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Archive for February, 2012

So, while I was playing armchair fashion police during Sunday’s Oscars, “Private Practice” actress Kate Walsh was tweeting. And into the umpteenth hour of statues and montages and Cirque de Soleil, she dropped this twitbomb:

…dear Hollywood actresses, stop fucking up your faces, it’s looking the the bar scene in Star Wars.— Kate Walsh (@katewalsh) February 27, 2012

Kapow! There’s a whole lot going on in that 140-character-or-less sentiment.

I want to shreik, Hell to the yeah! You tell ‘em! But also, it’s not that simple.

A couple of weeks ago, I was at an event at an art gallery with a couple of friends. Beautiful friends! Talented friends! Interesting friends! Smart friends! Friends who are (damn them) just a bit younger than I! And the subject turned to wrinkles. One poked at an imaginary line between her eyes, while the other espoused a theory having to do with the idea that horizontal lines (i.e. crows feet–to which I am no stranger) are okay, while vertical ones (the eye wrinkle the first friend was obsessing over) were not. In a feeble attempt at a conversation redirect, I said, “Hey, what about cleavage?” (due to the fact that I have none, and therefore think it is wonderful), but they were not taking the bait. There was no lightening of the conversation; for more than a couple of minutes, there was no changing the subject. During a fun night out and surrounded by interesting art, my very intelligent girlfriends and I were talking about getting old.

And I was pissed.

But why? Was I pissed that my super smart and beautiful friends were talking about superficial things… or was something more sinister at work?? I mean, why should that make me angry? Bored, sure; annoyed, that would make sense too. Upon closer (and  unflinchingly, unattractively) honest examination–I think it made me angry because they were voicing my own fears, the ones for which I have a stable of rational, enlightened, stock replies at the ready. Replies I’m happy to bandy at anyone else. Ones that go, “Oh, but the lines on your face tell the story of your life!” or “We only fear getting old because society tells us we should, and forces this unrealistic ideal upon us!” or “Old women are so beautiful!” or “Only shallow women buy into that crap.”

As I wrote some time ago, the internal debate goes something like this:

If a feminist worries over her worry lines, frets over getting fat, or lusts after lipstick … but there’s no one around to witness it, can she still call herself a feminist?

They’re questions we all ponder at one time or another, I suppose. Is buying Spanx buying into an oppressive ideal? Does dabbling in fillers make one a tool of the patriarchy? Does plunking down your VISA at the MAC counter mean you’ve forfeited your feminist card? Who among us hasn’t felt that guilt, that shame, keeping your head down while silently praying no one spots you — enlightened, intelligent, feminist you – shelling out way too much money for two ounces of eye cream? Who hasn’t wondered: Are vanity and empowerment mutually exclusive?

Sure, maybe we can coast through a couple of decades, smug in our certainty that we’d never stoop so low. And yet. Once we start to age, once it’s our forehead that’s lined, our jawline that’s softened, the tug-of-war becomes urgent.

I know I should know better, and yet, deep down in places I don’t talk about at parties (art openings being, apparently, another story), I fear getting older just like everyone else. Just like, I would guess, Kate Walsh does. There’s an “It’s Not Fair” element to it, too–especially, I’d imagine, in Hollywood. When everyone else is doing whatever it is they’re doing, the un-done are left to stick out like sore thumbs. They may look awesome for their age, but that’s only awesome for their age.

Maybe the knife (or the needle, or the laser… or whatever) is the coward’s way out. But, who am I to judge? The pressure is powerful, and it’s oppressive–we wouldn’t react so strongly if somewhere pretty tender weren’t being poked. It seems to me that opting in and making fun are two sides of the same coin. But, when it comes to aging, it’s not like we have a choice. I guess the kindest thing we can do–both to ourselves, and to other women–is to approach it with an open mind, and an open heart — and not to worry about what everyone else is doing.

Worrying, after all, causes wrinkles.

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You run into feminists in the unlikeliest of places.  To wit:  the newest pitch for the rebirth of the F-word comes from none other than Louise Court, the editor of Cosmo’s UK edition.  In an interview with The Guardian, Court talked about the magazine’s upcoming launch of a campaign to ride a new wave of feminism:

“We’ve had these T-shirts printed: ‘I use the F word, do you?’ I still think there are some young women who don’t particularly like the word “feminism”. They obviously believe they should have equal pay and the same freedoms as a man, but that’s why we thought it was a really good time to get it on the agenda and girls talking about it.

“A lot of young women were brought up with that whole thing – you’re the girls who can have it all, if you want that job you can have it. A lot of those opportunities were fought for by feminists in the first place. They’ve worked hard at school and university, done all the things they were meant to do and the rug has been pulled out from under their feet. I think young women are thinking about feminism again.”

And hooray for that.  I was originally intrigued by the interview — one of our fans had sent us the link — because of the have-it-all reference, which is one of the themes of Undecided, after all.  But it was the feminist message, something we write about all the time, that had me hooked.  A magazine devoted to hot sex (the Cosmosutra, anyone?) and skimpy clothing is putting feminism front and center?  Will this encourage more women to proudly adopt the F-word as their own?  Will feminism finally begin to go mainstream?

One can only hope.

A couple of years ago, I was being interviewed by a journalism class  when a student asked me if I was a feminist. “Of course,” I shot back. “Aren’t you?” She looked at me, somewhat quizzically. “Well,” she said, “how do you define feminist?” To which I replied, perhaps too glib and maybe even borderline cranky, “A human being.”  Beat.  I continued, something along the lines of: It means you’re in favor of equality. Equal rights. Equal pay. Equal opportunity. Blowing up gender stereotypes. My turn to be quizzical: “How can anyone NOT be a feminist?” I asked.

Of course, I knew the answer. A few years earlier, I had interviewed some kick-ass college seniors for a story on feminism for a local magazine.  These were edgy, take-no-prisoners young women who were considerably more independent than I was, back in the day, when I was letting my own F-flag fly. But they refused to call themselves feminists.

It’s a spectrum issue, they said first. They’d be more likely to call themselves feminists if they could explain where on the scale they fell. “I think a lot of people perceive feminists as being so hard-core – men-haters, almost masculine,” one of them said.  They said they’d never experienced gender discrimination, never been told they couldn’t do something – or had to do something – because of their sex. Never – yet – faced discrimination on the job. Battles fought, battles won, they said. “I’ve grown up and had every opportunity,” said another woman, who conceded that without the benefit of privilege this might have been a different conversation. “Therefore, it’s hard to identify with the word feminist because, for me, it’s the norm. Now it seems radical to say feminist. It’s hard to get passionate about a cause when you haven’t faced the consequences of what you’re fighting for.”

You will, I thought.  But she had me at “radical.”  Because what I realized then — and now – is that the very word “feminism” has been appropriated by a bunch of nutjobs who fear everything but the status quo.  (Go no further than some of the comments posted on this page, and you find that any post that advocates gender equality is likely to unleash a barrage of hate-rants that cast the writers of said posts as angry, bitter and ugly and/or fat.)

And that’s actually pretty funny when you think about it:  To advocate for equal pay?  Equal opportunity? Equal representation in government and the arts?  Equal treatment in the workplace?  The end of the second shift?  If you were to ask me, I’d have to say that the radicals are the ones who fight against the above.

But back to Cosmo:  Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the great irony in the fact that a magazine that sells sex is now selling a feminist agenda. But then again, if that’s what it takes to get more of us to proudly reclaim the F-word, I’m all in favor.

Back when I was in grad school, I had a classmate who had just moved from Washington D.C. and whose car boasted a tattered bumper sticker that read:  “I’m pro-choice and I vote.”  I can’t help wondering if those of us in favor of women’s rights (read: all of us?) shouldn’t make our own bumper stickers with a similar message:

“I’m a feminist. How about you?”

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Flying solo is in–in a serious way. A New York Times Q&A with Eric Kilnenberg, NYU sociology professor and author of the new book “Going Solo,” leads with the facts:

In 1950, 22 percent of American adults were single. Now that number is almost 50 percent. One in seven adults lives alone. Half of all Manhattan residences are one-person dwellings.

Kilnenberg has done his research. He spent a decade studying the phenomenon while working on his book, and he has all kinds of good explanations for those numbers. There’s less stigma than there once was around being single. People crave privacy and personal space–tough to preserve when you’re sharing a bathroom. From another piece he wrote several weeks ago,

Living alone comports with modern values. It promotes freedom, personal control and self-realization–all prized aspects of contemporary life.

And Kilnenberg’s not the only one digging in. Melanie Kurtin enumerated what keeps her from committing here and Dominique Browning did the same thing here, while Kate Bolick’s much-discussed piece in The Atlantic, “All the Single Ladies,” leads with a simple confession:

In 2001, WHEN I was 28, I broke up with my boyfriend. Allan and I had been together for three years, and there was no good reason to end things. He was (and remains) an exceptional person, intelligent, good-looking, loyal, kind. My friends, many of whom were married or in marriage-track relationships, were bewildered. I was bewildered. To account for my behavior, all I had were two intangible yet undeniable convictions: something was missing; I wasn’t ready to settle down.

And this, I think, really gets at the truth behind our reluctance to commit: to borrow–and tweak–a phrase from a long-ago presidential campaign, It’s too many choices, stupid!

When we’re told that we can have it all, that everything is on the table, why would we ever commit to anything? Even if we know we love the thing to which we’re committing, we can’t help but wonder about all the things we didn’t choose.

And I’m not just talking about relationships.

Too many options applies to commitment of the romantic sort, sure, but also to jobs and where we should live and what kind of life we should have. Passion or paycheck? Security or freedom? Long hair or short? High heels or hiking boots?

Deciding, by definition, means “to kill.” Choosing one thing means you’re killing the possibility of having the other. And when we’re raised on the idea that anything’s possible–and every option is available–we see choosing anything as settling. And, of course, it is–it’s settling for something less than everything.

When you decide to take one path, there’s a risk of missing out on something–something we often imagine to be glorious, the proverbial greener grass–waiting for us at the end of another. As Hannah, a woman we profile in Undecided, put it:

The grass is always greener. Like, do I want to move to San Francisco? Colorado? South America? Will life be any better in any of those places? Probably not. But it might be, so there’s that risk that I’m taking by not moving.

This mindset is so prevalent, some worry we have an entire generation of commitmentphobes on our hands. Psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett is trying to get the in-between stage–the years when we try different jobs/relationships/cities/hairstyles on for size–designated as a distinct life stage, one he calls Emerging Adulthood. People don’t spent their entire career with one company anymore–the very idea sounds Flinstonian. Nor do they generally marry their high school sweethearts. To paraphrase Hannah, There’s that risk we’re taking by not checking out what else is out there. We have the whole world to explore first!

For women in particular, it’s excruciating. Because, in addition to that message–that we can do anything!–we were fed another, often from the women just a generation or two older than us, who weren’t afforded the same opportunity: that we’re so lucky that we can do anything. And combined, they leave many of us shouldering a load of responsibility. 

From a post I wrote some time ago,

This bounty of opportunity is so new that we were sent off to conquer it with no tools–just an admonishment that we’d best make the most of it.

We know we’re blessed to have all of these options. We get it. And so is it any wonder we want a shot at each and every one of them?

But therein lies the rub.

We want to travel, but can’t take off whenever we feel like it if we’re also going to get our business off the ground–and featured in Oprah. We want a family, but that’d mean that packing up and moving to Cairo or New Orleans on a whim is pretty much off the table. We want to be there for our daughter’s every milestone, yet we also want to model what a successful career woman looks like. We want torrid affairs and hot sex, but where would that leave our husbands? We want financial security and a latte on our way to the office every morning, but sit in our ergonomically correct chairs daydreaming about trekking through Cambodia with nothing but our camera and mosquito net. We want to be an artist, but have gotten rather used to that roof over our heads. We want to be ourselves, fully and completely, but would like to fit in at cocktail parties, too. (And when on earth are we going to find the time to write our novel??)

We want to do it all, to try it all before we buy! And that, I believe, is what’s at the root of the cold feet. Choices are hard. Damn hard. And every one of them entails a trade-off. The work is in accepting that–and in finding out who you are right down at your core, and figuring which of those trade-offs you can live with.

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Is mediocrity the last taboo?

The question came to mind a while back when I spied a column by Thomas Friedman, who suggested that in our global economy where work gets done cheaper overseas and where, here at home, technology is eating jobs in a rapidly accelerating pace, only the strong  will survive.  His overall point?  Average is officially over.

Your pulse just started racing, right?

Whether or not we happen to be gainfully employed, it’s a message that pushes a button for so many women:  We’re convinced that mediocre is never going to cut it, that “average” is something barely north of failure.  And in fact, that was the subtext of what many of the women we interviewed for Undecided told us about their struggles with career and life decisions, with second guesses about the road not taken, and with the pervasive belief that today’s women can/should/will have it all: great career, hot sex, well-behaved children, and granite in the kitchen.

Ever wonder how we got to this place?

1.  The Treadmill.  It starts early and stays late.  We’ve written before about young girls building their resumes at their mama’s knee — always with an eye on five years down the road: the right high school, the best soccer team, the prestigious college.  It’s a bad habit to break.  But what’s worse is that when young girls especially are trained to keep their eye on the prize — we have to take advantage of all those doors that have suddenly flown open, right? — what happens early on is that they become afraid to take risks, to rule things out, for fear that they could fail.  Is this future-thinking why I see students who get an assignment back with a “B-plus” on the top — and dissolve into tears?  Why “good enough” — never is?

2.  We aim to please.  Why?  We were raised that way — from the days when we were Daddy’s little girl.  We talked to an admissions director/counselor at a prestigious girls high school in an affluent area of California, and that’s what she told us she sees in many of the over-achievers in her school. When she talks to students these days, a lot of the chat revolves around serious stress. They admit that a lot is self-induced, but when she asks them, “Well, do you really need to take six honors courses?” the answer will be “But I want to.” What they really want, she suspects, is to please. “Studies show girls have so many more problems than boys— depression, eating disorders, migraines—because girls will stick with the craziness a lot longer than boys will,” she said. “Girls are hard-wired to please, which makes the pressure even bigger. They won’t give up, because to do so would be a failure. And they don’t want anybody to feel they’re a failure, because then they’d be letting people down.”

3.  Social Media.  Ah, yes.  It’s become our own private echo chambers that keeps us comparing and contrasting, the alternate reality where only perfect will do.  After all, what else do we see in our news feeds? When was the last time you saw an ugly baby on Facebook?  Heard your friend got fired — as opposed to hired?  I’ve heard of college girls who have their make-up done before they head out on Friday nights because they want to look good in the pictures that will inevitably appear on Facebook the next day. No joke. And let’s get real: When was the last time you posted anything that was less than, well, cute and witty.  Sure, we all know our own online personnas are carefully crafted, that we use them to brand ourselves, but that doesn’t prevent us from looking at all those others out there and believing in the surreality of it all, with the nagging feeling that those folks out there are doing it better, faster, cuter — and having lots more fun.

4.  The judge.  It’s become a cliche that we tend to judge each other by our choices: Defending what we’ve chosen for our lives—and what we’ve chosen to leave behind. Judging our friends’ choices. Interpreting the fact that our friend has chosen something different as her judgment (and rejection) of what we’ve chosen for ourselves. But what we often forget is that the worst judge of all is often the one in the mirror, holding us to impossible standards and feeding our self doubt. (Be honest here: how many of you sat glued to the tube during the summer Olympics when you were a child, watching those preternaturally small gymnasts — and feeling like you yourself had failed because at the ripe old age of 10 or 12  you had never nailed a vault –  and most likely never would?)  When we’re deep in the throes of a “Which way should I go,” part of the angst is often the knowledge that no matter what we choose, we will be judged. In all sorts of ways. In ways that men aren’t, and in ways that are often contradictory. And the damnedest truth of all: We often do it to ourselves.

5.  The Great Expectations.  Especially those that go hand in hand with the mantras with which we’ve been raised:  You can do anything!  You can do everything!  And it will all be amazing!  No wonder that the thought of mediocrity sucks our soul.  One of our sources who is herself far from mediocre said it best:  “I wonder if some of our frustration is about the fact that it’s virtually impossible to excel at everything—wife, writer, teacher, runner, in my case—and so we’re always worried about the area in which we’re not measuring up to our own expectations.”

Sigh.  All of which could be the ultimate buzzkill if it weren’t for a bit of wisdom we heard from Swarthmore psychologist Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, who told us about a recent study that found that starting at age 50, people actually get happier.  Why?  “What you learn from experience,” he told us, “is exactly that good enough is good enough, and once you learn that, you stop torturing yourself looking for the best, and life gets a lot simpler.”

And, we might add, far from mediocre.

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The interwebs – and the San Francisco Bay Area, which is quite literally Facebook territory – have been abuzz since news of the social networking site’s IPO broke Wednesday.   Within hours, anyone with a mic or a keyboard was thoroughly a-riff:  Would the projected $5 billion trigger a new housing boom?  Would it save the California economy?

Or was Facebook nothing but a data-mining outfit, selling our info to the highest bidder, and before long, so over.  With nearly half the world’s internet users logged on, how could it grow?

But while the opinionators were opinionating, a good percentage of the social networking site’s 845 million users (58 percent of them women, by the way) were madly liking, sharing and updating their news feeds to call out – if that isn’t too mild a word — Susan G. Komen’s decision to defund Planned Parenthood.

The irony that an organization that proclaims its dedication to curing (there’s some debate on that, too) breast cancer would pull the plug on the funding for free mammograms was way too much.  The backlash was fast, furious and viral.  And it was in our Face.

Within hours, Komen was under immense pressure both within and without the organization.  They backpedaled.  Top officials resigned.  Racers for the cure decided, well, not to.  Comments like this one — I was sort of done when they partnered with KFC to turn the buckets pink – that was a key notion that they weren’t terribly concerned about women’s health. — took on a life of their own.

And Planned Parenthood?  By Wednesday night, it had received $400,000 in donations.  On Thursday, New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg pledged to give Planned Parenthood $250,000.

For far too long, Planned Parenthood has been in the crosshairs of conservatives, who have tagged the organization as nothing but — as the erstwhile presidential candidate Michele Bachman once called it, “the LensCrafter of big abortion” — when in reality, Planned Parenthood is a prime provider of health care for women who can’t afford it.  (Abortions only make up 10 percent of the services it provides.)

As we’ve written before, we know of one woman, in fact, whose life may have been saved by Planned Parenthood. She discovered a lump in her breast shortly after losing her work-related health insurance. Where did she turn for a mammogram? Yep, Planned Parenthood, which ultimately shepherded her through the scary process of not only the diagnostics, but ultimately surgery, chemo and radiation.

And so, while some folks might look at Facebook  and see a cashbox that will fill our local watering holes and pump some life back into the California economy – and while others argue that it’s nothing but a narcissistic echo chamber that keeps us fixated on the trivial — at least for today, we can see it as something else: the social engine that may well have saved at least one woman’s life.

By the way, this was my favorite update.  To which the only possible response is “like!”

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