The Ideal Woman

I try to live inside my own universe, not taking in many messages from the outside world, unless they come from people or sources I deem in line with my general philosophies.  This is a good and a bad thing- good because I can maintain a certain level of mental clarity; bad because sometimes I poke my nose outside my little universe and wonder what the hell is going on.  I seldom feel stagnant, though that is another potential down side to my system.

I’m not just talking about the ideal woman in terms of body shape, though I do find the above photo very interesting.  I’ve run across different “post-feminist” ideals lately in my readings and in documentary form, and tonight I had an interesting discussion with a friend on being a modern woman, and about ideal woman as is portrayed in the media.

What is an ideal woman?

I was raised conservatively, with the ideal for womanhood set forth in Proverbs 31:

“10 [b]A wife of noble character who can find?
She is worth far more than rubies.
11 Her husband has full confidence in her
and lacks nothing of value.
12 She brings him good, not harm,
all the days of her life.
13 She selects wool and flax
and works with eager hands.
14 She is like the merchant ships,
bringing her food from afar.
15 She gets up while it is still night;
she provides food for her family
and portions for her female servants.
16 She considers a field and buys it;
out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
17 She sets about her work vigorously;
her arms are strong for her tasks.
18 She sees that her trading is profitable,
and her lamp does not go out at night.
19 In her hand she holds the distaff
and grasps the spindle with her fingers.
20 She opens her arms to the poor
and extends her hands to the needy.
21 When it snows, she has no fear for her household;
for all of them are clothed in scarlet.
22 She makes coverings for her bed;
she is clothed in fine linen and purple.
23 Her husband is respected at the city gate,
where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.
24 She makes linen garments and sells them,
and supplies the merchants with sashes.
25 She is clothed with strength and dignity;
she can laugh at the days to come.
26 She speaks with wisdom,
and faithful instruction is on her tongue.

27 She watches over the affairs of her household
and does not eat the bread of idleness.
28 Her children arise and call her blessed;
her husband also, and he praises her:
29 “Many women do noble things,
but you surpass them all.”
30 Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.
31 Honor her for all that her hands have done,
and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.”

 ( From here )

As I age, I find myself re-visiting this woman.  She’s no doormat, no subservient dishrag who toils endlessly only for others.  She works hard, she dresses well, she makes clever business decisions, she is dignified and wise, she provides for those less fortunate for herself.  She’s not a dingbat if she can manage all these things.  She’s multi-faceted, as so many of the strong, beautiful women I know are.


But I ask myself, what is the Ideal Woman according to most people?  Is she a plastic barbie-doll version of a man? Why do so many messages of “the ideal woman” focus on the exterior of a woman, one part of who she is?

Is the ideal woman a tough career woman who crashes through the glass ceiling?  Funny, I googled “ideal woman” for all my photos for this post.  While some were irrelevant (Jake Gyllenhal is an ideal woman?) and some were more offensive than I care to post, I could not find a single photo that would pass for a “tough career woman.”  It’s a little test, but telling?

Is the ideal woman a strong minded, manipulative sexpot?

Is she a size 0, 2, 6, 10, naked with with three boobs?  I know it’s a joke but I’m just not laughing.

 (Ideal Woman, By Walker Henry Oliver 1880)

Is the word “sexism” still relevant in our culture? If so, who exactly is oppressing us?  Are we instead oppressing ourselves through devaluing our sexuality?  Does the Proverbs 31 woman have any relevance today?   Is it time for us liberated Western women to quit our navel gazing and start campaigning for the same issues our mothers, grandmothers. and great-grandmothers fought for, but applied to those who live on the other side of the world?  Issues of voting, family planning, and equal rights- we have them, what have we done with it?

I’m genuinely interested in hearing opinions on what can be a rather polarizing issue.


30 comments

  1. The Proverbs 31 woman is totally still relevant… just try to "rewrite" those ancient images with some modern ones – but, well, I guess I don't have to explain that to you. :-)I've always been fascinated by the Czech version of verse 10, though, because it says "brave" woman. For someone who grew up reading adventurous books (where the heroes are usually male, naturally), it was an amazing thought. :-)As to the outside image, body image and so on… I cannot say much, because I'm hindered similarly to you. Let me just say this – the majority of men who have happily found their ideal woman (who, I guess, will most probably be similar to the Proverbs one, in one way or another) probably have better things to do than put up images of their ideal woman online. So it's much like all popular culture – you ARE better off not paying much attention to it in terms of ideals.

  2. That's a valid point, and I love the "brave" translation. I do generally ignore popular culture, but I wonder what's going on in the world… I know I don't necessarily see things the same way, but I do like to understand how other people think.

  3. I love that passage from Proverbs 31. Despite everything the Feminist movement has changed, we're still so focused on the outer ideal woman. Sure as women, we all want to look nice, but wouldn't it be great if we worried as much about how nice we were to others as our hair? As much time into teaching our daughters about healthy self image as we do to dieting and weight loss? I think that first picture really says it all. We focus so much on the physical. Who cares if you are a size 00 Amazon goddess if you are also a jerk and everyone secretly hates you?Sure, there will always be sexist jerks out there, but I think women put a lot of pressure on themselves that is not necessarily coming from guys (real guys, not people on tv). Most guys don't expect women to dress and act like they do on Mad Men or Desperate Housewives. Sure, the media outlets present this image for us, but shouldn't modern "liberated" women be able to see past all that?I really feel that the modern woman has really lost the benefit of the right to vote etc. because we take it for granted. We think we've earned it, but it's really it's our fore mothers who fought for what we have. I think we can learn a lot from our 3rd world "oppressed" sisters out there. My freshman year of college, I read a book about the Grameen Bank in India that gave loans to poor women to start small businesses. I was really inspired by these women who took the initiative to go out there and do something for themselves and their families. I only have to walk around my college campus to see that so many women have lost that drive, that initiative to be great!Who cares if you can vote, if you are not educated about political issues and you are more worried about your next manicure or the ten pounds you want to lose or getting home in time to catch your show on tv?Anyways, those are my thoughts. I'm sure there are lots of women out there who disagree with me, but I'm totally abreast of that fact.

  4. Well, it's nice to know there's some positive imagery of women in the Bible… not being a Bible-reader myself, I mostly only run across the really egregious stuff, like some of Paul's comments (which may say something about my own insulated circle of things I pay attention to ;) )(I'm curious, is there any similar passage about the ideal husband?)I think focusing on the "ideal" is somewhat deceptive—what's ideal for one person or situation is often irrelevant to another. The ideal businesswoman is very different from the ideal housewife, and I have no issue with either path as long as they're both chosen voluntarily. Some of us are politically aware and active, others couldn't give a rat's ass, and I don't think that's different for men (I can't get my hubby, an anarchist at heart, to vote to save his life). I do think there's still room for improvement in how we adjust workplaces to accommodate family (for both women and men), especially in the States where maternity leave is still brutally short (I consider a year ideal and six months minimal…). It angers me that in many careers women often have to choose between work and family, while men don't have to (because a man's time investment in his children isn't expected to be as large.) Ok, that was a bit of a tangent…I definitely avoid a lot of media sources ("women's" magazines, certain TV channels and programs) because I've noticed that exposing myself to too much of them causes a negative change in how I feel, both about myself and the world around me. Not exactly physical dissatisfaction, but… something off. And too much focus on things (clothes, makeup, possessions) rather than ideas, thoughts, or ideals ;).I guess the trick is to find your ideal—what allows you to be a happy, fulfilled person—and work towards that. Sorry for the book! You write the most thought-provoking posts ;).

  5. Steph, I followed some of your links and ended up in Brazil, then Spain in 2010. There, someone was quoted as criticising "…the cult of the body…" I love that phrase-it speaks to what I see wrong in the western world at this time in history. It affects both men and women, and is soul killing. I grew to womanhood in the late 60s and early 70s and was lucky to live in an area that was very radical. I am not. But, it taught me to be open to different ways of being whole, strong, and useful to both myself and others. Your use of Proverbs 31 reminded me of the ideal I strove for as a young woman, and how I have refashioned that ideal as I matured. I am much more comfortable in my own body now that I am approaching 60. I avoid mainstream media hype as much as I can, and I try to present myself as a generous person both to myself and others.

  6. "The cult of the body" is a phrase that's used in Czech, too. The latest issue of the youth magazine I help prepare dealt with it, actually… although I did not write any of that deep stuff, I just prepare the English corner.

  7. In response to Tanit-Isis ideal husband question, a lot of Proverbs talks about a foolish man contrasted with a wise man, so there is a lot directed at men there, so much so that the entire book could be considered a template for an ideal man. (Though much there could be applied to both genders also.)After that very famous segment in the New Testament where wives are told to submit to their husbands, there is an injunction given to men."…husbands ought to love their wives as they love their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all no one ever hated his own body, but feeds it and cares for it…each of you must love his wife as he loves himself…" Ephesians 5:28-29,33.I grew up in a traditional church and knew Proverbs 31 and heard all of Paul's statements about women's proper behavior, but I did not hear much about the tough things said to men until I grew up and began attending a contemporary church. One certainly can't tally domestic violence with loving your wife's body as you love your own. Nor is common everyday male selfishness in keeping with Paul's command to men. Paul, I think, knew something about his fellow men, that they didn't and still don't want to hear. I've reread the Bible as an adult and found that it doesn't let men off the hook, it just seems that they have let themselves off the hook by culturally ignoring the difficult bits. Per Steph asking about ideal womanhood – I found the first photo very compelling. It isn't high fashion and as I looked at it I found myself liking each of the women. The fashion industry says, "people just won't buy" if it isn't a stick thin woman – but I don't think that is true. If these women were selling lotion or moisturizer, I would think about it, they look pretty good to me. Is an ideal woman her body or her mind? I think that young men start out thinking the ideal is the three-boobed woman, and as they grow and mature, hopefully!, they start to see that if you want to relate to another person, they have to be an actual person with character and personality. One thing I really see in the Proverbs 31 woman is that if she loves you, she has your back. She is for you and behind you with all she has to give. As men grow up they start including that part, the character part – at least it seems to me as I have watched the men in my family mature.

  8. I like the passage you quoted. I think it's frequently misrepresented (I was raised conservatively as well)… Here, "idealness" refers to character, not appearance. Here's a woman who takes life by the horns and lives fully. She's the consummate DIY-er!Thoughts about Taran's thoughts: Paul's words, filtered through a patriarchal lens, really are appalling to the egalitarian mind. But this is interpretation, and another paradigm can explain his words even better, I think. He was writing to 1st century Greek and Jewish people (think extreme patriarchy and hierarchy) and his views would have been shocking to them. For example (paraphrased): "There is no Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free". In other words: equality. And yet, at other times, he's suggesting they live in peace in the culture and not try to get rid of all the insignificant distinctions all at once. What? From sewing to theology?But, Steph, I agree with your avoidance of certain unhelpful media. I often get a shock when I pick up magazines in waiting rooms. Sewing blogs, although focused on sewing and style, are richer in that they include the musings of average folk, and do not need to appeal to the consumer masses.

  9. Hi Steph, normally I just lurk here but I felt the need to add my 2 cents. But first of all, thank you for doing this post and all your posts :)I had never read that passage from the Bible before but what I was struck by was that it presented the ideal woman as, above all, contributing to her community. Being a productive and positive force for her family, her friends, her village, her self, and her beliefs.While some of the details of that particular passage are context-specific and the tasks have changed, I see the overall picture as still being relevant…but not only for a woman…for a human being. While I definitely think that the particulars of our world should be addressed and redressed re: women or men or whoever who are denied the same legal, medical, etc. treatment as their fellows, I don't think that the overall ideal of 'woman' should be any different than the ideal of 'man.' I think we should strive to be honest, hard-working, compassionate, and creative individuals.Thanks for helping continue the dialogue. :)

  10. Ooh, an overall ideal of being a person… Very interesting.So we campaign for women's rights in oppressive countries because we have enough rights? Where to start? How to start? Ack, I feel like I've opened some floodgates, there's a few articles I've come across lately to share, I think its time to marshal my thoughts on them and post. It's all very interesting stuff about gender inequalities and biology, the new sexism, etc. I don't know what I think exactly, it's all a part of my quest to discover feminism but lately I feel like I'm closer to developing a solid philosophy.I'm really enjoying reading your thoughtful replies. I find it especially interesting to note what someone said about not reading mags, preferring the sewing blogs. You're right, we don't have to schill for advertisers, we can simply speak our minds."After all, no one ever hated their body…" In light of the cult-of-body we touched on, that verse from Ephesians chills me. Hating your body has become so normal. Remember that scene in Mean Girls where the pretty young things line up in front of a mirror and point out their physical "flaws," and press Cadie to invent a flaw of her own? Yes, from St. Paul to Tiny Fey….. I did that.Oh! And I'm glad I introduced the virtuous woman to a few people. She's really helpful to keep in mind.

  11. Well this is a little telling, when I read "Ideal Woman" I thought ONLY about exterior looks . *Hangs head in shame* I love your posts, they're always thought provoking and I often think about them a lot even if I don't comment

  12. I think it's pretty normal to think about exterior looks in that context. Oooh ho, I get inside your head? I think about the stuff you write, too.

  13. Women in the US have the right to six weeks unpaid leave in companies with over 50 employees working in a 70-mile radius. And people wonder why we don't breastfeed longer… I would caution people against assuming that sexism is something a certain group of men do to all women. Steph, weren't you just saying in your post on your international experience and modest dressing that you felt that women have to navigate the world that exists, not the world that they wished they lived in? In a culture where keeping your head uncovered is dangerous, women sew burkas and women sell burkas and women see to it that their daughters wear burkas, but I don't think we'd argue that it's not sexism. In cultures where an uncircumcized daughter is a shame to her family and is in danger of never marrying, female relatives organize the event, a woman performs it, and other women hold the girl down. Find me the most extreme example of sexism in the world and I promise you you can find women who advocate for it, because it suits them, or they're used to it, or they're living in the world as it is and would rather their daughters know the rules and be protected than risk what could happen if they rocked the boat. That doesn't mean it's not sexism.(To the commenter above me pointing out that women on college campuses compare poorly to the Grameen Bank women: http://news.msu.edu/story/6608 the average female college student has about 16 hours fewer a week than the average male college student, for whatever reason. I'm not sure what the women of whatever college campus have done to offend you, but I'd ask if the young men of that campus compare favorably to, for instance, a field worker for World Vision or the Heifer Project.)

  14. Yes, purpleshoes, yes! Yes yes yes! That's the thing that recently clicked into place in my mind as I read an article on the hypersexualization of young women. The auther kept talking about sexism, how we can't talk about these things because some woman is sure to defend a practice and call it her "choice." That's true, and the more I thought about it (especially educated western types of women most likely to call themselves feminists) the more I realized there's not really any categorical male oppression of these girls. There's sexism, but we're doing it to ourselves… I think you're right about the Grameen Bank, but I think Stephanie Lynn was making a broader statement about educated young women of our age. I think she's right, and I think you're right to point out that the young men aren't so hard working and ambitious either. Our civilization is built, our battles have been won, what is there left for us to do but self-indulge?

  15. *these things meaning the proliferation of pornography, sex-robots, and scantily clad young girls. She was saying it's impossible to speak out against these kinds of things without being shouted down, but yet she sees these things are harmful and undermine the status of women. I'll dig out the article and do a proper write up, it was very interesting though she never went so far as to actually say that sexism is something we're doing to ourselves…

  16. Oh dear, Steph, I feel bad now but I actually mean entirely the opposite! Women don't dress their daughters in burkas to protect them from armed *women*; women don't have their daughters circumcized so that they can gain the economic protection of marriage from *women* who would reject an intact bride. Just because women might make choices that let them navigate their culture doesn't mean they're the primary beneficiaries of it! And of course in a sexist culture some women are so good at navigating sexism, and get so much praise for it, that they become active advocates for sexism and resist change. That doesn't mean that it happens for their benefit! Who would pander so hard for male attention if male attention wasn't disproportionately important in our culture?

  17. I think, in regards to purpleshoes remark, that we have seriously damaged our ability to comment on the wrongness of certain practices (e.g. female genital mutilation) by having adopted the philosophy of relativism. If nothing is true/right, then how can anything be wrong/bad/false? Just something to chew on.Of course you know I'm very conservative, and I aim to be a Proverbs 31 woman. I think it's a wonderful place to aim, as a woman who is maturing. We can only be young and fertile-appearing, for so long, we can only be in that time of "ooo, potential!" for so long. Yes of course that time is attractive, that's the pont of it. But eventually the beautiful flower becomes the beautiful fruit – and likewise our beauty has to mature, our character must mature, all that "she looks like she might do something" has to turn into "she does great things". (Which of course don't have to be apparent to the world to be great).I think the whole point of the Proverbs 31 passage is to encourage a young man to seek a wife who is not merely pretty but is also capable and wise. Same thing with the passage in 1 Peter 3, which encourages us to be like Sarah, who was such a looker that she tempted two kings, but whose character and faith were what defined her.-Hearth, whose google account doesn't like her to comment easily these days

  18. Moreover, Sarah was such a looker that she tempted two kings when she was already a middle aged or old woman. :D And no one remembers her for that. That's quite telling, isn't it?And on a completely different note, I also think this whole body image is a bit of an American thing. Not that others don't do it – they do it a lot – but it seems to me only Americans would make a picture showing "national average woman"…

  19. Provocative thoughts. As a woman who was a leader in my area of influence for women in the 1970's, I am often dismayed by current culture and the influence superficiality has on our lives. Raised in a conservative environment, a woman was to strive for the ideal represented in Proverbs 31. I was somewhat chastised at times for my more modern thinking, but through that process I became who I am. Maturity is a long and on-going process. I am rather comfortable in who I have become at this age but just as importantly, now seeing young women have a better sense of themselves as people not just women. I am fortunate to have a DIL who is this person, I see it in her friends as well. Posts such as this confirm to me that all the struggles of the past were not wasted effort. While there has been media-fueled regression on this front, it is alive and well. I totally disagree with Hana re: the body image "thing" being an American perspective. There is not a civilized country in the world that does not make the same generalizations. Sad but true. Lucy from NYC

  20. Thank you, Lucy. I don't really consider myself a conservative or a liberal or any thing, I strive to think and understand the world around me, and I'm grateful for the women who came before who made that possible.

  21. Well, I guess I did not express myself very well… I was actually thinking more in the line of "that -national- thing is an American thing"…But maybe I'm just living in my own small world. That's most probable.

  22. Purpleshoes, I get how I misunderstood you. I've been thinking about your reply… See, you used examples of oppression which don't actually exist in *our* culture and then started talking about sexism in our culture. The thing is, I think that exactly what you're talking about here: "And of course in a sexist culture some women are so good at navigating sexism, and get so much praise for it, that they become active advocates for sexism and resist change. That doesn't mean that it happens for their benefit! Who would pander so hard for male attention if male attention wasn't disproportionately important in our culture?"applies so well to the sexual license and vulgarity I see when I do poke my nose outside my little universe. Sure, those things aren't new, but it does seem to be somewhat celebrated, to the detriment of many people. But I don't see that sexism as coming from men. I see a devaluation of femininity growing from feminism, and it rather upsets me because I don't think that was the intention.

  23. I agree that Proverbs 31 are words to fashion your life to. There is nothing negative in there, only positive words that not only empower the woman, but the people and community around her through her. As I approach my late 30's I find myself embarrassed that I want to wear dresses and 'prettier' things. In fact, I have to defend my decision to do this to other women around my age. This bothers me about myself (that I get embarrassed) because in all other areas of my life, I am the most at peace with who I am and in fact I truly love myself. My husband comments to me on a regular basis that it's downright amazing to be married to a women who is comfortable in her own skin. I find that I gravitate to blogs of women, such as yourself, who are average sized (not stick thin), intelligent and self confident. Women who are not afraid to think what they think and let others think their own thoughts. Also, who dress their bodies in the clothing that they like. Women, like you, are the most beautiful to me and inspire me. I chose to make you my 'culture'. It works for me, for the most part.On a side note, my husband, who I have known my whole life, has always told me that men care far less about how much a woman weighs that we do. Mind you, now a days with the internet, porn is so much more accessible that men may be more conditioned to think of a 'sexual ideal' than when my husband was young.

  24. Even since my late 20's, I've especially loved the virtuous woman of Prov 31. She's made me feel good about working and about using my brains and talents to help my family and others, and she's helped me understand that we, as women, are defined by more than just our looks and our bodies. Thanks for reminding me about her and for another great post.

  25. Nice post and wonderful ideal to think of! I have wondered for many years about the Proverbs woman and appreciate the beginning, "Where can she be found…," implying that this enterprising, hard working, wise and generous woman is an ideal and not something we can expect to find every day. It is a beautiful lesson in taking the time to know more about a person than the first glimpse by eye, which men are vulnerable to do. Thanks for articulating thoughts of modern women, too, as I wonder as I observe the college students in my classes–many are working very hard to create a better material life, and some are also working for a better spiritual life. We can reach for that by turning down the pop culture hoopla. Just because it is blasting at us doesn't mean we have to watch it. I am also inspired by the examples of my Amish neighbors, whose community is rich in relationships even if Amish women have less autonomy than the rest of us (English, meaning non-Amish). Kristina in Ohio

  26. wow, interesting post and subsequent discussion! :-) just for the record, the traditional jewish translation of this writing ("Eshet Hayil")is "A woman of Valor" which i think is beautiful, and as for the biblical "ideal" man? well,the whole basis of traditional practice is to raise men to the level of woman…

  27. I think that she's not a total pushover as some would like to portray Christian women.I believe that the Proverbs 31 woman is not for us to copy literally (e.g. waking at 5 in the morning) but to portray a woman with a wide range of gifts that benefit both her family and her community.


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