My first priority in life has always been one thing: to be strong, in every sense of the word. I wanted a to be smart, successful in my career, fearless, unstoppable. I wanted to be the idealized "strong woman." I wanted to have it all.
But at the same time, I've always felt that I was standing in my own way. Women today are in a unique position. We're rising in the workforce, gaining power economically and fighting battles for the power to control our lives and our bodies. But somehow, we're still not quite there. For years, I challenged the notions of gender inequality, from the office to the bedroom, because I believed that by constantly using gender as a primary identifier and go-to defense, we were setting ourselves up to be looked at differently. I believed that women were inherently equal to men but that the problem was we didn't see ourselves as such.
Now, I've come to realize that I was wrong, and that we are not. Women are not lesser, but we are different. We face an array of challenges that will never be the same for men, and that we handle very differently. In the United States, women are twice as likely to be affected by panic disorder, general anxiety disorder and specific phobias as men, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Major depressive disorder is more common in women, as is post-traumatic stress disorder. There are at least twice as many women suffering from eating disorders in this country as men, and many more who struggle with body dissatisfaction and disordered eating habits that go unreported, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.
On top of all of this, professional women are now engaged in another battle: the struggle to "have it all." While I don't necessarily believe that women have higher risk for many mental and emotional disorders because of the stress we put on ourselves to do everything, I certainly think they're related. "Can we have it all?" is a question asked overwhelmingly of women, and primarily by women. And what seems to be a natural tendency to stress and self-criticize certainly does not help. We have placed ourselves in the wonder-woman role, and for many, if we can't live up to those expectations, we feel that we are not enough.
I am no exception: I have struggled with many of these things. Yes, I have been "successful" thus far in my life, but I have also expected more from myself than I could ever accomplish, and felt lost if I ever failed. I have struggled with many things: a disordered relationship with food and exercise, anxiety and high levels of stress far beyond what I expected at the age of 20, feelings of inadequacy and a paralyzing fear of failure. I, and most likely other young women, pretended to have no weaknesses rather than simply being honest.
For years, I didn't admit these things to another person. I did not say them out loud, and I barely thought them. I feared being judged, that others wouldn't take me seriously as a reputable journalist, or worse, as a human being. I feared that these inadequacies would mean more than any accomplishment ever could. I fought to be considered successful, to be a "strong woman," to prove that I could have it all when seen from the outside, with little regard for what was going on within.
This, I think, is the problem with how young women today are beginning to view themselves. I expected to be capable of anything and everything. Failure was not only undesirable, but unacceptable. I chose to climb up a rickety ladder to success, built from lofty goals and high expectations, because I want to, not because I had to. But somewhere along the way, I got it very wrong.
In my quest to be strong, I ignored the very imperfections that made me human, as well as the well-known secret that women are more prone to certain problems in the first place. Instead, women should not only accept that, but embrace it. It's not abnormal for women to aspire to sit in the corner office, be the best wife or girlfriend, and have the perfect family as well as the perfect body. But when did we stop placing value on being the best, most honest versions of ourselves?
Throughout my educational and professional career, I have looked up to a few notable journalists as role models. On the surface, it is because they are undoubtedly successful: they are accomplished journalists, wonderful professors, and thoughtful writers. But I've met a lot of people who are successful by society's standards. The ones that have stuck in my mind as people I aspire to be like have done so because they are wonderful women: kind, open and honest about their strengths as well as their weaknesses. I relate to them in more ways than our shared interest in journalism. I aspire to be like them as people, not to have their bylines or their titles.
In the professional world and elsewhere, women are different. My point is not to undermine the very real struggles that many men have as well, but the reality is, few were asking if "men could have it all" until the question with women had been nearly exhausted.
Women have somehow been placed in the spotlight. And I think it's about time we embrace that and own up to our shortcomings as well as our strengths. If women were as open with their struggles as they are with their successes, I have hope that the "have it all culture" would start to fade away and we could be strong for overcoming challenges, not for being devoid of problems that are much more common than we may think. Yes, there is strength in success. But there is strength in struggling, too.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.