While listening to an NPR radio interview with Debora Spar, President of Barnard College and author of the newly-published book Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection, it became all too clear that the ideas I grew up with about being a girl and achieving as a female were really different from those of Spar's. Born in 1963, nine years my junior, Spar described being bombarded with images of females "that conveyed an image of some sort of effortless combination of work and motherhood and sexuality and professionalism and ease."
"Effortless?" I screamed. "How could that be?" Wow! There is nothing further than the truth -- we all know that it takes tons of effort to achieve as a woman, mother and career person. I was all ears to learn about how the myth grew to be so colossal.
My generation of women, comprising what social historians refer to as the baby boomer generation, broke new barriers. We were not raised to think we could be or do anything we wanted to be or do. Graduating high school in 1972, my female peers knew that any career path was going to require effort and demand that we prove ourselves equal to our male counterparts. We also knew that most of us could not look to our mothers as role models, since most of them did not work outside of the home.
So, how is it that a girl, just nine years younger than me, internalized such an extremely different idea of what was involved in achieving and navigating relationships and work life, such that it would be deemed "effortless"? As a psychotherapist and leadership consultant, I see that Debora Spar is pointing toward kids being sponges for the cultural messages of our time that, growing up in the '70s, females were sold a bill of goods suggesting the ridiculous notion that they "could just glide into the new era of equality, with babies, board seats, and husbands in tow."
As one of the youngest female professors to be tenured at Harvard Business School and a mother of three, Spar is known for being among the ranks of other women leaders in the business and academic world who promised young women that they could have it all. At this point, after years of living and studying female leadership, Spar says, "We were wrong. Women struggled for power and instead got stuck in an endless quest for perfection." That quest for perfection entraps women in an emotional maze, zapping courage, creativity and confidence.
Ironically, hours after hearing the radio broadcast, I was in my gym, on the cross trainer, face-to-face with the April 2013 cover of O The Oprah Magazine. Smiling and sturdy, Oprah sits tall on a rock with woods in the background. Through the middle of the page, in thick bold letters is the following: Confidence! How to Build it, Radiate It -- and Finally Come into Your Own. As my eye scanned the full cover, I couldn't help but notice the counter message from a different article title below in smaller font, yet thick and bold, nonetheless. It read, "Love + Kindness = Thinner Thighs." Oh please -- there it is, the current day double-bind setting up girls and women to measure their character according to the size of their thighs. I couldn't help but think about how these subtle yet ubiquitous messages are similar to the very thing that got Spar to think that achieving would be effortless.
Since the advent of digital technology in the early 1990s, images of females have been manipulated in ways that were never attainable in a dark room. Advertisers seized upon the naivety of girls and teens, our predisposition to be gullible and literal, by hooking them to believe that it was reasonable to achieve the ultra-thin look -- effortless, perhaps not, but yes, achievable and admirable. The messages were and still are intended to get us feeling inadequate so we'd spend more money trying to "improve" our flawed selves.
While we've clearly come a long way, (after all, the magazine I was reading is owned by one of the wealthiest and most successful women in the business world), the cultural messages remain toxic and misguiding. The messages are intended to undermine girls' self-esteem and women's confidence and they aren't going away because the messages work, getting us to spend our hard-earned money on products. Children and teens can't protect themselves -- they need their parents and teachers to do so. They need all involved in their lives to pay attention to the jingles, ads and music videos flashing in front of their kids, and get better skilled at decoding the media's messages.
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