Courtney Martin offers a show stopping quote in her book, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, in which she writes, “We are a generation of young women who were told we could do anything and instead heard that we had to be everything.”
I wish that didn’t hit home for me as squarely as it does. Ouch. Learning to make choices about where to invest my time is work in progress for me. When I get it right, I’m engaged and present and productive and relaxed. And when I get it wrong – by taking on too much or trying to achieve an unattainable standard of perfection – I’m distracted and short-tempered and inefficient…and tired.
Trying to do everything perfectly is tricky business. It’s exhausting. And I’m more clear than ever that it’s also unnecessary.
It makes me wonder how we can teach the next generation of women, our daughters, the lesson we meant to learn all along.
How can we show them “you can be anything,” without the pressure to be everything?
Simone Marean, the co-founder and executive director of Girls Leadership, was profiled recently in this Fortune.com piece, and one story she recounted in the interview stood out to me as though it were circled in red pen. Here it is.
When I taught our program to girls in the second and third grade, we would do this exercise called “Cross the Room” with their parents. I would say: “Cross the room if you feel pressure to be the perfect student, perfect athlete, artist, sister, friend, daughter.” About 85% of the girls would cross the room. Not surprisingly, about 85% of the parents crossed the room at the same time. It’s not just a girl phenomenon; the girls are part of a larger cultural phenomenon.
In many cultures, especially middle-class, affluent cultures, the pressure to be perfect blossoms in middle school, when girls start to think in that more relational way. Not just, “What do I think? What do I want to do?” but, “What do people think of me” and “Do they think I’m doing things right?” As they start to care more about other people’s opinions of them and invest more deeply in other people’s emotions than their own emotions, that’s where we really see that drop in voice and risk-taking—not wanting to try new sports, new languages, new activities, unless they know they’re going to be the best right out of the gate.
That external pressure to be perfect, rooted in the question “What will people think of me?” can be all-consuming, both for us as women and for our girls.
The negative consequences of this pressure are manifold, but let me highlight just two:
- An unwillingness to speak with our authentic voice, lest others not approve, and
- An unwillingness to try new things, lest we fail
Can you think of any other two behaviors that would cause us to play smaller than silencing our voices and not trying new things? I certainly can’t.
But how often do we hold our tongue or couch our words because we’re worried about what someone will think? How often do we stick to what we’re already good at, foregoing the exhilaration of learning something new? Too often, I’d say.
And our girls? They’re watching. Just as they totter around in our high heels or type on imaginary laptops at our sides, they take in everything we do and then they try it on for size.
What do we want them to see?
As women who have so much potential, let’s agree to this.
Let’s show our girls how it’s done.
Let’s let our voices be heard. Let’s boldly enter the arena with our ideas and let’s pursue whatever lights us up without the pressure of needing to be perfect, or even to be GOOD at it.
Are you in?