NORMAN — If you want to get into an argument with a woman, compliment her.
Say she did an excellent job on her project, on her assignment or with her fundraiser, then watch what happens. Whether you’re applauding her for the skillful handling of a complex situation or cheering her for the quicksilver nature of her problem solving, she will nod, offer a tight-lipped smile and proceed to explain, in earnest, why you’re wrong.
“My team did everything.” ‚ ”If only I had another week!”‚ ”Are you kidding? I’m nowhere near my expectations.”
She’ll keep talking, too, apologizing and offering details. Men back away slowly, scratching their heads and swearing never to say another word. Other women murmur soothing noises because we understand.
I offered soothing noises today. For three years, a close friend has been writing a novel. Her publisher sent an email that included the glorious phrase:”It’s terrific. Consider the book accepted‚” as well as suggestions for a few changes for the final chapter. She forwarded me his note. I focused on “terrific” and ‚”accepted,” but she focused on his edits as evidence that she was not, and probably never would be, good enough. She feels lightweight, amateurish, and as if she’s been caught pilfering rather than earning her success.
She suffers from what I call “achievement dysmorphia‚” or the sense of disconnection women experience when our manifest accomplishments and our sense of unworthiness don’t line up. It isn’t quite the impostor syndrome — it’s not about faking a persona — it’s about a reluctance to accept victory and enjoy even an earned sense of triumph.
Cue Doris Day singing “I Enjoy Being a Girl.”
Over the years, we’ve learned about body dysmorphia, a recurrent, relentless dissatisfaction so profound it compels a woman to diet, exercise or scrub her face compulsively because she can’t stand her appearance.
(Such behavior is not hard-wired, either. Female gerbils do not spend hours wondering whether they’ve spent enough time on the treadmill that day. They do not search under the wood chips for tiny pairs of Spanx if they feel some fat under their fur.)
Cultural conditioning causes us to undermine ourselves ritually, and we accept the self-sabotage as if we were born to it. Actually, we’re almost but not quite born to it: If you see a little girl look in a mirror, you’ll probably see her smile. But the older she gets, the more that smile is tinged with chagrin. By the time she’s grown into her adult body, she’s probably dissatisfied with it.
This profound sense of discomfort inside one’s own skin is so widely accepted as part of women’s lives that huge corporations such as Unilever, owners of Dove products, capitalize on it. Dove now has a “Self-Esteem Toolkit” as part of its website to help girls “embrace their unique beauty.”
Great, right? Except Unilever also owns AXE products marketed to young men. Are young men encouraged by AXE to discover the unique beauty in every individual? Let’s see: An AXE website declares: “Girls are getting hotter! Keep your cool with new AXE.” Hmm.
This tells us that women are identified first by their beauty — and belief in their beauty is worn away long before they are old enough to understand it would be better for them to build their identity on their strengths, skills and talents. But vanity in girls is encouraged; pride is discouraged. If this were not the case, there would be ego moisturizers alongside ones for your face.
The world persists in categorizing women as either pretty or smart, nice or ambitious, and feminine or feminist even though, if you’re civilized enough to sleep lying down and not standing on all fours, you already know these divisions are artificial. They only exist because some guy, a long time ago, decided “Hey, if we don’t start compartmentalizing women, they’ll be all over the place!”
And now women are all over the place, or soon will be; it’s taken a few thousand years, but we’re on it.
It’s time for us to stop rehearsing our shortcomings. When they are due, we should accept congratulations with grace and pleasure — right along with the other responsibilities of success.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut, a feminist scholar who has written eight books, and a columnist for the Hartford Courant. She can be reached through her website at ginabarreca.com.
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