the myth of ‘having it all’
Career, love, family, beauty. We’ve grown up in a time where we’ve been told we can have it all. But Gloria Steinem says the feminist ideal of perfection is a myth, and women need to be careful of trying to do everything.
At a conference for eating disorder clinicians in the US a few weeks ago, Steinem spoke about the overwhelming pressures women feel to strive for perfection, chasing a myth of ‘having it all’ that is largely unattainable, and leaves them with a perpetual sense of never being enough.
The problem of trying to do too much is something that pretty much defines my life. I’m the worst kind of perfectionist. I’m constantly plagued by a sense of needing to do more, to do better, to be better, to the point that I barely even recognise my achievements, because I’m already worrying about the next thing. I always feel like I’m working so hard, and I always feel like I’m failing.
I never thought about this being a feminist issue, but rather as just an inherent quirk of my personality. The pressure to be the best comes almost entirely from within myself; it’s my own expectations that I’m trying to desperately to meet. But I think the idea of ‘having it all’ as a gendered construct is really interesting to discuss. And putting aside for the moment that men obviously face pressures to achieve as well, I think there are some truths that are worth looking at.
Steinem says that women are constantly striving to have everything, to do everything, to be everything. And it’s particularly problematic in a time where women have more options and opportunities than ever. We can now have the same high-powered jobs that men can have. We can be CEOs or lawyers or astronauts or whatever. Studies show that women are still not earning the same pay as men, but we are making huge strides towards greater equality in the workplace.
But the pressure to start a family and raise children and keep the household running hasn’t decreased. And neither has the focus on physical perfection. So we expect ourselves to be successful in every aspect of our lives- professional, personal, physical, family, love, sex- and feel like failures if we let one thing slide.
“Women are told they can have it all, that they can do anything, as long as they also keep doing everything else they were doing before,” Steinem said. And so we get locked in this perpetual web of striving for perfection and feeling inadequate, which drains away all our energy and sanity.
I recently read quite a wonderful little novella called Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. It was written in the 1950s, but what I think is really interesting about it is that a lot of the feminist concerns are still relevant.
She talks about the self as being a full cup of water, which women are instinctively urged to spill away, using it to nourish anything and everything around them. ‘Woman today is still searching,’ she says,
‘We are aware of our hunger and needs, but still ignorant of what will satisfy them. With our garnered free time, we are more apt to drain our creative springs than to refill them. With our pitchers, we attempt sometimes to water a field, not a garden. We throw ourselves indiscriminately into committees and causes. Not knowing how to feed the spirit, we try to muffle its demands in distractions. Instead of stilling the centre… we add more centrifugal activities to our lives- which tend to throw us off balance.’
I think this is quite a beautiful- though depressing- way of describing the problem. It seems to suggest that the drive to do everything stems from not really knowing what we want, or how to take care of ourselves. We give so much of ourselves away thinking it will bring us happiness or satisfaction, but we forget to nurture our own essential being.
The solution, Lingbergh suggests, might lie in solitude. We need to take the time every now and then to listen to ourselves and refill that glass of water, preserving it- just for a little while- for ourselves only. Somehow, if we can get in touch with ourselves again, we might learn what we really need for happiness and fulfillment, and we won’t need to ‘have it all.’
On a broader level, Steinem suggests that we need to speak out to change the commonly accepted ideals of perfection. ‘If we’re going to change the ethic where a size zero and plastic surgery is the admirable norm, then the rest of us who aren’t part of the admirable norm have to say so,’ Steinem says. ‘What it takes is women standing up … it’s breaking the silence.’