Sizing up the gender jeans

Published April 24, 2013

In the past several months, American women have been engaged in intense public hand-wringing dialogues with themselves over whether they should "lean in" to be more aggressive careerists; whether it is okay to even mention a woman's gender when writing about her scientific accomplishments; whether an obituary can discuss the deceased woman's domestic skills (and in which paragraph such information belongs); whether women at Ivy League schools should seize the opportunity to find husbands among their intellectually equal classmates (or whether this is a deeply regressive antifeminist impulse); and whether a female CEO is betraying the sisterhood if she outlaws telecommuting.

As a man, I have been happy to sit back and let the ladies hash these things out among themselves. But a question has been gnawing at me, and I decided to respectfully address it to All Women at Once, in the person of my professional feminist academic friend Gina Barreca, whom I have on the phone. Gina, why is the feminist movement, now well into its dignified middle age, still in the throes of an adolescent identity crisis?

Gina: Take off your pants.

Gene: Excuse me?

Gina: Take off your pants. I'm taking off mine, too.

Gene: This would be a lot more exciting if we were at least in the same city.

Gina: What does yours say on the back?

Gene: It says "Levi Strauss and Co., Original Riveted. Waist 34, length 32."

Gina: Mine are also jeans. They say "Adriano Goldschmied." Period.

Gene: Your point?

Gina: No women's jeans would ever — ever — have a size on the back for everyone to see. If the waist-to-length ratio is a little high, we'd worry that people will think we're fat. If it's a little low, we'd worry about being judged scrawny. If it suggests the exactly mathematically perfect 0.8 waist-to-hip ratio that supposedly defines hotness, we'll worry that people will think we're bragging. This is all because women are burdened by a self-enforced but culturally imposed sense of shame.

Gene: You have completely changed the subject.

Gina: I have not. Bear with me. When men go shopping, they look for clothes that fit them. When women go shopping, we look to fit into clothes. It sounds the same, but it isn't. Men are entering a place that is tailored for them; women aren't. The clothes industry is notoriously indifferent to how we really look and what we really want. But when we can't fit, we blame ourselves. Worse, we shop with prescriptive guilt. "I need to be a size 8 by Marcia's daughter's bat mitzvah." Have any men ever thought, "I need to be a 42 short for the holidays"? The point is, as long as we keep trying to fit ourselves into what's out there, constantly trying to figure out what is wrong with us, we're doomed to live in an existential angst — or, as you put it, an adolescent identity crisis. Same with the workplace and our roles as professionals, lovers and mothers. What we need to do is grab the existing fabric of society, rip out the seams and sew it back together in a way that fits us.

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Gene: Nicely done!

Gina: Thank you. We need to begin with mandatory quality child care in all places of business. Mandatory flexible hours, offered to everyone, men and women. A system of workplace job assessment and promotion that values quality of work, not the number of hours put in.

Gene: That's it? That's your prescription?

Gina: We get those two things done, the identity crisis is over.

Gene: Can I put my pants back on?

Gina: No. You look silly. I like that in a man.

© 2013 Washington Post Writers Group