Chanel Dubofsky responds to a recent Daily Beast article which points to the desire for perfectionism as the cause of what’s holding American women back.
I thought I would write a different piece in response to Deborah Spar’s Daily Beast article, “Why Women Should Stop Wanting to be Perfect,” in which she cites American women’s obsession with perfection as what’s stopping us from truly “succeeding.”
The story would have been about when, in fourth grade, people in my class started liking other people and it seemed implied that if you wanted to be cool, you had to at least pretend to have a crush on someone else. So I picked this boy, who had spiky hair and wore high top sneakers and was not particularly nice. (I had low standards for a 9-year-old.) I wrote “I love Chris H” all over the cover of my notebook, conspicuously, so that it could be clear to everyone that I liked Chris. (Chris, if it’s any consolation, I’m sure there was more than one girl in fourth grade who had legitimate feelings for you.) I wanted to be cool. Even then, I had an image of the perfect girl I thought I should at least try to be, a girl who did what other girls did.
But Spar’s article is another in the long line of what is now a weird kind of genre: Women Can/Cannot Have It All: Discuss. There was almost nothing in it that I could relate to, the experience of reading it made me crazy, save for the interviews in the middle with various Barnard College women (and one dude). What did come up for me was the frustration that I should feel like I related to the piece. “Having it all is contingent on what you want,” said one Barnard woman in the video. If the title of the piece is relevant at all, it’s here. There are things women are supposed to want—career (although this is debatable, depending on who you’re talking to), husband (because you’re obviously heterosexual), and babies. Wanting those things means you’re normal and if you can juggle all these desires and outcomes, you might even have a shot at being perfect. The consequences of not being “normal” is that you’re totally left out of the conversation.
For me, this is a question of destabilizing social norms rather than anything else. As the one dude interviewed in the Daily Beast piece said, “I guess I think about that [having it all] as being a question for women.” Because he imagines that his wife will take care of the kids in addition to everything else. It will be on her to figure out how to balance things. This isn’t just because he’s dealing with the results of years of socialized sexism, but because this question of having it all has literally only been framed as a question for women.
“I don’t even relate to the question (of having it all),” said another Barnard interviewee. (I want to find her and feed her lattes and make her talk to me forever.) I so wish they’d spent more time with her, not just because I understand not relating to the question myself, but because it’s an example of who we are not listening to. The articles that have caught our attention on this issue have been written primarily by white, wealthy, traditionally well educated women over the age of 40. Do we actually care about young women and what they’re saying? About their realities? In a separate interview, a Barnard woman is visibly frustrated at the question, characterizing it rightfully as “infantilizing.” Women for whom the idea of “having it all” doesn’t apply in the context it’s being framed in are left out of the conversation because as a society, we don’t know what to do with them. Better than “Can women have it all?” would be, “What do women need?” “What do women want?” “How can you get what you want and need?” and directing these questions at more than just one kind of (white, heterosexual, wealthy or middle class, college educated, able bodied) woman.
Spar’s piece ends with: “Feminism wasn’t supposed to make us miserable. It was supposed to make us free; to give women the power to shape their fortunes and work for a more just world.” Feminism is a movement that’s still working to make us free, and it’s working to make us think and act outside our socially conscripted gender roles. It’s funny and sad how quickly we absorb those roles, even when we’re reticent to do so. (Chris, I’m sorry. I’m sure there was someone in fourth grade who seriously liked you. You had Airwalk sneakers, after all. You were ahead of your time.) If we’re meant to be taking our destinies seriously, we need to think about how conversations like this, about having “it” all, narrow the field for everyone, of all genders, and all possibilities.
Chanel Dubofsky is a writer in Brooklyn, New York, and the creator and editor of the Marriage Project, an interview series about marriage in imagination and reality. She has published essays in the Forward, Tablet, Gender Focus and The Pursuit of Harpyness, and fiction at Monkey Bicycle, Matchbook and Quick Fiction. She blogs at Diverge (www.idiverge.wordpress.com).