Just kidding, I have more to say. I also want to talk about Helen Gurley Brown. But seriously it all boils down to “move on” so you might stop here.
I’ve been thinking about this ever since the Olympics. Seems like people who bashed Lolo Jones missed an opportunity to dig a little deeper into the way our world works.
Why do we love the prettiest more than the most talented? Or do we? Do marketers have us pegged wrong? Why are some athletes so good at selling themselves?
Tell me that story.
Instead we got petty articles slamming Lolo Jones for using her good looks to get endorsement deals, as if she alone invented sex appeal. And for the first time in my life, as far as I know, I was on the same side as Fox News. (Thanks, Suzanne for pointing that out. It felt good to agree!)
Then, yesterday, one of my heroes, Helen Gurley Brown, died. She was the editor-in-chief at Cosmo for decades.
And what did I learn from the intersection of these events? That our culture cuts down women who work the system.
The NYT has an obituary on Brown, and I was struck by these sentences in an otherwise great article:
Ms. Brown routinely described herself as a feminist, but whether her work helped or hindered the cause of women’s liberation has been publicly debated for decades. It will doubtless be debated long after her death.
It’s not that complicated.
Let’s review the facts:
Helen Gurley Brown was a child of the Depression, born when women didn’t have careers. Despite this, she wrote a best-selling book in 40s, Sex and the Single Girl, and leveraged that to become the editor of Cosmopolitan.
Along the way she had affairs with married men and she dated rich men because they’d buy her nice things. She urged women to get a job, work hard, and enjoy sex. She said being skinny was the way to go.
Do I admire every one of those choices? Of course not.
Have I ever felt I had to date someone in order to get nice things? Of course not. (And I’m guessing none of her critics have, either.)
Helen Gurley Brown isn’t awesome because her life was a “paint-by-numbers” formula for how to live; she is awesome for showing us choices by example and for paving some roads for us.
She encouraged us to attain financial independence, to be frugal, to live by our own dictates and not by society’s. We weren’t “old maids” (which is what everyone was telling us pre-HGB); we were single women with options.
Her greatest gift was her honesty. She laid out, in brutal, controversial terms, how she got to the top.
So few people do this. Actresses rarely talk about what they’ve done to their faces to “age so gracefully.” Politicians don’t admit the scoundrels they befriended to get votes. Businessmen don’t dwell on the jobs they cut to feed the bottom line.
So few people talk about the tough, ugly choices they made to get ahead.
Helen Gurley Brown gave you the complicated truth and let you decide. In fact, her writing was so good and fun and honest (read Sex and the Single Girl; you’ll finish it in three hours), it made you think better. That’s the greatest gift a writer can give.
And she liked men!
So many other feminists from that wave either didn’t like men, or didn’t get that you could want a man and still be the boss of you.
And HGB was saying all this aloud, in a time when people barely talked honestly about anything, let alone ambition and intercourse.
Critics say Cosmo is a hindrance to feminism. But no one forces a woman to read Cosmo or to buy into its advice; it’s there if you want it.
To say this publication holds women back is to deny your own power to make choices about what you consume.
Yes, as a woman, it’s maddening to know that we will be judged by many according to how we look; it’s so frustrating that “being pretty” can make us more valuable to employers, that some men will want to date us if we are skinny and hot. That when I lose 10 pounds men check me out so much more than when I’m at my normal weight. That they hold doors for me more, simply because I’m lighter.
Cosmo certainly doesn’t tell us otherwise.
And it’s painful to think our looks matter because we’re not too far out of the time (and many countries are still in this time) when trading on them was our only option. And backsliding is scarily easy to do.
All of which brings me back to my original point:
The greatest thing you can do in light of the fact that we live in a world in which sex appeal sells is move on.
And by “you” I mean “me.”
Why fight thousands of years of conditioning and biology and culture? Biology will beat you every time. You cannot squash feelings and impulses. (Or if you can, please tell me how. I have no idea.)
What I can do, quite easily, is re-channel my admiration. I decide where I put my attention and my money.
I can admire the people who don’t capitalize on their sex appeal to get attention, the Amy Poehlers the Cheryl Strayeds, the Hillary Clintons, of the world.
I can listen to women whose ideas I love, and stop bashing other women for their choices.
Seriously, move on.