Authenticity and vulnerability opens people up to encouragement and resources that they might not have known about.
One of our 10 Trends for 2014 and Beyond is the idea that imperfection is taking on new appeal, providing a more unfiltered, human version of reality. While researching Proudly Imperfect, we talked with Jill Savage, whose book No More Perfect Moms urges mothers to “shelve their desires for perfection along with their insecurities of not measuring up to other moms.” The founder and CEO of Hearts at Home, an organization for moms, Savage is a mother of five and an author of several other books, including Professionalizing Motherhood. She discussed some of the factors that are creating expectations of perfection among mothers, why embracing imperfection makes people happier and how brands can connect by painting more authentic portrayals of consumers’ lives.
What was the inspiration behind your book, No More Perfect Moms?
The biggest thing was helping [moms] to feel like their life is normal—knowing that it’s OK to fail and ultimately knowing that even through failure, our families can thrive and do well. More and more, I’ve learned the power of authenticity and vulnerability. It opens people up to encouragement and resources that they might not have known about. It also helps other people know they’re not alone.
More than anything, the book was a desire to help women know they’re normal, their struggles are normal, and ultimately to help them learn to love their own real life. If we keep looking for this ideal that doesn’t exist, we become discouraged and even disillusioned or discontent. That becomes really dangerous when it comes to marriage, family, home and parenting. I believe marriages end because perfection is expected. I believe parents give up when their kids are in their teen years and life gets hard or the kids are not turning out the way they thought they would.
I really wanted to capture a realistic vision for moms to see that imperfect is what is normal and right, and we have to learn how to love that and embrace that.
Is this something you see fathers embracing as well, the idea of being an imperfect parent?
I don’t know that fathers set themselves up for failure as easily as mothers do. There are men out there who have unrealistic expectations of their wives, of their kids, but there are not as many of them as there are women. As women we’re very connected to our culture. We are very connected to other women. We’re extra-sensitive to comparing our lives to other women’s lives. I do not know that men struggle with comparison like we do.
One of the phrases I use in the book is “Never compare your insides to someone else’s outside.” As women, we particularly do that. When we used to talk about keeping up with the Joneses, we only saw them once a week, and that was on Sunday at church. If you were going to compare yourself to other people, you didn’t see them that often, and today you see the Joneses every time you log onto Facebook. Now we’re really set up for comparison, and it’s a really dangerous thing to do.
I do a thing when I speak: I have some professional pictures that were taken of my family. I put up the whole family picture and talk about it: “Right now in your mind you’re comparing your insides to my outsides. That’s because that’s what we do as women. So you look at the picture, everybody is smiling, everybody is color-coordinated. It all looks good. But let me take off the mask and introduce you to our insides.” And then I go through with every family member and I talk about their struggles.
I talk about the fact that my husband and I have been married 30 years, 15 of them happily. I talk about being in marriage counseling. I talk about the fact that my husband was unfaithful. I just openly talk about these things. I have kids that have dealt with mental illness, cutting and suicide. I have one child that’s divorced. I have a daughter who rebelled in her teen years. I just lay out our insides, and that is so powerful for women. Then I put the family picture back up there and ask the audience to compare their insides to my insides, and you’ll find out we’re really not that much different from each other.
I wrote the book because I knew this is a very emotional topic for women, and we are constantly measuring ourselves against other women. It would be great if we could just say, “Let’s stop comparing ourselves to each other.” But we just naturally do it. So if we’re going to compare, let’s make it a real comparison and let’s compare insides to insides.
You nailed it on the head when you mentioned social media. Can you elaborate on how that’s impacted us?
Social media puts the perfect life completely in our face. What we’re doing in social media is comparing our behind-the-scenes reel to other people’s highlight reels. That’s why it’s so dangerous. It’s very unlikely that you’re going to log on and say, “My kids got in trouble for pulling a prank at school today.” You’re going to see that my kid made the honor roll. So you’re only getting the good stuff. That’s where we get a very skewed perspective.
Are there any other major factors giving people that skewed perspective?
The media definitely drives it. You go through the checkout line at your grocery store, and you walk by these magazines that have headlines saying things like “Body After Baby in Three Months.” You look at your own body and say, “My body after baby three years later doesn’t look like that.” I believe the media is hugely responsible for part of what I call the “perfection infection.”
The media really perpetuates the perfection infection with their Photoshop-perfect setting. It doesn’t even have to be a body. It can be a picture of a living room on the front of Good Housekeeping magazine. You think, “My living room doesn’t look like that.” Well, guess what? Nobody’s living room looks like that, because everybody’s living room is lived in. That living room was set up for a photo. Most of us don’t stop and tell ourselves that. The media is screaming, “You can have this,” but in reality you can’t.
Do you believe people are starting to take ownership of imperfection? For example, saying, “My living room doesn’t look like that, and it’s OK”?
We are on the front end of people embracing imperfection. I think women are starting to think about it and find freedom in it. Pinterest Fail is a good example of women embracing imperfection. I would say, as a whole, Pinterest is really doing damage to moms, and I am not a Pinterest hater by any means; I’m on it. The premise of [Pinterest Fail] is that people take things they’ve seen on Pinterest, try it themselves and then put up side-by- side pictures of expectations and reality.
It’s a really fun website to look at because it illustrates that we see those perfect things, we try to create them, they don’t come out the way you planned, and we can all laugh at it.
How does embracing imperfection improve one’s life?
It enriches and deepens our relationships. Everything in our life is cheated when we choose to be fake and we try to be perfect. It applies to friendships, marriage, parenting—any type of relationship is cheated when fake is involved, and fake is involved anytime you are trying to be perfect.
I believe it increases contentment, because you learn to embrace what is real. You’re not always looking for something better or perfect, but you are OK with good. It really keeps discontent at bay, and there’s a freedom in that. I believe there is also a freedom found in authenticity. When we are pursuing perfection, it’s like we’re bound up in chains that constantly weigh us down. When we can really embrace authenticity and imperfection and know that that’s normal there’s a real sense of freedom to be yourself. You’re then able to allow the people in your life to be free to be themselves as well. That’s huge.
Most of us would say, “I don’t have the expectation of perfection in my life. I don’t expect myself to be perfect. I don’t expect my husband to be perfect. I don’t expect my kids to be perfect.” But the truth is, when imperfect shows up, we don’t know what to do with it. Many of us have issues with expecting perfection from our spouse, our kids and ourselves; we just aren’t cognizant of it. We respond to that imperfection with anger, shame and frustration, whereas when we can embrace imperfection, then we can respond with grace, love and humility. Those things enrich relationships, and they enrich our lives.
The only other byproduct of embracing imperfection would be hope. If you’re constantly looking for perfection and you’re trying to attain perfection, it’s hopeless. You can’t. There’s a sense of hope when you actually embrace authenticity and imperfection in your life, because that’s realistic.
How can brands empower consumers to embrace imperfection in their lives?
People are drawn to honesty. That’s why this book has done so well. It hit the bestseller list within seven weeks of being out, and I think it’s because it’s gut-level honest. It’s not idealistic. It’s honest and says, “You know what? Life is messy. Life is disappointing sometimes. Life is hard.” That’s reality, and so honesty brings out honesty. People are drawn to brands that are willing to be honest.
Brands really need to connect with the pain in people’s lives. They need to connect with the challenges that people face, and that is a far better marketing tool than trying to paint an ideal picture that really isn’t going to happen. Our society is drawn to vulnerability, much more than 50 years ago. Fifty years ago, in my mother’s generation, you would have never revealed in a book that your husband had an affair or that your marriage has been hard. You kept those things to yourself.
The current generation of women between 20 and 50 are screaming for more authenticity in life than that. They’re seeking a willingness to take off the mask, a willingness to stop keeping secrets. Anything that brands do to connect with the reality of life is very powerful.
Do you think there’s ultimately less pressure to be perfect in today’s society than in the past?
There still is pressure, though it’s a different kind of pressure. I’ll speak from a mom perspective. Before, there was pressure to present yourself as perfect and your family as perfect. Today, where a mom struggles with perfection is trying to do things perfectly. They’re not so much about hiding their reality as they were 50 years ago, but they still are aspiring to an unrealistic ideal at times.
They want to, let’s say, create the perfect birthday party for their 2-year-old; they want to create the perfect meal. Certainly many of us still hide our reality from others, but I think this generation is less driven to hide their reality than my mother’s generation was, but they still have some idealistic expectations of themselves and others.