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.

reading: Didion, Chandler, budget style, Proust, cookery

On February 9, 2014 by theseventhsphinx

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The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion — Joan Didion’s account of the year after her husband’s death. Interesting reflections on grief and loss, memory and love. She writes about being lucidly irrational, maintaining certain habits as if her husband might come home at any minute, analyzing her mourning (and researching the human experience of mourning, grieving) while being at a loss to stem or manage it. Compelling reading, especially as I think our culture does a poor job of establishing social and emotional structures/traditions/protocols around grief, despite the fact that grief is universal and visits all.

The Simple Art of Murder, Raymond Chandler — A collection of short stories I picked up after seeing [Agatha Christie’s] Ms. Marple reading it in the (I think very good) 2004 BBC series.  Entirely worth it if only for the essay of the same name that serves as a prologue to the collection (I am exponentially more likely to watch a detective story than to read one, but I am interested to read about the writing of them. Go figure.). Full of the kind of dry humor I love, and interesting besides.

“…the good novel is not at all the same kind of book as the bad novel. It is about entirely different things. But the good detective story and the bad detective story are about exactly the same things, and they are about them in very much the same way.”

“I have known relatively few international financiers, but I rather think the author of this novel has (if possible) known fewer.”

“The English may not always be the best writers in the world, but they are incomparably the best dull writers.”

“The story is this man’s [the detective’s] adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in. If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in.”

Good, right?

Savvy Chic: The Art of More for Less, Anna Johnson — There are a lot of memoir/advice books about style, and I have read quite a few of them (I will not say how many, but many, many). I regret to inform you that most may be categorized somewhere along the spectrum between useless and awful. Or plotted on a grid where the x axis goes from useless to awful and the y axis goes from trite to mind-bogglingly dull, the intersection of which axes is pure, unalloyed vapidity. Some can be skimmed quickly enough that extracting one or two redeeming ideas makes the whole business worthwhile, others cannot even boast this. I still keep hoping though, that they are going to have fruit for me, and I keep checking them out of the library. Well, finally, one with some sense. This is not badly written! This is not bad advice! I am going to check out her other books!

Seriously, though, if you are trying to get more mileage out of your fashion budget, or trying to approach fashion practically without sacrificing a sense of luxury (and can tolerate the odd short anecdote), this is a sensible little book. She touches on food, entertaining, home decor, travel, and other contexts of style as well. Not too bossy about ‘every woman should have x in her closet’ kind of stuff, either, which can be hard to stomach. Really incredibly less bad than the genre would lead one to expect.

The French Slow Cooker, Michele Scicolone — I got a slow cooker. If I understand correctly, my mind is about to be blown.

And I’m back to reading Swann’s Way, from which I’d been distracted for a while.