On a recent afternoon I took myself out shopping. It was a warm autumn day, and I was searching for something snappy and elegant to wear when the weather turns and the holidays come—a day-to-night dress. I was in for one new major purchase. In a small Westside boutique I succumbed to a fitted black jersey number with tan leather stripes down the sides. It felt pretty snug but kind of great and definitely hip. I twirled in front of the mirror and decided to take the plunge. Later at home I tried the dress on for a friend who thought it looked good. But even as I welcomed her approbation, I found myself tugging at the material where it was clinging to my thighs and derriere. I felt silly. “This is too much,” I said. “It’s too short and too tight. I don’t know what I was thinking.” Actually I do know what I was thinking. I wanted to appear cool, au courant. Everywhere I gaze around me, the women of the city—young to old, or at least oldish—are sporting clothes that are assertively sexy, featuring cleavage and cling. I see them in the hotel bars and the trendy restaurants. They can look terrific sometimes, devil-may-care, full-tilt, buoyantly female. But too often the presentation seems to go overboard into cheesy, R-rated territory, as though we have taken a collective leap into a showy neediness.
Obviously this is a city of skin; we can bare our bodies—and do—through the seasons. I love seeing healthy limbs, shoulders, midriffs. But we seem to have strayed into something uglier and harder edged. Think Miley Cyrus, who pushed the hooker metaphor to the max with her twerking, tongue-wagging performance at the MTV Awards. She acted more like a feral animal than a human being. My friends with young daughters are still shaking their heads over that stunt (so are the rest of us, for that matter). What should they say to their girls; how do they keep them from thinking Miley Cyrus is somehow an envelope-pushing rebel? My friend, who has a 13-year-old, says she is crazed over how to shepherd her daughter through adolescence. The teenager attends a local private school where the kids have money and are fashion savvy. The mom showed me their Facebook and Instagram offerings. The girls were posing and pouting for their iPhone cameras. Some were wearing tiny, raggedy denim shorts, a bit of butt cheek occasionally visible, lascivious Daisy Maes. I had not made the social media rounds with a concerned parent before, and it was eye-opening. She says that when her daughter gets together with pals, they often propose “Want to do a fashion shoot?” Then they get dolled up and preen and post.
This mom told me she no longer subscribes to the fashion magazines she used to love because she doesn’t want her daughter reading them. We’re not talking Details and Maxim here; we’re talking Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. I winced. I write for those publications. But I have to admit I understand her feelings. The ads in particular are a cornucopia of suggestive images, young women splayed out with their backsides to the camera, legs spread, or nude female bodies used as display tables for athletic shoes or purses. You often don’t see a face—which is spooky when you think about it. I haven’t had my head in the sand; I know this has been going on, this trend. But somehow I have been able to ignore it or at least chuckle at the staginess of some of the glossy shots. I wasn’t registering the message, wasn’t thinking about how it might affect young women trying to find their way, trying to be whole and healthy and happy. Now that I am paying attention, I am afraid it is all I see both in real life and in the media: the representation of women as hypersexual objects, pure and simple. Is there reason to be alarmed?
I decided to ask Caroline Heldman, the brilliant chair of the politics department at Occidental College. I had met her at a recent women’s leadership conference in Idaho. The speakers and audience members were fantastic, lit up with a concern and urgency I hadn’t seen in a while. Their reports on the numbers are grim, an accounting of too few women at the top. Women make up just 23 percent of elected statewide positions in the country, almost the same as in 1993 (it is perhaps worth noting that only one woman holds elective office in the City of Los Angeles), and 4.2 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs. As we listened, there was a murmur. What has happened—or not happened? Has the glass ceiling proved too tough to break or have we simply not leaned in, as the title of Sheryl Sandberg’s best-selling book alleges?
Heldman had a more arresting take. She went to the roots of this suggestive female imagery and what it is doing to young women—keeping them off balance and filling them with a body preoccupation that is not only leading to a record number of eating disorders but also to stunted ambitions. They become so obsessed with how they look and how appealing they are that they don’t keep their focus on their achievements. Mirroring the messages they are getting from all around, they learn to emphasize their externals, not their internals.
“I want to expose the lie that being a sex object is empowering,” Heldman says. “It is not. In the 1970s, there were around 500 sexually objectifying images in a given day, 96 percent of them of women. But now with all the technology, there are 5,000 on all the venues—TV and movies and the Internet, video games and music videos and magazines. Since the advertisers are competing for the eyeballs of the public, they are going for the most extreme, the most salacious or violent images.”
She reports that her young female students are struggling to cope with what is being thrown at them and that she is seeing record levels of depression, which studies corroborate. She says she and her colleagues have to act as much more than educators. They have to be shrinks and stewards, comforters and counselors. She says the anorexics in her classes are too easy to spot. They clearly pain her and are helping push her crusade against what she calls “the sexy lie.”
I asked Heldman if she thinks the pressure is worse in L.A. “Definitely,” she says. “Because of Hollywood and all the celebrity and body consciousness. Just look at the billboards. You don’t see them in San Diego or San Francisco. I spend five months a year in New Orleans, and you don’t see it there. Maybe in New York, but I still think it’s worse in Los Angeles because with the weather, girls are able to show their bodies 365 days a year.”
Clearly the media onslaught is global, though the intensity is magnified here. I was driving on Wilshire on a warm Sunday morning not so long ago and saw a tall blond wobbling, presumably home, on five-inch stilettos. My feet hurt as I watched her. My heart hurt. I wasn’t sure whether she was a coed or a call girl. Take them off, I wanted to say of the impossible shoes; start over. Recast yourself, whoever you are. I encounter splendid twenty- and thirtysomethings who would love to marry but who present themselves in such a way that they are attracting lotharios instead of caring men. They, too, break my heart.
Maybe I should be angry instead. Maybe it’s time for a little of that emotion, which women have not manifested of late because they’ve been told that expressing anger is unfeminine. I can feel some stirrings, though. We are not talking a take-to-the-barricades and burn-the-thongs attitude. But there is definitely a sort of awakening going on, a sense of concern that something is not right. The success of Sandberg’s Lean In is emblematic of that. I felt the distress up close at that conference, and I hear it when I talk to my friend. She says she’s increasingly “pissed off”—to varying degrees, depending on the day or what she sees on her tour through social media—not to mention exhausted trying to monitor her daughter’s world.
As for me, I have been reminded that I need to speak up more about what’s objectionable, that I must pay attention to the signals that are being sent, including the ones I am sending. Meanwhile I took the dress back and got it in a larger size.