Trying To Be Perfect Is Destroying Us All

Yes, it's a little bit funny when a woman who holds a top position says all the women should take a lesson from her and not worry so much about being so perfect at all the things, but hey, who knows better than the lady at the top what the price of perfection is?

When I first read about Debora Spar's new book, Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection, I thought, here is another book laying the problems of feminism at younger feminist's feet. Really, this NPR piece kind of made me feel that way at first — even the headline, that "Today's 'Wonder Women' Must Reframe Feminism" — feels like we're being told that we are thinking of ourselves too much and not enough of the bigger issues:

Spar's new book is Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection. In it, she calls for a new feminist agenda, though she is quick to admit that she wasn't interested in feminism when she was young, and managed to get through college without taking a single women's studies class. Her book draws on her own experiences as a professor, a mother of three and a wife of 25 years.

She tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross about the misinterpretation of feminism by a younger generation, and the pressures women face.

But to Spar's credit, she really owns her own privilege and her own misinterpretation of the movement as more personal promise than promise to pay it forward.

From a NYT piece:

“My generation made a mistake,” Ms. Spar writes. “We took the struggles and the victories of feminism and interpreted them somehow as a pathway to personal perfection. We privatized feminism and focused only on our dreams and our own inevitable frustrations.”

In the NPR interview, it's noted that Spar consciously avoided feminism and didn't take any women's studies classes in college:

The image I had ... was perhaps this trivial one, but it was important to me. It was the image of that Charlie perfume commercial that played all of the time on television when I was growing up. And it was the image of the Charlie girl — who was this exquisite woman played by Shelley Hack — who was clearly going off to some kind of very exciting professional job. She had a beautiful pantsuit on and a beautiful briefcase. And some of the ads also showed her going out after work with very attractive men, and some of the ads showed her holding a very beautiful little child by the hands.

So it conveyed this image — and I've subsequently realized that a lot of women my age had the same experience with this ad — it conveyed this image of this sort of effortless combination of work and motherhood and sexuality and professionalism and ease. The Charlie ads, and essentially a lot of the media that we were bombarded with in the 1970s, really showed these effortless images of women combining the traditional lives of women as wives and mothers, with this new, exciting reality of being astronauts and astrophysicists and pretty much anything they wanted to be.

And then Terry Gross is all, "Really, you fell for that commercial?"

And Debora Spar is all, "I totally fell for it."

Of course, Spar was only 10 years old (in 1973) when she saw the infamous Charlie perfume ad, which is a pretty impressionable age. I'm sure we all have such a story.

But it's worth noting that there is perhaps no better argument for those missed women's studies classes than this anecdote. It's precisely women's studies that gives women the tools to think critically about precisely these distinctions between media portrayals of women and their lived experience.

No, it wouldn't singlehandedly eradicate the impact of a lifelong bombardment of such messages, but it might soften them, or even do enough to get you good and pissed. That kind of anger can lead to action, or at least brace you for what's coming.

And Spar handled what came pretty well, anyway, and she acknowledges her privilege positioned her thusly. Unlike her female peers at Harvard Business School who disappeared when they had children — especially their second child — Spar was lucky enough, she says, to have a family support system, parents nearby willing to "drop everything" and in-laws willing to drop even more so that she could keep on climbing.

And while her personal story is one of privilege trumping gender barriers, her overall message is a universal one: Until childcare is more affordable, until the pay gap is closed, as long as women are doubling the workload by striving and mothering simultaneously while men are not pitching in equally, we're stuck. This excerpt offers some explanation why this has continued to happen in spite of record numbers of women in the pipeline to fields traditionally dominated by men.

The book is, so far, getting good reviews for its "skillful" handling, and for not issuing blame or hostility in any one direction. And though her career will not mirror that of most women, nor will her safety net resonate strongly with the working class, her personal struggles are not that different: Spar talks frankly about her struggle with anorexia, sexism, lookism, perfectionism, and the pervasive sense that nothing she did was enough — and here is one lady who obviously did a helluva lot.

As The Cut notes:

The book is prime bait for critics exasperated with mainstream feminist conversations that focus on the concerns of privileged white women — Spar spends a lot of time talking about the pressure to get liposuction and the shame of store-bought brownies. Yet she’s unapologetic about her elite perspective. “I felt like I had to write about the world that I know,” she told the Cut. “And I am white, I’m straight, and I’m highly educated. I hope the book resonates with people of different backgrounds, but I am very aware of that.”

But when half of all mothers routinely complain about the hell of "Pinterest stress," it's clear the pressure to be perfect isn't a class issue. And who can't relate to wondering to what extent your boobs are getting in the way of you getting ahead? With anorexia, too, what was once an overwhelmingly upper class, white female problem, is now a disorder which affects women (and men) from every background. Her view is from the top, but her struggles are a reminder that now more than ever, women's issues are often more relatable than we think.

Image by Jim Cooke, indefatigable boy genius