11/19/2010 11:14 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Articles About Womanhood, Motherhood, and Beauty: Time to Say Something New

Erica Jong wrote an article called "Mother Madness "about attachment-style parenting. It was published in the Wall Street Journal. She said, "Aspiring to be perfect parents seems like a pathetic attempt to control what we can while ignoring problems that seem beyond our reach." She was reacting against what she perceives as a suffocating trend. A rapidly spreading horde of self-proclaimed expert mommies armed with recycled diaper bags full of toxic organic diapers. She writes about the popular breastfeeding wars, refutes the idea that being with your kid a lot is inherently good for her/him, and generally doesn't say anything that hasn't already been said ad nauseam in every other piece about womanhood for years. I was bored by the second paragraph.

So instead I read some entertaining fluff. An article about beauty in Psychology Today. It contained such gems as:

"Now, before you brand me a traitor to my gender, let me say that I'm all for women having the vote, and I think a woman with a mustache should make the same money as a man with a mustache. But you don't help that woman by advising her, 'No need to wax that lip fringe or work off that beer belly!' (Because the road to female empowerment is...looking just like a hairy old man?)"

Writer Amy Alkon was on a crusade to prove that women need to care about being pretty. Women need to stop buying the nonsense Naomi Wolf and her clan of wailing, griping feminists propagated. Stuff about beauty standards being oppressive and harmful. That's just whiny. Put on some damn makeup and get a boob job, ladies! Because you know you want a man. And there's no other way to get one.

So I picked up the New York Times Magazine, which was intently telling the tale of Priscilla Shirer, an influential evangelical leader who specializes in women's ministries. She instructs women to give up feminism and accept that their husband is the king of his castle and the lord of the TV remote and the pharaoh of choosing vacation destinations and the tzar of deciding what toppings you're getting on the pizza. She also adds that a failed diet is often "a direct sign that we have not submitted ourselves completely to the Lord."

Priscilla is the money earner of her family. Her husband serves as a sort of glorified secretary, managing her calendar of speaking gigs. Women are willing to pay a lot to be told to submit to their men and stick to their diets. It's not really clear in what traditional way Priscilla submits to her husband (though she did let him choose their son's name, against her wishes), but she definitely talks about submitting a lot. Just like scores of popular, powerful evangelical women have before her.

It kinda drives me crazy. These articles pop up constantly. They're exploding off the internet and hitting me in the face when I open my laptop. They're enthusiastically sprinkled through newspapers. They're written by very educated, very put-together people and people like Alkon, who are babbling wrecks. Or maybe Alkon is very put-together. Honestly, sometimes it's hard to tell, because the points are always pretty much the same. The points are:

1. Something big is happening with women
2. The feminists are probably behind it
3. They want me to do it too, but I won't
4. I come bearing the truth that I alone have seen

As in the case of Erica Jong, they often identify a relatively small trend, which they describe as taking over the world. The green movement's warring stay-at-home dads, who are destroying masculinity for all men. That kind of thing. Attachment-style parenting is not really sweeping the nation. It might be sweeping San Francisco and parts of Brooklyn and a small corner of the Upper West Side, but there's a lot more America out there (most of which can afford neither a nanny or to keep one parent at home full time).

To Priscilla: Women haven't stopped letting men have their way with remotes in living rooms across the country. A specific, often biblically based interpretation of gender that asserts that women and men are designed for completely different social roles based on their bodies is still the most common understanding of gender.

And Amy: most American women would probably heartily agree that looking good is important. Hell, we can't seem to escape that reality for the twenty seconds it takes to scoff down a slice of chocolate cake. So what are we arguing about? And why are we always arguing about what women should or shouldn't do with their bodies and their children?

I get tired just thinking about having a child. Or having a body. No matter what I do, it's going to be a political statement. I'm going to be taking sides. And women will be writing articles and preaching to paying audiences about all the people in the group I accidentally affiliated with, and how they're trying to take over the country. And how they are smothering women everywhere. And how they hate justice. And shun reality. And have giant pimples on their faces.

I don't know how to answer my own questions. I don't know why we're going in circles when we talk about womanhood. Maybe it's familiar. Maybe it's easy. Maybe people still have a hard time imagining women as a group made up of individuals, and are surprised and offended and confused when we do things differently from one another. Maybe there's some kind of latent fear about gender roles crumpling and chaos reigning. Or maybe we want to talk about what it means to be a woman, but we don't have the words. We just have this tired old vocabulary that was given to us ages ago. And so we use it, again and again, to try to express that we feel like something might be happening to us, just because we're women. Even if we don't quite understand what it is.

I agreed with Erica at the end of her piece, when she said, "We need someone to say: Do the best you can. There are no rules." So stop it with the rules, already. Or invent some new words and use them. Because we need a new way to talk about being women.

Originally posted on Eat the Damn Cake.

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