Women in Russia. There are a million things to say. Basically, the women of St. Petersburg are Cady Heron, and I am the girl who buys army pants and flip flops. (ref: Mean Girls.) During my first few weeks here, I’ve found myself trying to mimic the way Russian women walk and stand, the way they gesture and (mostly) the way they dress. There’s an elegance and grace to all of it that is, alas, impossible to effectively emulate. Of course there’s a fair amount of generalization inherent in this statement, because not all Russian women walk/stand/gesture/dress the same. But there are certain trends, and – above all – certain societal expectations placed on Russian women as a whole that beg discussing.
When I began casual research (read: began to construct hearty color-coded Google docs) for my semester abroad, one travel site told me rather forebodingly to prepare to feel very bad about myself because of how beautiful Russian women are. I wouldn’t say I necessarily feel bad about myself on the daily, but I have definitely made changes to my routine to compensate for Russian expectations. For young women here, it is crucial to attract a husband. A full face of makeup is thus the minimum standard for most young women I see – many take it a step further (literally hA) by wearing high heels casually.
This has been an adjustment for me, but one that I’m not hating. The doing-my-makeup-every-day thing may get old when my face inevitably breaks out in protest, but as of now has made me feel slightly more put together in the morning. I love a good routine. AND I can wear my leather jacket every day without feeling #extra. Today I wore it over a black t-shirt dress, my black sneakers, and black tights (because if you don’t wear tights here, people may assume you’re a prostitute). I will likely tire of this effortful routine during exams, but for now I am reveling in it. If the general Russian public wants to set high standards for my appearance, I’m gonna make sure I have fun meeting them. But while I have been enjoying my Adventures in Being Put Together, I’ve thought a lot during my time here about the broader implications of these expectations.
On our first bus tour of the city, our program guide accidentally told the driver to take a left instead of a right. She laughed at herself over the headset, delightfully cheery. “Silly me! I have a bad sense of direction. It’s because I’m a woman!” She immediately began describing the building we were now passing, which – despite not being on her intended path – she knew an astonishing amount about. She’s a professor and a historian, smart and well educated. But she has a bad sense of direction because she’s a woman. This internalized misogyny came as a jolting surprise to me; I made confused eye contact with the girls sitting near me. It would never have occurred to any of us that she – or we – might suffer from poor navigation because of our sheer woman-ness. I myself suffer from poor navigation because as a child, in ballet class, they taught us that if you make Ls with your hands the one that makes an L is left. I did it with my palms facing me. I may be smart, but I’m not always the brightest.
During our program orientation a few days earlier, to prepare us for cultural differences ahead, we were told the true story of a discussion a previous student had with his host family. The dad had joked that his wife would be “like a monkey with a hand grenade” if she were put at the wheel of a car. “Women are terrible drivers.”
It’s a stereotype we have, to a lesser degree, in the US, so I mostly laughed it off when I heard it. Sitting on the bus, as our guide told us about the construction of the Winter Palace, I registered the weight of those words. Sure, the phrase “monkey with a hand grenade” is objectively funny. I laughed when I heard it, so I do not judge if you laughed when you read it. But it’s the lasting power of statements like this that gets me. Our guide is probably in her sixties. I don’t know how many times in her life she’s been told women have bad direction, but it’s more than none. Women generally don’t invent statements like that themselves. I wonder if she remembers when she first heard this, or if she just accepts women having poor direction as undeniable truth.
I was told when I came to Russia that I should prepare for a society with certain expectations for me as a woman. I’d have to dress nicer, wear more makeup (maybe even heels), if I wanted to fit in with the women of St. Petersburg. I wonder who told them this. Did their mothers pull them aside and inform them that this is what they’ll be expected to do? Or did they just know? Girls growing up in St. Petersburg look around them and understand that their worth and their success will be – not wholly, but largely – defined by their physical beauty and ability to attract a husband. And while this is true of most places I’ve been (gotta love the global reach of sexism), it feels particularly pronounced here. This is not to say that women in St. Petersburg are not successful in their careers or that they do not live remarkable lives. The women of St. Petersburg are beautiful and they are smart, just like the women of the United States. (They may be a bit more fashionable, but that’s an aside.)
What differs is not who they are on a base level, but what they’ve been told they need to be. Our tour guide and I both confuse left and right, but this means fundamentally different things to each of us. I’ve only been in St. Petersburg for a little while, and I’ve already switched up my routine. I understand the expectations, but moreover I have, in some small part, bought in. I see the women around me and I want to be like them. They are Cady Heron, and I am buying army pants and flip flops. And thus the cycle continues.