There's a deep-dark secret that's been nattering at me lately. It has a lot to do with the way we think about ourselves, our motivation for organization, even our wardrobes. The secret is not one that we readily admit to, and many of us want to deny that it even exists. Yet this unseen force has a powerful effect on our decisions, our actions and our self-concept.
I'm talking about feminine competitiveness.
Feminine competitiveness. The very phrase seems self-contradictory. To be feminine is to eschew competition, right? To be competitive is to be "un-feminine." How do these two ideas manage to coexist--and worse, how do they manage to have such power in our choices, our efforts and our lives?
Lately, though, I've had my nose rubbed in the issue of feminine competitiveness. It started with my very own S.H.E.™ gurus, Pam Young and Peggy Jones; rereading "Get Your Act Together" a few weeks ago, I came up, startled, against the following sentence:
. . . [Maybe you've always felt the condescending, watchful eye of a vicious, know-it-all in-law and you'd like to get organized so you could shove it in her face and show off your pretty, clean, happy, prosperous home, making the stuck-up pillar of perfection so jealous that she would become a binge-eating, rash-scratching, pathetic pile of disbelief.
Pam and Peggy add, in all capital letters, "THAT'S NOT PRETTY, BUT IT'S MOTIVATION!" I looked past the exaggeration and hyperbole to the reality: women compete.
I stopped reading. I started thinking. "Am I competitive with other women? Is that healthy? Do I do things--or not do things--in order to score points with other women? Against other women?"
When I became sensitized to the issue, I saw it everywhere. Take the comics page. Nicole Hollander gets regular laughs on "Sylvia" when she lampoons "The Woman Who Does Everything More Perfectly Than You." "Baby Blues" spends two weeks pulling daily laughs from Wanda and Daryl's cook-out with next-door neighbor, Bunny, the Queen of Perfection. The tussle between at-home and working mothers boils over in "Cathy", when Zenith's working mother feels inadequate at the "mommy game" played out by at-home moms at Zenith's preschool and goes to outrageous lengths to impress . . . the other mothers. We laugh--but is it really so funny?
I open the Atlanta Constitution, and read that a high percentage of Southerners agrees with the statement that "Women who don't care about their appearance show disrespect for their families or communities." The article quotes an older woman, proud that she's not gone outside the front door without lipstick since her 14th birthday, "Women who don't make the effort to look good in public probably have messy houses, too!"
But wait! No regional slur is intended; the West has its own style of one-up-womanship. While there's less conformity in matters of dress, weight is not negotiable. At social events, competitive undereating is the sport of choice. Even middle-aged women feel the pressure to have the body build of a 17-year-old concentration camp inmate (who has had breast implants, to boot). The ultimate fashion irony: the waif in a Wonderbra. Yet we women buy it, and worse, we use it against one another.
More to our point, our homes are a focal point for feminine competition. Whose house is cleanest? Best decorated? Best managed? Most hospitable? Most filled-with-cookies-and-cheer at the holidays? Why do many of us set our feet on the road to more efficient home organization? To read Pam and Peggy, many of us want to "show" somebody, and not very nicely, either.
Thinking and stewing and mulling this one over, I came to the appalled realization that I, too, have been playing the game. Yup. I, me, have to plead guilty as charged, to both components of the offense.
You see, in this game there are two players. There is the standard-bearer (the mom who shows up at 9 a.m. preschool with freshly-baked gingerbread men, despite the fact that 3-year-olds wouldn't know freshly-baked from Nabisco, as long as it has sugar on it), and then there is the wannabe (who wants her piece of the freshly-baked action, even though she hates to bake, hates gingerbread, and isn't particularly fond of 4 a.m.--the time when one must rise to bear this particular standard).
The standard-bearer generally operates from a posture of wide-eyed innocence. I know, because I am one. "Oh," I say casually to the admiring wannabe at the church supper, "I think fruit salad just looks better this way!" when she complements me on my carved watermelon basket surrounded by crushed ice on a silver tray.
"Just looks better", my heinie. Between polishing the silver, carving the watermelon and cutting the fruit balls precisely, I could have made 15 fruit salads that would have tasted just as good. Sure, I'm happy that my dish is well-received, but I'm even happier that somebody noticed that I went above and beyond.
And the wannabe? I'm one of those, too. Her problem is her willingness to see the attainments of someone else as an indictment of herself. At a restaurant dinner with friends, I complement Amy on her wonderful embroidered linen dress. So far, so good--but what do I say to myself in the ladies' room? "Gosh, you look so fat in that jacket. Just look at those upper arms. Pork City! You'd better get your flabby hocks down to that gym and tone up!"
Reduced to the bare bones, feminine competitiveness is grounded in good old insecurity. Do not believe the insouciance of those standard-bearers! They would feel naked and defenseless without the equivalent of a carved watermelon basket surrounded by crushed ice on a silver tray. At heart, what motivates this behavior? The fear that the ordinary you isn't good enough, so you'd better be extraordinary.
And the wannabes? Same problem, different expression. Someone else's watermelon salad is more than just a salad--it's a reproach, a reminder, a downward tug on the self-esteem. Someone else's compliment means there's one less available for you.
It takes a strong, strong woman to sail between these shoals, to set a course bent neither on impressing others nor devaluing one's self.
I'm going to disagree with Pam and Peggy, and you are free to disagree with me. P&P believe that an "I'll show you" motivation to get organized is sufficient, that as you persevere toward your goals, "[i]t will only be fun for awhile to rub it in somebody's nose" and that, eventually, you'll move on to reap the rewards of your efforts.
Will that motivation even get you to that point? Most standard-bearers are quite agile at finding new and exciting standards to bear (just ask me, I'm an expert). Most wannabes, on conquering one area of insecurity, only move on to another. The thrill of "showing" somebody is a very fleeting thrill, indeed.
Get organized for you, and you alone. Forget the lady on your block with the collection of 5-by-8 nylon flags for all occasions including death in the family. Forget your sister-in-law, who gets her jollies being newer, better, and faster than you at everything.
ALL THIS BEHAVIOR IS DESTRUCTIVE. Period. It will not get you anywhere except behind the eight-ball of envy and insecurity and spite, whether you're nervously bearing that standard or frantically jogging to catch up.
Get organized to move toward health. Get organized so you, and you alone, can set the standards toward which you strive. Get organized to free yourself from the tyranny of always having to say "Yes!" Get organized to honor the unique and wonderful person you are--with no comparisons, up or down. Get organized to free your energies to make a real difference, not merely to jockey for place with the other gameplayers.
Ready? Let's get organized . . . for our noble selves.