Ladies and gentlemen, we need to talk.

Gentlemen, hold on for just one second…

Ladies, have you ever been accused of being hard to relate to? Does your intelligence, your confidence, your tenacity, or your resilience turn people off? Answer honestly… there’s nobody here but us.

I have.

The first time was in my senior year of high school when I had no date to the prom. I had a few male friends suggest that maybe if I just pretended to be less smart, then someone would ask me. According to them, the boys were intimidated by me. Over my career, I’ve seen the same pattern more than once. Let the man shine in the room with the client, you can do all the work once we get back to the office.

Gentlemen, what do you think? Is this a thing? Do you know men who are put off by women who are too together? Do you struggle with this yourself? In your experience, are men more accepting of a woman who’s less perfect?

I got thinking about this after stumbling on this enlightening article by Kelli María Korducki: Why High Achieving Women Pretend Their Lives are a Mess. The basic premise is that successful women are taking the edge off of their competence by (either intentionally or subconsciously) exposing their shortcomings and putting their insecurities, missteps, and weaknesses on display.

The article stopped me in my tracks. As I reflected on images in the media, keynoters I’ve shared the stage with, and even conversations I’ve had with friends, I had to admit that it’s happening. Many successful women are flaunting their flaws. If I’m really honest, I’ve been adding more spots in my speeches where I expose my own shortcomings because they get more laughs…I’m being rewarded for taking myself down a peg and I realize now that I’m taking the bait.

Should we be worried about this?

Hot Mess—Last Gasp of the Patriarchy or Next Wave of Feminism?

Should we think about the spread of hot mess syndrome as a refreshing evolution of feminism or as an insidious new version of misogyny?  Perhaps it depends on whether the imperfect image is a deep and honest representation of the effort and struggles it takes to try to have it all or whether it’s a façade donned in an attempt to conform to more traditional power structures.

If it’s the former, hallelujah, it’s about time. Strong, powerful women should feel free to share that life is a series of battles that they don’t always win. Maybe that will help women who feel less empowered realize that none of us is perfect and that they are just as worthy of big goals as the people they see on their screens or in the boardroom. My friend Laura Gassner Otting does a great job of this. She can write a bestselling book and run a marathon, but in this clip she admits that she had to settle for a second day of school photo after losing the battle to get the requisite one on the first day. If a hot mess is someone who accomplishes amazing things but sometimes wins ugly, I’m all for it.

That genuine version of a flawed but ultimately strong and resilient woman is very different from a woman pretending to be in over her head or manufacturing a messy moment to foster a more relatable persona. That idea makes me squeamish. If the hot mess syndrome is about faux frailty, count me out.

Hot Mess—Strategy for Aimed at Insecure Men or Catty Women?

Here’s another question that’s still hanging out there for me: when women play the hot mess, is it to be less threatening to men or is it actually to be more likeable to other women? Is this a case where men are taking the fall for the crap we women do to each other? Women can be incredibly ungenerous to one another; cruel even.

What if the hot mess syndrome is a new version of the Eighties Pantene campaign “don’t hate me because I’m beautiful?” Maybe the majority of men are perfectly happy to see us thrive, but we fear the jealous women who will try to take us down. We project just enough weakness to keep the other women onside. Yikes, it might be even more distressing to think of hot mess syndrome as a product of woman-on-woman dysfunction.

Hot Mess—Easier than the Male Alternative?

Gentlemen, I haven’t even touched on your reality on the opposite side of the coin. What about the false personas many men feel compelled to take on by pretending that they are unassailable, invulnerable, and omnipotent? I don’t want to womansplain that, so I’ll leave it to one of you to write that post.

Where From Here?

Can we start to talk with one another about these issues? Can we find a healthy middle ground where intelligence, resilience, and success are admired and where vulnerability, sensitivity, and imperfection are seen as inevitable companions of strength? How do we get to a place where we celebrate one another’s successes and rally around those who stumble? Can we find a way to get past our outdated gender roles where the women pretend to have countless flaws and the men pretend they have none? I’d love if you’d help me get that conversation going.

Helpful Resources

If you’re a woman or a man (or neither) looking for role models to help you think through your own presence in the world, I recommend you check out these amazing authors: