January is a time of new beginnings, self-improvement and the recalibration of goals, but it is also a time of contemplation of the year that's passed and the events, actions and achievements that defined it. With the habitual rush to set New Year's resolutions for our bodies and minds, we assess the areas most in need of improvement. One of the things I've been considering during this annual debrief is my propensity to apologise incessantly - even when I'm not to blame - and my inability to say no. At what point did I become so hell-bent on people pleasing? I'd love to say that my only resolution was a minor adjustment to my vocabulary, but these flaws are but a few of the ever-burgeoning list that I mentally keep all year round. You may well be thinking I have a bad case of low self esteem, or perhaps a spot of anxiety. The diagnosis is far simpler, however: I am a woman.
I feel a suffocating pressure to perform at 110% in every aspect of my life, and a debilitating guilt if I do not succeed. I am not alone in this. As women, this constant need to succeed and to please is indelibly engraved onto our collective consciousness. On any given day, my thoughts flit from admonishing myself for falling short in maintaining my weight and wellbeing, to telling myself to work harder, to balance my life, to be on trend, to be BETTER. But, is that really realistic? And, when will we ever be satisfied with our own achievements?
Girls star, Zosia Mamet hit the nail right on the head in her column for GLAMOUR in May 2014:
As women we have internalized the idea that every morning we wake up, we have to go for the f--king gold. You can't just jog; you have to run a triathlon. Having a cup of coffee, reading the paper, and heading to work isn't enough--that's settling, that's giving in, that's letting them win. You have to wake up, have a cup of coffee, conquer France, bake a perfect cake, take a boxing class, and figure out how you are going to get that corner office or become district supervisor, while also looking damn sexy--but not too sexy, because cleavage is degrading--all before lunchtime.
We live by a universal standard of success; we are fed rigid ideas that dictate the "norm" - whatever that means. We live not by standards we set for ourselves, but instead trammel a path carved by others. The existence of powerful female role models - a positive and empowering by-product of feminism - fuels the notion of a one-track road to female success. We see only one way to be a woman, blind to the kaleidoscope of shades of womanhood and myriad nuances of success. We judge ourselves unfavourably against these role models, and we compare ourselves to other women.
Feminism was meant to empower us as women, to build us up for fighting on male-dominated battlefields. It did that, but it did some other things as well. It gave us female role models like Hillary and Oprah and Beyoncé and in the process implied that mogul-hood should be every woman's goal. We kept the old male ideas of success: power and money. We need new ones!
It doesn't end there, unfortunately. Women are not just unkind to themselves in this quest for perfection; they can also be extremely unkind to other women. This unkindness comes in many guises; in passive aggression; in bitching; in judgement; and in straight-up nastiness. The only consequence of these actions - aside from the ephemeral illusion of superiority - is the addition of even more pressure on women, and on ourselves. Amy Poehler, in her book Yes Please, aptly named this type of behaviour "woman-on-woman violence". It begins in adolescence with bodies and beauty, and continues well into pregnancy, then motherhood, and beyond. If it's not women telling pregnant women that they're doing it all wrong, then it's the subject of working mothers versus stay-at-home mothers. Breast-feeding, birth plans, parenting methods, nannies; the list of "supposed tos" for mothers is never-ending. Poehler speaks of her experience of being guilt-tripped as a working mother:
The "I don't know how you do it" statement used to get my blood boiling. When I heard those words I didn't hear "I don't know HOW you do it." I just heard "I don't know how you COULD do it." I would be feeling overworked and guilty and overwhelmed and suddenly I would be struck on the head by what felt like someone else's bulls--t. It was an emotional drive-by. A random act of woman-on-woman violence.
As an advocate of the rights of women, I am saddened by the knowledge that the nastiest comments I've ever received have been from other women. Whether it's our sartorial choices, our appearance, our sex life, our weight, our choice of partner (or lack thereof), or even whether we identify as a feminist; every aspect of a woman's life is fair game is this intra-gender battle. Here's the thing, though: other women aren't the enemy. Whether you are a teenage girl, a mother, or just a woman trying to live her best life, these unsolicited judgements and comments do untold damage to a woman's sense of self.
Women's comments often focus on the physical traits that are most likely to attract men. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her seminal Ted talk, talks about the misdirected competition that exists between women: "We raise girls to see each other as competitors not for jobs or accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men." By indulging in this behaviour, we buy into an outdated model of objectification where a woman's ultimate goal is to attract a mate. We need to realise that the moment we make a pejorative comment about a woman's life decisions, or her appearance, we invite that same level of judgement on ourselves.
Imagine a world where women unite instead of divide, where barbed comments are replaced with words of support, where we listen without judging and talk without prescribing. Surely if we were all in this together, we would all feel less alone. Reflect on the goals you want to achieve and refuse to let anyone else define your ambitions. Celebrate the victories of our fellow females, and admire the strength of the women in our lives.
It's time to end woman-on-woman violence. In short, be kind to yourself, and to others.