This past December, a major pop culture event occurred for which millions of people had been waiting longer than three decades: Star Wars: Episode VII was released. Finally, the story from 1983’s Return of the Jedi was continuing. Many fans reserved tickets two months in advance, while others camped out in line overnight to be part of the audience for the first of the film’s showings. Individuals active on social media reasoned that it was essential to see this latest installment of the Star Wars series as soon as possible to avoid tripping over spoilers.
As with any work of art, people held widely divergent views of the film. In print and online — particularly on social media — passionate discussions were held on virtually every facet of the new movie, but one of the most frequently broached topics involved actress Carrie Fisher. People weren’t usually talking about how Fisher’s character, Princess Leia, was now a general or how great it was to see one of the original characters in the newest film or even the quality of Fisher’s performance though. Instead, the comments most frequently referred to her graying hair and extra weight. The overall sentiment was that Fisher was not aging “well.”
At the same time, no significant accompanying discussion took place about Harrison Ford’s (Han Solo’s) graying hair or Mark Hamill’s (Luke Skywalker’s) prodigiously grizzly beard. Instead, the refrain heard throughout social media was: What happened to the princess in the gold bikini?! (For those who have somehow managed to resist the force of the original Star Wars trilogy, Fisher — as Princess Leia — had two scenes in Return of the Jedi in which she was held prisoner while dressed in a gold-colored leather and metal bikini. The image of Fisher in the costume has become iconic.)
As Fisher herself said in a 2011 blog post discussing her decision to become a spokesperson for the weight loss company Jenny Craig: “You know, I swear when I was shooting those films, I never realized I was signing an invisible contract to stay looking the exact same way for the rest of my existence.”
Fisher’s “invisible contract” is representative of the expectations that women face in American society today: to remain young and beautiful forever, to work harder to be considered equal to men (and yet be paid less) and to be a perfect daughter, mother and wife or partner — all while doing the majority of the housework, child rearing and caregiving. Despite the significant strides women continue to make toward equality, societal expectations still lead many women to think that they can (and should) “have it all.” But that picture is acutely unrealistic, say counselors.
“Having it all means being able to fulfill multiple expectations simultaneously — the perfect appearance, perfect relationships, perfect mother and perfect career,” says Laura Hensley Choate, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) who has written extensively about women’s and girls’ issues. “It means being perfect according to societal standards for each of these roles, but even if this were possible, it also means achieving them all simultaneously.”
The problem, counselors say, is that these standards are perniciously presented to women not just as goals that can be achieved but as expectations that must be met. And when women fall short of these standards, they often view their unsuccessful attempts as personal failures rather than as an understandable inability to meet unreasonable expectations. This perspective can cause feelings of frustration, inadequacy and shame and, in some cases, lead to more serious problems.
“These expectations are so unreasonable and unattainable, and much of it is out of an individual’s control,” comments Vanessa McLean, an LPC from Richmond, Virginia, whose specialties include women’s issues. “It is easy to see how women become plagued with anxiety, self-doubt and negative cognitions that can easily spiral into anxiety disorders or depression.”
By identifying and countering these harmful societal influences, counselors want to help women separate self-image from societal expectations — and perhaps even start changing and setting the expectations themselves.
Chasing eternal youth and beauty
Throughout much of history, women were valued only for their beauty and fertility, says Choate, a member of the American Counseling Association. Although these qualities are no longer the sole sources of a woman’s worth, youth and beauty are still the most valued, she continues, and once a woman ages and those qualities are diminished, she loses value. In contrast, Choate says, research has shown that the characteristics most prized in men — wealth, power and status — increase with age, meaning that men generally gain value as they age. This disparity is evident in popular culture, particularly in films, which frequently pair young women with much older men, but not vice versa, she notes.
In society at large, this translates into an internalized mandate for women to fight against aging by any means necessary: products, diets, surgery and so on, says Choate, a professor of counseling education at Louisiana State University. Although we live in a youth-obsessed society, the pressure is mostly one-sided, she notes. “Men do not feel this same pressure. Certainly not to the same extent that women do,” Choate says.
The youthful ideal that women are supposed to maintain is in itself unrealistic, McLean says. “It isn’t just attractiveness that is the ideal but an obsession with physical perfection,” she explains. “Perfect hair, perfect skin, perfect body, perfect teeth. … And the message is not only geared to young single women but to all women.”
“Women now have equal rights and opportunities to pursue education and careers,” McLean continues, “but if you consider the message that mainstream media send, both overtly and covertly, the message is still that women’s primary value is sex, [which equals] physical attractiveness.”
Working more for less
Women have largely seized the opportunity to pursue advanced education and careers, but on a societal level, their contributions in the workplace are not as highly valued as those of men — not just symbolically but also literally, experts contend.
According to a 2014 study by the U.S. Census Bureau, the median annual salary for women is 79 percent that of the median annual salary for men. That’s 79 cents for every dollar a man makes. A 2015 comparison by the U.S. Department of Labor measuring weekly salaries found that women make 81 cents for every dollar that men make. “Women often feel more pressure in the workplace to perform, simply to get equitable recognition and pay,” McLean says.
Many women’s wages are affected by factors such as maternity leave and child care, as are their career trajectories, which are often linked to making better wages, says Nadine Hartig, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Counselor Education at Radford University in Virginia. Beyond the physical demands of pregnancy, giving birth and raising children, women are often confronted with choices related to balancing their work and life roles. These are choices that men generally do not have to make, Hartig points out. Even if a woman’s husband or partner assumes some of the child-rearing and household responsibilities, the bulk of those responsibilities will typically still fall on the woman, says Hartig, a member of ACA.
Hartig notes that she made a career choice herself because of the demands of motherhood. “I chose not to go into a tenure track right away mostly because I thought it would kill me to do that at the same time as raising children,” she says.
Many women wrestle with the challenge of how or if to try balancing motherhood and work, knowing that the decisions they make could mean delaying or even derailing a career. Women are sometimes judged negatively for taking time away from work, even for maternity leave, but they are also susceptible to being judged for returning to work as quickly as possible and continuing to pursue their careers, note Hartig and Choate.
When a woman who is a mother seeks a promotion, her dedication to her children may be questioned, along with her ability to get the work done, says Hartig, an LPC who also maintains a small private practice. “This can be done in really insidious ways, with comments such as, ‘I’m concerned you won’t have enough time for your family [if given the promotion].’ Generally, men do not face this same kind of judgment. No one questions a man’s commitment as a father if he takes a promotion.”
McLean says that when parenting and household duties are factored in, research has shown that women perform 50 percent more daily work than men.
“The reality is that working mothers still tend to serve as ‘managers’ of the home,” agrees Choate. “They are the ones who keep up with the schedules, the tasks that keep the household running, the doctor’s appointments, the school needs. And while research shows that fathers do help out, it is the mothers who tend to assign the tasks to keep everything on schedule.”
“So, the mothers have to manage the home tasks — which of course take a great deal of mental energy for planning and can lead to worrying — while fathers tend not to carry this burden with them,” Choate continues. “And the societal expectation is that a good mother will keep the family’s schedule flowing seamlessly. If things don’t run well in the home, the expectation is that the mother is not doing her part well. And for single mothers, this pressure is even greater because they are not only the managers of the home, but they also have to carry out all of the tasks with very little help or support.”
Sadly, for many women, the harshest critics they face are themselves, Choate says. They try to have it all and then feel like failures when they can’t achieve the impossible. In essence, she says, “having it all” boils down to “figuring out a way to look young, thin and beautiful, be home with the kids as much as possible, be a superstar at work, have lots of successful friendships, have a blissful romantic relationship, have a perfectly decorated, always clean home [and] cook fresh, organic meals daily.”
Breaking free of the mold
Choate says counselors can help their female clients uncover the unrealistic expectations they are operating under. “What are the actual standards they hold up for themselves in order to feel they are a success? Actually putting these expectations into words is the first step in helping to change them,” she says. “Where did they learn these expectations? How did they come to internalize these expectations? Did they learn them from parents? Teachers? Coaches? Popular media? Whose approval are they seeking?”
Once a client realizes she is responding to outside forces rather than considering options that might be right for her, the counselor can help her identify ways of creating a healthy balance that fits her life, Choate says. The counselor should have the client ask herself what makes sense for her given her personal strengths and resources.
“This will look different for everyone,” Choate says. “What are realistic and meaningful goals that respect self-care and balance versus living up to a never-ending treadmill of others’ expectations? Helping our clients separate the difference between societal ‘shoulds’ versus what each client actually wants for herself will be very freeing for her.”
In Choate’s book Girls’ and Women’s Wellness: Contemporary Counseling Issues and Interventions, published by ACA, she talks about strategies couples can use to strike a balance in household duties. Rather than trying to decide how to divide tasks exactly 50-50, she suggests that couples talk about particular duties that each partner prefers. For instance, one might prefer folding laundry to vacuuming, or washing dishes rather than taking the trash out. Couples should also talk about who will keep track of items such as bill paying, appointments and other deadlines. The most important goal is for both partners to be satisfied with the division of labor, Choate says. It is also important for partners to be flexible enough to temporarily take on more or less responsibility when needed, she adds, such as one partner tackling extra household tasks when the other partner has a project that requires extra hours.
Hartig also helps her clients re-examine the stereotypes they have been taught, particularly as they relate to body image. “I believe the first step is assessing where clients’ narratives about their bodies began,” she explains. “For example, was the client told she was fat by a parent, or did the client gain a significant amount of weight and feel differently about his or her body? Identifying the struggles a client has about his or her body is important to begin working toward self-acceptance. Often, a negative body image is indicative of feelings of inadequacy and shame. Working on these feelings can lead clients to finding peace with their bodies.”
“Some of the ways that we work with clients on self-acceptance is to explore the negative self-talk they experience and where this self-talk originated,” Hartig continues. “Coaches, parents, teachers and friends all can have an immense impact on self-talk. Counteracting this self-talk with CBT [cognitive behavior therapy] can be very helpful. Creating a new narrative about the client’s self and body is also helpful. For example, a client who can say ‘My body is strong and my body helped me escape some pretty hard situations’ is on the road to appreciating her body.”
Hartig also notes the importance of counselors being aware that negative societal messages about appearance and body image are even greater for women who are not white or heterosexual. “Women of color face even greater assaults on a positive body image [because] our culture has an ideal that is rarely inclusive of all women — or people,” she says. “Women who identify as lesbian or bisexual are also often marginalized and misunderstood with regard to body image.”
“Internalized self-loathing is a natural consequence of media and other outlets that do not embrace the beauty of diversity and realness of people,” Hartig says. “Understanding these issues specific to different cultural groups is key to helping clients with body image issues.”
McLean uses brain-based psychoeducation to help women understand why they feel they need to meet society’s unrealistic expectations. For instance, she explains that humans are hard-wired to seek social approval, so it is normal for people to want to conform. McLean then helps clients to understand their own expectations and fears and to recognize and reframe cognitive distortion. She encourages women to explore how to balance their lives around their personal values rather than around social expectations.
Hartig likes to use narrative therapy to examine her clients’ struggles with the expectations they feel they need to meet. As she listens to clients’ stories, she finds it particularly important to note losses — for example, dreams or plans a woman may have had to let go of in one part of her life, such as her career, to attend to an aspect in another domain, such as family.
For instance, Hartig had a client who had decided not to have a second baby because she wanted to pursue tenure. However, after achieving tenure, she didn’t find it particularly satisfying and felt that she had given up the chance to have another child for nothing. It was important for the woman to grieve this loss, Hartig says.
Hartig encourages clients to grieve such losses by helping them develop rituals for letting go. This might involve a client writing a letter to herself and then burning or shredding it, releasing balloons, journaling or even holding a “funeral” for what was lost. The funeral ritual might include gathering pictures or symbols of what the woman lost, putting them in a box and burying them.
Once the client is ready, Hartig helps her to “reimagine and recreate,” building a narrative around what she wants her life to be going forward and how she can make that happen.
“For some, writing this plan down makes sense and is helpful,” Hartig says. “This can take the form of a ‘letter from your future self’ or free writing/journaling about hopes for the future. This process can also be done in the therapy session, as some clients do not respond well to written homework. I think the crucial element is to gently invite the client to envision a life that looks different than what … she originally planned, once the grief has dissipated.”
Until society rejects the picture of perfection that is “having it all,” counselors can play an important role in helping women strike a balance that allows them to have what they need.
To contact the individuals interviewed for this article, email:
- Laura Hensley Choate at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Nadine Hartig at email@example.com
- Vanessa McLean at firstname.lastname@example.org
See Laurie Meyers’ companion article to this piece, “Girls feeling pressure to be ‘sexy, famous and perfect’,” for more on how counselors can help young girls defy societal stereotypes and pressures.
Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at email@example.com.
Letters to the editor: firstname.lastname@example.org