Last week I came across an event on a blog (which shall remain nameless) that truly shocked me. The blogger in question had written a rather provocative piece on affiliate sites, you know, the kind with links to amazon or other online book stores who get a couple of pennies if someone buys a book after reading their review. The blogger was insistent that this was poor practice and a risk to the integrity of the reviewer. It’s a point of view, of course, although not one I agree with myself, and given that this was a sharply worded blogpost that contained a quite unnecessary sideswipe at the recent Persephone Reading Weekend, I wasn’t surprised to see several of the comments politely disagreeing. I added to them. And then, a couple of days later, when I went back to follow up the conversation, I found that it had been rigorously doctored by the original blogger, who had removed any comment that disagreed and left only those (the minority) who took her point of view. For it was a woman writing – not that it was a site that I had ever visited before, or will visit again, but I gathered that much. I tell you, I was aghast when I first saw what had happened, because it seemed all wrong to me, to censor debate in that way, and quite an extraordinary thing to do for someone who was hoist on a petard of blogger integrity.
At the time this happened I was reading Marghanita Laski’s brilliant novel, The Village (for that selfsame Persephone Reading Weekend which I managed to miss completely). The Village is set at the end of the Second World War when class barriers, weakened out of necessity by the conflict, are finally beginning to crumble for good. But society hasn’t quite reached the point where it can accept that, and not in a village, where everyone’s business is common knowledge and the stuff of common judgment. The Trevors are one of the ‘good’ families in the area, although Wendy Trevor is at her wit’s end trying to make ends meet and arrange futures for her two daughters; Sheila, the clever one whom she favours, and Margaret, gentle, self-effacing, kind and useless in her mother’s critical opinion. Her best hope is that Margaret should make a good marriage (although her hopes aren’t high given that she’s only ordinarily attractive and not particularly talented). But when Margaret does fall in love, with a young man who earns spectacularly well according to the Trevor’s standards, but who comes from the wrong side of the village and the wrong sort of class, Wendy’s horror knows no bounds. The only thing that’s keeping the Trevor’s afloat in their self-esteem is the feeling that they are looked upon well, that they have a ‘place’ in society that is enviable. To get the future she wants, Margaret, sweet, neglected and badly treated, will have a royal battle on her hands.
What, you may ask is the connection between these two stories? Well, today is International Women’s Day, and whilst many people are very rightly drawing much attention to the undeveloped corners of the world, where women’s lives are a misery, I wanted to bring some attention to the ways in which women in the first world still make life hard for themselves, particularly around this issue of criticism and self-esteem. It seemed to me that Wendy Trevor and the blogger in question shared similar traits – they were both sharply critical of others, but simply could not bear criticism of themselves. Not because they are unpleasant people (which might have been my initial, irritated thought), but most probably because inside their heads, questions of social standards and expectations and awareness of faults and failures and an over-privileging of surface appearances make such a tangled mess that there is simply no space at all for criticism to be tolerated. It takes up a lot of space in the mind, does criticism coming from external sources; if a woman’s head is already packed with rules and regulations and she is already stressed out from making an effort to do everything that is asked of her, then space is at a premium. There can be no holding of the shame and horror of being criticized from outside. And yet, if a woman is making herself this strung out, ensuring she does what is right in a way that is visible, how little tolerance she has for the deviant behaviour of others! No wonder they get it in the neck.
This is an old story from the woman’s world, not one that I myself have created, but one that psychologists will readily point to. A recent survey on the website mumsnet came up with the disturbing statistic that 88% of mothers treat their daughters differently to their sons despite feeling that they shouldn’t. Mothers are more likely to call their sons ‘funny’, ‘cheeky’, ‘playful’ and ‘loving’, whilst they will describe their daughters as ‘stroppy’, ‘argumentative’ and ‘serious’. Mothers are far more likely to micro-manage their daughters, feeling able to intervene in critical ways in what they wear, say, eat and do, whilst having an equal tendency to leave their sons in peace. Mothers were twice as likely to be critical of their daughters, and more than half found it easier to bond with sons (not surprising, having alienated the daughters, we must assume). The effect of this is to make daughters believe they are more in need of whipping into line for the rest of their lives – hence women’s eagerness to discipline themselves, to berate themselves and to please others (to be assured they are good girls). You can figure out for yourselves what happens to female self-esteem in the middle of all this, not to mention the relations between women, when criticizing each other seems natural and necessary according to the habits of our minds.
As an antidote to all that chastisement, here is something that made me laugh and cheer this morning – an Independent article on ways to worry less, headed up by the cheekily subversive Julie Burchill with thoughts on how to worry less about what others think of you. And let’s buy into the sisterhood again – let’s make it our business this week to compliment other women, to offer nothing but supportive help and the benefit of the doubt. Let’s start with ourselves, having an amnesty on all the things that haven’t got done, or should have been done better, or shouldn’t have been done at all. Let’s wave them all goodbye, along with the tortuous arguments about what other people expect from us, and the standards of perfection we absolutely have to maintain or risk being unlovable. Let’s exchange all that weighty unhelpful nonsense for one thing: doing the best we can. And leave it at that.