Nearing my final year of college and poised to enter the real world, I'm reaching hard in the direction of the life I want. And my options are plenty.
In most circles, it's acceptable for me to pursue a Ph.D., or travel the world alone, or choose raising children as a priority. Yet sometimes it seems like what makes an admirable woman fits a dangerously narrow definition. The abundance of choice ends up being limiting, as women my age look to celebrity and professional culture to find role models. We turn to a select few — Hillary Clinton, Sheryl Sandberg, Beyonce — as those who have what it takes to count.
Female success is often glorified. Real women booty stomp across the Madison Square Garden stage and dress their child in bedazzled jackets. If we lean in just a little further, then we can sit as COO of a major company, simultaneously raking in millions and shuttling kids off to swim practice.
We're told if you can be as fierce as Beyonce, you can make it. Hate to say it, but my dreams of starring in a visual album or influencing the stock of a Fortune 500 company likely will remain unfulfilled. I still dream big, but I'm also grounded in reality. If I can't be majestic and humble or wealthy and composed, then what kind of woman am I? How am I supposed to believe that the person I'm most comfortable with being is right?
Worship of strong, independent women is nothing new — we've been doing it since the world started respecting pioneers of equality decades ago. But this cultural fascination with defining what makes the "perfect woman" has become an obsession. In this digital age, we idolize the qualities of those glossed by the media and are distracted from seeing real life role models nearby.
Full disclosure, I've bought into the hype: I've read Clinton's (first) memoir twice over and ogled at the latest celebrity wedding. But I'm also reluctant to accept that these women are the only ones I should marvel at.
Realistically, very few of us will reach the same status as the women we hold in the highest regard. Instead, we need to turn to our sisters and mothers and other strong female figures and lift them up as role models too.
I look to my mother, who went back to school to get another degree when I was five, working late into the night but always making time for us. I look to my high school English teacher, who encouraged me to push the limits when it came to writing, and convinced me that no book was too advanced for me to read. I look to my favorite female journalists, who tell stories of the depraved and triumphant with talent.
Whatever model of feminism you claim, or if you choose to reject it entirely, push back against the notion that the most successful are also the rarest. Hang a poster of Rihanna on your wall, but also appreciate the beauty of those directly in your lives. If I can balance a career and a family just like my mother does every day, I will have found success.
The women closest to me are not without flaws. But their ability to be forthright about who they are is refreshingly human and a reminder that "having it all" doesn't necessarily mean having it all at once. They've taught me that grace and good humor, kindness and compassion are by far the most important qualities.
Not perfection, but real idols. And as Beyonce would say, that's flawless.
Liz Crampton, a Times intern, is the 2014 Pittman Scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.