Do we have Wonder Woman Syndrome?


Hello again! Long time, no see.

I know, I know. I’ve really neglected this blog the past couple of months. I could come up with lots of really good excuses (‘I didn’t have time!’ ‘I had other priorities’ ‘blablabla’…), but the truth is: Having a “career” and dealing with the mundane logistics of adult life kinda sucked all the creativity out of me and I simply didn’t feel motivated to write.

There you go, a serving of honest truth to start with. BOOM.

You might ask yourself: “Why is she telling me all this, I didn’t even notice she didn’t post…” – Bear with me, I’m getting there. Kind of.

Anyway, I am currently on holidays … although technically speaking, I’m temporarily unemployed, but potato – potahhhto, the point is: Energy  is recharged and creativity restored. Time to revive the blog.

Incidentally, I’ve been thinking a lot about women lately. Not in the bi-curious-kind of way. No, I’ve been thinking a lot about women, or rather the role of women in society, because I seem to be confronted with this topic everywhere I look. It seems to come up in the books I read, the political debates that affect my life (“Is Angela Merkel Germany’s Ultimate Mother Figure”), radio, etc…Also, I’ve been having a playful “debate” with my boyfriend all summer whether or not Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines video is an idiotic rapey song that objectifies women (Me: Yes!, Boyfriend: Who cares, it’s a catchy tune).

I count myself very lucky because the women in my life are all extraordinary, smart and interesting – a wonderful mix of talent, intelligence, inner and outer beauty and wit, and I am proud of all of them. Nevertheless, I often observe that many of my female friends, including myself, often doubt their own abilities, skills and success because of one thing: A slightly unhealthy obsession with perfection.

What exactly do I mean? Well, judging by the complaints I’ve observed, it’s not good enough to just have a job (which was the most common worry and cause of anxiety when we graduated). No. You also have to be good at your job. And of course it has to be a fulfilling job. And making money is a plus too. And you have to look good on your job. Duh. And, of course, you have to be a wonderful girlfriend, cook and homemaker. And do your laundry (Ok. Laundry is beside the point. I just find laundry the most annoying chore, that’s why it gets a special shout out). And you have to have interesting hobbies. And exercise. And be charitable. And artsy. And and and…I may exaggerate, but there does seem to be a long list of self-imposed standards that women try to live up to these days. And not being perfect across the board is often interpreted as personal failure.

A personal example: This summer I got promoted, ran my first 10k race and stage managed a show. Yet, all I can think about is “But you haven’t kept up your blogging. You haven’t cooked healthy, nutritious meals in a while. And you still can’t apply liquid eyeliner.”

And although the specifics might vary, many other women seem to experience the same. Unable to celebrate and “settle” for our accomplishments, we continuously set higher standards for ourselves. So, are we setting ourselves up for failure? Or is it healthy to be overly ambitious? And where is this obsession with being perfect coming from anyway?

A few people, including Debora Spar, President at Barnard College at Colombia University, think that feminism, although it has done a lot for women, was misinterpreted along the way and has put new shackles on liberated women. She says that “…feminism was really a revolutionary movement, and like all revolutionary movements, it wasn’t about personal satisfaction or personal success. It was a social movement. It was about civil rights; it was about expanding access; it was about bringing fully half of the population into society with all of the rights and responsibilities that men had. And somewhere along the line … the message of feminism got watered down and misinterpreted” (NPR, 2013).

What she means with “watered down” was that over time the image of a modern woman evolved into a larger than life figure that effortlessly combines traditional roles as mothers and homemakers with work and sexuality. Moreover, the notion that women could be anything they wanted to be was manifested into our collective consciousness. In a way, the message that women could be anything was interpreted as women SHOULD be everything.

I’m currently reading Ian McEwan’s latest novel “Sweet Tooth” and came across a passage that really resonates with this theory. The book is set in the ’70s and centers around Serena Frome who, after completing her degree at Cambridge, is being groomed for a career at MI5. At the beginning of the novel, Serena describes how she really wanted to read English, but her mother put pressure on her to study maths:

“…But what I hadn’t understood about my mother was that buried deep beneath her conventional exterior was the hardy little seed of a feminist. I’m sure that word never passed her lips, but it made no difference…She said it was my duty as a woman to go to Cambridge and study maths. As a woman? …She told me she would not permit me to waste my talent. I was to excel and become extraordinary…It would compound to injustice if I failed to aim high…My mother told me she would never forgive me and she would never forgive herself if I went off to read English and became no more than a slightly better educated housewife than she was. I was in danger of wasting my life.” (McEwan, Sweet Tooth: 4).

Serena is of course a fictional character. Yet, having achieved new rights that faciliated better access to degrees and jobs emphasized an optimism among women that anything was possible.

Btw, what I refer to as wonder woman syndrome is often called “superwoman mystique” by sociologists. If you are a fan of “proper” peer-reviewed definitions (wink, wink), Martino and Lauriano offer this: “The Superwoman ideal is a construct born out of the Women’s Movement in the 1960s, and defines women who strive to “do it all and have it all”. As women were becoming more empowered and liberated, it became increasingly apparent that women found themselves in situations in which they were striving to become the ultimate superwoman.” (Journal of Behavioral Health, 2013).

They point out specifically three areas in which women strive to be better than average, or factors that contribute to this ideal of being a super woman: Taking on a masculine identity in the workplace (= surpassing the traditional role of men by being the main “breadwinner”), perfectionism (combining the traditional role of women as mother and housewife with having a career) and body image (unrealistic size aspirations).

The notion of “having to be everything” is also discussed in Courtney E. Martin’s non-fiction book “Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters”. She discusses the general observation that women often judge their lives as too “small”. She observes a general unwillingness to settle for anything that doesn’t measure up to the standards of our imaged visions of ourselves. Martin also makes the point that the cost of these sometimes superhuman ambitions is the enormous guilt and blame we only place on ourselves when we fail to live up to our own ambitions (-> not blogging -> loooooooser).

Spar also adds to that “…women have been haunted by the problem of more. Spurred by Betty Friedan’s plaintive query ‘Is this all?’ – inspired by feminism’s struggle for expanded rights and access, seduced by Astronaut’s barbie – we have stumbled into an era of towering expectations. Little girls want to be princesses. Big girls want to be superwomen. Old women want and fully expect to look young. We want more sex, more love, more jobs, more-perfect babies. The only thing we want less of, it seems, is wrinkles” (Chronicle of Higher Education, 2013).

But can we really blame feminism here? I don’t think so.

Many authors point out that, as is the case with many movements, feminism ultimately became commercialized and privatized which gave rise to the mystique of the super woman. One of the first organized feminist protests in 1969 in front of NYC’s Macy’s store was in response to a Mattel ad in Life magazine that advertised toys saying “Little girls dream about being a ballerina or fashion model, while boys were born to build, learn and find science fun” (Nelson, 2013). Similar protests broke out across the United States calling to end sexist ad campaigns that devalued women. So, by the 1970s and ’80s, there was a defining shift in advertising which incorporated the new image of women as empowered, equal professionals, while keeping up traditional notions of womanhood.

“This type of advertising produced a number of successful brands and sales soared noticeably among the companies using classy pro-women catchphrases and jingles that became so popular, many wormed their way into pop culture. In the late 1970s, ads for Jean Nate fragrance featured a female jockey and the tagline ‘Take charge of your life.’ Enjoli’s famous jingle of the same period, ‘I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan and never let you forget you’re a man,’ purported to take advertising to and for women by the balls, but nonetheless played to old stereotypes of gender roles”, (Nelson, Airbrushed Nation).

To many women today feminism is not really relevant anymore. In fact, I know many young women who roll their eyes when they hear the word feminism or even actively try to distance themselves from feminist ideologies. This mainly has to do with the fact that they often think of feminists as angry “spinsters” who protest against the upkeep and maintenance of our arm pits, legs and private parts.  I think that’s a bit of a shame because so many of our liberties today are a result of feminist achievements.

So maybe that’s the real issue. That we take for granted the battles that have been won for women’s rights, distance ourselves from a movement that strives to empower women and succumb to an unhealthy image of a superwoman that perpetuates our obsession with being perfect? Maybe we’ve just glossed over gender issues and inequalities that still persist today and think the feminist cause has been “won” because some ads say “we can have it all”? Maybe we shouldn’t and CAN’T have it all. At least not until we make some concessions and realize that traditional roles of women (being a good mother, girlfriend/wife, beautiful accessory) and modern feminist values (being equal, having a career, combining family time with the challenging schedule of a working professional) are perhaps not compatible in the sense that you can fulfill both roles equally well.

I’d be interested to hear what you think.

Over and out!


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