By EMILIE ARIES
I’ll confess it: I’m a recovering hot mess.
In the years after college, I was often self-deprecating and unconfident, minimizing my achievements and playing demure as a means to connect—especially with men. I struggled to get concrete about what I wanted in work and in love.
I see these kinds of adorably flustered young female characters everywhere in pop culture. We don’t even call ourselves women. We’re still GIRLS, as Lena Dunham and HBO remind us, who are “almost kind of getting it together.”
From Alison Brie’s character in Community to the leading ladies of 2 Broke Girls, young women who struggle with assertiveness in work and love are omnipresent—and portrayed as cute for being so flustered. Zooey Deschanel’s character in New Girl is frank about how awkward so-called “emerging adulthood” can be, as she is constantly caught in work and love conundrums. What she wants is unclear, and what she’s asking for is even less so.
Woven throughout these characters is a common—but troubling—storyline about not quite knowing what you want, and therefore not quite going for it.
So what’s the big deal?
While sure, some of this can be chalked up to art mimicking life, life mimics art in return. When these girlish characters are put on display on the small screen, they set norms for what is expected of us women and reinforces what is socially rewarded.
Perhaps this is why I was taken aback when I started dating a man who thought my demanding job was sexy.
After a few months of getting to know each other (during which time I played down my role at work), I finally openly reveled in sealing a big deal for one of my clients.
His response? “That’s hot.” Instead of feeling flattered, I was confused. I asked him to elaborate. He said it was sexy to meet a woman who’s got her life together.
Then I started thinking that maybe it was my behavior—not his—that should have been more surprising. Why had I been dating him for months and only barely mentioned how I was crushing it in the workplace?
I have a BA from an Ivy League school and did a fellowship at Harvard. I helped pass President Obama’s healthcare reform as the nation’s youngest state director of Organizing For America.
And yet months after meeting this guy I still downplayed these achievements, making a joke when he stumbled across a photo on Facebook of me and the President and asked, “Is this real?”