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13th May 2024

Why are we still talking about ‘women who have it all’?

The ‘women who have it all’ narrative is alive and kicking in 2024, but instead of being empowering, it’s a patriarchal trope designed to pit one against another
Why are we still talking about ‘women who have it all’?
Credit: Vonecia Carswell @ Unsplash

Every now and then I have a depressing moment where I realise just how much work is left for the feminist movement. I had one of these moments recently while I was reading a British Vogue article about Suki Waterhouse, the popstar who performed at this year’s Coachella festival just weeks after giving birth to her daughter. One line in particular caught me off guard: “Waterhouse breaks down her second Coachella weekend for British Vogue, and proves that you really can have it all.” The words hit me like a truck: why are we still talking about women who ‘have it all’ in 2024?

The very idea of ‘women who have it all’ is not only a harmful myth but a notion constructed by the patriarchy with the sole purpose of making women feel bad about themselves. Although the Cosmopolitan writer Helen Gurley Brown – who coined the term in the 1980s – made no mention of children, the phrase has since evolved to praise women who have had children and still have a successful career. ‘Women who have it all’ is just another way for society to judge and criticise women.

Women can never just be. We have to contend with pressures and expectations concerning every aspect of our lives. Our reproductive choices, our career choices, our fashion choices…everything is up for discussion- and not the healthy kind. We are nagged by relatives about when we are going to start a family – ‘the clock is ticking,’ as we all know. However, the women that do have children are berated if they put their careers on hold to focus on being a mother. They’re also berated if they do go back to work after having children because they ‘aren’t there enough for them,’ which is basically code for being a bad mother. Don’t even get me started on the women that don’t have children!

To top it all off we are endlessly scrutinised for the way we look. As Bridget Jones says:

‘Being a woman is worse than being a farmer there is so much harvesting and crop spraying to be done: legs to be waxed, underarms shaved, eyebrows plucked, feet pumiced, skin exfoliated and moisturised, spots cleansed, roots dyed, eyelashes tinted, nails filed, cellulite massaged, stomach muscles exercised.’

The women that dutifully do all of this are seen as vain but the women that don’t are seen as slobs. It is all very contradictory and very much a lose-lose situation for women. As America Ferrera’s character says in Barbie (2023):

“You have to be thin, but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin. You have to say you want to be healthy, but also you have to be thin. You have to have money, but you can’t ask for money because that’s crass. You have to be a boss, but you can’t be mean. You have to lead, but you can’t squash other people’s ideas. You’re supposed to love being a mother, but don’t talk about your kids all the damn time. You have to be a career woman, but also always be looking out for other people.”

The idea of a woman who has it all is reflective of society’s incessant need to put women into boxes. There are dozens of labels that are used exclusively to describe women. Some of them are seemingly harmless: girlboss, girl next door, it girl, cool girl. Then there is the dark side of it: bossy, pick-me girl, difficult, bitch, prude, slut, psycho… the list goes on. Don’t think that you’re safe because you’ve been given one of the nice labels either: you may be seen as a girl next door today but tomorrow you could easily fall into prude territory. Just look at Anne Hathaway- one minute she was America’s sweetheart, the next she was being torn down by so-called ‘Hathahaters’. The same goes for Taylor Swift – need I mention #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty? It’s like walking a precarious tightrope.

Women, therefore, must adhere to the sky-high standards and expectations whilst taking care to not be labelled ‘difficult.’ The easiest way to make sure you’re not the one in the firing line? Tearing down another woman, of course!

As we have been pitted against each other, we have become each other’s worst critics. To quote the Barbie film again: “Everyone hates women. Men hate women and women hate women.” Even though ‘having it all’ is usually used when describing professional women who have had children, the negative side effects of pressuring women to be perfect in all aspects of their lives has started to trickle down to students.

The girl who always knows the answers in the seminar is despised by the girls who don’t. She is lonely at the top and the other girls are miserable comparing themselves to her.

I am guilty of this too. Instead of praising successful women, I am immediately jealous and critical of them. I have caught myself on many occasions having mean thoughts about another girl just because she seemed to be ‘better’ than me.

If only we could stop pushing the women who have it all narrative and just let women be. Why can’t we award all women the same level of respect, instead of ‘grading’ them based on society’s perceived successes and failures? I have already seen the impact that the ‘have it all’ narrative has had on girls my age: you have to be in the library, working like a maniac from 9-5, you have to be on a sports team and training several times a week, you have to join other societies to be well-rounded, and you have to go on nights out. All while looking flawless and capturing every moment for your Instagram story.

This, to put it simply, is exhausting. It is also not a lifestyle that our male counterparts are living. Without the stress of being a perfect student and person 24/7, the men I know are relatively chilled. They live their lives the way they want to, not strictly by the timer app on their phones.

No wonder women are stressed. And boy are we stressed: according to Mind UK, nearly one in four women in the UK feel unable to manage stress and pressure at work. The women polled stated that concerns for job security, increased caring responsibilities and financial worries all contributed towards feelings of burnout. In the 25-34 year old age range, only 48% of men strongly agreed that concerns of about job security could cause burnout, compared to 64% of women, and in each case, men were more likely to disagree that each factor could contribute to burnout.

It’s not just professionals either, students are also suffering. According to a study by King’s College London, the proportion of students who identified as having difficulties with their mental health has increased from 6% in 2017 to nearly 16% in 2023.

We need to take the pressure away before it’s too late. The first thing we can do? Change the way we talk about women. If we stop talking about women who ‘have it all’ and we stop judging every decision a woman makes, maybe we will be able to relax a bit and stop ourselves from crumbling under the pressure of being perfect.

This means not writing articles about women who ‘have it all’ (I’m talking to you, British Vogue). It is okay that Suki Waterhouse went back to work so soon after giving birth. It’s also okay if you don’t go back to work straight after having a baby. It’s also okay if you don’t want children. Can we as a society stop acting like only one of these options is the correct one?

All in all, it just goes to show that the patriarchy is alive and breathing. I for one cannot wait until it breathes its last breath, and I can be a woman without the pressure, judgement, and expectations that is attached to what I decide to do.

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