To the Moon, Baby

A new essential oil blend called Zestra claims to restore sexual pleasure and drive for middle-aged women. It’s the first female arousal-enhancer I’ve seen on the market, but in the aftermath of Viagra’s success, scientists have been racing to create the first female Viagra. The pharmaceutical versions are sitting in FDA purgatory, but they’re a sure bet to make a buck, so you’d better believe they’re coming. I, for one, am not looking forward to that day.

Think of a guy trying to decide whether he needs Viagra. He wants to get it up; it’s not up. There’s very little room for debate. But for a woman, knowing whether there is a even a problem in the first place is much more complicated.

Until recently, women’s sexuality has been understood in terms of the male experience. This includes our experience of arousal, which is just starting to be understood on our own terms. In her now-famous bonobo study, Meredith Chivers showed women a series of videos, including videos of both humans and bonobos having sex. While women thought they were only into the humans, they were pretty into those bonobos too. Chivers’ results showed that women can accurately identify when they’re psychologically turned on, but are often unable to identify when they’re physically aroused. As it turns out, our bodies and our minds don’t quite connect (I’ll write a post on why that might be adaptive later).

Because we’re not totally in tune with our bodies, I would venture to say–tentatively–that women may be more susceptible to psychological pressures and cultural expectations (which, in our society, are full of contradictions). One recent study surveyed 964 women receiving routine gynecological care and found that a whopping 87.2% believe that they have an abnormally low sex drive. At a percentage like that, they’re normal! But such an enticingly ready market for the drug lords.

Our sex drive is complicated. We need some attention, some time, some vibe. Sometimes we’re stressed out, depressed, rushed, insecure, or dissatisfied in our relationships. Sex drive is a reflection of our mental state. Remember when Samantha Jones lost her mojo until she finally let herself cry? Our bodies are telling us something. Instead of popping a pill, maybe we should learn to listen.

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In the Club: Who Does Feminism Exclude?

On Sunday, I went to a fantastic panel talk on the current state of feminism at the Brooklyn Book Festival. I’ve been grappling with what it means to be feminist today, and during the discussion, a question came up that helped me find my answer: Who can be a feminist?

Exhibit A: Sarah Palin. A self-proclaimed feminist. Well, she waffles, but lately she’s on the bandwagon. WTF, right? I can’t help feeling some indignation that this pro-life, anti-intellectual, and absurdly uninformed joke of a politician could possibly call herself feminist. If I had any sort of voting power over who is and is not allowed to be feminist, I would happily exclude her from the club. But then I take a deep breath and remind myself that there isn’t really a club, we’re not in third grade anymore, and feminism is not about achieving total homogeny.

Still, Palin begs the question: Are some people ‘not allowed’ to be feminist?

One of the panelists, Salon writer Rebecca Traister, suggested that reproductive rights are the dividing line between feminists and wanna-bes. I certainly see where she’s coming from. Palin is staunchly pro-life and abstinence-only (for the results of this combo, see: Bristol Palin) and supports candidates that would deny women access to legal abortions, even in the case of rape or incest. That flies in the face of major feminist efforts to earn women the right to make informed choices about their own bodies, futures, and readiness to have a child. By supporting anti-choice efforts, Palin aims to undo feminist progress. Shouldn’t that disqualify her from the title? As Traister claims, feminists work with the goals of the feminist movement, not against them.

I think there’s a strong argument there, but I’m not so sure that reproductive rights are my dividing line. While I am an avid supporter of our right to choose, I could also see that, for someone who truly sees abortion as murder, it’s not a matter of women’s rights at all. So I wonder, could there be another place to draw the line that might offer liberals and conservatives room to participate in the feminist movement?

For me, feminism is about being seen as fully and equally human, with all the rights and privileges that status affords. So, what if we say that feminism is about challenging objectification? About striving to be recognized for our humanity, and calling for the power to define and experience ourselves independently.

If I think about it that way, then when I look at Palin and wonder if she’s feminist, I ask myself: Does she willingly participate in her own objectification or does she aim to humanize and equalize herself? She’s a public figure, so it’s a complicated answer, but I challenge you to think about it. Ask yourself the question.

To keep making progress, we need diverse feminist voices. It’s okay (even good!) if some of us wear pantsuits and others wear stilettos, or if some of us are conservatives and others are liberals. But I believe that, if we want to be feminists, we do need to champion our humanity. To explore it, assert it, and own it.

(Click here to read more about Palin, feminism, and the 2008 election in an excerpt from Rebecca Traister’s new book, “Big Girls Don’t Cry”).

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The Beauty is a Beast: Stella Artois’ New Ad Campaign

New York is full of enormous, provocative billboards. Calvin Klein, in particular, arouses constant protest for splashing blow jobs, threesomes, and nude celebrities across Broadway billboards. But none of those ads may be as blatantly offensive as this much classier campaign:

Modeled after a 1960 Vogue cover, the slogan on this Stella Artois ad reads: “She is a thing of beauty.”

Seriously? You’re killing me, Stella.

Let’s start with the visual setup of this picture. This is a classic example of objectification in print photography. The man’s open eyes look directly at the woman (whose eyes are turned down), asserting that he is in power. He actively consumes her, while she passively accepts his stare. The man is slightly below the woman, looking up at her, which does convey his admiration for her beauty, but his “thinker” hand position suggests that he is the ‘buyer’ assessing the value of the ‘merchandise’ (both the beer and the woman, in this case).

Setting this photo in the oh-so-popular Mad Men Era (complete with Don and Betty look-alikes) recalls a time just before the women’s rights movement, when women were still commonly viewed as their husbands’ possessions. This association makes the woman easily equated with the drink in her hand—the ‘thing of beauty.’

Which brings me to the slogan. Ugh, the slogan! “She is a thing of beauty.” The phrasing is intentionally vague, implying that both the woman and the beer are ‘things of beauty.’ For a man, this says “your beer comes with a side of woman” (a typical storyline in alcohol ads). And for a woman, this says, “you can be just as desirable as this beer.” Lord, I hope she knows she’s better than that beer!

But here is the real kicker: Stella Artois’ target market is predominantly female. While the ad aims to appeal to both men and women, women are the primary targets of this ad campaign. OMFG. You’re joking.

Since the US campaign was created to mimic their international campaign, I would imagine they did some research showing that women reacted well. And I would imagine that the campaign is effectively convincing women (and men) to buy beer.

I’m not sure what to say about what this says about women. I can only say that, if this campaign is successful, then it’s an unfortunate example of the extent to which we have internalized the male, objectifying gaze.

We are not ‘things.’ We are not consumable. And we are better than that beer.

Sadly, I used to love Stella Artois for their classy, clever ad campaigns that so notably defied the typical ‘beer/woman’ conflation. This latest campaign is just an upscale version of the same old objectifying story.

Scream with me, Stanley: Stellaaa!!!

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Are We Girls or Women?

Recently, I was talking to a woman, probably in her late thirties, who was totally surprised that my friends and I ever call ourselves girls. She said that, for her generation, college marked the beginning of ‘womanhood’ and they called each other ‘women,’ even when it didn’t quite fit, until they finally grew into the title.

As I listened to her, something seemed off. It feels like there’s gravity to the word ‘woman’ that I don’t always feel. When I do grown-up things—get a paycheck, care for a newborn, put on a classy, curvy dress—then I feel like a woman.

But I don’t do grown-up things all the time, and I don’t always feel like a woman. Sometimes I laugh so hard I pee my pants, or have a nightmare and need someone to cuddle with me. And when I go out with my girlfriends, I go ‘out with the girls.’ Not ‘out with the women’ or ‘out with the ladies,’ just casually ‘out with the girls.’ So Carrie Bradshaw.

I find myself, most of the time, somewhere in-between where I feel grown up but youthful.

It occurred to me that men get a word for this in-between. Men older than 18 would never be referred to as boys (except with a stab of sarcasm). Sometimes they are called men, or young men, but most of the time they’re ‘guys.’ They go from boys to guys to men. And despite all their heel-dragging, they do get to move out of boyhood.

As women, we often lament how much faster we mature than men, but we keep referring to ourselves as girls, offering no distinction between our 25-year-old and 9-year-old selves. We go straight from girls to women. But when? Where is our youthful adult in-between? Where is our “guy” stage?

The words we have for ourselves seem to convey a feeling, or a measure of how youthful we feel in that moment. We may not ever be exclusively girls or women, but we seem to be missing a chunk of our vocabulary. Maybe we should come up with a word that lets us be grown-ups without having to always be women.

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GQ Boys Beat the Heat: In Defense of the Pantless Pervs

The stars of the upcoming Scott Pilgrim movie are frolicking about New York, letting it all hang out in a new GQ spread.  Have you clicked the link yet?  Click it.  As my grandma would say, oh my.

I totally hear Bitch Magazine’s frustration with GQ for belittling the threat of street harassment by making it seem funny.  And at first, I agreed with their indignation.  But then, I reconsidered.

Street harassment is, no doubt, a serious issue.  It can range from an innocuous catcall (“Oh man, God bless you”) to a threatening and invasive attack (last spring, a total stranger actually grabbed and squeezed my crotch as he walked by).  When it starts to feel dangerous, it really isn’t funny.

But this photo doesn’t feel dangerous, and I think it exposes a more (ahem) private part of our mating rituals.  Let’s take a closer look:



Bitch Mag makes a good point that men seem to be the only ones who get to go pantless on Saturdays.  But somehow, that seems fitting.

I’m a nature documentary enthusiast and I notice a striking resemblance between this photo and animal mating rituals, where the males expose themselves before the females—posturing, posing, and strutting—in an effort to win their favor.  Sadly for this trio, their failure to woo (shown here by the women’s total inattention) is just as funny as the bird of paradise that hops and squawks to absolutely no avail.

Notably, the two women in the photo are walking with their arms around each other.  For me, this highlights that female companionship can be a protective bond, ensuring that we are not vulnerable to unwanted male attention, and can instead choose when to approach.

Even though the men are objectifying the two women, the women are still in power.   They are closer to the camera (visually dominant), fully clothed (unexposed), and leaving the men in the dust.

Just for kicks, imagine the same situation in reverse: Tina Fey, Amy Sedaris, and Amy Poehler are sitting on a bench, pantless, with their legs spread open, gawking at two gorgeous men, walking by with their arms around each other.  Now that changes things.

Here, the relationship between the two men suggests that they’re batting for a different team.  The impenetrability of the couple, mirrored by the women in the original image, shows us the futility of the gawkers’ attention-seeking efforts. Further, the women sitting in the background with their legs spread open seem rather pathetic and decidedly male—such hubris!

But perhaps men need that hubris to get the courage to approach women who frequently reject them.  And maybe they need the comraderie and social support of ogling together (hence the strange habit of watching porn in packs)—a habit that seems ludicrous when the roles are reversed.  The incongruity highlights that women’s social networks usually serve a sexually protective purpose, while men’s are sexually enabling.

In the animal kingdom, females are raped, attacked, and threatened, just like females of our own species.  That imbalance of power often taints otherwise harmless mating rituals, but perhaps we’d do well to remember that violence is not synonymous with strutting.

By rejecting the humor of this picture, are we in fact allowing natural mating rituals to become scarier and more powerful than they actually are?

It’s funny.  It’s okay to laugh.

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Sexing It Up: ‘Grease’ and Our Aversion to the Good Girl

Last week, I happened upon the following, rather disturbing headline: Experts Say Selena Gomez Needs to be Sexier.  Now, I have no idea who Selena Gomez is.  But apparently she’s a young starlet trying to make it in Hollywood with a good-girl image.  And that just will not fly.

Sexualization of young women, and the myriad mental health problems that come along with it, is no doubt a major problem (outlined in a recent APA report).  However, an excellent critique of the report challenged the assumption that sexualization is necessarily harmful, and that’s where I think the meat is.

When I think about sexualization in the context of social relationships, I notice an often-overlooked function of sexualization.  Namely, that sexualizing others affirms and protects our sense of personal integrity, morality, and adequacy.

Let’s take a classic good girl: Danny Zuko’s heartthrob, Sandy Olsson (from Grease, obvi).  Sandy starts out as the perfect “Sandra Dee,” but then surprises everyone by showing up to graduation in high heels, teased hair, a leather jacket, and pants so tight they literally had to be sewn onto her body.  No one has ever sexed it up better than Sandy.

For the most part, Danny doesn’t push Sandy to be sexier.  Rizzo does.  So why would Rizzo care?  I propose that Rizzo cares because Sandy challenges her sense of self.  Or more specifically, Sandy’s ability to abstain from carnal pleasures makes Rizzo feel guilty for all the things she does indulge in—premarital sex, cigarettes, alcohol, etc.

Rizzo’s mocking solo aims to build support among her friends to affirm that having sex, smoking, and drinking are okay.  However, her tone also assumes Sandy’s judgment (likely incorrectly), revealing Rizzo’s own insecurity.  Like most of us, Rizzo judges herself for wanting to do the things she “shouldn’t,” and wants others to validate her choices.  (If you want to see this in action, watch a dinner table where one person wants to drink and no one else does).

Later in the story, we hear Rizzo’s struggle to maintain a positive sense of self with her bad-girl image.  But we also hear Sandy’s struggle to let go of her high necklines and ponytailed hair because she feels too “scared and unsure.”  Each needs a little bit of the other.

This highlights an important point: sexualization is not necessarily bad.  It can also be liberating.

Unfortunately, the lusty side of sexuality is still seen as part of our ‘dark side.’  Especially for women, this has strong cultural roots, many of which trace back to religious teachings that moralize women’s sexuality.  In this context, Sandy’s purity is rooted in insecurity just as strongly as Rizzo’s indulgence is, though both are striving to accept their sexuality.  Both are looking for balance.

So perhaps our wholesome starlet, Selena Gomez, is pushed toward sexualization because we want other people to have “dark sides” too.  We want them to indulge with us, or for us. We cannot be perfect, no matter how much we might try, so perhaps we feel guilty when the Sandra Dees of the world suggest that perfection is an attainable, or desirable, reality.

Seeing balance (or extremity) in others can normalize our own drives and affirm our humanity.  Hopefully we eventually get comfortable with our own blend — a little bit Sandy and a little bit Rizzo, in whatever proportions we choose.

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Hot or Not: Why Women Wear Makeup

When the summer heat kicks in, I stop wearing makeup.  Maybe some occasional mascara, but nothing else.  It’s too darn hot.

After about a week, I get used to my face without makeup.  My face gets a little tanner (or pinker) and I start to think that makeup actually looks weird on me.  But come September, I slowly start wearing it again.  Every year, the cycle makes me wonder: why do we wear makeup in the first place?  Is there rhyme or reason to brushing our eyes with Twinks or dusting our cheeks with Peachykeen?

Probably the most obvious reason that people could cite is simply that makeup makes women more attractive.

In 2003, a study confirmed that makeup significantly improved attractiveness ratings for Caucasian women.  No surprise here.  We’re so constantly inundated with pictures of women in makeup that our collective standards of beauty are heavily stacked toward totally airbrushed perfection.

Perhaps less often considered is that women may be perceived differently when wearing makeup, and that wearing makeup may offer an advantage.

In 2006, a study found that women wearing makeup were perceived as healthier and more confident than those without.

It makes sense that makeup may give an increased impression of health.  Even skin tone, a warm glow, color in the lips and cheeks—all signs of a healthy person.

There are also several reasons why a woman wearing makeup might be perceived as more confident.  Off the top of my head, a woman may act and appear more confident because she knows that she typically receives positive feedback when wearing makeup, or that self-care (which tasteful makeup could be) may be seen as a sign of self-confidence and self-respect.

But get this: the study also found that participants awarded the women wearing makeup with higher earning potential and more prestigious jobs.

What?!

This suggests that women who wear makeup are not only at a sexual advantage, but an occupational and financial advantage as well.  In that light, a woman’s decision about whether or not to wear makeup has quite a bit more weight to it!

Now, all of these perceptions (health, confidence, and status) are positive assumptions.  But I have a feeling that there’s a more nuanced picture here.

In 2008, a social psychologist conducted the first field study in the is-makeup-really-appealing field, and found that women wearing makeup were 3x as likely to be approached in a bar, and were approached in a shorter time period.

Remember what we just learned about how women wearing makeup are perceived and this seems like a pretty understandable finding.  A woman wearing makeup appears healthier, more confident, and higher status.  Depending on the guy, that could be pretty attractive.

However, we’re talking about a bar scene here, so I think the most obvious explanation for the increased number of approaches may be that makeup signals availability.  I would actually argue that how tasteful a woman’s makeup is indicates how “easy” a guy might perceive her to be.

So, while makeup can signal confidence, it can also be a veil to mask insecurity.  There is always an element of self-consciousness to makeup, since we wear it to manipulate the viewer’s perception of our external self.  But perhaps makeup doesn’t have to be a façade, and doesn’t have to hide.

I’ve been in a relationship for six years and at this point, I’m honestly not that concerned about whether some guy in a bar likes my taste in eyeshadow.  My fiancé can look at my face at its absolute worst and still tell me I look beautiful, so most of the time I show him my face as it naturally is.  But if we’re going on a date, I will still take a full hour to put on makeup, choose my outfit, and do my hair.  Am I crazy?  Or is there a positive role for makeup in long-term love?

There are a lot of directions I could go here, but I had an idea that struck me.  Evolutionary theory assumes that men benefit (biologically) from spreading their seed, while women benefit from attracting one man and keeping him around.  Men have many reasons to stick around in modern relationships, but at the biological root, men and women are at odds.  Makeup, then, may offer a way for one woman to create a variety of different looks, or to keep her partner interested by giving the illusion of “newness.” Compelling, right?

The Coolidge effect describes the phenomenon that men’s refractory period (required between sexual encounters with the same partner) is reduced or eliminated when novel women are introduced.  Instead of looking at this as support for open relationships, let’s consider the idea that a monogamous relationship may benefit from newness.

A couple years ago, the NY Times ran an article suggesting that novelty in long-term relationships leads to greater couple satisfaction.  This feels intuitive, doesn’t it?  New experiences lead to new discussions or thoughts, which lead to new understandings of your partner and greater opportunity for growth.

In the same way, as my style, or physical self-expression, changes, I offer something new to the relationship.  My changing style offers information about my changing self—one of the many ways that I may express self-exploration and self-discovery.

A couple weeks ago, my fiancé described his excitement about seeing me in my wedding dress by saying that such a personal choice is like turning some aspect of myself inside-out, for everyone to see, and that he can’t wait to see what I’ve chosen to share.  I love that description because it highlights that style or makeup, so often chalked up to vanity, can be powerful means of self-expression.

In that light, I begin to believe that makeup’s appeal is less about what we apply than why we apply it.  I could choose to put on foundation to hide my ever-red nose and flushed cheeks because I feel insecure about them, but you might love my red nose and think it’s cute that I flush when I get into a heated discussion.  I would be hiding those aspects of my self that you may find unique and lovable.  On the other hand, I could choose to put on makeup that highlights my eyes to signal that I’d like you to focus on connecting with me at a personal level, using a sultry, smoky effect to indicate that I find you attractive.  My action is essentially the same, but my intention is different. Perhaps makeup is most attractive when it is worn to reveal, rather than conceal.

Still, I do wonder sometimes, what if we opted out?  How would we feel different if we never wore makeup again?

When I shed my makeup in the summer, I notice that I start to see myself more from the inside-out, instead of from the outside-in.  I become more aware of the world I am looking at instead of the world that is looking at me.  I wonder: are we stuck in a spiral where we spend more time trying to give the impression of health and confidence instead of trying to cultivate actual health and confidence?  Next time we reach for the Peachykeen, maybe we should take a moment to consider our intention.

NOTE: I realize that this is a pretty heterosexual discussion, so I’d love comments from anyone willing to respond about men or women wearing makeup in the LGBT community.

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