Monday, August 16, 2010
The Dangers of Unrealistic Wallet Image
Every once in a while, I come across a blog post that suddenly crystallizes something I've always known but never consciously realized. This week, it was this post by Sasha Pasulka, drawing the analogy between the issues some women have with body image with the issues men have with wallet image:
"I know how it feels to walk into a room and feel like I’m the least attractive woman in it, to glance around and feel that all the other women are more beautiful -- skinnier, longer hair, perkier breasts, fuller lips, better skin -- to feel invisible and frightened and worthless in comparison, like everything else I’ve done and been in my life is meaningless because my thighs actually touch each other. But for every photo of a stunning, size-zero woman that runs on the cover of a magazine, a thousand articles are written about the physical expectations we have for women and what it does to their psyche. When I feel like I don’t measure up to a certain standard, I’m surrounded by media voices screaming at me: "She's airbrushed! She’s had plastic surgery! She had a team of twenty hair and makeup professionals! You have a million other wonderful qualities, and it’s a waste of your time to obsess on your appearance." We don’t do this for men. When Forbes runs a cover featuring a business tycoon, and inside he talks about his company’s success and his 22-year-old supermodel girlfriend and his eight homes in Europe, no one rushes to a laptop to bang out a piece about the pressure we put on men to make ridiculous sums of money, the pressure to provide generously for spouses and children that comes along with the male "privilege" of historically being a family’s sole wage-earner. No one’s screaming at men that they’re about as likely to start the next Facebook as I am to wake up tomorrow a dead ringer for Penelope Cruz. And I think that matters, and I think it's worth saying again: We put a lot of pressure on men to build empires and to get rich doing it. And men process this deeply, and it can be as insidious as a young woman's obsession with being thin. And we don’t talk about it."
I first noticed this when I was at business school. My classmates and I would eagerly read the latest Forbes or Fortune, and devour the puff pieces on entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos and Michael Dell. I was talking with one of my friends (very successful, of course) who lamented that he felt like he was falling behind--at age 28, he still hadn't founded a major company or made a billion dollars.
I felt compelled to point out that the chances of becoming a billionaire were pretty darn slim. In fact, when I wrote my post "MBA vs. NBA" back in 2001, there were only 298 billionaires, in comparison to 384 NBA players:
"Entrepreneurs often beat themselves up for their lack of "success." Sometimes they're right to do it. But often, it's because they're comparing themselves against an unrealistic competitive set. For example, a budding retailer might compare herself to Jeff Bezos (or maybe not, given the current market!). A hardware entrepreneur might look at Michael Dell, and a budding software mogul might look at Bill Gates, or, god forbid, Larry Ellison (though if you feel inadequate because you don't a) own a Russian fighter jet, b) race in dangerous sailing competitions, or c) hire an endless stream of attractive young assistants, you've got bigger problems). The problem is, these success stories are six-sigma events--way outside the standard deviation. According to Forbes, there are 298 billionaires in the US (probably less by now--editor's note). In contrast, there are 384 players in the NBA. Let us consider the NBA, the world's most glamorous sports league. I've seen commentators cluck cluck about how terrible it is that thousands of underprivileged African American boys dream about making it to the NBA. It's like a lottery, they say, only the tiniest fraction succeed. How reasonable is it then, for the millions of entrepreneurs and dreamers who someday want to be billionaires to compare themselves to the mere 298 billionaires?"
Yet Sasha's post reframed the problem for me in a fresh and pointed way. What we're really talking about here, in its extreme form, is Wealth Anorexia--a disease of distorted self-image that causes even the wildly successful to pursue their obsession beyond a reasonable point.
And to Sasha's point, unlike the traditional form of anorexia, the plight of ambitious men doesn't receive Movie-of-the-Week treatment or its own PSAs. We don't have a Dove Beauty campaign to show what real men's finances look like (though perhaps we should--the closest thing is my pal Ramit's Money Diaries, and even there, the only two male diarists focus on showing how well they're doing, rather than confessing their financial sins--in marked contrast to the far more numerous female diarists).
Wealth anorexia is a problem for men. And until we come to look upon the business press puff pieces as the male equivalent of airbrushed cover models and breathless Cosmo profiles of celebrity bodies (Steve Jobs = Angelina Jolie; Mark Zuckerberg = Scarlett Johansson; who's Paris Hilton?), the problem will only get worse.