Gloria Steinem went to Florida recently and she was pretty upset by what she saw. “The degree to which plastic surgery has taken over is frightening,” the feminist icon told People magazine. “People would look so much better without it! To look out at these hundreds and hundreds of faces with hair extensions and false lips and false breasts — it made me want to cry.”
Steinem herself has never had plastic surgery or Botox, she explained (although a few writers have gotten into trouble over the years for suggesting she has ). But she says she used to feel a lot of pressure to be attractive. At 83, though, she finds it “freeing” that she doesn’t have to worry about such things. “Listen, after you’re 70 you have no interest in being sexy. You have no interest in sex, so the idea of being sexy is like, hello, I have all those brain cells now for something else! The culture is so sexualized, it’s hard to explain that you don’t miss it.”
It is true that in a culture as sexualized as ours women feel pressure at almost all stages of life to look “sexy.” Teenagers and women in their twenties have long felt the need to look attractive because these were traditionally the years in which you found a romantic partner. But today women in their forties and fifties and sixties feel the pressure to look young. Knowing that marriages often don’t last and that men may always be on the lookout for a newer model (is there any phrase more depressing than “gray divorce”?), means that empty nesters now worry about the way their butts look in yoga pants. Life as a single woman is supposed to be empowering but at a certain age, most women find it frightening.
Women are undergoing “mommy makeovers,” which involve cosmetic surgery to rid themselves of C-section scars or sagging breasts or creases near their eyebrows. They will do just about anything to eliminate the effects of aging. A couple of weeks ago, Janice Dean, a FoxNews host, acknowledged going under the knife because she didn’t like her neck. Dean, who is 46, said this had more to do with the way she looked on television than any expectations from her husband (indeed, he was not thrilled about her doing it), but things went wrong and Dean actually experienced a partial paralysis in her face as a result of the procedure. She advises others to “read the fine print” before going through plastic surgery. No kidding.
The ability of feminists like Steinem to look at modern American culture and pretend that they have had nothing to do with its faults never ceases to amaze me. The sexual revolution has offered great benefits to women in the workplace. But feminists’ unrelenting message of independent female sexual empowerment has helped create a culture where, ironically, what you look like matters far more than it used to, especially for women past the age of forty. The sexual revolution has also come at the expense of stability in women’s personal lives. Women didn’t used to have to wait until the age of 83 before they could stop worrying about whether they look sexy or not. It’s nice that Steinem is finally free. But what about the rest of us?