When I lived in Washington, D.C., in my 20s, I often wore miniskirts. The prim and proper ladies there used to stare at me. This didn’t make me stop, but it did make me feel self-conscious until a friend said, “You know, it’s not that they disapprove; it’s that they wish they could wear them, too.”
I never wore miniskirts to work. I could have — there wasn’t much of a dress code — but I was eager to be taken seriously as a writer. You could say that’s a double standard, but perhaps it isn’t. I’m not sure if a guy who wore his shirt unbuttoned to his navel would have been taken seriously, either.
Once or twice I put myself in situations that could have led to unfortunate outcomes. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have done that. The one time something icky — but not scarring — happened was on a high school ski trip. I never told anyone afterward; at the time, I thought these types of things just happened.
Like many women, these past couple of weeks have made me think about various experiences I had in my late teens and into my 20s, and how I handled them. Feminism freed young women to wear miniskirts, go unchaperoned on high school ski trips, go to the apartments of older colleagues to watch movies.
Sometimes we make these choices to experiment; sometimes we make them to help us define our identities; sometimes we make them just for fun. Sometimes they end badly.
Nevertheless, the freedom to make these choices is an essential part of feminism. But there is another essential part that hasn’t gotten much attention. Along with freedom comes a need for thoughtfulness, a need to recognize reality and human nature.
We have an opportunity to deepen feminism with wisdom and even joy.
For me, that begins with facing reality. Take beauty. Contrary to Naomi Wolf’s infamous “beauty myth,” beauty is not a social construct forced upon women to keep them in the bathrooms and out of the boardrooms. Evolutionary psychology has explained why men are attracted to youth and beauty (the instinct to father healthy children), and no amount of social engineering is going to change that fact.
What can be changed is our attitudes toward beauty. When I write about art and design, I use the term “deep beauty” to describe a layered, soulful, imperfect beauty that stems from nature. Women (and men) also can strive for a deeper beauty — a beauty that resonates with soulfulness, intelligence and confidence. A beauty that doesn’t fade.
Sexuality, both male and female, also exists.
Last month, my 8-year-old son and his friend were tossing a football in Central Park when we happened upon some young women who were topless. Not surprisingly, the boys started to stare and giggle. The women scowled at me: How dare I raise a son who hasn’t been taught that this is normal and natural!
Actually, the boys’ response was normal and natural — hormones begin to kick in well before puberty. Sure, you have every right to go topless in Central Park. But don’t expect human nature to look away.
Women are equal to men but we are different. This is a reality that we should not just accept, but embrace. We should take pleasure in the differences. Do we really want to live in a sanitized world devoid of any flirting or sexual tension? Or worse, do we want to live in a world where we become so paranoid that men and women in professional situations are afraid to shake hands, let alone hug?
Yes, we need to teach males of all ages that being a respectful gentleman is a prerequisite to 21st-century masculinity. But we also need to teach females that being a strong, responsible woman is a prerequisite to 21st-century femininity and feminism.
The fact is, women who are truly in touch with their sexuality tend to be the strongest women. I’m not talking about flaunting one’s sexuality; I’m talking about a deep sexuality that comes from being comfortable with yourself.
I know a 40-ish woman in New York who runs a multinational company. She started it from scratch and never changed any aspect of herself in the process. With her infectious laugh, inspiring charm, and sensually appropriate attire, she walks into a room like a boss — but also as a woman.
That’s deep feminism.
Karen Lehrman Bloch is a cultural critic and the author of “The Lipstick Proviso: Women, Sex & Power in the Real World” (Doubleday).Her writings have appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, The Wall Street Journal and Metropolis, among others.