There is a Charlie Perfume ad from the seventies, depicting “The Woman Who Has It All,” or at least, a very common perception of her. It was an image that stuck with Harvard professor Deborah Spar for a very long time.
The Charlie girl is exquisite: glamorous, successful looking, and clearly holding down some high-power job with her lovely pantsuit and smart briefcase. In some of the ads she is seen heading out after work with friends; in another, she’s clinking champagne glasses with a hot guy on a date; in yet another she is shown clutching the hand of a small, appropriately-adorable child.
Her message is clear: “This is who you want to be, ladies! You too could have it all!”
Well, verbatim of the message is “Kind of young, kind of now; kind of free, kind of wow!” But same difference. As Spar points out, “Who wouldn’t want that?”
Exactly. And hey, more power to the Charlie Girl. If she weren’t a fictional construct for ad purposes, we’d all want to know her secret. Because she made it look so easy. As any of us real alpha women know, the combination of work and family life is not so much effortless handling and breezy elegance, as it is desperate juggling and time-crunching – and situations that don’t always leave you looking glamorous. How big is the gap between reality and the illusion?
Deborah Spar discovered the difference in the grimy ladies’ room of an airport one morning, five weeks after giving birth to her second child. She was on her way to a business meeting, and briefly took the time to pump breast milk for her baby. Her breasts started leaking all over her clean business suit. “So I guess this is ‘having it all,’” she thought ruefully, recalling the Charlie Girl ads and the personal goal she had always striven for. Just like that, a light went on for her.
The feminist movement of the sixties changed the world for half of its population. But as liberating as the movement was, in many ways it brought along just as many shackles and heavy expectations for women, especially those under the impression that the battle was pretty much over.
The knowledge that we can now be astronauts or scientists or Supreme Court judges is a double-edged sword. It opens up a realm of possibilities…followed shortly afterward by the expectations we’ve internalized after spending much of our lives submerged in media images of the Charlie Girl, and other fantasies of what the working woman’s life must be like.
Spar explains what happens: We start thinking “if I can be an astronaut or a Supreme Court judge, why am I not an astronaut or a Supreme Court judge? What’s wrong with me?”
And it goes in other directions.
Business women begin to feel like there is something wrong with them for not having eternally-flawless hair and poise, or a husband and child, or even the time to go on a date.
Working mothers who get caught in business suits stained with breast milk end up feeling like they’re about to drop the ball in at least one aspect of their lives, but are not yet sure whether it’ll be work or family.
Women who back away from the workforce after having children feel like they’ve failed because they couldn’t find a balance.
The running theme is always “why couldn’t I have it all? Why is it not so effortless for me? Society expects it to be.”
Feminism is far from being won. It’s far from perfect. There are plenty of pitfalls to be aware of, and being aware of them is the first step to redefining feminism, and making it work for you.
Recognizing the Beauty Ideal for What It Is
We all want to look gorgeous. For many of us, that’s just the ultimate confidence-booster. But ever notice how often the idea of the driven corporate woman is sexualized whenever she appears in the media? It’s not just that she’s expected to be smart and capable but she’s expected to be even more on her feet than the men are to really compete with them. She has to look gorgeous 24/7 on top of all that. It’s another expectation.
Now that’s not to say men don’t face their own expectations in the business world. But let’s face it – they don’t always meet every one of theirs, and it shouldn’t be super-important for us to meet this one. Clearly, you want to aim to at least be presentable in the workplace. But ‘presentable’ should be defined by what we feel good with, not by the standard of beauty demanded by society.
Recognizing that the Fight’s Not Over
As Spar points out, we’re still fighting for pay equity. We’re definitely still fighting for a system of sustainable child care in most countries, a system of support for working families, especially those with new mothers. We’re often still fighting for our right as women to have children at all without being marginalized in the workplace due to pregnancy, or the need to take maternity leave.
Women with children, especially newborns, tend to find themselves at a disadvantage when they return to the office – they learn they’ve been taken out of the running for a promotion to some high-level job, or even that they’ve been demoted to a position that’s a little more out of the way. Presumably it’s to allow them better hours, so they can get home to see their children. But it’s hard not to notice how (comparatively) rarely this happens to men with children. And it shouldn’t take surrendering our ambitions to get the time to be a parent. It’s not a personal failure for this to happen, it’s societal. Fighting against it is what should define feminism.
Recognizing the Cons of Extreme-Parenting
Spar notes that on the parenting front, it has become a thing in recent decades for parents to micromanage their kids’ lives. Parents decide what instruments their child will pick up, who their playmates will be, what sports they’ll go into, what colleges they’ll apply for…and of course it’s all with the best of intentions. But not only does it utterly cripple the children’s ability to be self-sufficient and independent; it also drains a lot of time away from the parents – especially the mother. Children’s lives don’t need to be micromanaged. And as the mother who wants it all, isn’t this a lot more time that could be spent making it happen?
Women should no longer be feeling the pressure to “do it all!” All that matters is that we feel like we’re doing all we want to, no matter where that falls on societies expectations!
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