Don\'t Worry Be Happy

Don't Worry Be Happy

Alice Domar tells women how to escape "the perfectionist trap"

By Barbara Walsh | Photos by Mary Schwalm '99


In addition to doing interviews and leading the Domar Center, with its staff of acupuncturists, nutritional counselors, yoga teachers, social workers, and psychologists, Domar is also a professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School; senior psychologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center; executive board member for LLuminari, the women’s health education company; and an editorial committee member for Parents and Health magazines. Aside from those jobs and commitments, Domar is also working on her fifth book, Pretty Healthy, a guide to help women live well by following reasonable habits.

Asked about her dizzying and demanding schedule and whether she is striving to do too much herself, Domar smiled and said, “I juggle a lot of balls—but I am soooo not perfect.”

“Women look in the mirror and see their stretch marks instead of their beautiful hair. Men look in the mirror and say, ‘Hey, I look pretty good.’”

Alice Domar '80

The daughter of a “perfectionist” father and “very casual” mother, Domar concedes that she sometimes struggles to balance work, family, speaking engagements, and media interviews.

“I have insomnia on and off,” she said. “And those are the times I recognize I’m on overload—too much on my plate.”

What suffers when Domar’s life gets too frenetic? The house, which is “clean but cluttered,” and the cooking. “I haven’t done much of that lately,” she said.

The nonnegotiable part of her schedule is her mommy time. “My daughters,” she said, “are my top priority.”

The irony of Domar’s hectic life is not lost on her friend since childhood, Carolyn Horn.

“I tease her a lot about how she leads one of the most stressful, jam-packed lives of anyone I know, yet here she is talking to other women about reducing their stress,” Horn said. “But, to give her credit, being busy and doing good for others brings her joy.”

And, unlike many of her patients, Domar does not feel guilty or classify herself as a failure if her home is messy, her sink full of dishes, or if she decides to spend an hour alone rather than with her daughters.

“Women are judged by so many things,” Domar said. “And Martha Stewart hasn’t helped; she has brought the home and kitchen to a whole new level of perfection. I had a patient come see me because she couldn’t live up to Martha’s Thanksgiving table.”

So why don’t men obsess? In her research Domar found that, while women are more likely to judge themselves harshly, men tend to focus on their positive attributes.

“Women look in the mirror and see their stretch marks instead of their beautiful hair,” Domar said. “Men look in the mirror and say, ‘Hey, I look pretty good.’”

Why the difference? Men typically worry about three things, Domar says: family, money, job. (They don’t worry about sex, Domar says. They just want it.) Women fret about a dozen things, on average: their kids, their kids’ social life and after-school sports activities, the house, their husband’s job, how much they volunteer, the clothes they wear, and the makeup they wear. “You name it,” Domar said, “women worry about it.”

The seeds of perfectionism were planted in the 19th century, Domar says, when women began to read books and brochures on how to improve their cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing skills. Now, more than a century later, women face enormous pressure to be flawless.

“Look at the CVS checkout counter,” Domar said. “Every magazine talks about how to make yourself better: better skin, better sex, better cupcakes. Not a single magazine says ‘You are great the way you are.’

“And,” she added, “things aren’t going to change until the media changes the way it portrays women and girls.”

Domar sees the media’s influence on her own daughters. Recently, her first-grader came home crying, tearfully explaining that her classmates ridiculed her for eating a cookie.

Two girls told her, “If you eat a cookie every day, you’re going to get fat.” Another boy remarked: “Boy, do you know how many calories are in that cookie?”

“My daughter was awake most of the night, upset,” Domar said.

Whenever possible, Domar tries to model the joys of imperfection to her daughters. “I tell them it’s okay not to be perfect,” Domar said. “I tell them my body isn’t perfect, but I’m happy with it.”

In her cluttered but clean house, children’s artwork hangs from the cabinets, there is plenty of ice cream in the freezer, and there are brownie mixes in the cupboard. “I love to bake brownies with my girls,” Domar said.

And, she teaches her daughters to savor the chocolate brownie instead of agonizing about the calories.

“My goal,” Domar said, “is to have women and girls be less stressed, less worried—to be perfectly happy with the way they are.”
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  • On August 5, 2008, Cheryl Heiks wrote:
    I too am a Mom with two wonderful daughters, and want to avoid passing along some bad habits I have accumulated. I read this book and loved it! It is full of wonderful humerous examples of how to avoid some of the common self-criticisms that can get in your way.

  • On September 3, 2008, Ann R. Stillwater '81 wrote:
    Wow, I have not read this book, but have read bits of an earlier book. I agree with Cheryl that healing the generations is important. My children are grown, but I hope that by modelling more self-care and self-acceptance, my children will see pathways out of the dysfunctional patterns that impede them.