the girl who has it all
This article first appeared in Lip Issue 20 – you can buy a copy of the magazine here. We promise it’s packed full of other goodies! And you can help us keep our magazine alive by donating to our Pozible campaign here.
There’s an ad for Barbie out at the moment that I like. Playing on Barbie’s long history of slipping in and out of different professions as easily as changing clothes (she’s a busy girl— she’s had no less than 150 careers so far, and all without breaking a nail!), the ad features little girls proudly announcing their career aspirations. They reach the tagline conclusion, ‘I can be anything.’
This is the message I’ve grown up with. We are a generation that has been told we can do anything. But when the world is our oyster, it’s easy to become hypnotised by our choices. We conceptualise success as “having it all”, so we try to curate a perfect future. We race down five different paths at the same time, hoping that they’ll somehow merge together into one coherent life. We can do anything, so we try to do everything.
I’m the worst kind of perfectionist, constantly plagued by a sense of needing to do more, to do better, to be better. Getting the top mark on a uni assignment feels more like a relief than an achievement, because I’m already worrying about that article I have to write tomorrow, those magazine pitches I should have already sent out, that novel I vaguely claim to be writing. I always feel like I’m working hard, and yet I always feel like I’m failing. For the longest time, I thought it was just my personality. But Gloria Steinem would say it’s a consequence of the contemporary feminist ideal of perfection, where believing we can do anything has resulted in overwhelming pressure for women to try to do too much.
Obviously, men struggle with pressure to succeed and live up to certain expectations as well. And now more than ever, masculinity seems to be in crisis, and ideas of what it means to be a man are in flux. Male or female, us Gen-Yers are all struggling to reconcile all our boundless possibilities within the confines of one little life, trying to make it perfect. Still, Steinem argues that women face a particular set of pressures. Without belittling the experiences of men, I think there’s enough truth in Steinem’s argument to make it worthwhile considering the myth of having it all from a female perspective.
In a lot of ways, we’re lucky. We don’t live in the world of our grandmothers or even our mothers. We have more options and opportunities than ever before. But despite being allowed to have the same career aspirations as men, we still have to walk a delicate line between being a “strong, independent woman”, and fulfilling the same feminine roles as always. The pressure to start a family and be maternal and keep a household running still exists, and the focus on physical perfection is stronger than ever. As Steinem said at a conference for eating disorder clinicians in the US late last year, ‘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.’
Even if marriage and babies are in the “maybe later” basket, we still struggle with an overflowing cornucopia of things we feel we have to do: trying to start a career, acing our exams, nurturing a pet passion, having a social life, maintaining a relationship, travelling the world, playing sport, volunteering…and on top of that, finding time to shave our legs and keep our hair looking nice and shiny. As smart, independent girls, we all say we’re above obsessing over our looks, but a Bobbi Brown survey last year showed that two thirds of girls aged 16 to 19 wore makeup five or more days a week; a Mission Australia study suggested that body image was still the number one concern amongst young people. Even though we know it’s our brains and personality that count, we still dream of looking fabulous while we accept our Pulitzer Prize.
Maybe this isn’t such a terrible thing in itself. I can’t help thinking that caring about beauty and makeup can be a way of celebrating femininity. It makes me feel good to wear lipstick and high heels, and sometimes reading fashion magazines and trying on pretty clothes is just fun. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But it’s the obsession with perfection that gets us into trouble. When making ourselves beautiful stops being fun and starts feeling like something we have to do – and none of it feels like enough – that’s the problem. Just watch Beyonce in her video for Why Don’t You Love Me. Strutting around as the perfect housewife, she acts out an exaggerated version of all the traditional guises of femininity, trying so desperately to be perfect and meet all expectations and it’s still not enough. It gives me the chills, because I think some degree of that pressure exists in almost all of us.
I don’t have the solution; not even Gloria Steinem does, really. It all comes down to rethinking how we conceptualise success and perfection. Somehow, we need to shift our collective mind frame to realise that while we can do anything, we don’t have to do everything – and we don’t have to do it all perfectly. Maybe that’s the next job for our friend Barbie to tackle.
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