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Archive for the ‘being judged’ Category

imagesThe Year of the Woman? Oy vey.

It’s a phrase that’s always struck me as ridiculous. It would be one thing to declare it the Year of the Short, Redheaded, Left-Handed Woman, or the Year of the Unmarried, Urban-dwelling Thirtysomething Woman, or the Year of the Woman Who Doesn’t Want to Have It All, but, I mean, half the people there are are women. Saying its our year is so broad as to be totally meaningless. And more than a tad condescending. (And, as any good writer knows, a mere three examples is all it takes to make a trend. Which is to say, as easy as it would be to round up three examples that prove it is indeed the year of the woman, it’d be equally simplistic to find three examples that demonstrate that, no, in fact, this was not such a good year for women.)

Interestingly, I got to thinking about this idea while reading Sunday’s New York Times magazine, which, upon first glance, would seem to be proclaiming 2012 as a the year of the woman. The cover story, “Hollywood Heroines,” is accompanied by a beautiful photo spread that spans 21 pages and features the big screen’s biggest ladystars of the year. It’s exactly the sort of thing you see, and expect the accompanying text to be proclaiming the dearth of quality female characters over, the representation equaled, the hierarchy overturned! (Citing three examples, natch.) Oh, actually, the deck did say that the hierarchy had been overturned. But, turns out, the piece, written by A.O. Scott, was right on the money, and its lessons stretch far beyond the reaches of tinsel town.

Scott cites some good examples of movies from this year that feature strong female characters, and/or pass the Bechel Test (the shockingly simple, yet equally, perhaps more, shockingly impossible-to-pass test comprised of three criterion: 1. the movie must have at least two named women characters; 2. they must talk to each other; 3. about something besides a man).

But the heart of the matter, I think, is this:

The rush to celebrate movies about women has a way of feeling both belated and disproportionate. Pieces of entertainment become public causes and punditical talking points, burdened with absurdly heavy expectations and outsize significance… It is a fact beyond dispute that the roles available to women in what movie-lovers nervously call the real world have expanded significantly in the last half-century, a fact at once celebrated and lamented in backward-looking pop-cultural phenomena like “Mad Men.” But the things that women do–the people they insist on being remain endlessly controversial. It takes very little for individual tastes and decisions to become urgent matters of public debate. It takes, basically, a magazine cover article. Women are breast-feeding their babies, pushing their children to practice violin, reading ’50 Shades of Grey’ on the subway, juggling career and child care, marrying late or not at all, falling behind or taking over the world. Stop the presses!

The problem is not that these issues are not important but rather that they are presented with a sensationalism that tends to undermine their ongoing and complicated significance. The behavior of a woman who appears on the public stage can be counted on to provoke a contentious referendum on the state of women in general. Is this good for women? Is she doing it wrong? This happened, in the last 12 months, to Sandra Fluke and Paula Broadwell, to Rihanna and Ann Romney, and, closer to the matter at hand, to Lena Dunham.

You did not really think I would get through a whole essay on gender and popular culture without mentioning her, did you? But the reception of ‘Girls,’ even more than the show itself–which is, to keep things in perspective,  a clever half-hour sitcom about a bunch of recent college graduates–is an interesting sign of our confused times. Dunham was mocked for her body, sneered at for her supposed nepotism, scolded for her inadequate commitment to diversity and lectured about the inappropriate things her alter ego, Hannah Horvath, does in bed. That much of the criticism came from Dunham’s peers is both evidence of a robust feminist discourse in the cultural blogosphere and a legacy of the under- and misrepresentation I have been talking about. Dunham was not quite allowed just to explore her own ideas and experiences. She was expected to get it right, to represent, to set an example and blaze a path.

And while the great majority of us are not Lena Dunham, I’d say that pressure and that judgment–and, more to the point, that expectation that we’re gonna be judged–is something we all deal with. Because no matter how many movies about women or girl heroes or headlines about secretaries of state or tiger mothers get paraded out on (to borrow Scott’s point) magazine covers, the message we take home has far less to do with the specific example itself than it does the analysis. What we absorb is this: Whatever you do, every choice you make, says everything about you, and, by God, you’re gonna be judged for it.

When we write about women and choices and the struggles we have determining what to do with our lives, I think we can’t overstate the lesson here. In order to make choices that are right for us, individually, we have to recognize how much of our pro and con lists are occupied by these pressures. The pressure to get it right, to represent, to set an example, to blaze a path. It’s interesting to wonder, if we could somehow apply a filter that’d shut those considerations down, how much easier our choices would be.

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The other day, in the midst of a meeting of my paper’s editorial staff, I found myself waving my Feminist card in a manner reminiscent of when I used to referee kids’ soccer games, and had to deploy the whistle-yellow-card combo. (More often than not, the recipients of said cards were not kids at all, but the grown-ups coaching them. But I digress.)

Anyway, back to the meeting: that week’s cover story was about the local congressional race, which is hotly disputed, and heavily watched, as recent redistricting means the seat is decidedly In Play. The longtime incumbent is a woman, a Democrat, in her 70s. And the race has been a slugfest. Thanks to the flow of cash from corporations — um, I mean people? — special interest groups, the national parties, and the campaigns themselves, one can hardly catch a post-season baseball game (go Giants!) without being subjected to a slimy back and forth of ads. (Is this what it’s like to live in a swing state? My deepest sympathies.) So, long story short: this particular cover story was about this race, and the cover design, in lieu of photographs, used an illustration — two toylike robot bodies throwing punches at each other, with caricatures for heads.

Stay with me: point coming soon.

We were discussing the story when an editor, a man I deeply respect and tend to agree with on most issues, said, “I have a problem with the cover. She looks so young! It’s like we’re showing favoritism.”

It was at this point, dear reader, that the whistle was deployed. “Would you say that about a man?” I asked — at which point a chorus of rabble-rabbles erupted, ultimately resulting in my never getting around to making my point. (I should add: I enjoy a hearty rabble-rabble session as much as the next editor. In fact, I brought it up precisely because I love a good rabble-rabble. You know, and because I did have a point.) The caricatures made both candidates look cuter, more cartoonlike, and yes, younger, than their real selves (such is the destiny of a caricature), but what bothered me was the implication that to make a woman look younger is to give her an advantage. Not an actress or model, mind you: a politician. (Nor, I suppose it’s worth saying, a woman in a political battle against another woman. Her challenger is a man.) That, for women, what trumps everything is appearance. That age can only be a disadvantage; that to look old is the worst handicap of all. And that, if one wants to help an older woman out, give her the proverbial leg up, the kindest thing one can do is to deploy Photoshop’s airbrush tool.

Now, I don’t think this editor was actually saying any of those things, but I do think that within his off-the-cuff remark was crystallized the message women are getting, at all times and from every conceivable direction. There is an entire industry devoted to the “fight” against aging. (As though there’s a chance of winning that battle. And when you consider the alternative–um, death–do you really want to?) And that industry is a big one. And it is aimed at women. (For aging men, marketers offer Viagra, and pretty much leave it at that.) And it is insidious. Because, for all the newfound opportunity and the plethora of options women now have open to us when it comes to answering the rather significant question of “What Do You Want To Do With Your Life?” (a bounty which, as we’ve written, is generationally new, leaving us without much in the way of roadmaps or role models), we are left to figure it all out against what amounts to a soundtrack of a ticking clock. (Ask any game show or action movie producer how to create suspense, and the tick-tock is it. In real life, instead of suspense, we get stress. Which, you know, leads to premature aging. But I digress. Again.) As I’ve written before, I believe it all comes together in a most counterintuitive way: our fear of aging is almost worse the younger we are. After all, when we’re told that our value does nothing but go down as our age creeps up, every day that passes is a marker on a road to invisibility. Irrelevance. Tick tock.

Is it any wonder preventative Botox is a thing?

A couple of weeks ago, I was hanging out with a friend of mine, who was talking about how she’s taken to pointing out men who are aging badly–”dumpy looking dudes,” I believe were the words she used–to her husband, because it irked her how much pressure women are under to look good and “age well,” and she wanted him to share in the misery. While I wouldn’t say that’s the best strategy I could conceive of, it’s certainly… a strategy. But I’m not sure a redistribution of the pressure to Anti-Age is the best we can do. What is the best we can do? I’m not sure. None of us wants to look old; and I have no doubt we all appreciate a photo–or drawing–of ourselves that makes us look younger than our years. But it’s worth thinking about why. And surely blowing the whistle every once in a while can’t hurt.

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Is it the end, or just beginning?

Ye olde End of Men is in the news again; this time, author Stephanie Coontz is weighing in on how the headlines proclaiming The End of Men might be a tad premature. It’s territory we’ve covered before, to be sure, but there’s a new turf worth tilling. Namely, when she writes:

One thing standing in the way of further progress for many men is the same obstacle that held women back for so long: overinvestment in their gender identity instead of their individual personhood.

Sorry to interrupt, but: DING DING DING!

Men are now experiencing a set of limits–externally enforced as well as self-imposed–strikingly similar to the ones Betty Friedan set out to combat in 1963, when she identified a ‘feminine mystique’ that constrained women’s self-image and options.

Clearly, it’s no longer 1963, but Coontz hits on something there that I think is still profoundly in evidence, particularly among the women we call “Undecided.” Yes, we have options the women who clandestinely passed The Feminine Mystique around may have only dreamed about, but that’s but half the story. We write often about how, somewhere along the timeline of women’s liberation, the message that we can have it all morphed into an oppressive belief that we should be able to do it all, and, when I read those above words of Coontz’s, I thought: Yes, yes, and yes.

Because I think, to borrow her words, a certain investment in our gender identity is what keeps us so dearly invested in doing it all. When you read articles about how to take the pressure off, among the tips will invariably be something along the lines of Ditch the stuff you don’t care that much about. Which is fine advice. (Um, we’ve probably offered it ourselves.) But it’s hard advice to follow. Perhaps you don’t give two craps about baking, yet you feel a bad mother if you send your little one to the bake sale with storebought (and Crisco-frosted) cupcakes. Maybe you don’t even want kids, but feel pressure tied to the belief that “real” women are maternal (and bake their own cupcakes). Perhaps you don’t care about clothing or makeup, but you feel you must look a certain way to be accepted as a woman. Maybe you’d rather take a stick to the eye than spend a perfectly good Saturday dusting, but you have friends coming over and you just know they’ll think a little bit less of you if they see how you really live.

Interestingly, I think that the more successful we are in the not-traditionally-female aspects of our lives (read: our careers), the more intensely we feel we must make sure we measure up on the traditional Lady-o-meter. Just last week, there were a couple of headlines about very successful women–Katie Couric and Stacy London–coming out about their struggles with eating disorders; in fact, among women, eating disorders have long been associated with an overachieving personality type. And have you ever noticed how rare it is to see a successful woman who is anything less than impeccably groomed? (Not least because when said grooming–or style; see: Hillary’s pantsuits–falls just a little bit short, the backlash is lethal.) Back in the 80s, when I was in grade school, my mom was in grad school “busting my ass,” she says. And yet, “I cooked dinner every night, drove the car pool AND was your room mother.” It’s as though we’re willing to push the envelope… but not too far. So we overcompensate, wearing heels that are lethal, killing ourselves to keep a house that’ll pass the white-glove test, and whipping up organic and healthy–yet impressively epicurean–delights for dinner. On a Tuesday.

It’s too tricky to offer a simple solution–and it’s made trickier thanks to the judgment women face from other women and society at large, of course–but surely there’s some wisdom in flipping Coontz’s equation and consciously putting more investment in our “individual personhood” as opposed to our “gender identity.” In worrying less about what it means to be a woman, and more about what it means to be our self. Or maybe just thinking a little bit about why you’re killing yourself over that dinner… and, perhaps, instituting a new tradition, called Take-Out Tuesday.

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I received a terrifying letter in the mail the other day: an invitation to a grade school reunion.  As in eighth grade.

Ew, right? The very thought sent chills up my spine.  Did I really want to revisit my adolescent self? Does anyone?

Now, I am old enough to know that every one of us, from the beauty queens to the brainiacs, goes through an awkward stage – unloved, uncool, unsure of ourselves. We’ve gone here before:

Whether we were beauty or brains, prom queen or wallflower, picked first or last for volleyball or had our ass routinely kicked by Algebra II, we were filled with self doubt. Self-definition came in the form of how someone treated us at lunch or whether the phone rang that night. Deep inside, or maybe not even so deep, we were all just a little bit miserable because of, or in spite of, how we thought others perceived us.

For me, the dork stage came on like a bull at the start of seventh grade, peaked precipitously in eighth and ninth grade, then gradually subsided by the time I started my junior year of high school when, coincidentally, I had gotten both contact lenses and my driver’s license.  Up until then, however, I was the shy, nerdy girl with thick glasses, bad hair and – insult to injury — hay fever.

I was never without a Kleenex.

Yep, I was truly tragic for a few years there, yet not tragic enough to be oblivious to the fact. So clearly, you can imagine my reluctance to willingly go back to the dark days in the form of cocktails and lunch at a chichi restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf.  Would people I hadn’t seen since I turned 14 still remember me as the dorky kid?  Worse, would I suddenly start thinking of myself that way once again?

And then —  insert light bulb here — because I am a grown up and presumably have learned a thing or two about life along the way, I realized that maybe that sorry image of myself wasn’t about mean girls or pecking orders. It was really about me.  A prison of my own making.

Sometimes what keeps us from growing into ourselves, what holds us back in any number of ways and often keeps us undecided when it comes to figuring out what to do with our lives — and being happy with that decision once we’ve made it — is the fear of being judged.  But what it takes a while to realize is this:  often the almighty judge who had us quaking in our grade school plaid is made of straw.  The mythical mean girls we feared then – and those we fear now — may exist only in our own heads. And when it comes to all this leftover adolescent angst, women seem to have much thinner skins than men.

Is it the lingering legacy of adolescence? We’re held back by the fear that we are going to be judged when in fact, the only judge is the girl in the mirror.  Sure, we know this.  And yet: still we second-guess our decisions.  We search for approval.  We let ourselves be tyrannized by the shoulds. We worry about whether we will measure up.  Whether we fit in. We see ourselves as (we assume) others see us.

We end up, in fact, imprisoned by our own assumptions of what other folks will think – based on who we think those people actually are.  The funny thing is, what we’re doing is judging them.  It’s often unfair — and insulting, to boot. And we do it all the time.

Anyway, if all of the above sounds like a pep talk to get me to shell out the fifty-five bucks for that reunion, you’re right.  I’m still undecided as to whether I’m going to go. On the plus side, I am considerably better looking than I was at 14, I have a pretty cool job, and have finally mastered the art of conversation.  I also spend a good amount of money to have good hair.

But then again: I still have hay fever.  Don’t judge.

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Isn’t it funny, at a time that’s been described as The End of Men And The Rise of Women, during an election season that’s been touted as hinging on the “female vote,” during an era in which young adult humans of the female persuasion have never known a world in which Gloria Steinem wasn’t an icon, how little things have changed?

I write (today) not about politics, though. Or at least not ostensibly. Today what has me fired up are a couple of “most-emailed” headlines that make me want to stage an Extraordinary Act/Everyday Rebellion in the form of hurling a (hardcover) copy of The Beauty Myth through the television.

Exhibit A: Journalist Katie Couric debuts her new eponymous daytime talk show with a big “get.” With an election right around the corner, who’d she score? Jessica Simpson, there for the much-anticipated debut of her post-baby body.

Exhibit B: Original Bachelorette Trista Sutter, taking to Good Morning America to discuss the plastic surgery procedures she treated herself to as a pre-40th birthday gift (and which she enlisted Entertainment Tonight to document). Procedures which left her with an allergic reaction, the treatment of which left her suffering from a severe depression. But, hey, she says, it was totally “worth it.”

Something is seriously wrong with this picture. And you know, I didn’t bring up The Beauty Myth for my health or because it earns me angry feminist points: the entire premise of the (excellent) book is that, as women have gained more power and independence, the pressure to adhere to certain standards of beauty has intensified. Sound familiar? You bet your Spanx it does. But here’s the thing: The Beauty Myth was published in 1991. That’s over twenty years ago. Before Bump Alerts and mommy jobs (aka the boob job/tummy tuck combo) and, yes, Spanx. And I’d argue that not only has that dynamic not changed, it’s continued to intensify.

Women are gaining ever more power and independence, and the pressure to look perfect (let alone to “be perfect“) is more intense than ever. And hey, when we’re all preoccupied with achieving the perfect beach body (or getting our body back) or waxing ourselves hairless or learning how to create this season’s smoky eye, who has the energy to deal with the stuff that matters? Who has the time to remember there is stuff that matters?

And I think there are parallels to be made to what’s happening in politics. (I know, I said I’d leave politics out of it for today. Sorry, I lied. So sue me.) With the legislative changes those on the far right are proposing (and making), namely: making it more difficult for a woman to get birth control by making it okay for a pharmacist to refuse to give her her prescription on the grounds of the pharmacist’s religious beliefs, or chipping away at abortion rights–by enforcing waiting periods and invasive ultrasounds–and continuing to base campaigns on the promise that they’ll overturn Roe V. Wade, when you hear women like Sandra Fluke say that we’re being forced to fight battles we won a long time ago, well, you have to agree that she’s on to something.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d say it was all a part of some grand and evil conspiracy. Some plot by those fearing they’re losing their grip on power, clinging by their fingernails to a status quo that’s slipping away, fighting to keep that power structure in place with everything that they have.

But I do know better. And that’s not the whole story (though it’s certainly several lengthy chapters of it). The other part, the darker part, is this: when it comes to the ever-loving Beauty Myth, we buy into it. Boogeymen like the patriarchy and marketers and Republicans and Archie Bunker nostalgics all have a role to play, of course — and play it they will. But when we buy in, expecting perfection not just of our reality-TV-starring sisters but of ourselves as well, we all lose.

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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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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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I’m off to Mexico tomorrow, and, up until a couple of hours ago, I possessed exactly zero pairs of non-running shorts. Ergo, I sucked it up and made a speed shopping trip between a quick lunch and a (not so quick) meeting so that I might procure a pair or two. And in the dressing room, my internal dialogue was not along the lines of These Are Cute or These Are Heinous, but instead, something more like this: How does my butt look? My thighs? Does the color make my skin look even paler than it already is? Does the cut make me look shorter than I already am? (I suppose it’s no wonder that up until today I owned no shorts. I have better things to do than entertain this variety of nonsense. Like sterilizing mason jars for bulk snacks. Or hunting for unicorns.)

Turns out, though, there’s a reason I do this, and you likely do it, too. And it’s not that we’re obsessed with our looks or have poor body images or are bereft of self esteem. Nope. According to a new study, people–men or women–are basically programmed to view women as a constellation of parts. Arms. Abs. Butt. Lips. Eyes. Toes. Whole person? Not so much. Via Eurkalert, check it out:

When casting our eyes upon an object, our brains either perceive it in its entirety or as a collection of its parts. Consider, for instance, photo mosaics consisting of hundreds of tiny pictures that when arranged a certain way form a larger overall image: In fact, it takes two separate mental functions to see the mosaic from both perspectives.
A new study suggests that these two distinct cognitive processes also are in play with our basic physical perceptions of men and women–and, importantly, provides clues as to why women are often the targets of sexual objectification.
The research, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, found in a series of experiments that participants processed images of men and women in very different ways. When presented with images of men, perceivers tended to rely more on “global” cognitive processing, the mental method in which a person is perceived as a whole. Meanwhile, images of women were more often the subject of “local” cognitive processing, or the objectifying perception of something as an assemblage of its various parts.

Now, said study could only show that this is the case, not why this is the case. I, however, am not above speculating: Blame the media, society, your parents or teachers or coaches or friends or Barbie or Vogue, whomever you like. There is no shortage of scapegoats, and they’ve all likely earned at least a little bit of that blame. Even still: argh.

One upside: the study found that, when circumstances were altered to encourage the participants to take a more “global” approach to evaluating the subjects, they were more likely to see the women as whole people. We’ll stay tuned for the study that figures out how to alter the circumstances of life-in-general accordingly.

In the meantime, though, I kind of have to wonder: what if this sort of reductionist objectification isn’t just limited to our physical selves? I mean, it’s bad enough that we’re basically conditioned to view women as Ms. Potatoheads, legs and arms and teeth and butts and breasts and thighs. But what about the rest of it, the other ways we pick ourselves apart? In the same way we judge ourselves (and others) according to a running checklist of physical attributes (I’m tall and I have good hair and pretty toes but no boobs but good abs but my arms could be more toned and my teeth need whitening…), do we dissect ourselves on the other stuff too?  (Well, I’m not that organized but I’m very successful but I should be more physically active and my spiritual life basically consists of praying for good parking spaces but I have good friends but my romantic life’s in the toilet but I am super good with money…)

Am I onto something? Methinks yes. That stuff’s tougher to brush off, sure, but, think for a minute, about that Ms. Potatohead study. It makes you mad, right? It’s clearly wrong, isn’t it? A woman is clearly more than a bucket of parts, isn’t she?

So what if cataloguing the other stuff is just as wrong?

It feels helpful, in a way, to keep score–like we could plug in all the data and then some magical algorithm will spit out a number. To tell us what, though? You are doing ThisWell at life, I guess. But that would be nonsense, because things can look great from the outside and be terrible inside. And things can look not particularly impressive on the outside but be pretty incredible from the inside. A random sampling of body parts gives you no real indication of the whole, but it’s kind of impossible to describe in what way, precisely, that is so. Why the parts, taken separately, are so inadequate. So I just wonder:  What if the dissecting we do of ourselves, the inventories we take of our lives are just as false, just as misleading? What if our value as a person has nothing to do with the score on the checklist? And what if we are, truly, greater than the sum of our parts?

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Between “Are You Mom Enough?” (aka the extremely controversial Time Magazine breastfeeding cover) and Elisabeth Badinter’s extremely controversial book The Conflict, which cast a critical eye on the current trend (among some sets) toward attachment parenting, and the Daily Mail’s latest offense, about the “ambitious career women” who don’t want kids and “enforce childlessness” upon their partners, sometimes you have to wonder whose finger is on the trigger when it comes to the war on women.

While the media and the talking heads sling headlines and talking points, we’re all just left to slug it out. Or, more likely, to reserve the slugs and instead talk behind each other’s backs, feel guilty, worry that we’re doing whatever it is we’re doing wrong. That what we’re doing is wrong.

Which is bad enough. But what kills me is this: When was the last time you saw a magazine cover asking “Are You Dad Enough?” or a piece worrying for the women married to “career-driven” men who deprive them of parenthood? (Then again, men rarely “enforce childlessness” because they generally don’t have to choose between career and parenthood… because mom–whether she’s career-oriented or not–will be there to do the lion’s share. Not to mention the gestating, the birthing, and the breastfeeding. As a friend once observed, for men, parenthood is an addition to everything else in their lives; for women, it’s a choice. The trade-offs are more stark.) Would a man’s choice to embrace his traditional breadwinning role with gusto be marked as an end to progress, or to opt out of parenthood as a harbinger of the downfall of society as we know it?

Men’s roles haven’t changed much. Yes, the dads of today are likely more involved in their children’s lives than their own dads were in theirs. Yes, they probably do more of the chores than their dads did, but these are incremental moves we’re talking about. And precious few worry that a dad picking up the dry cleaning or making dinner somehow constitutes an attack on “family values”—or that a man who doesn’t want to have kids is somehow defective or unnatural. A man’s minor deviations beyond the confines of his traditional gender role are rarely seen as cause for alarm.

Women are the ones who have changed – and who have fought, every step of the way, for those changes… changes that have, in turn (and slowly) affected the incremental changes in men and (slower still) in the structures of society. Perhaps it’s because our rights remain under attack, because our position still feels tenuous, because we still have such a ways to go, that our reflexive response to trend stories about opting out or real-life trends toward attachment parenting or aprons as fashion statement is that it will undermine feminism. We’re still on shaky ground.

And because it’s shaky, we cling to our positions ferociously. With our newfound freedom to do things any which way, it’s harder to feel that what we’re doing is right. Or even just good enough. And because women today have been raised on the message that we can do anything, we do whatever it is we do with a certain amount of ferocity. The same ambition some might turn on in the boardroom, some will focus onto their children.

And because it’s shaky, there will be those who will insist that the old way was the right way.

The thing is, there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. The parameters of women’s lives have changed. We have our reproductive rights—and will fight for them no matter what right-winged extremist boogieman appears claiming God and the Founding Fathers wanted women beholden to our uteri. We have access and opportunity and can do all kinds of things with our lives. We can parent—or not parent—as we see fit. And that is a good thing.

The “enough” I worry about is this: when will there be enough change–enough change to the structures, attitudes, finger-pointing, and self-doubt–that “choices,” in all their forms, will be available, realistic, safe, and workable for all women?

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