Tuesday, January 29, 2013

We've come a long way, baby?


Right now, I'm reading Tom Brokaw's book Boom, about the baby boom generation. It's an interesting book.

Last night I read the section on the women's movement in the 1960s and 1970s, and how there was a rivalry between Betty Friedan, who wrote the book The Feminine Mystique (1963), and journalist Gloria Steinem. In the book, Brokaw relates writer and director Nora Ephron's impressions of this rivalry, especially as Ephron remembered it from a meeting of the National Women's Political Caucus at the 1972 Democratic National Convention, but in general as well. Ephron observed that the younger, thinner, and more physically attractive Steinem got more - much more - attention than did Friedan, mostly because Steinem was all of those things.

In some ways, women in the United States have come a long way from the early days of the women's movement. In other ways, things have not really changed much at all. In truth, I think it might be worse for older, fatter, and less physically attractive women now than it was in those days - and it was very bad in those days. The thing that makes it worse now is that we have to live with what I call the tyranny of youth and perfectionism.

I've written about this before here. The media are constantly telling women, especially, that they have to be perfect to be of any worth at all. I saw an advertisement online the other day that said something like "Mother, 57, looks 27". This headline was followed with copy implying that this is what all women want, or should want. I'm not sure of the wording, but the ages are those that appeared in the ad's copy. We are expected to be thin, cover any gray we have in our hair, and go to any lengths necessary - including surgery - to make sure we have no wrinkles. In short, we are all told we are expected to look like we are in our 20s, at the oldest.

This morning I saw another ad, on television this time, for some sort of face-lift procedure. The ad is not clear about exactly what the procedure involves, but it exhorts women to take advantage of the opportunity to look young and "healthy", as if there is something inherently unhealthy about being, or looking, old. This is an attitude that I see and hear more and more - that age is something that can, should, and must be cured.

There is a flaw in this plan. We are all aging, all the time, and people who are 57 years old should not look like they are 27. It isn't natural. This, however, does not stop the media from regularly running stories encouraging older job seekers (I see lots of this stuff because I am currently looking for work) to color their hair, to make sure they diet and go to the gym regularly, and even to have plastic surgery. The implication is that if women don't do these things, we will not be able to compete in the job market.

This attitude is ludicrous. I just do not understand - I never have and I never will - why so many people believe that what someone looks like should trump their skills, experience, and ability to do a job. Certainly, if I were a personnel manager, I would prefer that an individual I hire be able to do the job they were hired to do rather than just be able to stand around and look nice.

What this all brings to mind more than anything are the not-very-funny jokes I used to hear in the 1960s, as a young girl, about men hiring secretaries (one of the few jobs most women could get at that time): "Well, no the girl [and they were always "girls", not women] can't type of take dictation, but she sure looks good around the office." Even then, when I was not a teenager yet, I couldn't figure out why anyone would hire someone based on their looks rather than their skills.

I'm not sure whether I should feel sad, angry, or depressed that some things have changed so little since the time of job advertisements that were divided by gender and of high school counselors attempting to steer every female student into three professions - teacher, nurse, or secretary - and asking the young women why they were bothering with college, anyway, when they were just going to get married and have babies. That, certainly, was part of my high school experience in the early 1970s.

Yes, there are more women executives now than there were (but still not anywhere near parity with men), and more women are graduating from law school and medical school. Women are nearly half or more than half of the U.S. workforce now, depending on whose statistics you look at. But no matter how intelligent, skilled, and experienced a woman is, she is often still expected to fit certain physical criteria in order to be considered for a job. And, even if that is not always true, Madison Avenue wants us to believe that's the way it is.

We may have come a long way, baby, but we've still got a long way to go, apparently.

1 comment:

Audrey Humaciu said...

My grandmother was a little shocked that I didn't know what I was going to major in at college. "My sisters and I all knew what we wanted to be." My reply, "Yes, you were a teacher, one was a nurse and the other was a secretary."