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Archive for January, 2011

Or, you know, the jeans.

What got me thinking today was word of a new study suggesting that one of the reasons we birds of a feather flock together could be more than a common interest in flying south.  It turns out, there’s often genetic similarity in the folks we choose as friends. As in: we may be genetically predisposed to like the stuff we like — and choose our friends accordingly — a phenomenon that keeps us trapped in our own private “us group”.

Clearly, this can’t always end well.

In the study, published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the authors addressed the fact that people disposed to alcoholism befriend folks who like to drink.  Not a surprise:  you like to throw down a few cocktails, you tend to hang out with those who like them, too.  But here’s the interesting thing.  Apart from the social behavior, when the researchers analyzed genetic traits, they found that long before the future drinkers even began to raid their parent’s liquor cabinet, they tended to choose friends who shared the same genetic predisposition:

For example, a person with a genotype that makes her susceptible to alcoholism may be directly influenced to drink. However, she may also be indirectly influenced to drink because she chooses friends with the same genotype (homophily)who are more likely to make alcohol available to her.

Okay, words like genotype and homophily make us want to reach for the Pinot.  So let’s go over to Time.com, which referred to the phenomenon as “Friends with (Genetic) Benefits.”  In that post, James Fowler, one of the study’s authors, told Time that we might choose our friends not only because we share the same interests — but because we might have some similar DNA:

The [genetic link to alcoholism] makes sense, says Fowler, since it’s true that “if I’m more impulsive, I might choose to be with friends with others who are more impulsive.” Another way that such a gene might affect friendship is that impulsive people might be drawn to the same types of environments—for example, amusement parks— and tend to make friends with others they find there. Not surprisingly, a kid who sneaks beer and cigarettes in the high school parking lot and drag races on weekends is unlikely to befriend the guy who spends all his time with the chess club.

Not surprising, right?  But, says Fowler:

“There can be a feedback effect. We know that [this gene] shows an association with alcoholism. Now the evidence here is that if you have this gene, your friends are more likely to have it. You’re not only susceptible biologically to this behavior, you’re also more likely to be surrounded by people who are susceptible to this behavior.”

And there you go.  You’re destined to drink too much, you gravitate towards those eventually who will, too.   Next thing you know, Leaving Las Vegas.  But let’s leave the lab (and the bar) behind and extrapolate a little, about what happens when we’re stuck in bubbles of our own making.   Genomes notwithstanding, unless we watch out, do we still surround ourselves with those who like what we like, drink what we drink, and dress like we do?  You get the picture. Skinny jeans, anyone?  Yes, please.
In a way, this bubble business smacks of  the tyranny of the echo chamber, which can be its own kind of trap.   We wrote about this before, riffing on a piece in Marie Claire by Lori Gottlieb (of “Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough” fame) that suggested that girlfriends often serve as one another’s “yes women”.  Our point was this:  When we surround ourselves with people like us, such as those likely to tell us what we want to hear, can we ever really figure out for ourselves what we want to do with our lives (or for that matter,  even what to wear to class?)  As we wrote last summer:

We know we all do it:  seek out certain company for certain dilemmas.  Beau’s pissing you off? Call your resplendently single pal or the one who never liked him. Uncertain over whether to wed? Call in the smug marrieds. Want to quit your job even though you have no prospects? Call the pal who’s done it. You get the point:  We can’t get past the temptation to surround ourselves with those willing to preach to our own private choir.

As we wrote before, where it all gets dicey is when our bubble, like the echo chamber, becomes the norm.  When we are surrounded by folks who are just like us, who think like us, who dress like us, and who tell us what we want to hear, how hard is it to make a decision that doesn’t follow what’s predesigned, that doesn’t conform — and to be happy with that decision if we do?  Are we ever able to trust our gut?  Break from the pack?



Which leads us back to that genome study.   I’m not sure that I buy this stuff about our friendships — and our behavior — being completely predetermined by our DNA.   But I do know this.  When we’re stuck in a bubble, of our own making or not, it’s pretty hard to figure out for ourselves who we really are, what we want to do with our lives (we wrote a whole book about this) or even what we wear.   Yep, most days you’ll find me in my skinny jeans.  But what I really like are my flares.
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Growing up, I was not allowed to have Barbies. The blond, long-legged, impossibly-proportioned, tip-toed plastic plaything was explicitly contraband for reasons I couldn’t really discern. I think I pouted about this for approximately five minutes–I gravitated more towards crayons and Legos anyway. And I had a friend who LOVED Barbies–and I HATED when she made me play them with her. It was boring. Intensely so. The pink sportscar was cool, but Ken seemed like kind of a tool. And I’m sure the hot tub was fun for them — but I would have rather walked down to the neighborhood pool and taken a dip myself.

The only times I felt a pang of Barbolust were when commercials interrupted whatever shenanigans the Smurfs were currently embroiled in, or when one of my parents (now, I can only assume, whichever one had lost the bet) allowed me a trip to the Hell on Earth that is Toys’R’Us. In other words, when I was reduced to a target of what Peggy Orenstein might call “the princess industrial complex.”

In her new book “Cinderella Ate My Daughter” (points for epic title), Orenstein investigates the “princess phase,” in all its pink and sparkly glory. From the origins of Disney’s “Princess” market to a toy fair at the Javits Center in New York, the callous marketing–and sexualizing–of young girls Orenstein reveals will indeed make you long for something pink: Pepto.

Or Pinot.

As Annie Murphy Paul writes in this weekend’s NYT review of the book,

The toy fair is one of many field trips undertaken by Orenstein in her effort to stem the frothy pink tide of princess products threatening to engulf her young daughter. The author of “Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self Esteem, and the Confidence Gap,” among other books, Orenstein is flummoxed by the intensity of the marketing blitz aimed at girls barely old enough to read the label on their Bonne Bell Lip Smackers. ‘I had read stacks of books devoted to girls’ adolescence,’ she writes, ‘but where was I to turn to understand the new culture of little girls, from toddler to ‘tween,’ to help decipher the potential impact–if any–of the images and ideas they were absorbing about who they should be, what they should buy, what made them girls?’

And that’s the thing. I outgrew this phase years ago, when VCRs were hot new technology. But today, we are literally saturated in media. And not just little girls.

I was having a conversation with a friend a couple of weeks ago, and we were talking about our uniforms. Not like employer-mandated uniforms, but the uniforms of our own making. Despite the fact that I write a fashion column, I can more often than not be found in jeans, boots, and an embellished white top of one sort or another. It’s kind of pathetic, but whatever. (Frankly, while writing the book, it was a miracle I ever bothered to get dressed at all.) Anyway, we were laughing about how the only time you feel the need to purchase something else is when you’re shopping, which inspired a Hanibal Lector impression. (Forgive me–I adore Silence of the Lambs and am thrilled whenever I have an excuse.) When he’s trying to help Clarice realize Buffalo Bill’s identity–the next door neighbor of his first victim–he asks her: What do we covet? She fumbles around, and he gets pissy: No! he says, We covet what we see!

Is that to say that princesses aren’t born, but made? Orenstein might think so. I might agree–but I also don’t think it’s too hard to imagine that a little girl raised in a vacuum might be as likely to pick up a doll as a crayon. (Although actually, the littlest of kids I know tend to go for the box the doll or the crayons came in until they’re old enough to know better.)

But I really wonder about the other question here: the one that has to do with how we define ourselves–and how intently our culture directs us to do it with what’s on the outside. Citing developmental psychology research, Orenstein says that until age 7, kids are convinced that external signs–hair cut, clothes, toys–determine whether they’re boys or girls.

It makes sense, then, that to ensure you will stay the sex you were born you’d adhere rigidly to the rules as you see them and hope for the best… That’s why 4 year-olds, who are in what is called ‘the inflexible stage’ become the self-appointed chiefs of the gender police. Suddenly the magnetic lure of the Disney Princesses became more clear to me: developmentally speaking, they were genius, dovetailing with the precise moment that girls need to prove they are girls, when they will latch on to the most exaggerated images their culture offers in order to stridently shore up their femininity.

…And then what happens? What other images do we buy into? The back to nature earth mama, the cultural sophisticate, the savvy city slicker, the competent professional? Like the little girls in the throes of an identity crisis who insist on wearing their princess get-up to school, when we’re threatened with tough decisions of the Who-Are-You variety, are we lured back into a one-dimensional picture of ourselves–and do we then behave accordingly? And surround ourselves with people and places and jobs and things that shore up that identity?

Breaking out of a mold can be as difficult as busting a brand-new Barbie free of her overzealous packaging, and, you know, shortcuts are easy–that’s the appeal. But when we define ourselves using shortcuts, are we really just selling ourselves short?


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So surely you’ve heard about the latest kerfuffle: the realignment of the Zodiac.  The addition of a new sign, Ophiuchus (the serpent bearer), knocked every other sign out of whack and for a week there, the interwebs were abuzz:  If you woke up a Taurus, you were an Aries by the time you went to bed. To paraphrase a San Francisco Chronicle headline, the Zodiac shift knocked people off their axis.

(One Facebook pal wondered — with a bit of snark — how the folks with their signs tattooed on their forearms — or wherever — would weather the storm.  She also wondered why so many people cared.)

Here’s what we learned from an interview in that Chronicle article , written by Erin Allday, who quoted child psychiatrist Dr. Laura Davies (who incidentally went from a Virgo to a Libra, which didn’t bother her all that much):

“People want to understand themselves, and they want to understand each other.  Astrology was sort of a shorctut to understanding,” Davies said.  “We all know our sign, and we know one or two things about it.  If it changes, it means we have to rethink things.  Suddenly that’s not me anymore.”

Indeed, one of our friends squawked:  “I take comfort in couching my flaws in a cosmic get-up, ya know??”  Later, Alldin’s story quotes Patty Morris, a psychology student at John Kennedy University who also studies astrology.  She says astrology is just another tool we mortals use to understand ourselves:

“When we try to look within ourselves, things can get really murky.  People appreciate these systems that have codes and descriptions that they can relate to,” Morris said.  “When people have a relationship to something, like being a Leo, when it’s debunked, it’s like the bottom is dropping out of you.”

The whole realignment, it was beyond shocking.  (At least till it was pretty much debunked by CNN.)  But it made me think:  is our sign yet another version of our iconic self, the image we construct that we sometimes let define us?  Hello, I’m a Taurus.  The bull. I’m practical, trustworthy, determined and affectionate.  I’m also stubborn and opinionated.  Well, then.  I’m an all-around good person, but when I get set in my ways, you know, I can’t help myself.  It’s in the stars.  I’m always right, right?

And so, if we believe in this stuff, our decisions, our personna — are defined.  The stars say so, after all.  Which makes me wonder.  Is the reason we buy into this stuff, why so many of us freaked out when we thought that our sign wasn’t our sign, that it’s easier to look outward for self-definition?  Is the Zodiac, not unlike the iconic self, a sort of armor we use to protect ourselves when we can’t figure out who we are – or which way to go?  Is it a way to pretend we have control?

All of which led me back to Facebook, on a much more serious note, where one of our fans posted a link to a piece on Peace X Peace, written by Priscilla Warner in the wake of the shootings in Tucson.  Trying to understand a senseless tragedy that took the life of a 9-year-old girl, Warner came to an epiphany:

Last year, I attended a retreat with Pema Chodron, a brilliant Buddhist teacher. Pema is someone I always imagined as a brave, fearless warrior. The titles of her books terrified me: “When Things Fall Apart,” “The Places that Scare You.”

I hoped she would teach me some lessons about coping when things fall apart, when events and circumstances scared me. “Strength doesn’t come from running away from fear, armoring ourselves or putting on a mask,” she told the hundreds of people who came to learn from her. “We can’t try to run away from feelings or avoid them. Strength comes from allowing ourselves to not grow a thick skin, to be willing to take a chance and not have anything to lose.”

Pema quoted her revered teacher, Chogyum Trungpa, who said, “A rainbow is made of sunshine and tears mixed together.” He told a bride and groom, “Pleasure is not a reward, and pain is not a punishment. They are just ordinary occurrences.”

In other words, life.  Which is often out of our control.  Which led me to an epiphany of my own.  Sometimes we’ve got it right. But other times, no matter how much we want to be in control, we don’t.  Sometimes we’re wrong.  It’s an incredibly liberating feeling, that sense of letting go.

Especially if you happen to be a Taurus.

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So, today, I must must write about the most shocking, scandalous, jaw-dropping thing I came across this weekend. (And, no, it has nothing whatsoever to do with Ricky Gervais.) The item of intrigue was a story on Salon.com, entitled… wait for it… “Why I can’t stop reading Mormon housewife blogs: I’m a young, feminist atheist who can’t bake a cupcake. Why am I addicted to the shiny, happy lives of these women?”

Um, click.

How could I not?? I mean, apparently, there’s like an entire subculture of Zooey Deschanel-bang-sporting, craft-spinning, brood-mommying, hubby-looooooving Mormon housewives out there. As writer Emily Matchar puts it,

young stay-at-home-moms who blog about home and hearth, Latter-day Saint-style.

The women behind “Rockstar Diaries,” “Underaged and Engaged,” “Nie Nie Dialogues“, and “Say Yes to Hoboken” blog about their kids. Their husbands. Their love of hot chocolate. Their love of baked goods. The themed headbands they craft for their pals at the themed dinner parties they host. And how happy they are.

Matchar says that, although their lives bear no resemblance to her own,

On an average day, I’ll skim through a half-dozen Mormon blogs, looking at Polaroids of dogs in raincoats or kids in bow ties, reading gratitude lists, admiring sewing projects.

I’m not alone, either. Two of my closest friends — both chronically overworked Ph.D. candidates — procrastinate for hours poring over Nat the Fat Rat or C. Jane Enjoy It. A recent discussion of Mormonism on the blog Jezebel unleashed a waterfall of confessions in the comments section from other young non-religious women similarly riveted by the shiny, happy domestic lives of their Latter-day Saint sisters.

Which begs a question: Who knew?

Apparently everyone but me. Seriously, though, it begs another question, too: What gives? What’s the appeal? Matchar has a theory:

Well, to use a word that makes me cringe, these blogs are weirdly “uplifting.” To read Mormon lifestyle blogs is to peer into a strange and fascinating world where the most fraught issues of modern living — marriage and child rearing — appear completely unproblematic. This seems practically subversive to someone like me, weaned on an endless media parade of fretful stories about “work-life balance” and soaring divorce rates and the perils of marrying too young/too old/too whatever. And don’t even get me started on the Mommy Blogs, which make parenthood seem like a vale of judgment and anxiety, full of words like “guilt” and “chaos” and “BPA-free” and “episiotomy.” Read enough of these, and you’ll be ready to remove your own ovaries with a butter knife.

…Indeed, Mormon bloggers like Holbrook make marriage and motherhood seem, well, fun. Easy. Joyful. These women seem relaxed and untouched by cynicism. They throw elaborate astronaut-themed birthday parties for their kids and go on Sunday family drives to see the fall leaves change and get mani-pedis with their friends. They often have close, large extended families; moms and sisters are always dropping in to watch the kids or help out with cake decorating. Their lives seem adorable and old-fashioned and comforting.

This focus on the positive is especially alluring when your own life seems anything but easy. As my friend G. says, of her fascination with Mormon lifestyle blogs, “I’m just jealous. I want to arrange flowers all day too!” She doesn’t, really. She’s just tired from long days spent in the lab, from a decade of living in a tiny apartment because she’s too poor from student loans to buy a house, from constant negotiations about breadwinning status with her artist husband. It’s not that she or I  want to quit our jobs to bake brownies or sew kiddie Halloween costumes. It’s just that for G., Mormon blogs are an escapist fantasy, a way to imagine a sweeter, simpler life.

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about “the New Domesticity” — an increasing interest in old-fashioned, traditionally female tasks like sewing, crafts and jam making. Some pundits see this as a sign that young women yearn to return to some kind of 1950s Ozzie and Harriet existence, that feminism has “failed,” that women are realizing they can’t have it all, after all. That view is utterly nonsense, in my opinion, but I do think women of my generation are looking to the past in an effort to create fulfilling, happy domestic lives, since the modern world doesn’t offer much of a road map. Our parents — divorced, stressed-out baby boomers — are hardly paragons of domestic bliss. Nor are the Gen X “Mommy War” soldiers, busy winging snowballs of judgment at each other from across the Internet. (Formula is poison! Baby wearing is child abuse!)

Gosh! Kinda makes you want to chug a couple of root beers, huh?! But in all seriousness, I think she’s onto a couple of things. One is the allure of the (seemingly) simple, unquestioned life. I think that one of the things that’s become such a big burden to today’s women is the questions that come with the unprecedented freedom we have to live our lives whatever way we want. Whenever everything isn’t coming together as perfectly as a–well, a “vintage-y owl throw pillow,” for example, we wonder if we’ve chosen the wrong life for ourselves. It’s pretty tough not to get sucked into the Life Would Be So Grand If Someone Else Would Just Tell Me What The H-E-DoubleHockeySticks To Do fantasy.

(And, you know, who doesn’t love an escapist fantasy from time to time? Hello, Beverly Hills 90210 The Brenda Years, when every problem was solvable with a MegaBurger. 90210 is clearly not reality–and who knows how lovely these lovely young things’ lives really are? But sometimes we don’t want the nuanced truth. We want a MegaBurger.)

And then, of course, there’s the trap of the grass is greener syndrome: the fact that, time and again, it seems that whenever we play that comparison game, the one constant is this–that we seem categorically unable to image that whatever road we did NOT choose to travel might in fact be as bumpy as the one we did. And when we’re presented with something that looks perfect, why would we question it?

Of course, we’ve said all of this before. And I think there’s one other explanation: I checked out some of those blogs. And they’re pretty flipping cute.


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So according to Bloomberg News, the newest brides on the block (I use that metaphor intentionally) are Eastern European.  Really.  As we read in the story that appeared all over the interwebs this week:

Fourteen years ago, Weiner, 73, founded Hand-In-Hand, a London-based matchmaking agency that charges male customers up to $2,000 for a “supervised courtship”—a process that matches them with younger Eastern European women. Hand-In-Hand has since grown into a multinational operation with 30 satellite offices from the U.S. to Abu Dhabi. “We’re still opening up franchises, and business is booming,” says Weiner in his thick New York accent. “Financial problems are the biggest cause of divorce. There are more financial problems now. There are more people available!”

In the age of globalization, the international matchmaking industry—still known in many circles as the mail-order bride trade—is thriving like never before. The Tahirih Justice Center, a nonprofit organization in Falls Church, Va., that protects immigrant women, estimates that the number of mail-order marriages in the U.S. more than doubled between 1999 and 2007, when up to 16,500 such unions were sealed.

The story goes on, and actually, you should read it simply for its trainwreck potential.  And don’t neglect the comments.  But here’s the most interesting tidbit:  one reason that’s given for the desirability of the Eastern European bride is feminism.  Or, more precisely, lack of same.  Back to Bloomberg:

“The mail-order bride industry is a softer version of human trafficking,” says Sonia Ossorio, executive director of the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women. Ossorio also acknowledges that some relationships work out—but perhaps not in a way that would please Betty Friedan. “A lot of people who are attracted to it are just looking for a woman who’s docile and obedient,” she says.

Ugh, right?  Right?  It gets worse.

For some companies, such submissiveness is a selling point. Hand-In-Hand’s website trumpets the fact that its females are “unspoiled by feminism.” Company founder Weiner argues this form of chauvinism—like the mail-order bride business itself—is economically motivated. “You take a beautiful woman from the Czech Republic and you bring her into your home, she does all your cooking and cleaning and ironing,” he says. “At the end of the day, the service is free.” Hand-In-Hand estimates the potential savings of a homemaking wife at $150 per week.

Now.  I grow as weary of knee-jerk feminist rants as the next feminist, but really.  Don’t we have to call this garbage out?  As in:  Where on earth do these Neanderthals come from? These men who pay for a marriage that would have made their great-grandpas drool?  And why, for that matter, are Olga and Oksana so desperate for a slice of the American pie that they’d be willing to cook and clean for a stranger in exchange for a ring?  Is it because their lives at home are so un-opportunized that a ticket to anywhere-but-here is worth the trade?  Is it because, as one woman who had attended some of these mail-order mixers in her native Russia commented on the Bloomberg piece:

I left [the party] thinking that the men that want Russian women want lower status women and Russian women want American men for feminism! Russian women are not stupid and especially us young women want western feminism!

And so, what happens when, brandishing her Swiffer duster on fine spring day, the formerly blushing bride  suddenly catches that most American of maladies:  independence?

See?  All the makings for the next hit reality show.

But back to that first question:  I myself can’t help wondering where, in 2011,  you would find these guys who think that wives are made to look pretty and serve and who shouldn’t speak up — at least, not to their man.

And so of course I thought of The Bachelor, where marriage is idealized, where relationships come with roses and limos, and where women compete for the top prize — ahem, a husband — and where the winner almost always has a brazilian blow-out, a perky nose, and is impossibly thin.  (Yes, yes, I know.  There’s a Bachelorette, as well.  But that would take me off point, um, or would it?  Who’s the ideal bachelorette?  She may have a serious brain, but she’s usually got a serious rack, too, either real or enhanced.)

With that kind of cultural messaging, with a version of marriage and courtship that seemed to go out with Cinderella, is it no wonder there are still men out there who lust for the most uncomplicated of brides — a young, pretty girl who will cook and clean, and won’t talk back, at least in English.

Which brings us to the next new reality show.  I think it’s a great idea, don’t you?   And, of course, with great drinking game potential.  We start with our hapless schlub sitting at the computer, negotiating Paypal (DRINK)  We follow him to a mail-order mixer in Belarus, where he engages a number of young pretty girls in awkward conversation.   We could bet on which unsuspecting woman will win the rose  and if we’re right:  (DRINK)   Once he picks his intended, we could follow the courtship through the awkward emails — according to Bloomberg, many of these services charge eight to ten bucks to translate — and phone calls, where he and she are clearly lost in translation.   We’d include  the wedding, maybe some chicanery at the immigration office.

And then we might end with happily-ever-after, where our hapless husband comes home for dinner and finds that his wife has traded the vacuum cleaner for the front door.  And that is when we really (DRINK)

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Oh, contentment. Fulfillment. Happiness. So slippery, so elusive. And yet, we never stop looking for it, do we?

A generation ago, women–stuck in the home and driven apeshit by a never-ending list of mindless chores–ran screaming out of those homes (and, sometimes, away from their families), certain fulfillment was waiting for them in the world of work (or anywhere but home).

In “Fear (Again) of Flying: The domestication of the female midlife crisis,” NYT Mag writer Judith Warner sums up this way:

In the mid-1970s, women began to take flight.

They got jobs, got their consciousness raised or got divorced. Sometimes their marriages evolved with them. Sometimes they just sort of took off — “finding themselves” in new relationships, dropping out of family life, leaving latchkey children behind. These outward-bound adventures tended to happen in early midlife, the moment when, as Gail Sheehy put it in her 1974 mega-best-seller “Passages”: “A woman had to make it happen–whatever she hadn’t yet achieved–or settle for the bed she had made.” The “runaway wife,” Sheehy declared, as she charted the “midlife passage” of her Silent Generation cohort, was “one of today’s fastest-growing phenomena.”

Today the daughters of these runaway moms, having arrived at the shores of middle age, are taking flight, too. But they’re not, by and large, dumping their husbands. They’re not looking to the job market with expectations of liberation.

Instead, they’re fleeing to yoga, imitating flight in the downward-gazing contortion called the crow position. They’re striving, through exquisite new adventures in internal fine-tuning, to feel more deeply, live more meaningfully, better inhabit each and every moment of each and every day and attain “a more superior, evolved state of being,” as Claire Dederer puts it in her just-published book, “Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses,” the latest installment in the burgeoning literature of postboomer-female midlife crisis.

The trend she’s identifying is not the old (disproven) one of opting out… exactly; this one has women opting inward. Indeed, pointing to a lineup of books, Warner suggests that when today’s women find ourselves dissatisfied, we opt to fix ourselves; that, rather than taking off for the big wide world to find ourselves, we look at home. In a way, of course, this is all to the good: we know that true happiness is something that comes from within. And yet, somewhere along the way, the message gets a little problematic. Warner writes:

There’s no sense that personal liberation is to be found by taking a more active role in the world.

Indeed, says Warner, the pendulum’s swung all the way back home:

In other words, the new “narrative of liberation,” as Dederer puts it, of the postboomer, “postfeminist” woman, the new incarnation of the ’70s girl who could do anything, appears to lead right back into a performance-enhanced version of “Mad Men”-era domestic fantasy. “In response to my 1970s mom, I had become a 1950s housewife,” Dederer writes.

(One flew over the chicken’s coop, much?) Don’t get me wrong; I come not to judge. And I think part of the reason contentment can be so very elusive for women has to do with our refusal to allow the women who choose differently from us the freedom to “choose their choice,” as SATC’s Charlotte might have said. And, to that end, if raising chickens in your backyard and keeping a perfect home are where you find your bliss, more power to you. (And, just have to add: if the chicken coop is your happy place and you can actually afford to stay home and hang out with your birds, consider yourself blessed. And if vacuuming is your happy thing, please please come to my house.) My issue is what Warner gets at here:

The values and beliefs and practices that go into sustaining and maintaining the way right-thinking, highly educated, generally affluent folk go about living their lives today–and that have made yoga a multibillion-dollar-a-year escape from the crush of modern life–are not rejected. Rather, as ever, the women question themselves. They can always be–must always be–further perfected, their performance of selfhood more highly refined.

And perhaps that’s why we’re always seeking something else. No matter where we find ourselves–pearl bedecked behind a vacuum cleaner, shoulderpadded in a corner office, pondering our navels in India while our children and husbands’ lives go on at home, teaching our children their ABCs…in Mandarin Chinese, or feeding the chickens in our own backyard–the second that happiness slips through our fingers, we assume it’s because we’re doing whatever it is we’re doing wrong. Or that we chose wrong. To have all of these choices is new for women, so it’s natural that we feel an intense responsibility to live out whichever ones we choose perfectly. And perfectly happily. We can do anything… so if we’re miserable, either we’re not doing it right, or we should be doing something else.

Don’t get me wrong: the modern world is maddening and overwhelming and much about the way we engage with it is dissatisfying. And turning inward helps. It’s crucial, in fact, if we’re ever to figure out who we are. And, let’s face it, it’s a luxury: the world of full-time downward dogging is reserved for the select few who can afford it. Most of the women I know who do yoga (myself included) are happy to squeeze in an om or two between five thousand other obligations. And while I tend to believe that the search for happiness, contentment, fulfillment is more eternal truth than trend, I also can’t help but recall something I wrote some time ago:

And while I have no problem with self-empowerment, it strikes me, perhaps given Barbara’s and my posts of earlier this week, that there’s something bigger, something less about the self, something more collective going on. You’ve read the study: Women’s happiness is on the decline. So it makes sense that, as a whole, we’re hungry. We’re in a state of transition, aching from the growing pains. And while the transition is collective, each one of us feels the growing pains acutely, individually.

And given all of that, the question I’m left wondering is this: if we address our dissatisfaction by disengaging with the world around us, what are we missing? And more importantly, what is the world missing? If the current setup of life and work is such that it makes everyone crazy, well, wouldn’t it be great if some of us were driven just crazy enough to set out to change it?


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Welcome to 2011.  Whether you happen to be a member of roughly one-half the population or  just a human being, you’re sure to find something below to make you think.

Or possibly scream.

First up, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who apparently believes that the 14th Amendment — that’s the one that talks about equal protection under the law — does not apply to women.  That’s what he told UC Hastings College of the Law professor Calvin Massey in an interview published in the latest issue of California Lawyer.  Here you go:

In 1868, when the 39th Congress was debating and ultimately proposing the 14th Amendment, I don’t think anybody would have thought that equal protection applied to sex discrimination, or certainly not to sexual orientation. So does that mean that we’ve gone off in error by applying the 14th Amendment to both?
Yes, yes. Sorry, to tell you that. … But, you know, if indeed the current society has come to different views, that’s fine. You do not need the Constitution to reflect the wishes of the current society. Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn’t. Nobody ever thought that that’s what it meant. Nobody ever voted for that. If the current society wants to outlaw discrimination by sex, hey we have things called legislatures, and they enact things called laws. You don’t need a constitution to keep things up-to-date. All you need is a legislature and a ballot box. You don’t like the death penalty anymore, that’s fine. You want a right to abortion? There’s nothing in the Constitution about that. But that doesn’t mean you cannot prohibit it. Persuade your fellow citizens it’s a good idea and pass a law. That’s what democracy is all about. It’s not about nine superannuated judges who have been there too long, imposing these demands on society.

No comment.

Actually, the above is what we might expect from one of the right-most justices on the nation’s highest court.  But look what we find over there at the considerably more enlightened New Yorker, courtesy of a caustic note from Anne Hayes, who fired off this letter to the editors of the elite periodical:

I am writing to express my alarm that this is now the second issue of the NYer in a row where only two (tiny) pieces out of your 76 page magazine are written by women.  The January 3rd, 2011 issue features only a Shouts & Murmurs (Patricia Marx) and a poem (Kimberly Johnson).  Every other major piece—the fiction, the profile, and all the main nonfiction pieces—is written by a man.  Every single critic is a male writer.

We were already alarmed when we flipped through the Dec 20th & 27th double-issue to find that only one piece (Nancy Franklin) and one poem (Alicia Ostriker) were written by women.

She ended her letter by saying that she was enclosing the current issue of the magazine with her letter — and expected a refund.  Love it.

And then there’s Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, who tearfully took the gavel Wednesday as the new Speaker of the House.  Maybe you like him, maybe you don’t, but what his aides have said — and what the “Pledge to America” spells out as job one — is the repeal of the health care overhaul, which, incidentally, has been estimated to save $140 billion over the next ten years.  (Um, remember who pays the price when health insurance isn’t a guarantee? More below.)  The new Republican platform spells out its agenda thus:  Cut the federal budget — without raising taxes or cutting military defense spending.  You can probably guess where the cuts will come.   This from the guy who cries at the plight of families.

Prepare to weep, because we also find out from ABC News that Michelle Bachmann (R-Minn), founder and chairwoman of the House Tea Party Caucus, is considering a run for the White House.  Yep.  We’ve yet to have a woman president — or even a woman make it past the primaries — and this is what we get?  Another name to add to the list of women who call themselves women, politicians who, like Boehner, like everything about family values — unless of course you define those values in terms of the support, like the new health care plan, that enables them to survive.  As we wrote back in November, when California distinguished itself by having two such women on the ballot, a skirt does not a woman make, nor does a skirt make a woman a friend of families:

Because who suffered most under our our health care system of old?  Women.  And when women suffer, it’s often the kids who pay the price.  So much for those family values.  But let’s recall a few things we may have forgotten about the old way of health care.  Pregnancy:  pre-existing condition.  Women:  statistically more  likely to work  part-time jobs (so they can care for their kids) that do not provide benefits.   Sure, all is well and good for ladies who can depend on well-employed husbands for heath care benefits.  But what if he loses his job?  Hard to afford COBRA on a part time salary.  Or no salary.  Or even one salary, for that matter.

And what if she’s a single mother?  Sorry, kids.  No doc for you…

And finally, there’s that scandal over the raunchy navy videos.  You know the ones:  mocking women and gays as a boys-will-be-boys bonding exercise.  Let’s go over to salon, where Tracy Clark-Flory (hey, where did Broadsheet go?) reports on her interview with anthropologist Lionel Tiger, author of “Men in Groups,” who says that this all this  stuff is a way to build, you know, brotherhood.  Especially when you’re stuck at sea:

There is an “intrinsic tension from living together in a relatively crowded environment for long periods of time,” and on a warship at sea, no less. That tension demands a release, and humor is a necessary outlet — but laughs aren’t the only motivator. Sexual stereotypes “reinforce the in-group feeling,” he says. Women, who were banned from serving on submarines until just last year, are “an easy out-group to pick on,” he says, and so are gays, who may soon be allowed to serve openly in the military. In both cases, it serves to prop up the heterosexual male norm, allowing for a touchy-feely-but-totally-not-gay “brotherhood.”

This Tiger person says that it’s important to know why this kind of stuff happens.  Clark-Flory takes it a step further, pointing out that the real issue is why this kind of stuff is allowed to happen.

Oh wait, there’s one more thing more that kind of takes us back to Shannon’s last two posts, on likability and ambition.  Ms Magazine’s January cover will feature Nancy Pelosi, who the magazine calls the “Most Effective Speaker Ever”, who passed more significant new public policy — from health care reform to the stimulus bill to the repeal of DADT –  than any Speaker in the last 50 years.  The magazine notes that even Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, says that Pelosi “ranks with the most consequential speakers, certainly in the last 75 years.” But Ms. also notes this:

If Pelosi’s efficacy is news to some, it’s because the media has often snubbed her. Neither Time nor Newsweek featured Pelosi on their covers in all the time she was Speaker (in contrast, Ms. put her on the cover immediately upon her inauguration). Both Time and Newsweek, however, have run covers featuring John Boehner—before he became Speaker.

That sound you hear is steam hissing from my ears.  Back to the future?  You be the judge.

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Today, I watched a TED Talk by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. Entitled “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders,” Sandberg gets into it, leading off with the bleak facts:

Of the 190 heads of state, nine are women.

Of all the people in parliament in the world, 13 percent are women.

In the corporate sector, women at the top, C0level jobs, board seats, tops out at 15, 16 percent.

Even non-profits aren’t immune: there, only 20% of the top posts are held by women.

Ugly as those numbers are, one of Sandberg’s explanations is infinitely more so:

What the data shows, above all else, is one thing, which is that success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.

In other words, the more successful a woman, the less likable we perceive her to be. Sandberg cites one study that illustrates this phenomenon perfectly. In it, Columbia Biz School prof Frank Flynn and colleague Cameron Anderson at NYU offered their students a case study of a successful Silicon Valley venture capitalist named Heidi Roizen. But she was only called Heidi in the case study given to half their students; in the other, Heidi became Howard.

And guess what happened?

While the students rated Heidi and Howard equally competent, they liked Howard–but not Heidi. In fact, according to a synopsis of the study,

students felt Heidi was significantly less likable and worthy of being hired than Howard. Why? Students saw Heidi as more “selfish” than Howard.

Is it any wonder we don’t want anyone calling us ambitious?

Naturally, I was irked by this. Subsequent Googling led me to a post on Stanford University’s website, about a talk given by Deborah Gruenfeld, of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, to a group of high-level women execs and entrepreneurs at the Silicon Valley Thought Leadership Greenhouse program. Gruenfeld cited the same study, adding this disturbing little nugget:

And the more assertive a student found the female venture capitalist to be, the more they rejected her.

In each instance, when Sandberg and Gruenfeld spoke of the study’s results, they noted all the heads nodding in agreement in the audience. And, truth be told, had I been in either audience, my head would be bobbing with the rest of them.

Both Sandberg and Gruenfeld have good, positive points to make, helpful suggestions to offer. But it all makes me wonder something: as much as these negative perceptions might be a hindrance to our success in the workplace, how might the mixed messages (You can have it all! You can do anything you want! But you won’t be liked if you’re too successful, and be careful not to come off as too ambitious) screw with our decision making? When we’re overwhelmed by our options, how much of the overwhelm is attributable to the options themselves, and how much has to do with our concerns over how we might be perceived were we to choose Option A versus Option B? How quickly are we landed right back at the altar of What Will People Think?

Of course, it’s not just what people think–it’s what they do (and who they hire). But you know what? There is actually a bright side hidden within the actual study. Sort of. Call it the I’m Not Sexist; Some of My Best Friends Are Women! effect:

Flynn and his colleagues ran another experiment on the relationship between the students’ familiarity with their peers and how they rated them. When raters didn’t really know their classmates, they responded just as the students in the Heidi/Howard experiment. More assertive men were seen as more hirable while more assertive women were seen as less hirable. But when students were more familiar with the person they were rating, the “backlash” vanished. Assertive men and women were seen as equally hirable. And more assertive women were more likely to be hired than their less assertive female peers (just like men).

Interesting. And heartening. As are Sandberg’s final words:

I have two children. I have a five year-old son and a two year-old daughter. I want my son to have a choice to contribute fully in the workforce or at home, and I want my daughter to have the choice to not just succeed, but to be liked for her accomplishments.

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