Last year, I heard a lot of couples be toasted, for different reasons. Sometimes it was at a wedding, sometimes it was at a birthday, sometimes it was at an engagement announcement, sometimes it was at a regular old dinner party. I’m lucky, in that I got to see so much love around me, and everyone from my cousins to my coworkers seemed to be falling in love, and sealing the deal. And when it comes to toasts, hearing the nice things people have to say about the happy couple is always a pleasant thing, especially because we often limit ourselves to special occasions to say how much we love people. But it’s often in these moments — and in these cases, where you are faced with dually complimenting a man and a woman — that the subconscious expectations and validations we project onto them can really come out.
At one toast, I saw a man be cheered on by friends, colleagues, and family about what a good, smart, funny, loyal person he was. I heard anecdotes about his job, about his childhood, about his blindingly-bright prospects for the future. And I heard the woman be called beautiful over and over, each time to a strange round of applause. No one mentioned her work (though it is impressive). No one called her smart (though she is). But I did hear a few jokey anecdotes about how stunned people are by her beauty when they first meet her.
A friend turned to me and said, “What is happening?”
I laughed, but my stomach sank. There was nothing surprising about this, in a lot of ways. There are certain couples for whom the financial potential of the man and the physical beauty of the woman are still very much prized, and the highest compliment you imagine a woman wants to hear is how beautiful she looks in her nice dress. Luckily, many of us are now in more egalitarian relationships, and wouldn’t want to be praised for our physical appearance any more than we would for how good we are at telling jokes. But even for those of us who’d never dream of putting “beauty first,” it’s likely that we still encounter many more questions about our love life from well-meaning family members than we do our ambitions, our hobbies, our careers, or our personal achievements. We may not be so clearly put into the box of “blushing bride,” but we still live within certain parameters of what a woman is expected to want.
And that’s just it, isn’t it? It’s about what we are expected to aspire to. The people around us define those horizons and teach us, in subtle ways, where we are supposed to go. When a woman is being complimented, over and over, for how beautiful she is — at the expense of nearly everything else — that guides her into a belief that her career is inherently less important than her spouse’s, even if she loves it. When a woman is asked, at each family holiday, when she’s going to find a man — even if she just spent the last year getting a degree, traveling solo, and taking up tap dancing — that teaches her that nothing will ever be as satisfying to the people she loves as a ring on her finger. These messages are coming at us at all times, even if they’re not always as clear as the contrast between what people say to toast a man, and what they say to toast a woman.
Now, I believe that if your aspiration is beauty or marriage or what have you, that is just as valid as another person’s aspiration for career or academic knowledge or whatever else. I think it’s silly to say that a woman, for example, wanting to pursue more traditional routes of validation is inherently oppressive. Some women are genuinely thrilled to fill those roles, and hats off to them. But many of us are not, and it is up to us to seek out and surround ourselves with the people who see in us the things we want to see in ourselves.
It’s important that we be around people who understand our passions, respect where we choose to put our hard work, and support our dreams. We have to form circles of people who, even if they don’t share your vision of what is important or want the same things out of life, are able to be a driving force in your own journey. If you are someone who is determined to teach English in Germany, let’s say, you need to be around people who want that for you, and who will help you when you’re cramming for a German exam or figuring out the visa process. If you are throwing yourself into a demanding career that brings you great joy, you need someone who not only sees how hard you work, but who is actually interested in hearing what you have to say about it. If your passion is home decor, you need people who are going to look at fabric samples and remind you that, if you work hard, you, too can be featured on Apartment Therapy someday.
We need people who see our horizons as big as we see our own, and we owe it to the people we love to do the same for them. We need to embrace each person’s own version of success, and their own version of happiness, and understand that some people may never fulfill the arbitrary path to “complete adulthood” that society has set out for them. We need to love the tap dancer for her tap dancing, the traveler for her travels, the career woman for her career.
So maybe my friend and I were quick to judge. Maybe it really did make that woman happy to be called beautiful so many times, when her partner was celebrated for such different things. But I suspect that, on some level, that’s not the case, rather that when we are surrounded by a room full of happy people who think that we want something, it’s hard not to fulfill that role. It’s hard not to force that smile when relatives ask intrusive questions about our personal life, or pretend that we are in love with our 9-to-5 just because people think it’s our “real” job. People set out the box in which they want to see us, and we expand to fill it.
So instead of playing along with others’ expectations this year, find the people who ask, “What do you really want? What do you dream of achieving?” And find the ones who actually listen when you tell them the truth.
Image via Unsplash