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Posts Tagged ‘tyranny of the shoulds’

 Last week during all the memorializing of Apple founder/college dropout/cultural visionary Steve Jobs, I found myself watching the commencement speech he gave at Stanford University in 2005 — and, in all that wisdom, one line in particular gave me the chills: Don’t Live Someone Else’s Life, he said. Actually, what he said was:

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma–which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And, most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

Living someone else’s life? Now, I (vaguely) recall being a fresh college grad, and I’m sure such words might have just made me chuckle then, but with a few additional years under my belt, I can say I know exactly what he’s talking about. I think most of us do, if we’re honest.

So often, we make choices based on shoulds, on expectations, biases, images, maybe even out of fear. Women in particular often find our decisions are colored by worries about being judged or getting approval, and we’re often battling some deeply entrenched beliefs around it somehow being virtuous to put ourselves last — at the bottom of our own list. Sometimes we just drift. But, with each choice we make, our life picks up a little bit of steam, until, sometimes, before we know it, we find the life we’re living is one that’s being driven by inertia, heading off in some direction we never planned.

As Molly, a young Manhattanite we profiled in the book, told us:

I did everything my boss asked, I did it perfectly, I sucked up. In six months, I got promoted. It was one of the fastest promotions they’d ever experienced. I tried really hard, and I moved to the next step; I tried really hard, and I moved to the next step. And now I’ve gotten to the point where I’m like, wait a minute, how did I get this far? I just blindly tried really hard without really thinking, What’s the end? Where is this getting me?

To quote the Talking Heads: Self, how did I get here? 

Sounds familiar, no? But maybe the more important question is this: How do I take back the wheel?

Well here’s the good news: You don’t have to take back anything! You’re not powerless. It was you who made the choices that got you to this point — this job, this relationship, this roommate, this pet chinchilla — and you are not powerless to make choices that’ll take you down a different path from here. Those are your hands on the wheel — they’ve been there all along.

Once you acknowledge you’re the one in control of those hands, your next step should be to take some time to notice where they’re steering you, your focus, your time, your energy? Because here’s the thing: everything is a choice — and every choice, by definition, entails a trade-off. Whether we go into it consciously or not.

Whether or not you consciously think to yourself: this time I’m spending baking cookies for the kids’ bake sale or agonizing over which color to use in the graph on Slide 4 in this PowerPoint is time I am not spending in the garden, or researching the yoga teacher training course I’ve been thinking about since I dropped my first “Om,” you’re still making the trade. You can’t be in two places at once. And the decisions you make about what to do with your time, where to focus your energy — well, they shape your life. So if you’re feeling like you’re living someone else’s life, start going into those choices consciously — really thinking about what you are and are not choosing to do. Once you do, you might discover you’re spending your time and energy on things (and maybe even people and jobs) that you don’t really care about, letting the things you’re most passionate about slip by the wayside, while you’re on cruise control.

It can be scary — maybe our passion seems weird, our dreams too far out of reach. Maybe you’ll fail. And maybe after that, you’ll try again. But wouldn’t you rather fail at your own dreams than succeed at someone else’s? And hey, failure’s recoverable — even Steve Jobs got fired.

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A new study by University of Buffalo sociologists suggests the answer is yes, indeed. This may be well-tread territory, but we think we need to go there anyway.  One reason is what we call the “tyranny of the shoulds.”

The study, entitled “Equal Opportunity Objectification? The Sexualization of Men and Women on the Cover of Rolling Stone“, will be published in the September issue of the journal Sexuality & Culture. The researchers, Erin Hatton, PhD, and Mary Nell Trautner, PhD, analyzed covers of Rolling Stone Magazine over the past three decades and what they found was that “sexualized representations of both women and men increased, and hypersexualized images of women (but not men) skyrocketed.” They chose Rolling Stone, in particular, because of its long lifespan and because its covers have featured a broad mix of pop culture icons — from celebrities to politicians — of both genders. According to the University of Buffalo News Center, here’s what they had to say about their findings:

“In the 2000s,” Hatton says, “there were 10 times more hypersexualized images of women than men, and 11 times more non-sexualized images of men than of women.”

“What we conclude from this is that popular media outlets such as Rolling Stone are not depicting women as sexy musicians or actors; they are depicting women musicians and actors as ready and available for sex. This is problematic,” Hatton says, “because it indicates a decisive narrowing of media representations of women.

“We don’t necessarily think it’s problematic for women to be portrayed as ‘sexy.’ But we do think it is problematic when nearly all images of women depict them not simply as ‘sexy women’ but as passive objects for someone else’s sexual pleasure.”

The problem, the authors write, is that this hypersexuality dominates the cultural representation of what it means to be a woman today. And you’d better believe that hurts us all. Because as much as we claim otherwise, the media often becomes another way by which we measure ourselves. Sure, we know all about photo-shopping and air-brushing, and we know it’s not real. But still: much as we try not to, we buy into what is presented as a cultural norm.

In their study, the authors cite a large body of research that has shown a link between sexualized portrayals of women and violence against them, as well as garden-variety sexual harrassment and, in some men, neanderthal attitudes toward women.  They cite studies that show that media images of impossibly perfect and hypersexy women also increase the rates of eating disorders and body dissatisfaction and that such images are also linked to an increase in teen sex.  Finally — cruel blow — the authors reference a number of studies that have linked hypersexy images to decreased sexual satisfaction among women as well as men. Scary, right?

Sure, those may be worst-case scenarios. But at the very least, there’s this: when we are bombarded by increasingly sexualized images peeking out at us from every newstand and/or iPad, another bullet point goes onto the “should” list. You know what we mean: There are the big bad societal shoulds, of course, and there are also the shoulds you hear in your best friends’ voices, your mom’s, your significant other’s. TV and magazines remind us we should be thinner and happier — and apparently, smoking hot as well.

We may call every bit of it out as unholy nonsense, but still, is there a part of us, deep inside, that believes that this is what it means to be a woman today? To Have It All?

Back in the day, the archetype for the woman who “had it all” was exemplified by the ad campaign for Enjoli, which billed itself as the “eight-hour perfume for the 24-hour woman.” The classic seventies-era television commercial featured a woman who morphed from housewife to businesswoman to sex kitten wife, all the while singing: “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never, ever let you forget you’re a man, cause I’m a woman.”

An impossibly ridiculous role model, from any number of aspects. But let’s look at just one thing. She was pictured in a bathrobe, a business suit, and finally — as the sexy chick — in a high-necked evening gown that exposed nothing but her arms. We can’t help wondering what, if anything, she’d be wearing if that ad were made today.

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Last week, at a reading in Seattle, WA, a young woman who’d recently graduated from none less than Harvard, raised her hand: She and her girlfriends had been so thrilled when they were accepted to the school whose name is virtually synonymous with overachievement, accomplishment, and success, she said, “it was like, this is what we’ve been working for our whole lives!” But now that she’d graduated, she had exactly zero idea what to do with herself. Having come of age when she did—in an era where children’s time is programmed to within an inch of their lives, when every activity is undertaken with the explicit aim of servicing the future—is it any wonder she was at a loss, once she found herself thrust out into the real world and left to her own devices to navigate a landscape utterly devoid of any clear path? “What are we supposed to do now?” she asked.

As it turned out, though, she was the rare 20-something woman who knew exactly what she wanted to do next. She came up to chat later and laid it out: Grad school for medival history. She said it with such certainty it left me momentarily speechless: this girl didn’t seem undecided at all! So what was the problem? “Everyone,” she said, “says I shouldn’t do it.” In other words, the problem was this: she wanted something a little bit different, a little outside the culturally-approved norm, and hadn’t yet found a way to trust herself, to go for it, to escape what we like to call the tyranny of the shoulds.

That’s no small task, mind you. Tyrants, after all, are notoriously tricky to oust from power. And the shoulds are seriously entrenched: There are the big bad societal shoulds, of course, and there are also the shoulds you hear in your best friends’ voices, your mom’s, your significant other’s. TV and magazines remind us we should be thinner, happier, and sexier, while our doctors remind us we should sleep more and eat less frosting. And we give the nay-sayers the power—they’re the ones we affix with the name “everyone.” Rather than cueing the voices of our supporters—and surely, there are some—when we’re feeling a little doubtful, we call up the voice of “everyone,” which sounds so much like the voice of our own self-doubt, so damn familiar, it’s tough not to use as your go-to guide. But perhaps we might tune in a bit more, and see if we can hear the voices of everyone else. Search out our yay-sayers. They’re there.

It’s tough, of course, especially for women who’ve been bred to please, to go against the conventional wisdom “everyone” seems to believe. But that might be the surprising upside: knowing how hard it is to buck the “Shoulds,” how much easier it seems to just stick to the program—well, if knowing that and despite it our deep-down self continues its yammering about medival history or whatever – that’s an awfully powerful indicator that it’s our real voice we’re hearing. And that’s the one voice everyone should listen to.

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