I am feeling very inadequate. In the past year I finished a novel I have been working on for five years, began a new novel, contributed essays to two upcoming anthologies, and jettisoned some very toxic relationships. In the past three years I moved to a new city and a new house to start a new life. I also became an empty-nester. In the past five years I have begun a new relationship and published a huge number of essays and articles, sold a house and bought another and sold that one, too. In the past ten years I have dealt with nearly every family crisis one can think of.
I have not climbed a mountain alone, hiked a thousand-mile trail, started a cupcake business, left my job and devoted myself to volunteer work. Nor have I overcome a huge and debilitating illness. I have not moved to a foreign country, gone back for another degree or begun a clothing line. I haven’t even started making my own jewelry or knitting pet outfits.
Clearly, I am a failure.
I used to like More magazine. It had models over 40 on the cover (even if they were airbrushed) and it had a good amount of decent reading for those of us not permanently in our twenties or early thirties. But now I sigh every time I pick up that magazine. I’m not going to renew my subscription. It is constantly exhorting me to re-invent myself and, frankly, I am rather exhausted. This month’s More has a cover line about “real women” reinventing themselves. As opposed to fake women? And all the other women they have profiled over the years?
I know women’s magazines have no real relationship to life as most of us live it. I am aware that those tomes often give the most bizarre sex advice that we are supposed to try and take seriously (Nerve magazine does a superb job of skewering that sex advice). I realize women’s magazine editorial tries hard to take something ordinary and, well, turn it into a service piece (one article was on how to take a relaxing bath: apparently you dim the lights and use soothing bubble bath.) I am cognizant that everything that can be photo-shopped is photo-shopped. In fact, I am not quite sure what even draws me to those magazines, aside from the fact that, yes, I am always looking for anything that can make my skin look “younger.”
I am really weary of the constant push for us women to re-invent ourselves.
I am sick of the word “reinvention” itself.
I have a friend who is struggling to live with Stage 4 cancer. I have another who has married and inherited an instant family of two young children; still another woman I know left her marriage and her town and started a new job in a big city. Other friends are dealing with the issues inherent to long-term marriages and kids leaving home and unemployment and aging parents who need our care. I can’t think of a woman I know in her forties, fifties or sixties who isn’t overloaded with the stuff of ordinary life and, despite that, doing a bang-up job of coping and even thriving.
And yet we are still exhorted to re-invent our home décor, our relationships, our marriages, our work lives. We are supposed to re-think our hairstyles and makeup and even our purchases—combining inexpensive trendy pieces with the expensive long-term purchase so that our wardrobe can be re-invented. We are pushed to re-examine everything, all the time, each month, with new examples of women who have gone out on a very thin limb and survived to tell the tale.
Those women, while admirable, are as foreign to most of us as an alien landing would be. There is simply no way possible for most women I know to jettison their old lives and embark on a completely new one—not that most of us would really even want to.
I think that most women spend a lot of their lives re-inventing themselves every day: each new challenge, each new trauma, each new joy, each of those means that we have to re-think are values, our coping mechanisms, our reactions all the time. Feminism is still evolving, we are still evolving, and yet we are being pitted against each other for the decisions we make, the way we choose to live. Is it any wonder that we must confront our own selves on a regular basis? And is that any less transforming than those complete life reinventions profiled in magazines?
Women are amazingly flexible. We can take a licking and keep on ticking, as the old Timex commercial had it. We can bob and weave with every blow and still land a punch or two ourselves. And, most importantly, remain on our feet, as shaky as those feet may be sometimes. But this push to make us feel that what we are doing is never enough, that we must constantly re-invent ourselves and everything makes me nuts. For years we were not thin enough, not pretty enough, not pliable enough. And because of that, as we age, some of us remake ourselves physically with implants and liposuction and injections others (and I am one of them) try each and every face cream or serum that promises eternal youth. But still, as we grow ever older we are beset by examples of women who have chucked everything and gone for some or another gold; opened an inn, joined the Peace Corps, adopted a special needs child, changed gender.
None of the women I know are lazy in any description of the word, but the constant call to re-invent ourselves from top to bottom and inside and out can make us feel that no matter what we do it is never enough. What is enough, however, is the siren call to transform. I call for a moratorium on the word re-invention, especially for women. We are doing more than enough as it is.