A version of this piece appeared in Forbes on 4/23/14
Sheryl Sandberg gave us the manifesto on how women could step into leadership positions. She reminded us that we lacked self-confidence and that we needed to raise our hands, pull up our chairs, speak out and lean in. This week another must-read book by Claire Shipman and Katty Kay delved into the many reasons, psychological, hormonal, athletic and social that women lack confidence of men.
Both books agree that it is a deficit of confidence that is holding woman back in every professional endeavor and that the problem is chronic in leadership positions. Sandberg explained how barriers are raised within ourselves from the earliest ages as we internalize messages we glean from our parents, teachers and peers. Kay and Shipman showed how testosterone, competitive sports, less perfectionism and not being quite so “good” as young children better prepares men for the world of work. Modern women resume but not the job. As Kay and Shipman explain, “A growing body of evidence shows just how devastating this lack of confidence can be. Success, it turns out, correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence.”
These authors are all accomplished, beautiful women, but Sandberg never mentions, and Kay and Shipman only briefly touch upon, the way our relentless focus on our appearance and our inevitable failure to attain the standards of beauty we see around us, erodes confidence, increases self-doubt and consumes our time, energy and money. It is an extra hurdle women face in a path already strewn with roadblocks.
They did not touch upon the damage done to our professional success and leadership potential by our assault on our own images. They did not suggest, as I would like to here, that it becomes much harder to take on the world, to aspire to lead when the first battle we fight every morning is in the mirror. Kay and Shipman cite perfectionism as a detriment to confidence and there is no place women battle perfectionism more than with their own appearance. We are made less powerful and certainly less confident by our lust for an image that we cannot obtain.
The problem of being called “bossy” pales in comparison to the daily ritual of belittling ourselves for not being, taller, thinner, more curvy, less curvy, while wishing for lighter, thicker, straighter, fuller or more manageable hair. If I could have back every minute that I have spent just despairing about my hair alone, I could take on the world.
Am I overstating the case? Is the relentless focus on women’s physical appearance that much of a handicap? Does it really drain our resources and confidence?
Research shows that looks are more important for a women’s advancement than a man’s. It is something we have known instinctively for years. But unlike so many disadvantages woman have felt in the workplace, burdens that we have felt impeded our progress, instead of railing against the uneven playing field, women just took it up a notch.
History has shown that taking aim against women’s attractiveness is a non-starter. So we swung the other direction. For professional women this meant increased standards for and efforts to attain an ever elusive level of physical beauty. Women in general focus more time and effort on their appearance and the burdens of grooming fall the hardest on those with the greatest power and visibility. Hillary Clinton could make headlines by negotiating treaties or wearing a scrunchie in her hair.
I am a fan of Sheryl Sandberg. I am a fan of her message and only wish that I was younger when I heard it. But as powerful and insightful as her argument is, it is deeply intertwined with her appearance. Her perfect appearance, signals the confidence that is her message. Being confident is in turn highly attractive. Sandberg was described in Forbes as, “She’s also beautiful, and knows how to wear clothes, this time a fitted navy dress with a discreet amount of cleavage, a gold bracelet and daunting black patent leather pumps with platforms and five-inch heels.”
No man, who wasn’t an actor or model, was ever described this way, ever. We do not comment on men’s bodies when we describe them or the sexiness of their footwear. In fact we do not comment on their footwear.
It Starts Young
As Kay and Shipman point out, young girls gain approval for being good, perfect, pretty and very early on it sets them on the course to continue looking for this type of reinforcement. Their confidence and the praise become a self-fulfilling cycle. The words, “you are so good,” “look how pretty your are,” inspire girls and later trap women.
Anyone who has watched a group of young boys knows that one of the ways they get approval is to be daring, to show almost ridiculous bravado, all skills that will allow them to succeed in the adult world. We rarely comment on young boys’ appearances. They can be dirty and unkempt and we don’t send them a negative message, we just send them to the shower.
Recently I sat among a group of moms of high school seniors. Their daughters are smart ambitious girls all off to get great educations in college. Yet, every girl who was mentioned there was a comment among the mothers about how attractive she was. One mother would comment on her physical beauty and all of the others would nod their heads. We do not do this to our sons. We do not set up yet another roadblock in their way. We do not give them an additional challenge to meet in gaining approval. We do not prey on their deepest insecurities. We are asking so much more of our girls than our boys, and then wonder why they do not reach as high.
Sandberg gives much attention to the damaging stereotyping that holds girls back. But the message we give our girls with regards to their physical appearance takes direct aim at their confidence. As boys turn into men, their bodies take on all the characteristics we consider desirable in males including size and strength. Yet, as girls make the same transition, their bodies gain weight and hair and their hips become more defined. These are changes they will spend a lifetime fighting against.
No part of the female body is acceptable in its natural state. Over the course of the past two decades beauty products and procedures have colonized every inch of a woman’s body. Once it was enough to wash your hair, shave your legs, and dab on a touch of eye make up. Blow dryers and highlights, wax and lasers, makeup for every millimeter of our faces and nail salons on every corner of our cities, were still years away. No one thought of syringes and surgery as ways to look younger and thinner.
Now, with the beauty arms race at full tilt, not an inch of our bodies goes untouched. Tacitly we understand that nothing about our bodies or faces is good enough. To face the world we must alter our appearance. As one successful female litigator explained to me, “The clothing, make-up and hair make me feel more confident and at the same time, like I am a fake. No one I engage with professionally knows what I look like, they just see a mask. It is inauthentic and ultimately does not make you feel better.”
Don’t get me wrong, I love four-inch heels and dresses that fit like they were made for me. I have colored my hair and nails this week and have a cosmetics buying problem so vast that I believe I could brush each eye lash with a different tube of mascara that I already own. I am pointing the finger at myself. I am acknowledging that every morning when I go out it is not enough to be clean, or tidy. I have to be someone else. The me that rises out of bed and steps out of the shower is not good enough to face the world, the husband who steps out of the other side of the same bed, need only be clean and shaven. There is not a person alive who would notice if my husband donned almost the exact same clothes every day, and in fact, looking at his closet full of khaki pants and dark suits, I realize that he does.
In The Confidence Code, Kay and Shipman talk about the insidious dangers of wanting to be perfect suggesting that it can lead to “myopic and isolating self-righteousness” in the workplace. They explain
If perfect is the standard, you are never going to get there, you have set your bar way too high. Perfectionism is another confidence killer. Study after study confirms that it is largely a female issue, one that extends through women’s entire lives.
But nowhere is this futile search for perfect more apparent than in our relationship with the bathroom mirror. How often do fiddle and fuss with our hair, redo our make up and then change our outfits yet again? We can never look like the perfect images we see in the media and carry in our mind’s eye. Where does that leave our confidence? The phrase “bad hair day” resonates with women because we instinctively know that subtle changes in our hair or general appearance can affect our feelings about ourselves and our outlook.
Our efforts at beauty are not wasted. Research by Harvard Medical School clinical instructor Dr. Nancy Etcoff showed that for both genders, “Grooming rituals can be temporary confidence boosters, and studies suggest that the confidence they inspire is itself attractive.” For women, wearing make-up had a significant impact. “Seen very quickly (250 milliseconds), women wearing makeup looked more attractive, likeable, competent and trustworthy to our viewers than those who went without it.”
The reasons for a woman to worry about her weight, the aspect of appearance that concerns women the most, are also backed up by the research of professors Timothy Judge and Daniel Cable. They found that thin women outearn their heavier counterparts and that the women who fared the worst were those who gained weight while at their job.
We can talk about the many ways in which women might gain confidence, but for the overwhelming majority of women, their view of themselves is deeply affected by their appearance, and dissatisfaction is deep. Dr. Etcoff explains,
To the outside world we vary in small ways from our best hours to our worst. In our mind’s eye, however, we undergo a kaleidoscope of changes, and a bad hair day, a blemish, or an added pound undermines our confidence in ways that equally minor fluctuations in our moods, our strength, or our mental agility usually do not.
In The Beauty Bias, Stanford law professor Deborah L. Rhode found that, “90% of women consider looks important to their self-image.” More alarming, however was the fact that, “Over half of young women reported that they would prefer to be hit by a truck than be fat. Two thirds would prefer to be mean or stupid.”
Researchers in the US have found that 80% of American women are dissatisfied with their appearance. A further study of adult women found that 60 percent have negative thoughts about themselves weekly. For men, the number is 36 percent.
Perhaps the most frightening statistic is that an astounding 78 percent of teen girls are plagued by self-criticism and 72 percent worry about their image every day. And the problem begins very young, with 51% of 9 and 10 year-old girls admitting that feel better about themselves if they are on a diet.
Lest this appear to be a problem of the young, among more senior women in midlife, the ones who could be stepping into top leadership positions, an even bleaker picture emerges. A mere 12% of women over 50 were satisfied with their bodies
In order to “feel better about themselves.” 78 percent of women said they spent almost an hour a day trying to improve their appearance or what amounts to two full weeks a year.
The Burden of Beauty
Television journalist Tracey Spicer gave an uproariously funny TEDx talk (entitled “The Lady Stripped Bare”) about being a “vain fool,” about the days and weeks and months of our lives spent on beauty rituals. Her presentation is amusing, both because she is so utterly engaging and because she surprised her audience by stripping off her make up and clothing to show the world the time and effort it takes every morning to create her disguise.
As women we measure our self-esteem in millimeters. A dress that is a touch too low-cut can leave us feeling exposed, on view all day. A hemline an inch too high can leave us tugging at our dress, crossing and recrossing our legs and sitting down in an oh-so-gingerly fashion. Men just sit down. The effect of the combination of covering our faces and baring our bodies is to leave us feeling both exposed and disguised.
As women we strained for time, money and energy. We feel pulled by the fact that we do more housework and childcare. We object to the fact that we earn less and we are chronically exhausted trying to advance in a corporate world that seems designed by and for men. But the solutions that have been offered, that we demand more of our partners, bosses and government, seek to improve our confidence and fight the biases and stereotypes that hold us back, do not touch upon the fact that we pour our resources into our appearance taking this on as yet another burden.
Kay and Shipman recognize our tough relationship with the mirror when they say, “At every age, physical appearance plays a disproportionate role in the building of a woman’s self-confidence. We are much quicker to criticize our appearance than men are to criticize theirs. The data are devastating.” To fully explore the impediments to women reaching true equality and the leadership potential that we know exists, we must acknowledge the role that our demands for beauty play in holding us back.