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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.

Gift Boxes and BallSanta, make it stop!

My inbox, which has exploded exponentially every day since Thanksgiving rolled over into the Season of  Shopping, has sent me on the fast track to crazy town.

Among the fifty-odd messages that popped up since I went to bed last night are emails from everything from Bloomingdales to the Stanford Wine Club to Toys “R” Us, each and every one of them with urgent subject lines, imploring me to get on the stick before it’s too late:

Final Hours:  30 percent Off!
Friends and Family!  Sale Ends Today!
1 day only: Free Shipping!
Shoes and Bags, Starting at $49.99
Up to 35% Off! Cybersale ends today!
Top Foodie gifts!
Last minute holiday deals!

Last minute?  Gulp. The silliest offer, who knows how they found me, was for a half-price gift certificate at the local batting cages.  Go figure.

So crazed was I the other day, in fact, that I misread an email from a local retailer that one of my kids happens to love offering a 24-hour-40-percent-off sale.  I rushed to the mall, only to find out that the sale was online only.

You would think that a smart person such as myself – and one who genuinely enjoys Christmas shopping – should be immune to all this insanity.  And yet, I succumb each year to a ridiculous sense of panic starting a few days before Thanksgiving is in the books:  All these options, all these sales!  Get it together before it’s too late.  Decide, decide, decide!

As in shopping, so in life?  As we’ve written before, choices are hard, and time pressure makes the decision-making process a hundred times worse.  Add in the constant barrage of information (thank you, interwebs) and we’re headed for a serious case of analysis paralysis.  In fact, what we learned in the research for our book is that the greater the number of options, the less likely we are to choose one, whether we’re Christmas shopping — or more importantly, trying to figure out what to do with our lives.

It’s not unlike choosing between the red sweater for Aunt Jean or the blue one — or no sweater at all.  Because, as we learned from Swarthmore psychologist Barry Schwartz, author of “The Paradox of Choice’, one of the insidious effect of having too many choices is that you naturally expect that one of them will be perfect.  And so you search and search until you find it.

Or you don’t.  Cue the holiday shoppers wandering through the mall with the thirty-yard stare

This analysis-paralysis business is especially strong for women when it comes to career decisions.  Consider the newness of it all.  Back in the day, college-educated women were routinely told they could be a teacher, a nurse or a secretary.  (Until, of course, they stayed home to raise the children).  Now, young women know from the earliest age that they can do or be anything – with or without kids.  That freedom is what we’ve fought for, but with it comes a mountain a stress.  There’s an added wrinkle, too, which is what I hear from so many of my female students:  Before they’re legal to order a cocktail, they feel pressure to decide on their life’s path: Choose the right major! Get an internship! Build a resume!

Before it’s too late.

But anyway, back to me.  As background, I rarely start Christmas shopping until I get Fall quarter grades turned in, sometime around the second week of December.  And you know what?  Santa always comes.  I know this, truly I do.  And yet: with stacks of final papers awaiting my red pen, I am making a list and checking it twice, in a total twit because, you know, I haven’t bought one thing.  And with all those emails, all those sales, all those choices blinking at me from my computer screen, I can’t help but thinking that the perfect gift, at the perfect price is out there waiting for me.  But I had better act now.

So here I sit, with a terminal case of the head spins.  That cute little pencil skirt?  You can never have too many.  Or, um, can you?   The Northface half-zip?  But wait, doesn’t he already have one?  So maybe the cashmere V-neck would be better after all.  Just not quite sure of the color.  Good price, though.  Sigh. At least for today.

But hold the phone: What about the batting cages?

Moving On…

Lest you thought feminism‘s battle was over, let me reassure you, we’ve only just begun. And, despite all the work we’ve left to do, many facets of feminism, facets that are, by all proper measure, actually settled by now continue instead to rerun, like so much sitcom syndication. Consider: How is it that, in the very same week I find myself reading another spot-on piece by Ann Marie Slaughter – this time in Foreign Policy magazine, expounding on the many reasons why we need more women involved in high-level foreign policy (and why we need to change policy around parenthood and attitudes about non-linear career paths if we want to see them there… and why the people most likely to make said changes happen to be women) — and a throwback piece of “feminism ruined everything” hysteria claiming that women reallyreallyreally want to get married but can’t find men to marry them because, thanks to feminism, “women aren’t women anymore.” (This by one Fox News’ Suzanne Venker, a woman with a career–who is also married with children. Just… seriously?) Oh, and a lengthy Washington Post piece dissecting, in full hand-wringing anxiety about What It All Means, the fact that women newscasters can now sport long hair and ditch the blazers.

The blogger in me can’t help but wonder: which one got the most clicks?

I jest, but also not. Because the thing is: Scare tactics can be compelling. You’ll never get married, you with your dirty career ambitions, you’re not woman enough! And an article about fashion (even newscaster fashion) might generate some interest, likely of the screwing-around-at-work-by-consuming-mental-junk-food variety. Whereas real, substantive discussion is a far harder sell. Which makes sense. But it leaves me wondering: given what’s “clicky” and what’s not, how many women are left with the false impression this junk “news” sells–that feminism is about making women unwomanly and pitting them against men, or having a right to bare arms while delivering the 5:00 news–as opposed to the stuff that is real, and that really matters, and really affects you and your girlfriends and sisters and coworkers, your mothers and daughters. Like reworking work for the new–nay, the now–reality, the reality that includes unmarried women who work to support themselves, married women who work to support (or help support) their families, and women of all stripes who simply want to work, because they’re smart, ambitious, and interested in being productive members of society?

Feminism is not about being “angry,” “defensive,” or an ethos of “men as the enemy”–I kid you not, this is the language Venker used. And the calls for “returning to a simpler time,” lamenting the loss of the good old days (Hi, Republicans!), are about as useful as pining for the return of Beverly Hills, 90210 The Brenda Years. They’re over. They’re not coming back. Time doesn’t go backward. Brenda has moved on. The more you moon over bygones, the more you render yourself irrelevant. Out of touch. And yes, even kinda pathetic. (Though I’ll happily go on record as a fan of the Brenda years, I certainly don’t expect them to come back.)

Worse, though, is that all the yammering about bygones keeps us focused on the bygones, arguing about things that aren’t even issues anymore, that are just reality, the stuff that, by comparison, just doesn’t matter that much. Whether or not women should work and be independent is not a question any longer. We do, and we are. And that’s, as many of us believe, as it should be. (And, once and for all: the men that don’t want to marry someone who’d qualify as an independent woman… is that a guy you really want to spend every bleeding night with, foresaking all others, from here until Ear Hair and Depends, so help you God? Hint: No. No, it is not.) Feminism should be looking forward, not behind, considering what’s happening now, and what will come after that.

Time, after all, only moves in one direction.

I frequently hear from former students – usually bright, idealistic twentysomethings — long after they’ve exchanged their college dreams for, you know, reality.

Often, these women are more than a little shell-shocked when they come face to face with the disconnect between their high expectations and life out there in the real world of work.  Their notes, emails and phone calls speak of a certain dissatisfact  Raised to believe they could have it all, they’re suddenly undecided.  Disillusioned. Wondering about that greener grass.  One former student, channeling Betty Friedan, called it “the other problem that has no name.”  All this angst, in fact, was one of the triggers for our book.

The latest email came from a focused young woman – we’ll call her Susie — who moved several states away after she scored the job of her dreams at a big tech company right out of the gate.  Great, right?  But what she wrote was anything but.

She first relayed a story of a friend, an Ivy League grad who was now working in New York – who was so miserable at her job she was thinking of calling it quits.  Why?  Constant sexist remarks.  A sense that she was invisible to the powers that be.  The final straw?  One of the partners in her firm sent out an office-wide email, addressed “Dear Gentlemen”, even though there were several women on the chain – and left her off it completely, though a male employee with her same job was included.

Small stuff, maybe.  But when you’ve been led to believe that gender discrimination is a thing of the past, that feminist battles have been fought and won, that you, sister, have achieved equality, reality provides a nasty wake-up call.

Anyway, back to Susie, who had her own tale of invisibility to tell.   Not long ago, she flew off to run a booth at a trade show for her company.  She reveled in the responsibility – and also in the opportunity to finally have a face-to-face meeting with her brand new boss, who was headquartered in a different state.  But while Susie was busy running the show, a Playboy model who’d been hired by her company for the gig, was working the crowd.

You can guess how this story ends, right?  Susie ended up with about 20 minutes of facetime with her boss, who was far more interested in chatting up the model and taking her to dinner.

“It just leaves so much dissatisfaction in my heart because I feel like there is no way to win this game,” Susie wrote.  “As women, what makes us valuable in the office? There are enough really talented women on my team that I know climbing the ranks is a possibility…”  And yet, she wondered:  how do these women feel when they’re smart, work hard, and then they see, as she did at the tradeshow, that looks carry more currency than talent. “I just wonder,” she wrote, “that even if we reach the pinnacle of success, whatever that might be, will we ever feel like we truly have it?”

Sigh.  One of the most insidious things about this kind of sexism, I told Susie, is that the folks who perpetuate this nonsense rarely realize what they are doing or saying. White male privilege?  More than likely. But it also speaks to the fact that, while we may have come a long way, we still have a long way to go. Which is why I get so grumpy when young women refuse to call themselves feminists – or when their older sisters, the ones who are edging up toward the top of the food chain, are loathe to acknowledge the way things were – and in many cases, still are.

Of course, what rankles the most is the idea that dealing with gender discrimination, with sexism of all kinds, is seen as women’s work.  Shouldn’t it be everyone’s work?

Hillary Clinton — one of the most powerful women in the world and someone who has put up with more than her share of bad behavior solely because of her gender – might well agree.  Check what she told the Gail Collins in an interview in Sunday’s New York Times:

For a long time, Clinton said, when she talked about giving women opportunity, “I could see some eyes glazing over.” But now, she continued, people are beginning to see that empowering women leads to economic development. That you don’t espouse women’s rights because it’s a virtuous thing to do but because it leads to economic growth.

Economics? Brilliant!  Which leads us back to Susie.  Who, we might ask her boss, made more money for her company that week at that trade show?

And exactly who is it that wins when smart and talented young women are too discouraged to stick around?

Woo What Women?

With the election looming, we decided to write this one together. Call it our endorsement. Because we’re women! Two generations of them. And between the two of us, we’ve held all kinds of roles: daughter, sister, wife, mother, employee, self-employee, employer of others, homeowner. We are upstanding members of society, participate in the economy, and, in fact, we were both raised Catholic (more on that one later). Our votes are highly coveted, and there is smoke pouring out of our–between the two of us–four ears. Because, spoiler alert: we loathe just about everything the Romney-Ryan ticket stands for. So do most of the women–all of whom are apparently assumed to be fair game for courting as well–we know.

What we loathe even more is the idea that we can be categorized or stereotyped–especially when the box into which we have been placed is dead wrong. Because we are women who fit certain demos, we’re supposed to buy the slate of lunacy they’re selling. Nonsense. (Also, we’re feminists who love fashion, baseball, cooking, and reading. What box do we fit into now?) And that the Republican ticket has made the assumption that women will buy their nonsense is actually laughable, and quite probably a waste of their efforts. (Shhh. Don’t tell ‘em.) Why?

First, let’s do some math. Supposedly, we women–you know, the large monolithic group of us–are most concerned about the economy. If that’s true, and given the fact that most women these days, married or not, are also working, doesn’t it make sense that the vast majority of us would want equal pay for equal work–without being considered some crazy-ass man-hater for pointing out the insanity of paying women 23 percent less than men for the same job?

And then there’s the right’s anti-life positions. There. We’ve said it. For all their talk about being pro-life when it comes to a woman’s right to choose, elsewhere on the dial, on everything from social programs to environmental protections, the ticket is decidedly against it. But don’t take our word for it. Read what Thomas Friedman had to say this weekend:

In my world, you don’t get to call yourself “pro-life” and be against common-sense gun control — like banning public access to the kind of semiautomatic assault rifle, designed for warfare, that was used recently in a Colorado theater. You don’t get to call yourself “pro-life” and want to shut down the Environmental Protection Agency, which ensures clean air and clean water, prevents childhood asthma, preserves biodiversity and combats climate change that could disrupt every life on the planet. You don’t get to call yourself “pro-life” and oppose programs like Head Start that provide basic education, health and nutrition for the most disadvantaged children. You can call yourself a “pro-conception-to-birth, indifferent-to-life conservative.” I will never refer to someone who pickets Planned Parenthood but lobbies against common-sense gun laws as “pro-life.”

“Pro-life” can mean only one thing: “respect for the sanctity of life.” And there is no way that respect for the sanctity of life can mean we are obligated to protect every fertilized egg in a woman’s body, no matter how that egg got fertilized, but we are not obligated to protect every living person from being shot with a concealed automatic weapon. I have no respect for someone who relies on voodoo science to declare that a woman’s body can distinguish a “legitimate” rape, but then declares — when 99 percent of all climate scientists conclude that climate change poses a danger to the sanctity of all life on the planet — that global warming is just a hoax.

The term “pro-life” should be a shorthand for respect for the sanctity of life. But I will not let that label apply to people for whom sanctity for life begins at conception and ends at birth. What about the rest of life? Respect for the sanctity of life, if you believe that it begins at conception, cannot end at birth. That radical narrowing of our concern for the sanctity of life is leading to terrible distortions in our society.

Even Connie Britton and Sarah Aubrey, the stars of the show Friday Night Lights, wish Mitt would quit it. His use of the show’s slogan “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts,” inspired them to pen a take-back-the-cause. Check it:

And “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose” wasn’t just about winning games. Rather, it was a rallying cry of hope and optimism in a community where everyone had a fair shot — no matter their background, no matter their parents, no matter their gender. And no matter their politics.

So it has been surprising that the phrase has been usurped and co-opted by Mitt Romney and his campaign for their gain. And it got us thinking: What would the women of Dillon think about this?

Dillon is a classic American town filled with hard-working, middle-class Americans, who just want to lead productive, healthy lives. And the women we represented on the show — the women we are in real life — are like the millions of women across the nation. Women who want to make our own health care decisions. Women who want to earn equal pay for the work we do. Women who want affordable health care.

And finally, before we start to sputter (too late?), we take more than a little bit of offense about the way the right wing has taken religion in general, and Catholicism in particular, away from the rest of us. (Dorothy Kelley–mother-in-law to Barbara and grandma to Shannon–was a devout Catholic: what that meant to her was social service, volunteering, and treating others like she might hope to be treated. And a penchant for Birkenstocks.) Especially infuriating is the way that Catholicism in particular (again, we both wore Catholic plaid for a sizable chunk of years) has been distorted to be predominantly about sex. As in: gay or straight, don’t have it. Unless, of course, you’re out to make a baby. (If that’s the purpose of marriage and/or sex, how come it’s okay for senior citizens to marry? And, we’re sorry, but but did Jesus ever say, “Thou shalt not have sex”?)

That’s their version of morality. Period, end. The whole Do unto others thing? Meh. Ourselves, like many of us women, we define morality in a broader–ack, dare we say more Christian?–sense, and that has to do with a sense of social justice. For people, and for the earth. (And for the people who find themselves affected and in need of help in the face of natural disasters.)

Us? We’ll be taking that ideal to the voting booth with us, casting votes that are in our interest, and–do unto others!–the interests of others, as well.

I’m starting to wonder if this presidential election might hinge on apron strings.

In the wake of the last debate, we’ve all been caught up in binders and trapper-keepers and funny Facebook memes – along with some hijinks on Amazon, where a bunch of smartypants hijacked several binder pages.  I think we’re missing the point.

According to the New York Times, both Obama and Romney are in hot pursuit of the women’s vote.  Which is to say, they seem to think that Double Xers may determine the next president of the United States:

 … And on the campaign trail and on the air, the candidates and their allies argued intensely all day over who would do more to help women. At the same time, the topic of whether the heated encounter Tuesday night had alienated the very female voters they were seeking to connect with became fodder for cable TV discussions.

The level of intensity left little doubt that the election was coming down not only to a state-by-state fight for territory, but also to one for the allegiance of vital demographic groups, chief among them undecided women.

Whew.  Whether the chattering class is right or wrong, it appears we have a lot more power than we’ve had in quite the while.  Let’s think this through.

The bedrock issue in the debate over the women’s vote has had to do with reproductive rights:  abortion and contraception.  Key issues.  Agreed.  Especially because the next president will more than likely be appointing one, or maybe two, justices to the Supreme Court, who may hold the future of Roe V. Wade in their hands.

And then there’s the funding of Planned Parenthood, which not only provides family planning services, but also provides women without health insurance life-saving care for breast cancer, among other medical issues.  My friend was one of them.

But the real issue as I see it is the vision of women’s role in the workplace and the home.  I found one of Gov. Romney’s responses in the debate to be key.  The question had to do with inequalities in the workplace, including the pay gap — Go here for a state-by-state chart of gender pay inequity — which the Governor sidestepped with the unfortunate comment about binders.  What I found revealing, not to mention troubling, was the end of his response, which related to the woman he had hired as chief of staff while governor of Massachusetts:

 Now, one of the reasons I was able to get so many good women to be part of that team was because of our recruiting effort, but number two, because I recognized that if you’re going to have women in the workforce, that sometimes they need to be more flexible. My chief of staff, for instance, had two kids that were still in school. She said, I can’t be here until 7:00 or 8:00 at night. I need to be able to get home at 5:00 so I can be there for — making dinner for my kids and being with them when they get home from school. So we said, fine, let’s have a flexible schedule so you can have hours that work for you.

On the surface: flexible schedule.  Good.  One of the issues we’ve been writing about is the challenge faced by working women, who put in the same hours as their male counterparts, and then have to dig into the second shift when they get home.  But look again at the governor’s answer, then ask yourself this:  Where was the chief of staff’s husband and/or kids’ daddy at 5:00?

That’s it, right?

Why is it that in 2012 some folks still assume that household and childcare duties are women’s work?  And why, as one of the sources in our book fumed, do we plant work life balance smack in the middle of the “women’s issues” silo?  Shouldn’t this be a human issue?  A family issue?

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I cook dinner most nights, no matter what time I get home from work.  And I’m damn good at it.  No, scratch that.  I’m really good at it:  I inherited my culinary mojo from a long line of incredible Italian cooks (Ask me about my aunts’ gnocchi or cannoli sometime, or my mother’s ability to throw together anything fantastic without a recipe).  Plus, I like to eat good food.  But that’s my choice.  Proscribed gender roles have nothing to do with it.

The issue here, as the presidential election heads down the home stretch, has to do with perception as well as policy.  And I suspect that the nuances of the latter are often driven by the former.  And in this case, the perception in question is gender roles in the home as well as the workplace.

Cue the aprons.

The most recent time-use survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that women still own the second shift. Most telling stats?

On an average day, 19 percent of men did housework–such as cleaning or doing laundry–compared with 48 percent of women. Forty percent of men did food preparation or cleanup, compared with 66 percent of women.

All of which, presumably, is on top of a 52 hour work week.

Now, can a president do anything to change all that?  Probably not.  But given that I have been given a lot of power in this election, my vote goes to the guy who doesn’t assume my place is in an apron.

Speaking of which, my husband is wearing one right now.  I’ve got one eye on the Giants game as I write this.  He’s firing up the ‘que and throwing together a salad.

Air(Brush) Apparent

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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