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Posts Tagged ‘Peggy Orenstein’

Be authentic. What does that even mean, anyway? Not a whole hell of a lot, according to Stephanie Rosenbloom in this Sunday’s New York Times. The word, she says, has been watered down to the point of meaninglessness, like so many white wine spritzers. Everyone from Anderson Cooper to Sarah Ferguson to Katie Couric to Michelle Bachmann to the Pope have claimed the descriptor, generally while in the service of selling themselves. (Sales. What’s more inauthentic than that?)

And, as Rosenbloom’s piece points out and as we’ve written before, we’re complicit in this faux-thenticity, too. Think about your Facebook profile–and now imagine what it would look like if it were truly authentic. Take mine, for example: instead of that cute profile pic of me smiling broadly in New Orleans alongside a status update alluding to a highbrow day of writing, my pic might show me sitting at my computer, in the chair I’ve spent so much time in, I’ve literally worn the finish off of it. And if I were to be authentic about it, today’s status update–rather than being glamorous, pithy, or intelligent–might read: Unshowered. Writer’s block. Dining on a spoonful of peanut butter. Had I documented my status last night, I would have seemed the epitome of uncool, when my neighbor’s band practice inspired not my admiration of his creativity or his nascent musical skills, but a lengthy debate on whether or not to call the cops. (I didn’t. Score another one for inauthenticity. They were more terrible than they were loud–and they were window-rattlingly loud.)

Writing in the New York Times Magazine, Peggy Orenstein once confessed that, while spending some glorious time with her little girl listening to E.B. White reading Trumpet of the Swan, a nasty thought intruded: How will I tweet this? She admits that the tweet she decided on (“Listening to E.B. White’s Trumpet of the Swan with Daisy. Slow and sweet.”) was “not really about my own impressions. It was about how I imagined—and wanted—others to react to them.”

Marketing folks might say we’re branding ourselves in our profile pictures, our status updates, our tweets. We say that maybe we’re feeding the iconic self, the self-image we’ve constructed, which, in ways big and small, is the face of our great expectations. (She’s kind of a tyrant, too.) So why do we do it? Are we so desperate for approval that we’d rather pretend to be someone else than our, ahem, authentic self? Women, after all, are raised to be pleasers. Do we feel guilty about veering off the pre-approved path? Where did we become convinced that the faux is any more acceptable than the real? And why, oh why, do we so readily buy into the idea that the images everyone else is presenting are any more real than our own?

Why is it so hard to embrace the idea that, as Wavy Gravy–he of LSD and ice cream fame–put it, we’re all just bozos on the bus, so we might as well sit back and enjoy the ride?

…which is well and good in theory, but who wants to admit to being a bozo? We have images to uphold! And whatever your role, the performance is remarkably similar. Someone asks how you’re doing; you say fine. You ask her; she says fine. Fine, then! We worry what other people think (though we’d never admit it), and, of course, we want to be happy, confident, competent, and successful. So we pretend we are. And, compounding the issue is the fact that the happy, confident, competent, successful self is the self everyone else shows to us, too, which compels us to keep our dirty little secret under even deeper wraps. If she (and she and she) has it together, what the hell is the matter with me??

It’s the open secret Rumi wrote about (and to which Elizabeth Lesser makes beautiful reference here), yet, centuries later, we still feel compelled to keep. And that’s understandable. Who wants to admit to being afraid, uncertain, overwhelmed, clumsy, neurotic, or prone to saying the wrong thing? The thing is, though, all of those things are part of the human condition–and those things and the good things aren’t mutually exclusive. And so why should claiming them be a negative? On the contrary: I think there’s a promise of something pretty awesome that comes when we’re able to own it all. The sky doesn’t fall, but, like the curtain hiding the Wizard of Oz, the blinders do.

And then what might we see? Well, for one thing, maybe a willingness to own our complex, dualistic, not always delightful but utterly human nature can make our choices a little bit clearer. With no one to impress, no images to uphold, we’ve got a lot less to factor in. There’s a freedom there. And power, too: because when we are willing to come out of the I’m Fine! closet, maybe our friends will join us. And that, I’d bet, would make for one hell of a party.

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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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What do you think Betty Freidan–or Betty Draper for that matter–might say to the idea that, come 2010, women everywhere would be finding their purpose right in their own backyards? Tending to the chicken coops in their own backyards, that is?

Don’t think that would fly?

Peggy Orenstein offers an interesting take on the Extreme-Homemaking-as-Feminism trend in a piece entitled “The Femivore’s Dilemma” in this week’s New York Times magazine, and while I can get behind the sentiment (I’m a card-carrying Pollanite; I’ve seen Food, Inc.; I buy my organic, grass-fed beef from a friend of mine every Saturday at the farmers market and can rant for hours about the environmental degradation wrought by the food industrial complex, and don’t even get me started on the antibiotics…), there’s just something about the phenomenon that ruffles my feathers.

Here’s a bit from Orenstein’s piece:

All of these gals–these chicks with chicks–are stay-at-home moms, highly educated women who left the work force to care for kith and kin. I don’t think that’s a coincidence: the omnivore’s dilemma has provided an unexpected out from the feminist predicament, a way for women to embrace homemaking without becoming Betty Draper. ‘Prior to this, I felt like my choices were either to break the glass ceiling or to accept the gilded cage,’ says Shannon Hayes, a grass-fed livestock farmer in upstate New York and author of ‘Radical Homemakers,’ a manifesto for ‘tomato-canning femininsts’.

I mean, on the one hand, it’s earth-mamma cool. Back to nature. Slow. Sustainable. Simple. Hormone-Free. It’s badass in it’s way, and I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to accept a brunch invitation from any mother hen who’s literally escorted the eggs from the backyard to the table, never mind who brought home the bacon. Plus–full disclosure–I have several friends who raise their own birds. I dig it. (And, you know, brunch? I’m free.)

But is it really feminism?

Hayes pointed out that the original ‘problem that had no name’ was as much spiritual as economic: a malaise that overtook middle-class housewives trapped in a life of schlepping and shopping. A generation and many lawsuits later, some women found meaning and power through paid employment. Others merely found a new source of alienation. What to do? The wages of housewifery had not changed–an increased risk of depression, a niggling purposelessness, economic dependence on your husband–only now, bearing them was considered a ‘choice': if you felt stuck, it was your own fault…

Enter the chicken coop.

Femivorism is grounded in the very principles of self-sufficiency, autonomy and personal fulfillment that drove women into the work force in the first place.

It’s such a romantic idea. Living off the land! Chopping the wood for the fires that will heat your home and bathwater! Hunting, foraging, toiling and tilling… you know, working. But how empowering is it really? For an answer, read what former New York City-living, former women’s mag editor Jessie Knadler has to say about her new life–which involves involves all of that… and axe-wielding, produce-canning, jerky-drying, and water-hauling–in the post she published in response to Orenstein’s piece, on her blog “Rurally Screwed.” (Um, awesome, that.)

The irony is that while there’s no question I’m more resourceful and frugal and self-sufficient in my new life, I actually feel like less of a feminist than ever… Instead of feeling proud of myself for all my physical accomplishments, I sometimes find myself wishing that Jake would do more manual labor for me. You know, because he’s a dude and I’m not. I sometimes find myself wanting to hole up in the house and assuage my guilt for not helping him dig a trench to China by baking him cookies, or making him a nice casserole, or some such. Suddenly, dusting the end tables doesn’t seem so bad. Betty Friedan would probably roll over in her grave.

Yowch. I’d say anything that makes dusting the end tables look good qualifies as a pretty serious Con. But what really bothers me about the whole thing is this: is the Extreme Homemaker yet another ideal to which we must aspire, like the cupcake- and Kleenex-brandishing Office Mom? Another iconic self? A perfectionist response to the dilemma of having too many choices and feeling a little insecure about the one we’ve chosen? It kind of reminds me of this quote, from Sandra Tsing Loh in the Cautionary Matrons piece I wrote about awhile back:

In our 20s, the world was totally our oyster. All those fights had been fought. We weren’t going to be ’50s housewives, we were in college, we could pick and choose from a menu of careers… We were smart women who had a lot of options and made intelligent choices… We were the proteges of old-guard feminists… We were sold more of a mission plan and now you guys… Well, sadly, it all seems like kind of a mess. There is no mission. Even stay-at-home moms feel unsuccessful unless they’re canning their own marmalade and selling it on the Internet.

As Orenstein notes, even Hayes acknowledges that such an existence, taken to extremes, can be isolating and crazy-making:

Hayes found that without a larger purpose–activism, teaching, creating a business or otherwise moving outside the home–women’s enthusiasm for the domestic arts eventually flagged… ‘There can be loss of self-esteem, loss of soul, and an inability to return to the world to get your bearings. You can start to wonder, What’s this all for?’ It was an unnervingly familiar litany: if a woman is not careful, it seems, chicken wire can coop her up as surely as any gilded cage.

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