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Posts Tagged ‘perfectionism’

Is it the end, or just beginning?

Ye olde End of Men is in the news again; this time, author Stephanie Coontz is weighing in on how the headlines proclaiming The End of Men might be a tad premature. It’s territory we’ve covered before, to be sure, but there’s a new turf worth tilling. Namely, when she writes:

One thing standing in the way of further progress for many men is the same obstacle that held women back for so long: overinvestment in their gender identity instead of their individual personhood.

Sorry to interrupt, but: DING DING DING!

Men are now experiencing a set of limits–externally enforced as well as self-imposed–strikingly similar to the ones Betty Friedan set out to combat in 1963, when she identified a ‘feminine mystique’ that constrained women’s self-image and options.

Clearly, it’s no longer 1963, but Coontz hits on something there that I think is still profoundly in evidence, particularly among the women we call “Undecided.” Yes, we have options the women who clandestinely passed The Feminine Mystique around may have only dreamed about, but that’s but half the story. We write often about how, somewhere along the timeline of women’s liberation, the message that we can have it all morphed into an oppressive belief that we should be able to do it all, and, when I read those above words of Coontz’s, I thought: Yes, yes, and yes.

Because I think, to borrow her words, a certain investment in our gender identity is what keeps us so dearly invested in doing it all. When you read articles about how to take the pressure off, among the tips will invariably be something along the lines of Ditch the stuff you don’t care that much about. Which is fine advice. (Um, we’ve probably offered it ourselves.) But it’s hard advice to follow. Perhaps you don’t give two craps about baking, yet you feel a bad mother if you send your little one to the bake sale with storebought (and Crisco-frosted) cupcakes. Maybe you don’t even want kids, but feel pressure tied to the belief that “real” women are maternal (and bake their own cupcakes). Perhaps you don’t care about clothing or makeup, but you feel you must look a certain way to be accepted as a woman. Maybe you’d rather take a stick to the eye than spend a perfectly good Saturday dusting, but you have friends coming over and you just know they’ll think a little bit less of you if they see how you really live.

Interestingly, I think that the more successful we are in the not-traditionally-female aspects of our lives (read: our careers), the more intensely we feel we must make sure we measure up on the traditional Lady-o-meter. Just last week, there were a couple of headlines about very successful women–Katie Couric and Stacy London–coming out about their struggles with eating disorders; in fact, among women, eating disorders have long been associated with an overachieving personality type. And have you ever noticed how rare it is to see a successful woman who is anything less than impeccably groomed? (Not least because when said grooming–or style; see: Hillary’s pantsuits–falls just a little bit short, the backlash is lethal.) Back in the 80s, when I was in grade school, my mom was in grad school “busting my ass,” she says. And yet, “I cooked dinner every night, drove the car pool AND was your room mother.” It’s as though we’re willing to push the envelope… but not too far. So we overcompensate, wearing heels that are lethal, killing ourselves to keep a house that’ll pass the white-glove test, and whipping up organic and healthy–yet impressively epicurean–delights for dinner. On a Tuesday.

It’s too tricky to offer a simple solution–and it’s made trickier thanks to the judgment women face from other women and society at large, of course–but surely there’s some wisdom in flipping Coontz’s equation and consciously putting more investment in our “individual personhood” as opposed to our “gender identity.” In worrying less about what it means to be a woman, and more about what it means to be our self. Or maybe just thinking a little bit about why you’re killing yourself over that dinner… and, perhaps, instituting a new tradition, called Take-Out Tuesday.

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This is a fabulous time of year for me, as I have the distinct pleasure of covering the Santa Barbara International Film Festival tributes—and the VIP after parties—for the local paper. (Tough job, I know.) Friday night brought SAG Award Winner and Academy Award Nominee Viola Davis to town, and the woman is a force! I’m kind of in love with her, actually—Girl Crush to the Nth degree. Her intelligence, candor, and wit are impressive enough, but one of the things that’s most striking about her is how beautiful she is—striking because that’s a facet of herself she’s often had to check at the door. And that’s a topic she wasn’t afraid to broach.

“As a woman of color,” she said, speaking of her sexuality and the auditioning process, “it’s like it’s too much to bring it.” Intelligent, articulate, emotive, strong: okay. But add even a hint of womanliness to that mix, and she becomes dangerous—or at least undesirable to a casting agent. (But why? Is the assumption that a complex, female character who is also attractive would be too much for the moviegoing public to reconcile?)

In some ways, I think, that message is out there for all of us to absorb, “Tread carefully, lady. Don’t be too much.”

Obviously auditioning for a role is one thing, and real life is another. But there’s something pretty relatable in that sentiment, doncha think? If you’re smart, successful, and funny, leave your sexy at the door, please. Be smart, but don’t be too smart. Too successful. Too funny. Too sexy. And if, god forbid, you are packin’ that much ammo, for god’s sake, play it down! Self-deprication is your friend. Don’t stand out too much.

It’s such a fine line, and such a mixed message, too. On the one hand, we’re expected to be perfect, to do it all, and all while looking perfect, being successful, whipping up Top Chef-caliber, organic meals, having epic sex, and meditating for twenty minutes a day. But on the other, perfection arouses suspicion. We see a woman who looks too good, who’s got it too good, who does it too good, and we look at her sideways.

Viola spoke of her very humble upbringing on Friday night, and, when she snagged the SAG on Sunday, she gave a shout out to the students of her small alma mater, imploring them to dream big. I’m taking that message to heart, too, and my big dream is this: that one day we won’t need to worry about being too much.

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Well, it certainly seems like it. According to Pamela Paul’s piece in Sunday’s New York Times,

Mother’s little helper of the new millennium may in fact be the sleeping pill – a prescription not likely to inspire a jaunty pop song anytime soon. Nearly 3 in 10 American women fess up to using some kind of sleep aid at least a few nights a week, according to “Women and Sleep,” a 2007 study by the National Sleep Foundation, a nonprofit research group.

And anecdotal research indicates it’s not just mothers who are starved for shut-eye, but women in general:

Sleep-medicine practices are overwhelmingly dominated by female patients. Dr. Nancy Collop, director of the Emory Sleep Center in Atlanta, said three out of four insomnia patients at the clinic are women…

In the ‘Women and Sleep’ study, 80 percent of women reported being just too stressed or worried to turn out the proverbial lights.

In a word: unshocking. I myself am firmly in the Fall Asleep Fine But Wake At 3 And Can’t Get Back to Sleep camp. I don’t have kids, but I do have several jobs, and a life. Last night I worried over the writing deadlines I have this week, the speaking engagement I have on Wednesday halfway across the state, and the new coaching client whose appointment I’m going to have to reschedule in order to travel to said speaking engagement… not to mention the shopping list, the whipping wind’s effect on the palm tree that sways outside my front window, the doctor’s appointment I’ve been meaning to make for, oh, the past five months, what I’m going to wear to said speaking engagement… I could go on — but I’m guessing you catch my drift. More than likely, it would seem, you do exactly the same thing. As Paul wrote:

According to IMS Health, a health care consulting firm in Danbury, Conn., the use of prescription sleep aids among women peaks from 40 to 59. Last year, the firm said, 15,473,000 American women between those ages got a prescription to help them sleep, nearly twice the number of men in that age group.

Those figures do not include those who are prescribed anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medications, frequently used off-label for insomnia. Nor do they include women who zone out with a glass of wine.

The question is, how is it that men aren’t similarly affected?

Well, I’d guess there are more than a couple factors at play: it’s personal, and it’s political. Women hold ourselves to high standards — we internalize the messages that bombard us from all directions, from the media to our mothers. We want to be perfect: perfect employees, perfect partners, perfect moms, perfect friends, perfect looking, perfect yogis, chefs, decorators, you name it. We were weaned on the messages that we could have it all and that we could do anything — and so we fill our days with our valiant attempts to do it all, running at full speed ahead, from this to that and back again, so adrenalized that the only way to unwind, it seems, is to dive into a bottle, whether of pills or Pinot.

But it’s not only our tough inner critic that’s to blame. The fact is, the modern workplace–of which women are now the majority–is still set up as though the workers who fill it were Don Draper clones, men with a full-time Betty at home, able to take care of all of the stuff that keeps a life running smoothly. But the ladies (and gentlemen) of today don’t have a Betty. So we do our best Don–and then we make the time to get Betty’s job done, too. We work our full day–and then we fold the clothes. And do the grocery shopping. And pick up the dry cleaning. And attempt to cook healthy items (or contend with the parking lot at our favorite take-out joint), to exercise, to socialize, to sleep. To quote Germaine Greer:

When we talk about women having it all, what they really have all of is the work.

…and none of the Zzzs.

So, what to do? Being a little easier on ourselves would certainly be a start. Asking for help might be another. And then: start thinking bigger, recognize the deeper truths for the eye-openers that they are. The world has changed, but the workplace and expectations haven’t. So maybe what we really need to be thinking about is what we can do to change that.

Just, hopefully, not at 3am.

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