“If I Were Thinner, I’d Have the Right to Expect More”: on perfectionism and the scarcity model

This topic came up in my Men and Masculinity course yesterday, and an earlier version of this post appeared at Healthy is the New Skinny this morning:

It’s not news that girls are feeling more pressure than ever to be perfect. As I’ve written before in my posts on the Martha Complex, this generation of teen girls is more stressed about, well, everything, than any generation of women before them.* The pressure to do well in school, the pressure to please parents and peers, and the pressure to live up to an impossible ideal of physical perfection is crushing.

Tweens and teens grow up comparing themselves to models and tv stars. Few girls feel as pretty, as sexy, as skinny as the women they see in the media. As a result, many young women conclude that happiness is something that you only get when you get to your goal weight. And even more troublingly, when it comes to relationships, lots of straight girls think that if their own bodies aren’t perfect, they have no right to expect too much from guys.

Working with high school and college-aged young women, I’ve heard the same thing more and more often in recent years. These smart and amazing young women have somehow gotten the idea that in order to be treated with respect and love, they have to be damn near perfect. One student said to me last year, “If I were fifteen pounds thinner, I think my boyfriend would stop looking at other girls.” She didn’t feel like she had the right to ask her guy to stop checking out other women in public. “You have to be gorgeous for a man to want to be with you and only you. I’m not, so I can’t expect that.”

A mentee of mine has a boyfriend who uses porn regularly and plays video games for hours. “Sometimes he’ll just forget to call or text because he’s gaming”, she says. “I’m lucky to get a few minutes alone with him a week when we’re not doing something sexual. But this is the way boys are — unless you’re like freakin’ Megan Fox, you can’t expect a guy’s complete attention.”

Another girl told me that she doesn’t feel like she can have a boyfriend – because she’s not pretty enough. She has a lot of hook-ups instead. “I’m the girl you get with for a blowjob”, she said; “I’m not the hot girl you hold hands with in public.” (For more on the connection between perfectionism and promiscuity, see Kerry Cohen’s forthcoming Dirty Little Secrets, to be published later this year.)

Words like these break my heart, because these bright and beautiful girls are blinded to their own worth. They don’t see that they have the right to demand respect; that they have the right to set good boundaries; that they have the right to pursue a real relationship (if they want one). Believing that only women who meet an unattainable standard of perfection “deserve” to be happy sets girls up to settle for second-best in one area where they should never compromise.

This perfectionism dovetails dangerously with another theme in young women’s lives: the “good guys are hard to find” narrative. This belief that reliable and loving young men are rare reinforces the pursuit of skinny, sexy, beauty: the fewer decent lads out there, the more “choice” those guys have. And even the decent ones, so the culture tells us, will make relationship decisions based on women’s appearance. For some, that means all the more reason to compete — and for others, all the more reason to opt out and “settle” for what they’ve been told is the best they can reasonably hope for.

We need to see how the pressure to be perfect — a pressure that is nearly omnipresent in young women’s lives, even the lives of those who don’t seem to be pursuing an ideal — is rooted in a false scarcity model. There won’t be enough for you, the culture says, unless you try harder. And if in your own eyes, you’re well short of that ideal, then you need to be realistic and settle gratefully for the crumbs.

Young women often tell stories about their girlfriends, whom they often describe as amazing and wonderful. “It’s so sad”, Jessica will say, “Amy doesn’t see what we all see. She’s so pretty and smart, but she keeps dating these losers. She doesn’t know her value.” Of course, half the time, Amy is saying the same thing about Jessica. Teen girls are almost invariably fonts of great wisdom for their peers — but lousy at taking their own advice to heart. The truth is, of course, even the young women who most closely match the rigid beauty standards are bitterly aware of how they “fall short of the mark”, at least in their own minds.

It’s not a stretch to point out that the “scarcity model” combines with perfectionism to let men off the hook time and again. The less girls believe they deserve, the less they’ll ask for — and the less young men need to provide. Until we ask who benefits from this cruel system, we’re not getting close to solving the problem.

*For more, check out the work of Claire Mysko on Supergirls, as well as the solid books by the aforementioned Kerry Cohen, Stephen Hinshaw, Rachel Simmons, and of course, Courtney Martin’s seminal Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters.

51 thoughts on ““If I Were Thinner, I’d Have the Right to Expect More”: on perfectionism and the scarcity model

  1. It was a big revelation to me when I realized that I’d feel awful if I talked about anyone else the way I talk about myself to myself. I figured I owed myself as much consideration as I do any random person I meet.

  2. Insightful and sad.
    When women expend energy competing they don’t have it for themselves; there’s not much energy or confidence left after the pains many take to pander to the male gaze.
    What’s interesting to me is how effortless and subconscious a process it is to abdicate one’s own identity and confidence in pursuit of ‘intimacy’.I’ve been there myself more times than I care to remember.
    But I do think that it’s unfair to say that the combined forces of the ‘scarcity model’ and perfectionism lets young men off the hook– in my mind, that wording paints them as the culprit in what seems to me to be a complex confluence of events.

  3. Heather, they aren’t the culprits — the system “lets them” off the hook. Boyfriends aren’t challenged to do the work they need to do to grow because their girlfriends have such diminished expectations. That’s not the fault of individual young men, many of whom are kind and well-meaning and eager to help the girls and women in their lives. It’s the fault of a system that privileges men and seeks to minimize their accountability while maximizing female responsibility,

  4. To me, this is not news. I know it isn’t to you either, but I think just about all teenage girls and young women go through this. I did. I have recently parsed my “daddy issues” in one of my blog posts, partly triggered by your writings on fathers, daughters, and beauty, and by a number of other articles that I’ve read over the last few months. Girls and young women are constantly bombarded by this unattainable ideal–as well as its opposite (the nerdy girl, the smart girl, the athletic girl, the geeky girl, etc.)–and the message is clear: if you aren’t this very narrowly defined type of girl/woman, you are not good enough. It doesn’t help that a lot of these messages are reinforced (directly and indirectly) by ones’ parents, peers, etc. It took me the better part of a decade, a long period of heavy drug use and destructive promiscuity, gaining and losing 40lbs, and battles with clinical depression before I came out the other end with some sort of peace with myself AND my body. For a long time, I never thought I was good enough, and all my self worth was wrapped up in the men I was with. While I do have many regrets, I also learned a lot about myself, and ultimately and stronger (and happier) for it. But I am terrified of having daughters, if I have children, because I know its only gotten worse. I worry about my 15 year old cousin, who is growing up around this–even though her parents are very loving. Thanks again for some great writing.

  5. The reality is overwhelming. Thoughts as to what could allow for a cultural shift?”
    Assuming gaming is this persons hobby, Martha complex is the first thing that needs to be tackled. Porn not used in support of the relationship needs to go.
    The discuss over hobbies taking too much time in a relationship has raged for years. A good discussion over fair time allocation is necessary. Some people don’t have hobbies and so they scale up the time they spend pursuing the relationship in such a way the relationship can be considered their hobby(that can be bad too). My buddy had a girl friend who was an environmentalist and between her job and and protesting/”walks” she had seemingly little time for him. Her response to him was often “you can always come with me.” Similar to the gamer “why not join me” and a few times he did join her, but in the end he broke it off with her. Its a relationship, sometimes people lack the necessary amount of compatibility.

  6. Pingback: Quick hit: Hugo Schwyzer on the connection between perfectionism and unhealthy relationships

  7. I don’t know if I’ll be able to gather my thoughts well here, but this is something I think about a lot. I also don’t want to come off as “what about the menz?!” since I’m fairly well-versed and knowledgeable about feminism (or at least that’s what I tell myself. 😛 lol)

    Do you think that part of this is dealt with by going through experiences and maturing? I only ask, because growing up, I had those beliefs of “I’m not pretty enough therefore I will never be loved/cherished/have a boyfriend/get married/etc.” The problem I found with that mindset was that my experiences began to show otherwise. I did end up getting boyfriends (some were bad, some were good.) I did end up being complemented for my appearance, actions, and intelligence. Still – I held onto this belief that I wasn’t “good enough.” This may not be relevant, but I realized that phrase that was constantly going through my head was being used as a control excuse. I’m not “pretty or skinny enough” but I can TRY to get there and it’s something tangible – as opposed to raw intellect or talent. And even though my experiences were showing otherwise, a kind of stubborness was unwilling to acknowledge that I was more than those things. Advertising was telling me I wasn’t those things, but the people nearest and dearest to me were.

    I ended up getting married to someone, well, awesome. Just last week, I was in the kitchen and he walked in and said I was beautiful. My immediate reply was, “Even though I’m not wearing make-up and my hair has a fro going on and I’m breaking out and I’m wearing monkey pajamas?” His reply to that was, “Why are you constantly calling me shallow?” That phrase stuck with me…because well, we’re not just hurting ourselves by saying it. By continually saying these things about ourselves…we’re also accusing people who love and care for us as being shallow or stupid.

  8. Heather,

    Yes, I have some thoughts about what could allow for a cultural shift. I’ve observed what Hugo has described – bright, beautiful young women in relationships with thoughtless men who undervalue them – but my vantage point was different from Hugo’s because I observed it as a shy young man who, in his teens and twenties, never had a substantial sexual relationship with a young woman.
    Hugo is right that a lot of bright and beautiful young women are blinded to their own worth. He’s also right that the “scarcity model” is false: There are a lot of young men who could be caring and loving partners for the young women he mentions in his post. Unfortunately, he unwittingly perpetuates the scarcity model by completely disappearing the very young men who could be loving boyfriends to these women: They are either completely absent from the narrative (as in this post), or are portrayed as petulant introverts who “fly into a rage” when their affections are unrequited. I am speaking, of course, of the young men who some feminists dismissively refer to as “nice guys.”

    So, to answer your question as to what could allow for a cultural shift, I have two thoughts:

    (1) “Nice guys” could be encouraged to be *more* persistent in pursuing young women. This might sound “anti-feminist,” but it actually isn’t. In fact, oftentimes when a nice guy engages in passive-aggressive behavior by sexually pressuring a female friend, he does so because he conflicted about the ethics of approaching women he doesn’t know and showing sexual interest. And so, because he’s conflicted about using ethical “pick up artist” skills (because many feminists sneer at this) he ends up turning his sexual energy toward his “platonic” female friends – which is exactly the kind of behavior that causes feminists say that nice guys aren’t really nice.

    Also, it would help *all* young men, and especially “nice guy” types, for our society to move away from the notion that youthful sexuality is “bad” or (as Ross Douthout recently implied) is merely “acceptable” but falls short of some grand ideal. (Hugo, to his credit, has criticized the characterization of youthful sexual desire as “awful.”) I believe that sensitive men, psychologically, are disproportionately harmed by sex-negative attitudes, and that sex-positive attitudes will help to bring them out of their shells, and thereby reduce the “scarcity” that the women in Hugo’s post feel.

    [And yes, “nice guys” themselves could help by working on some of their own psychological issues, but this comment is already reaching blog-post length, so I won’t elaborate.]

    (2) Young women should be encouraged to look beyond the boyfriends they are with, and when appropriate to “dtmfa”, as Dan Savage says. Too often women in bad relationships are enabled by well-meaning third parties, when they should be told bluntly to “dtmfa.” To elaborate, to make it easier for a young woman to look beyond her thoughtless boyfriend, I think three things need to happen:

    (a) Women should be encouraged to feel sexually autonomous. (I don’t think feminists would argue with that.)

    (b) When a young woman idiotically continues a relationship with a thoughtless dolt, a third party should feel at liberty to tell her to “dtmfa,” without Hugo wagging his finger and labeling this as “blaming women.” (And, btw, pointing out when a woman does something idiotic is not misogynistic, because we *all* do idiotic things from time to time.)

    (c) Young women should be encouraged to look beyond stereotypes regarding kind of guy they “should” be dating. In fact, both genders should do this. For example, as Dan Savage has mentioned, he has gotten letters from young men who are attracted to large women, but don’t date them because they feel social pressure to date thin women. By the same token, I think the young women Hugo refers to in his post may be dating some of these inattentive, thoughtless men because they nonetheless conform to the stereotype of the alpha-male boyfriend they “should” be dating.

  9. “of the young men who some feminists dismissively refer to as “nice guys.”

    The term “Nice Guy”(tm), when used by feminists , is about a specific sort of guy who pretends to be “nice” while being nothing of the sort. It’s a descriptor for a manipulative, shallow guy who uses a facade of niceness to cover virulent misogyny. It’s got nothing to do with someone turning their attentions to platonic female friends, unless he does so simply he thinks they owe him sex for being “nice”.

    It’s not, at all, about dismissing actually nice guys (who are called “good men” to differeniate).

  10. There’s some obvious validity to this post: if you don’t stand up for yourself, people will take advantage of you. It seems pretty clear that the guys they were dating were just not that into them, and so weren’t willing to give as much love time as those women desired. I agree that those women should’ve stood up for themselves and walk away, if that arrangement made them unhappy. Ultimately men want to be in love just as much as women, and a man in love will need no exhortation to invest and care for his significant other. It’s those blurry in-between situations that are problematic, and my impression is that it’s what those young women in the post were dealing with. Perhaps there iswill be a post on how modern media affects young men’s ability to fall in love?

  11. Haley

    Self-awareness (which comes with maturity) is probably part of this. Although Hugo’s framing this as gendered, I certainly identify with the role he casts as female. And the same behaviour occurred with a lot of my male friends, too. But it generally disappeared as we got older (and isn’t really prevalent in my female friends now, I’m not sure about when they were younger, and I perceived dating as more gendered.)


    In point 1) you say “persistent” when you should say “forward” or “direct”. (Maybe even “active”, as it’s pretty common for Nice Guys to simply forgo any expression of interest.) But “persistent” there is wrong.

  12. Brian,

    “Persistent” is not the same as “harassing”, and with the caveat that a young man should be careful not to do the latter, “persistence” is important, especially for men who are more introverted.

    Here’s an example from my own life: When I was 19 years old, I had a crush on a fellow student with whom I worked in a cafeteria on campus. (I hope we can all agree that in the context of a campus work-study job, it’s okay to show romantic interest in a “co-worker.”) So, one day I asked her if she wanted to go on a date. She said “maybe.” How did I react? Well, being a painfully shy 19 year old virgin, I immediately retreated back into my shell. I never followed up, because I’d gotten the idea that if she hadn’t said “yes”, then it was wrong to be “persistent.”

    Looking back, from the distance of 20 years, I think it’s quite possible that she liked me. If I’d been a little more persistent, maybe we’d have ended up having a sexual relationship. Or maybe not, but I’ll never know. What do I mean by persistent? In this example, I mean following up the next day by asking again, and maybe with some playful banter and teasing. Now, if she’d responded to *that* by indicating that she was not interested, then of course it would have been inappropriate for me to continue being “persistent.”

    I problem I have with feminist-advice-to-men is that it asks young men to behave as though they live in a perfect post-patriarchal society, when in fact they live in the real world. If a young man with limited sexual experience holds off pursuing until he gets an immediate, unequivocal, entirely unambiguous enthusiastic response from a woman to whom he feels attracted, he’s going to be in for a long wait. I know this. I learned the hard way. I never had a romantic partner in my teens or twenties. Feminists, *especially* male feminists, catastrophically underestimate the damage they do to introverted young men when they push messages like “never be persistent.”

    The correct message is, “be kind and respectful to others.” That’s an important difference.

  13. Hugo,

    I don’t know any teenage girls (I do know a couple early twens), so to the extent that your post is only about them, I can’r really comment. But.

    I’m sorry, saying that attraction patterns and the scarcity they create aren’t real will not make them less salient and painful in people’s lives. Of course it’s bollocks to assume that participating in an attractivity rat race will help with the underlying issues, but it’s equally wrong to believe that saying “every pot has its lid” will magically solve the scarcity issues that are a real consequence of real attraction patterns of real people.

    I don’t have time to address the “good guy” and “choice” issues you mention right now, but quite frankly, if you switched genders and attraction paradigms, this may just be a post about how difficult it is for nice guys to navigate female attraction. Just imagine citing the imagined guy’s friend saying this in support… 😉

    “He’s such a nice guy, but he keeps dating these bit**es. He doesn’t know his value.”

    Well, that aside, attraction patterns ar real (even though it may be largely socially constructed), and to the extent that they are clustered around certain ideals, this will invariably, regardless of the what the pattern is, create a hierarchy of attractivity and thus a relative scarcity (and relative value). Saying it isn’t so is not going to help anyone. Saying it very well *might not matter at all* to someone’s personal happiness is something entirely different and may very well help people afraid of not being able to compete to relax and begin feeling worthy.

  14. If a guy isn’t interested in being with you other than sexually, the odds are long that this is because you aren’t interesting to be with. He thinks you’re attractive, so he engages in sexual behavior with you. When that’s done, there’s nothing left on the table, so he goes off to find something to do.

    The reality is that most relationships are transactional. We can decry this; I don’t think it’s the ideal model, myself. But it’s the reality. And if people are engaged in transactional relationships, then they will get what they can “pay for” – i.e., the relationship partners they attract will be people who bring a broadly similar amount of personal qualities to the table. Ugly stupid obnoxious women will not “win” handsome genius kind men; boring nebbishy whiny guys will not “win” fascinating vigorous proudly self-reliant gals.

    “Nice guys” famously whine about not “getting the girl”; in 99% of the people I have known making this whine, it was because they were window-shopping for BMWs on a Hyundai budget. Many of these women seem to be in the same boat.

    The “scarcity model” may produce unhealthy behavior in women, but that doesn’t make it untrue. The social realities have shifted somewhat, and women are no longer (if they ever truly were) in an advantageous position in the transactional relationship market. Men are. At least, good-looking, high-earning, nice-behaving men. Hugo’s boys addicted to porn and playstation are guys who have realized that all they really want or need is a Hyundai, and so they aren’t going to bust their ass to earn a BMW.

  15. This article is spot-on in almost every detail. I am currently a teenage a girl who still struggles with obsessing about becoming perfect in every way. The reason this article and others like it are important is because this strive for perfectionism can lead to many more serious problems or clinically significant mental disorders. It also suggests that there is a problem with the way our society is constructed. This is similar to the “real men dont cry.” not crying can pose problems throughout the lifetime and is also a reflection of restricted and problematic societal “values.” I hope articles like this one and future research studies help young girls and well as young men turn their backs on these ridiculous standards and constructs. But in particular, and in reference to this article, I hope girls realize their worth and ditch the guys who arent worth THEIR time. After all, their endless pursuit of perfection does excuse these guys’ jaw dropping, disrespectful behavior.

  16. I can’t believe the idea that young men have “a right” to young women is not being challenged here.

    I would rather see ALL young men, shy or not, remain celibate for 20 years than have them frighten, traumatize or harm a young woman. Period.

    A truly nice man does not wonder if a woman might have liked him. A truly nice man – a good man – moves on when he doesn’t get exactly what he’s looking for.

    No one – repeat, NO ONE – has “the right” to a relationship, or to approach anyone and get a positive response.

    EVERYONE has the right to be left in peace, and to reject anyone they please. This is called autonomy and the right to dignity.

  17. Er, what? Where has anyone in this thread said that men have “a right” to women? I don’t know how to respond to that because it’s essentially a non sequitur.

    I don’t agree with Miguel on everything, but you’re telling me doesn’t have the right to wonder…. if things could have gone differently? Huh?

  18. I like Miguel’s post about shy men. Men DO often feel confused and scared by women due to misunderstandings of the “I’m not attractive enough” variety. It can be downright crippling, but women pretend the grass is greener on the male side of the fence.

    The bloke who spent all his time playing video games instead of hanging out with his girlfriend, did that because he is narcissistic, as some people are, and she should have just left him after a week. Most good men would agree with me on this, as they would feel bad about a good woman going to waste on a bad man, just as much as any feminist might.

    Another thing is: men are not always what they seem. Men can be attracted to a woman for reasons that a woman would find strange. Some woman seem to not at all understand that a man can be genuinely attracted to a woman who’s significantly older than themselves, who’s a few kilograms overweight, or whatever. This is something that the article didn’t adress, as well.

    Whether this helps or not I do not know, but it is all in honesty.

  19. While young women are clearly taking their cues from prominent female figures in the media- including porn stars, unfortunately- young men are also being conditioned to expect unreasonable physical and behavioural attributes in the women they pursue.

    The digital “reality” so many boys/men are immersing themselves in is faking them out. In many cases, the regular use of porn and its effects on the brain have sabbotaged their ability to maintain interest in a living, breathing women. The widespread availability of porn has set up a really destructive set of standards for both sexes, and sadly, girls seem increasingly convinced that these are the roles they must play to hold a guy’s attention.

    Our education systems need to address important humanity issues such as this (and others discussed in this thread) early… starting in elementary school when these behaviours first start playing themselves out.

    P.S. While I understand the dopamine rush that repeatedly brings a guy back to his porn, I have little sympathy for him when he loses his girlfriend over it and applaud her for wishing him and his computer a happy life together while she kicks him out the door. I’m sure evolutionist guru Richard Dawkins would agree that unless such a man “adapts” in a hurry, he and others like him are evolving themselves out of the “eligible men” gene pool.

  20. In 2011, young men have insanely higher expectations of women than they did in the sixties and nowhere near the obligations. Strange how the young men aren’t complaining as loudly about all of this no-strings attached sex, women’s sexual expression as performance art, insane demands on women’s appearance and the ability to get this all done while playing Halo and eating T-Bell. Progress isn’t pretty.

  21. Odd. It seems to me that you’ve really buried the lead here, which is all in this testimony:

    She’s so pretty and smart, but she keeps dating these losers.

    Simple solution: don’t date losers. Non-losers exist, choose them instead. What is so hard about this? Really, it’s part of a long litany of how pretty and smart women’s problems are — to be perfectly blunt — all effectively self-inflicted, and worse:

    * For a pretty and smart young woman complains about not being appreciated by her paramour: There are plenty of young men who _will_ appreciate your beauty and smarts; pick one of them instead.

    * For the woman who complains that men never do their share of child care or housework: there are plenty of men who _will_ do their share, and quite happily; pick one of them instead.

    * For the young woman who complains that her BF is unfaithful or reluctant to commit: there are plenty of monogamy-minded young men who will be happy to settle into a LTR; pick one of them instead.

    And so on, and so on. This is not rocket science. For every female complaint about male bad behavior, there was always another boy or man readily available who didn’t have that problem, but whom she didn’t choose.

    It’s certainly self-destructive on the woman’s part, but it’s worse than that morally overall: every complaint about how “there are no good men” is really a vicious slap in the fact to the many, many men who are actually good but whom women choose to pass over. Similarly, the “drive to perfection” by girls is really the flip side of saying “most boys who would appreciate me just aren’t good enough for me”. You paint it as tragic suffering but it really has a strong element of grandiose narcissism, and this should not be forgotten.

  22. Pingback: Sunday Pleasures #97 « Shanna Germain

  23. You also have to consider how much society judges women’s worth by their utility to men.

  24. Pingback: Gender politics aha! moment « Because everyone else was doing it

  25. There seems to be a couple of issues I see, one is that women are being held/hold themselves to higher standards, and told that they’re unworthy of love or respect if they don’t meet them. One could certainly point to the media for this, as all the women are perfect looking, where as you could find examples of guys who are less than perfect yet still have relationships.

    Another, perhaps more important one is that for men and women there is a fairly specific standard to compare them to, and the wrong things are emphasized. A guy is more likely to fall in love for a women for her being caring than skinny, yet skinny is emphasized more often than caring.

    Certain Ideals are made important. So, men and women pursue the wrong people for the wrong reasons, and both stress over the wrong qualities in themselves. Women stress a lot more than men though. Only the few who actually fit these ideals get any dates, leaving many who could be good in a relationship, lonely.

    The idea that there are only a few good guys does imply these women are themselves narrowly defining masculinity. These masculine guys are more likely to think that having a loyal girlfriend and yet ignoring here gives status. Of course there are probably also some less attractive women who also get ignored. The thing is that women can always feel inferior no matter what because there’s always someone prettier on the screen or the magazine, and overall women feel more pressure than men.

    I’m definitely one of the guys who has trouble approaching girls, and could stand to be more aggressive and persistent about it, even though some guys are too aggressive. No man has the right to a woman of course, which actually is sort of a nonsensical statement since you can’t own a woman anyway (from a feminist perspective anyway). You don’t have the right to her time or attention either. But starting a friendship, relationship, hook-up, or conversation means asking for time and attention. She has ZERO obligation to actually give you her time and attention, especially if you haven’t met, but a guy does have the RIGHT to ASK.

  26. PLEEEEEEASE stop using the word “aggressive” in a positive way (to Quinc but to others, too). “Assertive” works even better as a word and as a strategy, I can assure you, and is much less likely to make a woman feel unsafe.

  27. Jordan,

    I have to wonder about your thoughts on pornography and relationships. You clearly see the availability of pornography as affecting relationships badly because of the destructive standards set for both parties and the reward cycle of the pornography to the man. Surely this is like any other part of life – we make the choice as to the balance between our reality and that of the fictional world and we choose how much we allow ourselves to enter that world (barring addiction). Pornography is like fiction, it is fiction, unless you view men as being unable to simultaneously accept reality as it is and a fictional interpretation loosely based on reality then it would seem that pornography is a discussion between individuals. There are likely similar complaints about other subjects (or any hobby really that takes time) that can be solved by discussion.

  28. “She’s so pretty and smart, but she keeps dating these losers.

    Simple solution: don’t date losers. Non-losers exist, choose them instead. What is so hard about this? Really, it’s part of a long litany of how pretty and smart women’s problems are — to be perfectly blunt — all effectively self-inflicted”

    You’re totally missing the point, which as I remember being a young, pretty, smart woman, let me repeat it for you–

    These particular young, pretty, smart women think that all men are going to treat them like that because they aren’t perfect enough. They have no idea there is anybody who will be nicer to them out there, since they believe that how ALL men will treat them is based on their lack of perfection and since they all know they’re not perfect, they don’t think the grass is greener anywhere else.

    Realizing that this is not true tends to be a product of age and experience…a fair amount of it…like a DECADE of it. Trust me.

  29. lisakansas,

    You say you’ve seen the world through the eyes of a young, pretty, smart woman, and that such women are unaware that they have alternatives to emotionally neglectful partners because they think ALL men will treat them poorly. Question: When you were young, were you really looking at ALL men in your age group as potential partners? Because I’ve seen the world through the eyes of a young, smart, nice-but-introverted man, and it seems that young women often limit their pool of potential mates to men who are “suitably masculine”, and it’s these men for whom they worry about not being “perfect enough”.

    (As I mentioned above, I think *both* genders have unfortunate ways of limiting themselves to what they perceive are “suitable” partners.)

  30. Miguel

    I am a Nice Guy (though not as bad as I was when I was younger), and I have some sense of how I overcame it. Unless you’re being jargon-y in a way I’m unfamiliar with about persistence, I am pretty sure it’s the wrong word.

    The ‘Maybe’ response doesn’t call for persistence, but forwardness. The point isn’t that you should be persistent, but that you should get her answer rather than assuming her answer would be “no”. (A typical Nice Guy point of failure. My biggest one, certainly.) In your maybe case, you’re substituting ‘No’ for her actual answer (whether it was appropriate or not in that case, I dunno. I will say the only ‘Maybe’ I ever got I did follow up a week or two later and it turns out ‘Maybe’ meant ‘Yes’. But it’s a hard case, and thus makes bad law.)

  31. “lisakansas,

    You say you’ve seen the world through the eyes of a young, pretty, smart woman, and that such women are unaware that they have alternatives to emotionally neglectful partners because they think ALL men will treat them poorly. Question: When you were young, were you really looking at ALL men in your age group as potential partners? Because I’ve seen the world through the eyes of a young, smart, nice-but-introverted man, and it seems that young women often limit their pool of potential mates to men who are “suitably masculine”, and it’s these men for whom they worry about not being “perfect enough”.”

    I was looking at any man who acted interested in me–I had several crushes over the years on men who didn’t act interested in me, but I didn’t dare make any advances towards them. I heard what girls were called who did that and how the guys I was dating talked about them and it was already hard enough to get any respect at all from men in the romantic and sexual sense–I wasn’t going to make it even easier for them to treat me like dirt by being forward and slutty, I was a nice girl and damn straight I made sure every boy and man in my vicinity knew it. Not-nice girls got gang-raped at drunken parties (I witnessed three incidences of that before I turned 19…it made a huge and lasting impression on my young woman psyche).

    Again, with a decade or so of experience under my belt, I could see that it was perfectly fine after all, sometimes, to approach a man that I liked whether or not he had overwhelmed me with come-hither signals first–!

  32. I enjoyed your post, but I wonder if your analysis of female “perfectionsim” goes far enough? It seems to me that the expectation of the modern woman to adhere to a physical ideal is just one manifestation of a much larger, much more insidious kind of perfectionism that affects all aspects of her life, not just her body image. If we want feminist discussion to help lift the burden of the body image issues from women’s (and men’s) shoulders, we must elevate the discussion above the most obvious examples of that perfectionistic mindset and move toward examining its subtler aspects. In other words, society is already too focused women’s bodies; resist the impulse to reinforce that body-consciousness by only addressing that aspect of perfectionism. Instead, talk to girls about the concept of perfectionism in general – they will be able to apply the discussion not only to their bodies, but to all aspects of their lives.

  33. Institutionalized, read my second paragraph: the quest for physical perfection is just one such manifestation of the pursuit of an impossible ideal. But we have to meet girls where they are — simply telling girls not to care so much about their bodies, or even glossing over their anxieties about their appearance, does them a huge disservice.

  34. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here. As an unrepentant fat girl, I don’t expect to recieve any attention from guys. A relationship would involve a whole lot of hiding: I couldn’t eat, express any opinion or dress the way I want, so I don’t bother. And I’d probably attract either predators, freaks or someone who’d abandon me the moment someone prettier walked by. Also, to the guys, sometimes timing is everything- I turned down a guy once because it was April Fool’s Day. I had plans anyway, and figured the ‘date’ was a cruel joke.

  35. Thanks for posting this. I’m currently living in Guatemala and a few days ago was talking to a 17-year-old Guatemalan girl. She told me she has a male friend who used to call her every day and suddenly stopped. She was afraid it was she’d suddenly become “too fat.” I tried to find the most loving way to say, “blaming yourself means he’s not responsible for his own behavior.” I hate that girls grow up believing that if a boy doesn’t treat them right it’s somehow our fault.

  36. Miguel, by “suitable” you seem to mean “me, and the girls I found attractive” as the universe of what is or isn’t suitable.

  37. I remember when I was a kid my father told me many times in no uncertain terms that a man wouldn’t love me unless I lost weight (even as I became old enough to know this was ridiculous, it never really stops cutting). And then I did, but low and behold it didn’t hold the key to self-esteem. I still devalued myself and turned all the newfound attention into a string of short relationships and one night stands.

    Eventually I put back on some of the weight and it wasn’t until then that I met my husband. I’m so grateful for that timing, because while I may in the future lose weight it will never be tied to “so he’ll love me better”, it will be for proper reasons. And ultimately that’s the issue, the more we look outside ourselves for what we “want” to be… the more we lose. But easier said than done, yeah?

  38. 1) I want to point out that some Nice Guys(tm) are hijacking this thread. And your message is kind of coming across as “Well, women deserve to be treated like shit because they’re ignoring nice guys like me. So, really, the problem isn’t societal expectations, it’s that women are attracted to the wrong thing.”

    This post isn’t ignoring your problems, it’s focusing on a different one. They may be related, but by inserting yours, you’re moving the discussion away from the other. And, oddly enough, resolving the original issue may do a little in helping yours (through “freeing up” eligible women).

    That said, I have to throw in here, from the female perspective**, that assertiveness, confidence, and self-assurance will work wonders. I’m personally not attracted to shy guys because it feels like they wouldn’t be able to withstand the force of my personality. I don’t want a doormat, I want a partner. So approach confidently, engage assertively, be comfortable with what you have to offer. (And if you’re not any of those things, just pretend you are. We all do it. The cool thing is that, if you pretend long enough, you’ll become those things. It’s like magic.)

    ** My dating history is filled exclusively with Nice Guys (not Good Men), so I’m not discriminating against the “non-alpha” section of the male population as a whole. I like geeky/intelligencia guys. Programmers, web developers, engineers–been there, done that. Other than them turning out to be selfish pricks in the end (cheated on me, ignored me/addicted to porn/alcoholic, incapable of loving anyone but himself), their common trait was that they were comfortable with themselves/not shy.

    2) I wonder if other first-world countries really have this perfectionism problem. I’ve been watching a lot of British and French media through Netflix and their women are often quirkier, non-airbrushed, and more real than American media makes women out to be. The relationships are also more realistic (read: complicated) than American “party1 and party2 meet, there is instant attraction, they explore the possibilities a little, then some conflict, but in the end it’s resolved and everyone’s happy.” I’d be interested to see whether hyperexpectation extends across the pond.

    3) I think it’s important to point out that young people can be incredibly sensitive to criticism. These are the years where we’re really forming our personal identities, and untoward criticism can severely cripple, delay, or skew that process. All it took for me was knowing I wasn’t media-ideal and then 2-3 comments from my mother over the course of as many years, and I was convinced that I was doomed to fatness for the rest of my life. Looking back, I wasn’t even fat; I just don’t have the waif body type. It took a lot of work and time to get over those things, and I’m sure almost everyone has had that sort of experience.

    We all need to really try to be constructive with our criticism rather than judgemental and mean. Especially when we’re around teenagers.

  39. PassingThrough, you really deserve an award of some kind for being unironically able to juxtapose this

    I’m personally not attracted to shy guys because it feels like they wouldn’t be able to withstand the force of my personality. I don’t want a doormat

    basically equating “shy” and “doormat”, with this

    We all need to really try to be constructive with our criticism rather than judgemental and mean.

    Even by Internet standards this is impressive; your award certificate, suitable for framing, should arrive by mail in 4-6 weeks. Thank you for playing!

  40. Oh, and BTW it should also be clear that this

    I want to point out that some Nice Guys(tm) are hijacking this thread.

    is utter nonsense. The subject of the OP is distorted perceptions of reality on the part of young women, like a fuller-spectrum metastasis of body dysmorphia. The inability to appreciate or even see what’s right in front of you, namely the decent boy who would like you as you are, is directly relevant to the topic; his invisibility is a direct result of female pathology, and an important piece of evidence.

    Really it’s you who are hijacking the thread onto an unrelated topic, speculating on the lives of people you know nothing about and dishing out unsolicited — but free of charge! — relationship and dating advice. It’s all part of the standard feminist playbook, its illogic long since laid bare: change the subject from a failing on women’s part (distorted perceptions) and instead use it as a way to blame men that you’ve never even seen for some kind of incompetence (lack of confidence)! The audacity remains impressive, but I’m afraid the edge is dull by now on this kind of tactic.

  41. Warning: Antifeminist alert. We have been invaded. Lathe of Heaven, you have been spotted. :) Note: Stating “It’s all part of the standard feminist playbook, its illogic long since laid bare” is probably not the cleverest way to remain incognito on a blog that tends to insist that its commenters do not enter into discussions with arguments against feminism in general. Or, of course, Hugo may have changed his commenting policy since I last took note of it and you may be welcomed with open arms…I spose we’ll see!

  42. Thanks for an insightful article. I wish that this was pointed out more often, and that I myself had been quicker to realize its truly devastating impact on my own life

  43. Hugo,

    I am very curious about how this thread fits into what you term the “Martha Complex.”

    Particularly, I’m interested because you have previously written that the Martha Complex is distinctly different from issues of self esteem that were at the forefront during the 1990s, a primary example being Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia.

    But when I read this post, I am immediately reminded of a passage in Reviving Ophelia where a young woman despares that all the young men in her school are interested in “the same two or three anorexic girls”. This weighs on her self esteem and she begins to believe she cannot achieve the kind of relationship she would ideally want

    I’m left wondering how the facet discussed in this post is then substantively different. In both cases young women are made to feel that they do not “measure up” and their ideas about what kind of relationships they can have suffer as a result. In both cases it seems like the real issue is self-esteem.

    Can you expand on this at all? Am I missing something?

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