Pick an adjective. Any adjective. Like athletic, cruel, brave, weepy, passive, coy or caring.
"We have traditionally associated some traits with masculinity (the first three above) and others with femininity (the last four)," says sociologist Nora Scott Kinzer.
"There are bad masculine qualities like vicious, cutthroat, implacable, and good masculine qualities like aggresive, competent and stoic. bad female qualities are frightened weak and overly-emotional while good female qualities are kind, gentle and loving."
This fragmentation creates a "distorted mirror of acceptable behavior" which causes both women and men undue stress, says Kinzer, 42, who co-directed a study of the first women cadets at West Point and teaches human resource management at Ft. McNair.
"Women professionals often assume that they have to buy into the masculine code, stop being 'female' and become cruel, tough, vindictive and ruthless men. When a woman adopts these characteristics she just fulfills another stereotype: a bitchy, castrating female."
"Boys learn that kisses are 'yucky,' even though they secretly long for some physical reassurance," she contends. "We steel our men to contain their emotions."
With modern-management styles calling for "the helping, coping, understanding supervisor . . . we now have a host of therapists and organizational consultants trying to 'unfreeze' male emotions."
The answer to this dilemma is "the new idea of androgeny," Kinzer writes in "Stress and the American Woman" (Ballentine, 229 pages, $2.50).
"We used to think 'masculine' and 'femine' were two separate dimensions," she says. "But there's no reason why you can't be aggressive, brave, kind and nuturant."
An androgenous person fits what Kinzer calls "the new leadership style . . . which is 'masculine-feminine.' The person who is high in caring and high in competition is best suited for the executive board room and the corporation suite.
"'Bad masculine' characteristics, such as 'ruthless, vicious' don't help you in your rise to the top, and 'bad feminine' characteristics such as 'passive, unstable' won't get you anywhere."
Chief offender among these "bad feminine" characteristics, says Kinzer, is guilt. "Women are made to be more guilty than men. We're socialized that way.
"Have you ever known a man who was taught to wear white gloves when going out -- even to the grocery store? Or that his floor must be so clean he can eat off it? We ever feel guilty about underwear. We've been taught that if you fix a slip strap with a safety pin you'll let the hospital emergency room people know that you're a wretched person."
Guilt arises from this self-imposed demand for perfection, which is currently touted as "the superwoman myth," notes Kinzer. That fictitious female is "one of the biggest stress-producers around.
"The superwoman is a long-legged blond with perfect children, perfect teeth, a perfect job and the ability to cook a gourmet meal on 30 minutes' notice. She doesn't wake up at 3 a.m. and doubt herself."
Another guilt-producer is the "myth that if you go into the marketplace you'll get stress-related diseases," she says. "But three kids and their diapers will drive you into the looney bin as soon as any job."
Giving up these myths will help ease guilt, says Kinzer. To combat stress, she suggests reevaluating the importance of specific tasks and eliminating those where the stress outweights the reward.
"I stopped sending Christmas cards. It was agony choosing them. They had to be the most exquisite ones anywhere. Then there was looking up the addresses and figuring out who was divorced since last year. Plus, I couldn't afford the stamps."
Kinzer also gave up commuting -- by moving from her expensive place in Fairfax to a "modest house" in Arlington. "I was commuting 2 1/2 hours a day. I spent more time with my carpool than with my husband and kids.
"So I left the cathedral ceilings and redwood decks of Fairfax. The (Arlington) house is a lot smaller, but my husband and I are downtown in 15 minutes. And my children are healthier and happier than ever before."
Some degree of stress, concedes Kinzer, is unavoidable. "The female guilt-trip is endemic to women and their changes, and changes in life style can produce stress.
"Waking up in the morning is stressful. And there are no magic cures."
To help reduce stress, however, Kinzer suggests that you:
Exercise, quit smoking, watch your diet and don't take pills. A healthy body is better able to deal with stress. "Tranquilizers or barbiturates are okay for a few days in times of death, divorce and trauma, but there's a direct correlation between mental illness and prolonged use of pills."
Pay attention to the body-mind relationship. Don't ignore stress signals your body sends, including teeth-grinding, headaches and muscle spasms. Consult your physician.
List your problems when they seem overwhelming. Note those you can control and those you can't. Act to change problematic situations over which you have control. If you can't control the situation, try not to worry about it, or get professional help.
Do something unexpectedly nice for someone. "Let someone in at the yield sign for a change. It'll make you feel good."
Have a support system. "People who attend church services regularly have less incidence of stress-related disease. Is it because these people have someone they can reach out to for support, or is it because belief and faith can help alleviate stress? My guess is all of the above."
Cherish the ability to laugh. A good sense of humor can be a sanity saver in trying times.