Dear women: you are doing it wrong.
Every woman knows this. Heather Havrilesky, in her brilliant review of Mika Brzezinski’s book “Knowing Your Value,” pointed out all the ways that women are bombarded with messages, from women and men alike, that we are doing it all wrong. We’ve been doing it all wrong for centuries.
Women are wrong for being polite, and wrong when we speak up. Those of us who wear makeup, tight skirts and high heels are wrong for catering to sexist norms, even if we like the way we look. If we’re sexually assaulted while dressed this way, it’s our fault, of course. Yet, if we don’t show off our sex appeal, we are wrong for being too unappealing to men – even if appealing to men is unappealing to us.
Women are criticized for being too passive, and criticized for being too aggressive. We are wrong about our weight, whether fat or thin. We are wrong when we love ourselves in spite of our flaws, and if we take steps to correct those flaws – well, that’s wrong, too. We are wrong when we emphasize our brains, and wrong when we emphasize our beauty. We are sluts when we like sex too much, and we are frigid when we like sex too little. We are wrong when we are clingy, and wrong when we are distant.
Telling women all the ways they are wrong –and then, for a fee, offering up a fix – has become a cottage industry. For $99, a woman can take a 6-week seminar from “relationship expert” Tony Gaskins, who will teach you everything from how to dress to how not to get cheated on. Gaskins’s dating course for course for men starts by asking men to think about the question, “Who am I?” – a question women taking Gaskins’ seminar apparently need not answer.
Some say “women are ruining the world by giving men sex for free,” and suggest women go on a “sex strike” to force men to commit. The notion persists that, for women, sex has a trade-in value that starts depreciating as soon as that first fumbling boyfriend drives your virginity off the lot. It persists despite the fact that women are no longer dependent on men and marriage for survival, and consider “commitment” something earned by love rather than bargained for with sex.
If men are good at telling women what’s wrong with us, women may be even better. For instance, earlier this year, articles by women blaming women for their dating woes appeared in the Village Voice and Huffington Post just before Valentine’s Day 2011. One told New York City single women that everything wrong with being single and dating in New York is totally their fault. Another purported to tell women “why you’re not married.” Don’t be surprised to find similar posts for Valentine’s Day 2012 and beyond.
But perhaps we spend too much time reading, discussing, and analyzing these “women = wrong” messages. They’re distractions that keep women from supporting each other and battling injustice. We spend so much time either twisting ourselves into pretzels to make ourselves “right” – or refuting the latest set of claims about what we are doing wrong – that we lack energy to fight the battles that matter.
It’s great when we experience events that counteract these negative messages. I recently attended the Corporate Counsel Women of Color 7th Annual Career Strategies Conference in Los Angeles, and the Black Girls Rock! Awards in New York City. Both events were filled with women celebrating womanhood and supporting each other. Listening to Judge Glenda Hatchett tell women at CCWC to tell their own stories, and Black Girls Rock honoree Pastor Shirley Caesar say that she’s “still rocking,” made me forget about all the ways women are supposedly doing it wrong.
We can’t stop the “women, you’re doing it wrong” messages from being perpetrated. But we can counterbalance those messages by telling our own stories about our own lives, from our own perspectives.