A few years ago I was walking around an art gallery on a late Sunday afternoon when I noticed a little girl aged seven or eight wearing a red hat and a red woollen coat. Sitting in a corner of the gallery, a book open in her lap, she was gazing at me, quite directly, without shyness.
I’ll admit, I was a bit disconcerted. The little girl’s staring was not rude, it was just incredibly straightforward. Something about me absorbed her attention and she was going to keep on looking until I was no longer of any interest. After what felt like a very long time – thirty seconds? – she dropped her eyes and went back to her book.
This moment has stayed with me over the years and it came to my mind once again as I mused on the findings of the Edelman Womanhood survey powered by Edelman Berland on men and women’s attitudes to themselves in today’s world. In graph after graph, column after column, we can see before our eyes the stubbornly enduring gap between who women think they are and who they seem to want to be. Men, it seems, are more like that seven year old girl in the art gallery. They simply are: without undue explanation or self criticism.
So what is going on? Why do so many women feel less confident or happy than surely they have a right to be? Why do so many of them, according to the survey, alter their persona at work or at dinner parties or even with friends? And why, according to perhaps the most poignant of the sur-vey’s findings, do so many of them wish that they were less humble, less funny, less friendly than they know themselves to be?
These are the sorts of questions with which I grappled when I researched and wrote my recent book What Should We Tell Our Daughters?, a popular analysis of the pressures and pleasures of growing up female in the 21st century. In many ways, my conclusions echo the findings of the survey.
On the one hand, there are enormous opportunities for young women today, unimaginable to our mothers’ or grandmothers’ generation. From nursery through to post graduate level girls and young women outperform boys and men and many go on to have successful and interesting work lives. We all recognise that we are living in a more fluid society with the welcome break down of stale old gender stereotypes.
And yet, and yet… there remains this puzzling discrepancy between these great expectations and achievements and what many of us feel to be our ‘real selves’. Those quote marks say it all. We scrutinise ourselves, we lack confidence, are afraid of our own ambitions and fear the judgement of others. I was amazed, for instance, at how consistently women underplay their supposed best qualities on social media. At the same time we attribute extravagant qualities to Unknown Other Women also known as Role Models (more on these unhelpful creatures later on.)
So let’s return to that young girl in the art gallery for I believe she can, symbolically speaking, help guide us through this tangled maze. Certainly, she provides us with our first important clue, about the many ways that adolescence itself turns so many confident outward-looking girls into anxious and uncertain young women.
Researching my book, I read a number of brilliant writers, from the totemic French feminist Simone De Beauvoir to the US psychotherapist Mary Pipher and the US psychologist and feminist Carol Gilligan, on the theme of how girls come to adulthood. Slowly, I began to piece together a coherent story about how, despite all the advances of feminism, girls today are still socialised to be excessively self-scrutinising and conforming.
Premature sexualisation and an obsession with appearance all serve to exaggerate young women’s self consciousness, while not necessarily helping them to enjoy fulfilling sexual lives. Too many girls tend to think of themselves a kind of endlessly perfectible product in what Mary Pipher rightly called our ‘girl poisoning’ culture. Facebook and Instagram really don’t help here.
But something even more profound is going on. For all the talk about ‘bitchiness’ in the teenage years and beyond (and the ‘b’ word still, rather depressingly, surfaces in the survey) many adolescent girls become less confident about saying what they really think and feel. It’s not that they don’t know what they feel or don’t understand what’s going on. Far from it. Carol Gilligan compares the depth and breadth of girls’ emotional knowledge to ‘a naturalist’s rendering of the human world…’ But Gilligan believes that there develops among teenage girls a kind of ‘psychological resistance, a reluctance to know what one knows and a fear that one’s knowledge, if spoken, will endanger relationships and threaten survival.’
Conflict between an inner truth and socially acceptable forms of expression mean too many adolescent girls become outwardly good and obedient or try to be perfect. What’s more, the suppression of ordinary negative feelings, such as anger, sadness or shame, may lead to the squashing of more positive, motivating feelings like love, desire and ambition. This dangerous fragmentation of the self often stays with them as they begin to enter the adult world of work and relationships. It may explain the depressing discrepancies, again shown up in the survey, between what a significant percentage of women say they would like to do – such as go back into education or be happily single for life – and what they actually do. Conflict and suppression of true desires translates into inertia, blocking women from acting on important wishes.
What is the answer here? How can we learn to call out the ‘real me’?
As the mother of two daughters, now 18 and 20, I believe a great deal of responsibility lies with families, and particularly parents. We must listen seriously to girls from a young age, help them to identify and trust their feelings, including the difficult or powerful ones, be it despair or joy. This also means being more truthful about our own emotions and our own ambitions, however far they stray from the conventionally acceptable. School plays a part too: girls should be encouraged to explore and express their opinions on every subject under discussion. The skill of ‘oracy’, fluency in the spoken word, is just as important as that of ‘literacy’, the ability to write well.
Of course, gender discrimination is a continuing reality and forms the backdrop to so many women’s lack of self confidence. The pay gap remains stubborn, within the lowest to the best paid sectors, and once a woman has a family, she risks going over the cliff edge in terms of earnings and future opportunity. Getting pregnant still poses a real risk to a woman’s continuing career development.
For some leading corporate figures, like Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, the answer is for women to Lean In, the title of her recent best selling book. Sandberg thinks women should fake confidence even if they do not feel it and not let their desire for a family interfere with career success. Easier said than done. If things are really going to change, including women feeling more comfortable in the corporate and public world, men need genuinely to share care of home and children, including agreeing to work part-time if necessary. Employers and government must devise policies that help both parents manage those periods in their work life when the demands – and pleasures! – of young children are at their most intense.
But women, too, must become more honest and more bold, a little bit more like that young girl in the art gallery: to stand our ground about what interests us and to stop caring as much about what others think. With luck and courage, the gap between some fantasy perfect self and our real struggling wonderfully imperfect selves might close up allowing space for the ‘real me’ to emerge but without those stifling, checking-up-on-self, quote marks.
Such a change often occurs as a woman becomes older and particularly post menopause. It has certainly happened to me. But as the mother of two fantastic young women, I don’t have the patience, on their behalf. I want my daughters, and their generation, to stand up now for who they really are and what they really want. I want them to positively relish being humble, funny, friendly and even laid back. Not only is it possible be all those things and a high achiever, but such qualities are a definite plus.
And I’m sorry but I think we should ditch the idea of ‘role models’ completely, particularly of the celebrity sort. Frankly, this is just another kind of ‘stranger danger’. I have no doubt that most ce-lebrities and famous women are as full of fears and foibles as the rest of us. The last thing women need to do is project perfection onto some unknown, often airbrushed, person. The only people worth emulating are those we really know, close up. Even then, I’d urge us all to concentrate on being the best and happiest version of ourselves.
Melissa Benn is a writer and campaigner. Her latest book is ‘What Should We Tell Our Daughters? The Pleasures and Pressures of Growing Up Female.’ Available from Hodder in paperback £8.99.
This piece originally appeared on the Huffington Post here.