"If You Lean in, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse?"
Questions and Thoughts for Loud, Smart Women in Turbulent Times
By Gina Barreca
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2016 Gina Barreca
All rights reserved.
Does Beauty Really Equal Bondage? or "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Loathe the Spanx"
Could you be talked into purchasing a foundation undergarment so restrictive, so unyielding, and so draconian it makes a wetsuit look like a nightgown?
Here's why I ask: There's been a pop-up (rarely has the term been so grievously misused) ad appearing in the lower right-hand screen of my computer which at first seemed merely persistent but turned out to have been irresistible. It offered me a product that would, through cunning and science, give me a better figure. This week, I relented. Casting my integrity to the wind, I clicked on the link.
What I saw made me gasp, then wince, then toss my head and offer the hollow laughter of film sirens who discovered their boyfriends were no -good, gunslinging liars. The website was selling girdles. They didn't call them that, but that's what they were.
A girdle is a girdle is a girdle.
I grew up watching early women's rights activists burn their bras and girdles. Now times have changed and women are putting their undergarments into the flames for a different reason: They're doing it to forge the steel infrastructure more thoroughly by placing them in the refiner's fire.
* * *
That's why they're called foundation garments — they're made of metal and concrete. They're supposed to support the whole structure, from the bottom-up and the inside-out.
These new products differ from the girdles worn by women of my mother's generation only insofar as there are now girdles for the legs, girdles for the arms, and girdles for an adult's entire body. Turns out you don't just have to flatten your stomach anymore. You have to flatten your whole self.
I started looking at various other links for women's foundation garments — there are more than 28 million entries, so I narrowed my search to the first 75,000 — and it seems as if the most popular brand at the moment is a product called Spanx.
Name aside, I don't believe this product has anything to do with the act of spanking because, as far as I can tell, the hand of the person attempting such an act would ricochet off the taut trampoline-like surface of the fabric and in all probability cause the spanker to put out an eye or cause severe damage to his (or her, but you know it would be his) wrist.
In some cases, of course, that would be appropriate.
But what might start out as playful could become deadly and we should all remember that, especially before wearing an item of clothing that resembles a lace-edged iron maiden.
The premise behind Spanx is this: if you put Jell-O into a Thermos, it won't remember it's Jell-O.
This realization did not prevent me from wondering whether I might not be wise to purchase one. I've always been fond of Thermoses, which are the cleverest of appliances. You put in a hot beverage, it keeps it hot; you put in a cold beverage, it keeps it cold. As the old joke goes, "How do(es) it know?" But so-called shapewear? It turns out it's not so intelligent. That's why smart broads were eager to shed it.
Today's advertising rhetoric says shapewear will "smooth" your silhouette, which sounds rather comforting and benign, but with a little research (reading another 48,000 articles) a person can start to believe in conspiracy theories concerning the deviousness of underwear manufacturers rivaling those put forth by flat-world theorists — with the same impulse to get rid of curves.
Researchers argue that these arcane garments will cut off the circulation of blood to several of your favorite major organs — especially those having to do with digestion — and cause reflux, heartburn, and flatulence.
Fabulous, right? The fabric is virtually airtight; the wearer is trapped inside a Spanx garment. She is burping, belching, and releasing enough natural gas to keep the lights on in Tulsa for a three-day weekend, but the vapors are sealed in.
So now picture these ladies — smooth ladies, every one of them — slowly wafting toward the ceiling at the end of a gala, rising with a kind of grand elegance until they are gently bobbing up there against the lighting fixtures like balloons.
Surely at some point they, and their self-esteem, deflate and return to earth?
So you'll not be surprised I decided to skip the equation that beauty equals bondage, even when it's trying to pass itself off as a textile buttress.
Women don't need to bring back the whalebone in our corsets; what we need is to develop enough backbone to shed them altogether.
Unlearning the Kindergarten Lessons of Life
Like almost every other woman I know, many of the lessons I've had to unlearn in life I first learned in kindergarten.
For example, I've had to break the habit of having cookies and a nap at three in the afternoon.
That's because as an adult I developed this fetish about wanting to hold a steady job and not take up so much physical space I need to be hauled around by a winch.
Lying down every day after a heavy sugar and carb intake can undermine a girl's ambitions as well as her ability to enter a room without turning sideways and breathing in.
After a certain age, I also had to learn to stop automatically holding the hand of the person walking next to me. I discovered in my mid- to late twenties (I'm a slow learner) that the unoccupied hand belonging to my "buddy" (or boyfriend, or first husband) was often furtively engaged in holding a miniature bottle of cinnamon schnapps, the keys to a vehicle he didn't own, or the hand of another wide-eyed girl. (Sometimes all three. Remember: slow learner.)
One of the biggest revelations came when I realized that I did not have to share everything. That was fascinating. To believe I could be a good girl and yet insist that some stuff belonged only to me? It was hard to convince myself that somebody else wanting a piece of what I've got (a piece of pie, a piece of the action, a piece of my heart, whatever) was not a reason to fork it over. I was in my forties when I learned that even if somebody asks nicely, it is OK to say no.
Over the years, I've also had to learn that life is not a game of tag (nowhere is "safe") and that in most workplaces time-outs are not the penalty for behaving badly. I also discovered, along with the rest of America, that although in politics, professional sports, and Hollywood there are no penalties for behaving badly, if you're working retail or for a corporation you'll be fired before you can say, "I'm sorry."
Lately, though, I've realized that I've clung to the schematics behind the game of Duck, Duck, Goose as a guiding force for far too long. In women's lives especially (and since I'm talking about the pre-K demographic I'll call us girls without fear of appearing patronizing), all sorts of lessons have encouraged us to sit politely and wait to be chosen. Remember the game Duck, Duck, Goose, where you sat in a circle facing the center and waited to be recognized as the "goose," whereupon you were tapped and permitted to run around making choices yourself?
And how many fairy tales taught us essentially the same lesson? "Duck, Duck, Cinderella!" "Duck, Duck, Snow White!" Or classic books? "Duck, Duck, Madame Bovary!" "Duck, Duck, Anna Karenina!" Or popular movies? "Duck, Duck, Julia Roberts playing a hooker in Pretty Woman!"
Great lesson, right? Learn to win at a game where ritual passivity is preparation for random selection? Where the goal is to be distinguished as exceptional, not presumably because you possess any duck-like attributes (God forbid), but because you're not paying attention and might be a slow runner? Learn how to play a game where the object is to get caught?
Boys are rewarded for playing games where they line up by height and then run into walls. Perhaps I'm making that up — or perhaps you should do a Google search for "Guy Runs into Wall for Fun."
If you do, you'll notice that the recent number of visits to that YouTube page is about 3.5 million. The official YouTube page for the Olympics, in contrast? Fewer than a million views. And the YouTube page for the National Women's History Museum's video titled Three Generations Fighting for the Vote? Fifty-six views, total.
Men and women alike have to examine the lessons we teach — even for fun — and rewrite the rules of the games we play.
Nobody wants to go through life as the guy who slams into walls. And nobody wants to spend her life as a sitting duck.
The Cheap-Motel Backside of Facebook
Wouldn't it be just absolutely great if people put snapshots of themselves at their most miserable — not cute miserable, but actually miserable — on Facebook?
Real life, as we all know, is like seeing the reverse side of a perfectly executed needlepoint: it's messy, it's chaotic, and it's tough to see the big picture.
Years ago, a friend introduced me to what he calls the Miserable Snapshot Theory of Life. Since people now upload daily, sometimes hourly, photographs of fabulous meals, beautiful children, and astonishing vacations as evidence of their unimpeachably happy existences, his theory has even more appeal than it did originally.
Here's the premise: What if, when we were young, we could look into our future and see only the most ridiculous, awkward, and pitiful sequences? What would we think about ourselves then?
And now I'll tell you one of my pitiful moments, which starts as if it were an ordinary story: My husband and I drove across the country. We had a safe car, audiobooks, and enough cash to stay indoors. We were ready for fun.
Yes, parts of the trip were Facebook gleeful: diners with perfectly crisp hash; a local rodeo in Montana; landscapes so stark we wouldn't have been surprised to see a triceratops walk across the road.
But then there was this one night in Northern California.
* * *
It rained hard all day and driving had been tough: windshield wipers on, difficult to see the road, some pretty serious fog. We were going to try to make it farther north but decided around seven to call it quits. We pulled into a small city and chose a small local motel, since the plan was to get some serious sleep and leave early the next day.
Fair enough, right? So far, so good. So what if there were no other vehicles in the parking lot? Maybe the staff all walked to work. It was the West Coast. They're very health-conscious out there.
And OK, the room was a little worse than usual. For starters, it had a neon orange shag rug that had seen better days as far back as, say, 1972. I thought I heard crickets coming from inside the rug, but I convinced myself that my hearing was playing tricks on me. The shag couldn't be so deep that it had its own ecosystem, surely.
The room's only attempt at decoration consisted of six faded clown prints fully bolted to the walls. This implied that other guests had attempted to steal them.
There were twin beds covered by nylon paisley bedspreads so slippery that it was nearly impossible not to slide off directly onto the shag rug, thereby becoming consumed by whatever lived within its layers.
Seeing the expression on my face, Michael said, "I'll go get us some food."
The understanding was that, while he was gone, I would unpack whatever we needed, open the wine, and get our evening started. I looked around for those little plastic glasses usually on shelves in the bathroom. Not only were there no cups in the bathroom; there were no shelves.
There was, however, another clown print. But no cups, no glasses.
I decided to drink the wine regardless.
My husband returned to find his wife sitting on a nylon paisley bed drinking cheap wine directly out of the bottle while gazing stupefied at Bozo.
In a falsely cheerful voice Michael announced, "The only thing I could find to eat was potato salad."
"Where did you get potato salad where there was no other food?" I asked.
"There was a deli, it was closing, and I didn't like the look of the cold cuts."
I started rifling through the paper bag for napkins and cutlery. There were napkins, but no spoons, knives, or forks.
"Michael," I asked, "how are we supposed to eat this?"
"What do you mean?" he said.
"There are no implements," I pointed out.
In a phrase I at first didn't understand, Michael said, "I have a shoehorn." He looked enormously pleased with himself.
Then I got it. So we sat at the ends of our respective beds, passing the bottle back and forth along with the plastic container of potato salad as we shoveled food into our mouths with a shoehorn.
Let's face it: If you'd told me when I was a kid, "Honey, you're gonna spend a night sitting in a sleazy motel eating potato salad with a shoehorn and staring at a clown print in silence," would I have really worked so hard in college?
I used to think I'd like to see my future: "Oh if only I could fast-forward a little bit, and see where I end up, that will give me motivation to do well, and be all that I can be!"
We have to choose those snapshots carefully. None of them are representative: it's all about context.
When Michael and I left the next morning, our drive took us though fields of orchids. Had we not stopped the night before, we would have driven past them in the dark.
A picture might be worth a thousand words, but you choose your words and your pictures carefully.
And always pack a shoehorn. (Continues...)
Excerpted from "If You Lean in, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse?" by Gina Barreca. Copyright © 2016 Gina Barreca. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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