Societal expectations are often contradicting; especially in the sense of expressing individuality, yet being expected to conform to a societal standard of ‘normality.’ In Susan Stinson’s novel, “Martha Moody,” there is a specific moment that articulates this contradiction when Amanda is harshly criticized for her appearance.
““Have you lost all Christian decency?” I shrugged and kept walking, but my face burned… She turned her horse to look after me. “We pray for you.” I stopped and breathed the dust I’d kicked up, then turned to face her. I thought I was going to thank her with quiet sarcasm, I thought I was just tucking the long tail of John’s shirt, but my hands had grown bolder since I had been on my own, and they pulled the shirt tails out of my waistband and lifted them to show Theda my white belly where in the public of the road. Theda looked at me impassively, as if she were made of salt… “You’re a lunatic,” then (Theda) headed into town. I didn’t bother to tuck in my shirt, but let if flap the whole way home” (126-127).
In this passage, Theda is acting out the role of society by criticizing Amanda for expressing herself simply because the way of expression is not ‘decent’ or ladylike. Not to mention the subtle stab at Amanda’s large body. This is problematic because when people are told to be true to themselves, it appears to only be acceptable when a person’s true self is suitable to unrealistic expectations; in this case, having a skinny body. A parallel example is the expectation of being a heterosexual individual. The contradiction is found when a non-heterosexual individual is told (by society, family, friends, etc.) to be themselves, yet since society is so heteronormative, anybody outside of that box is at a disadvantage.
I felt very connected to this theme because I’ve been struggling with figuring out how I’m supposed to express myself freely, while also feeling like I have to fit into the heteronormative stereotype. I identify as queer, and when I first told my mom, she seemed accepting and nonjudgmental. However, in a later conversation that I had with her, she said, “you probably shouldn’t be telling everyone” and “you’ll have to decide at some point how you want to be perceived” and “you’ll have to choose what you want your family to look like and who you want to marry.” These comments made me feel like I should hide my true self, and instead conform to an expectation that is not meant for me. She had always taught me that it doesn’t matter what other people think and that I should always be true myself, yet when my true self was different from her expectation (and society’s for that matter), that message disappeared in an instant. She claimed that she was saying these things because she didn’t want me to get hurt, possibly similar to how Theda said that she prays for Amanda; in a way that indirectly suggests that I change and conform. However, I have absolutely no need to change myself in order to cater to an expectation that I will never fit into. I will continue to express my true self throughout my life. And like Amanda, I will flaunt my authentic self in front of those who discourage me and carry on holding my head up high.