Feminism "lit the spark of my generation's dreams," Debora Spar writes in 2013's Wonder Woman: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection. But it also "ironically and unintentionally raised the bar on women so high that mere mortals are condemned to fall below it." Plenty of women have written and spoken out about the pressure of being perfect. And what happens when they can't be perfect students, bikini-wearers, mothers, businesswomen or athletes? They feel guilty.
It's time to immediately let ourselves off the hook. Ceasing to feel guilt over the following five things is a start.
1. Attaining the "perfect body"
When it comes to body image, women are caught in a Catch-22: We are inundated with images of thin, white women while being immersed in the "body positive revolution." While this new wave is commendable in many respects, it also creates pressure for women to embrace their natural beauty when it may contradict the ideal. This dissonance may cause women who can't live up to either standard to feel immense guilt.
As feminist Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett wrote for the Guardian, "I feel guilty that I hate my body to the extent that, in my mind, it detracts from anything else I might achieve ... I am aware of how it limits me, but I hate my body nonetheless."
"There is no such thing as a perfect feminist, just like there's no such thing as a perfect body," writer Chloe Angyal noted in 2013 of her own struggle dealing with an eating disorder and her feminist identity. "I can tell you from personal experience that trying to be the perfect anything, and trying to be two perfect, contradictory things at once, will rip you apart."
2. Enjoying "sexist" media
We've all done it. You're just looking for mouthwash at Rite Aid when all of a sudden you catch yourself dancing to Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" playing overhead. Perhaps you enjoyed Rihanna's "Bitch Better Have My Money" video much more than you'd like to admit.
"When I drive to work, I listen to thuggish rap at a very loud volume, even though the lyrics are degrading to women, these lyrics offends me to my core," Bad Feminist author Roxane Gay said in her recent TED talk, admitting that she also watches The Bachelor, enjoys fashion magazines and buys into fairy tale endings.
There is no right or wrong way to champion women's rights. There is no right or wrong way to be a feminist. We live in the real world with sexist (but binge-worthy) TV shows and sexist (but catchy) music everywhere. While these cultural preferences may be less than ideal, they are preferences — and that's that. They aren't mandates, and they do not have the weight to to prevent one from believing in and supporting what they want.
3. Not being a porn star in real life
Our standard of what's sexy is largely represented by unrealistic, manufactured mainstream porn.
Yet many women still feel guilty when they fail to replicate porn actresses' performances or don't physically resemble them. When women shared their anecdotes in a 2014 Reddit thread, Bustle reported, they noted they considered things like their inability to orgasm like porn stars, the appearance of their genitals and even how they behaved during sex as personal failures.
Leaders like Cindy Gallop have made doing that a priority. She founded Make Love Not Porn, an organization dismantling these damaging depictions by creating alternative, more realistic porn that empowers women by focusing just as much on their enjoyment as it does on men's pleasure.
"The answer to everything that worries people about porn and sex today is not to shut down, censor, clamp down, block, repress," Gallop told Mic in March. "It's to open up. Ultimately we want to change how the world has sex for the better."
4. Becoming mothers — or not
Women who don't want to have children have been called "selfish" by the likes of Pope Francis, or told their childless life doesn't have meaning. Even choosing to have kids does not let women off the hook. As psychologist Brene Brown told Psychology Today in 2014, "Society views womanhood and motherhood as inextricably bound; therefore, our value as women is often evaluated by where we are in relation to our roles as potential mothers."
Mothers themselves confirm this. The decision whether or not have kids, and if so, how to raise them can be a deep source of guilt.
"I think I spent the first year of staying at home with my children feeling guilty for being able to stay at home with my children," Jenifer DeMattia wrote in the Huffington Post in 2014. "I felt like judgment was being placed on me because I wasn't contributing to society in a way I felt was adequate."
"If you are like most working moms I know, you may feel like you're forever coming up short when it comes to doing enough, giving enough and being enough for your kids," Forbes contributor Margie Warrell wrote in a 2013 open letter to working mothers. "Not to mention your boss, your partner, your aging parents and extended family and yes, of course, your community." One day, however, Warrell realized, "I didn't have children in order to spend my life feeling forever inadequate" but to "enrich my life, not enslave my conscience."
5. Not being a better caregiver
Apparently part of "having it all" is taking care of everyone. Women provide the majority of informal care to spouses, parents, parents-in-law and other individuals in their lives according to the Family Caregiver Alliance. In fact, an estimated 66% of caregivers are female and 20% of all female workers in the United States are also family caregivers, according to the same organization. While some caregivers do so professionally, many women are expected to add this work to the many other competing demands in their lives — they are expected to "have it all," then inevitably feel guilty when they're unable to fully or adequately live up to those expectations.
And we can do this by being open and honest about this struggle.
"I think there's an obligation of women my age, who've had a degree of success, to be more forthright in saying: 'This is the messiness I live in everyday. It may look like I'm juggling perfectly, but balls are falling everywhere,'" Debora L. Spar, president of Barnard College, told the Washington Post. "I think if we get the message out that nobody's figured this out, we may go a little way toward ridding the guilt."
Get rid of guilt: Discarding these common sources of guilt, therefore, is about so much more than empowering women to feel better about themselves on a daily basis, crucial though that is. It's also about pushing back on the systemic sexism that seeks to hold women to perfectionist standards and, thus, hold us back from equality. It's about, as Spar said, recognizing that "nobody's figured this out," but that maybe if we start a conversation, we can.