Gray's Anatomy

Gray's Anatomy

Getting beyond the roots of sexism

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A man once asked my mother if she considered herself the most beautiful woman in the world. It is a family joke that she had to think before she answered, reluctantly, no. My mother, an extravagant Southern belle, grew up intuiting that her power in this world came not from her considerable intellect, but from her hourglass figure and Merle Oberon eyes. And so she raised her daughters with this message: Be anything you want to be, achieve all you can, but for God’s sake, don’t leave the house without makeup on.

I wrote that in 1992. Women earned, on average, about 71 cents for every dollar men earned. My mother was 61. I was 33 and had just read The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf’s book arguing that cultural obsession with impossible standards of female beauty was keeping women distracted, divided and down.

Today at 83, my mother still demands that the world see her as she sees herself. She makes even a courtesy wheelchair at the airport look like a throne. I’m 55 now. Women on average make 77 cents for every dollar men earn. But when I get together with smart, accomplished female friends, what do we sometimes talk about? Our hair.

We’re sick of coloring our gray, concerned about the health effects, and sorry we let our mothers talk us into coloring it in the first place. Then we laugh. We’re too old to blame our mothers for anything, much less our hair. Click.

Activist Gloria Steinem once described the revelatory moment when she became a feminist and vowed to seize responsibility for her own life as a “big click.” I had my first feminist click as a suburban schoolgirl. I was reading Mad magazine, belly-laughing at its satirical cartoons, when I turned to one that made such perfect sense I stopped laughing.  

A husband complains that his wife’s fussing with her bouffant hairdo is making them late to a party. “I’m no beauty, but my hair is my crowning glory,” the wife says. When the cartoon couple arrives at the party, guests rave about the wife’s perfect bouffant, then smirk behind her back. “Who does she think she’s kidding?” one asks. “Everybody knows that’s a wig.”

I got the joke: Trying to look perfect is a losing proposition for women.

I became a newspaper reporter in 1982, long before the terms “sexual harassment” and “political correctness” entered the cultural lexicon. Newsrooms in those days could be rough, macho subcultures, kind of like the Miami Dolphins’ locker room, only with smaller neck sizes and higher IQs. Eventually I adopted a work uniform symbolizing that my gender was a nonissue: flat shoes, trousers and well-cut jackets, accessorized with old-fashioned brooches and vintage handbags paying homage to my always ladylike grandmother. To my mother’s horror, I also cut my long curls.

Nights after deadline, I’d catch my reflection in an elevator door as I left the newsroom and realize my unruly bob was sticking straight up. I’d been too busy chasing stories to notice.

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