(Oil on Canvas)
I grew up in the Soviet Union. Our women were considered to be equal to men. As in they were expected to work just as hard for the Motherland as men on top of all the household stuff they had to take care of. An ideal Soviet woman was expected to have endurance of a plow horse, beauty, brains and a physique of an Olympic swimmer. The latter was particularly important because she was expected to carry 60lb of potatoes from a store while wearing high heels. The above were the unspoken expectations.
However, there was also a quintessential stereotype of a Soviet ‘woman’ praised in the media and in history books. She was a hard worker ready to lay her life down for her country. As a little girl I was expected to admire milkmaids from collective farms miraculously extracting 975% more milk from their cows than a cow can physically produce. A young partisan tortured to death by the Nazis was another type of a popular Soviet heroine we were raised to emulate if the occasion called for it.
Self-sacrifice, strength, and perseverance were the qualities to be admired in an ideal woman. Femininity was never really mentioned nor praised. It was bourgeoisie. Sexy wasn’t even a concept. We didn’t even have a term for it. Of course, it’s hard to be sexy when you walk home through mud-filled potholes carrying potatoes with a wreath of toilet paper strung together by rope around your neck, (if you were lucky to get some).
Soviet Art depicted big-boned solemn ladies usually holding a flag, a rake or an oar. We even had an expression “Maiden with an oar” to describe an ideal Soviet chick; muscular, broad-shouldered and ready to defend her country alongside men.
I’ve encountered a problem with the above stereotype pretty early on in life. Somehow, I didn’t find very appealing a prospect of growing up to be an androgynous workhorse. It clashed with my sensibilities formed by classic literature. Remarque, Hugo, Dumas, Hemingway, Maupassant were among my favorites. The heroines these authors described were feminine, sexual, daring… and had their own thoughts. They were vulnerable and fallible. They were the antipodes to the Maiden with an oar.
I wanted to be like them. Not her. And I am. No more rules for me. I can turn into a femme fatale if I choose to. I can also be vulnerable and defenseless. Or I can remain as stoic as a Spartan warrior. The choice is always mine. I don’t have to conform to any stereotypes anymore and I don’t.