Yesterday I finished an absolutely wonderful book: Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. In it, Sheryl addresses the fact that, even in 2014, we don’t have true equality of men and women in the workplace or in the home. She thoughtfully unpacks the reasons, and then discusses how we can change things. She suggests that our world would be a better place for all (not just for women) if half of our countries and corporations were led by women and half of our homes were led by men. This book gave me a lot to think about; one of those being how much we value women’s various accomplishments. (Note: for more info about Sheryl and this book, check out www.leanin.org .)
I realized that we tend to place greater value on accomplishments that really don’t mean much, rather than actual meaningful accomplishments. The amount of media attention given to weight loss is a perfect example. Just about every single women’s magazine in your grocery store as at least part of it devoted to tips and tricks of how to lose weight, as if having a “perfect” body is the most important thing women should strive to achieve. (Disclaimer: Don’t get me wrong – as a dietitian I have worked with many individuals, both men and women, whose weight was impeding their health and quality of life. So I absolutely see the value in weight management to manage and prevent chronic diseases, like diabetes, high blood pressure, obstructive sleep apnea, heart disease, etc.) But the ironic thing is, even though we are constantly bombarded with experts (and self-proclaimed “experts”) telling us how we can lose that last 10 lbs, as a nation, we are more overweight than ever before. Really, I think this massive focus on weight and looking a certain way has done more harm than good, perpetuating the stereotype of what “beauty” is, causing women (and men, as well) to look at their bodies critically, and placing a ridiculous amount of importance on achieving that beauty ideal.
Or how about the countless hours we put into trying to have the perfect house, perfectly dressed kids, and instagram-worthy gorgeous meals? I am just as much of a clean freak as the next person (if not more), but I have to regularly remind myself that having a spotless home is not the be all and end all. And I love to cook aesthetically-pleasing meals, but I don’t see that as a really important accomplishment.
Something is wrong when we place more importance on a woman losing 50 lbs than on the promotion she just received. Or profiling a woman on a talk show or in a magazine because of her beautiful home, rather than because of the ways she regularly serves in her community. Or (and I know I will likely step on some toes with this next one, but I think it needs to be said) the huge celebration we make out of a woman getting engaged or having a baby. Now, I was thrilled when Stephen and I got engaged and when we got married (and I still absolutely LOVE being married to him and doing life with him), but I don’t see that as the biggest accomplishment of my life. As well, I’m excited to one day have kids and get to raise them with Stephen, but, again, I don’t see me having a baby as the purpose of my life. Again, if I offended you, I’m sorry, but I hope you can see the point I’m trying to make here. We tend put more weight on certain accomplishments than others, and I think it’s more harmful than helpful.
How wonderful would it be to live in a world where we threw a huge celebration for a woman who just received a grant to be able to start her research that may save countless lives ten years from now? Or for a woman who spent her lifetime positively reshaping the school system in her city. Or who was asked to present at an influential conference in her industry. What if we placed more value on a woman’s contribution to bettering the lives of the people living in her city, than on the fact that she lost 30 lbs?
I think that when we focus more on the superficial accomplishments (looking perfect, losing weight, having the perfect home, etc), we send the message to our girls that how they look is more important than who they are and what they can do. I know that is not the message I want to send to my daughter. I want her to grow up knowing that she is more than a pretty face. I want her to know that she is smart, creative, capable of great things, and that her worth comes from who God says she is, not from what people say or how she looks. I want her to choose whether or not she wants to get married – and for her to know that either choice is okay. I want her to know that if she chooses to not have kids or is unable to conceive, that she is not less of a woman. I want her to know that making a difference in her world, whether through paid or unpaid work, is more important than having the perfect house with the perfect kids and the perfect partner. I want her to feel celebrated for her real accomplishments, and that that celebration will motivate her to work harder and strive to truly make a difference in our world. I want her to look after her body, not so that she can try to achieve the unrealistic standards of beauty set out for her by society, but so that she can be healthy and strong. And I want her to know that she truly can be whatever she chooses to be: a teacher, an architect, a full-time stay-at-home mom, a nurse, a politician, etc. And I want her to know that she can strive to be a leader in her chosen field and in her community.
There’s no simple answer to this challenge we find ourselves in. And it’s often overwhelming to look at massive issue like this and feel overwhelmed. But I truly do think that this can change. It may be gradual, but it will change when we EACH address our own thoughts about this matter, as we engage in conversation about this, as we talk about this with our daughters, our friends, and those we mentor, and as we, by our words and our actions, truly begin to place more value on the accomplishments that really matter. I believe that we as women have been distracted for far too long by the unimportant.
Hilary Rodham Clinton said “Women are the world’s most underused resource.” I think she’s right. As we stop allowing ourselves to be distracted by maintaining the external things and really join together with other women – AND with men, if we celebrate our accomplishments and the accomplishments of our daughters/sisters/mothers/friends/colleagues, I believe we would see incredible positive changes in our world.
Note: I focused on girls and women, but I believe that we also need to look at how we’re raising our boys and the message we send to men. Boys should also be raised to know that the difference they make in our world is more important than how much money they make, that they are not less of a man if their wife makes more money than them, and that they can choose to do whatever they want to do – whether they choose to work in a male-dominated field or in a female-dominated field or if they choose to be at home full-time. That’s all I’ll say for now – this could be a whole other post :)