The Female Chameleon

I love this remark from Lisa, who reads here regularly. Addressing her belief that women are more capable of change, she says:

… it seems that women are more willing to morph into what they think they need to be (for themselves or someone else) than men. Call it survival instinct?

Like Lisa, I have observed that women are more willing to change – their bodies, their habits, even their opinions. I’ve known myself to adapt to a variety of circumstances, but is “adapt” a euphemism for altering oneself to the extreme, or compromise that goes too far?

Let’s be more specific, shall we?

What I have experienced – and too often despaired – is the extent to which women will turn themselves inside out to become what someone else wants them to be or, the person they believe someone else wants them to be.

Female Chameleon Syndrome?

I might term it the Female Chameleon Syndrome. And no, I don’t anticipate that Big Pharma will come calling with a broadly advertised med, lobbying to place FCS in the DSM. After all, the world seems to like its women malleable, don’t you think?

All sarcasm aside, are we truly more capable of change or more conditioned to conform as a means of survival? If that’s the case, is it a positive, a negative, or does that depend entirely on the nature of the change we’re undertaking?

If these are external or physical changes, are we buying into a Happily Ever After Beauty Myth – and wasting valuable time and dollars while we’re at it? Or are we addressing self-esteem issues that can be improved by tweaking this and touching up that?

Are we more likely to attempt change as aging influences the perceptions of others? Or is all fair in love and war, in recognizing the face we wash in the mirror, not to mention – job searching?

The Nature of Changing… Nature

I realize that “change” is a broad term, and whether change is deemed positive or negative is highly subjective. There are changes that serve our health; a reasonable diet and exercise is “good” whereas extremes may be seen as “bad.” There are changes in behavior and habits; deflecting criticism through humor may be protective, but to an extreme, counter-productive.

There are changes that make us more marketable when looking for jobs, dealing with the public, or in the romantic arena; naturally, these include beauty rituals, and what we may loosely consider as fashion and style.

We want to be loved for the “whole package,” yet we tend to work on the wrapping rather than what’s inside.

Come on. What straight woman hasn’t considered the way the Boyfriend likes her hair or Hubby’s preference for red lipstick?

Losing Ourselves to Change for Others

At the most fundamental level, what I fear is a willingness to bend one’s will in the extreme, to adopt altered political or other personal ideologies, to throw away precious dollars on pointless diets, to tinker and tweak and never feel good enough, to spend countless hours at activities of no interest, and in general, to tie one’s true self up into knots in order to attract, to please, to hang onto – a man.

To some degree, I’ve experienced this in my own life, in marriage. But I was well-schooled long before that, in most relationships which taught me to please others first, and myself, last. At midlife, I still feel the tug from time to time, but I am beginning to distinguish reasonable compromise from giving myself away, particularly when in a relationship.

If women are more apt to adapt, why must it take so long to achieve a livable balance? How do we find that line, and know when not to cross it?


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  1. says

    Perhaps “attune” would be more to the point, or even “relate” as opposed to “change” (although changing behavior to attune and relate is still change). Just a man’s estrogen levels increase when engaged in a lot of childcare, then men are more likely to “change” into a cooking apron, or “change” the baby’s diaper. Conversely, when men are in their stereotypical sex role they are more the hunter, and thus attuned to the fight flight behaviors of the primitive brain, which does not attach, and thus does not “change” in order to please or attune. Finally, perhaps we all move up toward the Buddha brain, where the more eternal rhythms reveal themselves, like the seasons that are always changing, but not really changing all that much over the course of time.

    Perhaps the big challenge is harmonizing our true natures with our partners, communities and larger groups, neither losing ourselves in conformity nor ending up alienated by lack of ability to attune. I find this a challenge as a quiet sensitive sort of male, able to attune individually, but a bit overwhelmed by the group to which I struggle to attune. Still, I’m not giving up, and so I think about “changing” myself a bit to deal better with the world around me. Here’s to keeping it real and still attuning with each other :)

    • BigLittleWolf says

      So much to think about, Bruce…

      I wonder if that difficulty in attuning (and not losing ourselves) has always been there, but we’ve simply become more vocal about it. Or, perhaps it’s harder to harmonize in any fashion than it once was.

  2. says

    I remember the amazing feeling I had after my first divorce, like unfolding my limbs after climbing out of a very small box. I’d not realised how many opinions, preferences, habits, wishes I’d squished into silence in order to get along for 10 years with a very opinionated and sometimes violent man. I did my best to compromise and to please my second husband, but in no way was I going to climb back into a box. My most important aim for my present and later life now, above all else, is to be truly me. I hope I’m not too intolerant or too difficult these days, but I’m certainly more outspoken.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      The outspokenness. Yes, I know what you mean, Shelley. But then – no one should live in a tiny box, should they? Aren’t we all made to stretch our wings, if possible?

  3. says

    I had this marriage, many years ago, to a man I loved with an overwhelming passion. A man for whom I would do anything. Including accepting responsibility for any problems that came up, using the “if I just. . .” reasoning, until I was no longer who I was. It took a long time, but eventually I learned I could not build a home all by myself and I broke free, finding me again, never ever to give myself up for anyone again.

  4. says

    I think the key to balance is realizing that it is not static. Even the scales quiver a little when they’re “balanced.” We’re always going to have to adjust, sometimes slightly, sometimes more. I think the real key is to stop trying to multi-task. To be present with where you are; that way, we don’t miss as much.

  5. says

    Female Chameleon Syndrome! Yes, I probably suffer from that. I tend to re-invent myself every couple of years! But rather than look at it as aquiescing or compromising, I prefer to think of it as “keep the best and lose the rest.” :-)

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