Posts Tagged ‘Women’s Studies’
August 3rd’s New York Magazine cover story by Jonathan Van Meter was on “The NEW New Face” women are buying from their plastic surgeons and dermatologists.
His article highlights the surreal visuals we now associate with youth and beauty, and the procedures women undergo to bear them. He writes:
Somehow the idea of maintaining, preserving, and restoring feels less like cheating. The New New Face promises to reclaim something that was lost. But does it? Even the most successful and beautiful result is something entirely different from what a woman looked like when she was 30. …The New New Face is a fantastic approximation! An uncanny resemblance! It is, at its best, a close copy of youthful beauty, not youthful beauty itself.
If the “old” plastic surgery look was an image in a circus mirror, the new new face is an image in a mirror with abstruse imperfections that puzzle the observer’s mind. Women who choose to have work done do so with the goal of looking better, and/or younger. But is that what they actually get?
In the questionnaire on Medical Procedures for Appearance and Aging in my Women’s
Realities Study, I ask the following question:
Generally speaking, do you believe women who have “had work done” tend to look (check all that apply):
A) younger and prettier
B) the way you imagine they looked when they were younger
C) basically the same
D) better in a way you can’t quite put your finger on
E) worse in a way you can’t quite put your finger on
H) like women who have had work done
78% of the respondents answered H. Tied for second place were D and F. Not a glowing affirmation of women getting the look they were hoping for.
I also ask in my study:
Do you see electing to have plastic surgery as a feminist statement in that women should be free to feel better about themselves in any way possible given how much youth and beauty are valued in our culture? Or do you see it as an anti-feminist statement in that it only perpetuates the value placed on youth and beauty in a way that does not allow women to be themselves and age naturally?
62% saw it as anti-feminist.
Whatever side of the argument you fall on, and whatever your personal beliefs, the premium our culture places on physical beauty is real and entrenched, and I don’t know if it’s even possible for women to escape its pressures. To enter into this argument means having to confront all the nuances of how we pursue “beauty”. How much of what we come into the world with is it acceptable for us to change? At what age? And from what motivation?
You know what the most provocative response to my questionnaire was? One of the questions asks women to go down a list of medical procedures and check the ones they’d had done. Among them are botox, thermage, tummy tuck, liposuction, nose jobs, and so on. The follow up question is: If you’ve had any of these procedures, please describe what influenced your decision to do so, and one 43 year old woman wrote:
I had buck teeth [and got braces when I was 11]. My looks improved greatly. I’d do it again in a minute. Why isn’t that included on your list?
How do we draw the line in our judgments? Is breast reduction accepted while breast augmentation is derided? Or is it the other way around? And where does hair color fit into all of this?
Do braces seem to fall into a different category because they’re gender neutral? Or do we not consider braces enhancing? Because with the exception of a severe cross bite, I can’t think of a dental impairment that would keep teeth from functioning well enough for someone to get by. If you can chew your food and nourish yourself, there’s no mechanical need for braces. It’s usually a cosmetic decision.
From the 11 year old girl who doesn’t want to be branded with a nickname because of her teeth, to the 55 year old woman whose altered face is unnatural enough that it can find no resting place in any age group, this much is true: The societal messages that confirm for girls and women their greatest value is beauty, are inextricable from the private worries of our individual psyches.
To what extent are we trying to protect ourselves in these ways, and to what extent are we complicit in making the problem even more complicated for ourselves and our girls? These are questions each woman has to consider for herself.
I don’t have the answers, and, at 46, I wonder if my thoughts on this topic will modify at all over the next 10 or 15 years. But I can tell you what soothes me right now when I’m facing some physical change due to growing older. I’m soothed when I look at my peers, and I see changes in their faces and bodies that reflect the changes in mine.
I can also tell you, that ever since I was a little girl, the woman I’ve aspired to physically model myself after is my grandmother.
Earlier this week I read a little snippet on Madonna and A-Rod in The New Yorker, and this morning came upon another article on Christie Brinkley and Peter Cook in the New York Times. Reading them revived a chain of memories, working backward from Eliot and Silda, to Bill and Hillary, Jennifer and Brad, to Nora and Carl, JFK and Jackie, to Gertrude and Hamlet’s dad … ad infinitum.
Our interest in sexual transgressions stands the test of time, and we cannot look away because we want to know who and where we are in the context of these insanely complex matters. Taking a peek into what really happens within a “committed” sexual relationship provides us with a gauge for self examination, and juicy tidbits to boot.
I have five people in my practice right now, two men and three women, contemplating the perils of going out there to try and find love again after having their hearts trampled in their last relationship. Each of them was hurt in a different way, because, as we know, the possibilities are endless.
And I have more than a half a dozen clients who are working on how it feels to teeter between staying with their partners and wondering if they should leave.
Marriage isn’t the culprit. Intimacy is. Intimacy of any kind. From our parents, to those we date or live with, it’s the people closest to us who hurt us the most, because others don’t mean enough to us to have that power (perpetrators of stranger violence aside). If an acquaintance ruffles you, you walk away and mutter “jerk” under your breath, then forget about it; if an intimate hurts you, you perseverate on the offense forever.
So if intimacy is dangerous, add sex to the mix and you have everything we know sexual relationships to be: a recipe for transcendence, which, depending on when it’s served, and to whom, unfortunately doubles as a recipe for disaster.
We want sex to be a permanent adhesive in our relationships. But for the majority of us it’s more Elmer’s than Crazy Glue.
Since we don’t often hear even a smidgen of the realities of other people’s relationships until they blow up, here are some real-life descriptions of sex lives within marriage, taken from my Women’s Realities Study. 25% of the respondents said they’d had affairs, and within that percentage, 22% of them had more than one. I put their quotes out to you as a testament to intricacy.
Quotes describing the quality of sex lives from marriages 1-5 years in length
Great. It’s getting better with time.
We have a wonderful sex life. There have been dry patches. There have been times we were both dissatisfied. Generally, however, it’s great! We are very similar so it works out well.
Non-existent; I go elsewhere.
Well…it’s not terrible. I am attracted to him and vice versa…I don’t feel he knows how to turn me on, and I don’t know a nice way of telling him…because he overreacts often, and gets mad/hurt.
Our sex life is not that great. We have sex regularly (once a week or so) but it’s very perfunctory! Not much foreplay going on, not much exploring! I haven’t had an orgasm in a very long time. But I don’t miss them (Really! I think it’s due to a lot of things, not just the quality of our sex life.) I like the intimacy of our sex.
I think our sex life is fine, my husband would say that we could definitely have sex more frequently. I often feel guilty because I would rather go to sleep than have sex. My husband is a wonderful and gifted sex partner, but I still prefer sleep when I’m tired.
After 20 years, our sexual relationship is routine and comfortable. We are both healthy and sexual frequency is not an issue, but our lovemaking is ultimately unsatisfying and somewhat distant. I find it frustrating and disappointing.
It’s satisfying. I wish it were better. Sometimes I wish it were non-existent and it seems like a chore. I feel a bit sad, my body is older, so is his. We are not as attractive and it’s not as much fun as it once was.
It has changed over time although it was never the most successful part of our relationship.
Very happy. Very lucky.
Fair! It took a long time to reach this state.
And lastly, from a 15 year marriage, the eloquence of this one always gets me:
It was fantastic until I didn’t want him to touch me because I hated him.
As we learn from those in the public eye, couples can come undone no matter how together they look from the outside, no matter how intelligent, or powerful, beautiful, or at the top of their game they are. And the realities cited above confirm marriage is an interpersonal maze couples either walk through, get lost in, or flee.
But these are our alternatives with regard to intimacy in or out of marriage: We can close up shop and live a deadened existence because the fear of betrayal and loss is too much to bear, or we can take the risk and follow the inclinations of our bodies and hearts, and appreciate the connection as long as it lasts.
You know when NPR does its pledge drives and they entice you to give based on those NPR “driveway moments” when the story is so riveting you sit in your car until it’s over? I was just sitting in my car, tearing up in hearing the generous bravery of Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Joanna Connors as she talked about living with having been raped over 20 years ago. Listening to her, in addition to feeling jarred into factual sorrow, I felt relief because she will set profound healing in motion for millions of women.
At one point Connors said that prior to her attack she and other women had talked about rape as an issue, but never rape as an experience. As a therapist, I believe that women sharing their experiences with each other – not just the fact it happened, but in giving voice to how it feels to live with having been so terrorized – is one of the most important pieces in feeling better. Connors described how it feels in her day to day life, and it’s in including those qualities that we understand the realities of rape beyond being a noun or a verb we refer to in discussions from time to time.
I encourage you to listen to her interview, which includes callers’ stories, on NPR’s On Point with Tom Ashbrook. You can also read her Cleveland Plain Dealer five part series An Epilogue to Beyond Rape: A Survivor’s Journey. Her words will blow open a new dialogue on this all too common situation, one that used to be kept in the petrification of silence.
The U.S. Department of Justice statistics say that between 1 in 6 to 1 in 4 women will be raped in her lifetime. Those statistics are based on rapes that are reported. Estimates are, the real incidence of rape might be 10 times this.
Three of my closest friends have been raped. Three that I know of.
Each of them had a different experience. One was raped by a school employee when she was a girl; one gang raped by strangers as a teenager; and one date raped in her 30s. We all know women who’ve been raped. They may not have confided in us, but they’re there in our families, friendships and communities.
I’ve also heard wrenching stories of sexual assault from my clients. This is how one of them, a woman I greatly admire, wrote about her rape in my study. She was in therapy with me for two years before she even brought it up and felt ready to talk about it, and I hope her eloquence moves you. If any of you feel it might help to write anonymously about your story, please feel welcome to complete my Women’s Realities Study rape questionnaire.
I was a virgin and was raped by a boyfriend I had been dating briefly…My sister saved me during the rape. We talked about it immediately following, but not since then. I have confided in boyfriends, but more for their benefit rather than my own – I told them in an effort to defend my inconsistent desire for a sexual relationship… I think I mostly kept it a secret because I still feel guilty that it happened to me and that it affected me – I don’t want to complicate the lives of my family or friends with yet another problem after having them deal with my anxiety disorder and depressions. * During the rape I felt suffocating terror. Abandonment from God. The deepest alone I have ever felt. I sometimes near this feeling during panic attacks…With some distance from the event, I came into a depression that led to a feeling of being disconnected from God and even from the human race…I felt abandoned and alone. I felt uncomfortable in my body and disconnected from myself. I know that might not make sense to everyone, but in a sense I became a stranger to myself. I want people to understand that rape causes the most potent loss there is. Not only did I lose my faith in God, but I lost my ability to trust my instincts and to follow my heart. That is a loss I deal with every day.
*My note: her anxiety, panic attacks and depression were all in response to the rape.
I had to riff on “The First Pregnant Man” article, because, well, I just couldn’t help myself.
Here’s what veterans from the front lines had to say in my study in response to the question: If men got pregnant instead of women, how do you imagine things would be different?
“The morning after pill would have been invented by the Ancient Greeks…”
“I think our species would become extinct! I don’t think men, in their current state, could handle all that comes with being pregnant!”
“Morning sickness would become a disability!”
“We’d have government paid maternity leave (more like Europe), breast feeding would not be a taboo thing since men like to brag about size. I bet men would be showing their goods to the world all the time.”
“There would be tons of research to find ways to make pregnancy painless, shorter, responsive to the needs of men. I think there would be a lot of surrogate fatherhood (paying someone else to do it), as men generally have more money than women.”
“There would be no pain. Poor babies would have to go to bed for nine months. I think the father should be hooked up to a machine and every time the mother had a labor pain, he would have one also. Or fill them full of laxatives and let them have cramps.”
“I think they would have designed an incubator to do things more efficiently. Which would be too bad, because pregnancy may not be entirely efficient, but it is powerful, beautiful and transforming.”
And to the question:
If men gave birth instead of women, how do you think things would be different?
“Better insurance. More screaming.”
“I think doctors wouldn’t be saying ‘it will not matter a year from now how your labor went.’ They would accept and believe that how you birth DOES matter.”
“Men would have more to say about what happened while they gave birth. They would tell the doctors and nurses in no uncertain terms how things were going to be done.”
“It would be the end of the human race.”
“There would be better maternity leave policies, more flexible work options, and tampax and contraception would be government subsidized.”
“No pain. Praise instead of insults. Information. Choices.”
“Birth would be valued and celebrated, and the pain of the event would have long been eliminated.”
“The power of creating life and the ability to give birth would not be hidden and undermined in societies. It would be completely revered and celebrated.”
“I think they would actually do a good job. I think it would become a sport. They would make it competitive and use it as a badge of honor. We would have much more favorable laws, too, regarding maternal health care.”
“It’s a pretty powerful experience to bring life into the world. I think men would value life more if they experienced it in their womb.”
(Women ranged in age from 24-66.)
Grown daughters yearn to know how their mothers’ sexuality informed them as women when they were at the most important crossroads of their lives. They want to know these things because they want to understand their mothers as women, and let that understanding flow over how they see themselves in their own lives.
Daughters are driven to yearn because their mothers keep many of these things secret.
Here are some quotes representative of what women from my Women’s Realities Study are saying in response to the question: What do you want to know about your mother but would never ask?
If she questioned her sexuality. [I don't ask because] she would know I’m questioning mine.
Who is my father?
Did she ever love my father?
That I think she had an affair.
Why she never told us about my oldest brother’s birth and how she married my dad after he was born…why she was so ashamed.
I would most like to ask my mother: Why didn’t you date other men? Why did you allow grandma to push you into a marriage you weren’t sure was right?
When she lost her virginity.
I suspect that she had an abortion during my teenage years and I want to know for sure. I am definitely not comfortable enough with her to ask her that.
If she had sex before she was married. If she’s ever loved anyone as much as she loves my dad.
How she deals with the painful body memory of rape. She was raped as an 18 year old. That is how she lost her virginity. I wish I could kick that man in the balls. [I don't ask because] I don’t want to make her sad/or have to relive the trauma.”
From what little I know about it, to distill it to its simplest explanation, my parents divorced because dad liked sex and mom hated it, and this made them both miserable and led to other deal-breaking events. I’ve suspected for quite some time that she may have been abused or raped in her youth, because it would explain so many things about her. This is a question I don’t think I could ever ask her. We can’t even talk about sex in a POSTIVE way, not even about normal happy sex, not even about totally-sanctioned-by-”God”-married sex. I could never ask her about if she had been raped or molested. Because if it’s true, it is her deepest darkest secret that probably no one on earth knows about.
This is often what happens. A mother lives out life-altering experiences within her sexuality, or violation of it, then casts them off into a Bermuda Triangle, making all the information they contain forever unavailable to her daughter, who then has to find her own way through some of the very same challenges her mother faced, without benefit of her mother’s experience.
Every mother and daughter is entitled to her privacy and it’s important for each of them to determine for herself what her comfort zones are and what she requires to safeguard them, especially around sexual trauma. My concern is that mothers hold these things inside simply because their mothers did – because they don’t know any alternatives to the silence. Our mothers are our templates, and much of how we cope reflects that.
Since women still aren’t fully embraced as sexual creatures, which sexually-oriented secrets does a mother keep because she’s made a conscious decision to uphold her personal privacy, and which does she keep, more by default than consideration, out of shame?
There can be an automatic assumption that certain information isn’t appropriate for a daughter to have. But sometimes the mother’s shame can blind her to her to what her daughter might want to know. And sometimes the daughter senses and inherits her mother’s shame around these issues, and ends up keeping the very same secrets from her mother, for fear of being judged.
These are the realities not exclusive to mothers: daughters might question their sexuality. Daughters can get pregnant under conditions that are less than optimal. Daughters might be uncertain if they’re with the right partner. Daughters do wonder how sex fits into all of the other complications of relationships or lack thereof. Daughters will likely come to see infidelity as the peanut butter to the jelly of supposed monogamy. Daughters do get molested. And 1 in 6 daughters will be the victim of rape in her lifetime.
Mothers pass down pot roast recipes to their daughters. But they’re reluctant to pass down crucial life content to help them and their daughters appreciate how women cope at those crossroads, and how that influences which way they move forward.
Since the Relationship with Your Mother questionnaire draws such rich responses, this will be the first in a few posts teasing out some of its thicker themes, beginning with what women aged 20-88 referred to as the controlling/judgmental/martyring mother.
Here’s a fairly benign sample of that mishmosh from my own personal collection, one I catalogued with my mother about 18 years ago, yet was able to reference immediately. The scene: my mother wants me to come home for Easter, and I don’t want to go, but after weeks of really annoying internal deliberation I decide I will because it will make her happy.
Mother: I called to see what you’d like me to cook for Easter dinner.
Daughter: I don’t care. Anything but ham.
Mother: Oh…Ham was what I was going to make.
I think there’s a valiant social history to these undermining qualities that deserves our respect. It makes me think of the mental agility Edith Wharton and Jane Austen’s women use to indirectly express and protect themselves within the limitations of their society. Women scrambling to feel control and to secure their standing among each other used to come out of financial necessity. Now maybe we still deploy artifacts of that legacy, with quiet yet masterful pieces like, “Is that what you’re going to wear?”
Bullies are born out of an attempt to feel powerful in the face of powerlessness. Controlling and judging personalities are born of a desire to escape insecurities in order to feel safe. Elements of this can be seen in the responses in which daughters compare their mothers’ bullying of them, to their submission with their husbands. And daughters reveal how they carry on these destructive traditions with their own children.
This is what it feels like to daughters who’ve been hurt this way. What follows are responses to the questions: What pushes you farthest away from your mother? and What personality trait of your mother’s do you have that you hate or disrespect?
She can’t stop criticizing me.
She is very controlling and judgmental. I hate hearing her badmouth relatives she doesn’t like. I am sure she does the same thing with me behind my back.
Her incessant need to demean.
Her criticism. It seems no matter what I do she can always find something that should be done better, rather than focusing on the good aspects.
When she tries to tell me how or what to do…and the way she excuses everything her husband, my stepfather does. I feel judged when she tries to tell me what to do. Like what I’m doing isn’t good enough…and her opinion weighs heavy on me.
Her belligerence toward me. Her submission to my father. Her attempts to make me want to be someone I am not.
Guilt. My mother’s ability to make me feel guilty about anything and everything. I doubt even the smallest decisions because she has made me defer to her on everything and thrown it in my face when it does not work out.
She is catty and I can be too. I hate it about myself so it really rankles me when she does it.
I can say cutting things to my daughter that I know she said to me. She can always point out people’s flaws, it’s not judging them but she labels EVERYONE.
I am too critical of my children. Most times when I give my children constructive criticism, I can hear my mother’s voice and feel that my children hear me in the same way I heard my mother.
Judgments. Insensitivity to problems that I deem stupid or wrong or not like I would handle it.
Guilt. Sometimes I try to control my children with guilt. It stand out because my mother has a way of saying things that make me feel consumed with guilt and my negative feelings toward her. Especially because I love her.
I have a tendency to withhold approval or snidely criticize. I hate that in myself and struggle against that impulse.
We can continue this cycle of emotional corruption in the mother/daughter relationship, or we can raise free-range daughters who carry a sense of security within them wherever they go.
Of the 34% of women who described having fabulous relationships with their mothers, the qualities they esteemed as making that possible were: being seen for who they are; not being judged; not being criticized; and being listened to.
For those of us for whom it might be impossible to improve our relationships with our mothers, it’s important to seek out girlfriends who have no need to compete or criticize.
And for the mothers out there, let’s try not to drive our daughters into psychologically bankrupting themselves through ordering a continuous delivery of boxed “PERSONALITY DEFENSE KITS” from the Looney Tunes ACME Supply Co.
While I was reading through the Huffington Post women’s responses to my Physical Appearance questionnaire, I kept hearing Larry David’s agent Jeff from Curb Your Enthusiasm saying, “It’s just a big bowl of wrong.”
It’s wrong the unfair premium our culture places on women’s physical appearance, and how it makes for tough going out there. Some fare better under this pressure than others, depending on what we learned from our parents’ attitudes toward beauty, or whether we’ve been somehow traumatized by commentary on our looks, but none of us is immune to its impact on how we see ourselves.
One message that emerged from what women had to say is the need for us to recognize the power of our words and behavior. We underestimate the wounds they inflict, and we underplay their capacity to heal. They both change us. Harshness can turn our bodies into a minefield for self consciousness. Kindness can favorably reconfigure how we see ourselves. The opposite poles of this reality are reflected in these quotes.
What is the most negative experience you have had with regard to feeling physically unattractive?
I was upset because a man I liked did not have feelings for me. When I confided in my mother, she said, “Well, men don’t like overweight women.” I felt humiliated, worthless and angry.
I’m one of those people who’s either considered gorgeous or ugly. There are people who have told me that I am butt ugly to my face.
I put on a bit of weight for a while about ten years ago and I noticed my confidence drop through the floor. Made me realize how shallow I am and how unimpressive some other aspects of my life are, e.g. my career! By the way, there are also negative aspects to being attractive. I’ve had open hostility from women I don’t even know because they assume I think I’m hot.
Silly things from adolescence…not being popular because I wasn’t “pretty” and not being paid as much attention by boys for the same reason. Nobody likes to feel rejected.
Being ignored and feeling invisible.
I work in a retail store and a man and his grandson came through my line. I treated them as I would any other person asking, “How are we doing today?” “Did you find everything you were looking for?” and all with a smile. As I was handing the man his change and telling him to have a nice day he said “Honey, you’ve got too much shit through your lip.” I felt his comment was uncalled for. He and I had not had a conversation about piercings nor did I hear any conversation between him and his grandson about them. Just because I have them doesn’t mean that I don’t have feelings or that someone can talk to me any way they want.
For a whole year in junior high school, a boy continuously verbally and physically attacked me. He would call me ugly, burnt black, skinny bitch while his friends laughed. Oddly enough, he was an overweight, extremely dark-skinned boy whom, if not for the fear of his size and temper, would be made fun of by others for his lack of physical appeal. To him, I must have represented the worst of him and his only way to deal with it was to attack me.
What is the most positive experience you have had with regard to feeling physically attractive?
A friend once told me that I had beautiful golden brown eyes and I had always just thought of them as brown. Then I actually looked at them and sure enough they were golden brown. He was just a friend, but it made me feel beautiful.
Normally it is hard for me to believe people when they say I am attractive. At my mother’s second wedding, I was talking with an old family friend who I hadn’t seen in years. She said to me “You look beautiful. You always looked pretty, but now you’ve really come into your own.” I really appreciated it because I knew she was not only referring to my physical appearance, but also the person I’d become.
My husband still thinks I’m beautiful and tells me so.
I’ve had a lot of great compliments. Someone once said I looked like a panther, someone else a French film star. Queen of the Elves someone else said. Very nice. I don’t think I’m all that but it’s very generous of other people to say things…
I found out later that some of my friends (and a few strangers) developed crushes on me during my senior year of college. I was surprised and very flattered. I’d never been the hot girl before!
I had pink hair at one point, and my husband and I were walking out of a movie theatre and there was a little girl walking by with her mom. Really loud the girl says, “Look mommy, she’s got pink hair!” and the mother says “Yeah, isn’t that cool?” And the girl says “I want pink hair mommy.” I loved that the mother didn’t pull the girl away or say something rude about me.
Like Lilliputians pinning down Gulliver, the smallness of our efforts can be collectively powerful against the enormity of physical pressure. We could be more explicit with each other even when we notice the quirky parts of what we see as beautiful. Here’s some of the beauty I see in those I love in case I don’t say it out loud to them often enough:
The lyric quality of Anne’s fingers when she’s telling me a story.
The way the light catches in the dark of Nancy’s eyes and how they make me feel her enthusiasm.
The way one of Lisa’s teeth slightly overlaps the other making everything she says that much cooler.
Louisa’s sexy red hair and the way she wears the New York Times as an accessory.
The warmth in Jane’s face when she says “I love you sweetheart” whenever we say goodbye.
The way Olivia’s profile when she’s sleeping momentarily erases every bit of suffering I’ve ever done.