Why Are Women so Uncomfortable Asking for the Things They Want?

It wasn’t so much that I was embarrassed by my dad’s attempt at something other than a series of paternal puns; it was because I’d never had an earnest desire advertised so publicly—at least not without qualm or caveat. And I haven’t since.

FASHION’s March issue is all about women who are in their element, from Big Little Lies’ Zoë Kravitz–who talks about embracing her natural beauty and surrounding herself with strong women in our cover story–to writer and editor Chantal Braganza. Below, Braganza tells us how she learned she could thrive by simply voicing her wants and needs.

The day I got married, my father did something unforgivable. At least, that’s what I thought at the time. At some point during his toast, he pulled a folded-up piece of green construction paper out of his pocket and started reading from it—a list of life goals I’d written as a poem when I was eight: “I’m going to play the piano like Mozart! I will speak five languages and make tons of great art!”

In front of friends and family alike, I was cheerfully reminded of such practical childhood dreams as planning to be the first person to perform heart surgery in space. My dad, knowing me well enough, didn’t give me a heads-up beforehand—I don’t even want to think about how many other grade-school English projects he had to dig through to find the material—but looking back on those painful couple of minutes, I’m happy he didn’t.

That moment was a while ago, but because I wasn’t then, nor am I now, as thick-skinned as most people, I’ve stewed about it. It wasn’t so much that I was embarrassed by my dad’s attempt at something other than a series of paternal puns; it was because I’d never had an earnest desire advertised so publicly—at least not without qualm or caveat. And I haven’t since.

Earnest goals seem like a hard thing to come by these days. Columnists and cultural commentators used to blame this on some perceived millennial penchant for irony or an inability to take things seriously. In one particularly memorable New York Times column a few years back, a Princeton professor argued that irony was not only the “ethos of our age” but also preventing us avocado-toast-hoovering navel-gazers from living our best, most productive lives. “Irony is the most self-defensive mode,” she wrote in 2012, “as it allows a person to dodge responsibility for his or her choices, aesthetic and otherwise.”

I don’t disagree with this idea in principle, but I’ve learned since those days of bad poetry that standing squarely on the statements of what you want in life doesn’t help your standing in the eyes of the world. Often it’s not responsibility you’re dodging but disappointment.

Take finances. When it comes to the kind of life goals that were once givens, how many continue to be options? By way of statistical data and the experience of friends, we know that people born after the early ’80s are less likely to have an easy time becoming a homeowner or finding a job in the field they studied at a school they paid for. And it’s hard not to be snide about some of the reasons why. In the United States, millennials carry three times more student debt than that of their parents and are half as likely to own a home. Canadians aren’t far behind. Who could blame us for laughing at those odds?

Or the knottier issues of circumstance: of race, gender or class. I didn’t know it at eight years old, but even though I was lucky to have grown up in an age of Buffy Summers and Carrie Bradshaw—a pop culture environment in which women were allowed a wider range of roles and desires—there were, and often still are, codes to these freedoms. What prime-time TV show then would have shown me the successful Indian sex columnist or the ass-kicking Latina sci-fi heroine with a complex interior life filled with contradictory goals and desires? How was I to know then that I wasn’t the real girl every YA novel, movie or teen magazine had described? I didn’t have blond hair, broody-boy love interests or a middle-class background.

I don’t remember writing that poem my father recited, but I do remember the couple of years that followed: the figure-skating clique in Girl Guides who wouldn’t sit next to me because I was brown and therefore smelled; the fifth-grade teacher who deducted points from my math tests for pointing out that she’d marked an answer incorrectly; in high school, switching post-secondary education plans from music to English to, finally, journalism because that, guidance counsellors told me, was the most likely to result in stable employment. (Ha!) Forget performing surgery in space—asking for things like basic acknowledgment or respect is hard enough, and expecting things like upward mobility or housing that costs less than my first-born seems naive. Why want?

“Women talk ourselves into needing less, because we’re not supposed to want more—or because we know we won’t get more and we don’t want to feel unsatisfied,” Jess Zimmerman wrote in a 2016 essay on women and hunger. “We reduce our needs for food, for space, for respect, for help, for love and affection and for being noticed according to what we think we’re allowed to have.”

When I eventually cried at that wedding speech (I’m not heartless), I think it was because I missed that littler version of myself who didn’t see anything wrong with asking for big things. I want to be more like her again.

We all want to slay our goals, revel in success at work and at home and feel comfortable in our own skin…to truly be in our element. But that looks different, depending on where you are in life. Click here to see what being in one’s element looks like for women of all ages.