Male fecklessness, female anxiety, and the impact on romantic expectations

This week’s Jezebel column looks at a fascinating new book about young women and their life choices:

As feminists have been pointing out for some time, expanding opportunity for women without also expanding expectations for men leaves us with a lot of anxious and exhausted female overachievers. As Bell argues in ‘Hard to Get,’ one way that anxiety manifests is in young women’s growing “contempt for vulnerability.” If we want to get past this maddening dichotomy between romantic happiness and professional success, we need to do more than teach young women emotional self-defense. We need men to change.

We make public life less risky for women not just by encouraging them to take self-defense classes, but by demanding that men respect women’s bodies on the street, in the subway, and at work. We make romantic life less risky for women by challenging men to show the fuck up. The myth that excuses rape is the same myth that makes men into such apparently risky propositions as boyfriends or husbands. As long as we believe that men are too weak to control their sexual impulses, we’ll force the burden for preventing rape entirely onto women; as long as we believe that men are uniformly incapable of being exciting, reliable, and emotionally aware life companions, we’ll continue to mock and shame young women who make romance a priority in their lives.

Read the whole thing.

In the Daily Mail, and in Jezebel on Men Being Ogled

The Daily Mail runs a story built around the “mean girls” Jezebel piece — and ends up suggesting the opposite of my original conclusion.

And at Jezebel, a second story for the week: Can Men Handle Being Ogled? . Excerpt:

Not so long ago, psychologists insisted that most women simply weren’t visually aroused. Women, we were told, might have an aesthetic appreciation for a handsome guy, but they weren’t actively lusting after what they saw. After twenty years of being given permission to gaze on the hot and shirtless (from Marky Mark to Taylor Lautner), women have become more vocal than ever before about what they like to look at — and what they’re thinking about when they look. The old myth that women aren’t visual has been debunked by everyone from Sex and the City to the writers and readers at this very site.

This doesn’t mean that women’s desire is the primary cause of poor male body image. Men’s own misinterpretation of what women want is far more of the problem. (For example, many men don’t realize that their girlfriends might lust after Lautner or Gosling — and still be attracted to their own less-than-perfect male partners. These guys don’t get that desire isn’t a zero-sum game). But whatever the cause, the problem is getting worse. Male vanity, it seems, is here to stay. And the old hope that men’s experience of being objectified might lead them to stop objectifying women has proved spectacularly false.656

Mean Girls, Scarcity, and Slackers

My column at Jezebel is now called “Genderal Interest”, and today’s piece is “It’s Not Your Fault You’re a Mean Girl.” Excerpt:

The fewer genuinely good men there are, the greater the bargaining power they have in relationship — and the more concessions women (at least those who are eager for marriage) are told they must make. Since so many successful women want to draw from the ever-shrinking pool of genuinely attractive and functional dudes, rivalry (or so we’re reminded) must be inevitable.

Endless concessions are a recipe for disappointment; perfectionism a guarantor of exhaustion. Both are consequences of the scarcity model. But perhaps the most painful repercussion is the alienation that comes from competition. For young women in particular — including a great many of my students who have nothing to do with the modeling business — the pressure to compete with other women seems to be worsening. Blame the economy; blame the growing dude deficit on college campuses; blame women for their own success — the side-effect is always that for too many, the real scarcity is of close, uncompetitive female friendship of the sort that can rejoice unequivocally in another’s triumph.

Affirmative action for boys means perfectionism for girls

My piece at Jezebel this week looks at how “affirmative action for men” drives perfectionism for young women: Women Are The Real Victims Of The So-Called ‘Men’s Crisis’. Excerpt:

Young men… are collectively rewarded for their absence of academic ambition and community spirit. By the intensely competitive standards of college admissions, what might seem like a lackluster volunteer record from a high school girl (say, 5 hours a week reading to the blind) seems positively heroic when it belongs to a guy. The more time the mass of young men devote to the gym or to playing Call of Duty, the more the shrinking number of even moderately ambitious dudes benefit; they become the chance for a selective school to keep its gender ratio from becoming too female-heavy.

The traditional “stressors” in so many young women’s lives – the obligation to care for family, the burden of chasing an unattainable physical ideal, the pressure to be sexy but not sexual, the worry about “running out of time” — all these were present well before the current frenzy of anxiety over the end of manhood. These familiar worries have now been joined by the depressing reality that young women have to be far more accomplished than young men just to receive equal consideration in college admissions.

Read the whole thing.

The “already” of choice, the “not yet” of certainty: a review of “Undecided”

I’ve written often about the Martha Complex and young women’s perfectionism. And I’m not the only one: since Courtney Martin’s Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters hit the shelves four years ago, many other books and articles have looked at this same phenomenon. In too many instances, however (and I plead partly guilty to this) our capacity to illustrate the problem exceeds our ability to propose a workable solution to the perfectionism crisis. We see the wrong more clearly than we see the right.

One new book does offer a more promising road map for women stuck on the ceaseless treadmill: Undecided: How to Ditch the Endless Quest for Perfect and Find the Career-and Life-That’s Right for You. Written by the mother-daughter team of Barbara and Shannon Kelley and published by the feminist Seal Press, Undecided is a helpful, funny, winsome guide to navigating through both perfectionism and its close cousin, “analysis paralysis.”

The Kelleys recognize that for the relatively privileged young women who are the target audience of their book, the sheer number of available choices (for careers, relationships, cities) can seem overwhelming. But they offer this helpful reminder:

The choices that paralyse us now were earned — not so long ago — by women who were dismayed (and often infuriated) by how few choices they and their sisters had. And a certain measure of our difficult in navigating these choices has to do with the fact that they’re just so new.

This generation of Millenials is caught between an “Already and a Not Yet” that fuels and exacerbates the perfectionism/choice surplus crisis. For at least a great many young American women (not enough, as poverty statistics continue to make clear) we’ve already created unprecedented opportunities for autonomy and agency. But we have not yet broken the powerful cultural stranglehold of older ways of thinking that condition young women not only to be people-pleasers, but to be terrified of failure. What we have not yet done is give young women sufficient permission to fuck-up; the “one mistake can ruin your life” narrative still holds sway. Continue reading

“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.

For every slacker, a perfectionist: some thoughts on class, sex, and the community college

One of the things about teaching full-time at an urban community college is that I have a front-row seat for social, economic, and cultural change. And when it comes to issues of race, class, and gender, the transformations I’ve seen in the last two years have been profound.

California, like so many other states, has been hard-hit by the recession. We’re on our third straight year of draconian cutbacks to higher education, with no end in sight. Fees are rising, class sections are being cut, hiring is frozen. And this has changed the student population, at least in my classes.

My students are whiter and more middle-class than they’ve been in over a decade. From the mid-90s until the mid-00’s, Pasadena City College grew progressively “less white”, with European-American students falling from perhaps 30% of the student body when I began teaching to about 15% by 2005. (And at PCC, we count immigrants from the former Soviet Union and from much of the Middle East as “white”, including students of Arabic and Armenian descent.) But with the coming of the economic downturn, the white middle-class kids are returning in droves.

Students who once would have skipped the community college and headed straight to state universities are coming here first, both because of cost considerations and because spaces have been drastically reduced at California’s public four-year institutions. In our community college district, we have more than a dozen high schools that serve as our feeders. But traditionally, we’ve drawn relatively small numbers of kids from the “affluent” schools (like La Canada and San Marino High Schools). I note — and this is all anecdata — that within the past two years, the number of students coming from those more prosperous communities has climbed.

What this means, of course, is that I have more students than ever in my classes who are “college-ready.” The percentage of my students whose writing and reasoning skills need remedial attention is lower. But the danger is that at a place like PCC, the students from more privileged backgrounds raise the competition level — and make it easier for those who lack basic skills to fall through the cracks. When the average goes up (and in most of my classes over the past two years, the “average” scores on exams have indeed risen), competition grows fiercer. And in an era of declining resources (we’ve had major cutbacks to our tutoring and counseling services), that means it’s harder than ever for the college to function as a ladder into the middle class.

There’s something interesting happening as well around gender. I’m getting more men in my classes again. In my nearly twenty years here, women have averaged around 55% of overall enrollment, though that number is skewed by the high number of men in vocational education classes. In the humanities and social sciences, the percentage of women has hovered around 65% of all students until recently. But we’re seeing more men coming in, no doubt due to the terrible job climate.

But here’s where the sex differences remain stark. It’s axiomatic that the poor economy has ratcheted up anxiety for everyone. But from listening to students in my gender studies classes, that anxiety manifests quite differently for men and women. While both men and women are more likely to live with their parents for longer periods than before, my female students are much more likely to carry full academic loads. While I have roughly equal numbers of men and women in all my classes save for women’s studies, those who are taking more than the standard 15 unit semester load are overwhelmingly female. My female students are also more likely to be working multiple part-time jobs. Continue reading

The Rising Price of Perfectionism: Freshman Girls and Anxiety

The headline in the New York Times this morning: Record Level of Stress Found in College Freshmen.

UCLA does this survey of hundreds of thousands of 17 and 18 year-olds every summer, and the results come out the following winter. It’s a great indicator of where hearts and minds are moving. (Both liberals and conservatives have been bewildered in recent years by the data that suggest that young people are becoming ever more accepting of homosexuality, and increasingly less accepting of abortion. Adult lefties and righties tend to couple either acceptance or rejection of both, and are both heartened and worried by this apparent inconsistency of the young.) Because I teach college freshmen (or frosh, the preferred gender neutral term), I’m keenly interested in the results of the survey each year.

But based on this year’s data, the headline ought to read: “record level of stress found in college freshwomen.

Every year, women had a less positive view of their emotional health than men, and that gap has widened…

For many young people, serious stress starts before college. The share of students who said on the survey that they had been frequently overwhelmed by all they had to do during their senior year of high school rose to 29 percent from 27 percent last year.

The gender gap on that question was even larger than on emotional health, with 18 percent of the men saying they had been frequently overwhelmed, compared with 39 percent of the women.

There is also a gender gap, studies have shown, in the students who seek out college mental health services, with women making up 60 percent or more of the clients.

“Boys are socialized not to talk about their feelings or express stress, while girls are more likely to say they’re having a tough time,” said Perry C. Francis, coordinator for counseling services at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti. “Guys might go out and do something destructive, or stupid, that might include property damage. Girls act out differently.”

Linda Sax, a professor of education at U.C.L.A. and former director of the freshman study who uses the data in research about college gender gaps, said the gap between men and women on emotional well-being was one of the largest in the survey.

“One aspect of it is how women and men spent their leisure time,” she said. “Men tend to find more time for leisure and activities that relieve stress, like exercise and sports, while women tend to take on more responsibilities, like volunteer work and helping out with their family, that don’t relieve stress.”

With what I call the “Martha Complex” very much in the news once more thanks to Amy Chua, it’s important to remember that perfectionism is gendered in our culture. Chua, the infamous Tiger Mother whose rigid parenting style has ignited international debate this month, raised daughters, not sons. And the evidence from the UCLA survey is that even parents who are far less controlling than Chua are ending up with anxious and exhausted daughters. With nearly 4 out of 10 girls (compared to fewer than 2 in 10 boys) reporting being “frequently overwhelmed”, it’s not alarmist to say that we have a major crisis on our hands.

I’ve said it, Courtney Martin’s said it, and a lot of others who write about girls have said it one way or another: we’ve succeeded in expanding opportunities for our daughters, and we’ve also saddled them with an ever-rising number of obligations. In the aftermath of “Reviving Ophelia” and other Nineties era books that focused on a crisis of self-confidence among teen girls, we’ve responded with more attention, eager to help young women become more successful. But that well-intentioned help, filled as it is with constant reminders to our girls of what they can be, is often interpreted as yet another reminder of all the things they should be.

The percentage of young women suffering from anxiety, depression, and the other side effects of perfectionism will only increase until we address the root problem. The root problem is people-pleasing: the sense that happiness and fulfillment come from meeting the expectations of others. We teach our daughters that they can be professional athletes and run for president, but we still teach them that their dollies have feelings and that their Barbies’ plastic heads hurt when bumped. We teach them to get good grades, but too often we teach them that the real reward of good grades is seeing pride and satisfaction in the faces of parents and teachers. We raise our girls to be successful, but to do so while being keenly attentive to the needs of everyone around them. So when they feel stressed, as Linda Sax notes, these young women tend to throw themselves into ever more volunteer work, piling people-pleasing on top of people-pleasing, like alcoholics taking shots of whiskey to cure hangovers. The vicious cycle produces the predictable result we’re seeing on measures like the UCLA Frosh Survey.

This is the same problem that Black Swan explores (and look at that film’s popularity among high school and college-aged women!) This is the same problem of what I call the Paris Paradox, the pressure to be “sexy” but not authentically “sexual.” Our girls are achieving more than ever before. But too many are still performing, still trying to please parents and peers, pastors and professors, coaches and boyfriends. With more places to perform than ever before, the fruit of the campaign for equal opportunity, that means an ever-rising sense of pressure and competition.

Equal opportunity for boys and girls has turned into unequal obligation. And as the new frosh survey shows, the cost of this unequal burden is not just hurting prima ballerinas and the daughters of Tiger Mothers: it’s hurting a huge and rising percentage of young women. This is not the fault of the feminist movement, it’s a sign that the feminist movement is not yet complete. It will not be complete until we lift the burden of relentless people-pleasing off our daughters, until we change how we socialize our girls to act in the world, until we teach them that their own pleasure matters more than winning praise.

It would be funny if it weren’t so deadly: why Amy Chua has blood on her hands

A reader sends me a link to this piece that’s getting a fair amount of discussion this week: Why Chinese Mothers are Superior. I read it twice, convinced on the first read that it was satire, but on the second, coming to the depressing conclusion that it was anything but. Amy Chua, a professor at Yale, celebrates the relentless inculcation of perfectionism, pushing back against the growing public concern about the damage that the relentless pursuit of the unattainable is doing to our children (particularly our daughters.) Indeed, Chua’s piece is so outrageous, so Swiftian in its defense of the indefensible, that part of me still suspects it’s particularly well-veiled satire.

Chua writes that we (presumably middle and upper-middle class “white” parents of the sort who make up many of her fellow Ivy League faculty) are far too concerned with our children’s self-esteem, and focused too little on what actually gives kids esteem, which is mastery of something. That’s the sort of thing that sounds good when you first read it, but becomes horrifying upon reflection — and upon comparison of Chua’s gleeful celebration of Chinese success with the reality I work with every damn day in my classes.

Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them. If their child doesn’t get them, the Chinese parent assumes it’s because the child didn’t work hard enough. That’s why the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child. The Chinese parent believes that their child will be strong enough to take the shaming and to improve from it. (And when Chinese kids do excel, there is plenty of ego-inflating parental praise lavished in the privacy of the home.)

About one-third of the students at Pasadena City College — a public two-year, open-admission institution — are of Asian ancestry. The plurality, if not the outright majority of those East Asian students are of Chinese ancestry. Some are immigrants themselves, many are children of immigrants, but few are more than second-generation Americans. They came from across the Chinese world and its diaspora (Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, as well as the mainland itself.) Most are Mandarin-speakers.

Many of them, particularly in my Humanities and Gender Studies classes, tell me that their mothers were much like Amy Chua. Many were shamed, some were beaten, almost all were made to feel inadequate. Many, particularly from the more affluent areas of the San Gabriel Valley like San Marino, were expected to get straight As and be accepted into prestigious four-year universities. A great many didn’t, and most (despite what Chua claims) got Bs, and more than a few had high school transcripts littered with Cs. Chua peddles (one hopes, how one hopes, with tongue in cheek) the myth of the model minority, the myth in which average grades, depression, drug and alcohol problems, eating disorders and significant learning disabilities simply don’t happen to Chinese children. In her world, Chinese children don’t get rejected from Berkeley and Stanford and Princeton. But I have Chinese-American students who were not only rejected from those schools, they didn’t have the grades to get into Cal State Los Angeles.

Many of these Chinese-American students are at PCC for financial reasons, but the notion that all or even most could have gone to Berkeley if only there’d been a bit more money is also very much a myth. Many of these students were pushed and tutored and browbeaten (and beaten for real), and still couldn’t make the grades. Some marinate at home, they tell me, in the hostile simmer of their parents’ disappointment. A lucky few have parents who have adopted a more tender and compassionate model, encouraging effort rather than insisting rigidly on a perfect outcome. They are a small minority. Far more are shell-shocked, numb from years and years of the very abuse that Chua celebrates. (I not only know this through my students, but from my first wife, who was born to a Chinese mother and a Filipino father. I saw the success — but also the haunting damage — up close.)

The Yale professor may have daughters who play instruments beautifully and got near-perfect scores on their SATS. I had a student in 2008, the daughter of immigrants who owned a dry cleaners, who tried to kill herself by drinking cleaning products when her transfer application was rejected by UCLA. I’ve heard many other stories of suicide and suicide attempts. If we’re gonna get anecdotal, no ethnic group in the multicultural melting pot that is PCC has had as many self-reported incidents of self-harm per capita as have my East Asian students. That’s based on more than 18 years of community college teaching and mentoring, including five years as advisor to the overwhelmingly Asian honor students’ society, but it’s also based on the reality that Chinese-Americans 15-24 are much more likely to kill themselves than are white teens, a statistic that’s remained depressingly consistent since the 1980s. None of my Chinese students have taken their lives while my students, but I hear more stories of attempts — and the deaths of friends and siblings — than I do from any other ethnic group.

Chua’s assumption — that the pressure cooker of perfectionism will cause short-term pain but long-term success — simply isn’t borne out by the evidence. Let her come and meet my queer Chinese-American students who’ve been hit and humiliated and disowned. Let her come and meet my Chinese-American students with dyslexia who’ve been called stupid so often the light has faded from their eyes. Let her come and meet my Chinese-American students who are overweight, including the young woman whose mother only lets her eat cabbage and water at home and rifles through her room, looking for the sweets she’s convinced her daughter is hiding. I’m not for a minute suggesting that Chinese-American parents have a monopoly on the cruel inculcation of perfectionism; that is, as even Chua admits, a multi-ethnic phenomenon. But to assume, as she does with staggering myopia, that a little adolescent suffering invariably leads to long-term success, simply isn’t backed by the evidence.

Chua knows this, of course. She knows that Chinese-American children don’t all go to Yale or its equivalent. Many have parents who pushed them relentlessly, but for any number of excellent reasons, the straight As did not appear. There are more Chinese and Chinese-American students in community colleges than in the Ivy League, and I’d venture that since I started teaching here in 1993, I’ve taught at least 4000 of them, probably more than she has or even ever will. But she knows, surely, about the higher rate of suicide as well as suicidal ideation and depression — and she probably knows those rates are particularly high among Chinese-American young women. If she does know — and if this isn’t Swiftian satire — then she’s guilty of celebrating not only a falsehood, but a lethal one. Chua deserves not mere polite disagreement, but repudiation and scorn for perpetuating an ideal that is directly and unmistakably linked to suffering and self-harm. I’ve seen too much suffering in my years of teaching and mentoring — and been too convinced of the cause by unmistakable evidence — to let a fear of being labeled culturally insensitive blind me from my obligation to say three words to Chua: Shame. On. You.

Fortunately, the repudiation is coming from many quarters, including some wonderful and important bloggers like Angry Asian Man.
May it continue to come.

The Price of Perfection: on double binds, obsession, absent men, and the triumph of “Black Swan”

I don’t often write movie reviews. Usually, whatever I have to say has been said first — and much better — by someone else. The last time I was provoked into a serious post by a film was nearly two years ago, when I wrote rhapsodically about The Wrestler. And it is another Darren Aronofsky film that has me writing about a movie again. I saw Black Swan on Friday and was shaken, stimulated, and moved. Featuring a staggering and deservedly-celebrated performance from Natalie Portman, Black Swan struck me as a searing and quasi-feminist commentary on the 21st century cult of perfectionism which does so much damage to so many young women.

I urge you to see this movie.

Because the film is not yet in wide release, and because there are spoilers ahead, everything else is below the fold. Continue reading