Are New Year's Weight Loss Resolutions Keeping Women Down?

It doesn't take a PhD in How Shit Works Studies to understand that the notion that any of us can really "have it all" is absurd. The perfect family, the perfect career, the perfect sex life, and the perfect body are all such demanding mistresses that unless we prioritize and choose one or two, we end up with none of the above, drinking Beringer & Buble alone in front of TV on a Friday while the kids smear popsicles in our hair. But why are so many women choosing to focus on "fixing" their physical imperfections rather than working toward other goals? Are diet-related goals ruining everything?

In an op-ed for the New York Times,, Katrin Bennhold notes that despite the fact that women have never had more opportunity to excel in their careers, they're still lagging behind their male peers in several achievement metrics. Germany's Angela Merkel, Brazil's Dilma Roussef, and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are rare female powerbrokers in a land of men in suits. Only one woman tried to run for US President this time, and she lost out when another candidate who espoused almost exactly her views entered the race, identical to her except for the fact that he was a man. Even in Sweden— perfect, egalitarian Sweden! Where everyone wears the pants and no one ever fights!— men vastly outnumber women high-level corporate positions.

Bennhold further observed that her close female friends, successful women in their 30's on the verge of breaking through to the upper echelons of their careers, almost overwhelmingly chose to set weight loss-related goals this year rather than career-related goals. She argues that this is because they're under the misapprehension that they can be perfect— perfectly thin, perfectly successful, the perfect mom. Women in general would move up in the world if they just stopped Captain Ahabbing around after the elusive perfect body. Our priorities are all sorts of jacked up.

While she's right that trying to "have it all" is likely an exercise in futility, saying that women aren't successful because they're setting crappy goals isn't fair.

Here in the US, women outnumber men at universities and in many PhD programs. Educated single urban women in their 20's actually outearn their male peers. There are 12 women running for Senate next year, and countless other Leslie Knope types making their way through the government pipeline. American women are getting married later (if at all), they're having fewer children, and they're streamlining their lives to put them in the best possible position to succeed professionally.

So why are women setting diet goals when men still dominate industry and government? Why do mothers prioritize losing weight when their kids still run around grabbing strangers' jam-covered toast with their bare hands?

I'd argue that other factors must be at work besides "women are bad at setting goals." No one wants to strive for something and then not achieve it; that's both demoralizing and, depending on how many people you shared your goal with, embarrassing. As Bennhold points out, there are factors completely beyond a woman's control that could derail her career trajectory. Expensive childcare, for example. Inability to penetrate tight-knit male corporate culture. Prejudice against women in leadership positions, or old fashioned attitudes that ladies are best suited for standing just far enough away from the oven so as to avoid accidentally burning their distended, pregnant bellies. Achieving a professional goal requires the cooperation of others— the further away you move from your own body, and the more people who are involved in the achievement of a goal, the greater the chance that someone other than you will fuck it up. Dieting isn't the reason women don't succeed, but it's a sign of popular acknowledgement that the odds are stacked against us. It's not the disease; it's the symptom.

It's much easier to run until you have beastly calves or lift weights until your back looks like the statue of a marble goddess or chain yourself to the Stairmaster until your face is the color of a tomato than it is to convince your dinosaur of a boss that you shouldn't be an administrative assistant anymore. And until the old fashioned attitudes at the top die off or retire, women will keep setting goals that aren't completely soul-crushing.

New goal for women? Rise above having it all [NYT]