Tuesday was Gloria Steinem’s birthday. Her 80th. According to an Op-Ed in The New York Times, she went to Botswana to celebrate. And ride elephants.
I hope I’m still riding elephants on my 80th birthday.
As The Times eloquently stated, “Steinem occupies a singular place in American culture. In the 1960s and 1970s, the whole concept of women’s place was transformed — discrimination was outlawed, hearts and minds were opened. In the history of our gender, this might have been the grandest moment. There were all kinds of reasons that the change happened at that particular time, and a raft of female leaders who pushed the movement along. But when people think about it, Gloria Steinem is generally the first name that pops up. She’s the face of feminism.”
While Steinem’s arguably unparalleled work changed the landscape of feminism, (her book: Outrageous Acts & Everyday Rebellions is a personal favorite), there is a generally accepted reason that she became the ‘feminist face’ of America. And I’ll say this with all the due respect it deserves: she was smart, she was tough, and she was beautiful. Men were attracted to her, and women liked her. Steinem knew the inside counted most, but that didn’t mean she discounted the outside. She understood its power.
In the 45 years since Steinem came on the scene, I can’t help but wonder how far we’ve come, and how far back we’ve gone? How far we’ve come in accepting and embracing our independence. But, in our efforts to embrace feminism, particularly in America, have we done so at a cost of eschewing our femininity?
Living in Europe, I’m reminded of this often, where they have as many lingerie stores as America has Starbucks. Women are not afraid to be women. Just last week, I accompanied an Austrian client on a business trip to Boston. My client is the founder of a publishing company and a self-made millionaire. She is also an unapologetic bombshell. Five-inch heels and low cut shirts are her work uniform (I can hear the American gasps from here!). Suffice it to say, there was more than one silk-pocketed, business executive following her around Boston like a puppy dog. But, she owns it. She knows her looks, combined with the substance of her brain, will open doors, big doors. While Steinem used her looks to infiltrate the dark and murky playboy bunny club in the 60s, I can’t help but think my client is doing a similar thing, albeit in the boardrooms.
While I’m NOT AT ALL suggesting American women run out and buy a pair of 5-inch heels (although I have a few, and personally, they do wonders for my morale on a bad day), or use their looks as a weapon, it is a bit perplexing that American women seem to be in the constant crux of an either/or argument. Proclaiming, and often arguing, what our ‘roles’ ought to be, the characteristics we SHOULD maintain, what we SHOULD look like, and worst of all – conform accordingly. It’s a shame, really, to reduce ourselves to a series of characteristics, rather than the complete human beings we are capable of being.
We continue to fight ourselves, each other, and society, proclaiming there’s been a ‘beauty war on women.’ Blasting the advertising industry – a war we will never win, demanding they stop using ‘beauty-related terms’, claiming such terms will haunt and hurt our psyches, weaken our girls, and make us feel badly about our own self worth.
But there’s a reason advertisements are developed this way: Women ARE beautiful. Both Madison Avenue –and men — seem to understand this. Women, however, seem to be a bit slow to catch on to this fact. Trying to deny it at every turn.
I understand what a big ask this is — of all of us. To believe we’re beautiful. This post is, after all, being written by a woman (me), who would never – and has never – described herself or thought of herself as “pretty.” We can accept smart, funny, kind, interesting…but, “beautiful,” almost makes us wince. Appreciative of the compliment, but uneasy to accept it, and believe it.
But if we accept, rather than deny, our beauty – in whatever form it is, embrace it, and understand it as part of our being, our possibility, our power, there is nothing that a person, a magazine, or an advertisement could say to do us damage. Our self-worth is not a reflection of how others see us, but built on what we have learned and believe to be true. Our understanding of beauty becomes something far beyond physical traits and characteristics. Quite simply, believing we are beautiful doesn’t make us cocky or conceited. It makes us strong.
But instead, we eschew our femininity, our beauty, and have a hard time coming to terms with it. What it means, and what it doesn’t. As we get older, we believe whatever societal construct we choose, forces us to further define what our roles (wife, mother, boss, friend, daughter) should look like – wear, think, act, be. “I don’t have time to take care of myself/take time for myself, get involved in politics, read any books, I’ve got kids, a job, committees. I could never wear that, do that, think that.” Etc. Etc. Etc. I know we’re all busy. But, I also believe we’re cutting ourselves short.
And we start this either/or process on our girls, young. Too young. Taking away their pink dolls and trying to ban words like ‘bossy,’ out of fear that it may make our daughters less strong people. Nonsense. I can’t imagine taking away a truck from my son because I thought it would make him too ‘manly.’ The other day, I had a friend tell me not to call her daughter ‘pretty’. “But, she is,” I told her. “That doesn’t take away any of her other good traits.” When people tell me my sons are cute, I don’t deny them that compliment. I happen to think so too! It’s simply part of the whole.
So let the compliments flow. I’d like to think if we let our daughters, and ourselves, be – in all that we are, the person who ultimately reveals herself is likely to be a lot more powerful, dare I say much more of a feminist, than anything we might now imagine.
I also think American women can afford to take a page from our European sisters’ playbook. Be much more accepting of ourselves, unafraid of our feminine power, and unapologetic about the fact that we need self-care, which includes intellectual, emotional, physical, and spiritual care, engagement, and stimulation.
Otherwise, we lose our ability, or become unable to tap into the full power that is the gift of being a woman – the true essence of feminism. As Steinem said herself, “A feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men.”
Just as Steinem was a role model for young women, teaching them you don’t have to be a ‘man-hater’ to be a feminist, I think my client, and others like her — those who are unafraid of themselves, can be a role model on how to be a successful, and importantly, mentally, emotionally and physically healthy woman. In all that she is. Beauty included.
We just need to embrace, not deny, what that means.