The Impossible Struggle to be the Perfect Woman: Štefica Cvek by Dubravka Ugresic

The titular character in the patchwork novel Štefica Cvek in the Jaws of Life, the first story in Lend Me Your Character by Dubravka Ugresic (which we featured in the June Book Box, along with Jenny Erpenbeck’s Kairos and a bookish gift from Obvious State), is a humble young typist who is dealing with the age-old question, Isn’t there more to life?

Because she is a woman, the natural question that follows this is: Am I good enough? The answer, shaped by centuries of advice, rules, societal norms, and peer pressure directed at women’s conduct and behavior, has to be a no. Štefica turns to the women around her for tips on how to be happy, pretty, accomplished and, above all, alluring to a man. The women in turn pass on the words and rules they have inherited from the people in their lives, from magazines and books. Though the advice she receives is complicated and often impossible to follow, making her even more unhappy, Štefica cannot stop looking for guidance, certain that if she made improvements to her self, she would be entitled to a happy life. 
Ugresic looks at the insidious effects advice directed at women have on their psyche. As Štefica spirals, every chapter opens with a nugget of advice aimed at women:  
“Can’t get your whipped cream whipped? Put down that whisk and add an egg white first, then put it in the fridge for ten minutes. You’ll be able to whip it firm and frothy in no time!”
“When you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep, don’t just count sheep. Air out the room if you’re hot and straighten out your bed. If the room is cold, pull on some thick, comfy socks. If that doesn’t help, make some chamomile tea and sweeten it with honey.”
As we know, almost every institution is involved in dictating women’s attitudes and behavior in patriarchy. Entire industries have sprung up to teach women how to look and act: whether it is finishing schools that turn a girl into a proper lady or beauty pageants which, behind the veneer of “uplifting women”, imposes rigid contemporary standards for an ideal woman. Here, we thought it would be both fun and revealing to look at some vintage advice and ads targeted towards women. 

The weight loss industry has made billions, a lot of it from targeting women’s insecurities about their bodies. We’re supposed to be neither too thin nor too fat. How do you scare women into smoking? Tell them they’ll get fat if they don’t. What if you’re too scrawny, without the curves needed to attract men? Some yeast tablets could come in handy. But if you think cigarettes are the worst thing advertised to women for weight loss, how about some amphetamine: 

There were les extreme solutions, of course. A good woman knows how to discreetly hide her many physical flaws:

Do not forget about your private parts:

Even if you are a beautiful and thin woman, no man will be able to tolerate you if you are moody, outspoken, perpetually exhausted and prone to mood swings and weaknesses of the mind, as women are. Hysteria was the first mental disorder attributed to women (and only women) – a catch-all for symptoms including, but by no means limited to: nervousness, hallucinations, emotional outbursts and various urges of the sexual variety. The vibrator was invented as a cure for this particular woman’s trouble. 
Or, if you are a man dissatisfied with your wife’s weak nature, you could simply drug her:
Men have always been concerned with what women read. There was serious literature and then women’s novels. Even today, the experience of a man giving his unsolicited opinion about what a woman reads is common. It is important to read so that you are seen as having a brain, however inferior. But also don’t fill that pretty head of yours with too many fantasies:

Above all, keep your man happy: 


What do you think about these? Head over to Instagram to share a ridiculous piece of advice you or women in your life have been given. Whether it’s how to eat, look, dress, maintain the home, behave in relationships, or be a mother, let’s hear them!

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