What Gives Us Power Also Makes Us Feel Powerless

Note:  This is the second of a two-part series.

The irony of power is that both genders see themselves as powerless in exactly the area in which the other gender sees them as powerful.  A woman sees the inadequacy of her breasts next to “ideal” breasts.  Advertisements bombarding her with the ideal weight, derriere, hair and skin keep her aware of her imperfections even as she may be attempting to make herself thinner, firmer, more “perfect.”  Yet for most women these constant images of beauty make her feel more inadequate and powerless, says Warren Ferrell in the book Why Men Are The Way They Are (Berkley Books).

He says a man is exposed to the same images of the “ideal” female as well.  If he meets a woman who approximates that ideal, his mind calls up images from millions of advertisements, making him feel nervous, inadequate and unworthy around her.  He feels he must prove himself before he can be expected to be treated as an equal by such a woman.  She has great power in his eyes.

Women see male’s careers, status, titles and money as power.  When confronted with images of James Bond-like heroes, wildly successful businessmen or other power brokers in the culture, however, the average man sees his comparative inadequacy next to these powerful males—and feels powerless and inadequate when compared to that ideal.

Just as the comparison between herself and the most beautiful women makes a woman feel powerless, so the comparison between himself and the most successful men makes a man feel powerless, says Ferrell.   So women wind up feeling inadequate in the very same realm in which men see them as powerful and desirable, and men end up feeling powerless in the very same domain in which women often see them as desirable and powerful.  What gives us power is the source of this powerlessness.

Our culture’s advertising has assigned the attractive 17 to 29 year-old-appearing-female more power than her mother has—and more power than most men are ever likely to have.  Recently there has been a great deal of focus on extending this “beauty power” well into mid-life.  But of course the down side is as she gets older, she looses more and more of that power and influence.  Hence, her often obsessive focus on staying young looking, firmer, attractive.  This dynamic appears to be true even if the woman is a well respected, well educated, affluent professional.  Sadly, she often is assigned—by both men and women—more power by her physical attractiveness than she ever gets through her education and professional achievements.

For decades marketing researchers studying men have found that the only common denominator that can appeal to men of all classes is their desire to achieve acceptance by the cultures most “beautiful” women.  Conversely, the other common denominator is their anxiety about being rejected by these women.  Why are beautiful women used whenever a woman is pictured in an advertisement, asks Ferrell.  He answers: because the marketing researcher knows that the male does not feel worthy of her.  And if the marketing researcher can make the male feel that buying the product will give him hope of being worthy of her, he will buy the product.

A man learns he must earn his way to an attractive woman’s attention—by performing to attract her respect.  He therefore learns to be a “doer,” to master something well enough so that he can buy the car next to which the beautiful woman stands.  In a dating situation, the more attractive the woman, the greater the odds that she will screen him out.  So the more insecure he feels, the more he compensates for that insecurity by paying for the finer restaurant, the finer wine, and so on.  No, he is not being rational, says Ferrell.  He is dealing with the fear of rejection.

Given all of this, isn’t it a miracle of sorts that men and women hit it off at all.

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