SURFACE PRESSURE AND THE PRETTY LIES WOMEN TELL EACH OTHER
I want to talk about some of the lies women tell each other, often with the best intentions. We say things to each other like, ‘that haircut really works for you’ and ‘that dress doesn’t make you look fat at all!’ in response to that dreaded question. We imagine that even if these things aren’t true, they will somehow still be helpful to say. But these little white lies aren’t the focus of this entry. I want to talk about the big lies that turn into personal mantras and goals for many women. They are meant to inspire and empower us to aim for greatness and not allow the challenges we face as women or the negativity of others to hinder us. Most girls raised in middle-class America in the 1990s like me were told this compelling story about our future selves. In this story, we are powerful, successful, and the absolute best at everything. This idea that you can ‘have it all’ is incredibly exhilarating. The tale normally concludes with either explicit or implied statements of encouragement. Common phrases like ‘you can do anything that you put your mind to,’ ‘practice makes perfect,’ ‘you can be/do anything you want,’ and ‘anything boys can do, girls can do better,’ are prime examples. A more accurate rephrasing of these statements might sound something like this: ‘your mind is capable of a lot of amazing things but not all things,’ ‘practice makes better; perfection is literally impossible,’ ‘there are a wide range of jobs and professions that you can choose from but they should be suited to your interests, abilities, and goals.’ I’m not even going to touch that last phrase because it’s a can of worms and I have a ton of ground to cover.
While these sayings are certainly catchy and sentimental, they technically aren’t true. A girl can’t be a giraffe when she grows up no matter how much she wants to be one (this would be the case even if Toys R Us had not gone out of business). When you’re a kid, it’s unlikely that you’re going to take the time to assess the validity of statements made by adults you trust and/or have authority over you. By adulthood, these notions might become so ingrained that you can’t even see the ways in which they influence your actions and decision-making. I obviously don’t have a problem with women having high hopes and ambitious goals given my professional background. However, if a career, job, salary, or title is what you are reaching for to find fulfillment and validation, you’re in for a tremendous disappointment. The pay-off that you are promised at the end of your striving may turn out to be a box of DVDs from season one of Lost [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G5RkjxU2AIQ ]. Like me, you can find yourself thirty-eight years old supposedly having ‘made it’ in life only to feel like a shell of your former self and that it wasn't really worth it.
Women know how to stand in the gap and hold things together. Many of us hold our families together in ways that are so intricate that things completely fall apart when you get sick or take a vacation. During times of war, we held this country together financially and emotionally while many men deployed to fight in Europe, Korea, and Vietnam. And yet the response, when it was all over, was to tell these women to go back to their traditional roles in the home or back to their gender-approved occupations so that the men could get back to doing the 'real work.' My views on this topic are unpopular in both Christian and secular circles because they are nuanced and layered, like the topic itself. I do believe that there are certain things a woman cannot be and should not endeavor to be. Women can’t be husbands, fathers, or male athletes and no dose of synthetic hormone or the surgical assembly of male appearing genitalia is going to change that. I also believe that a local church body with no male headship or leadership representation is extremely problematic and will be ill-equipped to provide balanced doctrine and discipleship to both men and women. Apart from that, the vast majority of careers that have been labeled as traditionally male or female roles were relegated as such arbitrarily and don't have much of anything to do with an individual's capabilities.
Now there are plenty of legitimate reasons that a woman might not advance as quickly or make less income than her male counterpart. This doesn’t fit the narrative that hardcore feminists want circulating so it’s rarely acknowledged. Prime examples include pregnancy, maternity leave, and reasonable accommodations for pumping. If the woman is anything like me, she will want her household to be ordered and to function in a particular way that feels like home. Throwing a new human into the mix really grinds those gears. Things do not just magically fall back into place when maternity leave is over. From the moment you bring that baby home from the hospital, you are on 24-hour call for illnesses, doctor's appointments, injuries, etc. When they are young, Mommy is the first line of defense for comfort, security, and just instinctively knowing how to handle things of a certain nature more easily. I shouldn’t get strange looks because I take PTO to be with my sick child and am offering to work remotely if needed. At some point, this woman may come to realize that it’s too much of a strain on her family for her to continue full-time employment or even to continue in her chosen profession at all. Statistics won’t account for any of that but talking to both young and mature mothers easily will.
With that said, there are also still plenty of illegitimate reasons that women don’t get promoted and/or make less money than their counterparts. Young moms and single moms do not usually have the luxury of spending a great deal of time outside of work socializing and team building. There is a strange amount of importance placed on this by male bosses in my experience which betrays a certain level of being out of touch with the realities of what it takes to be a decent wife and mother. Women also tend to bring a certain level of accountability to a space that many men don’t want. This is why I was essentially forced out of my last two jobs simply for trying to do those jobs well. When you reveal other people’s flaws and inadequacies just by having integrity in your work, they quickly become angry and vengeful. You are no longer viewed as a stellar co-worker or employee but a meddlesome target that needs to be isolated and subsequently eliminated.
All of this brings me back to the theme of strength but this time examining it entirely from a female perspective. There is an easy-to-miss verse in the last song of Encanto where Luisa says, 'I may not be as strong but I’m getting wiser.' In re-watching this movie for the umpteenth time recently, it dawned on me that this is probably the most important statement her character makes in the entire movie. It demonstrates the completion of her character arc by achieving personal growth. It is a well-known but rarely mentioned fact that the more strength you exhibit, the more stuff will get thrown at you with decreasing levels of concern for your well-being. You look around and realize that you are being taken completely for granted years down the line. This is the story of virtually every wife, mother, daughter, and sister that I know. Luisa’s amazing song is a vocal and visual cornucopia of symbolism and witticisms that ring true even on closer examination. She starts out carrying donkeys and tossing boulders in the air then progresses quickly to decimating a giant iceberg and bracing against a whirlwind. As the song nears the end, the expansive family home is dropped on her with a sickening thud, appearing to completely crush her. The music drops abruptly for just a few seconds, long enough for you to get a bit nervous about her well-being the first time you watch it. Then she lifts it all with those killer thighs and starts juggling it with her feet. By the end of the song, she holds up the entire town and then tosses it in the air. It’s an amazing sequence and extremely empowering, but if you don’t take your eyes off what her legs are doing to make it look easy, you will miss the fact that she is struggling to pull this off. I think there might be a lesson in there somewhere. Luisa has to lose her super strength to learn her limits and how to ask for help. I mentioned in an earlier post that a man with an ego who thinks he has the answer for everything can be a dangerous thing [https://www.thiswomansthoughtlife.com/post/my-icarus-factor-why-many-men-in-leadership-seem-threatened-by-women-like-me]. For women, it’s rarely about ego... it’s usually about paralyzing insecurity and lack of wisdom. 'I’m pretty sure I’m worthless if I can’t be of service.' I can’t tell you how many times I have had almost this exact thought. It’s hard to unlearn the habit of defining your worth by what you do for others. I have been carried by the grace of GOD for many years. There is simply no other explanation for how I was able to manage so much and look like I wasn’t sweating. It was foolish of me to think that I could sustain the demands of a full-time physician schedule while managing home chores, errands, medical appointments for the kids, a special needs daughter getting multiple early intervention services, and an active toddler. But this was the narrative drilled into my psyche by my parents, extended family, teachers, mentors, and more subliminally through the prosperity gospel. I had to learn through developing chronic illnesses that what my family and friends need most from me is to be healthy and whole. It’s not a bad thing to marvel at the women in your life and wonder how they can do so much so well. But maybe take a closer look under the surface and you might find crippling anxiety, overwhelming stress, and a practically empty gas tank.
My takeaway is this: no one can have it all. When older women sow this expectation into the hearts and minds of younger women, they often don’t realize that they are really just creating a burden of unattainable expectations. We are finite beings with finite capabilities. Everything we do comes with a cost…money, time, stress, insomnia, poor dietary choices, weight gain, illness, etc. I hope that when my daughter is old enough to start imagining her adult life, I will remember this lesson. I hope I present to her the choice to either be the ineffective master of many things or the excellent master of a few.
No pressure video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQwVKr8rCYw
A great song by DOE that talks about the clarity that comes with honesty. One of my favorites. Enjoy.