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Is the Pantsuit Driving Women…Red?

In response to recent polls showing that female voters may favor Republicans in today’s election, the New York Times features a discussion about why women’s allegiance might be shifting. Most of the discussion is so hair-splittingly safe that the “why” is wholly unaddressed, but one brave commenter actually ventures a guess: There are simply more Republican women on the ballot.

This is a perfectly reasonable explanation (though it suggests that women care more about anatomy than ability). This year, the Republicans have nominated a record number of female candidates and Sarah Palin’s motley crew has gained enormous national attention.

But I’m not sure that sheer numbers could really change our stripes.

I think this actually goes much deeper, to a cultural shift that the Republicans have picked up on while the Democrats refuse to get on board.

So what is this shift all about?

Recently, I’ve seen something in conservative female candidates that I’ve never seen in politics before: femininity.

Two weeks ago, the New York Times featured an article on conservative fashion, including a slide show that highlights the stark difference between the political parties’ styles. Republican women are stepping out in hip-hugging skirts, ruffly blouses, and stylish jackets, while Democratic women are still rocking the boxy pantsuit.

You might think that style choices shouldn’t matter. But whatever your politics, they matter. And this time, I think they should.

I’m reminded of Anna Wintour’s famously scathing letter when Hillary Clinton refused to appear in Vogue during the 2008 election for fear of appearing “too feminine.” Ms. Wintour, never one to mess with, wrote:

“The notion that a contemporary woman must look mannish in order to be taken seriously as a seeker of power is frankly dismaying…I do think Americans have moved on from the power-suit mentality, which served as a bridge for a generation of women to reach boardrooms filled with men. Political campaigns that do not recognize this are making a serious misjudgment.”

That misjudgment goes beyond our style choices and touches on a larger issue that those noxious pantsuits have come to represent.

Femininity, as a whole, has long suffered our collective disrespect. Feminine women are dismissed. Feminine men are scorned. Despite all our strides toward equality, femininity is still distinctly lesser. As a culture, we seem to be under the disturbingly mistaken impression that femininity cannot coexist with intelligence, strength, and power.

It’s time for that to change.

Thankfully, I think it is changing. Slowly, I see my generation starting to respect traditionally feminine traits, and to embody (or hope for) a world where girlie girls can debate economics and heroic hunks can cry when they read Jane Eyre.

So come on, Dems. Shred those pastel pantsuits. This train is leaving, with or without you. It’s time to get on board.

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Defending the 50s Housewife, Or Why You Should Learn To Lize

When I watch Mad Men, I look at Trudy Campbell, always so put-together and cheery and totally in favor of Pete, and I think, my God, I could never be you. Surely, I’d explode. Or make someone else explode.

But now, one brave blogger, over at Jen but Never Jenn, is on a one-week mission to prove it’s possible. She is taking on the 50s Housewife Experiment: Husband Obsessed Edition with exemplary vigor, all the way down to boosting his ego with some cute little star-shaped cookies. Who needs rally girls when you can have a wife?!

I was devouring Day 1 of this hilarious experiment, when I stumbled on a habit of highly effective housewives that all of us today could take a cue from.

So what is that habit? Let’s take a look:

“He then unloaded what was on his mind (trying to get the swing of things at his new job, especially the lingo and acronyms they heavily use) and I attempted to “lize” (listen with my eyes) throughout it all. … As suggested, I gave no advice but encouraged him to keep at it, that he’d get the hang of things and gently reminded him about raising his EQ (Enthusiasm! Quotient!). This is so *not* my style of motivation normally (I like to come up with solutions, not cheerlead), so I found this to be largely an exercise in restraint on my part.”

I imagine that most modern women would second her objection to lizing. (Major technical advances have allowed us to listen with our ears and actually process the information).

But today, I’m going against my natural instinct, arguing in favor of lizing and cheerleading and raising his EQ.

So get out your pom-poms, and hear me out.

Last year, I worked as a research assistant in a psych lab studying couples. I spent hours watching couples discuss personal problems. Not problems in the relationship, but problems in one partner’s personal life. The study is still ongoing, but from my personal observations, the partners that offered subtle encouragement (i.e. head nods, empathic gestures, restatements) were much more effective supporters than the ones that offered advice.

To illustrate this, I think of myself, sharing one of my problems with my husband. I’m usually upset that he’s giving too much support, rather than too little. Sometimes I want to brainstorm solutions together, but that’s usually once I’ve calmed down. Before that, I just want to vent, or hear my thoughts out loud, or know that he’s on my side. I just want to be a mess for a minute. When he does step in, his help can feel patronizing, like he doesn’t believe I can handle it myself. Sometimes I need him to just trust that I’ve got it and be with me.

As it turns out, I’m not alone in that.

In 2006, a series of studies tested the effectiveness of different types of support. The results showed that invisible support—recognized only by the provider, not the receiver—was the most effective. Visible support, like advice, left people no better off (or worse) than if they got no support at all.

So what is so bad about advice?

Well, the study showed that unsolicited advice was interpreted as a lack of confidence and made the recipients feel incompetent. The authors concluded that the key to effective support is to communicate confidence in the person’s capacity to handle the problem.

Watching Mad Men, I notice that the men give plenty of advice to their wives. It makes them seem controlling, or superior, and the women seem to absorb the sense of incompetence that kind of support implies.

I wonder if, or why, as women became more liberated, we started emulating male support, offering unsolicited advice to our husbands. Couldn’t we instead encourage our husbands to become cheerleaders for us, confident in our ability to cope? Maybe, in our effort to equalize the playing field, we got a little off track. Maybe we were the ones who had it right to begin with.

So ladies, let’s bring back lizing. And this time, let’s get our men to lize back.

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Dating Rorschach: Looking for Meaning in the Cold Shoulder

On a cross-country flight to California, I made the mistake of watching He’s Just Not That Into You. I actually thought I might enjoy it. I mean, the book is amusing, and the Sex and the City episode that inspired it all is one of my all-time favorites. But the women in the movie just seemed so desperate and, for lack of a better word, nuts.

Sure, I can think of countless occasions when I’ve sat down with my girlfriends to discuss the top 400 reasons why Guy X hasn’t called. And I can certainly think of many men who drove me to that point too.

But I know something that the writers apparently didn’t: Women are not insane. We are not desperate. We do lead full, wonderful lives, with or without a man. Contrary to popular belief.

A few months ago, I was sitting at dinner with a friend of mine. She was telling me about a guy she’d seen a couple of times, who she really wasn’t into. But she couldn’t get him out of her head because he wasn’t returning her calls. After several hours running through the reasons why he went AWOL, she sent him a text with this message: “When you don’t call, I think you’re dead.”

She never heard from him again.

Now, it would be easy to say that she’s crazy. I assure you: She is not. And I also assure you that her experience is pretty near universal. She just cuts to the chase much better than the rest.

If this reaction is so common, then is there a chance that this seemingly irrational response might be rational, or at least predictably irrational? I think there is.

In 2008, Science Magazine published a study on participants’ pattern perception based on perceived control. To test this, the researchers separated the participants into two groups: the in-control group and the out-of-control group. In the in-control group, the participants were given an intelligence test and were told that they were correct every time, regardless of their answers. In the out-of-control group, the participants were given the same intelligence test, but were told that they were correct only 50% of the time, regardless of their answers.

After each group was tested, they were shown meaningless images like television static. The researchers asked each group what they saw in the images. Those in the in-control group said, ‘Nothing.’ Those in the out-of-control group found all sorts of patterns, reading meaning into a meaningless picture.

With this study in mind, think of my friend, waiting for her date to call back, getting nothing but radio silence. Suddenly, her behavior makes a lot more sense.

Here, her date is in control. His call determines whether the date was a success, and whether he wants to go out again. Half the time he calls, half the time he doesn’t. Even though she doesn’t like him, she is out of control. Without feedback to hold onto, she searches for meaning and pattern.

But there’s a post-script to this study too.

In a follow-up study, the researchers asked the out-of-control group to recall a personal value that they think of as important. Afterward, when they were asked what they saw in the images, they also answered, ‘Nothing.’

One of the researchers notes in an NPR interview, “When you’re feeling powerless, maybe you should stop and think about what you really care about — something you do have control over.”

Maybe remembering the things that really matter will free you to remember: you’re just not that into him.

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Updates: Sex and Beer

Two quick updates on some of my recent posts–

First up:

I recently posted commentary on Stella Artois’s print ad campaign, featuring the slogan, “She is a thing of beauty.” Since then, Stella Artois launched their TV commercial campaign.

The ad, directed by Wes Anderson, is both clever and appealing. Still, my objection to the print campaign holds true in the televised version.

Here, there is an interesting conflation of all the subjects—the gadgets, the beer, and the woman. Only the man is exempt.

But the end of the ad is what’s making me grind my teeth.

As the gadgetry gets out of control, the woman is literally consumed by the couch. When the man comes back, he finds his girlfriend replaced with his beer. (Unfortunately, he seems pretty happy about that). Their quick cut to the slogan, “She is a thing of beauty,” again fuses the beer and the woman (the beer even seems to win out here).

Second:

I also wrote a post arguing that a female Viagra could negatively impact women’s sexuality and mental health. Some of the reasons I cited, as well as a number of others, are outlined in this excellent interview with the author of Sex, Lies, and Pharmaceuticals, also summarized here.

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Thinness and Other Forms of Heresy

A couple months ago, I was walking down the street when I saw this Pretzel Crisps ad campaign plastered on a bus stop. I was pretty upset when I first saw it. Women already feel enormous pressure to be thin; eating disorders are alarmingly widespread, and promoting excessive thinness in a snack advertisement contributes to a seriously damaging cultural dialogue about unrealistic expectations for women’s bodies.

I wasn’t the only person upset by these ads. In fact, they infuriated so many people that the company created a website to hear complaints. But the website wasn’t exceptionally sensitive either, so women are pretty pissed off.

While the (rightfully) angry masses are fighting this battle head-on, I’m going to take a detour to see what this looks like from a different angle. Bear with me while I look for the silver lining.

Recently, I read a great article by Paul Graham on what you can’t say in today’s society. Not the things we’ve simply disproven, but the things we find heretical because we fear, deep down, that they might contain a kernel of truth. (I encourage you to read the article, or what follows may just seem offensive).

Pretzel Crisps’ ad campaign is a glaring example of what we can’t say. But what is it, exactly, that we’re too shy to say? Let’s take a look at the ads.

First: “You can never be too thin.”

False. It is quite possible to be dangerously thin. I hope that’s common knowledge. But the heresy here is that far too many women believe, even if they won’t say it, that they could always be thinner. How often do you hear a woman say, “I could stand to gain a few pounds”? Never. But “I could stand to lose a few pounds”? All the time, no matter their BMI.

Second: “We’re thin and stacked, so lose the old bag.”

True fact: Some men do leave their wives for younger women. But when they do, they cannot say that they left their spouse because the alternative was younger. They might try all sorts of offensive euphemisms, such as: “She has so much energy! She’s so fresh and innocent! I love the way she looks up to me!” But they can’t even try to say it’s because she’s younger. Off limits. Out of bounds. The galleys are straight ahead.

Last: “Looks as good as skinny feels.”

I’m a little scared to tackle this one, but here goes my dignity. I’m stepping out on a very precarious limb to admit that my body feels good when I’m thin. Maybe it’s a mental trick, or maybe it’s physical fitness, but skinny does feel good. Even just writing the words feels heretical. I’m fighting the urge to click backspace.

So why don’t I? Does it do us any good to say these things out loud?

On the surface, no. The ads encourage excessive thinness and body image concern, which are already far too prevalent among young women today.

But skim the fat, and this might actually be positive.

Body image and weight have become such taboo topics that we discuss them on tiptoes, careful not to damage a girl’s self esteem, constantly avoiding landmines. There is so little we can say and so much we can’t say.

Our silence is our downfall.

Young women are left to decide on their own where the line falls between healthy or unhealthy, too heavy or too thin. With all the conflicting pressures in our culture, those are difficult lines to navigate and negative messages can have undue influence when they’re not part of a holistic conversation.

Ads like these open the conversation. They push us to our limit—openly offend us—and we’re finally compelled to talk back.

Above all else, we need to talk. If we can’t communicate honestly and openly, then we can’t protect, advise, and support each other as we learn to love and respect our bodies.

Mini snack bags (“only 100 calories”) have long been advertisements for weight loss, and are exclusively marketed to women. Pretzel Crisps just had the gall to publicize the subtext.

I say, good for them. Thank you for showing us what’s really going on, what all the other companies are already doing in more subversive ways. Thank you for making us fight back. Thank you for making us talk.

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Double Cliqued: W’s Guide to Stereotypes

Last weekend, I was flipping through W Magazine when I stumbled on a back-to-school style guide that deserves detention. The line-up shows five girls, mostly pretty classic high school staples: the party animal, the valedictorian, the prepster.

But then, at each end, we have our outcasts.

First, let’s take the curvy girl, far left. What did they choose to call their voluptuous vixen with “plenty of attitude”? Read it and weep: This buxom broad is “The Girl Who Eats Her Feelings.”

Principal’s office. Now.

This title invokes the girl who eats a box of cookies one night when she feels lonely or downs a whole container of Betty Crocker rainbow chip frosting while crying over a breakup (yes, I’ve been there too). In a word, she over-indulges.

Which got me thinking…are women “allowed” to do that?

I have a 1950s magazine article posted on my fridge that teaches girls how to say no. More specifically, how to say no to chocolate cake, cigarettes, kisses, hands wandering “out-of-bounds,” laziness, chatty phone calls, and a cute red coat instead of a practical tweed coat–basically, to all of life’s little indulgences.

W Magazine’s biting nickname expresses the same expectation: women should show restraint.

But we walk a fine line because the flipside is just as demonized.

Enter the skinny girl, at the opposite end of our line-up. She got a pretty harsh report card too: This sandal-clad, ethnic-knit-loving hippie child is “The Virgin Suicide.”

This girl is all restraint. Her muffins are vegan and gluten-free (which, Babycakes aside, sucks all the joy out of muffins); she’s totally untouched by either sex; even her hair is “studiously messy.”

But her unclogged arteries and intact hymen don’t seem to work out so well for her. She’s the “virgin suicide;” the one whose life is apparently not worth living—that’s harsh! While there’s disgust for the curvy girl, there’s bitterness, with a hint of jealousy, for the skinny girl.

That’s a tough spot to be in, always trying to walk the perfect line that’s just restrained enough to be acceptable but not too limiting.

But I’m hopeful that W might be out of touch with its audience.

I notice myself and my friends starting to resist having our bodies and our behavior micro-managed. Starting to say yes to hooking up on our terms, treating ourselves to chocolate cake, and buying that cute red coat. Starting to ask which limits we want to set in our own lives based on what feels right for us, not what others think is “good for us.”

Trust us. We’ll find our way.

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