In Praise of Men

Michaelangelo’s David, vam.ac.uk

Before I turn the spotlight on men, I want to offer two bits of context. First, my Post for today is from a ‘binary’ perspective. Limited, I know, but there it is. And second, I need to give a fact-based “nod” (you’ll see how it relates, promise) to women. Author Gita Patel (2013) compiled extensive research-based data about how uniquely qualified women are considered in global business and overall professional settings. Women are valued in the corporate world as being more “people-based”, “democratic and participative”,  and more “inclusive”.

womankind.org.uk

The stunner (for me, anyway):  Patel’s research reveals that women were “rated more competent in taking initiative, practicing self-development, integrity and honesty, as well as for being results-driven.” These are generally considered more masculine attributes in many societies.

Which leads me (and other Readers, I imagine) to wander – mentally – into the territory of Power, and what it means to men and women. But since this Post is In Praise of Men, that’s where I’m headed.

Social psychologists (pop, or legit) have always regarded Power as a key driver in the male psyche. Personal power. Professional power. Feeling a degree of control and influence over internal and external happenings. As I think about the men (surrounded by them while growing up) in my life — the energy, aspirations and drive…the tension, aggression and occasional acting-out – this makes so much sense. Maybe it was because I was the only girl in a crowd of brothers, but my father liked to ‘school’ me about males. Paraphrasing here, my own father (a stern, strong, stoic) said that, despite how single-minded they can appear (trying to address the need to find, and hold on to Power), most men need and deserve compassion and, most importantly, praise. No matter how gruff, ego-centric or stoic they appear (of course, Dad was also referring to himself), they are “no match for women and they know it” (a direct quote).

The Red Planet, Mars, independent.co.uk

Men, as author Robert Ardrey implied, have always been – since the days of early man – programmed in certain ways that have become increasingly difficult to act out in today’s world. Since the early days of Feminism, many men have struggled to re-align themselves with the changing needs and perspectives of women.

As a young (single) man in his 30’s recently confided, “You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t”. Too emotionally attuned to your girlfriend’s needs? She ghosts you for a Bad Boy. Too focused on your career and establishing yourself (trying to find your own balance of power in the corporation)? She accuses you of not valuing the relationship and your future together – she suddenly wants to marry and start a family.

psychologytoday.com

Yesterday I was out and about and had to stop in for a shot of espresso to fortify myself for another few hours. A man was coming out of the bistro as I was entering. I reached for the door handle, which he already had a hold of on his side. Our eyes met. Not for the first time, I saw the tentativeness in the man’s expression as he prepared to hold the door open for me. As I tell my millennial son, “Your mom raised you right.” It’s not that I needed the door opened for me, being perfectly able-bodied to do so myself. It’s that the man chose to open the door, in gallant fashion. (Personal experience note:  Southern men will always open doors for women.) This was his choice, and I allowed it.

It’s not just ‘gallantry’ that I appreciate in men – far from it. It’s more the way they’ve continued to evolve and find their correct and comfortable place in confusing situations. As a woman, I encourage and embrace men: “Welcome to our world.” That’s just a small part of my role on Planet Earth.

My Take on “Toxic Masculinity”

I grew up in a household full of males – no sisters, just my mother. But she was six feet tall, and had been pretty much been raised as the “boy” her father (a serious outdoorsman) so desperately wanted. My mother learned to hunt, fish, climb trees, drive a tractor, smoke, drink and cuss right along with my grandfather’s Spanish and Portuguese farm hands. Much to the dismay of my rather proper grandmother who wore corsets, powder, perfume and rouge, and who never in her life wore a pair of trousers. My mother occasionally used makeup and liked to have her hair “done”, but she never let anyone forget her full persona. After leaving her father’s farm, she became a college professor and also wrote dense, sad poetry. The happiest I ever saw her, when I was a child, was when she was fly-fishing:  bouncing in her rubber boots over slick oval rocks, flicking her line, with a Black Gnat attached, like a matador teasing a bull. She always caught her limit of gigantic Rainbow trout.

I came into womanhood about the time that the Women’s Liberation Movement was gathering momentum. The term “male chauvinism” was on almost every girl’s lips. For me, as early as the eighth grade in school (as I wrote in a previous Post), chauvinism was the ‘thing’ that prevented me from wearing pants to school. (Try riding a bicycle, climbing a tree or Jungle Gym in a skirt and petticoat. No boy would do that, exposing his bloomers, am I right?). Social conventions created exclusively for females were being targeted and obliterated by the Feminists of my day. But, and I can recall this very clearly – the goal of our ‘liberation’ at that time was equity. If I chose to wear pants, I could. If I wanted to become a welder or enlist in military service, I could. And, if I did the very same work that a man did, I wanted and expected equal pay. Anything that a man was allowed to do in our society, women of my time wanted the option (which was always the only point of the Movement) to do the same. Of course, that created a Big Scare among men.

Outcries about crazed women trying to emasculate men on a global scale proliferated; coming from both men and more conservative (as in Biblical- framework) women. As with any Movement, things can go out of control. You begin your crusade with ideas that seem reasonable; but as others get involved and exert their own visions and influence, you lose control of the original mission. As a Liberated Woman (which I always felt was my birthright, by the way – despite rampant sexism in my workplace), I’m utterly dismayed by the left-turn in feminist attitudes (I’m inclined to call it a “one-eighty”) that has given traction to the phrase “Toxic Masculinity”.

Kudos to Christina Hoff Sommers – almost exactly four years my senior – who opened a dialogue out about the feminist “detour” (my word) we started to take in the early 1990’s, in her book “Who Stole Feminism?”. Simply stated, Sommers speaks to what the Women’s Liberation Movement was originally about:  Equity. She makes a really important distinction between “gender feminists” versus “equity feminists”. On the most recent HBO series “Real Time With Bill Maher”, Sommers was the lead-off guest on the show.

Sommers

Sommers declares that Toxic Masculinity is suspiciously similar to the divisive extremism we’re seeing in our entire current political and social atmosphere. I wholeheartedly agree with her:  unity through equity was always the primary mission of the original Women’s Movement. I know, because I was there. I listened to Steinem, Friedan, Wolf and others. I read their books and even had discussions with men who generally agreed with our goals.

Women have come a long way in fighting for equal rights, but there’s still a long way to go – especially for women of color and for those wanting to experience Female and Femininity in their own ways. Wherever the struggle takes us next, I’m not willing to draw-lines-in-the-sand, adding to the bellicose atmosphere with negatively-charged epithets. I may not know who “Stole” Feminism; but the “Why” of the theft seems the more important question, and one that’s part of a much bigger disaster-in-progress.

[All images courtesy of gettyimages.com]

Women and Power

bfi.org.uk

I’m pretty much always in the process of considering the plight of women in the World. From just about every angle you can think of:  career, family, personal happiness, health and fitness, self-image, hopes and dreams. And also the perspective that the World – all corners of it – has toward women:  so vastly different, depending upon geography, politics, religion, and social structures that determine who has power and influence, and who doesn’t.

As I grow older, my perspective and understanding about how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go, has broadened and deepened. I have to admit:  I’m not feeling as hopeful about our progress as I’d like. My feeling’s based on two assumptions. The first being that all women want and are actively seeking respect, equity and access in all areas of their lives, personal and professional. (I’m in denial; make that, I cringe when I think that any woman might inherently feel like a lesser-being than a man.)

My second assumption is that all women recognize how truly complex they are, and that they aren’t restricted or limited in whatever, or  however many roles they choose over the course of their lives. I’m not as hopeful as I’d like, because I continue to hear women in key Life Stages say that they feel conflicted, exhausted, frustrated, anxious, fearful and guilty about decisions – already made, or in the works – that really matter to their health and long-term happiness.

Younger Readers may not be fully aware of how significant the efforts and accomplishments of their mothers and grandmothers were in improving the lives of women. The right to vote; the right to have a career and a family; the right to play any sport and to join the military. The right to control our own reproductive systems (a little slippage in this area, recently).  The (dubious) right to smoke. The right to wear pants at school, as opposed to a dress and petticoats (let that one sink in for a minute – in the 8th grade I was threatened with suspension from school for doing so). Undeniably, the list of struggles and victories is longer than can be presented here.

No doubt about it, we’ve been  formidable in asserting ourselves in different ways, for decades now. Even though key concerns (such as equal pay, and demand for control over our own bodies) still exist, women’s voices have continued to protest injustices that are based solely on our assigned gender. So…why are we not feeling stronger, clearer, more powerful, resolved, secure, and more focused in who we are and what we want our lives to be?

In her book, “Women & Power”, author and scholar Mary Beard offers some very important ideas. Beard’s research traces how women’s minds, bodies, emotions, aspirations, learning, and self-expression have been subjected to both formal and informal constraints and manipulation since ancient times. And not that much has changed. She notes that, for example, even a current – admittedly brilliant — female presidential candidate for the U.S. 2020 election is being referred to as “strident”, in the volume and projection of her voice. Do we put such limitations on men’s voices?  Of course not. We expect them, and even need them to be viewed as vocally aggressive.

Mary Beard, thetimes.co.uk

Beard’s point in her book is that women have been indoctrinated, right down to our very DNA – boots, to conform to what our social and religious groups say about how we should ‘behave’. We’ve internalized messages for centuries. Despite how “liberated” we might feel we are, many of us succumb to all kinds of horrible thoughts and feelings for simply wanting motherhood and  a career. Many women don’t feel, and have never fully felt empowered or supported in making important life choices freely, outside the confines of social norms. More importantly, they’ve never really been taught and encouraged to reflect on their deepest desires and the options for fulfilling them. After discussing that the above ‘programming’ (my word) is really all about who’s going to have the most power and influence (certainly not women!), Beard closes her book with a simple statement: 

“If women aren’t perceived to be within the structure of power, isn’t it power itself we need to redefine?” Let’s get that ball rolling, shall we?

Image vs. Reality

We’ve all heard the phrase, “You never get a second chance to create a positive first impression.” I’m sure that many, if not most of my Readers have experienced symptoms of anxiety prior to a high-stakes first meeting:  an interview; the first day on the job; a first meeting with any individual or group of people that – momentarily, anyway – hold important keys to our happiness. It’s a very human thing, to want to project the appearance of whatever the desired qualifications are. As long as the Image is not that far from Reality, all is well (depending upon the competition, of course!)

As women, sometimes we get a little carried away with the Image part. In fairness to myself and my Sisters, the scrutiny on us in many (most?) professions or industries is more intense – regardless of what the majority atmosphere (gender/s) may be. We’re not only aware of, but self-conscious about how we’re perceived by others. It’s important that those perceptions (and reactions from others) be in keeping with our professional goals, and also with how we see ourselves.

Unlike men, women (I’m speaking in the binary sense, here) are almost always in the process of balancing their sex with the demands and expectations of the job. How we wear our hair; how we use make-up to enhance our faces; how we dress and accessorize. More than a few times I was told by female mentors, “Never wear your hair down in a meeting!” (Who knew that long hair could be a professional saboteur?)  Any style or adornment that transmitted even a whiff of ‘sexy’ was considered either a transactional killer, or, it communicated the wrong kind of signal (I’m decorative, not functional; here to play, not to work). This balancing Act can be flat-out exhausting; but there’s evidence all around us that the Act is still expected, if not an explicitly stated requirement in many organizations.

One of the most image-conscious  jobs I had while climbing the professional ladder was working in a Communications Unit in a large Southern-California city. The director of the unit was a woman, “Carol”. This woman was always perfectly coiffed (hair bleached a dazzling platinum blonde, styled in a chin-length bob); her makeup was a perfect So-Cal tan, year-round; her suits (always a skirt and jacket) conservative. Carol always wore high heels, and always wore hot pink lipstick with matching pink nail color. I was the Editor of the Communications Unit and only saw Carol as she hustled to and from meetings, or when she wanted to meet over copy. Our conversations were cordial, but professional.

One day, however, we happened to be in the womens’ lounge at the same time. I don’t remember what I was wearing, but – being a writer at that point in my career, pretty much behind the scenes for most of the work day – it surely didn’t compare to Carol’s bright red suit and silk chemise. Feeling feisty, as she was touching up her make-up in the mirror, I commented on her appearance. Something left-handed and safe, like, “You’re always so put-together!” Carol turned to me, smiled indulgently, and simply said, “I’m so tired; I just don’t know how much longer I can do this.” Then she turned back to the mirror to blot her lipstick. She grabbed her huge handbag and exited the lounge. I was dying to know what she meant, but I had to wait until several days later – when I had some copy to give her – to casually bring up our previous conversation. (I framed it as, “Just wondering if you’re ok…?”) To summarize, Carol told me that, basically, her work image was all ‘show’, and not at all who she was “at home”. Image, she said, is Reality:  the reality being, How You Want to Be Perceived, not Who You Really Are.  Silly me, I thought smugly: my only ‘reality’ is who I am inside, regardless of what I’m wearing! Carol may as well have patted my head like the ‘innocent’ bumpkin she obviously thought I was. “You’ll see,” she said. And of course, I did see.

Recently I overheard a young female colleague (who works in male-dominated Finance) talking with another young woman about her image and how she deployed it in her work setting. No particular emphasis on clothing, accessories or make-up; no pressure to present aesthetic perfection. What she did, however, was telegraph her femaleness and sexuality by ‘batting her eyelashes’ (yes, she actually said this) and lowering her voice during a meeting with the male CFO, her immediate boss. I quickly realized that I needed to walk out of earshot, before my feminist hackles became obvious. But another colleague of mine, an older woman, had heard the same comment and was clearly fuming. I watched her walk toward the two younger women, pretty certain that I knew what was about to happen. Not feeling like sticking-around, I just whispered to myself, “You’ll see.”

The “Sell-By” Date

So, I thought I’d just let this go, but my mind kept circling back to it. With me, that means, Time to add my two cents’ worth of commentary.  I’m referring to a recent Instagram ‘flap’ (creating a collective gasp and flurry of chat in our cyber world) over 53-year old model Cindy Crawford’s decision to Post “racy” (her word) photographs online. Nicely done, Cindy. I mean that. The pictures are tasteful, yet undeniably sexy. Crawford’s still a beautiful woman, regardless of how much air-brushing or photo-shopping was done:  The Bones are there.

I’ve had more than a few friends who’ve taken what used to be called “Boudoir Photos”, feeling the urge to capture for all time a fantasy-like beauty and sexuality. Most haven’t posted them online, however. Crawford’s reasoning for doing so – she was vocal and righteously snippy about it – is that she wanted to speak to the fact that women should not feel they have “Sell-By” dates, when it comes to their sexuality. I couldn’t agree more. Especially if they look like Cindy Crawford. In her statement, Crawford implied that the photographs were also sort of a ‘gift’ for her husband. Not going to argue with that either; but there’s a bit of a weird mashup here:  a political statement and a little eye candy for her spouse? On Instagram? You claim to be speaking for me here, Cindy, so I just want to make sure I’m understanding you.

In my view, a woman’s beauty and her sexuality are inextricably intertwined. In using the word ‘sexuality’ I’m not referring to sex, or the ability to conjure sexual feelings in anyone else. Feeling beautiful is something every woman on the planet is entitled to, and she should get to define what that means to her, and for her. But there’s a particular aspect of beauty that all women share, and that is our sexuality. Our sexuality is based, first and foremost, on the simple fact that we were born female. If we choose to embrace this (feel comfortable in our birth gender), our sexuality as females blossoms as we age. Our sexuality originates as a sense of self, a knowledge of self, a celebration of self and the ancient power inherent in being a woman. A woman’s sexuality does not , nor should it, require a male’s attention or validation in order to flourish.

Despite the “Swinging 60’s”, the brief illusion that women could truly celebrate being female in ways that suited their own bodies, minds and spirits, all women have faced a narrowing of the definitions of ‘beauty’ and ‘sexuality’ over time. Yes, faces on glossy magazine covers have become more diverse (a good thing), but many of the images we see – within the pages of the top fashion sellers —  still project a version of femaleness that is unrelatable to most women. There are also plenty of examples (movies, music, social media) guiding us in how we should feel about our sexuality; defining what it means  for us. No wonder that, as women age, many begin to feel what Crawford called out as the “Sell-By” date fears.

I’m cheering for Cindy Crawford and her nude photos, regardless of the reasons they ended up on Instagram. (I’ll be curious to see if the next decade brings a new photo shoot). I’m just longing for the time when an Influencer like Crawford’s proclamation includes a shout-out empowering  all women, of all ages, shapes and sizes. She has a right to do her thing, for as long as she chooses to. I’m just not convinced that the 53 year-old women she’s talking to are the same ones I know.

%d bloggers like this: