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Friday, October 20, 2006

LIVE WRITE column for next week

This is my newspaper column for next week. It's not exactly filled with laughs this time, but might be interesting. Comments always welcome.


Have you ever watched an entertainer spin plates – with dinnerware whirring on the tips of rods, as well as on fingertips? Apparently, for many young women in North America, daily life feels like spinning plates. There is research indicating that this pressure is beginning to define a generation of girls and women.

A recent study, conducted in the U.S. and Canada by global market research firm Synovate, found that a growing number of young women today are in a constant identity struggle to be viewed as both the "hot", desired girl, as well as the successful, independent woman. The term “Stressettes” has been coined to describe this segment of today’s female generation.

A thousand young women, aged sixteen to twenty-five were surveyed. More than half of them indicated that they feel incredible anxiety about their body image as well as what the future holds for them. Seventy percent indicated that they are not happy with their body and thirty-eight percent said that they would get cosmetic surgery if they had the money.

However, the majority said that their biggest fear is not finding a career they love. The need to be attractive through external reinforcement from peers and society is in ongoing tension with the need to feel competent and independent.

Youth doesn’t seem to hold the same appeal as it once did. The same study discovered that a high percentage of young women look forward to their thirties, believing they may achieve what they want by then. In an article on Stressettes, national columnist Leah McLaren recently wrote, “I'm sorry to report that if anything, girls, it just gets worse. For one thing, the issue of fertility -- safely relegated to the back burner for most twenty-something women I know -- rears its pudgy little head. Even if it's not an issue for you, rest assured, it is for everyone else.”

When did beauty and body image become such self-defining factors? One stunning example of the current global beauty conundrum is described in an article by Dr. Nancy Etcoff of Harvard University. Research indicates that two thirds of women around the world, from fifteen year-olds to sixty-year-olds, avoid basic activities of life because they feel badly about the way they look - activities such as meeting friends, exercising, voicing an opinion, going to school, going to work, dating or even seeking medical help.

If anyone argues that beauty is a trivial problem, this finding will put that argument to rest. It’s no wonder more girls and women are seeking cosmetic surgery. It’s as though they feel they must wear permanent masks, approximating a current narrow ideal of beauty rather than face the world as they are, in their uniqueness and diversity.

The often-repeated premise is that girls should be satisfied with who they really are – that true beauty is within and that success is about feeling confident and happy, not about material attainment. Young women living in our (mostly) affluent, secure society should feel free to pursue and enjoy whatever life course they choose. So why do we need a word like Stressette?

How do I relate to the girls and women in my life? What do I notice, value and praise in them? What reinforcements in society and in the popular media support girls and women? What messages are we giving to my daughter… and to yours?

In this column, I leave you with questions, not advice.

Great column, Gary. Why indeed?

Why are other girls at the park ragging on my daughter that she's "ugly"? She and I have been talking about this a lot lately, and I'm so glad she's not stuck in a classroom with this viciousness.

What they really mean is that she's confident, and that is NOT ALLOWED. "You're ugly" means, "you're not submissive enough to the pecking order." I grew up with this too, and I still see it in social groups of young women, in schools, in church groups, everywhere.

People often say that if only women were running things, we'd see a lot more co-operative management. I don't believe it. We're often horrible to each other, frankly, especially in group situations.

Is it competition for male attention? I don't know. I really don't know.
Have you noticed that this trend coincides with men's magazines like Playboy, etc., where women are perfect and air-brushed? So a generation of men has grown up expecting women to look like that, and being disappointed when a woman is "real". So the pressure is on women to be perfect. But not only must they look perfect, they must also be brainy and educated. In the last couple of decades that have been many more expectations placed on young women than there have on young men.

Now the rush is on to elect a woman president within the next decade. But, by God, she is going to have to be beautiful too. "Plain" women need not apply.

The whole attitude towards women has created body dysmorphic syndrome in perfectly lovely women.

Oh, don't get me started....
Great article. Very thoughtful. I could go on and on about this topic, too. I remember during my formative years, we girls were just taught that we had to be "pretty" first and foremost, and in that society, it was just sort of accepted. If you weren't pretty, you weren't much of anything. I went to college and gradually grew away from that, but I still see those women I knew as girls, and they still are locked in some sort of competition to be the prettiest. But now, it's sad because sooner or later, you're going to hit that wall, you know, and then you've got to have something else to value about yourself. It's not easy to just shrug that off, though, after it's been burned into your brain that way.

I remember being afraid of having a daughter because I didn't know how I could raise her to be confident and independent when I wear makeup and do girlie things.

I wish this whole cosmetic surgery thing would go away. It's creepy. Isn't part of becoming a mature human learning to accept and appreciate and care for the body life has given you?
And Madcap's Poppy is lovely. I was shocked anyone would call her ugly. I think Madcap's right: they probably meant "intimidating."
do NOT get me started on this one.... I have a thirteen year old daughter (and a 9 year old one) both who get alternatively praised and hated for their naturally slim muscular body types. Its all such bullshit. I grew up with that crap, being defined by external validations of myself, and it really sucks, something I didn't NOT pass on to my daughters (but my mother still likes to go on about how beautiful and slim they are - grrrr).

Catherine (13yrs) came home one day saying she thought she looked 'fat' - I said 'no way, this stops here and now, your body is a vessel for your soul put good things into it, it will be good to you, put junk in, it will look like junk - but this 'am I fat bs*** stops now in this house, no more, I will not play that silly game' I have no idea if I just made some future therapist wealthy, but I'm not going to enter into the 'oh no you look beautiful', and get her hooked on being defined on how others see her. I mean the world is insane - the is more crap being marketed to kids, and as you stand in the grocery check out you get to look at air-brushed bathing-suit photos of anorexics - does this seem a little wrong to anyone??! okay I am stepping down from my soap box before I begin frothing at the mouth...

good post Gary...
competition is not always a good thing, i don't know why we put so much value on it in our culture.

yes, it's bad for our women as they have to compete in both races thesedays; the traditional role and the feminist role. it is compounded by the fact that much more is expected of young men too, so the goals are getting more and more unattainable.

there is really only one solution i can see: global lesbianism and the eradication of men - it's scientifically possible.

great column, gary!

(i jest, i don't really see a solution)
Madcap - thanks for sharing that. I suspect Poppy will be filled with strengh - in large part to the model of her mother.

Sorry if I got you started Josie! Don't stop now...

Jublu and Callooh - you both have 2 kids (one of you has boys, one girls) - I wonder what the differences will be in how they develop self worth. You're both such strong women that I have no doubt there is some good development going on!

Many of my daughter's friends (16ish) speak about their being fat (they aren't) or about their flaws. Without exception, each one is a lovely, strong, interesting young woman. It bothers me when I hear the inner voices come out like that.

Ian - I suspect we're going to be together for a long time (men and women that is). Men have some learning to do, but I also strongly believe that girls need support to be fearless; to speak to power; to support each other and they need strong models (like the women writing above).
Gary, I think just being aware of the problem means that you're ahead of the game a bit. It affects the little things you do, such as how you give praise. Instead of just focusing on the external (although I can't resist telling them how beautiful they are), I try to compliment them on the character traits they are developing and on things that are unique to them ("You are a good artist," and, "You're so funny!"). I try to emphasize being grateful for the strong bodies they have and taking care of them....

GOD, parenting is hard work! Why didn't anybody tell me this? Every minute of every day, you're giving them clues about how you feel about yourself, them, how they should feel about themselves.... It's just plain scary, and there's more opportunity to fail than to succeed, given the hectic nature of life, so you have to work doubly hard at it just to undo any unintended damage. And now I'm rambling.

One thing I've learned is that boys probably aren't all that much different from girls in that you have to be conscious of raising them with a healthy sense of self. I wouldn't be so afraid of having a girl now that I have some parenting experience.
Well-written and researched article Gary. This problem of self-image and beauty standards has been plaguing us in different ways over the years. For example: it is interesting to note that while general standards of beauty apply all over the world, in Asian countries there is an added pressure to be the fairest of them all. When I lived in Singapore, I thought it was insane that the already fair skinned women were buying products that would make them whiter. Even growing up, although I am happy to say my mother did not fall into this category, many Indian girls were judged on their fairness factor. So now you not only have height, weight, features, but skin colour among your own people to compete with. It takes a really strong mind to rise above all this, especially when this is all that you grow up hearing about yourself. Importance was and is still being placed on remaining fair-skinned. I still know a few friends who won't go out into the sun as much, so as not to get tanned. And here, everyone wants to get tanned. lol Anyway, when you're busy comparing yourself to other females in all these different ways, how are you even supposed to focus on inner growth and self-confidence?
My beautiful girls get to hear "ugly" from time along with several less printable words.

I hate this fixation on some artificial standard and I don't know how to change it except with my kids. Even then, it's a struggle.

Madcap, if you're still hanging around, she's lovely.
Gary, interesting post. I read an article in Rollingstone on this topic, but it had to do with Duke University. The writer went to Duke after the allegations of rape by players on the La Crosse team. What the writer found was the girls at Duke took extremely intensive class loads, worked-out in the gym hours upon hours, partied every night, were constantly hungover, and thought that if you did not get laid by one of the Fraternity boys you were a piece of crap. No one can keep up that kind of lifestyle for very long, but they were striving for beauty, good grades for future jobs, the party girl reputation and confirmation of themselves through rolling in the hay with a vapid frat boy. I cannot remember where the article said the girls came up with this social order, but they did. It broke my heart. I have no answers.

I recently published an article on the complexities of dating in general and blind dating and online dating in particular – here is a quote from it, in case you are interested:

How to create your profile?
1. Make a realistic profile. Try to show your best qualities without lying about something you are not. Try to find out what exactly appreciate the other at you;
2. List the most important features you expect your partner to have, but don’t exaggerate, just stick to the real life;
3. Learn to recognize a cheater from a sincere person by reading that person’s profile or by asking a set of questions that would reveal that person’s ego;
4. Start by chatting with more than one person;
5. Try to communicate with that person in an open manner;
6. Study the other’s profiles to help your create a more attractive profile for yourself;
7. Save yourself if necessary and don’t let these kind of virtual reality seize you completely. Give yourself more options in your life and consider virtual reality as one of the many, and not the only way.

If you feel this helps, please drop by my website for additional dating tips and resources such as body language tips or additional resources on dating mistakes .



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