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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

The Pressure to Please
August 22, 2010 - 5:12pm

Aeron Haynie’s excellent post on girls and weight/eating issues made me rethink Ms. Mentor’s most recent column, “Being Nice or Getting the Job Done.” When I first read the Ms. Mentor column, it seemed like straightforward advice on a situation that is fairly common with younger employees.

Haynie quotes Susan Bordo as follows: “This emphasis on fitness with its false sense of empowerment, siphons off potential subversive energy that could be used to challenge norms of beauty or, change the world.” That is what made me go back to the Ms. Mentor column and confirm my recollection that all of the protagonists in the letter writer’s story are women.

Because both preoccupation with weight/body size and the work/social conflict tend to be primarily, if not uniquely, feminine concerns.

Haynie refers to a recent New York Times article on the difficulty of finding plus-sized clothes. Women who are larger than average need to shop in specialty stores or go online to find clothes that fit them.

This is a problem my son shares: at sixteen, he is well over six feet tall, and, though he’s not fat, he’s large — broad-shouldered, with big feet and hands, and a broad neck. But for Ben, this isn’t a problem, it’s just a fact of life. There’s inconvenience, but no shame involved in having to comb the internet for apparel that fits. Friends and neighbors comment admiringly, not disparagingly, on his ever-increasing size. (Yes, I know that some small, slight boys are made to feel inferior, and of course this is wrong — but as far as I know, people don’t turn away from them in disgust or write hostile comments on blogs.)

Both columns describe, essentially, the contortions women tend to go through to please; to be liked; to fit in—and the punishment on tap when we don’t. “Franny,” the intern in the Ms. Mentor column, sacrifices her job to cater to an unworthy boyfriend. “Delpha,” her ultimate supervisor, worries that she will be seen as uncooperative and unlikable for firing Franny, who screwed up big-time. And Haynie expresses realistic concern that her daughter might become overly preoccupied with her appearance and body size.

We’re exhorted not to care about body size, or about being seen as likable, but the penalties are greater for large, difficult women than for men. As usual, I don’t have an answer for this, but I think it’s important to keep examining the questions.


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