Women & Feminism

I still remember, as a child, going shopping with my mom. I was 12. She was 38, a very attractive woman with long auburn hair and a petite, hourglass figure. She always wore short dresses and high heels. She looked great! I was so proud of her.

Male store clerks would often flatter her, looking at her, then at me, and asking me, “Is this your sister?” She always smiled politely. I always cringed a little, because even then, at the age of 12, a good 2-3 years before I became a feminist, on some level I knew that their “compliment” was in fact an insult.

It was an insult because they implied that a woman can’t be attractive unless she’s very young. And it was an insult because they stripped away her identity, the knowledge and wisdom she had gained through the years. Through their compliment, they implied that as a woman, she should aim to stay a child forever.

I am now about the same age my mother was back then. Today, at my 11-year-old daughter’s basketball game, one of the dads approached my husband, all smiles, and asked, gesturing towards me, “Is this your other daughter?” He was beaming, proud of himself for earning several brownie points with that one. I smiled politely (what can I say, politeness runs in the family), and when he left, turned to my husband, vexed, and said, “I don’t get it. This is exactly why I stopped coloring my hair. I don’t want this type of compliment! I don’t want people to think I’ll be grateful if they tell me I look younger than my age because (a) I don’t and (b) I’m not trying to!”

My husband thought it was a harmless compliment, the man’s way of letting me know he realizes I’m not young, but thinks I look good. To me, it still feels just like it felt back when I was 12: an insult to my intelligence.

Speaking of my husband, he had recently lost some weight and started exercising daily. He’s in his mid forties, and he looks – and feels – great. When a friend, who hadn’t seen him in a while, met him for lunch the other day, he told him “Wow, you look in top shape.” Now, THIS I consider a compliment. The friend was not implying that my husband looked younger than his age, that he SHOULD look younger, that he should WANT to look younger, or that the only way for him to look good is to appear younger than his age. In addition, “being in top shape” emphasizes health and fitness and not just looks.

If you want to pay me a compliment, please don’t tell me I look like my daughter’s sister. A simple “You look great” or “Wow, you obviously work out” will do.

In the photo: Vered DeLeeuw, female, age 39, looking in top shape. 😉

middle aged womanNot my words. This is from Virginia DeBolt, who recently said on her Facebook page:

Dear whoever places the ads on my Facebook page,

I know I have wrinkles. I don’t want to remove them. You can show me a different ad now – I’ve seen the wrinkle remover one 1000 times and haven’t been moved to click.

I am my wrinkles, my wrinkles are me.

Another woman I admire, The Israeli actress Orna Porat, was asked years ago, when she was still in her forties, why she does nothing to eliminate her wrinkles. Her response has been quoted countless times since: “Why should I? I worked hard for my wrinkles. I have earned them!”

I’m not quite there yet, but I’m working on it.

A news anchor at the local TV station, a beautiful woman in her forties with a classic, timeless beauty, used to be my hero. I loved the way her forehead would wrinkle as she read the news. “See?” I told my husband. “Here’s a gorgeous woman who allows these signs of aging to show – on camera! And she’s still beautiful, and still employed!”

Not long after that, her forehead became frozen and smooth. She had lost her wrinkles, I lost a hero, and although I can’t possibly blame her for succumbing to the pressure to look younger and using Botox, her choice made me so very sad.

A real-life friend and a reader of this blog recently asked me, over dinner, how come I’m so “preoccupied” with my looks. I was a bit surprised by her question, because I don’t think I’m more preoccupied with my looks than I am with my kids, with my work, with the economy or with politics (although I choose not to discuss the latter on this blog).

So I simply said that for many women, looking good brings social acceptance, maybe even social power, and the process of losing that power is something you have to deal with. I don’t know that I’m necessarily “preoccupied” with this topic. But I’m certainly thinking about it and trying to find my way.

As far as I can tell, the main two ways for dealing with the physical signs of aging are:
(1) Fighting them.
(2) Accepting them.

Since I suspect option (1) creates a full time job that I don’t have the time nor the energy for, and the older you get the more demanding that “job” becomes, I hope to be one of the women who choose option (2).

As I said, I’m not there yet – still struggling – although allowing my hair to go gray is, for me, an important step in the right direction.

The beauty industry, the fashion industry, the weight loss industry, even the health care industry – those have no incentive whatsoever to tell us to focus on being healthy and fit, to love how we look and accept ourselves. On the contrary, many modern industries are built on people being unhappy with how they look and trying to “improve” themselves.

I remember reading the story of a middle aged woman who said she hates to smile, because smiling emphasizes her wrinkles. It made me so sad to read that, and determined to smile as much and as often as I can, even if it crinkles the skin around my eyes, even if it brings out those crow’s feet, etching them into my face.

It is up to us to decide – at any age – if we are to buy into impossible beauty standards, or if we are to eat well, exercise in moderation, love and laugh and grow old and refuse to waste time, energy and money on trying to become some fantasy version of who we really are.

sarah jessica parker veins
Sarah Jessica Parker has veiny hands!

I have prominent arm veins.

I never realized I should feel bad about it until the media told me I should.

It’s become a fun game – paparazzi are photographing female celebrities’ hands and feet up close to capture their veiny appearance, and the media is publishing those images with much glee.

You can’t win, really. If you gain weight, they make fun of you for “packing on the pounds.” If you stay slim and work out, they make fun of you for being “scary thin” or “veiny.” Whatever we do, whatever we look like, apparently we should feel deeply ashamed about our appearance.

You can tell me that the media only does this to celebrities and that celebrities deserve this type of treatment, but I’m not buying that. I disagree that anyone deserves this kind of treatment, and I disagree with the assumption that scrutinizing and documenting celebrities’ imperfections does not make us non-celebrity-women feel worse about our own bodies.

If you think that realizing that celebrities are imperfect will make you feel better about yourself, think again. When you’re exposed to headlines that keep dissecting women, showing their imperfect body parts, you will start dissecting yourself too, carefully scrutinizing yourself in the mirror, looking for imperfections, and feeling ashamed and self-conscious when you inevitably find them.

When I look at this photo of myself, taken a couple of years ago in Barcelona, all I can see is arm veins. And after being exposed to thousands of media messages telling me that I should feel ashamed, I indeed feel ashamed. Deeply so. Even though I eat well, exercise but not excessively, and am at a healthy weight for my height. So in my case it’s likely genetic – my late grandfather had prominent veins, and my mother has them too.

Park Guell

But I still feel ashamed and self-conscious. (And please don’t tell me it’s not so bad. This is not the point of this post, plus this is a forgiving picture actually.)

Think the women-hating messages spewed by the media on a daily basis do not affect you? Think again. From my own personal experience, they do.

Loved this comment: “If you are overweight you are ugly, if you are underweight you are ugly, if you are too short you are ugly, if you are too tall you are ugly. If your hair is too dark you are ugly, if your hair is too light, you are ugly. So who does that leave in this world that is attractive? No one? I have veiny hands, am over weight and have brown eyes. And I am attractive!” – Emsxiety

botox ad“40 is good,” said my male friend, and my eyes lit up. I knew exactly what he meant. He was talking about how much more confident he is now that he’s in his forties. Sure, the endless energy of his twenties is gone, but so are the arrogance and the naivete. At forty plus, he is calmer, more at peace with himself. He is a lot less self-centered and knows how important friendship and kindness are. He doesn’t lack passion – his passion and drive are as strong as always – but he has more perspective, and can put things in context.

The forties and fifties are, for many, amazing decades. You’re in the middle – you still enjoy energy and health, but you also have wisdom. You get it. You know yourself, you know what you want. Your roots are deeper. You’re confident, and you’re less and less worried about what others think about you.

Freedom!

But women, at least in the media, are denied the pleasures that this age brings and are bombarded with messages that essentially turn “over forty” into some kind of a disease, a condition that one must treat. Instead of being allowed to bask in the glory of our experience, wisdom and growing self-confidence, popular media, including ads and women’s magazines, convey a very clear message: women must remain in their thirties (or better yet, in their twenties if they can possibly manage it) forever.

Admittedly, unlike men, women do face a unique challenge as they grow older – diminishing fertility means we gradually lose our sexual appeal. So, while a man can be very attractive to women even with a few wrinkles and graying hair, evolution dictates that men look at these same signs in a woman as warning signs: “Infertility alert! Move on to the next candidate.”

Having said that, people are complex. Choosing a suitable partner is about so much more than taught skin and working ovaries. I personally know several women who have met wonderful partners when they were in their forties, fifties and sixties. These women are smart, independent, confident – and sexy. None of them uses Botox and while they work hard to stay fit and healthy and take good care of themselves, they certainly don’t try to look “ten years younger” than their chronological age.

But it takes a lot of confidence – a lot of character – to resist the powerful messages by the media. The constant, unrelenting messages that tell us to freeze our face with Botox, to pull our skin taught with plastic surgery, and – of course – to never forget our hands! God forbid we go through all this trouble of disguising our real age only to allow our veiny hands to disclose it.

We are made to focus so much on what we’re losing (youth, glowing skin, perky breasts) that we sometimes forget that as we lose our youth, we gain so much in terms of the person we are, our confidence, and our knowledge of the world.

Personally, at the age of 39 (40 in June), I consider myself a much more attractive person than I was 20 years ago. I certainly have more fun and enjoy life more. As far as I’m concerned, 40 is good. Very good. I like who I am, who I am becoming, and I fully intend to enjoy this very rewarding time in my life.

anorexicAnna Wood before and after becoming sick with anorexia

When I was fourteen, I almost became anorexic. My story isn’t different than countless other stories. I had gone on a crash diet, trying to fight the inevitable rounding of my thighs as I gradually turned into a woman. Although I was not overweight, I wasn’t as skinny as I used to be just a year before. I was determined to go back to being skinny.

So I hung a photo of a skinny model I had torn out of a fashion magazine on my closet door, and went on a strict diet of 1000 calories per day. I lost a fairly significant amount of weight. I can’t remember how much exactly I had lost, but at the height of the diet I weighed 103 pounds, which was underweight for my then-height of 5 feet, 4 inches.

I remember the pleasure I felt when I looked in the mirror and saw my thinness. It seemed so beautiful, so pure. I wanted to lose even more weight, because the more I had lost, the more beautiful my body seemed to me.

Then I lost my period, and by some miracle that I am eternally grateful for, I was one of the young girls who respond to such a signal (for others it might be loss of hair or brittle nails) with alarm and fear. My mom took me to a doctor who had explained the significance of losing one’s periods, and I was scared into going back to eating. I went back to normal eating, almost overnight.

I was lucky, but many other girls are not. They keep dieting, restricting their caloric intake and upping their exercise level, slowly wasting away. Many end up dying from the disease, literally dying from starvation, unthinkable in our well-fed Western society, but it happens all the time.

Now, the mother of two young daughters aged nine and eleven, I constantly struggle with the need to help them stay healthy and fit, and avoid gaining too much weight in this crazy atmosphere of junk food and overeating and portions that are completely out of control. Being overweight is unhealthy – but on the other hand, being severely underweight is deadly.

How do I walk that fine line? How do I protect my children from this horrible disease, yet help them cope with a greedy, ruthless food industry that pushes them into overeating, and eating junk? No doubt, one way to do that is to focus on health and fitness rather than on thinness as a goal. But what about directly discussing anorexia? Is it a good idea? And if so, at what age?

The opportunity to talk about anorexia with my daughters had presented itself to me a few weeks ago, when I came across the article about Anna Wood, a British teenager who had died of Anorexia at the age of sixteen. As I was reading the article, tears in my eyes, I knew immediately that my girls would have to see her photos. While they are certainly still very young, and the photos are harsh, I felt that now is the time to talk about issues that if I wait just a couple more years to discuss, it might be too late.

Now, when they still listen to me, when I can instill my ideas and values in them, is the time to talk about sex, drugs, alcohol, and – yes – anorexia. The longer I wait, the bigger the risk that when I finally attempt to have “the talk” with them, it will be too late.

So I showed them the photos, and told them about Anna, and we had read the article together. I talked about my own experience with extreme dieting and how I had stopped when I realized it was hurting me, but some girls are unable to stop.

More than anything else, I wanted to burn those photos into their memories forever. I wanted to teach their young brains to make the connection that extreme dieting is ugly and deadly, that it takes a beautiful, beautiful person and turns her into a shadow of her former self, into a walking dead, before it finally kills her.

I want my kids to never ever equate extreme dieting with beauty, the way I did when I was fourteen. The fashion industry and the media will do everything in their power to tell them otherwise – to tell them that you can never be too thin, and when they are 14, 15, 16 they will listen to the media, not to me. But now, when they still listen to me, I want to tell them – to SHOW them – that you CAN be too thin and that thin does not equal beautiful.

Will it help protect my children from developing the deadly disease? Who knows. But I feel that I need to do everything in my power to at least try.

When my 11 years old daughter showed the photos to a friend, the friend’s mom was upset. She had felt that the material was inappropriate for an eleven years old girl and that her daughter should never have seen Anna’s photos.

While I can see where the mom is coming from, and acknowledge that I should have instructed my daughter not to share this material with friends (after all this IS harsh material and should be up to each parent to decide if their child should see it), I still wonder, what does that mom plan on doing? Is she planning on waiting? For how much longer? Is she planning on not discussing anorexia with her daughter at all? Aren’t both of these choices – waiting until it might be too late, and doing nothing at all, extremely risky?

Ann Taylor Photoshopping

These are images of before-and-after photoshopping, taken from the Ann Taylor website. Apparently, the “before” was published by mistake.

I’m looking at what was done here, and I’m thinking back to my recent rant about the “new female ideal,” and you know what? I take it back.

I still hope we will one day get to see all kinds of women gracing catalogs and magazines, that one day many types of figures and complexions and ages will be acceptable and considered beautiful – but until that day arrives, if I must choose between these two images as a role model for my pre-teen daughters:

ann taylor airbrushingChristina Hendricks

Then I’m choosing the woman who looks as if she’s alive, eating and BREATHING.

Photo credit: watchwithkristin

Going Gray

by MomGrind

going grayI decided to allow my hair to gray naturally. This of course would be a non-issue if I were a man, but as a woman, this decision elicits all kinds of reactions, from “OMG you’re letting yourself go!” to “You go girl!” and anything in between.

I saw my first silver strands when I was in my twenties, and pretty much ignored them. By the time I was 30, I had quite a few, and I felt much too young for gray hair, so I started dyeing my hair. I hated it. Hated the time it took away from other activities, hated putting harsh chemicals in my hair, and I hated the way it damaged my hair, which used to be smooth and shiny and became frizzy and dull.

A few months ago, at the age of 38, I looked in the mirror and I knew that I was aging. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not an idiot. I realize I’m an attractive woman. But the aging process has begun and enough of the signs are there, such as skin discoloration and laugh lines, that gray hair seems completely appropriate. It’s difficult to explain, but the same silver strands that felt so out of place at age 30 now seem very natural, part of who I am, of who I am becoming.

But my main reason for deciding to stop dyeing my hair was the shame. As long as I was coloring, covering the silver strands, I felt ashamed of them, and since my hair is naturally very dark, they would show fairly quickly, just a couple of weeks after coloring. I would look in the mirror and fret over those roots, trying to decide what to do until my next coloring. I hated that – I hated feeling ashamed. Covering those roots was like covering who I really am – a woman near forty, no longer in my twenties, and I didn’t want to feel ashamed, I didn’t want my inevitable aging to be something that I needed to cover and hide.

So I stopped, about six months ago I think, and while I know that the photos here don’t really show the grays (I actually like to call them silvers, they really are sparkly), maybe in the photo below, if you look closely you see the silver strands, I can assure you that in real life they are quite noticeable, especially because the rest of the hair is so dark. In fact they are noticeable enough that people make comments and ask me about them (a common reaction is, “Wow, Vered, I haven’t realized you have so much gray hair! You really should color. Your skin is much too young, you look much too young to have gray hair.”)

Just like countless other women who have stopped covering their gray hair, I feel relief. It’s good to be free of a monthly process that I absolutely despised, to be free of the worries over whether my roots show, to be free to be who I am and to show my aging and to be OK with that.

But there are also worries, and just like countless other women, and men too actually, the worries are not at all on a personal level – my family and friends accept me either way and my husband still can’t get enough of me :). But on a professional level, you can’t help but worry that you might be labeled “old” or “too old,” that looking older will damage your career – especially in a few years when I have more and more “salt” and less and less “pepper” in my hair.

gray hair

Am I critical of people who choose to cover gray hair? Of course not. This is a very personal choice, and each of us needs to do what feels right to them, what feels natural. Just a short couple of years ago, if you suggested that I stop coloring my hair, I would have looked at you as if you were nuts.

At the time, it felt like coloring was the right choice. Now, I feel that letting my hair gray naturally is the right choice – for me.