Last week as I was rushing to return some purchases in my local shopping mall, a skin cream salesperson stationed at a kiosk started to make his pitch. “Please, just a moment of your time, look at these beautiful skin care items that I have,” he beckoned.
“So sorry, I’m in a huge hurry, no thanks,” I responded, trying to avoid eye contact with him and finish my errands before I needed to pick up my children at school.
As I darted past the young vendor, I noticed his eyes were trained on he left side of my face. “Discoloration,” he yelled at me, as though it were my name. “Discoloration—I have something to fix that,” he added.
It took a few minutes for the embarrassment to sink in, and realize how insulted I had felt as fellow shoppers turned to peek at my apparently stained and tarnished face. Fuming, I avoided the kiosk altogether on the way back to the parking garage, and wrote a swift and angry letter to the company that owned the mall.
When my daughter came home from school later that day, I shared with her my unsettling experience. “Don’t you think it’s so sexist?” I asked her, almost rhetorically. “Would that man ever have chased after a 49-year-old man and told him he looked wrinkly? Why do people think they can treat women like this and play on their insecurities about aging and their looks? This is what skin that’s been around for half a century looks like!” I was raising my voice at this point.
With a placid smile, my 15-year-old daughter reasoned, “The guy was just trying to sell you stuff, Mom. What a rotten job. Give him a break.”
Now, maybe she was just displaying generosity of spirit toward a hard working salesperson. Maybe she thought it was humorous that I was so riled up by a stranger hurling insults about my complexion. But now I was also infuriated that she didn’t take particular offense as a female at this breach of behavior.
Born in the 1960’s, when female Supreme Court justices did not exist and women could barely have their own credit cards, I was aware that boys and girls had different privileges and jobs. In our family with three girls and a boy, however, my parents made certain to drill into us that all human beings, not just boys, needed to be able to pursue their goals and dreams. I committed to memory the lyrics to “William’s Doll” and the story of “Atalanta” from my bright pink “Free to Be You and Me” album. Boys could have dolls, and girls could run as fast and even faster than boys. And they didn’t have to get married off to princes who were strangers to them just because they were supposed to settle down.
I grew up to become a rabbi and keep my own last name after I got married. When I gave birth to our daughter, my husband and I were thrilled that the professional and personal opportunities that awaited her in the 21st century felt so limitless.
And yet, I hear my children giggling about the emotional and desperate women who chase after “The Bachelor” on television, and act as though he is the last man on Planet Earth who can help propagate the species if only he would select one of them as his “girl.”
On Halloween, I spot photos on Facebook of some my daughter’s school friends (accomplished teenagers with smart, well educated, socially enlightened parents) dressed as “executive call girls” complete with black bras, their father’s Oxford shirts, and black spandex shorts. My married female friends with full-time jobs and evolved and lovely husbands also manage the family calendars, the babysitters, the carpools, and educations of the children. We may have female astronauts now, and even female presidential candidates, but women still must work so hard in many realms to fulfill their own and others’ expectations.
Debates persist among linguists and speech experts about the phenomenon of verbal up speak and vocal fry. Are these speech patterns new ways for females to communicate, or are these verbal habits that make women sound like insecure morons with lazy, gravelly utterances? When I hear my daughter start to speak in these tones, the hairs on my discolored skin stand on end, and I remind her that she sounds half-asleep and perpetually unsure of herself to people my age.
In so many ways, life is better for young people today than it was when I was growing up. They have access to limitless information and media. They can keep in touch with friends and loved ones in ways that were impossible just a few years ago. Young people in my children’s schools are open about their sexual preferences and readily accepted without the suffering and bullying that used to occur only a few years ago.
But I’m not convinced that life is so much easier for girls today. Girls are supposed to be smart, athletic, beautiful, and strong. They are also supposed to be unabashedly sexy. High heels on bat mitzvah girls who look like wobbly giraffes; hyper-sexualized bathing suit photos of teenagers on social media posts are just part of this phenomenon. Are young girls today just embracing their sexuality and exhibiting their freedom of expression? Or are they being pushed into even more rigid gender roles than ever before?
The answers to these questions are still fuzzy to me. I just know that I will continue to annoy my children by repeating over and over that their professional and personal lives should not be constrained by their biology. I will bake challah with my sons and encourage my daughter to pursue her love of science. Other than the executive order against dressing as a prostitute for Halloween or Purim, I hope they know that they are always free to be “you and me.”