reading: confidence, feminism, motherhood

On July 11, 2014 by theseventhsphinx

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The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women, Naomi Wolf — OK, this is going to be long, but this book is good, and important.

Wait. First, have you read The Feminine Mystique? Clearly a mother-text of Wolf’s book, as it is to so many. Go read that (especially if you are American but I suspect it would be interesting either way). Read the first 3 pages, and if you don’t want to keep reading, well… then I just don’t know what to do with you. Despair of you, maybe.

Here’s Wolf’s outline of what the beauty myth is, which is then systematically dismantled and its component parts dismissed. There is so much critical data here that there is no point trying to summarize – better to see the whole picture:

“The beauty myth tells a story: The quality called “beauty” objectively and universally exists. Women must want to embody it and men must want to possess women who embody it. This embodiment is an imperative for women and not for men, which situation is necessary and natural because it is biological, sexual, and evolutionary: strong men battle for beautiful women, and beautiful women are more reproductively successful. Women’s beauty must correlate to their fertility and since this system is based on sexual selection, it is inevitable and changeless.

None of this is true.  “Beauty” is a currency system like the gold standard. Like any economy, it is determined by politics, and in the modern age in the West it is the last, best belief system that keeps male dominance intact.”

“Since the women’s movement had successfully taken apart most other necessary fictions of femininity, all the work of social control once spread out over the whole network of these fictions had to be reassigned to the only strand left intact, which action consequently strengthened it a hundredfold.”

Here’s an extended excerpt of just one example I found powerful:

“Before women entered the work force in large numbers, there was a clearly defined class of those explicitly paid for their “beauty”: workers in the display professions – fashion mannequins, actresses, dancers, and higher paid sex workers such as escorts. Until women’s emancipation, professional beauties were usually anonymous, low in status, unrespectable. The stronger that women grow, the more prestige, fame, and money is accorded to the display professions: They are held higher and higher above the heads of rising women, for them to emulate.

What is happening today is that all the professions into which women are making strides are being rapidly reclassified – so far as the women in them are concerned – as display professions.

What must this creature, the serious professional woman, look like?

Television Journalism vividly proposed its answer. The avuncular male anchor was joined by a much younger female newscaster with a professional prettiness level.

That double image – the older man, lined and distinguished, seated besid a nubile, heavily made-up female junior – became the paradigm for the relationship between men and women in the workplace. Its allegorical force was and is pervasive: The qualification of professional prettiness, intended at first to sweeten the unpleasant fact of a woman assuming public authority, took on a life of its own.

The message of the news team, not hard to read, is that a powerful man is an individual, whether that individuality is expressed in asymmetrical features, lines, gray hair, hairpieces, baldness, bulbousness, tubbiness, facial tics, or a wattled neck; and that his maturity is part of his power [..] But the women beside them need youth and beauty to enter the sames soundstage. Youth and beauty, covered in solid makeup, present the anchorwoman as generic – an “anchorclone,” in the industry’s slang. What is generic is replaceable. With youth and beauty, then, the working woman is visible, but insecure, made to feel her qualities are not unique. But, without them, she is invisible – she falls, literally, “out of the picture.”

[..]

The message was finalized: The most emblematic working women in the West could be visible if they were “beautiful,” even if they were bad at their work; they could be good at their work and “beautiful” and therefore visible, but get no credit for merit; or they could be good and “unbeautiful” and therefore invisible, so their merit did them no good. In the last resort, they could be as good and as beautiful as you please – for too long; upon which, aging, they disappeared. This situation now extends throughout the workforce.”

One key observation, if you never read it: “The beauty myth is always actually prescribing behavior and not appearance.”

 

The Confidence Code, Katty Kay & Claire Shipman — So, so interesting. They approach the definition and exploration of confidence from both genetic and cultural directions (it’s about as complicated as you would think, and I really recommend checking out the book). They took many years to research and write it, and it shows. Really great data that underscores the issues of confidence for women (ex. on the whole men are more likely to shrug off criticism, and are more willing to fail, women are more likely to ask for a promotion when they have 100% of the qualifications, men when they have something like 40%, women are more likely to underestimate their abilities, men more likely to overestimate them) at the end giving explicit advice about how to be more confident. The one that stuck with me is to try more, and fail more, and grow to be comfortable with failure as an (often inevitable) intermediate step to something better. I would say I am a very confident person, yet after reading this I could see immediately how much more so I could be, and wanted to share the book with friends who are less confident (women and men alike).

 

Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, Judith Warner — A lot of the observations here tie in directly with issues that come up in The Beauty Myth (and so, of course, The Feminine Mystique). I’d say it ties in pretty neatly with The Confidence Code, too. That reading alignment did not happen on purpose but the parallels are frequent and glaring. Extremely interesting and relevant to…American women in general (a lot of the issues are specific to American public policy and culture), women who have babies or are considering having babies, men who like women who have babies or are considering having babies, men who have babies, parents in general…

This excerpt should give you a good idea:

“I do not think most women can be happy in our current culture of motherhood. It is just too psychologically damaging. 

I think the kinds of “choices” women must now make, the kinds of compromises, adjustments, and adaptations they must accept in the name of “balance” and Good Motherhood, the kinds of disappointments and even heartbreaks they must suck up fore the sake of marital harmony, do them a kind of psychological violence. Too often, they end up anxious and depressed[…]

And this is not just a problem of individual women and their privately managed psychological pain.

Women today mother they way they do in part because they are psychologically conditioned to do so. But they also do it because, to a large extent, they have to. Because they are unsupported, because their children are not taken care of, in any meaningful way, by society at large. Because there is right now no widespread feeling of social responsibility – for children, for families, for anyone, really – and so they must take everything onto themselves. And because they can’t, humanly, take everything onto themselves, they simply go nuts.”

 

Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, Anne Lamott — I’m not that interested in memoirs abstractly,* but go on kicks once in a while where I want to learn about a specific kind of experiential knowledge, and turn to them. In this case I will even read (or try to read, or skim) quite mediocre memoirs, just for the data. Lamott is known for her excellent memoir Bird by Bird, about her writing life, and this memoir is similarly entertaining and perceptive. I would not quite call this excellent, as parts of the personality presented were too annoying or off-putting for me, but interesting, especially for single mothers.

*with the exception of memoirs/autobiographies/biographies by and/or about writers I like.

 

Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence, Rebecca Walker — Extremely detailed (this primarily covers the course of her pregnancy), a little short on observation, a faithful portrait of someone stressed and confused with the interest of elements like that of her being mixed race (black, white, Jewish, about which she evidently has another memoir), and her partner being a Buddhist monk, etc. I would say, if you are prone to anxiety, this book will only make it worse, and without being very useful or original to make up for it. Not very good but a quick read and one that presents what seem to be classic points of anxiety re: motherhood.

weekend distraction: menagerie bookends

On December 15, 2013 by theseventhsphinx

I found these faux leather menagerie bookends in a nursery decor shop and deemed them too cute to give to babies, who, as everyone knows, have no taste. The solution: give them to me instead.

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Look at this hippo with its little ears!

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The stubby little elephant is killing me, too.

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Too. Cute. Can’t. Take it.

images from serenaandlily.com

reading: Friedan, Sontag, babies

On October 1, 2013 by theseventhsphinx

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The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan – I had only read excerpts of this up to now, and I wish I had read it in its entirety sooner. This book is interesting, relevant, elegantly structured, and–to me, and I think to all American women–important. Friedan explores the causes and repercussions of what she calls the feminine mystique, an American phenomenon bound up in the history of feminism in America. It is a story about our mothers, our grandmothers, our great-grandmothers, and that means it is a story about us.

“The feminine mystique says that the highest value and the only commitment for women is the fulfillment of their own femininity. It says that the great mistake of Western culture, through most of its history, has been the undervaluation of this femininity. It says this femininity is so mysterious and intuitive and close to the creation and origin of life that man-made science may never be able to understand it. But however special and different, it is in now way inferior to the nature of man; it may even in certain respects be superior. The mistake, says the mystique, the root of women’s troubles in the past is that women envied men, women tried to be like men, instead of accepting their own nature, which can find fulfillment only in sexual passivity, male domination, and nurturing maternal love.”

There is a lot more to it, and it is with great sincerity that I urge you– especially the women among you– to read the whole thing. At least read the wikipedia page. This was written in 1963 but the cultural pressures it chronicles have no small degree of influence today, as evidenced by the prevalence of and often rabid responses to articles about ‘having it all’ and ‘all the single ladies’.  (Coincidence that both the articles I’ve chosen as prime examples are from The Atlantic?) I suspect that any given reader would resonate with more of these 60s observations than they would expect. Man or woman, this history is influencing your life, whether you know about it or not. I think, in this case, it is good to know.

The Volcano Lover, Susan Sontag – I picked this up after watching this incredible Sontag interview, wherein she is so unabashedly contentious, so ungenerous to the interviewer (to whom she has taken a transparent dislike), so unexpected, that I took an immediately liking to her. How refreshing! How inspiring! I like her book, too! I don’t know who Camille Paglia is, either! [Or, I didn’t. There is an interview with Paglia in the link as well, which seems to demonstrate quite neatly that she is unhinged. Both interviews very entertaining in their way.]

The New Basics: A-to-Z Baby & Child Care for the Modern Parent, Michel Cohen – A sensible care guide from a French pediatrician, the gist of which is: don’t panic (try this instead). I don’t have a baby but I may someday, or may in some other capacity be called upon to know what to do with one. I like to know what to do. Also, babies and the cultural stuff surrounding them are interesting to me, just academically (why do I feel a need to defend myself? Perhaps because I mention it in the wake of Friedan…). I deem this eminently practical and thorough, with an excellent amount of detail (meaning, not too much) and the encouragement of a relaxed approach. If I did have a baby, I would keep it on hand.

 

reading: Nabokov, Stein, France, tennis, babies….

On July 9, 2013 by theseventhsphinx

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Baby Meets World: Suck, Smile, Touch, Toddle, Nicholas Day – Babies are fascinating, and this provides much evidence to support that. Myth debunking, history of oft misguided babycare, multicultural perspective, weird/cool data.

Strokes of Genius:Federer, Nadal, and the Greatest Match Ever Played, L. Jon Wertheim – Outlines in elaborate detail, with superb orientation, the 2008 men’s Wimbledon final. I haven’t read that much sports writing, admittedly, but I think this is great sports writing. I was already into tennis when I read this…and it got me more into tennis.

Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Nabokov – Nabokov improves your vocabulary and forces you into new cerebral flexibility. I think he is phenomenal.

Paris France, Gertrude Stein – Lately I will give just about any book on France a go. This is good (many of them are not good), sort of slippery and fluid and fast-reading, though her style gets in your head. Weirdly I am reading a lot about France and babies. And babies in France.

On Lies, Secrets, and Silence, Adrienne Rich – This is a collection of searching and riveting essays, all to do somehow or another with women and feminism. So many beautiful and true moments in this. Recommend.