Nilanjana Bhowmick underlines how women are conditioned to strive for perfection in all spheres of their lives, often neglecting their own needs until their bodies break down from the stress.

At a women’s day programme that I attended recently, one of the guests was a young social activist and entrepreneur. She talked about how women today have the means and space to pursue their professions and carve out a space for themselves without too much trouble. But even with her ability to take time off and travel on her own or with friends, attend conferences, she said that every time she made such a trip, a part of her mind would be preoccupied with thoughts of how her husband and daughter were faring at home, whether the food she had packed in containers and stored in the freezer was sufficient, whether the maid would arrive by the time her daughter reached home from school, and similar concerns.

The activist also mentioned how when her husband travels he does so without having to obsess about the affairs at home because she was there to ensure that the routine at home would continue without any hitches. She, in fact, was engaged in playing the role of being a superwoman, the woman who looked after her home effortlessly and also had the space to pursue her own passions.

The burdens of perfection

In her latest book, How Not To Be A Superwoman: A Handbook For Women To Survive The Patriarchy (Penguin Random House India), Nilanjana Bhowmick puts the focus on how women are conditioned into striving for perfection in all spheres of her life without caring for their needs till their bodies break down from the stress of it all. Even though women have been carrying out personal, professional and social obligations with the goal of excelling in all fields for a long time, the pandemic became the watershed that put the spotlight on the high burden placed on women. “Exhausted even more than before, women started speaking up about the burden of caregiving as well as the emotional and cognitive labour that is dumped on them, all in the name of nurturing and caring being a woman’s superpower,” Bhowmick writes in her introduction to the book.

Cognitive labour or the anticipatory care that only women seem to be able to provide is what the entrepreneur felicitated at the programme for her professional work was talking about. This role that women find it difficult to shed goes along with the emotional labour of worrying about the wellbeing of the family are invisible strains creeping onto the physical and psychological health of women, unnoticed until they become visible.

Even though things are changing and more men are shouldering domestic responsibilities, cognitive or emotional labour, which mostly requires supervision, seems to rest to a large extent on the shoulders of women as studies conducted around the world indicate. Bhowmick writes, “Men…are so used to their needs being anticipated by women that they have let their emotional intelligence lie in disuse. And this is where women have an edge.” But it is this very edge that also increases the burden of women, pushing them to strive for perfection.

Towards healing, and understanding unresolved conflicts

In How Not to be a Superwoman, Bhowmick quotes from the results of studies conducted worldwide, along with the personal histories of women, to underscore the heavy burden that women have been carrying and the resultant price they have had to pay for contributing to the gendered systemic neglect faced by them. Even when there is awareness among women about the unfair balance of responsibilities, they are unable to actually act to better the circumstances due to factors as varied as a reluctance to say ‘no’ to requests, feeling the need to people-please either due to the fear of reprisals or to ensure a good opinion of themselves.

As per a study conducted in 2022 of 1000 US citizens, a large majority of women self-identified themselves as ‘people pleasers’, putting the needs of others over their own, unable to say no to a request. Bhowmick says, “Being able to say no is a power move all women need.”

The author underlines how women fall easily into the trap of wanting to have the perfect work-life balance, where they manage their personal as well as professional lives with aplomb. She says it is wiser to junk that goal and embrace a balanced way of living. Besides learning to say no, women need to wrest back their own expectations by letting go of the perfection trap and also the guilt that comes with prioritising self-care and mental well-being. Pointing to the role played by trauma, both inherited and gained, as factors giving rise to stress and exhaustion, Bhowmick puts emphasis on opening channels of intimate communication with mothers and grandmothers, encouraging the sharing of histories to heal any wounds and understand unresolved conflicts.

Opening channels of communication

The author also cautions how the story of Indian women is not a single narrative, but could also include stories of marginalisation related to caste, class, race, sexual identities in addition to gender. She writes, “Women are not a homogenous group, and neither are their struggles or their coping mechanisms — for we fight with what we have access to, the history we come from and the trauma we carry in our bodies.”

Many women realise the trap about perfectionism once they hit their forties or fifties, when they re-evaluate their lives, exploring their values and aspirations, leading to self-discovery and growth. It could also be a time when they look at the money at their disposal and gauge their position at home and in society. It goes without saying that those with higher economic security have more independence and garner greater respect. Yet research across the world shows how incomes and savings are mostly skewed in favour of men due to factors like a smaller percentage of women holding higher positions and lower salaries for comparable job profiles.

Bhowmick reiterates how women can benefit when they form communities that would help open up channels of communication and create support systems, aiding in fighting stereotyping and negotiating better deals. When she asked women on social media about the advice they would give their younger selves to live a fulfilled life, she received a deluge of responses, some of which are: ‘Prioritize yourself and don’t compromise’; ‘Money does buy happiness, and anyone who thinks otherwise has too much of the former and, by extension, the latter’; ‘It’s not about demanding special privileges but striving for gender equity.’

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