Coming into uni exam season, Alegra Martin-Platts breaks down the expectation that we have to have it together all the time and that, to prioritise mental wellness, we should prioritise our individual needs rather than society’s ones.
Set your alarm for 7am, do some yoga, journal, go to the library for a few hours, break a sweat at the gym, tidy your room till it looks like no one lives there, read for uni, read for fun, sleep. I used to rejoice in setting myself an impossible series of tasks much like these and, I’m sad to say, it took me a little while to realise just how terrible I was making myself feel. I could have one day in a fortnight where I would stick to half the daily goals I had burdened myself with and still, every night, without fail, I would go to bed feeling unaccomplished.
Why as women do we feel the need to seem so put together? And why, why, why do we insist on making it all look effortless? It’s time we addressed the media’s obsession with selling us this image of the clean, put-together, productive girl and how it affects the average student’s self-image and attitudes towards her lifestyle.
It’s difficult to avoid this image. An ingrained cultural stereotype, it’s bombarded from every angle you turn. Not only in the media, but it has also infiltrated our social life. How much you have done becomes a competition, a comparison – and ultimately – a distraction from what is really important. This pressure to ‘get our shit together’ often pits us against ourselves, and each other, and distracts us from true self-reflection and unity.
But the truth is, productivity is not a characteristic at all. It’s a mindset, one that comes and goes. Rather than assigning ourselves an impossible schedule that prioritises work social life, physical health and structure, we should instead try to adopt a more intuitive philosophy. When we begin to equate productivity with our ability to get on top of our workload, we fail to make time for the things we love. The things that truly inspire us. I rarely read for leisure now because, inevitably, my mind wanders to a million more productive academic texts I ‘should’ be reading instead. Writing creatively just isn’t something I allow myself to do anymore. My ‘spare time’ is no longer filled with pursuits I enjoy, that make me feel fulfilled and in touch with myself, but instead has become dedicated to going over difficult notes from my lecture. Eventually, prioritising academic success above all else leads to a crisis in self identity. And this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be prioritising these things, they are important. But balance is key. That doesn’t just mean balance within the activities we want to identify ourselves with, it means trying new things, giving ourselves breaks and attempting to remove the obligatory lens through which we often perceive university.
So how can we begin to do this?
To-do lists tend to be a very popular go-to when it comes to decluttering your mind and relieving stress. Understandably, the redeeming satisfaction you feel when you tick something off it has an alluring pull. But you know what feels even better than ticking off one box on a list of 20 things? Completing the list entirely. This however, translated into a realistic method, calls for a personal reflection which takes into account all of the factors at play. What this means is that your to-do lists need to align with your mentality that day. I would like to reject the accusation that I do not admire those who push themselves to go above and beyond. I am rather highlighting the inaccuracy that the phrase ‘above and beyond’ has an objective, unchanging definition. We should push ourselves every day if we can. But to maintain this mindset, we need to be realistic about how much we are emotionally and mentally capable of.
Productivity doesn’t have to be about time spent in the library and relentlessly staying on top of every little taskIt doesn’t have to be about skincare or waking up early. Productivity manifests in all sorts of ways.
It’s also important to acknowledge the coming and going of these aesthetics pushed in the media. At the moment it seems young women are presented with two aesthetic categories of which they are expected to conform to:
- The ‘clean’ girl:
- She is put-together, she is organised and gives herself a clear structure (but, she is also laidback and definitely not uptight).
- The ‘fleabag era’ girl:
- This girl is a little chaotic. She is frustrated, perhaps a little selfish and divulges in very self-destructive behaviours (but also looks sexy doing it, obviously).
If you don’t fit into one of these two categories, chances are you are floating about in between them, but even that feels suffocating. This is probably because these aesthetics don’t cater to the well-being of women. I’m sure we are all aware by now that they are an unrealistic portrayal of women created by men who fail to understand the basic emotional complexity of women. By creating these unrealistic expectations for ourselves, not only are we setting ourselves up for disappointment, but also forcing competition with our peers by doing anything to avoid seeming like a huge mess. So instead of uncritically accepting these narratives, try and reflect on what makes you feel calm and productive. Because simply put, anything little step you take towards working towards a truly meaningful goal, is productive.
“It’s okay to have an ‘off’ day” is true but far too simplified, because as soon as you begin to lift the academic pressure, accept what works for you and stop buying into the narrative of what productivity looks like, these ‘off’ days become moments instead.
So I’m not going to set my alarm for 7am to go for a run and eat my pre-prepared breakfast oats all before my 9am, because that just doesn’t work for me, and it isn’t going to happen. And that doesn’t mean I don’t care about my wellbeing. In fact, it means quite the opposite.