feeling desired and attractive once again. Likewise, the narrator in “The Story of My Body” also craved male approval and desired to be seen as beautiful.
The narrator had a strong attraction to a white boy and arranged a date with him. However, the boy’s father discovered she was Puerto Rican and prohibited his son from going out with her. The boy himself informed the narrator of this situation, seemingly expecting her to understand the difficulties he faced. This rejection based on her race left the narrator devastated, as it was beyond her control. She felt powerless and overwhelmed by the feeling of being rejected. In contrast to Erica and Jasmine from “Virgins,” the protagonist in “The Story of My Body” had a supportive system and received respect from her parents.
The girl’s parents supported her through the pain and rejection she felt from a boy she liked, enabling her to overcome societal pressure. Erica, on the other hand, gave in to these expectations while the girl decided to prioritize her academics and discover what truly mattered to her. She chose to follow her own desires instead of conforming. As an adult, she focused on earning respect and recognition from those who valued her as an individual they cared about. According to Cofer (84), these became the standards by which she measured her self-worth.
The societal expectations imposed on girls, transmitted from one generation to another, can greatly influence their lives in a detrimental manner. If Erica had followed these expectations, she likely would not have allowed Ron to take her virginity nor accompanied Jasmine to the club. The superficial nature of these high expectations leads to negative outcomes, as girls feel pressured by both loved ones and the individuals from whom they seek approval. Consequently, they may behave differently than they would otherwise.
The pressure faced by girls to meet societal expectations can result in unfortunate situations, as demonstrated in “Virgins,” and can consume one’s mind, as seen in “The Story of My Body.” With the support of loved ones, girls can escape the burden of these expectations and embrace their true selves. However, to completely triumph over these challenges, they must also recognize that the expectations they are battling against are those imposed by society. It is crucial for them to differentiate between society’s expectations and their own, allowing them to concentrate on their personal aspirations.