"What are you getting?" I asked, having brunch with a few girlfriends on a sunny Saturday morning.
"I was thinking pancakes, but I obviously don't need them."
"Me neither," said another friend. "I could barely get into my jeans this morning."
Everyone chimed in with similar comments. We made our way around the table, passing the torch of negative self-perception. With every comment, the flame grew. When it was my turn, I suddenly became aware of what I was about to do. Never before had I realized how often I found myself under pressure to say something negative about myself to fit in.
Why do we do this to ourselves? I'm tired of listening to negative, self-deprecating comments coming out of the mouths of beautiful, intelligent, highly capable young women.
Most of our mothers used to pretend to be well-put-together at all times, competent but passive, deferential, polite. This was the ideal of the "perfect woman" that has been historically valued.
In response, seeking to change those standards, we strove for authenticity. However, in the process of becoming more realistic, we've created another inauthentic identity. We pretend, and support each other in the idea, that we're just the opposite -- disorganized, unkempt, our lives in a constant mess.
Every day I hear young women, myself included, saying things like "I'm so fat," or "I'm so dumb," or "I'm probably an alcoholic in the making." A shrug and a giggle. The response is usually something like, "Don't worry, I haven't gone to the gym in a month," or "I probably failed that test too, and I don't even care," or "Same, but, like, whatever, right?"
We're making ourselves more relatable, or maybe just providing comic relief. In this seemingly innocent act, however, we're participating in a destructive system. Women support women who present themselves as inadequate. But words are powerful. We're not only teaching women and girls to put themselves down in order to be socially accepted, we're setting the standard for how other women -- and men -- can and should treat us.
Mess culture is everywhere, from brunch conversations to politics. The more confidence women express in their own capabilities, the more likely they are to draw censure and criticism. Hillary Clinton had a 69% approval rating when she resigned as US Secretary of State in 2012, making her one of the most popular politicians in America in the last century.
Since she started her campaign for the presidency, her public-approval ratings have drastically dropped, hitting a low of around 40-41% in the spring of 2016. A look back at her career reveals a disturbing theme: her public approval drops significantly when she aspires a new position, then increases again only after she obtains it.
It's not just Hillary Clinton. Elizabeth Warren is one of many other women who've experienced the same pattern in their political careers.
Unfortunately, you don't need to be a public figure to be affected by these systems. Our personal day-to-day interactions are the tributaries that feed the broader societal river. According to a Harvard study, "Power-seeking men were seen as strong and competent [while] power-seeking women were greeted by both sexes with 'moral outrage.'" Women are punished for expressing confidence and ambition -- the very things men are rewarded for.
We've become unable to celebrate women who are content. We willingly support a half-naked photo being posted to Instagram if it has a sarcastic, self-deprecating caption. We "like" a Facebook status saying, "No idea how I got the job." But we have a problem if someone with a body they're confident in posts the same photo. God forbid a caption that reads, "Love how this looks on me," or "Absolutely nailed my interview just like I thought I would!"
"Mess culture" is based on false modesty, or worse: we've actually begun to believe in our inadequacy. In reality, you do know why you got the job. You worked your ass off to get a degree, spent hours writing cover letters, and barely made your rent during your unpaid internship.
Confidence is intimidating, but it shouldn't be. Why should I feel guilty about being happy with myself? I have flaws, sure, but I am not a mess. So why do I participate in mess culture? Why, at brunch, do I feel obligated to chime in with a self-disparaging comment? There is no reason to participate in something that downplays what I have to offer.
The goal is not perfection. It's about finding the authenticity we were striving for in the first place. Finding value in your true identity, strengths and weaknesses included. True authenticity comes from presenting a genuine version of yourself. If that includes things that were previously seen as unacceptable for the "ideal woman," like getting drunk or being sexually adventurous, that's just fine. There is no reason to totalize your identity with mere fragments of it. Let's appreciate the women who love themselves, and learn to do the same.
As Oscar Wilde wrote, "Anybody can sympathize with the sufferings of a friend, but it requires a very fine nature to sympathize with a friend's success." Let's replace mess culture with success culture. It's not easy to be a woman, and nobody understands that like another woman does. The success of one is the success of us all. It's time to raise the bar.
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