Wednesday, December 9, 2009

More Wednesday Wisdom With Warner

It's time for some more Wednesday wisdom with Judith Warner.  During our first few installments, we explored balancing our premotherhood and postmotherhood selves; the burden of modern husbandhood and fatherhood; and the "Motherhood Religion."  Today we'll take a look at the burden of female beauty - attaining it and maintaining it.

Over the weekend, Husband I were catching up on our backlog of Daily Show episodes.  (Husband remains a steadfast devotee of Jon Stewart, while I fantasize about becoming the first lady of Colbert Nation.  BLW, are you reading?  Smart is sexy.  But I digress.)  One episode covered President Obama's decision to send an additional 30,000 American troops to Afghanistan.  In typical montage style, clips featured the skeptical reactions of a number of Republican and Democratic Congressmen.  I wasn't paying much attention until I heard a female voice (that of a California Congresswoman whose name I can't remember), at which point I looked up, smirked, and snidely noted to Husband: "She looks like she just stuck her finger in an electric socket."  I didn't think at all about my remark until Jon Stewart ended the segment by commenting that this same woman - an elected representative discussing a, literally, life-or-death issue - must have gone to her hairdresser and asked for the "Statue of Liberty."

And then it hit me: I am sexist.  And, in this instance, so is Jon Stewart.

The topic of the segment was the troop surge; the spin was that representatives from both sides of the aisle greeted Obama's announcement with cynicism.  I didn't really pay attention to any of that.  But I did take the time to comment on a woman's - the only woman's - hairdo.  I could not tell you what any of the Congressmen looked like, but I could pick that Congresswoman out of a line-up in a heartbeat.  Me.  A sexist eyewitness.

Judith Warner wrote last week about her initial surprise that NOW has come out against the so-called Bo-Tax, a provision of the Senate health care bill that calls for a 5% tax on elective cosmetic procedures.  She goes on to consider the ways in which our society values and devalues women, especially aging women, based on their appearance.  She then introduces the idea, borrowed from Beauty Junkies author Alex Kuczynski, of "an activism of aesthetics”:
At first glance, this seems ridiculous. And yet it says something true enough about the way many younger women understand feminism at a time when organized, real-world activism has hit wall after wall of political impossibility. Sneaker ads teach that feminism is all about taking control — of your figure...Women’s empowerment becomes a matter of a tight face and a flat belly. You control what you can control. And so many middle-aged women feel particularly out of control now, as indeed they are, in these life plan-wrecking economic times.
Certainly I have heard for years the laments of Hollywood actresses who see their roles dry up after they reach a certain age.  But, until reading Warner's column last week, I hadn't realized the universality of the professional pressure on women to maintain their youthful looks.  And, apparently, even when women attain a high level of career advancement - like my pal, the Congresswoman from California - they are still subject to ridicule based not on their words, but on the holding power of their styling gel.  Are professional men subjected to these same standards, these same sexist drive-bys?  I doubt it.

And I am part of the problem.  A woman whose attention is piqued, then tweaked, by a cosmetic decision.  A woman who undermines the wisdom of another woman's words by failing to look beyond her hair.  And if I am part of the problem, who isn't?

Do you judge women by their looks?  Do you judge men and women differently?


  1. Interesting post and I am not sure how I feel about this one. If we are being real, we all judge each other - man or woman - by looks. Can this be avoided? I'm not sure. Sure, we can and should move beyond the superficial facade and dig deeper, but that first glimpse, that first glace, amounts to sizing up one's physical person.

    I think that women tend to compete with other women, to dress for other women, to try to impress other women. This could account for the fact that we women might be more inclined to focus on other women a bit more? I'm really not sure, but thank you for making me think.

  2. I am constantly judging a book by its cover and then constantly berating myself for doing so. But deep down, I know I value the inside of a person more than the outside - it's just so hard not to immediately make some kind of judgement when I initially meet someone. Human nature? Bad habit? I struggle with this daily.

  3. A sobering post, and an important one. A number of us (40+ and men / women both) went through several rounds of discussion on the issue of cosmetic surgery specifically, about 2 months ago.

    Many thoughts.

    - We are all influenced by what we see, and what we think of as beauty. We are, among other things, culturally influenced.
    - What is beautiful in California is not necessarily as "valued" on the attractiveness scale in NYC. What is beautiful in Rome is not the same as what is beautiful in Mumbai or in Copenhagen.
    - Expectations of a face (or body) that shows no trace of its history of giving or living a life except for surgically camouflaged scars, or scars hidden beneath underwear is not the norm in other countries. It is becoming the norm here.
    - At 20 or 30 or even 40 you cannot truly imagine how expectations of what a "woman should look like" change - in ways that are subtle and not-so-subtle, both personally and professionally.
    - On the personal side, we run into the age issue in a major way (another series of posts on that around the same time): 50 year old man and 25 or 30 year old woman? No problem. He's distinguished looking (if he has bucks). 50-year old woman with a 40-year old man? P-R-O-B-L-E-M-A-T-I-C, unless you're in Hollywood or you're nipped, tucked, well-heeled, or very very lucky.

    Double standards exist in this country - gender and age and ethnicity and other factors still narrow (or augment) opportunities - in all realms.

    We do still have (unrealistic) and biased expectations - all of us - as to what women should look like. We judge. We judge less, as they speak, as they move, as they reveal themselves as individuals.

    This is not the case to the same extent in other cultures. But you notice I said to the same extent.

    When a woman decides to have a surgical procedure to feel better about herself, isn't it because society has created pressure such that if she does NOT, she feels less good about herself? If tens of thousands of women were not nip-tucking-botoxing every trace of life from a brow, a lip, the breasts that have fed babies, the belly that gave them a warm home, the hips that swelled in womanhood with age and life - then wouldn't we ALL be better off?

    ACTUALLY - please DO go read my post on Cosmetic Surgery.

    Read about the man who wanted me to undergo this, that, and everything else, and who made me feel like a piece of meat - and an ugly one at that - as a result. And I will say here what I did not say there:

    As I see my own body age - and I see it - I miss the parts that were smooth and full of youth. But it is my story, written on my body. Why would I obliterate it in shame?

    Am I strong enough to say this aloud? To convince myself of it next to a woman my age who HAS nipped/tucked/botoxed? And other women? Do they understand how they collectively (yes, by individual choice) add to a cultural problem for women in general? And of course, men, increasingly used to it, now expect it...

    No one is young forever. What happened to honoring our age?

    Can we not say -

    and I will not subject myself to the risks, to the invasion, to the plasticity of a standard that says there is no grace, no value, no beauty in a woman aging.

    (I could go on, but I'll stop.)

  4. First of all, I'm with you, I'd fight you tooth and nail to be the first lady of the Colbert Nation ;)
    Second, I find myself doing the double standard thing as well, and get disgusted with myself. Because I don't want other women (especially women, the men I'm not so concerned with these days) to judge me on my appearance. But I know it happens. Even on the playground. The days where I use the hair straightener before I go out I get more moms randomly talking to me than the days where I look disheveled and wear my sweats out. Maybe because with looking "good" my confidence rises, and we're attracted to those with confidence. But I digress, there are so many issues and topics that rise with your words.

    I wonder what it takes to be comfortable in our own skin, to exude confidence even in sweats and Statue of Liberty hair.

  5. Hmph. I am not really in good shape enough here to comment intelligently, but this was a very thought provoking post. I'll be back when I ain't on da painkillers :)

  6. In our culture of narcissism, we seem to need to look like some ideal cooked up in Hollywood and on Madison Avenue in order to sell us stuff we don't really need, including plastic surgery. More than self-centered, or even insecure, we are often clueless about who we truly are, and thus vulnerable to pressures to be someone else.

    For more on this see "How is narcissism like footed pajamas?"

    While it is true that we all judge others, perhaps a jungle-remnant of our need to sort danger from desire, we also have the capacity to see to the sacred center of things.

    I've spent plenty of therapeutic hours trying to talk perfectly beautiful people OUT of having elective surgeries, not always with success. As someone said, "they don't look younger, they look surprised.' Maybe surprised that nothing truly got better.

    I'll stand with BLW and let time tell its tale on my body as it sees fit.

  7. I'm kind of loud and adamant about aging being a feminist issue myself. I'll be 50 in March and being a writer (of memoir) means that I cherish every one of those years. No lying, no distorting my age. I find it so troublesome when I see women my age marching around with plastic everything. What exactly is the purpose of all this? Aren't we absolutely positive that the body is mortal? And we all want to live long lives, right? Don't we all want to be wrinkled up old ladies one day, dying later rather than sooner? When I see a woman my age with all this fake stuff and a forehead that doesn't move and hair that looks like it belongs on a 20-year-old, I think this is a woman who's frozen in her past and who's filled with fear.

  8. Thank you all of these insightful comments. Clearly my half-baked thoughts about our cultural standards of beauty danced on the surface of a deep well of ideas.

    I especially appreciate the link BLW drew between my post and the urge to seek out cosmetic surgery. Her comment introduces a very important theme to this discussion: why are we so reluctant to show not just our age, but our experience, our wisdom, our grace of a life well lived? As Linda noted, we all know that our time on Earth is finite. And if old age is our goal, why do we run from the appearance of it?

    And I'm still interested in the idea that I floated only briefly in my post: the different expectations for men and women. For instance, don't we find a "distinguished" look in an older man attractive? (Harrison Ford comes to mind.) Is it something as simple as an understanding that men's reproductive lives are longer and we subconsciously associate appearance with virility? Do men feel this same pressure to nip and tuck? (If only I had more male readers to weigh in. Thank goodness Bruce stopped by today.)

    Your comments helped plant the seeds of much thinking and possible future posts. Thank you.


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