The ‘F’ word

Meryll Yan
The ‘F’ word
How women can be their own worst enemies

Female. Femme Fatale. Fox. Vixen. Mother. Bitch. Princess. OAG. Scumbag Stacy. 

Male. Man. Guy. 

That there are so many iterations for “female,” and a large proportion of which are less than flattering or even derogatory, reveal what we’ve always known – it’s tough to be a girl. 

There is a never-ending laundry list of things you have to be, ways you have to look, and how you have to act. The world seems bent on fashioning you into an impossible standard, where success is to be “all of the above” – and yet there is a very narrow range of motion.

Probably the most eloquent critique is by Nigerian author, TED speaker, and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She observes, “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls: ‘You can have ambition but not too much. You should aim to be successful but not too successful.’”

Even popular icons feel the divide. Beyonce asks, “Are you happy with yourself?” in her song “Pretty Hurts.” And more recently, Colbie Caillat asks, “Do you like you?” in her new hit “Try,” even going as far as to reverse-airbrush herself to prove a point. 

I grew up in a mixed-worldview household. My mother was a feminist but my grandmother was the living manifestation of the stereotype from Joy Luck Club. Thankfully, I spent more time with my mother. 

A woman’s place in the world has radically shifted and we have much and more to be grateful for. We can be CEOs, if we want to. We can live gainfully without a husband, if we want to. 

But are we celebrated if we do? There are judgments if we stray from the popular path. One would think that with progress, women would be free from the self-imposed pageants, from the competition for and with men, and from our very own mutually exclusive boxes. 

But alas, there are still ways in which we are not yet fully emancipated. 

Exhibit A. Pretty hurts

“Women don’t want to be smart. They just want to be pretty.” 

Hearing these words from someone I looked up to, was like being told that the earth is flat. 

It shook me to the core because growing up, my mother taught me that I could be everything I wanted to be. In hindsight, I don’t ever recall her asking me to be pretty. She wanted me to be whole. My mother said, “My wish is that I want you to be better than me.” 

And that was why she prioritized my education and rewarded me based on it. She pretended not to notice when I started tweezing my eyebrows and lining my eyes. She never asked me to be skinny. 

Fast forward, 5 years later, I had what many might call “the dream job.” I was praised for good work but I was gently advised to get liposuction. Weight was a recurring topic: eat this, oh stop, that will make you fat. When I made a mistake, I would be cut into ribbons. I tried too hard and kept trying. The little and scathing nudges created hairline cracks to my sense of self. I was trusted and promoted but I would also be called out for being too ambitious, too aggressive, and for “talking too smart.” 

And then I woke up, and I didn’t want it anymore. That even if I loved what I was doing, even if I adored my team, and even if my dream post was offered to me, I had to choose myself. I wanted to be myself.

Is it any wonder that women beat themselves when they cannot measure up to the Photoshopped, airbrushed, botoxed images that bombard them? 

There is no harm in being the best version of you. It is okay if you want to lose a few pounds. It is perfectly fine for you to buy makeup and want to take care of yourself. But when most of your self-worth is measured against the size of your face, or the proportion of your body, and you want everyone else to conform to this narrow worldview, then that doesn’t move the human race forward.

Why are we surprised to find so much self-loathing and insecurity among women? While we are given a daily serving of ways to trim our stomachs, men had a hilarious website called TNL (short for Tunay na Lalake or Real Men) that celebrated how men without abs are TNL. It might seem like a reductive metaphor but it illustrates the awful truth – we are expected to be perfect. Sometimes even more so, by our own.

 “It’s the soul that needs the surgery,” sings Beyonce. 

Exhibit B. The Internet vs women 

Does discrimination still exist? Why, yes. Just look at the comments section of any YouTube video or any article with a feminist slant. 

Master Beef says, “Most women are ugly without make up though. So yes, please try.” Zelda Williams, daughter of the recently deceased Robin Williams, was attacked online and forced to leave Twitter and Instagram. Most of the mob’s comments even had nothing to do with her father. 

We live in a time of online disinhibition, where people under anonymity can become monsters. Name-calling has graduated from highschool cafeterias into what is more accurately a Hunger Games arena, replete with lights, zero ground rules and a global audience.

The Internet has become a sexist place. This has been described in multiple forums. Charlie Leadbeater, a British intellectual who spoke to The Guardian, is one of the main proponents against “Internet misogyny.”  Despite men and women being equal in presence, a disproportionate amount of abuse is lobbed against women online.

These rants aren’t toothless opinions, they are tongue-lashes made permanent by the internet. That comment, unless removed by a diligent admin, is forever. And it starts the “Pretty Hurts” cycle all over again.

Exhibit C. If this, not that

What is it that conditions us to neatly fall in line, to conform under small and predictable buckets?

 If you’re pretty, you can’t possibly be intelligent. If you’re aggressive, you can’t be kind. If you’re a boss, you can’t be a mother. If you’re a feminist then you can’t be with or love men.

People like to carve out what we can and cannot be.

A clear illustration of the existing double standard was Pantene’s #WhipIT commercial in 2013. It encapsulated, in 60s, how even if men and women do the exact same things, they are treated differently.

Labels are made by us. We call things the way they are not because of how they are but because of how we want them to be. And that is why one of the first steps towards changing things is to change how they’re called. 



Before, there was a saying, “Perception is reality.” Today, it is more accurately, “Projection is reality.” 

With social media, we carefully craft and filter our messages to the world. We want the world to like us. We want the world to validate us. 

But can we alter the steady clip of expectations and limitations? 

F is for female. 

Instead of fighting the negative, maybe we just need to shine the spotlight on the women who show us the way. Maybe we just need to see what is possible in the form of living, breathing women who don’t just defy labels, but shine. 

After all, identity and destiny are not something you search for. They are for you to define. –


Pantene takes a step up from #WhipIT to launch #ShineStrong. From the award-winning campaign, it now encourages women to become more than what they previously thought themselves to be. It asks women to let go of the things holding them back, in order to reach for what they previously thought was not possible. 

These are women who don’t go quietly. These are women who change things. These are women who make us sit up and listen. 

Watch out for them soon.

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