An insightful piece from Debora L. Spar, president of Barnard College. This is adapted from Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection and published on Glamour September 2013 issue.
“Feminism was meant to remove a fixed set of expectations; instead, we now interpret it as a route to personal perfection. Because we can do anything, we feel as if we have to do everything.”
You know that girl who “has it all”—perfect job, relationship, body? No, you don’t, because she doesn’t exist, argues Barnard College president Debora L. Spar in her explosive new book Wonder Women. Her radical message to you: Stop trying to be so good at everything.
I’m pretty sure I remember the moment I knew I was having it all. On a December day several years ago, I was in the women’s bathroom at New York’s LaGuardia Airport. I had an hour between flights, so I rushed for the stalls. Cramming my bags against the door and pulling off my blouse, I perched on the seat, took out my little Medela pump, and began feverishly expressing my breast milk. After several minutes of whirring and fumbling, I pulled myself together and stuffed my five- weeks-postpartum belly back into my business suit.
And that’s when I realized—wryly, ironically, totally deprived of sleep—that I was experiencing the superwoman dream.
It wasn’t supposed to be this hard. Like many women, I grew up believing we were equal to men, that we could have sex whenever we wanted, children whenever we chose, and work wherever we desired. For years, as a professor at Harvard Business School, I was the only woman in a room of alpha men and still I always felt equal. And I was. Then five years ago I was offered the chance to become president of Barnard College. There was barely a man in sight, and the change gave me a front-row view of what women are thinking and feeling now. We have opportunities today—to choose our educations, careers, spouses—that would’ve stunned our grandmothers. But now we’re dazed and confused by all the choices. Feminism was meant to remove a fixed set of expectations; instead, we now interpret it as a route to personal perfection. Because we can do anything, we feel as if we have to do everything.
In other words, women today face towering expectations: a pileup of the roles society’s long heaped on us, plusthe opportunities feminism created. Every day I meet young women who dazzle me. But I also see the pressure they’re under. To be mothers and astrophysicists. Hard-bodied size 2s with perfect 4.0s. To be perfect. And these expectations aren’t limited to a few spheres of their lives. They’re everywhere. Take a look:
The beauty standard
Society has always been obsessed with women’s bodies. Even ancient Egyptian tomb paintings showed the wives and daughters of important men as svelte. But expectations of physical perfection are at an all-time high—oddly, as women have gotten more culturally liberated, we’ve also gotten crazier about our bodies. Americans, mostly women, spent more than $13 billion on plastic surgery in 2007; 10 million U.S. girls a year have eating disorders; and any magazine rack confirms our obsession with one scantily clad celebrity after another.
And these standards aren’t for actresses alone. Look at any woman serving in Congress or working for a law firm or foundation. Everyone has her hair and nails done, her body in reasonable shape. (See my own routine at right.) It’s wonderful progress that we now accept that powerful women can look great. But must they, every minute of the day? As a requirement for success, beauty becomes just another burden.
The marriage standard
In the 1960s women needed their husband’s signatures to open credit cards; our grandmothers couldn’t hold mortgages unless they married. Once they did, they got sex, families, and respectability. We have more options today, but we’ve also raised our expectations of marriage. It’s not enough anymore to settle down. It’s all about fireworks, coparenting, lifelong romance, and ecstatic sex. And some of those goals are at odds:
• We want to be fully involved in our children’s care—without compromising time at work, with spouses, and for ourselves.
• We want men to love our independence and gas up the car.
• We want to achieve pay equity with men, but we prefer our husbands to earn more than we do. (Related: We want Martha Stewart’s media empire and doilies but not her divorce.)
• And whether we’re working as truck drivers or consultants, we want to be good homemakers, mothers, and wives.
True love is a gift. But expecting marriage to be perfect… that’s just another Wonder Woman myth.
The motherhood standard
And then there are our sky-high expectations of ourselves as mothers. While pregnancy today is blessed by the light of adoration that glimmers off Renaissance Madonnas and tabloids constantly screen for “baby bumps,” technology has created at least 15 additional ways to have a baby, none of which involves sex. It used to be enough for us to have kids and see them live through childhood. Now we time births to our career moves and reimagine pregnancy as a sexy sideshow.
I have a friend, a glamorous 42-year-old career woman, who couldn’t carry a pregnancy. So she and her husband spent tens of thousands of dollars interviewing surrogacy agencies, surrogates, and doctors to extract her eggs. They made embryos, froze them, and implanted them in strangers’ wombs. Nothing worked. Three years in, she’s doing IVF again. “It’s so hard,” she told me. “I just want a baby.”
Once, she would have adopted. Now we’ve set the standard that if you can become a biological mom—by spending exorbitantly and undergoing endless medical procedures—then you should. Is that liberating? To me, it feels like another way women have to be perfect or, in this case, perfectly fertile.
The homemaker standard
You’d think that as we work harder at all these new goals we’d at least have cut ourselves some slack on the home front. But no, housekeeping standards have actually risen since our grandmothers’ time. It makes no sense: In the 1900s cooking a roast chicken meant tending to it for hours in a slow oven. Now chickens come preroasted or disfigured in nugget form. We should be saving hours. Instead, we’re building bigger houses than ever—2,500 square feet for the average new house today, up from roughly 1,000 in the 1950s—and women today spend twice the time on housework men do, stir-frying our own zucchini and drizzling it with organic walnut oil. Yet it all takes time most of us don’t have. A recent issue of Everyday Food offers a sigh-inducing recipe for Harvest Vegetable Pancakes With Greens and Goat Cheese. I tried it. An hour and a half later, I had a burnt and bedraggled creation. My mother, older and wiser, opens a package of ground beef, mixes it with a package of Lipton’s onion soup, and makes a perfectly lovely meatloaf. My advice to my students: Listen to my mother.
The work standard
In May 2011 Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, a wife, mother of two, and one of the country’s most successful female executives, gave her now famous commencement address at Barnard. “Lean in,” she urged the grads, imagining their future careers. “Put your foot on that gas pedal and keep it there.”
Her gutsy speech underlined that, in our work lives too, expectations are now sky-high. Women have to not just get a job and keep it but rise through the ranks—while maintaining a partner and children, staying awake for sex, and looking like Beyoncé. Professional women are frequently asked, “How do you do it?” I hate the query, because doing it all, as is expected of women today, is not doable. A woman can’t work a 60-hour week and go to every school play. Yet we berate ourselves for failing at the balancing act. Do I think women should walk away from fast-paced jobs, or stop leaning in? Of course not— all I want for my students is their every dream fulfilled. But I also don’t want them to feel like failures if they’re not in a corner office—or if they are but their time for childcare and housework is limited. Every woman at the top makes trade-offs. Only Wonder Woman can do it all, and all at once. And she isn’t real.
Finally, the no-sweat standard
The most maddening thing about these new expectations? We’re not supposed to care about them. In the Wonder Woman world, perfection is meant to come easily. Look at late-night phenom Chelsea Handler swearing, “I don’t like to be that aggressive or ambitious,” or svelte Blake Lively proclaiming, “I’d rather have a little bit of cellulite and go do a food trip and try every ice-cream place in the South.” These women have extraordinary lives, but their nonchalance is the final flourish. Meanwhile, women who admit they’ve worked hard and wanted something face backlash—just remember the reaction to Anne Hathaway’s “It came true!” Oscar speech.
We like to believe women today are too cool, confident, and fully evolved to worry about this new crush of pressures and expectations. But we do worry—about our jobs, looks, finances, and families. We worry a lot, so far as I can tell, and maybe simply acknowledging that is the best way to start. Here, some of my other strategies for facing today’s towering new standards:
Remember, Wonder Woman doesn’t exist. She is fiction, and you are real. Building a life on fantasy is never a good thing.
Learn from the guys. Men know there’s only so much they can do at once. If the budget report’s due, the lawn goes unmowed. Women try to keep everything going, all the plates spinning. It’s OK to set down a plate. Just choose which one.
Stay close to home. As your life gets more complicated, having family around is a godsend, so live by parents or siblings. Find the right partner. Sheryl Sandberg said it in Lean In, but it bears repeating. Marry someone you love and like; finding a person who doesn’t care if you’re perfect is a good start.
Banish guilt from your social life. You don’t have to accept every invitation. Before you RSVP, ask yourself: (1) Is it required for work? (2) Will it help you professionally or intellectually? (3) Will you enjoy it? If the answer to all three is no, don’t go.
Commit to a workout regimen. It feels like one more gotta-be- perfect obligation, but exercise is a stress reliever: If I didn’t run, swim, or lift weights, I almost certainly would have killed someone by this point in my life.
Pick a job you love. If your career is satisfying, you’re more likely to stick with it after having kids. Women flee consulting and banking in droves; female doctors, though, tend to stay put, perhaps because no one enters medical school on a whim.
The most crucial thing for women to know today? No one does it all. We each, if we’re lucky, will have our chance to leave a mark on the world, but we are trying too hard to be perfect. So don’t emulate Wonder Woman; think about what’s wonderful to you instead. Then boldly, audaciously, joyfully, leave the rest behind.