I feel guilty a lot of the time. I am not sure why. I’ve never taken a pick ‘n’ mix to the check-out without rightly declaring clandestine consumption of a rogue gelatine fried egg. Nor have I ever dropped a bag full of fluffy, saucer-eyed kittens into a fast-flowing river whilst punching a puppy wearing an “I wuv woo” sign around his neck repeatedly in the face. I am against animal cruelty, or cruelty of any kind. I recycle. I sign petitions. I know the right circumstances that justify referring a friend to the Citizens Advice Bureau. I eat my greens. I even happily give up my seat on public transport to sprightly young things who claim, during rush hour, to suffer with bad backs, no questions asked.
On the whole, I would say that I try my best to avoid any behaviour that would traditionally justify guilt. Of course, I am not perfect. I doubt I would be the first person to accidentally let one slip before swiftly exiting a lift, and I won’t be the last. So why is it that, when I wake up in the morning, and when I go to bed at night, am I almost constantly plagued by the idea that I have done something wrong? Why is it that I am wandering around like an introspective, thicker-haired Charlie Brown, with the disappointing spectre of unfulfilled obligations hanging over me like a giant shit cloud desperate to drop its load? I have given this a lot of thought, and I realise that this is owing to nothing in particular, but also…everything. I realise that this is owing almost exclusively to the fact that I am a woman.
Yes, I am talking about the dreaded female guilt, a particularly acidic and destructive strain of emotional self-flagellation that causes many a woman to question her self-worth. I wish I could dismiss it as nothing more than a myth. I wish I could agree with the naysayers and say this is a fallacy; that it doesn’t exist; that it is nothing but a purple unicorn; proof positive that damaging and corrosive gender stereotypes continue to be passed from one person to another like herpes. But female guilt does exist. It is a cannibalistic monster that makes you silently scream in the dark; it is a cannibalistic monster that turns out to be nothing more than a tosser covered in a white-sheet with wonky eye-holes, but who nonetheless makes you squeal when he jumps out from behind the sofa, and who nonetheless refuses to leave even when you ask firmly.
Now, I am not saying that all women are plagued by relentless feelings of inadequacy, or that some men are not occasionally held hostage by feelings of remorse or personal disappointment. But my anecdotal experiences suggest that, on the whole, women tend to castigate themselves for actions (or inactions) that are extremely minor or irrelevant or completely out of their control. We seem to set personal standards and targets that could only realistically be reached with the assistance of crampons, a winch, and an intricate system of strings and pulleys. By contrast, I find it extremely rare for a man to feel guilty for chain eating just two cookies or failing to call his mother. I’ve never heard a male friend chastise himself for not being able to fit into his favourite pair of jeans, or question his self-worth because he is 30, unmarried, and his scrotum is starting to sag. But, have I heard a female friend plan to fast for days after eating a burger, fastidiously calorie-count because she’s worried she’s not lost the “baby weight” fast enough, work unpaid overtime because she feels she is underperforming professionally, and worry about the state of her ovaries, even if she’s never wanted children? Indeed, I have, ladies and gents, many a time.
I am friends with a number of hard-working, impressive women. Some are married, some are not, some have children, some do not, some have regular exercise and hair removal regimes, some do not, some are corporate high-flyers, some are dedicated public servants, others are artsy types, and yet what unites us all is the feeling that we should and could be doing more; that we are never enough. There is nothing wrong with having ambition and drive and an idea of what you want to achieve in life, regardless of what that may be. But it seems we largely give ourselves a hard time because we believe we are not the versions of ourselves society wants us to be. This is not because we are paranoid. It is because we are constantly told we need five-year plans, lists, and tick-boxes that must be checked to the highest possible standards as soon as possible in order to be considered valuable. We are told that we should be setting impossible goals that could only be achieved if we are actually three people instead of one person. We are told we should be everything and, if not, we are nothing.
Personally, I almost constantly feel guilty for a whole host of reasons: because I don’t go to the gym enough; because I am not attractive enough; because I do not simultaneously have the ripe, curvaceous buttocks and firm, perfectly symmetrical bosom of Kim Kardashian, and the lithe, willowy limbs of Miranda Kerr, something so anatomically impossible that it could only be realised if I bought the kind of mirror found on the American carnival circuit in the 1950s. I feel guilty because I have a job I do not like and I feel guilty because I should have tried harder to fulfil my potential. I feel guilty because I may have fulfilled my potential and I objectively just don’t cut the mustard. I feel guilty because I lack business acumen, and I feel guilty because I have Microsoft Excel installed on my computer and I don’t have a reason to use it.
I feel guilty because I am not a high-flying, shoulder-pad-wearing, flawlessly made-up and glamorously coiffured professional woman single-handedly running a FTSE-100 company with perfectly pert breasts, which I’ve managed to maintain whilst breast-feeding each of my children (one boy, one girl), whom I gave birth to without pain relief in a pool between meetings (whilst under the age of 32), after marrying a man I met during our final year of university, who happened to be only my third sexual partner, and with whom I own a town house fitted with an Aga cooker (for baking) and with a luscious, delicately-tended garden at the back, where we have barbeques in the summer and allow our adopted rescue dog, a golden retriever, to roam free. I feel guilty because the aforementioned lifestyle would not be for me (apart from the dog, of course), and I feel guilty because it should be; and because I am told I should have made it be; and because it is probably too late for this to ever be a reality for me. I feel guilty because I don’t want children. I feel guilty because I don’t want children and, even though my parents say they don’t mind, I worry that I am being selfish; that maybe they do; that I am denying my mum the opportunity to take up knitting and my dad the opportunity to develop a penchant for Werthers Originals. I feel guilty for not really feeling that guilty about this not wanting children malarkey. I feel guilty because I cannot stop my body from aging, and I feel guilty because I don’t want botox. I feel guilty because sometimes I think I should consider it.
I feel guilty because sometimes I cannot be bothered to brush my hair (it is curly). I feel guilty for making excuses in parentheses. I feel guilty because my legs do frequently resemble Christmas trees, and I feel guilty because, more often than not, I look like I am wearing a comedy mirkin. I feel guilty because I rarely wear matching underwear and I never wear matching socks. I feel guilty because I do not see my friends enough, because I do not call my grandmother enough, because whenever I am given a potted plant it shrivels and dies almost immediately as soon as it comes into my possession, even though I am female and, by birth, should be a cherisher, a nurturer, a lover, a grower, a green-fingered, sweetness-and-light goddess. I feel guilty because I do not grow my own vegetables. I feel guilty because I am not sugar and spice and all things nice, and I feel guilty because sometimes I do think in expletives. I feel guilty because I am not good at baking, and I feel guilty because I would like to be. I feel guilty because I don’t have a skin care routine, and because I do have a penchant for carbohydrates, and because whenever I try to paint my nails I inevitably go outside the lines so it looks like I’ve dipped the tips of my fingers into a tin of B&Q’s finest. I feel guilty because, as I have been writing this, I’ve caught a glimpse of a hair on one of my nipples and I have no intention of taking any action in the immediate future to remove it. I feel guilty because I bite my nails, because I still laugh at cock jokes, and because I don’t do nearly enough to save the dolphins. In short, I feel guilty because I am me.
I can understand why, on reading this, you would assume I am an exhausted, sad, neurotic mess, with a mind so full of needless remorse and contradictions that my interior life cannot but resemble a merry-go-round rotating at a rate of 100 mph so that all the colours have merged together to create a mucky mess. But, the truth is, these thoughts are not particularly debilitating on the surface. I grew-up feeling guilty and inadequate for a whole host of different reasons, and this proclivity for self-reproach and insecurity evolved and adapted to my circumstances as I aged. This is just a part of my existence, and something that I, and lots of other women, live with. Of course, it is likely these have eroded the cliff-face of my self-worth over time but, in many ways, I am numb to these introspective criticisms. These are just some of the thoughts that form part of my daily interior monologue, running on a constant loop in the background throughout the day like low-volume elevator music. They are just there, and are very rarely consciously conjured or recognised.
The thing is, I have enough self-awareness to know that whatever I do, I will never feel like it is enough, and it will never be considered enough. Even if I was a high-flying career women who looked like a Brazilian lingerie model with an adoring husband, picture-perfect children, a property portfolio, a fridge fit to burst with vegetables (so I eat more than my five-a-day), a complexion that makes me look forever 22, and a rich network of family and friends whom I am able to see regularly, I would still feel like something was not right. I would feel bad because I don’t see my children enough, because I work too much, because I am too tired for sex, because my legs are too thin and I don’t feel curvy enough, because I don’t have enough time to get the organic smoothie company off the ground, or to spend months on end doing volunteer work in Africa. I would feel guilty for feeling dissatisfied in many ways, and I would still be criticised for lots of reasons. There is no winning.
We are constantly told how much better things are for us than they were decades ago (despite the inequalities that still exist in and out of the workplace). It is for this reason there is an expectation that we should aspire to excel in traditionally male-dominated professions whilst at the same time still dreaming of the fairy-tale ending, with the veil and the chocolate fountain, and the guest who nobody really knows locking himself into the bathroom to deposit the roast fillet of beef and confit onion mash in the toilet bowl. This is what we are told is “having it all,” and what it suggests is that one woman is somehow less capable or less desirable or less satisfied than another if she is seen to be lacking in any prescribed area. Personal choice is irrelevant, despite the fact that this is what our feminist foremothers fought for; for us to have options and to be able to freely make personal choices. The “having it all” – professional success, perfect husband, perfect children, perfect home life, perfect body – is supposedly the benchmark against which we all should be living our lives. But the fact is that this is an outdated concept that does nothing more than make women feel inadequate and undermines our choices. It places lots of women under a great deal of pressure because we are never allowed to just enjoy what we are doing or take a breather.
We constantly have to have one eye on the clock, and power towards getting the next item on the list, like Anneka on a challenge, but instead of, say, racing around Hemel Hempstead wearing a hard hat and a shell suit, making gratuitous use of a helicopter and using a mobile phone the size of a breeze block to source some astro-turf to make a kiddie’s play area on the site of a disused sewage works, you are dressed in a Bodycon dress, dashing from the boardroom, to the treadmill, to the bar, to the bedroom, chalking up academic qualifications and professional accolades, collecting bridal magazines and harvesting sperm so that you are ahead of schedule when that final buzzer sounds. The truth is that “having it all” means different things to different women, and the traditional definition is redundant. For me, this would be my own flat with a job that I enjoy and which pays enough for me to live relatively comfortably. I would have the time and resources to be able to volunteer abroad with animals, and occasionally sit in pretentious, boutique cafes wearing dark shades and black polo-necks, tap-a-tap-a-tapping on my laptop and pretending to be an artiste (I would also probably own a tortoise and speak fluent French). Unfortunately, my choices are constantly questioned socially; dismissed as childish and whimsical because they are off-list, even though I know these are the things that would make me happy.
We are placed in impossible positions owing to rigid social expectations and, as a result, we feel guilty for our decisions; and others feel entitled to question them. If I say I am independent and happy being single, I am considered a liar; a lonely woman in denial. If I say that the big white wedding would just not be for me, I am told I have simply not met the right person. If I say I do not want children, I am considered selfish and delusional, wrongly believing I can live a fulfilling life without them. If I say I am still not completely sure where my professional future lies, I am considered disorganised and lacking ambition. If I say I don’t care if I am carrying a bit of timber, I am considered to be lacking pride and slovenly. If I say I do care, I am considered vain. If I say I don’t crave the glamorous, sexy single life, wearing stilettos and sipping cocktails in trendy East London bars before indulging in passionate, impulsive sexual trysts with hot men every weekend I am considered prudish; if I say I do, I am desperate. If I say casual sex is not for me; that I prefer staying home of a weekend, kicking back in an animal-print onesie and eating pizza out of the box I am considered boring and sexually repressed. As I say, there is no winning, but this is frustrating because the constant questioning and determination to see a subtext where there is none is disempowering, and implies that we do not know our own minds.
There are very few choices a woman can make in isolation that will elevate her above reproach. If we “have” something it is either because it has been given to us, or because we have worked hard and earned it. If we are not seen to “have it all” then it is considered a direct reflection of our value, our drive, and our commitment to creating happy lives. But, the truth is, “having it all” is a phrase that ignites insecurities in all women and promotes a damaging competitiveness between us that makes us feel guilty about our choices and question our own judgement. Even if we seemingly do everything “right,” we are subject to criticism. I have friends who are married who tried to repress their excitement about the big day, and who agonised over whether or not they should take their partner’s name, because they worried this would mean they could not call themselves feminists; they worried they would be penalised in the workplace. I have friends who have children who worried about returning to work part-time because they felt it reflected badly on their work ethic. None of this if fair, and effectively we are all suffering because of the insecurities of those people whose choices are different to our own, rather than because we are making bad choices for ourselves. It is other people who are the problem, rather than the individual paths we choose to take.
It is not until we think, “fuck it,” I’m going to do what I want, when I want, how I want, with whom I want, regardless of what anyone else thinks, and regardless of whether or not this is something I am “supposed” be doing at this point in my life, or ever, that we will feel truly empowered. It is only when we realise that we are perfectly justified in rejecting the roles society pushes us to take in favour of our own non-scripted performances that we will be happy. It is only when we realise that we can reject the guilt imposed upon us by people who refuse to appreciate that women can make many rich and varied choices that are of equal value that we will be closer to achieving parity with men. It is only when we realise that it is only deeply insecure people who question the choices of others, simply because they differ from their own, that will we stop berating ourselves for doing nothing more than living our own lives.