March 14, 2006

We've Come A Long Way...*Not*

The things I do for blogging.

Yesterday I found myself mired in a question of purely scientific interest: one that, quite honestly, had never occurred to me (even once) in all my years on this earth. I would like to think it a sign of my overall mental health that it had not.

Until yesterday.

We were trying to settle on a theme for discussion over at The Cotillion and somehow I can never quite resist trying to crank one up. And in truth, I suppose I have been feeling another rambling post-feminist rant coming on for some time now:

In a world where everywhere you look - magazines, television, movies, billboards, newspapers, even adverts we get in our junk mail, is sex - how on earth could any woman fail to get the message? Women now have money, education, and some measure of power, yet the predominant images of us are not ones that reflect this 'new reality', whatever that may be, but an increasingly retrograde vision of femininity. One that is airbrushed, perfectly made up, surgically-enhanced, scantily-clad, and eternally hovering at an impossibly delectable nineteen years old. One that no woman with a job, a brain, or any adult responsibilities at all can possibly compete with. Not that this stops us from trying. Or from feeling inadequate when we fail.

The question of expectations: the ones imposed on women from without, but more importantly, the ones we choose to chase every day, even now that we finally have a measure of independence and the money and freedom to make our own decisions, is one that continues to haunt me for some reason. I don't have a daughter, but I have a daughter in law and will soon have another, and I raised two sons.

I often wonder what the Feminist revolution was all about? To me, it often seems more (to adopt the pervasive language of Feminism) about acquisitiveness and victimology than female empowerment. As a female in a technical field, I watch women gravitating to degrees in administration, social sciences and the humanities and avoiding math and hard science. There is nothing wrong with these choices, but if you self-select out of certain labor markets, you have no right to complain that your underrepresentation in these fields smacks of discrimination.

I have watched with considerable bemusement as women who decried the objectification of their own gender and the male preoccupation with sex "discover" the joys of copulation (for as they portray it, it seems little more than a physical act). As so it was that, when the time came to consider a fit topic for our first discussion at The Cotillion, I couldn't help but look around at modern culture: our obsession with larger breasts, vaginal rejuvenation, designer labia, hooking up and porn culture, and ask myself where the feminist revolution has taken us? Have we taken one giant step forward or two steps back?

Lakshmi Chaudry has a fascinating article In These Times: (via the eminently-readable Charlotte Allen)

When I grow up, I want to be old. Old as in proudly, imperiously fat like my grandmother, free from the need to do “something” or be “somebody,” and definitively, unmistakably, not sexy.

Why fear aging when the golden years offer a well-earned rest from the struggles of career, marriage, parenting and—most importantly—being a woman? I battled self-loathing in my teens, figured out the orgasm thing in my twenties and spent my thirties mastering intimacy in my marriage. And if I get lucky, the coming year will bring with it the next great challenge of my sexual life: a baby. After decades spent scaling this particular mountain, who can blame me for relishing the prospect of being, finally, over the hill? Time to hang up the heels and bring out the chocolate.

So imagine my horror when I picked up a copy of Gail Sheehy’s new book, Sex and the Seasoned Woman: Pursuing the Passionate Life, which seems intent on shaming women like me—or, at least, the kind of woman I hope to be when I am a “golden girl.” Dedicated to promoting the virtue—nay, the absolute necessity—of “post-menopausal sensuality,” Sheehy recasts life after 50 as the Second Adulthood, a new life search for meaning, purpose and, inevitably, sex, because “sex and the passionate life go together.” Forget about giving your creaking bones a break, it’s time to get right back to the grindstone. The task at hand: to reinvent yourself as a “seasoned woman,” who is “assured, alluring, and resourceful” and “committed to living fully and passionately in the second half of her life, despite failures and false starts.” If it sounds like work, well, it is—both the physical and emotional kind.

Sheehy’s ideal woman is a “Passionate,” who is bold, sexy and sexually active. She kicks off “middlesex”—a coy term for sex in your middle age—by getting herself a brand-new lover. Nothing gets those juices flowing like romance, which makes you eat less (“You can lose weight, which is nice”), work out more, buy new clothes and stimulate your brain (“You will probably read more.”). Sixty isn’t the new forty, it’s the new twenty-five.

I had to laugh (well honestly, most things make me laugh. More than one person has accused me of being a profoundly unserious person) because I saw a lot of myself in her essay. Much to my own amusement, in the middle of my own life I've found myself on a journey of sorts. My children are grown, I've made the transition, not always smoothly, from homemaker to career woman, and consequently I've found myself changing in a lot of unsettling ways. The song a friend penned on a wall hanging and sent to me twenty-six years ago has never been more apt:

Can I sail through the changing ocean tides
Can I handle the seasons of my life?

But the lines he left out have always haunted me throughout my marriage:

I've been afraid of changing
Cause I've built my life around you
Time makes you bolder
Even children get older
And I'm getting older too.

The thing is though, I've never thought of changing myself (either my outward appearance or my personality) to keep someone else in my life, and though I've sometimes feared that changes in myself would cause trouble in my personal relationships, I've never seriously considered being anything other than who and what I am. Perhaps that's why I find this sort of thing so profoundly troubling: (warning: you may find this offensive)

...the bulk of the women getting this surgery are ultimately being pressured by men who want them to conform to a idea of beauty most often seen in the porn industry. Doctors say these women request the procedure because they are afraid of having "old looking" vaginas. Doctors Loftus and Young say feedback from male partners is the number one reason women request the surgery.

"The most common reason we hear is that they have had a negative comment made by a male sexual partner. Women are made to feel that they are not perfect the way they are and often it's the partner that sets this off," Loftus said.

"My feeling is that women who aren't sex workers are getting this kind of thing because there's pressure from someone who's telling them they're not perfect," Young said. 'There's often pressure from a man who tells them they need it," adding "I assume that their standards for labial beauty were set by a combination of the porn industry, sex-oriented magazines and the Internet."

Frankness time here: this makes my blood boil. I realize the subject is distasteful, but I think there is a larger question here, and it is simply this, "Why, after all this time, do women not feel comfortable standing up and saying, 'Enough'?" I read article after article and the same comment came through. "I thought I was normal until I watched the porn channel".

Honey, you are normal. There is nothing wrong with you. It breaks my heart that women have reduced themselves to nothing more than sexual appliances. And I wonder how much honesty is going into these decisions?

Some doctors dispute whether constructing a tighter vagina increases a woman's sexual pleasure. "Yes you can do the rejuvenation to have a tighter vagina," said Young. "But anytime you make an incision you cut nerves, induce scarring and there is a downside risk, including pain."

"Plastic surgery is being way over used in many different ways" said Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women. "There's something off about what's going on in our culture that makes women feel they need to live up to some ideal."

Ileana Vasquez is a 29 year-old Southern California housewife with four children. She read about vaginal rejuvenation after she saw an ad in a magazine. Her marriage was in trouble and she noted that her husband wasn't happy with her sexually.

"One time he had a few beers and told me that because I had all our kids and was looser now he didn't want me as a woman anymore," Vasquez said. "He did say he was sorry later on but I knew he was telling the truth."

Vasquez had the surgery and she noted her marriage is back on track and her sex life is good again. "He's become my sweetheart again," she said. "He bought me a house and he wants me all the time."

Then she paused. "But there are times I still can't forgive him for how he made me feel," she said. "Sometimes I get so mad, so hurt. I mean I had the kids, he should have understood."

A relationship is, or should be, about more than sex and the women's movement would seem to have been a pyhrric victory if the end result of our 'liberation' is that women are afraid to stand up for themselves and admit that though sex is important, they have other qualities to contribute to a relationship as well. There are many ways to make a man happy in the bedroom and as many surgeons have noted, exercises can be just as effective as many surgeries.

By trying to compete with other females on male terms, women not only condemn themselves to a losing battle with aging and the male biological predisposition for promiscuity over monogamy but surrender their greatest strength: the ability to exercise a bit of moral suasion. This is a stance that favors neither the long-term interests of women nor those of society in general.

And so I come back to the age-old question: when, oh when will women be viewed as more than a collection of body parts? And the answer comes back to me:

Perhaps when we start viewing ourselves that way. And not one damned minute before. Yes, we would all like to be beautiful. I would. It's an easy path to power.

But we have so much more to offer the world. If we can't see that, how on earth do we expect anyone else to?

If this didn't scare you off, you can sample more delusional ranting of this sort at Villainous Company.

Posted by Cassandra at March 14, 2006 09:28 AM

...the bulk of the women getting this surgery are ultimately being pressured by men who want them to conform to a idea of beauty most often seen in the porn industry.

What most men don't realize, is that the parusal of porn is damaging to them. They think it's a harmless pastime, I mean, what is the harm of looking at a naked woman or two?

The problem is, many of these women are not only touched up, airbrushed and enhanced, some are actually completely computer generated.

That's right, men, many of the women you are looking at do not exist at all. They are a 19 year old testosterone laden computer genius' wet dream.

What porn does to you, is portrays women as eternally young, physically perfect and always available for sex.

When a man who has been dabbling in porn meets a real woman, he transfers the porn attitude onto the woman and the relationship is over before it even begins.

Nothing can beat a fabulous loving relationship with a fantastic and quite real woman.

I know. I've been married to one for almost 21 years. :)

Posted by: Tony at March 14, 2006 04:56 PM

I am astounded that labial reshaping exists in the plastic surgery world. I have lichen sclerosus and my long beautiful labia have disappeared on their own. I can't believe anyone would want to make them go away by surgery. Sex is better with them. Ladies, have you lost your minds?

Posted by: selena at March 14, 2006 08:08 PM

Awesome Cassandra...we need to do another subject like this about how to enjoy being a woman...instead of always trying to be some idea of a woman we can never be.

Posted by: Raven at March 14, 2006 09:35 PM

I like Tony's comment. It speaks for me as well.

Posted by: K T Cat at March 15, 2006 07:46 AM

I couldn't help but look around at modern culture: our obsession with larger breasts, vaginal rejuvenation, designer labia, hooking up and porn culture, and ask myself where the feminist revolution has taken us? Have we taken one giant step forward or two steps back?

I think current culture is a very liberal type of sexism, which has some elements of older strands of feminism, but not more than that.

There are feminists who are pro-pornography and feminists that are anti-pornography, so we can't talk of feminism as only one thing, because there have been many different feminist groups that think quite differently. Why have the feminists who were against pornography lost the battle? And why did the very sexist, disgusting liberals who consume billions of dollars of porn shove more and more porn as legitimate is a questions that needs to be asked. The great majority of porn consumers and producers are not feminist, unless you reduce the label to equate to any pro-porn person. But I think that is reduction is not appropriate, it's too extreme.

Posted by: alessandra at March 15, 2006 01:02 PM

Sorry guys - I got caught up in some other stuff.

Tony, what a lovely comment. It is somewhat discouraging to women who try to do the right thing, raise their children, remain faithful even when their husbands are gone for long periods of time, and be good mothers (and yes, even to stay in shape and be attractive to their mates) to be compared with young girls, especially when we know that we aren't holding our husbands to that standard.

Emotionally this is something that is hard for many, though not all, women to understand. Some women really don't have a problem with it or even enjoy it.

It's a difficult issue.


I don't think I meant to suggest so much that feminism was to blame for this, so much as to remark on the fact that despite the advances of feminism this sort of thing is on the rise. Doesn't that seem odd to you? That there is MORE of this surgery now that women are supposedly liberated?

This is what we're choosing to do with our money and freedom. Your question is perceptive:

Why have the feminists who were against pornography lost the battle?

Posted by: Cassandra at March 15, 2006 05:17 PM

I feel in all fairness to my spouse I should probably clarify something from my prior comment.

I've been very lucky in this regard. My husband hasn't ever brought anything like that into our home so it is not an issue I've had to deal with. But I think it would bother me if he did. Not all women feel this way though.

Posted by: Cassandra at March 15, 2006 05:24 PM

Hi, sorry for not responding earlier, but I've actually been thinking about your question. It's actually a complex question to answer (or at least that is how I would want to answer it). I started writing a few paragraphs in my mind the other day, but then didn't put them on paper, so now I have to start over :-)

I'll be back later when I have something more coherently defined.

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Posted by: Lisa at May 8, 2006 02:33 PM