When you picture your idea of a perfect woman, what do you see?
She’s probably got a high-flying career, a happy marriage to a handsome, successful man, with two beautiful children and she’s also drop-dead gorgeous with a size 10 figure into the bargain.
That is quite a list of achievements for one lifetime and, while I’m sure those women exist somewhere on the planet, it must be exhausting keeping all those balls in the air at the same time.
The trouble is that while most women might have aspirations to have and be each and every one of those things, very few of us will manage to attain all of them in our lives and even fewer will manage them all at the same time.
That leaves millions of women starting out on their lives aiming for the pedestal of perfection yet destined to failure.
For first generation feminists, life was essentially an either/or choice of being a homemaker or a career woman. For the second generation, they were told they could “have it all”.
Now the third generation is facing an even greater pressure – to have the perfect job AND the perfect family AND also to look perfect all of the time as well.
While women must meet a whole range of different criteria to be seen as successful (whether by men, other women or in their own eyes), for men there is usually just one criterion of success: having a good job with a high income.
It doesn’t matter how hopeless his personal life is or what he looks like. These are two pressures that barely register for men yet dominate many women’s every waking hour.
Young women in particular face an astonishing array of competing demands on their lives in order to be worthy of admiration.
They must be independent and bright, going from straight A*s at school to a good degree and then a high-flying job. But they must also have a loving relationship with a successful man, plus a perfect home. Oh, and they need to have a hot body too, with a flat tummy and slim legs, yet full, pert breasts. Even after they’ve had two babies. And they mustn’t forget to be seen in the latest designer fashions and unwalkable heels, even if the price tag is far beyond their income.
That list of demands is exhausting to read, let alone actually do every day. Yet millions of women crave to be that perfect woman with that perfect life.
This, we are told, is a result of the feminist revolution.
Feminism was supposed to be about enabling women (and men) to choose how they want to live their lives. Now, though, it has been twisted and distorted into a ridiculous expectation that every woman must be all she can be, to realise (or even exceed) her potential in every area.
That meant many women taking on the roles that their fathers or grandfathers performed, having a career and earning an income, while at the same time still also performing the roles of their mothers or grandmothers, raising children and doing the vast majority of the household chores.
Men were never expected to perform both roles and they certainly weren’t expected to be good at both of them!
By contrast, in almost every area of their lives, women are judged far more harshly by both sexes, with the finishing line in the race for perfection much harder to reach for women than men.
And that pressure on women to be perfect reaches into every corner of their lives, both public and private.
A man who works full-time but who takes his children to the park on a Saturday morning is hailed as a heroic father. Sound the trumpets and start the parade! Meanwhile, a woman who works full-time but misses just one after-school activity for their child will be condemned by the other mothers and by herself as Not Good Enough. “Guilt parenting” is now the norm for many working mums.
In the workplace, child-free women who forge high-flying careers are branded as selfish, while women who choose to be stay-at-home mothers are discarded as traitors to The Sisterhood.
Meanwhile, the many millions of working mothers muddling through the middle who choose to downscale their career ambitions when they have young children, and therefore fail to break through the glass ceiling at work, are dismissed as failures, even though recent research from the Edelman Womanhood study powered by Edelman Intelligence, show that most women still put their family first in their list of priorities because this is what makes them happy.
Added to all this pressure at work and at home is the pressure to look perfect, and it starts from a young age when girls are told to “be good” and praised for looking “pretty”.
They then spend years inundated with a dizzying array of “perfect” female faces and bodies leering at them from every magazine, TV screen, billboard, music video and movie.
Is it any wonder, then, that so many women diet incessantly and hate the way they look? Yet that ideal of the perfect female body is unhealthily skinny and, without the airbrushing and plastic surgery, is unattainable for 99% of women anyway.
The icing on the perfection cake comes in the form of media images of celebrity mothers who squeeze back into their size 8 jeans the day after giving birth, as well as the rose-tinted glimpses into the wonderful lives of friends and acquaintances on Facebook and other social media, and women can be left in no doubt that everyone else is having a much better life than they are.
The ambition to have a perfect life should have boosted women’s aspirations and desire to succeed, but instead it has had precisely the opposite effect.
It has crushed their confidence and paralysed them with the fear of failure, making them question their own choices and their own perceptions of what it is to be “successful”.
Sadly, when women are asked to picture their idea of a perfect woman, the last person they ever likely to see is the woman in the mirror.
By Julia Hartley-Brewer, Journalist and Broadcaster. This article originally appeared on Huffington Post.