How Do We Know We're Doing It Right?
How Do We Know We’re Doing It Right? is a collection of essays written by Pandora Sykes about the types of questions, anxieties and agendas concerning millennial women of today. This includes wellness culture, consumerism, authenticity, female beauty standards and communication in the digital age. For anyone who doesn’t know, Sykes is a journalist and editor for ELLE magazine, as well as co-host of the very successful current affairs podcast, The High Low, alongside Dolly Alderton.
Born in 1998, technically I am Gen Z, but as a woman in her 20s, I found a lot that I could relate to in this book. I thought that Sykes was incredibly sensitive in her approach to these topics and how, despite her privileges as a white/middle-class/cis/straight woman, she engages with such contemporary issues without alienating or excluding women from marginalised backgrounds. Throughout the text she frequently draws from personal experience, before using her own research and statistics to address other perspectives, rather than speaking for other women’s experiences. In this way, I respected her honesty and her brilliance as a writer, as well as her integrity in admitting to her own shortfalls and hypocrisies.
A discussion that stuck in my mind was the chapter on constructed identities and the blurring of lines between an authentic and inauthentic self. She notes, “There is a certain myth that women can only do so well before they lose their truth. Authenticity is admirable only until it becomes too obviously status-seeking or profitable.” Extremely poignant to this argument is the book’s address of our society’s new “fetishisation of flaws”, in other words, how our idolisation of authenticity has meant that unless we declare our undying love for our flaws, we are in some way doing sisterhood wrong. Sykes using the example of how in 2017 Missguided photoshopped stretch marks onto their models’ bodies, demonstrating that this trend is less about self-acceptance and more about catering to this new, loosely feminist ideal. I side with Sykes in her argument that these types of campaigns “adhere to the idea that beauty is currency for women” and that instead of shifting this narrative it “merely attempts to shift the definition of what is beautiful.”
Something I know a lot of us are facing right is exhaustion from the constant flow of communication, particularly now that most of us work from home. While not writing during the pandemic, Sykes explores the impact digital communication has had on women and how we have felt the need to modify our written communication to appear more amicable in professional environments. This includes softeners like apologetic statements (“so sorry”) or the use of exclamation marks to infer an upbeat mood. Sykes quotes Freeman when she writes, the most exhausting part of written communication is having to “translate all your different moods, tones, personalities, and styles into some kind of textual equivalent.”
Perhaps the only essay of Sykes’ that I didn’t wholeheartedly agree with was her chapter on ‘The Raw Nerve’ which explores ‘cancel culture’ and performative rage. Sykes’ (in my opinion) rightly expresses how people now seem to be more preoccupied with not appearing wrong than appearing right, however, unlike Sykes, I do believe there is a place for calling people out on social media and holding them accountable for their actions. While I agree that not every conversation requires everyone’s input, I didn’t appreciate her pejorative use of the term “woke-scolding” since I believe that sharing on social media is one of the very few safe spaces minority communities have where they are able to group together and speak openly about their experiences. It goes without saying that sometimes listening is the more productive response in a situation, but if someone has posted something that another finds offensive, it’s within their right to counter that.
I think this book’s essay style format will split the crowds. There are a lot of cultural and literary references included in each chapter which Sykes uses to meander through the various topics of this book. Personally, my only qualm with this structure is that in providing a really balanced argument of the various themes, I feel like Sykes held back in offering her opinions. That being said, there was a lot to admire in this book and clearly a lot of research has gone into the making of it. It’s taken me just over a month to read it because it is a book that requires your full attention and I do feel richer for having read it, though admittedly I am no closer to knowing the answer to the title question, ‘how do we know we’re doing it right?’
Thank you to Hutchinson books for my gifted copy!