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Archive for the ‘being judged’ Category

I don’t know about you, but I am unbearably tired of phrases like “aging gracefully.”  Or worse yet:  “Embracing your age.”  Define please, could you? And while you’re at it, please tell me why such phrases are often accompanied by a photo of a woman with white hair.

It seems the last bastion of socially acceptable stereotyping is Age with a capital “A”.  Especially when it comes to women. You’ll have to excuse my attitude, but today I am wearing some serious cranky pants.

I confess.  I am a baby boomer.  Where once we boomers were stereotyped in terms of sex, drugs and rock and roll, today it’s old age. And what riles me up is this:  Rather than being defined by our birthdays, why the hell can’t we just be? Whether I look my age, or younger or older, is immaterial to me.  What matters is the way others treat me, and it’s been my experience that older women begin to lose credibility when they hit middle age — an ugly term if ever their were one.

It’s not our age per se that does us in; it’s the expectation of what a woman of a certain age is and is not, can and cannot do, should and should not look like, that gets us.  Age itself may not matter.  But the way we are pigeonholed certainly does.

The other day, a professor friend told me about a comment she heard in class from one young women who declared that a woman’s life is over at menopause, and that starts at 50.  Do we ever speak of men that way. Ugh, right?

For years,  I have set myself up as guinea pig for my journalism students to practice interview techniques. Back when, I would tell them my age — if they asked — and the response was often a gasp.  At first, I thought it was flattering.  But then I realized.  It was all about the stereotypes. I didn’t conform to their image of what a woman my age was supposed to be like. What, I asked them: should I be sporting polyester and humming show tunes?

What I really wonder is why this is predominantly a women’s issue.  Men grow older, more distinguished.  They run for political office.  But women? With a few exceptions, we exhaust our shelf life.  We’re assumed to be no longer vital.  Relevant.  We become redundant.  Invisible.  Not supposed to care what we see in the mirror.  At least that’s what the media, and society itself, tells us.

Today in class, to test a point, I put my students on the spot:  Let’s take our president, I said. He’ll be 51 this summer.  Do you think of him as middle-aged — or four years away from his AARP card?  Most of them laughed.  Now, I said.  Take a woman that age, maybe your aunt or someone else.  How do you picture her?

For the one or two kids who still didn’t get it, I pushed a little bit further:  Name some women actors Brad Pitt’s age — or older — who still get starring roles.  (Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren don’t count.  They are the exceptions who prove the rule.  And Julia Roberts?  America’s former sweetheart is now playing the evil queen in Snow White.)  Silence.

This week I caught a piece in Salon by a thirty-something writer I happen to like.  The essay was about taking a water aerobics class at her local YMCA with a bunch of “old women”. She thought they’d love her, embrace her, make her feel young.  Instead, they aimed a bunch of jokes in her direction, laughing like the mean girls in junior high.  Cute story, but what got  me was the description of the women:  

My poolies, the ones at my gym, had necks that had long since defied definition. Massive freckled cleavage became neck became chin became face and so on. They wore bathing caps with plastic flowers and swim suits with pointy foam bra cups. Underneath, their hair was teased and thinning in shades of copper and yellow.

And then, the way she categorized them:  old ladies and elderly women.  But never mind. What had gotten the writer’s goat, she realized, was the fact that these feisty chicks didn’t “fall into the role I assigned them, because they were busy being their own people.” Good point, but what I wonder is whether she realized how she had loaded her piece with stereotypes. Which is, after all, the most insidious thing about the damage they do.

But back to this aging business: The topic has fast become a staple of women’s media – by women, for women, about women.  Surely, for example, you’ve noticed an upwelling of articles and broadcast pieces – many of them just a little smug  — about going gray as a way to embrace one’s age.   Now, don’t get me wrong – if you love your gray hair, more power to you.  I’m certainly not going to judge you for refusing to color your hair.  But please, by the same token, don’t judge me for choosing to color mine.

I started coloring my hair when I was in my mid-thirties, when a much older cousin took me aside and said, “Oh, sweetie.  You’re way too young to have so much gray in your bangs.”  I’ve been coloring since.  It’s not to pass for  young.  Or keep my job.  Or, for the love of God, please the patriarchy.  Nope.  I color my fair for the same reason my twenty and thirty something sisters do:  vanity.   I like the way I look, especially with my copper lowlights.

But I digress.  I’ve noticed that a lot of what we read about aging is written by women who aren’t even close to the cut-off line and that the subtext is fear, which seems to be enabled by the messages themselves.  The irony is that the media tell us that younger women are supposed to fear getting older — while their older sisters should put away the women they thought were and just fade to, you know, gray.  It occurs to me: maybe one of the reasons certain milestone birthdays are so scary for younger women is the assumptions they make about the women who have already reached them.

And could that focus on the ticking clock be one reason why, as we found in the research for our book, women agonize over their life choices?

Many smart women have suggested that one way to ditch the stigma is for all of us to claim our age — to show that, no matter how many fingers we are, we are still smart, vital, productive, funny and, what the hell, stylish, too.  I for one would be happy to do it, so long as you promise you won’t frame me in terms of my birthdays.  You know, patronize or marginalize me.  So I’ll do it, pinky swear.

But only if you go first.

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More than likely, you are too.

Give it a try:  n-n-n-n-n-ooooooooooooo.

Can’t say it, can you?  Like me, you are probably over-extended, over-committed and over-booked. Which makes me wonder: Why is it that we can’t give ourselves permission to ever respectfully decline?  And, while we’re at it: why do men have an easier time with the n-word?  Are there, for example, any show tunes about a guy who can’t say no?  Right? Are they the more evolved of the species?  ( I’m sure we’ll find out in the comments section.)

This comes up because, as I write this, I am looking forward to a toxic tomorrow, when I have three major commitments that, had they been on three different days, I would be gladly anticipating.  And, to be sure, each is a case of my, a while ago, saying: Yes, absolutely!  But then, calendars rearranged.  Life intervened.  The calendar went haywire.  And here I am.  Wondering how I will make it through the day.  Or put all those miles on my car.  Could I have declined anywhere along the way?

Of course.  But I did not.  Which is why, as Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote– albeit in an entirely different context — I’m in a terrible fix.

This whole issue of saying no came up in class today, when one of my students, talking about the over-extension of today’s college students, talked about an invitation to participate in something (probably spectacular — she’s that kind of kid) where she had just said no. Can’t do it.  And the response from her friends was disbelief.

Part of this is the fact that as women we are raised to please.  It starts early.  When writing our book, we talked to a counselor at a prestigious all-girls high school, who told us that when she talks to many of the girls in her school the main topic of conversation is 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 told us, 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. 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.”

Not sure that need not to let people down ever quite goes away.  (Myself?  See above.)  We are loathe to say no.  (And, as we’ve noted before, damn quick to apologize.)  Is it a question of self-worth?  That we still see ourselves as not worthy? This gets compounded when we get into the real world of work by the fact that we’re so new to the game that, when we get invited to the table, we end up feeling grateful.  Take the case of a woman we met after a speech we gave at a conference not long ago.  She came up to us afterward and told us that the president of her company had called her during the middle of the previous day’s session and offered her a new position, with a new title and a bump in salary.  The call took her by surprise, she said yes, and the call ended.  Bang. But what she said to us a day later was this: shouldn’t she have negotiated her salary?  Wouldn’t a man have done that?

Shouldn’t she have made the big ask?  Probably, yes.

Maybe it’s we haven’t yet learned that it’s okay to be ourselves.  To be true to our very own wants and needs. To be authentic. To ditch what we call the iconic self. To live up to no one’s expectations but our own. And sometimes that means to, well, just say no.

But what the hell do I know.  Here I sit, eating my dinner (burned the crap out of the organic carrots, by the way), finishing this post.  I’d have another glass of wine but, you know, tomorrow is a big day.

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So, the Mommy Wars. They’re back. Again. Or still.

A superquick recap: As you’ve undoubtedly heard by now, last week Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen said on CNN that Republican Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s wife Ann, a stay at home mom, had “never worked a day in her life.” Naturally the Romney campaign latched on to that one with the sort of ferocity that would make a pitbull (lipstick-wearing or not) proud, and the media has been all over it since.

While “Can’t we all just get along?” is my immediate, reflexive thought in the face of such firestorms, I realize that it’s just not that simple–and that, as Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams recently wrote, The Mommy Wars are real. In her smart and honest piece, Williams writes of her experience having a foot in both worlds–she’s a mom and a freelance writer who works from home. Here’s a taste:

We as women spend our whole lives being judged, and never more so than for our roles as mothers. We suffer for it, and frankly, we dish it out in spades. We park ourselves in separate camps, casting suspicious glances across the schoolyard. And it sucks because the judgment is there and its real and it stems so often from our own deepest fears and insecurities. We pay lip service to each other’s “choices”–and talk smack behind each other’s backs.

Yep, we’ve got each other’s backs theoretically, but when it comes down to it, Williams is pretty much right about what we’re doing behind them. But what is it really about? Why are we so defensive? So eager to judge each other for doing things differently? I’d argue its because, sometimes, we worry that we’re doing it wrong — and that the easiest, most comfortable defense in the face of that kind of worry is often a good offense.

And it’s not just stay at home moms versus working moms. It’s working moms versus their non-mom, on-the-job counterparts. It’s moms versus women who don’t have kids. It’s singletons versus coupleds. It’s pro-Botox and anti. It’s Tiger Mom versus Bringing Up Bebe. It’s gluten-free/organic/vegan versus chicken fingers and tater tots.

The other night I Tivo’d a show on OWN: it featured Gloria Steinem in conversation with Oprah, and then the two of them speaking at a small gathering of Barnard college students. At one point, Oprah asked Steinem about being attacked by other women, and then cut to a clip of Steinem on Larry King’s show. King thanked Steinem for being with him, she smiled hugely, and King went to a call. A woman’s voice came through, and she said, “I’m so glad I get to talk to you, Ms. Steinem” …and then went in for the kill. “Why are you trying to destroy families?” she asked in a voice so hostile it made me shiver. “Are you even married? Do you even have kids?” she demanded accusingly.

So, here’s the question: why are we so quick to perceive someone else’s doing things differently–or simply fighting to get access to those different things to do–as an attack on what we’re doing, a statement on our choices? As though there can be no other explanation for why we’ve taken the roads we’ve taken than that the road we didn’t take is wrong.

If we go out for ice cream, and you get chocolate, and I get vanilla (okay, I never get vanilla–I will always get pralines’n’cream), can’t the reason we’ve ordered differently just be attributed to the fact that we have different taste, like different things? Must I interpret your taste for chocolate as some sort of implicit judgment of mine for caramel? An attack on pralines? Surely, that would be chock-fulla-nuts.

What would I get out of criticizing you for your choice?

Perhaps if I was a little unsure that I’d ordered correctly, or perhaps if your choice was looking kinda good, enumerating all the ways chocolate is bad and pralines are good might help to stave off the self-doubt.

When it comes down to the Mommy Wars and all of the other crazy Us-vs.-Themmery we women put each other through, isn’t this kind of what we’re up to? After all, what, exactly, does my choice have to do with yours? Or yours, mine?

Well, there’s something: your choice has to do with mine in the sense that you’re showing me what the road not traveled looks like. If there’s only one way to do something, you’re spared the worry that you’re doing it wrong. There is no right or wrong, better or worse, there is only the way. But, the more options there are, well, the more options there are. And none of them is gonna be perfect, because nothing is. And when we come upon the bumps in our road, we wonder about the other road–and we worry that it’s better. And then, in our lesser moments, we seethe. We judge and we criticize in an attempt to stave off our doubts. If we can make the case that we are right–or, perhaps more to the point, that the other is wrong–we can seize on that little boost of self-assuredness to carry us through for a while.

So I guess what I’ve come up with is this: the moments when we feel like we need to make the case that that other road is wrong are probably the moments when we need to look at ourselves. Honestly. Perhaps we’re frustrated, or overwhelmed, or insecure or unhappy, or–and my money’s on this one–just having one of those days.

And women still have a lot of those days: that we have these choices we’re so quick to do battle over is new. We face structural inequities, lesser pay, the bulk of the burden of the second shift — and all of that second guessing. While we do indeed have access to a ton of paths that were blocked to us just a generation ago, we haven’t yet had the chance to make them smooth and pretty. They’re unpaved and overgrown and difficult to find. Of course we will have moments of self-doubt and envy and insecurity and frustration. But sniping at and about each other does no good for no one.

Last night before I went to bed, I was flipping the channels (it was a big weekend; I allowed myself some serious couch potato time once I got home–don’t judge!) and stopped for a quick second on CNN, because the ticker below that said “Mommy Wars” grabbed my attention. Four commentators went back and forth and around and around about the Mommy Wars: they were all men.

We are all doing the very best we can, in a world that it’s up to us to change, to make room for us. Every last one of us, no matter what path we choose to take. We’re all travelers–and we should do what good travelers do. Greet each other with a smile and an open mind. Share our stories. And, then before heading our separate ways, we should wish each other happy trails.

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When 30 year-old Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke tried to testify in favor of health insurance-covered contraception at a Congressional hearing (and, after being blocked by Rep. Darrell Issa R-CA, then had to issue her extremely articulate testimony via YouTube), Rush Limbaugh had this to say in return:

[She] goes before a Congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex, what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex. What does that make us? We’re the pimps. The johns.

Maureen Dowd – herself a past target of Limbaugh’s name-calling — took him down in the New York Times Sunday Review, point by point, starting with the fact that he implies that birth control is a “welfare entitlement,” when, of course, it’s not: employers and insurance companies would cover contraception, not tax dollars. And

Mother Jones pointed out that Rush, a Viagra fan, might be confusing the little blue pill and birth control, since “when and how much sex you have is unrelated to the amount of birth control you need.”

But let’s assume he wasn’t confusing the two little pills. Let’s assume he was well aware that his “welfare entitlement” remark was factually inaccurate. Let’s assume he knew exactly how wrong he was. No, wait! Let’s assume he really believed he was right – and still, rather than laying out a rational argument — he instead took the desperate-for-attention, cowardly bully’s way out. Slut! Neener neener.

Pretty much every single time we write about feminism on the HuffingtonPost, at least one or two commenters will appear, calling us ugly. Fat. Man-hating. Feminazis. Yet rarely do these haters bother to address the issue at hand, whatever we happened to be writing about on that particular day. That’s because it’s not about the issues. Tossing Pee-Wee Herman-caliber barbs is easy. Ridiculous as they may be, taking them is a little harder. I mean, I don’t think I’m ugly (calling all haters, here’s your chance to disagree!), but that doesn’t really matter. It still stings. And Limbaugh and Internet commenters and schoolyard bullies and others like them count on that: if a woman knows that standing up for, say insurance-covered birth control will have her publicly labeled a slut, she’s probably that much more likely to keep mum (and to continue shelling out for it, out of her own pocket).

It all reminds me of something I wrote about a while back, about a conversation I’d come across between journalists Joan Walsh and Gail Collins, ahead of the release of Collins’ book “When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women From 1960 to the Present.”

I was struck by some of what Collins said in the final clip, when Walsh asked her about Billy Jean King, who Collins frames in the book as a real-life feminist hero. Talking about the much-hyped “Battle of the Sexes,” in which King wiped the court with a not-at-the-top-of-his-game Bobby Riggs (who, even when he was at the top of his game, wasn’t all that threatening), Collins said the following:

The importance of it to me was that women who fought for women’s rights in the 60s and 70s did not get hosed down, or attacked by snarling dogs, or thrown in jail; they got laughed at. And humiliation and embarrassment was the great huge club that people used to keep women in line.

How much has really changed?

Some of Rush’s advertisers have dropped off, and President Obama himself gave Fluke a call, telling her that her parents should be proud. The Senate (barely) voted down a bill that would allow insurers and employers to deny contraception coverage based on any “religious or moral” objection. Rush “apologized.” So, that’s progress.

There are those who say Limbaugh’s whole schtick is to be outrageous. It’s about ratings, they argue. So I guess real progress will happen when grown-ups no longer choose to listen to grown men behaving like children, or defend grown men behaving like children on the grounds that it’s “entertaining.”

It’s not entertaining. It’s pathetic. And to those who may disagree, I’d love to hear it. And to those who may disagree but will instead insult me, I say: I know you are, but what am I?

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I ran into a tired old phrase over there on Forbes.com the other day:  “Opting out.”

Surely you’ve heard it.  It refers to women who take a career-track detour.  It’s a concept that won’t go away, implying that our choices are to go big or go home. That may be an actual choice for a a small number of women, but for most of us, it’s a lot of smoke and mirrors.  Illusion rather than reality.  And at that, a dangerous distraction.

Back at Forbes, writer Meghan Casserly bemoans the fact that “opting out” has become a catch phrase among women leaders who lament that we will never make it into the corporate suites if women continue to step off the ladder.  And those words, they continue to confuse her:

… each time I hear the phrase, I have a very physical reaction. I stiffen up, I shut down. I often question her judgment entirely. Doesn’t the very phrase “opting out” imply making a choice? And more than making a choice, doesn’t opting imply making the preferred decision? How, then, can these bright so-called experts be criticizing women who make the decision to do what’s best for them, what’s best for their children? By focusing on the greater good of woman-kind, are we losing sight of the individual?

Interesting question, but not necessarily the one I would ask. I’ve opted in, out and all things in between and what I can tell you is this:  It’s way more complicated than those two little words tend to imply.  When my kids were small, I worked from home — only because I was lucky enough to have a career and family finances that allowed for it.  When they grew up, I switched out magazine writing for teaching and what I realized was this: I never ever could have juggled the time crunch of being a full-time professor with raising a family without flipping out. To wit: there’s a reason male professors are more likely to have children than female professors, and even when the latter do have a family, it’s usually one child only.

This opt-out business began back in 2003 when Lisa Belkin wrote a piece for the New York Times Magazine on a group of fast-track women who’d “opted out” of their high-flying careers once they had children. Ever since, a debate has raged as to whether or not the story reflected an actual trend, backed up by numbers, or was based on anecdotal information from a select group of women, but the phrase itself has earned a permanent place in the lexicon.  The controversy flared back up, as we wrote in 2009, when the Washington Post reported on new census figures that seemed, at first glance, to debunk this so-called “mommy myth”:

A first census snapshot of married women who stay home to raise their children shows that the popular obsession with high-achieving professional mothers sidelining careers for family life is largely beside the point.

Instead, census statistics released Thursday show that stay-at-home mothers tend to be younger and less educated, with lower family incomes. They are more likely than other mothers to be Hispanic or foreign-born.

Census researchers said the new report is the first of its kind and was spurred by interest in the so-called “opt-out revolution” among well-educated women said to be leaving the workforce to care for children at home.

In other words, the census reports seemed to show that the vast majority of stay-at-home moms were not those who opted out – but more likely those who were never comfortably in. So case closed, right? But right after the report came out, several writers drilled down the numbers and found the snapshot to be a little more complex. WaPo blogger Brian Reid was one:

If you dig into the data, it does indeed show that, on average, stay-at-home moms are more likely to be young, foreign-born and less-educated than moms as a whole. But that’s hardly a stake in the heart of the idea that you’re seeing a lot of women with college degrees stepping out of the workforce. In fact, though college-educated moms are slightly less likely to be at-home moms, a whopping 1.8 million of the 5.6 million at-home moms have a college diploma. That’s hardly a “small population.”

Of course, the Census is interested in providing a snapshot of the current situation, not making a value judgment. I’ve taken the position that opting out of the workforce is not intrinsically bad: it’s only bad when parents are forced into it by a lack of other options. It’s clear that we’re still not living in a golden age of work flexibility: for too many moms and dads, there are only two choices:the 40+ hour week or the at-home option. I’d love to know where the numbers would go if there were ways to structure home and career with more precision.

Bingo.  For all but a very few of us, our so-called choices to opt in or opt out are largely a matter of circumstance.  One of them is a workplace that is often inhospitable to women and/or dual career families.  Another is a social culture that still gives women ownership of the second shift.  A third might be the reality check when we realize that when we bought into the  “have it all” mantra, we were sold a bill of goods.

Back to that Forbes piece, Casserly quotes Pamela Stone, the author of Opting Out? and professor of sociology at Hunter College:

“The majority of women I’ve spoken to who have decided to stay home to raise children certainly frame their decision in terms of choices,” [Stone] says, “But when they told me their stories, the truth was very, very different.” Most of them had tried unsuccessfully to find flexibility with their employers—and here Stone stresses that the highly-educated successful women she researches often have serious leverage at the office—but found that even so they were mommy-tracked or saw their careers derailed. “They describe the decision as a choice,” she says, “But in the end it was a highly conflicted choice and truly a last resort.”

Precisely. And in fact, that’s what a number of the women we interviewed for our book told us.  So here’s what I think: Instead of yammering about opting in or opting out and placing the weight of women’s progress on the backs of personal choices, wouldn’t our energy be better spent working for workplace and cultural changes that would benefit us all?

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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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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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As one more reminder why you see more suits than skirts in the corporate suites, there’s this:  women don’t exaggerate nearly enough.  According to a recent study out of Columbia University Business School, one reason why men are more likely to succeed in business is because they’re much better braggers.  Men are much more likely to puff up their accomplishments.  Women, not so much.

According to Columbia Professor Ernesto Reuben, one of the study’s authors, “men may have a much easier time ‘faking it’ due to natural overconfidence in their performance”:

Part of the persistent gender gap in leadership at firms can be attributed to discrimination. However, most investigations in this area focus on clear-cut instances of discrimination, in which a woman might not be selected for a position or promotion in a male-dominated firm where men either don’t like working with women, feel threatened by women, or believe that women are not as good in a given role or industry. But Reuben suggests that the underlying causes of such selection issues may go beyond simple conscious discrimination.

“We know that there are differences in the way men and women think of themselves and react to incentives,” Reuben says. “That led us to ask what other forces could be creating gender differences than bald out-and-out discrimination.”

What they found was that those other forces had to do with “honest” exaggeration.  In one experiment, MBA students were asked to complete some math problems, then a year later, were asked to recall how well they did.  Both the men and the women inflated their scores — but to a different degree.  Then men rated themselves about 30 percent higher.  The women, only about 15 percent.  Next, the researchers upped the ante by dividing participants into groups, and asking them to choose a leader to represent them in a math contest, based on how the participants thought they’d do.  In groups where the leader was given a cash incentive, both men and women exaggerated how well they thought they’d do.  But those who exaggerated the most, were usually rewarded for it:

When participants had an incentive to lie, they lied more, and the incidence of lying increased as the monetary award for being chosen as leader increased. But while women kept pace with men on how frequently they lied, women did not exaggerate their performance to the same degree, and it cost them: women were selected 1/3 less often than their abilities would otherwise indicate. In other words, while there is no gender differential when it comes to lying, there is a significant gender differential when it comes to “honest” overconfidence: the main difference in women not being selected as leaders appears to be attributable to men’s overconfidence in their abilities.

Something to think about, right?  To be sure, there are a number of reasons why women keep bumping up against the glass ceiling — from overt discrimination in the workplace to the so-called maternal wall.  As we point out in Undecided, studies show that a female employee who wears her mom-hood on her sleeve is likely to be perceived as a flight risk.  We also tend to lose the confidence game, sometimes because we fear we won’t fit in.

But the ways in which we’ve learned to communicate plays a part as well.  When it comes to salary, we are less likely to negotiate. We’re more likely to give credit to others than ourselves. We tend to downplay our achievements, even to the point of deflecting compliments.  We’ve learned early on that “nice” girls don’t brag.  Or speak up. And where do es that get us?  As we noted before,

It’s a classic double bind — cue Miranda Priestly once again: Women who are assertive score low on the likability scale.  We’re seen as arrogant, or worse yet, ambitious. But if we don’t speak up, we get paid less.  All of which is infuriating, [communication scholar Laura] Ellingson tells us. “They tell women not to ‘toot their own horns’ from infancy on, leading us to try hard NOT to stand out, and then they ask why we don’t advocate better for ourselves.”

But back to that Columbia study.  In a riff in a recent special section of the Sun Times, writer Vickie Milazzo, author of Wicked Success Is Inside Every Woman, says that women need “to act (and) think more like men.  Her advice?

“Don’t let anyone-including yourself-forget just how much you’re bringing to the table,” says Milazzo. “The men certainly won’t. Practice talking about your achievements. Be proud of your strengths and abilities and learn to compellingly express them to others. When you position yourself in an appealing way, you’ll unleash success.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.  Wait a minute…  Yes, dammit, I could!

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In the era of information overload, of Facebook, of “personal branding,” of Rachel Zoe–a woman famous for dressing other famous, ahem, grown women–how do we define ourselves? Have the little things come to mean too much? Have we sacrificed nuance in favor of a slick and quick elevator pitch, or swapped the legwork of figuring out who someone is deep down with the convenient shorthand: What do you do? Have we replaced being ourselves with being our brands?

I got to thinking about these questions after reading the cover story in Sunday’s New York Times Styles section: The Power Stylists of Hollywood. The piece is a well-timed tease–especially for me, an admitted and unrepentant stylephile–whetting the appetite for red carpet season, which kicked off Sunday night with the Golden Globes. The only thing was, rather than talking about trends, or even really about the stylists themselves, the piece is about the business of styling. And a bit of it gave me pause:

“Dressing for a major red carpet isn’t simply getting ready for a big party and looking pretty,” said George Kotsiopoulos, a stylist and a former editor at T: The New York Times Style Magazine who is now a host on “Fashion Police” on the E! network. In recent years, he said, “it’s been about selling yourself as a brand.”

As insiders see it, that investment is worthwhile: the right red-carpet turnout can help a performer change lanes. “If your client plays nefarious characters,” said the stylist Jeanne Yang, you might dress them, say, in tulle, to demonstrate “that she’s really a fresh ingénue.”

Others strive for sartorial consistency. Indeed, a case could be made that [Hailee] Steinfeld’s reliably chic but youthful red-carpet looks inspired the fashion executives at Miu Miu to cast her in its advertising campaigns. Mila Kunis’s transformation, at the hands of Ms. Flannery, from ill-kempt hipster to regal sexpot doubtless helped secure her latest role, as the new “face” of Dior. A fashion or fragrance contract can earn an actress in the tens of millions.

Such potent stylist-star alliances were spawned well over a decade ago, when celebrity Web sites and supermarket tabloids competed to serve up candid shots of stars exiting Starbucks or the gym in a state of sorry dishevelment. Hoping to shore up their images, some were quick to enlist a fashion consultant.

Stylists at the time catered to stars’ insecurities. “The stylist is an outgrowth of the mean-girls culture,” Ms. Press observed. “Their very existence says of an actress, ‘I don’t trust my own instincts, or I have no instincts, or I can’t bear to read all the mean things people are going to say if my dress doesn’t deliver.’ ”

Sure, for most of us, no matter what we wear, our outfits will likely not be netting us a gig as the new face of Dior anytime soon, but I think there’s something in here that’s pretty universal. The need to (pause for barf-in-my-mouth) brand ourselves.

Gross, right? And yet. We all do it: Whether putting together the outfit that will convey precisely the image we want to project on any given occasion (competent yet creative for the job interview; smart yet sexy for the date; pulled together without trying to hard for the errands…), or editing the reality of our lives in order to present a carefully curated–some might say contrived–image for our imagined audiences to admire on Facebook, we’re all in the business of personal branding. And, as Barry Schwartz tells us in Undecided, it’s little wonder:

Nowadays, everything counts as a marker of who you are in a way that wasn’t true when there were fewer options. So just to give you one example: When all you could buy were Lee’s or Levi’s, then your jeans didn’t tell the world anything about who you were, because there was a huge variation in people, but there were only two kinds of jeans, you know? When there are two thousand kinds of jeans, now all of a sudden, you are what you wear… What this means is that [with] every decision, the stakes have gone up. It’s not just about jeans that fit; it’s about jeans that convey a certain image to the world of what kind of person you are. And if you see it that way, it’s not so shocking that people put so much time and effort into what seems like trivial decisions. Because they’re not trivial anymore.

Actually, it reminds me of a story of my own:

Last year, I was in New York for a book reading–an anthology to which I’d contributed an essay. And off I went, sporting an Outfit-with-a-capital-O. After all, I like clothes. And I spend more than enough time at home, alone save for my trusty laptop, ensconced in clothes that can most kindly be described as scrubs. And if people were going to be looking at me, I wanted to look good, dammit (and, you know, be comfortable–except for my baby toes). I was staying with the (wildly intelligent–and beautiful) woman who’d edited the book, and, while we were walking to the train, she–dressed decidedly down–told me how she feels like she has to dress that way in order to be perceived as a Serious Writer. You know, the kind who’s so busy being a Serious Writer she doesn’t have time for silly fashion. She said she even has a pair of fake glasses. (Even a Serious Writer has to accessorize!) The irony, of course, being that she loves clothes as much as I do. She was laughing about it, but I have to say, it kind of made me take note of what each of the other contributors wore that night, and what my choice of duds communicated about me. Fabulous and fashionable? Or literary lightweight?

It all makes you wonder: is all this “personal branding” we’re doing serving yet another purpose? As with the actresses who employ professional stylists, is our brand–or, as we like to call it, our “iconic self“–a buffer in some way? The armor that protects us from those we fear will judge us? After all, in a world of endless options, of jeans for every political affiliation and body shape, sometimes, isn’t it easier to slap on a costume, play the role, be the brand, rather than hanging out our sloppy, indefinable self out there for all to see? Or doing the work of figuring out who she is in the first place?

But all of it surely comes at a cost. After all, what about the parts of ourselves that don’t fit neatly into our brand? Maybe a willingness to own our complex, dualistic, not always delightful but utterly human nature can make our choices a little bit clearer. If we let go of the need to fit ourselves into the brand, the image, the iconic self, maybe we’d have an easier time figuring out who we really are. Which in turn, might just make our decisions easier, not to mention more authentic. All of which might just make us happier. Think of it as You, 2.0.

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The other day, I heard from Hilary, a former student who forwarded a pdf of the Letters page in the January issue of Washingtonian Magazine.  The top letter, which called out the editors for choosing to feature a naked woman on the cover, was hers:

Your magazine is cutting edge, informative, and entertaining without being superficial.  However, when the December issue arrived, I was disgusted.  Washington is full of beautiful, powerful, educated, intelligent women of all shapes, sizes, and ages, and this cover does nothing but degrade us to a naked – and I’m sure Photoshopped – figure with some lines about cosmetic procedures floating around her head…

Hilary said she was heartened by the fact that the magazine not only published her letter, but acknowledged the extensive blowback the cover had gotten from other readers.  She also wrote that she was inspired by the documentary, Miss Representation, and since seeing it has been quick to “attack any and all forms of the continued objectification of women, especially powerful women, in our society.”

You go, Hilary.

The cover story in question focused on the dreaded F-word, as in: Don’t like what you see in the mirror?  Fix it!  You can guess the fix: pages of features on everything from going redhead or trying new workout routines to a guide to 12 plastic surgery procedures, complete with prices.  (You can expect to pay anywhere from $2000 to $8000 to lift your eyelids.) All of which got me to thinking.

A while back we wrote about those two fall TV shows, “The Playboy Club” and “Pan Am”, where we castigated the male producers for pitching women in bunny costumes and girdles as examples of  “empowered women.”  (Apparently, the viewing public agreed. We’re happy to report that the first show met its timely demise while the second is on well-deserved hiatus.)  But as I clicked through that issue of Washingtonian Magazine, an ugly little thought crept in: It’s not just men who are responsible for our objectification.  You have to wonder if we’re sometimes complicit ourselves: The December cover of   Washingtonian was shot by a women.  All those features to “help you feel your best in the New Year” were written by women, for women.

Are we sometimes responsible for our own misrepresentation?

I found more food for thought over there on salon, where Mary Elizabeth Williams, writing about the new Chelsea Handler TV show, wondered why we consider shows about girls behaving badly to be ground-breaking:

But what really sets [the Chelsea-Whitney NBC Happy Hour] it apart is the whiff of voyeuristic creepiness about building a prime-time block around willowy females who dress up sexy and get their drink on. Is this really the same network that figured out how to give us the complicated, hilarious – and very different – characters of Reagan Brinkley, Leslie Knope and Liz Lemon?

Worse, though, Happy Hour reinforces the stereotype of ladies as inherently less funny than dudes. Chelsea’s humor, after all, hinges upon her being like a guy — someone who sleeps around and gets “lady wood” — but has conveniently appealing blond hair and boobs.

Over on twitter, a trending topic is #thingsaslutmightsay.  Many of the tweets are from men. But not all. Yuck. Jezebel reports on a bathroom sign in a D.C. coffee shop that shows a creepy stickfigure gent peering over the stall at the stickfigure gal.  This is funny? Who knows who came up with that bright idea — but what I wonder is why the sign is still up? Oh, it’s Saxby’s Coffee at K Street and Vermont Ave.  Don’t go there.

And over at The Guardian, Dominic Rushe wonders why, in 2012, the Detroit car show is still using “female eye candy” to sell cars — when roughly half its customers are women?  [Note: the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas is likewise using "booth babes" to accessorize its products.]

Rushe asks a good question.  But I’ve got another.  What’s our own role in all this nonsense? Whether or not we’re directly responsible for any of the sexism that continues to objectify our gender, we do have one responsibility — and that’s to call when we see it.  Just like Hilary.

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