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Posts Tagged ‘iconic self’

Last week, I attended an alumni/student networking event at my alma mater, UC Santa Barbara. The event consisted of about 50 working professionals (I was in this camp), and 100 soon-to-be-grads, sniffing around for some intel on what the “real world” might have in store. The kids (umm – ouch — you know you’re getting older when you start referring to 20-ish-year-olds as “kids”) had been given bios on all us pros, and we were wearing nametags, so there was nowhere to hide. Many of them had seen the title of my book, and wanted my advice. On the small matter of what to do with their lives. Gulp.

(And, let it be said: these are not the lost souls – the organizers maxed the event out, early, at 100 students, so these were the sorts of students who’d actually jumped on the chance to attend a “networking event,” something which, to be perfectly honest, would never have occurred to me while I was in college. Of course, I majored in Religious Studies and Anthropology, so career prospects weren’t exactly my primary motivators.)

Anyway. They wanted to know what to do, how to reach their goals. (I want to be a political speech writer! An oncologist! A professor! Or the–judging by body language alone–shameful: I don’t know what to do with my life! But I’ve done this, this, and this already, so whatever I do has to be good.) Big dreams!  Huge ambitions! And they all seemed a bit like deer in the headlights. A feeling which, I told them, I remember exactly. (College graduation day: shudder. Nowhere as fun as its cracked up to be.) But, I said, what I’ve learned in my own life, and what the research we did for the book proves is this: don’t sweat it. You will have many (many!) jobs in your professional life. You will move. You will have different friends, different titles. You’ll play different roles. The parameters of your “family” will shift. Your priorities will shift.

They looked at me with expressions I can only describe as some mixture of relief and something akin to the face you’d make had I told you to become a mermaid.

But, I get it. Even now, with more job titles than I know what to do with (author, speaker, writer, coach, editor), I understand that ambition. Because I am ambitious. Extremely so. I often describe it as just a part of who I am – as fundamental to me as the fact that I do not like Chinese food, that I am a total grouch if I have no exercise in the morning, and that I’d rather spend a Sunday on the couch reading the paper than doing nearly anything else.  And I’m cool with that.

But this ambition thing. It’s tricky. Difficult to parse how much is fundamental to me, and how much is some sort of weird internalization of the cultural messaging that swirls around all of us, so thick as to be the very air we breathe. The water we swim in.

I got to thinking about it, more than usual, when I read Meghan Daum’s piece about the (most) recent Mommy War flare-up, over Hilary Rosen’s words about Ann Romney:

A lot of this, of course, is the usual bluster of an election season, the tempests that get brewed up in campaign teapots, only to subside as quickly as they erupted. But this latest storm points not only to Americans’ seemingly endless appetite for flimsy controversy but to the incredible sensitivity we have around the issue of work.

To put it bluntly, we’re obsessed with work — with who’s doing it and not doing it, with how many hours are being spent at it and how much money is being paid for it. And we’re not just obsessed in the sense that we rely on work to survive (and, these days, are suffering for lack of it). We’re obsessed with work because our identities are defined by it. We work, therefore we are.

Case in point: the way the formerly quotidian institution known as “parenthood” has lately seen its job description ratcheted up to include not just age-old duties like the feeding, clothing and chauffeuring of children but, in some circles, a downright competitive approach to co-sleeping, organic food shopping, baby sign-language teaching, protracted breast-feeding and sometimes even home schooling. With our self-worth so intrinsically connected to our professional status, we’ve extended the values of corporate ladder climbing on to family life. And some mothers, in the process of taking charge of the home front — or sometimes letting their children take charge — have imposed a greater tyranny on themselves than their office supervisors ever did.

Strikes a cord, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s just a tic of human beings: we have to be able to define ourselves. A job is convenient for this purpose. So is a role. As we’ve often written, where once women defined themselves strictly in terms of their relationships to others (daughter, sister, wife, mother), now we define ourselves in terms of our work. And, hey – work’s (relatively) new to us, and it’s fun! And if what we do with our time–our work–is taking care of others, goddamnit, we’re gonna do it perfectly. If we can prove that we’re doing something well–or even if we just have the title to imply that we are–then we matter. We’re worthwhile.

And that’s all fine, to a certain extent: there’s value in doing good work, and there’s value in being a good fill-in-the-blank to someone else. But we are not our roles. And we are not our resumes. And if that leaves you wondering what’s left, well, you’re certainly not alone.

But really: wouldn’t it be more fun if we could somehow loosen the grip of the grand title, the grand role, the grand image, and just be? To try things out, and then if things don’t go as planned, to simply change course, and see what’s around the next bend? To decide that what matters is not what we achieve or how perfectly we achieve it, but that we’ve allowed ourselves to be who we are, and gotten to like her?

Seems to me, that’s a goal worthy of some of my own ambition. And hey, if it doesn’t work out, there’s always grad school.

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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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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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So I came across a post over at BNET the other day that suggests that our high school selves sometimes come back to kick us in the pocketbook when it comes to our careers.   According to business writer Jeff Haden, our professional lives are “like high school with money.” But what might have led to acceptance by the mean girls back in the day can actually be disastrous out in the business world.

He points out that the survival skills we learned when we were fifteen sometimes stick with us when we’re thirty – or beyond — and they rarely end well.  You can guess the ones: Looking to the wrong folks for advice; doing what everyone else is doing because, well, everyone else is doing it; making decisions based on the “shoulds”;  and caring far too much about what other people think.  All these patterns, he writes, can be roadblocks when it comes to building a professional life.

His point, in a nutshell:  For good or for ill, most of us got it wrong in high school.  And yet, old habits die hard.  All of which got us to pondering:  Do our high school selves mess with more than the corporate ladder?  Are our grown-up perceptions still colored by the girls we once were?

For many of us, life took an abrupt left turn once adolescence reared its awkward head. Maybe we were one of the cool kids. Maybe we were irretrievably dorky. In either case, 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. So silly. And yet.

You have to wonder how much of that insecure self stays with us into adulthood, whispering in our ear, making us second guess our decisions, and nudging us to replay those invisible patterns etched long ago. Are we still looking for approval from erstwhile best friends? Is there a part of us that still wants to please the arbiters of ninth grade taste — or show them up? Hello there, mean girls! Take a look at me now!

Didn’t matter whether we were beauty or brains – or none of the above; the prom queen or the wallflower; whether we were picked first or last for volleyball or had our ass routinely kicked by Algebra II.  Deep inside, or maybe not even so deep therein, we were all just a little bit miserable because of, or in spite of, how we perceived ourselves back in the day.  And what we wonder is this:  Did we every outgrow that awkward adolescent? Has she left an indelible mark on our iconic self?

Is she part and parcel of the master narrative we sometimes use to frame our lives?

Don’t get us wrong. Painful or not, high school was a pivotal time. After all, a lot of serious developmental stuff goes down during those formative years, and chief among that work is individuation – figuring out our identity, defining ourselves apart from our parents.  It’s a search that leads us logically toward our peers, with this one nasty byproduct: we tend to see ourselves as others see us.

Or, worse yet, the way we think that others see us.

Sure, men are subject to this process, too, but here’s where it’s different for women.  We’re hard-wired – or maybe socialized — to please.  (Nature or nurture, who cares?)  Which is why we listened to those imaginary whispers when we were in high school – and sometimes do it still.  We see ourselves through others’ eyes.  We judge ourselves by others’ judging.  And we ask ourselves:  Do we measure up?  Do we fit in?

You have to wonder if this is one more reason why decisions are so loaded for women, especially when we’re trying to figure out what to do with our lives.  Could this be why we’re always lusting after that greener grass?  Why we have such a hard time figuring out what we want?

All of which leads us back to where we started.  We can’t help thinking this lingering desire to fit in impacts women more than men, especially as we navigate the somewhat unfamiliar turf of today’s workplace. Because we are unsure of the rules, do we take reactions more seriously? Are we more tentative?  Continually looking over our shoulder to make sure those whispers in the corner aren’t about us? Worse yet, do we avoid even putting ourselves out there, sticking with Mr. Safe Path, so we can avoid the risk of rejection?

Good questions, right?  But meanwhile, even as I type this, I hear a tragic little ninth grader – the one with the bad hair and the big glasses — whispering in my ear: What will (choose one) think? To which the only grown-up answer is: Who cares. Because while we may assume we’re being judged, more often than not, the only one who’s doing the judging is our high school self.

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In case you occasionally channel your inner adolescent, you oughta stay away from Facebook.    It’s not because — as in the days when the Mean Girls were the scourge of seventh grade — you will be judged.  It’s because you will  judge them — and find yourself falling short by comparison.

Compare.  Contrast.  Fail.

You don’t have to know from Justin Beiber to realize this is not necessarily rocket science:  Even though we all know that facebook personas are carefully curated — we do it ourselves, after all — a new study published this week in Pediatrics suggests that while we know our own profiles might be a bit, um, varnished, we tend to get sucked right in to whatever our friends post.  In other words, we believe.  We think they have more fun.

According to the study:

Researchers have proposed a new phenomenon called “Facebook depression,” defined as depression that develops when preteens and teens spend a great deal of time on social media sites, such as Facebook, and then begin to exhibit classic symptoms of depression.  Acceptance by and contact with peers is an important element of adolescent life. The intensity of the online world is thought to be a factor that may trigger depression in some adolescents.

No one can say for sure whether it’s cause and effect or a simple correlation, but here’s what the study’s lead author, Dr. Gwenn O’Keefe, told the Associated Press:

But there are aspects of Facebook that can make it a particularly tough social landscape to navigate for kids dealing with poor self-esteem, said Dr. Gwenn O’Keeffe, a pediatrician and lead author of new American Academy of Pediatrics social-media guidelines published today in the group’s journal, Pediatrics.

With in-your-face friends’ tallies, status updates and photos of happy-looking people having great times, Facebook pages can make some kids feel even worse if they think they don’t measure up.

It can be more painful than sitting alone in a crowded school cafeteria or other real-life encounters that can make kids feel down, O’Keeffe said, because Facebook provides a skewed view of what’s really going on. Online, there’s no way to see facial expressions or read body language that provide context.

Maybe yes?  Maybe no?  But even when we’re no longer teenagers chasing after those girls who have more fun, is there still a trace of that insecurity that wakes up whenever we get sucked into the great comparison game, the often unintended consequence of social media?  Do we search for constant validation in the form of a “like” button?  Do we end up with one more measure by which we judge ourselves?  Do we saddle up for another frantic chase after all the trappings of our iconic self?

We may have outgrown our awkward adolescent selves, but still, there’s that lingering need to compare, which is facilitated by the minute-to-minute status updates that are up in our face whenever we care to check.  On the one hand, we’re trying to make our way in this brave new land of unlimited options without a roapmap or much in the way of generational role models.  But then, right there, with the click of a button, there’s someone out there who looks to be doing it better, faster, righter — and having a lot more fun.

And just like that, we’re all about the greener grass, living the life of “if only..”   We tend to forget that sometimes life is grand, and sometimes it sucks.  But most of the time, it just is.  As Shannon wrote a while ago:
Women today have every choice–and every one of us is, at some point or another, terrified we’ve made the wrong ones. Is it any wonder, then, that we treat our public personas like we might a disssertation: something we must present and defend? Here is my choice, and look how great it is! I have achieved the American Dream–witness husband and spawn! Or: I’m single and successful and fancy-free–witness the world travels and amazing fun! When in reality, of course, both are bullshit. Because life is life and it’s fabulous at times and at other times there are diapers to change or douchebags to date, and either way there’s bills to pay… But just because we’ve come up against yet another dirty diaper–or douchebag–does not mean we chose wrong.
But back to that notion of the carefully crafted Facebook persona.   Full disclosure:  The hot-off-the-press copy of our book came in the mail Saturday morning, and before I had a chance to comb my hair or wash my face, my husband grabbed a camera and snapped a shot of me holding it, grinning from ear to ear.   He thought the picture was cute.  Me?  Yeah, not so much.  I immediately posted the pix on our Facebook page — only after I cropped out my face.

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Clicking through my Facebook friends, one could be forgiven for assuming I do a lot of socializing at preschools. One would be wrong, of course: the truth is that countless of my pals have replaced their profile pics with snaps of their wee ones; their status updates with diaper-status updates. Continuing along, one might also assume that, somewhere in my travels, I infiltrated a tribe of Carrie Bradshaw clones: beautiful, successful folks living the life, traveling to important places to do important things, wearing fabulous clothes while hanging out with fabulous people.

On the surface (and what is Facebook if not surface?), everyone’s having a dandy time living the lives they chose. Which is dandy. But how real is it?

We’ll come back to that. First, though, let’s take a look at an interesting piece on Salon.com entitled “How Facebook can affirm a woman’s singlehood.” In it, Tracy Clark-Flory makes the point that, for many women, spying on their married-and-mommied friends via the ‘book makes them feel validated to have put career first. Here’s a bit:

My friend Katherine is successful, dynamic, and fiercely intelligent–but, unmarried and childless at 32, she feels pressure from some to hurry up and achieve something that really matters: settling down and having kids. There is nothing new about a woman wondering if she’s sacrificed her love life for her career–but what is new is how Facebook is allowing these women to compare how their life choices have panned out with those of their peers, and sometimes it’s actually validating.

Katherine recently told me, ‘I go on there and I see these beautiful, intelligent women that I grew up with and they’re all married to these accountant types who wear polos and golf on the weekends. Yes, they have kids, a home and a husband — but it just looks so painfully, unbearably boring.’ Granted the whole truth is that she also sometimes feels jealousy — for instance, when a friend who is married with a baby posts about ‘drinking a glass of wine and eating oysters with her husband at their cute house with the bathroom they just remodeled themselves.’

…Despite all the choices available to women today, many still fret that in putting their career first and worrying about marriage and kids later they will ultimately miss out on the latter. There is a biological reality behind those concerns, but there are also plenty of cultural myths and trumped-up anxiety — the lonely cat lady who dies without anyone noticing and ends up being eaten by her hungry companion, for example — that serve as cautionary tales. The warning, of course, is that we will be punished for being too ambitious and going against our basic nature. Given the high stakes, it’s no surprise that this often leads to comparison and competition — and Facebook serves as a virtual looking glass through which to explore the path not taken.

So interesting isn’t it, how even here, life is presented as either-or for women. One path or the other. Career or love. Driven or domesticated. And if that’s the case, no wonder we have such a hard time making the choices that will take us down one road or another: they mean too much. And they’re too narrow. What if we want some of one, but more of the other? Where’s the profile for that?

And speaking of profiles, perhaps all of this angst–and uncertainty–over whether or not we’re making the right choices is why we’re so compelled to present ourselves so charmingly. We all have doubts. Do you think Katherine’s oyster-eating DIY couple posted the fact that they nearly killed each other while drywalling their new commode? Or the flipside:

‘Here I am, sitting in traffic, getting home to my tiny one-bedroom apartment, and eating macaroni and cheese after an 11-hour work day,’ [Katherine] says. ‘But I don’t post things about traffic, or sitting in my pajamas watching ‘Top Chef’ on Facebook! I write status updates about attending premiere parties and meticulously select profile pictures. I have to believe it’s all relative.’

Of course it is. Women today have every choice–and every one of us is, at some point or another, terrified we’ve made the wrong ones. Is it any wonder, then, that we treat our public personas like we might a disssertation: something we must present and defend? Here is my choice, and look how great it is! I have achieved the American Dream–witness husband and spawn! Or: I’m single and successful and fancy-free–witness the world travels and amazing fun! When in reality, of course, both are bullshit. Because life is life and it’s fabulous at times and at other times there are diapers to change or douchebags to date, and either way there’s bills to pay… But just because we’ve come up against yet another dirty diaper–or douchebag–does not mean we chose wrong.


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Growing up, I was not allowed to have Barbies. The blond, long-legged, impossibly-proportioned, tip-toed plastic plaything was explicitly contraband for reasons I couldn’t really discern. I think I pouted about this for approximately five minutes–I gravitated more towards crayons and Legos anyway. And I had a friend who LOVED Barbies–and I HATED when she made me play them with her. It was boring. Intensely so. The pink sportscar was cool, but Ken seemed like kind of a tool. And I’m sure the hot tub was fun for them — but I would have rather walked down to the neighborhood pool and taken a dip myself.

The only times I felt a pang of Barbolust were when commercials interrupted whatever shenanigans the Smurfs were currently embroiled in, or when one of my parents (now, I can only assume, whichever one had lost the bet) allowed me a trip to the Hell on Earth that is Toys’R’Us. In other words, when I was reduced to a target of what Peggy Orenstein might call “the princess industrial complex.”

In her new book “Cinderella Ate My Daughter” (points for epic title), Orenstein investigates the “princess phase,” in all its pink and sparkly glory. From the origins of Disney’s “Princess” market to a toy fair at the Javits Center in New York, the callous marketing–and sexualizing–of young girls Orenstein reveals will indeed make you long for something pink: Pepto.

Or Pinot.

As Annie Murphy Paul writes in this weekend’s NYT review of the book,

The toy fair is one of many field trips undertaken by Orenstein in her effort to stem the frothy pink tide of princess products threatening to engulf her young daughter. The author of “Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self Esteem, and the Confidence Gap,” among other books, Orenstein is flummoxed by the intensity of the marketing blitz aimed at girls barely old enough to read the label on their Bonne Bell Lip Smackers. ‘I had read stacks of books devoted to girls’ adolescence,’ she writes, ‘but where was I to turn to understand the new culture of little girls, from toddler to ‘tween,’ to help decipher the potential impact–if any–of the images and ideas they were absorbing about who they should be, what they should buy, what made them girls?’

And that’s the thing. I outgrew this phase years ago, when VCRs were hot new technology. But today, we are literally saturated in media. And not just little girls.

I was having a conversation with a friend a couple of weeks ago, and we were talking about our uniforms. Not like employer-mandated uniforms, but the uniforms of our own making. Despite the fact that I write a fashion column, I can more often than not be found in jeans, boots, and an embellished white top of one sort or another. It’s kind of pathetic, but whatever. (Frankly, while writing the book, it was a miracle I ever bothered to get dressed at all.) Anyway, we were laughing about how the only time you feel the need to purchase something else is when you’re shopping, which inspired a Hanibal Lector impression. (Forgive me–I adore Silence of the Lambs and am thrilled whenever I have an excuse.) When he’s trying to help Clarice realize Buffalo Bill’s identity–the next door neighbor of his first victim–he asks her: What do we covet? She fumbles around, and he gets pissy: No! he says, We covet what we see!

Is that to say that princesses aren’t born, but made? Orenstein might think so. I might agree–but I also don’t think it’s too hard to imagine that a little girl raised in a vacuum might be as likely to pick up a doll as a crayon. (Although actually, the littlest of kids I know tend to go for the box the doll or the crayons came in until they’re old enough to know better.)

But I really wonder about the other question here: the one that has to do with how we define ourselves–and how intently our culture directs us to do it with what’s on the outside. Citing developmental psychology research, Orenstein says that until age 7, kids are convinced that external signs–hair cut, clothes, toys–determine whether they’re boys or girls.

It makes sense, then, that to ensure you will stay the sex you were born you’d adhere rigidly to the rules as you see them and hope for the best… That’s why 4 year-olds, who are in what is called ‘the inflexible stage’ become the self-appointed chiefs of the gender police. Suddenly the magnetic lure of the Disney Princesses became more clear to me: developmentally speaking, they were genius, dovetailing with the precise moment that girls need to prove they are girls, when they will latch on to the most exaggerated images their culture offers in order to stridently shore up their femininity.

…And then what happens? What other images do we buy into? The back to nature earth mama, the cultural sophisticate, the savvy city slicker, the competent professional? Like the little girls in the throes of an identity crisis who insist on wearing their princess get-up to school, when we’re threatened with tough decisions of the Who-Are-You variety, are we lured back into a one-dimensional picture of ourselves–and do we then behave accordingly? And surround ourselves with people and places and jobs and things that shore up that identity?

Breaking out of a mold can be as difficult as busting a brand-new Barbie free of her overzealous packaging, and, you know, shortcuts are easy–that’s the appeal. But when we define ourselves using shortcuts, are we really just selling ourselves short?


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