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 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 those things.
In some ways, women in the United States have come so far from the early days of the women's movement. In other ways, not so much. 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 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 ad online the other day that said something like "Mother, 57, looks 27" and was followed with copy that this is what all women 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 expected to look like we are in our 20s, at the very oldest.
This morning I saw another ad, on television, this one for some sort of face lift procedure (the ad isn't very clear about exactly what the procedure involves). It exhorts women to take advantage of the opportunity to look young and "healthy", as if there is something inherently unhealthy about being old. This is an attitude that I see and hear more and more, that age is something to be cured.
The flaw in this whole plan? We are all aging, all the time, and people who are fifty-seven years old should not look like they are twenty-seven. 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'm 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, with the implication being that if they don't do these things, they won't be able to compete in the job market.
I find this whole attitude to be 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 the individuals I hired be able to do the jobs they were hired to do rather than just be able to stand around and look nice.
What this all brings to mind are the not-very-funny jokes I used to hear in the Sixties, as a young girl, about men hiring secretaries (which was 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 even a teenager yet, I couldn't figure out why anyone would hire someone for a job they could not do.
Sometimes, 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 school counselors steering every female student into three basic professions - teacher, nurse, or secretary - when they weren't making comments about why they were even bothering with college when they were just going to get married and have babies, anyway.
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 make up at least half of the workforce now. But no matter how intelligent and skilled and experienced a woman is, she is still expected to fit certain physical criteria in order to even be considered for a job.
And I think that stinks.