I recently attended a black-tie benefit, one of those swanky Manhattan affairs teeming with A-list socialites and minor royals. There was a red carpet outside, a star chef in the kitchen, and lots of champagne swirling around on silver trays. Dressed in black silk and peep-toe Louboutins, with my dapper husband at my side, I thought my flute of bubbly looked plenty full.
And then I met her. She had long, graceful limbs; silky blonde hair; and, arguably, a better dress than mine (certainly bigger jewels). She was a lawyer for a foreign policy think tank (the career I, with my Georgetown School of Foreign Service degree, was supposed to have) and a mother of two little boys enrolled in one of the city's top nursery schools, married to a husband who, I learned over a meringue-topped dessert course, regularly reads her to sleep at night. Meanwhile, my husband won't even put his plate in the dishwasher.
Suddenly, my glass didn't look so full.
To be clear, it wasn't envy I felt it was inadequacy. Experts call it "yardsticking," the impulse to privately pit yourself against your peers in order to determine your own social standing and self-worth. And now more than ever, women are succumbing to it, especially in still-flush cities like New York and San Francisco, where the ruler is notched not simply with dollar signs, but also far subtler markers of success: invites to prestige events like Davos and TED, the minutes you can hold a crow pose, and the pairs of Rag & Bone skinnies in your wardrobe. Women are supposedly more empowered these days we graduate from college in droves, rake in bigger paychecks, and have staked out more corner offices on higher floors than ever before. (We also have the socially sanctioned option to throw it all in and stay at home.) And yet, here we are, years out of high school, still enslaved by our own insecurities.
Three years ago, economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers published an explosive study in the American Economic Journal, which found that female happiness had declined sharply over the past 35 years. They concluded that the downturn correlated directly with the progress women were making in the workplace although women were earning more money and enjoying better career opportunities and greater conveniences on the home front, it came at the expense of their senses of contentment and well-being. Stevenson and Wolfers offered myriad explanations for the trend, but it boiled down to the fact that maintaining a household and overcoming marital challenges are exponentially harder when both spouses work. But adding to our difficulties is the ubiquity of Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Tumblr, sites that invite relentless yardsticking in the form of "Look what I got!" status updates and 140-character-or-less "Aren't I clever?" posts. Who wouldn't be insecure (and invariably unhappy) surrounded by hundreds of smiling friends, all ostensibly kicking ass professionally and personally? When was the last time you saw anyone chronicle a marital spat on Facebook or a particularly stinging disappointment at work?
Another issue that makes us especially vulnerable to peer pressure: We are inundated with so many cues as to what defines a successful woman today that it's downright impossible to figure out which attributes are truly attainable. So we scramble to keep up with all of them: the killer post-baby body; the book deal based on a popular Tumblr; celebrity friends; personal assistants. Used to be you only had to compete with the other moms in your kid's preschool or the ladies in your church's social committee. But who lives that kind of siloed life anymore? Everyone, from the alpha girls to the stay-at-homers, is expected to be a constant, high-gloss superwoman. Even if you've got a career, you also need to juggle (with aplomb) Spin classes, school board meetings, and outings with friends, never mind the after-hours work commitments (which, have you noticed, keep going later and later?). Having it all has never been a more literal proposition, nor the attendant angst and yardsticking more severe.