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Archive for August, 2012

I think it’s time to send the Mommy Wars off to bed once and for all.

Best-selling novelist Deborah Copaken Kogan would definitely agree.  Kogan was one of the featured break-out speakers at last week’s Sun Valley Writers Conference and her talk on the myth of the mommy wars provided food for both thought and the soul.

Kogan, a former photojournalist who spent her twenties covering international war zones, is the author of Shutterbabe, a memoir she wrote after the birth of her first child, and The Red Book, a New York Times bestseller that catches up with four Harvard roommates as they struggle, twenty years later, with the challenges of adult life.  She told a rapt audience that the media-created war that, again and again, pits women against each other is nothing but a diversion that keeps us from the real work of changing a broken system:

Once women were seen pitted thus–working mothers versus stay-at-home mothers–instead of us discussing why we have no infrastructure for working families — the simple us versus them becomes insidiously ingrained.

The us-versus-them business: Kogan was preaching to the choir, as far as I was concerned.  But what was encouraging to me was the way the women in the audience, ranging in age from twenty-something to sixty-plus, grabbed her message and got riled up, ready to join the right kind of fight.

Kogan traced the origins of the Mommy Wars back to that ridiculous cookie contest between Barbara Bush and Hilary Clinton. (Call it the cookie wars.  Check Family Circle and you’ll see they’re still going on.).  She provided slides of the recent media flashpoints, stuff we’ve written about, here and here:  “Are you Mom Enough”, the recent Time Magazine cover story on attachment parenting, and Anne Marie Slaughter’s piece in “The Atlantic”, which set the bar so high for having it all, Kogan said, as to render the term meaningless.  The resulting brouhaha also led to a fake dust-up between Slaughter and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. What’s interesting, Kogan said, is that these images, these poster-moms, don’t look like any women she knows.

Most women are worried about how they can afford to buy that dinner; what if their husband gets sick; if the nanny makes $750/week, how can I afford to work?  What vacation?  AND being judged constantly.  By framing this as a war, the media sets up the idea that one side must win.  And that diverts the attention from the real issue through the juxtaposition of mommy plus war — without caveats.

Kogan provided charts and stats, comparing the support the U.S. offers working mothers versus the policies in other countries such as France or Sweden.  You can guess where the U.S. fell in most of those measures:  Off the charts, actually, and not in a good way (as we too found when we researched our book.)  Add in crappy vacation policies (versus France, she said, where five weeks’ vacation is the norm) and corporate work expectations that can top out at eighty hour work weeks.  And while the cost of child care have gone up, salaries have stagnated.

Read and weep.

What we need, Kogan said, is paid maternity leave (or parental leave, so pop can step in as well) to get the babies through that crucial first year of life without either making ourselves crazy by going back to work too soon — or staying home and going broke.  What we also need, she said, is “subsidized day care so one’s entire paycheck after year one is not going to the nanny.”

Amen to that.

And yet, we’ve all been conned by the subtext of the Mommy War meme:  it’s an either/or choice.  You stay home or you go gangbusters on your career.  Nothing in between.  All of which leads to a lot of judging.  But for most women, the choices are not quite so stark.

Kogan realized early on that motherhood was not compatible with war photography.  She moved to New York City, got a job at NBC, and with the birth of her first child took six months maternity leave and saw her family’s savings dwindle.  Twenty-one months later, she had her second child and, toward the end of her maternity leave, found herself called to Paris at the last minute – instantly weaning her daughter and without time to grab a breast pump – when Princess Di was killed.  Three years later, she asked her boss at NBC if she could cut back to a four-day work week.  Her boss said yes.  Her boss’s boss, a female VP, turned her down.  At which point, Kogan quit to stay home and write – and became a casualty of the Mommy Wars herself.

When “Shutterbabe” came out,  a memoir of her days as a photojournalist, she was called a sell-out, a “lactating nester,” a woman who had “left a brilliant career to be a soccer mom.”  Now, three books later, she is often asked, if she had to make a choice, which would it be:  Her children or her books?

I doubt that’s a question any male author has to answer.  I answer that I’d chose my children of course, but why on earth should I have to?

The real issue, Kogan says, is not the media-created catfight, but the fact that when (make that “if”) we end up judging each other for our choices, we’re fighting the wrong fight.

Toward the end of the session, a woman in the audience stood, asking if Kogan was doing anything herself to work on policy change.  Her answer? “No!  I’m too friggen busy. I always feel like one shoe is falling off.  And that’s at the heart of what happens – people who are affected by this, are just too busy.”

Later, I caught up with her for some additional thoughts:

It should really be us–all mothers–versus them–the men in Congress who keep trying to chip away, seemingly mercilessly, at the small gains women have made instead of pushing forward and rethinking the entire American paradigm, which is rotten to the core. So in that sense, it’s about controlling women: their access to birth control, family planning, and the normal benefits after the baby is born that all other developed countries take for granted. To me, the right wing Congressmen are just Taliban in suit and ties.

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In an epic case of What-Goes-Around-Comes-Around, Janice Min, founding editor of Us Weekly magazine (a magazine which traffics in “cute mum and baby” porn and is nearly singlehandedly responsible for introducing terms including “baby bump” and “post-baby body” into the lexicon) who helmed the junkreading juggernaut for six years and now collects her paychecks from the Hollywood Reporter, is bummed because of the pressure she feels, a mere four months after her baby was born, to “get her body back.”

Cue the finger violins.

Don’t get me wrong. I empathize with her plight. No really, I do. But this is the woman who built an empire on careful monitoring of the size and curvature of other womens’ bellies in images superimposed with circles and arrows to help the viewer discern where there might either be a growing baby or, like, the remnants of an Umami burger, under the heading “Bump Alert!” (Such a fun game. If it actually is a baby, it’s so exciting! And if it’s not, it’s so fun to laugh at someone else’s gut!) On cover stories of women who’ve just given birth, prancing in bikinis under headlines like, “How I Got My Body Back” — and stories worrying over the poor souls who haven’t managed to lose the baby weight immediately. Oh, and can’t forget baby: why, it’s the chicest accessory of the season! Min was not only shoveling this schlock week after week after week, she was taking it straight to the bank.

Had anyone else written the piece, which ran in Sunday’s NYT with the title “Can A Mom Get A Break?” I’d be backing her up. But this is simply too much. It’s four months since Min welcomed baby, and the manicurists want to know when she’s due.

There, in the stacks of periodicals at the nail salon, these genetic aberrations smile at us from celebrity magazines, or from our computer screens, wearing bikinis on the beach in Cabo weeks after Caesarean sections, or going straight from the recovery room to Victoria’s Secret runway…
You see, in today’s celebrity narrative, just two kinds of desirable maternal female physiques exist: the adorable gestating one (with bellies called “bumps”) and its follow-up, the body that boomerangs back from birth possibly even better than before.

The “Wow, I totally see the error of my ways and man you really do reap what you sow” you’re waiting for? It begins and ends with this:

I am partly to blame for my own physical netherworld. As the editor of Us Weekly, covering the Suris and Shilohs of Hollywood for six years, I delivered what the young female audience wanted: cute moms and babies. So much so that Tom Wolfe once remarked, ‘The one thing that Us Weekly has done that’s a great boost to the nation is they’ve probably increased the birthrate.”

I don’t know about that (although I honestly wouldn’t be surprised), but a glossy tabloid as ubiquitous as Us can certainly take a leading role in shaping the culture, the “narrative” to which Min refers. (After all: the Stars, as Us likes to point out, Are Just Like Us!) A narrative that’s about appearances. Which is bad. Worse, as Min suggests, is the way in which it morphs:

The recent “Are You Mom Enough?” cover of Time magazine was either the apex or nadir of all our current mama drama. If it wasn’t enough to get creeped out hearing grown men express envy of the breast-feeding 4 year-old boy latched onto his attractive mother, the question posed on the cover seemed to encompass not only the article’s attachment parenting debate, but also the self-doubt that all mothers perpetually face… It’s like our helicopter parenting (with nowhere else to go) turned inward.

Or the judgment we foist upon others turned onto ourselves.

I promise you, I am not taking pleasure in this woman’s pain. In fact, I think there’s a lesson in it for all of us: It’s hard to be a woman. It’s hard to manage the juggle and the pressure and the expectations. But when we pick each other apart for sport, where does that leave us? Spending our baby’s first months of life consumed with getting back into our skinny jeans.

And there’s one more lesson worth thinking about: Karma, as they say, is a bitch. (Especially when she gets her post-baby body back to pre-baby form faster than you.)

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It’s not so much the right-wingers’ war on women that pisses me off — it’s the fact that they think we’re dumb enough to buy their talking points.

Case in point, a Bloomberg op-ed by Ramesh Ponnuru that attempts to make the case that the gender wage gap is nothing but nonsense: we make less because we choose to work less.  Or chose the wrong majors.

Here’s the truth you won’t hear: The pay gap is exaggerated, discrimination doesn’t drive it and it’s not clear that government can eliminate it — or should even try.

Exaggerated?  Hardly.  Fortunately, over there on Jezebel, Katie J. M. Baker did her homework.  She gleefully called out the “mansplainer”, refuting his thesis by citing some stats from the National Partnership research study.  Here’s just a taste:

  • Women in science, technology, engineering and math are paid 86 percent of what their male counterparts are paid.
  • As soon as one year after graduation, women working full time are paid only 80 percent as much as their male colleagues, even when controlling for field of study and age.
  • Among all workers 25 years of age and older with some high school education, women’s median weekly wages total $388 compared to a total of $486 for men.
  • Women in the service industry are paid only about 75 percent of the mean weekly wages paid to men in equivalent positions. In 2008 the average starting salary of a new female physician was $16,819 less than her male counterpart after controlling for observable characteristics such as specialty type and hours worked. A newly minted female MBA graduate is paid, on average, $4,600 less at her first job than a new male MBA graduate.
  • A 2010 GAO study on women in management found that female managers are paid only 81 percent as much as male managers.
  • Even when childless women and men are compared, full-time working women are paid only 82 percent as much as full-time working men.
  • Women are penalized for caregiving while men are not; the 2003 GAO study found that women with children are paid about 2.5 percent less than women without children, while men with children enjoy an earnings boost of 2.1 percent, compared with men without children.

(Our friends to the north, apparently, are no better.  According to Canadian Lawyer and Law Times, female in-house counsel earn about 16 per cent less than their male counterparts on average. Though men tend to hold higher level positions — which is problematic itself — men are still making more than women in comparable roles and are twice as likely as women to have had a 10 percent raise this past year.)

Anyway.  You can guess why this matters: the Republican’s newly tapped vice presidential candidate, Rep. Paul Ryan, a card-carrying soldier in the war on women, is on the record for voting against the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, if that’s any indication of where a Romney-Ryan administration would stand on equal pay.  Stay tuned to hear more of this anti-wage gap rhetoric in the months to come.

The next mansplainer was actually a woman.  Equally annoying was a post on Forbes.com that attempted to make the case that “pitting women against Ryan was a counterproductive sideshow.”  Really?  The writer, Sabrina Shaeffer is executive director of the conservative Independent Women’s Forum.  She says we lefty feminists have got it wrong.  (She also goes out of her way to tag anyone in favor of women’s rights as Left-with-a-captial-L or Liberal Democrats.  As if this were a bad thing…) What women really care about, she writes, is what men care about: it’s the economy, stupid.  The other stuff?  Health care, reproductive rights, the social net that benefits, most of all, families? Nothing but sideshow:

…a message framing experiment conducted for the Independent Women’s Voice (IWV) by Evolving Strategies this summer found that while the “War on Women” narrative might please the most liberal Democrats, it actually hurts them with independents and weak partisans – the very voters who helped put Obama in the White House.

This doesn’t seem to be stopping the Left, however, from trying to position Ryan as antagonistic to women and steering the conversation away from the economy. In particular they seem focused on three issues: Ryan’s views on entitlement reform, workplace regulations, and the HHS contraception mandate. But as women get more information about Ryan’s positions, they are likely to find him even more appealing.

Don’t think so.  All of which leads to the biggest scam of all — wait for it — which is sure to crop up before long: the sanctimonious equating of social conservatism with family values.  As we’ve written before, with regard to another family values guy:

Maybe prayer in school, opposition to gay marriage, and blowing up the safety net are the kinds of values that made your family strong.  But I seriously doubt it.  If the health of the American family is what we’re after, the values that matter most are more along the lines of equal opportunity, access to good health care and quality education, and above all, an abiding sense of compassion.

I guess I need a mansplainer to spell out for me why, for example, a gay marriage threatens my own?  Or why, if the social conservatives are against women terminating a pregnancy — even to save their own lives — it makes sense to limit their ability to prevent a pregnancy in the first place.  Or, the greatest canard of all, that repealing Obamacare is pro-family, when statistics show, and as we have written time and again, that the main beneficiaries of the Affordable Care Act are, you guessed it, women and children.  Save the fetus, forget the child?

Now, you may be one of those women whose job — and health benefits — is absolutely secure.  Maybe child-bearing is in your rear view mirror and, what the hell, you never had daughters anyway. Or you may have a securely-employed spouse who can not only pick up the tab, but the dry cleaning, too.

But then again, maybe you don’t.  And maybe you are, or someday will be, one of those legions of American women whose family will one day rely on any one of the entitlements, like food stamps or even Pell grants, that got the ax in the Paul Ryan House budget — which was more about ideology than reality –  that favored lower taxes, higher defense spending, and a bunch of holes — if not outright shredding — of our safety net.

Which is to say: How do you like those talking points now?

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“Good girls go to Heaven, but bad girls go everywhere.” So said Helen Gurley Brown, longtime editor of Cosmopolitan Magazine and author of the bestselling “Sex and the Single Girl.” And while one can say what one will about Cosmopolitan magazine, few can argue that HGB was not a gamechanger.

Don’t get me wrong: Cosmo will never be mistaken for a bastion of literary sophistication. Indeed, certain types might look down on its not-so-subtle ethos of Empowerment Through Sex Tips. (How many sex tips does an empowered woman really need, after all?) But the thing is, the thing that feels, to American women in the year 2012, so obvious as to be unnecessary to even mention, is that being empowered sexually is inextricably tied to being empowered, period.

In the New York Times’ “99 Ways to Be Naughty in Kazakhstan: How Cosmo Conquered the World,” writer Edith Zimmerman explores the “global juggernaut,”–a phrase which is no exaggeration:

Through those 64 editions, the magazine now spreads wild sex stories to 100 million teens and young women (making it closer to the 12th-largest country [in the world]), actually) in more than 100 nations–including quite a few where any discussion of sex is taboo.

In fact, Zimmerman says she received an email from the editor of Cosmo India, who wrote:

When we launched in 1996, we were flooded with letters — women wanted to know if kissing could cause pregnancy. They were clueless about the basics of having sex, and they had a million questions about what was right and wrong. The Cosmo team actually tackled these questions personally — writing back to readers with answers or carrying stories that tackled their concerns. Indian parents are usually conservative about sexual matters, and friends were often equally ignorant, so Cosmo was the only one with reliable information.

That’s pretty wild. And honestly, it’s pretty important.

Back in America (and back in the day), the messages HGB heralded were proportionately eye-opening. You don’t need a husband to be happy (in fact, she once dropped this doosie: “I think marriage is insurance for the worst years of your life. During your best years you don’t need a husband. You do need a man of course every step of the way, and they are often cheaper emotionally and a lot more fun by the dozen”). Your primary fulfillment should come from work. Be self-sufficient. Have sex. (And lots of it! Without shame!) Work hard. Don’t depend on a man for anything.

“So you’re single. You can still have sex. You can have a great life. And if you marry, don’t just sponge off a man or be the gold-medal-winning mother. Don’t use men to get what you want in life–get it for yourself.

And, she championed the “mouseburgers”–women who didn’t come from privilege, pedigree, or Princeton. Her book “Sex and The Single Girl” was published one year before “The Feminine Mystique.” Something was in the air, and she was a part of it.

And her legacy is clear. While one might no longer embrace her ideas about sleeping with married men (HGB: go for it), anorexia (HGB: a touch of it can be a good thing), or dealing with the boss (HGB: seduce him, then marry him), others have become internalized by our collective, womanly subconscious: namely, that we can have it all.

As we wrote about in Undecided, while women have now reached the point where even that message feels, in some ways, constrictive–knotted up with pressure and expectations and juggling and the entrenched inequality that remains–clearly, we’re making progress. HGB and countless others had their eyes on the ball (I refuse to make a Cosmo-worthy pun here); it’s our job to keep running with it.

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I confess: I love shoes.  Especially when they’re high.  Until they wore out, my go-to faves were a pair of black leather ankle boots with dangerously high heels. They were actually pretty comfortable, but I would have worn them anyway because they looked damn good.

I’m also a feminist.

I bring this up because I often ponder the tension between feminism and fashion – the way fashion is often framed as a silly vanity, often driven by our need to please men, rather than ourselves. The trope popped into my noggin again this weekend, after I read a piece in Sunday’s New York Times that seemed to imply that women could be accomplished or fashionable, but rarely both.

The story cast a bemused eye on the new stylistas of Silicon Valley who were “bucking convention not only by being women in a male-dominated industry, but also by unabashedly embracing fashion.”  (One interviewee was the 29-year-old founder of a travel start-up who, the reporter noted, was wearing a pair of hot pink Christian Louboutains.  At which point I wondered: if you can actually afford to buy Louboutains – why wouldn’t you?)

Anyway, it got me to thinking:  Are fashion and feminism ever compatible? Can you maintain professional cred in serious stilettos?  And why, when you dress to impress is there the assumption that who you are aiming to please is the patriarchy?

For some food for thought, I turned to a couple of smart women, who are both rather stylish in their own right.  The first is an expert on gender politics, Shira Tarrant, a California State University, Long Beach women’s studies professor whose new book “Fashion Talks: Undressing the Power of Style” uses fashion to deconstruct the politics of race, class, gender, and sexuality.  When I asked if fashionistas could be taken seriously as feminists, her answer was “absolutely”:

And feminists can be taken seriously as fashionistas. Feminists have a bad rap when it comes to fashion. We’re accused of being frumpy, unattractively braless, and inexcusably hirsute. But the fact is that feminism has always paid attention to the politics of style, and many feminists are incredibly fashionable.

Still, she says, when it comes to fashion as a lens to understanding  — and changing — gender politics, consider the context:

We live in a patriarchal, capitalist culture. We can never completely separate our fashion choices from the social structures we live in. But that doesn’t mean we’re always victims of our culture, either.  Fashion can be self-objectifying. At the same time, fashion can push back against a culture that keeps insisting that women hypersexualize ourselves. Fashion can be used to subvert the status quo, but the question is whether we can ever fully achieve this — especially without more sweeping economic and political change.

We’re always grappling with this tension between self-expression and self-objectification. The question is how do we remove the gendered penalties of self-expression. Our culture still encourages women to be attractive and pleasing to men. Fashion isn’t exempt from that. At the same time, fashion can be used to subvert these expectations. We can use fashion as a form of pop culture pushback.

Pushback?  Fantastic!  My second source, my colleague Charlotta Kratz, a lecturer in the communication department at Santa Clara University, would agree.

Through my clothes I tell people that I’m not completely what they may assume given my age or profession.  For long periods of time I challenged notions of status through how I dressed. I had a pair of denim overalls that I wore in professional settings.  As an recent immigrant, with an accent, I used to soften my being different by dressing plainly in jeans and t-shirts. I found that when I wore my Scandinavian designer clothes, mostly black, my California students found it harder to understand me.

I don’t think I dress for men. I think I dress to attract people who will “get” me.  Some of those will be men with a possible sexual interest in me. I don’t mind that. I like men and I like innocent everyday flirting. But, some of those people will be other heterosexual women, like my colleagues or students. For them my clothes will be signals of different kinds.

Kratz points out that we communicate through our fashion choices – clothes, hair, bags, cars — to become someone in social settings:

Not washing our cars is a statement. Sporting hairstyles that are carefully created to look as if we never comb our hair says something about us too. Whoever says “I don’t care about how I look” takes a lot of pride, and puts lots of effort into that particular style.

And that’s it, isn’t it? Fashion is simply the signals we send, the way we use artifacts like clothes and shoes to represent ourselves.  As Shannon wrote back when we were in the throes of writing our book (and, ironically, clad most days in scrubs) for most of us, it’s pure self-expression: Clothes, she wrote, “say something to the world about who we are. Or who we want to be perceived to be.”

In other words, it’s a choice: one that I think is more than compatible with feminism. We dress to please ourselves, to show the world who we are.  Which leads back to that frame that won’t go away, that fashion is simply a tool of the patriarchy. As for me, if pleasing men were my goal, I have failed miserably, at least with one man in my life who after decades of marriage still can’t understand why I need more than three pair of shoes – sneakers, flip flops or the moral equivalent, and dress shoes – or why I never leave the house without lipstick.

Anyway, back to Tarrant.  I asked her to describe her own particular style and what she said was this: “My sartorial style skews toward earth tones, black, and grey, with a radical splash of liberation.”

Done!

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So, you know that special brand of squelched eye-roll/mini-smirk you trot out whenever you find yourself cornered by your Positive Thinking-evangelizing sister/friend/coworker? Turns out, raining on her parade might be the best thing you can do for her.

In a comical opinion piece in Sunday’s NYT that’ll make the cynic in you chuckle, Oliver Burkeman lays out a solid argument for being an Eeyore. The impetus for his piece was last month’s debacle involving 21 Tony Robbins devotees who wound up being treated for burns after “Unleashing the Power Within” (read: attempting to walk across hot coals).

(Quoth the fire captain: “We discourage people from walking over hot coals.”)

Schadenfreude aside, Burkeman lays out a pretty solid argument for leaving the power alone, and instead unleashing the grouch within.

He quotes social critic Barbara Ehrenreich, cites The Stoics and principles of Buddhist meditation, debunks the power of visualization:

Consider the technique of positive visualization, a staple not only of Robbins-style seminars but also of corporate team-building retreats and business best sellers. According to research by the psychologist Gabriele Oettingen and her colleagues, visualizing a successful outcome, under certain conditions, can make people less likely to achieve it. She rendered her experimental participants dehydrated, then asked some of them to picture a refreshing glass of water. The water-visualizers experienced a marked decline in energy levels, compared with those participants who engaged in negative or neutral fantasies. Imagining their goal seemed to deprive the water-visualizers of their get-up-and-go, as if they’d already achieved their objective.

Interestingly, elsewhere in the paper (O, glorious Sunday on the couch!), in a (much-emailed) piece titled “Raising Successful Children” Madeline Levine, practicing clinician and author of “Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success,” takes down not just helicopter parents and tiger moms, but “overparenting lite.” It’s a topic we’ve covered before, but Levine mentions an interesting study:

In a typical experiment, Dr. Dweck takes young children into a room and asks them to solve a simple puzzle. Most do so with little difficulty. But then Dr. Dweck tells some, but not all, of the kids how very bright and capable they are. As it turns out, the children who are not told they’re smart are more motivated to tackle increasingly difficult puzzles. They also exhibit higher levels of confidence and show greater overall progress in puzzle-solving.

Interesting, huh? Taken together, the two certainly got me wondering. How much positivity is too much? Exactly how deeply rose should our glasses be colored? Where does healthy stop and delusional begin? And, maybe more to the point: why does this kind of stuff feel, in some (albeit slightly uncomfortable) way, like a relief?

We write often about the importance of embracing failure, how it is not only surmountable, but a teacher. We also write often about the crushing pressure of great expectations. How they can turn out to be more paralyzing than empowering. (And how the message so many of us are fed, that you can do anything you want, is internalized with the pressurizing conclusion: so it better be something really freaking good.) And so I wonder: how much better off would we all be were the pressure to be positive ratcheted down, even just a tad? And not just because the pressure would be off: because failure, imperfection, moments of (gasp!) mediocrity are kind of a fact of life.

In her piece, Levine notes that becoming who we are (and being allowed the space to accomplish this deceptively simple task) is kind of the most important work at hand for a fledgling human being (or the people tasked with raising said human being). I’d agree. And accepting and getting to like that person is pretty important work, too. And accepting and liking ourselves is considerably easier if we’re not expecting perfection, not least because people–all people–are inherently imperfect. (And through no fault of our not thinking positively enough.)

Here’s a little more from Burkeman:

Buddhist meditation, too, is arguably all about learning to resist the urge to think positively — to let emotions and sensations arise and pass, regardless of their content. It might even have helped those agonized firewalkers. Very brief training in meditation, according to a 2009 article in The Journal of Pain, brought significant reductions in pain — not by ignoring unpleasant sensations, or refusing to feel them, but by turning nonjudgmentally toward them.

From this perspective, the relentless cheer of positive thinking begins to seem less like an expression of joy and more like a stressful effort to stamp out any trace of negativity. Mr. Robbins’s trademark smile starts to resemble a rictus. A positive thinker can never relax, lest an awareness of sadness or failure creep in. And telling yourself that everything must work out is poor preparation for those times when they don’t. You can try, if you insist, to follow the famous self-help advice to eliminate the word “failure” from your vocabulary — but then you’ll just have an inadequate vocabulary when failure strikes.

Everything’s not always going to be great. And that’s perfectly fine.

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The other day after I got home from my run (I use the term advisedly), I got a call from the local NBC affiliate asking for a quick interview on the overall impact of “girl power”  in this year’s Olympics.  Within ten minutes, the reporter and her cameraman were on their way.

While dashing around the house trying to figure out what to wear — no white, no black, no patterns — and ruing the fact that I never mastered the art of applying makeup, I did some power thinking about what the so-called “year of the woman” means to those of us who have never done a cartwheel and who were always the last to be chosen for volleyball.  (Both would be me.) And what I realized is that the Olympic Games are a good metaphor for a lot of what we call real life.

Wherein we find some real lessons, especially for us women.

Lesson one:  You go for the gold, girl.  First, there’s the good old-fashioned inspiration of the goose-bump variety.  Whenever a woman excels at anything, I’m inspired — even if it’s not my field.  Gabby or Missy or Kerri and Misty?  Talk about motivation.  And yet it’s a message that goes far beyond the pool or the (faux) beach or the balance beam: set yourself a goal, work hard, try your darnedest and anything is possible: You never know what you can do until you take that leap of faith.

For all of us, there’s joy to be found in getting into the Zen of it all, of being totally absorbed in our passions, whether it’s poetry or pole vaulting.  Put yourself out there, throw yourself into your dreams one hundred percent, and the message is this: you just might bring home the gold.

Lesson two:  Fail well.  Or maybe you won’t: put yourself out there, give it your all — and you still might fall flat on your face.  But even if you fail spectacularly, you still win. We write about this a lot:  one of the surest indicators of future success is how good you are at failing. In fact, this year the New York Times reported on some cutting edge school programs based on something called the character strengths inventory that is proving that kids who move through failures with a mindset of looking at them as learning experiences are much more equipped for success in life. (Look no further than world gymnastics champion Jordyn Wieber, who failed to qualify for the individual all-around final yet came back to nail her floor exercises.)

Which leads to …

Lesson three: Take the risk.  In other words, failure can often be the world’s best teacher. First, there’s the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve taken a risk and lived to tell the tale. And then there’s this: That whole process of trial and error is likely to bring you closer to figuring out your own goals and how to get there.  Maybe you’ll learn from what you’ve done wrong and do it better the next time – or just maybe you can use that failure to rule things out.  If you can see that failure for what it is, just one more step in the never-ending process we call life, you may well learn something that can propel you forward. Or, as psychologist Ramani Durvasula told us back when we were reporting our book: “You’ll always get over a failure. But regret? It’s not recoverable.”

That risk-taking, the idea of allowing ourselves the courage to fail?  It’s especially important to today’s women who are often navigating uncharted territory, especially in the workplace.  As Elizabeth Gilbert once wrote, “We don’t have centuries of educated, autonomous female role models to imitate here (there were no women quite like us until very recently), so nobody has given us a map.”

And speaking of running without a roadmap …

Lesson Four: Dispense with the shoulds.  That’s Gloria Steinem’s line, not ours.  More in a bit. I was once asked for advice from a very earnest twenty-something who wanted to know what women trying to make their way into high-stakes careers should do. And my answer was this:  I don’t have any advice — not because I don’t like to dish it out – but because there are no clear cut, one-size fits all answers.   For us, I told her, it’s all too new.  And then I quoted Gloria Steinem, who once told a group of college women: “Dispense with the word “should.” Don’t think about the way women should fit into the world.  Think about how the world should fit women.”

Which brings us back to my soundbyte on the nightly news and perhaps the best lesson of all from the year of the woman.  The reporter asked my take on those women who were owning the non-traditional sports like Judo and weightlifting, breaking through the stereotypes, and what I said was something like this:  “Every time a woman does something a little above and beyond society’s expectations, it opens doors for all of us.  And I think that’s fantastic.”

I was overshadowed, of course, by an interview with a poised young tween in a leotard at a local gymnastics center.  What she said she has taken away from this year’s Olympics is the belief that women can do whatever they want, that they can do just as much as men can.  “I’m motivated,” she said, looking straight at the camera, “to do better than I think I can.”

Girl power, indeed.

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