"On the plains of Oklahoma, with a windshield sunset in your eyes like a watercolor painted sky, you'd think heavens doors have opened."
Fly Over States

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Feminine Mystique - Squandered

From time to time, I am reminded of how blind I can be.  By that, I mean that, although I look at things around me, chances are I actually interpret what I see by what I'm told I'm looking at.  In other words, I see what I expect to see.  Tell me a pretty story, or an ugly one, about something I can see with my own eyes and have experienced in my own life and I'll still often substitute what I see for the tale I'm told. 

I might as well be controversial, today. 

We live in a time when people compete with themselves and others to come up with abstract, psychological theories for what amounts to predictable, mundane human behavior.
I think this comes from watching too much daytime television.   

"He wouldn't settle down because he feared commitment," for example.  Frankly, given the widespread prevalence of this mental state, it is probably better explained not by some psychological problem, but by the fact that he likely jumped into a convenient, comfortable, short-term emotional and sexual "relationship" because it was easy.  He jumped out of it just as abruptly because he never had to commit, long-term, in the first place - it was primarily about euphoria that he could indulge in without worrying about the long term.  Frankly, he has a smorgasbord of delectable options available to him at any given moment with ladies who (initially) aren't as likely to criticize him when he drinks too much or leaves his dirty underwear on the bathroom floor.  Or the den.  Or the car.  His "fear of commitment" probably isn't a psychological flaw, although if you are the one left out in the cold, attributing his behavior to a personality flaw instead of facing the truth about a situation is tempting.  But let's be candid - Instead of attributing his lack of commitment to a fear of commitment, the real question might be, "Why would someone expect a long term commitment from a man who only agreed to a short term one?"

Been there, done that.  It is a type of insanity.

These days, many women insist they aren't looking for a serious, long-term relationship.  They either do this sincerely, or because to do so would end the relationship before it started.  If they fall in love or otherwise change their minds (or were lying in the first place), they are left with the task of convincing Romeo to change the whole terms of the relationship - generally just about the time the euphoria that led him into it in the first place is fading. 

Good luck with that.
Unless he is a traditional fellow, marriage, these days, it no longer something that makes a lot of sense to many men - at least at an early age.  Modern women (and I count my generation as part of this) have managed to create an atmosphere where a young woman who wants to lay the foundation for a long-term, traditional relationship is deemed embarrassingly needy if it gets out what she is up to.  Unless she is a goddess, marries young or lives in a small town, she risks being put on a shelf if she starts having such expectations/hopes too openly. 
And most men, let's face it, who are dating a woman who claims she doesn't want anything long-term are still waiting for the other shoe to drop.  And if she decides long-term is the direction she wants to go but he hasn't indicated he feels the same, she will often still pretend nothing has changed for fear he will drop her.


I'm not saying that all women are out for marriage.  But the fact is, many, from the beginning, are confident that if they change their mind and want more, later, they'll be better able to convert a short term relationship to a long term one since they'll already have their foot in the door.  The illogic of this escapes many and often amounts to wishful thinking.  Moreover, it breeds dishonesty, distrust, unequal power in a relationship and broken hearts.   Face it, relationships built on a lie are hard to maintain, much less change significantly.  It can be done but it isn't easy and the odds are against it.

Frequently, the guys who "fear commitment" finally decide as they approach their mid thirties that they are ready for traditional marriage.  All too often instead of the woman they are dating, they opt to marry a younger woman who hasn't had her heart stomped on for the past ten years.  It's crazy but common and there are reasons for it beyond the shallow.

Most don't marry her just because she is young and pretty.  If that were the case, they'd have married women their own age ten years ago.   They marry her because they don't have the energy to keep chasing after women and they want someone with a heart that isn't covered with callouses, who is honest about what she wants.  And let's be frank - a younger woman is generally far more pliable and willing to put up with his nonsense, plus be more dependent on him financially and otherwise.  Anyone who thinks most men interested in marriage don't want a wife (as opposed to a girlfriend) who has certain traditional qualities is ignoring the fact that marriage, itself, is a traditional institution.   I don't think this applies so much when two people grow up together, but when a man marries a younger woman (at least a man prior to the age of incontinence) he's generally looking for someone who thinks he hung the moon. 

But why don't so many men who abruptly decide they want to marry just stay with the woman they're with?  I think that is the trap many women fall into when they assume they can always renegotiate.  I think many modern women have accepted the script that what you do is go for the short term, shop around to find someone you like, go monogamous without committing (a kind of trial marriage, frequently including living together) and then marriage or long-term commitment is the next logical step.

Er, no.  It doesn't always work that way.  It doesn't even usually work out this way. 

Most men aren't interested in emotional drama and it is easier to get a fresh start with a fresh thrill, than to sort out and renegotiate a relationship in which they've both been telling each other lies about what they want out of life.  Moreover, unless they are madly, passionately in love, renegotiating at that point results in simply settling for the same person who has been nagging them to pick up their socks.  Don't kid yourself - men want/need to be respected by their wife.  It is part of their DNA.   As the country song goes, the grown woman they've been dating for any length of time knows he was raised on a farm and generally isn't shy about reminding him. 
I've been told that a woman's power is in her sexuality and that we women lose that power as we age.  We allegedly become invisible.  I know there is some truth to that but as I reach a certain age, I think, more and more, that "story" was written by someone on the young side of the change.  As I get older, I find that as my waist line widens, an emotional fog is lifting.  Where once I worried about reaching the age where I looked like a Granny (a fate I secretly considered worse than death), I now look at young women and actually feel sorry for them, in a way.  So many are a mass of insecurities, rushing about trying to meet the expectations and conflicting needs of their husband/boyfriend/child/friends/employers/parents/society.  Emotionally, they are on a hormonal roller coaster.  Many are exhausted.  Cultural expectations of female beauty have them stressing over an extra half pound. 

They've been born in an age, goddess help them, where they are constantly competing with other women for male attention with male fantasy setting the standard.  Being in a committed relationship doesn't change that, all that much.  They might as well be living in a harem.  A woman's sexuality is power?  I think perhaps not.  Not anymore.  In many ways, it is a trap.  They get attention, yes, until the next best thing comes along.  It is a game most can't win unless you throw love into the mix.  But many consider love optional.  And for many, relationships as recreation is the only game in town. 

I recall a conversation I had with my grandmother (I called her Mimmom) back in the dark ages when I was in my early twenties.  She was a stupendously vain woman, born in 1914, who always dressed to the nines and felt it was her obligation as a woman to have every man in the room panting at her feet.  Amazingly, even in her seventies when she was toothless; skinny as a stick; had boney, knobby arthritic knees and fingers; and was lacking a breast she usually managed to pull this off.  I recall that even though she made the most of "woman power," she told me that she was disgusted at how society had come to demand that, to be valued by men, young women had to be slim and beautiful. 
My grandmother said that when she was a girl, there were always the pretty ones, of course - the belles of the ball - but no one expected everyone to be like that.  It was perfectly fine to be thick waisted, heavy hipped, flat chested, slightly pudgy (pleasingly plump) and have a less than perfect nose or teeth.  The notion was that if you were in the normal range of size (due to lifestyle and cultural differences, obesity was relatively uncommon in the young and not really considered a figure flaw so much as a character flaw), a good personality was what made the difference in finding a long term relationship.  It helped to have a pretty face.  Figure flaws were normal - they weren't considered flaws, at all.  In terms of how her society viewed a particular woman's figure/looks she was distressed at the modern change.  As she said, "When I was young it didn't matter - it was just how we were made." 

Mimmom, the queen bee, would have been eaten alive if she had been raised in this age.

She told me that in her day, women were taught to fix their hair and nails, and choose clothing and makeup that enhanced their own particular face and figure.  I recall once that the subject of breast augmentation arose and she was disgusted at the thought.  "I would just wear a padded bra!" she insisted, "The only person who would see my breasts [breast, singular, in her case] would be my husband, anyway."
I recall thinking that this seemed a little naive.  Perhaps her husband might stray to a woman with a finer chest.  Looking back, I realize that she'd managed to reach her mid seventies without feeling the need to worry about that sort of thing.  She wasn't raised in a world where dieting and obsession with food choices were front row center - day in and day out.  In fact, dieting or eating were never even on the radar in my house growing up (she raised me, so I know).

Mimmom didn't come to adulthood in a world where she was privy to constant critiques by men (and women) of the bodies of women - is she too fat, her butt too flat, her waist too thick, her thighs too heavy?  Such conversations, in her day, would have been considered coarse and shallow.  Had she been subjected to them, day in and day out, as modern women are, she might have started to worry about her flat behind and skinny legs (she had the ugliest legs I ever saw, btw).   I suspect she would have felt diminished as a result and all that sultry self confidence and raw sexual aura she oozed would have vanished.  How sad to think that, but for the times, she'd have considered herself to be a boney old stick instead of a powerful, sexy woman. 

What a crime to give others that kind of power over us.  How it diminishes us as women.  We are living in an age where women have more financial and political power, are better educated, have more choices than ever and yet, we are judged more by our appearances than ever.  By men and women, alike.

My grandmother lived in a different world.  Think about how so many women, these days, worry themselves sick that their significant other might abandon them for someone more attractive.  There is something horribly wrong with the direction things have gone. 

The thing is, physical beauty fades.  Mimmom's generation wisely recognized that healthy women are simply built differently, depending on the individual.  They didn't tie their innate worthiness to their body shape.  What mattered was character and personality, in the long run.  The current emphasis on an ideal of physical beauty - and the constant competition between women for the attention of men who treat them like the dessert buffet at the Chinese restaurant - is just such a shame. 

I once had a conversation with a man who said that as a young man he used to get Playboy magazines.

My style of Playboy Bunny:
He said that for years, each month the centerfold was built like a real woman - and they were all different.  At a certain point, abruptly, all the centerfolds started looking the same.  Same measurements, shapes of breasts, etc.  According to him, it got boring in short order.  Other than the complexion, it was the same girl, month after month.  He'd been much more interested in real, pretty women than in mass market produced, airbrushed dolls but realized that the Playboy centerfold model had become what men expected as a female ideal and the magazine was going to cater to that.

Back to my grandmother.  As I said, she was vain.  She slathered on the face cream as she aged and if you looked at her ears, you could see that she'd had a facelift.  Or two.  So I don't want to overstate the case to make it sound as if women of her generation weren't prone to their own vanities and insecurities.   But the thing is, what worried her was aging.  Her generation believed youth  - no matter the shape short of the grotesque - equaled beauty.  

I find it rather sad that what we do to our women, these days, is perhaps even worse.  The notion that a young, healthy woman would, even should, go to the extremes we see, these days, would astonish my grandmother.  To Mimmom, healthy youthfulness, no matter the body type, was beautiful.  She was right.   Telling a healthy young woman that her body isn't good enough, IMO, is no better than telling a little girl she is ugly.  It's mean and whoever would suggest such a thing is blind.
As a side note, I 've had, ahem, spirited discussions with one of my girls about obesity.  She, bless her, passionately defends the beauty of any woman's body and I love her for being that way.  Where she and I differ is that I view obesity/anorexia as an unhealthy medical condition that could kill the woman and will likely significantly impact her quality of life.  While the woman's soul may be beautiful, I am hard pressed to find an unhealthy body to be a beautiful thing.  And yet, to show just how contradictory I am being, my beautiful Great Grandmother (Mimmom's mother) weighed over 300 pounds most of her adult life and had gorgeous hair, gorgeous eyes, and centerfold worthy legs. Adding to how contradictory I am being, the woman had three husbands and lived to her nineties.   

More controversy:

IMO, the value placed upon the appearance of our bodies has been part of the price we women have paid for being willing to lower the bar on what we expect from relationships.
I'm not calling for a return to abstinence but anyone who thinks that women, as a group, can be free and relatively indiscriminate with their charms and not end up being diminished, as a group, isn't seeing.  By allowing sex to be such a common activity involving people we don't love and who don't love us, who don't feel an obligation beyond politeness to cherish and be loyal to us, we've contributed to allowing society to define us by our bodies.  We contributed to turning personal relationships into recreation (some would go so far as turning it into sport).  WE have entrusted an essential part of who we are to people who, frankly, don't appreciate it (or us).  We might as well be a bottle of ketchup that can be grabbed off the shelf at the local Wal-Mart.  We all love ketchup on our fries - it is delicious - but it is easy to replace and the generic is just about as good as the Heinz.  And cheaper.

We deserve better.  And by that, I mean we too often settle for men who don't appreciate that when they hold us in their arms, they hold more than just our bodies. 

But here's another thing.  Being a good person is not the same thing as being physically beautiful.  And for that matter, being physically beautiful is not the same thing as being sexually attractive.   A lined, elderly face, a mother scarred by stretch marks, a wounded veteran in a wheelchair, the posture of a devout in prayer, the energy rippling from a bulldog when his owner returns home, a plain woman in the eyes of her beloved - all these are beautiful.

In contrast, my grandmother, who was not physically beautiful as we expect, today, was incredibly sexually attractive.  Even I could see it as a young girl.  And she knew enough about human nature - and men - to not allow her imperfect body to be the focus of attention and detract from her... power.  When they talk about the power of female sexuality, she had it in spades.  Of course, she was raised in a generation of men who were held in check by self confident women who expected more from their men than dinner and a movie.
I need chocolate.
Happy Quilting, Penny, Evelyn and Pearl


Anonymous said...

Amazingly narrow-minded

Penny said...

Labels don't mean much. It is how I see it.

Farscapegirl said...

I'm in my mid-thirties, single and found your blog post to be very insightful and in my case true. I am always on the look-out for a truly good man. I enjoy dating and am still hopeful I'll meet a truly wonderful, funny decent guy that doesn't expect me to fall into bed because at my age in the dating game it's almost expected at the end of a date. Thank god I was raised by a mother who had sex appeal and confidence in spades who taught me to value myself and told me any guy worth my time would stick around to build a real relationship not just the fun instant gratification kind.

Penny said...

Farscapegirl - good for you! I predict you'll find that good man because the guys you're running with are just about to reach the stage where they want a grown woman with her head on straight who genuinely likes them and is willing to let them - and herself - be who they really are.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Penny for another insightful, well written, thought provoking missive to the world at large. Women frequently forget that their femininity is a gift, that (to some degree) their body shape is genetic and they are just beautiful. By holding higher standards they will get the best in the long run.