On “having it all”…and being shortchanged.

I saw a headline this morning on Twitter from The Telegraph’s Wonder Women (“News, Life, Work, Sex. Uncensored“) section. It caught my eye, as it was doubtless intended to do; covering a new report released today, it trumpeted:

You cannot ‘have it all’ – Government tells women

I’m primed to notice these things, you see. I am of the generation of mothers told at every turn that we’re doing it wrong: working, or staying at home; hovering over every activity or being lazily unconcerned; creating demanding small foodies or contributing to the obesity epidemic. We may well seem over-sensitive, reacting to every apparently small slight, but it’s because each one comes on top of a collection of others which have made us hyper-aware of what is said to – or about – us.

The article (which is here, should you wish to read it) is essentially a litany of women’s failings. We are damaging our daughters by foisting our unfulfilled ambitions on them. We stunt their career prospects by “unwittingly” transmitting our anxieties about our appearance and our weight.

I went on to read the actual report, Costing the Invisible, produced by the Centre for Appearance Research at the University of the West of England, Bristol and commissioned and funded by the British Government Equalities Office. It draws on a collection of empirical studies to paint a picture of how women’s insecurities about their appearance curtail their academic and economic performance in life, and the cost both to the individual and society. It’s incredibly interesting, and very well worth a read.

It acknowledges the subtle interplay between internalised pressure to conform to an increasingly unrealistic ideal and the way in which women raise their own daughters in a world which gives out very mixed messages about what they can attain. It refers to the complex and conflicting expectations placed on women in the triple roles of work, relationship and motherhood. There is mention of the loathsome concept of  “having it all”, but as cultural rhetoric, not an individual’s own demands for self-realisation.

Of course women have a crucial role in helping to develop their daughters’ confidence and understanding of their place in the world, and it is natural therefore that the report deals with this. A quick search of the document, though, shows that three pages out of 21 refer to this aspect. The overwhelming majority of The Telegraph piece focuses on it.

I applaud The Telegraph for covering the report. I acknowledge what they said in a tweet to me, suggesting I had missed the point by criticising the tone of their article, that they were simply covering a report. I absolutely reject, however,  the suggestion that it was not an opinion piece. That a section of a serious newspaper dedicated to covering issues of concern to women chose to frame their article as criticism of mothers rather than a recognition of the importance of the crisis in body image detailed by the report is to be regretted.

The campaign “No more Page 3” released a montage yesterday of 6 months’ worth of pictures of men and women cut from The Sun. The men, overwhelmingly, were of all ages and fully dressed, engaged in work or sport or some other activity. The women, overwhelmingly, were young and pneumatic, engaged primarily in posing for the camera.

Just as most women don’t recognise themselves in the context-free glamour of the page 3 model, so most feel affronted and alienated by lazy tropes which reduce us to a collection of stereotype and fault. The Telegraph knows this, of course, and the headline achieved its aim of attracting attention and debate. It’s done so, though, at the cost of playing into the well-worn lines of guilt and blame that women, all too wearily, know so well – and missing the opportunity to examine something much broader which genuinely does affect us all. I don’t think “news” affecting men is designed to work in this way. Why do we fall for it?


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