In all the controversy over the new DSM-5, it was inevitable that a long-standing fight over premenstrual syndrome would be revived. Eighty-five percent of women claim to have suffered from this disorder, but repeated research shows there's actually no relationship between daily moods and shifting monthly hormone levels. The debate is nothing new. In her classic 1993 feminist text The Mismeasure of Woman, Carol Tavris argued that the idea of PMS persists because it gives women an excuse to express anger and irritation in a culture that expects them to be unendingly cheerful and pleasant. (It also panders to the belief that women are irrational victims of their own hormones.) Being able to blame your socially incorrect emotions on chemical shifts is intoxicating: Tavris showed that even when confronted with evidence that menstruation doesn't affect mood, "Many women are highly resistant to the evidence that their beliefs and expectations about PMS might be influencing their symptoms."
But PMS is increasingly understood as a "culture-bound syndrome," a disease of societal expectations, not biological influences. Psychologist Joan Chrisler spelled it out bluntly in 2002: "It's convenient for women to use this … . The discourse is me, not me, my real self, my PMS self. It allows you to hold onto a view of yourself as a good mother who doesn't lose her temper."
Culture-bound syndromes can vary wildly, and some of them are really weird to outsiders. Parts of West and Central Africa have epidemics of men who believe that their penises have been stolen. As with PMS, the distress to the sufferer is entirely real, even though the empirical evidence demonstrates that there isn't a biological source for the suffering. Other examples include the dhat syndrome in India, the Native American “ghost sickness” and the Korean “fire illness.”
Of course, referring to problems like penis-stealing or PMS as culture-bound syndromes may well convince sufferers that they are being dismissed. But research shows that women who self-identify as suffering from PMS and who take active steps to reduce stress, avoid unnecessary conflict, and set aside time for themselves start to feel better. Hot baths and minimizing your contact with difficult people is a good idea, it seems, regardless of whether you blame your bad mood on impending menses or a lousy day at work.
Sarah Elizabeth Richards makes a great case for why a stigma against egg freezing shouldn’t exist and why women who freeze their eggs are happier for doing so. I know about these fears because I did not freeze my eggs. Yes, I repeat, I did not freeze my eggs. That’s why at 42 years old, I’m involved in the long, painful process of in vitro fertilization.
So here I offer even more myth-dispelling reasons why egg freezing doesn’t have to be expensive, emotionally draining, or painful.
Misconception No. 1: Egg freezing is the same as IVF
I think one of the biggest reasons most women don’t consider freezing their eggs is that they (me too, back then) do not understand the concept. We spend so much of our youth trying to avoid pregnancy, then we spend our 20s and 30s tuning out people who tell us that our clock is ticking. I think by the time we women reach an age when we might begin considering the process, we have an emotional block about hearing anything about it, which is basically this: Before you ovulate, a doctor retrieves your eggs with a syringe from your ovaries via your vagina. Then he puts the good ones in the freezer. (IVF will require you unfreezing them, adding sperm, and putting them in your uterus).
Misconception No. 2: Egg freezing is painful
You are under local sedation for retrieval. (If you have many eggs removed it can be general). The most I ever felt under local was a tiny pinch. Moreover, my clinic has a laser light show of stars floating across the ceiling, just in case I didn’t want to watch the ultrasound of the doctor fishing in my follicles to extract the eggs. They even play classical music. The whole process takes less than an hour—and that’s counting the part for the Valium to kick in. It’s easier than going to the dentist … and my father is my dentist, so I know of what I speak.
Misconception No. 3: Egg freezing is prohibitively expensive
I go to a holistic clinic where egg retrieval costs $1,200 and freezing another $1,000. That’s only $2,200 per round. My previous insurance did not cover the process, but it did cover the medication. My current insurance covers up to $10,000 worth of all fertility costs. Some people have $20,000 riders. Check your insurance and find a good but inexpensive clinic.
Misconception No. 4: It takes over your life
You can do the entire process in a period of three months. The first month you go to the clinic, meet the doctors, have some tests done, and plan for your period. The next month, you go to the clinic a few times for “monitoring”—they do blood tests and ultrasounds to prepare for your retrieval—and more frequently toward the middle of the month. Repeat the process the following month if you want to do another round.
Misconception No. 5: Medications will make you fat and hormonal
You will have to take medication and do injections for every cycle. But you’re only going to be doing this once or twice. So you might have some adverse affects from the medication—it’s more like a bad PMS. So even if you gain a few pounds or have a couple of crying jags, chances are, no one will notice. Just blame it on a bad breakup (with your eggs).
So, there you have it. Freezing your eggs is worse than PMS but better than a trip to the dentist and can be done in less than a season. It may be covered by insurance but it can run you less than a week-long spa vacation. Like Ms. Richards, I think women should consider it—single women without life partners in sight, busy women with no time for children, women who are not sure they want to have children. I had fit into all those categories—and if I had stored my 35-year-old eggs in the freezer, I might already be with child.
Have we reached Peak Hunk? USA Today examines the trend of “sexy guys—not gals—featured in racy TV spots” since a shirtless Isaiah Mustafa first mounted a horse to promote Old Spice in 2010. In a recent ad for Kraft salad dressing, a hunk’s T-shirt spontaneously combusts when his kitchen preparation gets too “zesty” (Kraft is selling him as "The Zesty Guy"). A pair of Liquid-Plumr hunks arrive at a woman’s home to “snake her drain.” For Diet Dr Pepper, hunk Josh Button rolls around shirtless on a beach; in a Zoolandery voiceover, he announces that he is "really, really, really, really, really good looking."
Hunks are now such a well-worn advertising trope that “the ‘surprise’ factor is kind of used up for now," ad consultant Allison Cohen told USA Today. “Seems like it's time for a break from this approach.” But marketers have been ramping up the use of sexual imagery in advertising over the past 30 years, and the vast majority of these ads have featured women’s bodies, not men’s. Babes are forever. Why are hunks just a passing trend?
Maybe because these advertisers are really selling jokes, not hunks. In a marketing landscape accustomed to offering up female bodies for the hetero male gaze—see 1 in 3 alcohol campaigns—these ads reverse the equation. Men performing sexuality is a “surprise” that advertisers push to absurd lengths (poof: Old Spice Man is on a boat! Salad Dressing Guy is suddenly shirtless!) to comment on the ridiculousness of the gender switch. A marketing rep for Dr Pepper defended its hunk to USA Today, saying: "We're poking fun at ourselves and the trend of hot guys in advertising.” But the entire ad hunk trend relies on that winking attitude. When faced with a guy like Old Spice’s Mustafa, viewers can indulge in the man candy while the commercial conveniently excuses us from acknowledging that man candy as seriously sexy—and even potentially threatening. As the Old Spice ad team explained, the goal of its campaign was to create “a character who is not only loved by ladies, but equally loved by guys. A woman's man that was okay for men to love.” (Not to mention that it may be more comfortable to poke fun at female desire than to embody it unironically.)
Of course, ad babes are also leveraged for absurd humor—take Ali Landry’s famous Doritos commercials, where the fire sprinklers spontaneously erupted from the ceiling as she chomped away at the chips, while a horde of men wagged their tongues after her. But when jokes like those get old, the babes remain. The "surprise" factor of a scantily clad woman is apparently perpetual. The real test of the longevity of the ad hunk: Will we ever take Zesty Guy seriously?
This strange and awful story out of Tampa, Fla., about a man who tricked a woman into aborting her pregnancy is another instance of the politicization of women's reproductive health care confusing what should be straightforward issues. John Andrew Welden is accused of slipping Cytotec, an ulcer medication that can induce labor, to his then-girlfriend Remee Jo Lee. He allegedly told her the pills were antibiotics. Her pregnancy started to fail and she was forced to get a D&C to remove the embryo. Considering that Welden is accused of drugging a woman against her will and causing injuries she needed medical attention for, it seems the appropriate charges would be centered around assault, poisoning, and domestic violence.
Instead, however, federal authorities are charging Welden with product tampering and first-degree murder for the death of the embryo. Lee is the victim of a horrible crime, but the prosecutors will instead focus on an embryo the size of a pencil eraser. Thirty-eight states have laws on the books against fetal homicide. Prosecutors in Ohio are thinking of charging Cleveland kidnapper Ariel Castro with the crime so he is eligible for the death penalty. The logic in both Castro’s case and Welden’s is that stiffer penalties are available when the crime is murder. But the tradeoff for women is not worth it.
Ultimately the charge doesn’t serve women well, because it creates an implied link between legal abortion and murder. During a hearing where Lee requested a restraining order against Welden, Welden's attorney unsuccessfully attempted to highlight the suit’s inconsistencies:
Judge Lefler agreed that a prior abortion was irrelevant, but other judges might not.
A focus on the embryo obscures what this case is really about, which is domestic violence. Lee herself is suing Welden for battery, a much easier case to make than murder. Domestic violence is generally rooted in the desire to control the victim, and nothing gives you more control than forcibly taking over a pregnancy that's happening in her body.
Now that the upfronts—the events at which television networks announce their schedules for the coming season and then try to sell advertising slots to advertisers—are over, we've got a good sense of what's hot and what's not in TV right now. Hot includes cop shows, throwbacks like Michael J. Fox and James Spader, and characters with disabilities (at least on NBC), while after the booms of the last two years, comedies created by women have cooled off. But even if there are fewer female-driven projects on the roster this year, there are a still a lot of women we're excited to have on our television schedules, including these five favorites.
1. Betsy Brandt, The Michael J. Fox Show: It breaks my heart that Breaking Bad, on which Brandt stars as the wife of good-guy cop Hank Schrader, is coming to a close, but the good news is that she won't be off our TV sets for long. I cannot wait to see Brandt play opposite Michael J. Fox in his show about a news anchor with Parkinson's disease who decides to return to the airwaves. She looks like she'll be handling her onscreen husband's disease with practicality and mordant wit.
2. Chloe Bennet, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: The Marvel superhero movies have been skewed towards the dudely, relegating women to peripheral roles as girlfriends, scientists, or secret agents. But with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., ABC's ensemble drama about the people who have to deal with the fallout caused by the superheroic, the gender balance is getting a little bit better. I'm particularly excited to see Chloe Bennet as Skye, a character who's suspicious of government efforts to keep the lid on our brave new world.
3. Rebel Wilson, Super Fun Night: In a year when the bloom seemed to be off the rose for female-created comedy, I'm excited to see Rebel Wilson play one of a trio of nerdy girls who spend weekend nights "always together, always inside"—until they are inspired to venture out into the utter ridiculousness of New York nightlife. Carrie Bradshaw may have ruled the Big Apple's hottest restaurants and bars, but for everyone on the outside looking in—or wondering why you'd spend that kind of money on Manolos only to ruin them on downtown cobblestones—this could be the show for us.
4. Sophie Lowe, Once Upon A Time In Wonderland: I'm always down for revisionist fairy tales, and this spin-off of ABC's family hit Once Upon A Time has promise. Even better, Buffy The Vampire Slayer veteran Jane Espenson is working on the project, and she knows a thing or two about women profoundly out of place in their environments and up against powerful institutional forces.
5. Alexis Bledel, Us & Them: If only for Bledel's reference to New York Club denizens as "Angry Giraffe Women"—and, if I'm being honest, for the chance to see Jason Ritter be adorable and confused—I'm willing to give this romantic comedy a shot. We watched Rory Gilmore grow up. This is our shot to watch her navigate New York, dating, and a seriously overprotective family.
Seventies-era tennis star Jimmy Connors has a new autobiography out, and he's using it to take some nasty jabs at his former girlfriend and fellow tennis champion Chris Evert. Jessica Luther of the Atlantic explains:“But now, 35 years later, Connors is releasing a biography this week titled The Outsider, in which he strongly hints that during their whirlwind affair in 1974, Evert got pregnant and had an abortion. He says that she did so without allowing him to be part of the decision-making, though he states that he ‘was perfectly happy to let nature take its course and accept responsibility for what was to come.’ He bitterly writes to Evert in the book, ‘Well, thanks for letting me know. Since I don't have a say in the matter, I guess I am just here to help.’”
Though in the book Connors indicates that he made that last remark to Evert over the phone, Luther’s larger point stands: Connors is trying to shame Evert by making a spectacle of her private reproductive choices. And while Evert shouldn’t need a defense either way, the memoir seems fantastically unwilling to acknowledge that a tennis star at the top of her game has good reasons for not wanting to be pregnant. Instead, Connors comes close to implying that his then-girlfriend’s decision to abort resulted from a misunderstanding of his intentions, when in fact he “was perfectly happy to let nature take its course and accept responsibility for what was to come.” (He’s just as glib and self-aggrandizing about other sources of tension, such as Evert’s pesky desire to be comforted after a loss. Those headaches go to show you, he writes, that “You can’t have two number ones in a relationship.”)
There’s a callousness to the way Connors sandwiches details about the abortion in between his tennis results. “That all happened during one of only two pro tournaments I didn’t win in 1974,” he contextualizes, in a line so unselfconsciously self-absorbed it led one Slate colleague to wonder if he suffered from Asperger Syndrome. Even if part of his pique stemmed from being asked to “handle the details” of the procedure, without having a say in whether it happened or not, it’s hard to take him seriously as a spokesman for the notion of equal partnership. (“You can’t have two number ones,” etc). If, in some magical alternate reality, the young Jimmy Connors had gotten pregnant, are we to imagine he would have waited a second before enlisting Evert’s help in taking whatever steps he thought best?
Maybe we should thank Connors for underscoring why it’s important for women to have the right to unilaterally choose abortion. No man should have a glimmer of a wisp of an opportunity to pressure you into giving him a baby that will tie you to him forever, especially if he can act as caddish as the “Brash Basher of Belleville.”
In a statement released on May 9, Chris Evert seemed understandably upset:"In his book, Jimmy Connors has written about a time in our relationship that was very personal and emotionally painful. I am extremely disappointed that he used the book to misrepresent a private matter that took place 40 years ago and made it public, without my knowledge. I hope everyone can understand that I have no further comment."
Here’s how I would have phrased it:Look, Jimmy, it's totally unfair that some of us can get pregnant and some of us can only impregnate. But in the grand scheme of things, this system brought to us by mindless evolution is much more unfair to women than men. Not only do women have to undergo the indignities of menstruation and routine gynecological care, but if we do get pregnant, we're the ones who either endure the abortion or have our bodies painfully bent out of shape to bear the child. In exchange, we get decision-making power over those pregnancies. Full stop. The alternative—giving a man the right to force childbirth or force abortion simply because he once had sex with you—is too terrible a violation of human rights to be tolerated in a civilized society. So stop whining already. You sound like McEnroe.
We're coming down the home stretch of the third season of Game of Thrones, with two hopefully-climactic episodes to go. And while it remains to be seen who will be left at the top of the heap, given that the last two seasons ended in the rebirth of dragons and a very firey defense of King's Landing, here's where the Lady Power Rankings stand as of this week:
1. Daenerys Targaryen: There's skill, like knowing how to keep your temper when gross dude-bro sellswords treat you like a prostitute, or building up a daunting army with your wits. And then there's luck, like having a romance novel cover model kill your enemies, tell you that your beauty means everything to him, and offer up 2,000 highly trained soldiers to join your forces. If I were Dany, I'd head for Vegas instead of Westeros right now, because everything's coming up Targaryen.
2. Melisandre: If Dany's getting lucky outside of Yunkai, Melisandre appears to have wrangled herself the best job in the seven kingdoms: having sex with cute guys and using their blood to cast whammies on her enemies. And not only is Stannis Baratheon firmly in her camp ("I never believed,” he explains to Davos Seaworth, “but when you see the truth when it’s right there in front of you, as real as these iron bars, how can you deny her God is real?”) but Davos has made peace. With internal obstacles to her power resolved, Melisandre seems positioned to become a major player.
3. Cersei Lannister: She may be stuck trying to make conversation with her super-gay husband-to-be, Loras Tyrell, and trying to restrain her total monster of a son from sexually harassing his new aunt at her wedding. But at least Cersei gets to have a lot of fun threatening her future sister-in-law with stories of Lord Reyne of Castamere, who "built a castle as grand as Casterly Rock. He gave his wife diamonds larger than any my mother ever wore. And finally, he rebelled against my father. Do you know where House Reyne is now?...Slaughtered.”* And unlike the Tyrells, her plans haven't taken a major hit.
4. Lady Olenna Redwyne: When you're stuck trying to figure out the screwed-up genealogy of your new relatives rather than putting plots into place, you're having a bad week. But at least, unlike her grandchildren, Lady Olenna doesn't have to marry into the Lannister family, so that's something.
5. Margaery Tyrell: Margaery's charm reaches its limits this week when, after trying to flatter Cersei Lannister, the older woman tells her “If you ever call me sister again, I’ll have you strangled in your sleep.” Her total beast of a future husband, Joffrey Baratheon, would rather threaten Sansa Stark with rape at her own wedding than talk to Margaery. And her beloved brother is depressed. None of this takes away from Margaery's skill set. But she's playing a cold hand right now.
6. Arya Stark: Running away from the Brotherhood Without Banners proved to be a bad call for Arya last week when she wound up in custody of the Hound. But after she considers bashing his head in with a rock, it turns out that Arya may have hit some serious good luck. "There’s plenty worse than me," Sandor Clegane tells her when she pouts at him. "There’s men who like to beat little girls. Men who like to rape them. I saved your sister from some of them.” And it's not just the Hound's remaining decency that's on Arya's side. Having quit the Lannisters' service, he needs an alternative income source, and his best chance at that is ransoming Arya back to her family.
7. Sansa Stark: When the best thing to happen to you at your horribly depressing wedding is that your husband makes a joke while telling you he won't maritally rape you, you are not doing well. Let's hope Sansa doesn't start hitting the flagon regularly.
8. Gilly: Gilly's luck actually proves better than Sansa's this week, as Samwell Tarly turns out to be better with an obsidian dagger than he is with, well, anything else. But she's still beyond the wall, Winter is still coming, and ice zombies are still coming for her baby.
Correction, May 21, 2013: This post originally misspelled the name of House Reyne.
I’ve never felt more scrutinized by strangers than when I was pregnant. During my third trimester my body felt like public property. Sometimes this was pleasant—older women on the subway would chat me up about my impending arrival. Often it was less so. People I passed on the street wouldn’t meet my eye, they’d stare right at my stomach. Once, a man leered at me, which felt much more invasive than cat calls did before I was with child. I suppose it’s because I had no control over the way my body looked, and I felt much more vulnerable than usual because I had a helpless baby I was supposed to be protecting.
If I felt so exposed as a knocked-up nobody, I can only imagine how bizarre it feels to be pregnant as a famous person. Which is to say that the language and insane press coverage around pregnant women on the red carpet—featured in this weekend’s New York Times—is not entirely a positive thing. Certainly it’s great that women feel like they no longer have to hide for nine months because they’re pregnant, and it’s additionally wonderful that celebrities are excited to find a style that suits their altered shape. But the obsession with pregnant stars—the scrutiny of their weight, the weird disembodied discussion of their “bumps,” the endless tracking of their shape the second their children exit the womb—is completely creepy, and it’s only getting worse.
It’s telling that the Times piece, which pretty much entirely skirts the creepiness issue, mentions an academic paper about pregnant celebrities called “The Baby Bump is the New Birkin,” [PDF] and misses its point entirely. The Times very selectively quotes that paper, making it sound like body-conscious pregnancy fashion is good for women. But in fact, the paper’s thesis is as follows:“No matter how fashion-forward these celebrities are, media coverage of their pregnancies stops short of its emancipatory promise: Tabloids and glossy magazines watch and judge these pregnant bodies. Given that celebrities provide models of fashion that everyday women try to emulate, the sexy new baby bump establishes standards of pregnant and post-baby female beauty that are unattainable—perhaps even undesirable—to most.”
Furthermore, the obsession with pregnant celebrities makes the very average experience of motherhood seem freakish. A few weeks ago, Us Weekly used the headline, “Kate Middleton Parades Baby Bump in Clingy Dress, Bonds with Dog.” So basically this headline is about a woman walking a dog. But, because she’s pregnant, she “parades” her “baby bump in a clingy dress.” It’s perverse that the more visible pregnant women become, the more they’re objectified, and the more absolutely defined by their “bumps” they are than ever before. If a pregnant celebrity feels good in a body-con dress while gestating, more power to her. But I long for the day when there doesn’t have to be a New York Times article deconstructing it.
Proponents of legal abortion could not make up a more heartbreaking scenario to prove their point. Beatriz (not her real name) is 22 years old with a one-year-old son. She has both lupus and kidney failure.
She is also 23 weeks pregnant with a non-viable fetus. The fetus is anencephalic, which means that if the pregnancy comes to term, the baby will be born with half a brain.
Beatriz’s doctors have advised her to get an abortion because the pregnancy is interfering with her chances of treatment and, ultimately, survival. Problem is, Beatriz lives in El Salvador, where abortion has been illegal since 1998. If she goes ahead with an abortion, both she and her provider will be subject to criminal sanctions, which may include prison terms of up to 10 years. According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, 46 Salvadoran women have already been charged with illegal abortions; of those convicted, three are serving prison sentences.
As moving as this predicament is, it has not swayed the Catholic Church. José Luis Escobar, Archbishop of San Salvador said, referring to Beatriz potentially getting an abortion, “it’s incredible, it’s inhuman, it’s against nature.” He added, “Sure, she [Beatriz] has health problems, but she’s not in grave danger of death. Since we need to consider both lives we need to ask, whose life is in greater danger. We think that the fetus is in greater danger.” It should be noted that most anencephalic fetuses die in utero before coming to term. If an anencephalic fetus does make it to term, it is not likely to survive the first few days after birth.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both weighed in on the case, demanding that the Salvadoran government exempt Beatriz from the abortion prohibition. So has the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the U.N. body overseeing human rights violations in Latin America.
Beatriz first requested an abortion in March. In April, her lawyers appealed to the country’s highest court asking that Beatriz receive a therapeutic abortion. (A therapeutic abortion exception has never been approved since the ban was put in place.) The Supreme Court accepted the case and convened to hear it this week. But yesterday, instead of resolving the issue, the Salvadoran high court kicked the can down the road. They said they needed an additional 15 days to review the suit.
Beatriz will enter the third trimester of her pregnancy in two weeks. Even if the Court issues a positive decision, they are putting her health and life in greater danger: the more advanced a pregnancy, the riskier the abortion procedure. With each day that goes by, Beatriz’s pregnancy is progressing and the case for legal abortion is strengthening. It remains to be seen if the Supreme Court of El Salvador is listening.
Last night at the Tampa Bay Rays stadium, 9-year-old Alayna Adams, whose father has been deployed in Afghanistan for the past year, threw out the first pitch only to discover the man in the catcher’s mask was actually her father, Lt. Col. Will Adams. I’m still wiping my eyes at the sight of this long-legged sprite rushing in joy and shock to his arms. But I wish I’d never seen the video, and that the people in the stadium had not been allowed to be voyeurs. Though I know these reunions are staged for the best motives, a parent’s return should not come as a shock to the kids.
The children of our military personnel bear a heavy burden. They deal with the long absences of a beloved parent. They endure the gnawing fear that one day there will be a surprise—a stranger in uniform walking up the front steps to deliver awful news. A parent serving in the military is not the same as a parent on an extended business trip. Even the expected return of a military parent who may have been gone for a year can be overwhelming. It seems unwise to surprise these children as if springing a trip to Disneyland on them. This post explains that an unexpected return can have all sorts of negative ripple effects, from encouraging a child’s belief in the power of his or her own magical thinking, to causing pain for kids whose parents are not scheduled to come home (or who may never return), to undermining the sense that school is a stable, reliable place.
The surprise return has become such a staple that it’s even spawned two reality show series, Lifetime’s Coming Home and TLC’s Surprise Homecoming. As a Washington Post story critical of these reunions points out, both shows were done in cooperation with the military. ABC’s Good Morning America shows reunion clips (some from homecomings they've helped arrange) to give viewers a quick fix of warmed hearts and jerked tears. A site devoted to surprise returns offers a “best of” reel, presumably using a Richter scale-type measurement of amazement and weeping. The surprises can be elaborate—Mom emerging from a giant gift box at a school assembly, Dad whipping off his Darth Vader costume. But military homecomings are complicated emotional events, especially for children, and turning them into public spectacles in front of classmates or strangers can add to the stress.
I’ve only been able to watch a few of these videos. I’ve found myself turning away from the rawness of the emotion. I feel like an intruder seeing the children’s overwhelming relief, their uncontrollable sobbing. Our commander in chief has done such a good job as a father keeping his children out of the public eye and giving them the privacy they need. I wish this administration would encourage the military commanders to put out word that the children of returning service members deserve to reconnect in a safe, private space.
Yesterday, Lenore Skenazy wrote this article about why it's important to take young children outside and then leave them unsupervised.The idea is that at around 10 a.m. parents take their kids to ... their local park. And then they leave them there ... If they're at least seven or eight years old, why NOT leave them there with the other kids gathering? It could be their first chance to finally do that thing we did as kids without thinking twice: Play.
As the author of a new book about my experience as a dad, I'd like to counter Skenazy's argument by saying to you other parents there: Please, don't leave your stupid kid alone at the park.
First of all, what kind of park are we talking about? There are different kinds of parks, you know. If you live in a gated community in Idaho and there's a small playground at the end of your cul-de-sac, that's a wee bit different than dropping off your kid at an Upper West Side kiddie war zone. There are THOUSANDS of children at those parks, all jostling for sandbox time and plugging up the swirly slide. No responsible human being just leaves a first grader at this kind of park for hours at a time. That's lunacy.
More important, leaving your stupid kid at the park means I'm the one who ends up having to deal with him when he decides to put someone else's dog in the baby swing. Where are you, Miss Enlightened? Who's gonna make this little idiot come correct? If you want a nanny, pay me. There are kids of all ages at these parks. Those of us with younger kids HAVE to watch over them. And when your stupid kid steps on their head to commandeer the monkey bars, what then? Two seven-year-olds should be able to resolve their own conflicts on a playground. But an unsupervised tussle between your seven-year-old and a two-year-old ends up with my kid being thrown over a railing. You, Miss Hippy Dippy, should at least be NEARBY, so that I can grab you and tell you that your child won't stop piledriving babies into the mulch. You can't just go have lunch at Panera and expect anyone to congratulate you for it.
I agree with Skenazy that kids that age should be left alone to play and build their imaginary princess forts and all that. But her solution to just abandon a seven-year-old for a day isn't the right one. Many Americans live in neighborhoods where the infrastructure inherently presents more hazards for a child playing alone. Maybe I want my kid to bike to the park, only there are no sidewalks to get there. Maybe they have to traverse a four-lane highway and cross a Wal Mart parking lot to get there. The reason too many kids stay indoors these days is because many exurban areas are set up in a way that actively encourages it. If you live on a farm, you can let your kids out the door in the morning and then go ring the dinner bell for them to come in at 5pm. We do not all live on farms.
A seven-year-old isn't old enough to bike down to some park alone. A ten-year-old? Fine. I get that. Ten-year-olds are big and strong and annoying. But a younger child should have unsupervised play in a less crowded, less hazardous area: a backyard, a basement, a school recess. You have to have some measure of common sense about what kind of environment you're leaving your kid in. And you have to be a good judge of what the right age is for fully unsupervised play in the environment you're dealing with. When I was twelve, I used to bike down a railroad track to town to go rent video games and steal Playboys. Twelve is a good age for that sort of thing. I would not suggest an eight-year-old do that. He wouldn't appreciate the Playboy as much anyway.
There is definitely an obesity crisis in America right now, and shutting in your kids doesn't help matters much. But Skenazy's "just leave them!" proposal is an airy fairy idea that doesn't take into account where you live and how your community is set up. Many of us CAN'T leave kids to play on their own, and there are legitimate reasons why. Those are the deeper issues that need fixing. Kids need better places to play than what they have now. You are not kickstarting a revolution by adding the extra twist of you being twenty miles away.
Whenever a new acquaintance learns that I report on porn sets, I end up fielding a similar line of questioning about What It’s Like. Are the performers trapped? Are they hurt? Coerced? On drugs? Do they have no other options? Are they dumb?
Most of those questions have easy answers—it's usually “no”—but it’s difficult to communicate the full lives and experiences of a diverse group of people working in an industry steeped in public fascination and shame. Now, I can tell them to buy a ticket to I Love Your Work, a new online documentary that follows the lives of nine women over ten days of shooting a lesbian porn film in New York City in 2010. Jonathan Harris, 33, followed these women from wake to sleep, capturing ten-second video clips every five minutes of whatever they happened to be doing—taking the subway, sharing their wedding photos, putting on their shoes, discussing their tattoos, debating feminism, talking about frogs, walking in the park, undressing for the camera. Then, he compiled the footage into a six-hour interactive experience, and offered it up to viewers for $10 for a 24 window of access. (You can watch the trailer here). I talked to Harris, 33, about his experience making the documentary.
Slate: You followed nine women working on the set of a lesbian porn film. Why did you choose to focus on this particular set of people?
Jonathan Harris: I think porn plays a complicated role in many of our lives. Most men (and many women) watch porn, but very few admit it. It is simultaneously ubiquitous and hidden. For most of us, porn is a series of fantasies, engineered to make us feel aroused, always slightly out of reach, and usually experienced in private. I wanted to understand the realities of the people who produce those fantasies. I wondered what their fantasies would be like. I wondered what it was like for them to be objects of anonymous desire, and, in turn, what they desired.
Slate: The porn industry is subject to endless public debate, but we rarely get a look at the full lives of the people who make it. Did the project change any of your own preconceptions about porn?
Harris: Definitely. When I see porn now, I see real people performing. I think about their lives, what they had for breakfast, what their apartment might look like, where they get their groceries. The power of pornographic fantasies is diminished for me now, because I understand the role of makeup and lighting and camera angles to convey a certain image that usually has very little to do with reality. And I think this is ultimately a really humanizing thing to realize. It makes me feel better about my own body, and about the bodies of other people in my life. I can still appreciate the fantasies, but they have less control over me now.
Slate: You filmed these women for ten seconds every five minutes. Did anything happen in all of those 4 minutes and 50 second gaps you wished you'd been able to catch on tape?
Harris: I filmed at least 10 seconds of video every five minutes, and sometimes more. In the editing process, I selected the best—the most interesting, sensible, continuous, or beautiful—10 seconds of contiguous video from that five minutes of real-world time, and that's what's in the final piece. The whole idea of the project was not to show too much—to keep the tantalizing feeling of porn that is constantly just out of reach. It's like a strip tease, or a peep show, or a teaser, but in this case, the teaser is for everyday life.
Slate: The interactivity of your project reflects how we consume porn on the internet—jumping from clip to clip, catching glimpses of video in between mundane email replies and, sometimes, visits to performers' own blogs. How has the internet changed the way that we consume porn, and view it on a cultural level?
Harris: The Internet's clearly made porn more accessible, so a much higher percentage of the population experiences it now than in, say, the 1990s, when you had to pirate some sketchy VHS video tape, or walk into a seedy magazine shop and hand over your money to get a pornographic magazine. The stakes are much lower now. Porn is something you can watch instantly, anonymously, secretly, and without spending money. It's bright and easy. And because of this, I think it's starting to make sex in general more normalized. I see the American Puritan ethic as beginning to recede a little, and people are opening up to each other about their sexual desires. You see this pretty clearly in something like the 50 Shades of Gray phenomenon, which probably wouldn't have happened if porn hadn't already set the stage. The very fluidity of how we consume porn now— like you say, between checking emails— has made sexuality a more integral part of life. It's no longer something that has to be buried away and done in the dark. People can claim what they like and talk about it openly. I think the prevalence of porn has a lot to do with this shift, although of course not everyone's there yet.
Slate: Nobody pays for porn anymore. Why pay for a $10 for a ticket to I Love Your Work?
Harris: I Love Your Work is not really porn. … it's a project about how people live their everyday lives. It's just as much about youth, fame, gender, fear, vulnerability, honesty, and privacy as it is about porn and sex. Most of all, it's a rare chance to experience a day in the life of nine different human beings, moment to moment, unfiltered and unedited. It's not like reality TV, where there's some editor with an agenda, manipulating the footage for a certain effect. In I Love Your Work, the editing is totally neutral—entirely determined by the time constraints—and this neutrality gives a feeling of raw honesty and truthfulness.
When I was doing research for a piece about the uber-successful Emanuel Brothers and what their parents did to encourage them to be so competitive, I ended up talking to Ashley Merryman, the co-author of Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing. According to Merryman and her co-author Po Bronson, part of what might have made the Emanuel brothers so ambitious from childhood is that they were all boys, and that there were three of them. Girls tend to play in pairs, while boys arrange themselves in groups, and group play breeds the competitive spirit. So what’s behind this, and why does playing in groups make boys more aggressive?
Harvard evolutionary biologist Joyce Benenson speculates that the instinct for men to align themselves in groups goes way back in human history. Men hunted in groups, and so they had to learn to get along quickly in a bunch, and this quality was supposedly bred into men through natural selection (maybe you got picked off by a lion if you didn’t bond with the group). Whether or not you buy this, Merryman and Bronson cite a 2004 study from Benenson that shows male infants as young as six months prefer photographs of groups to photographs of pairs or individuals. Girl babies show no preference.
In Benenson’s studies of older children, the differences are starker, Merryman explained to me over the phone. “In observed lab studies of six- to eight-year-old boys, they spent 70 to 80 percent of their time playing in groups,” while girls spend less than 20 percent of their time in groups. Boys are so desperate to arrange themselves in groups that “when [researchers] put a pair of boys in a room and forced them to talk to each other, they ended up talking about what it would be like to have a group of boys there.” By contrast, “Girls in a group will look at each other and try to find a single friend.” This behavior extends all the way up to the boardroom.
So why does it matter? Because men’s experience in groups may be why they not only compete more as adults, but why they’re also less concerned about the outcome of the competition, Merryman and Bronson argue in Top Dog:“Groups are rarely a collection of true equals. It’s expected that, within a group, people will have different experiences, abilities, resources. That’s often the group’s greatest strength. Therefore, as long as everyone has signed on to the group’s larger purpose, its members don’t need to conform in other ways...Occasional challenges to group hierarchy can be welcomed, because they force everyone to improve over time.”
Furthermore, the natural communication style of groups is assertiveness—you need to pipe up to be heard over the din of several. Not so with dyads. The natural communication style of pairs is “a mutual exchange of feelings,” Merryman and Bronson say. “In a conversation between two people, even a mild difference of opinion can be perceived as a threat.” Because women are socialized to have this self-deprecating style of exchange from their first interactions, it’s no wonder they have trouble making themselves heard in the office.
Essentialist takes on how children behave are tricky, and it’s possible that kids follow a more fluid set of rules than the researchers suggest. Still, after reading Top Dog, I want to stick my daughter in soccer as soon as she can stand upright, so that she’ll get used to speaking up in a group. If she’s not athletically inclined, it will be debate team all the way.
Of all the changes J.J. Abrams made to the Star Trek universe when he re-launched it in 2009, one of the sharpest was the decision to make half-human, half-Vulcan Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana) not just colleagues, but a couple with great sexual chemistry and some crackling dialogue.
They bickered over Uhura's first assignment after her graduation from Starfleet Academy. Spock, Uhura’s teacher as well as her boyfriend, had sent her to the U.S.S. Farragut "to avoid the appearance of favoritism," and Uhura protested in a scene that let her be both sexy and professionally ambitious. "Did I not, on multiple occasions, demonstrate an exceptional aural sensitivity, and I quote, 'an unparalleled ability to identify sonic anomalies in subspace transmissions tests?'" Uhura snapped (and punned) at Spock. And the tenderness of their relationship brought out the human side in Spock, particularly after he saw his home planet of Vulcan destroyed by a terrorist. "What do you need?" Uhura asked Spock, kissing him tenderly after the attack. "I need everyone to continue performing admirably," Spock told her, broken up. They were a partnership of equals.
But in Star Trek Into Darkness, this refreshingly grown-up relationship (at least by the standards of blockbusters) has taken a back seat to the bromance between Spock and James T. Kirk (Chris Pine). Kirk jumps between the two on every occasion. "Are you two fighting? Oh my God, what is that even like?" he asks eagerly. And when they finally bring their grievances into the open air, Kirk's right there in a shuttle with them, like a roommate who just can't help butting in.
Even when Uhura gets to do actual work in Star Trek Into Darkness, the movie manages to bollix up her role. When the crew gets stuck on the Klingon homeworld of Kronos, Uhura reminds Kirk, "You brought me here because I speak Klingon. Then let me speak Klingon." But instead of allowing her to achieve victory through diplomacy, the movie first lets a long shot linger on her posterior while she talks to a group of Klingon warriors, then turns her into a damsel in distress who needs to be rescued by her male crewmates. At the movie's climax, Uhura fires a bunch of shots at the movie's primary villain, but it's her boyfriend who ultimately puts the bad guy down, fueled by his anger at—you guessed it—the man's treatment of Kirk.
There's nothing wrong with treating friendship like it's an important stake in an action movie, and the relationship between Kirk and Spock has always been critical to Star Trek. But it would be nice if Into Darkness acknowledged, as Iron Man 3 did this spring, that a man's girlfriend can be as good a colleague and partner in combat as his bros.
The season finale of FOX’s The Mindy Project aired on Tuesday, and it was a deeply emotional episode for me. The primary emotion I am feeling is relief. After following Mindy Kaling's impressive writing and acting at NBC's The Office, I’ve spent the 2012-2013 television season desperately trying to like The Mindy Project. I have failed. How did one of the most subversive figures on network television end up making such a bad show?
In a TV landscape dominated by white men, Kaling is the rare woman of color to create, write, and star (as New York obgyn Dr. Mindy Lahiri) in her own network sitcom. White men fill a unique role on Kaling’s show, too—they appear in the form of Mindy’s constantly refreshing stream of man candy, who Mindy beds (and usually, discards) at breakneck speed. This week, Rachel Sklar called the show “subversive and sexy” for its depiction of a single woman who “unapologetically hooks up with a parade of adorable guys” with none of the sexual shaming or cloying melodrama that accompanies most depictions of single ladies on television. And as Nisha Chittal recently told Jezebel, “it's really interesting that Mindy Lahiri dates white men,” which she sees as a “conscious decision to refute the stereotype that South Asians only date other South Asians.”
Theoretically, The Mindy Project’s take on hooking up does sound radical. If only it weren’t so boring in practice. On the Mindy Project, men come and men go, but they never go anywhere interesting. Take the guest appearances of the Meyers brothers: In the show’s second episode, Mindy meets-cute with a charming architect played by Seth Meyers. The pair plan a date, but we don’t see it; in fact, we never see Seth, or hear about him, ever again. Later in the season, Mindy flirts at a bar with another charming guy played by Seth’s brother, Josh Meyers, who turns out to be a prostitute. He, too, gets one episode, then disappears. With the right comedic tone, Mindy’s quick turnover of love interests could play out like a fun–or even dark—inversion of rom-com tropes: No, Mindy doesn’t end up marrying the handsome architect after a series of clutzy romantic blunders; she unwittingly falls into a Pretty Woman situation with a guy who looks eerily similar, and that doesn’t work out like the movies, either. But ironies like those aren’t given any space for exploration on the show. Every time Mindy presses the reset button on a new dude, her thin character development resets, too.
It’s potentially subversive that Mindy doesn’t get too emotionally invested in her sex partners. The problem is that we don’t get invested in Mindy herself, either. Occasionally, The Mindy Project will make a bid to insert some emotional heft into Mindy’s romantic life, but these moments also feel like stunts as opposed to stories. For instance, the show clumsily hints at a brewing attraction between Mindy and her coworker, Dr. Danny Castellano, by arranging for them to inadvertently touch hands on a bumpy plane ride.
Maybe the problem is Mindy’s inability to dig deeper inside herself. When one of Mindy’s past partners unexpectedly resurfaces on her birthday with a thoughtful gift, Mindy tells him that after their hook-up failed to materialize into a relationship, she “cried every night.” But we never actually saw Mindy cry. Is she even capable of it? The attempt to bolster Mindy’s unapologetic hook-ups with these melodramatic touches doesn’t feel sexy and transgressive—it feels disjointed, even oddly sociopathic. Even Mindy’s friends and coworkers feel similarly disposable and largely stereotypical. When Mindy’s initial married-with-kids BFF proved boring, writers threw in a new, single (also boring) BFF to pick up confidante duties. The show’s first season also traded in a woman in a wheelchair whose main shtick is acting inappropriately sexual, and a black nurse who communicates largely through singing.
This isn’t Louie, where Louis CK’s constant romantic interactions form the absurd set pieces for his existential anxiety. It’s not 30 Rock, where stereotypes are pushed to absurd limits for comedic effect. The Mindy Project is a potentially subversive take on modern love, shoehorned into the outdated trappings of a run-of-the-mill wacky workplace comedy. It is bad. But it doesn’t have to stay that way. At the end of the season finale, Mindy articulates her character’s main romantic tension: “No guy has ever wanted to commit to me before, because I work too much, I’m kind of selfish, I’ve never voted, and usually a guy figures that out, and then they leave,” she says. Then, she rushes to the hospital, unzips her party dress, wipes off her lipstick, pulls on her scrubs, and delivers triplets. That was the sexiest moment on the show this season, and it had nothing to do with any random guy.
Rep. Michele Bachmann is always happy to spread whatever garbled rightwing conspiracy theory is trending. Her ravings are often a wall of meaningless paranoid noise, better ignored than engaged with. Still, her latest rant, reported by Atlantic Wire, deserves a little attention, because she's inadvertently hurting conservatives in her stampede to paint all Democrats as genocidal hell beasts.Here's her theory, with each high-level-conspiracy bolded. The House Oversight Committee's hearings on Benghazi spooked the White House so much that they decided to take advantage of "a Friday dump day" (Bachmann's words) to "confess to such a flagrant misuse of politics and power" (World Net Daily's) as the IRS investigation of Tea Party groups. But what really worries Bachmann is that the IRS, which is largely responsible for administration of Obamacare, will use its new-found partisanship to "deny or delay access to health care" for conservatives.
According to WND, Bachmann said, "It now is an entirely reasonable question for the American people to ask: Will Obamacare be so politicized and misused?" In other words, she's running around scaring conservatives by telling them that the IRS will be targeting conservatives and denying them their health care benefits. How they will do this is not explained, but I'm guessing she's implying that the IRS will be monitoring insurance claims now. (They will not. The IRS's only role in Obamacare is to levy a tax on those who don't have health insurance.) Those of us in the reality-based community who have friends and family that have been sucked into the Fox News/Drudge vortex know what this means: More panic-based communications where our loved ones insist they're about to lose their health care coverage and we have to explain patiently that they are going to be just fine. We will try to be patient and not angrily insist that it's ludicrous to claim that legislation that's supposed to get Americans into health insurance plans is actually a secret plot to take away health insurance, but it won't be easy.
I beg of you, right wing pundits and politicians, cut it out. You may not believe your own nonsense, but sadly, your audience does. When you tell them the evil black President is going to take away their health care, they don't just chuckle knowingly and pass along the rumor. No, they often freak out, understandably. Not having health insurance is scary. That's why it was so critical to pass legislation to make sure people have it.
We all know how the game is played at this point: Conservatives invent half-baked conspiracy theories and faux scandals to get all bent out of shape about, in order to rustle up votes they couldn't get with a sober-minded examination of policy differences between the parties. Birds got to fly, fish got to swim, etc. But for the love of Reagan, could you do that without causing your own people to fear for their very lives? These folks give you their time, their money and their votes. The least you can do for them is not cause them to stress out for no good reason.
This Saturday is the fourth annual "Take Our Children to the Park...and Leave Them There Day."
The idea is that at around 10 a.m. parents take their kids to—as you might expect from the name of this holiday—their local park. And then they leave them there.
Not if the kids are babies, of course. Not even if they're toddlers. But if they're at least seven or eight years old, why NOT leave them there with the other kids gathering? It could be their first chance to finally do that thing we did as kids without thinking twice: Play.
And by "play" I mean: Stand around, get bored, wonder what to do, wish there was an Xbox around, feel hungry, feel a little too hot or cold, feel mad at mom for not organizing something "really" fun, like a trip to Chuck E. Cheese, feel bad all around, realize the other kids are feeling bad too, and then—in desperation—do something.
Start a game of tag. Or basketball. Or fairies versus witches. And suddenly, those bored kids who were desperate to go home don't want to go home at all. They want to KEEP playing— with any luck, for the rest of their childhoods.
Playing is that powerful. It's addictive. It's what children have done since the beginning of time...till about a generation ago, when we decided, as a country, that letting kids go outside on their own is just "too dangerous."
Do you know how many kids play outside on their own these days? One study I read said that in a typical week, the number is down to six percent. That's kids ages nine to 13—the sweet spot for goofing around and, incidentally, becoming independent. But instead of exercising their bodies and minds and ability to organize ANYTHING on their own, including a couple hours of free time, most kids are either supervised in leagues or stuck inside, usually with a screen.
One reason for this lockdown is that parents today are so scared of predators. They believe—or so I've been screamed at—that if Saturday is "announced" as kids-outside day, predators will celebrate by circling the parks in white, windowless vans.
The fact that we are enjoying the lowest crime rate in decades has not gotten through. A Pew Study on gun violence released just the other day said: “Firearm homicide rates in the late 2000s were equal to those not seen since the early 1960s.” That’s right—gun crime is down to the level it was BEFORE COLOR TV.
The Pew study added that most Americans (especially women) believe crime keeps going up, even though the crime rate is now LOWER than when most of today's parents were kids.
What's higher is the number of times you will see the Cleveland kidnapping victims on TV. Desperate for ratings, the media bombard us with the most searing images it can find. And no matter how rare these heart-sickening stories are—the Newtown tragedy, the Marathon bombing—if you see them for weeks and weeks on end every time you look at a screen, it starts feeling as if they're happening all the time. On TV, they are.
But it is actually safer for kids to play than not to play. Play is good for the brain—it makes kids into problem solvers. Play is good for the body—it makes kids less obese. Exposure to dirt builds the immune system. And don't obsess about accidents: More kids go to the hospital from falling out of bed than trees.
So this Saturday, take your kids to the park...and leave them there.
Sunday, they can bike there on their own.
Game of Thrones is one of the most outrageously enjoyable shows on television right now, not least because of its incredible roster of female characters, from medieval Girl Scout Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) to court manipulator Lady Olenna Redwyne (Diana Rigg). But what's incredibly not-fun is how much stupid writing the show has inspired about female television watchers, and what we like or don't like.
The latest attempt to explain Game of Thrones in relation to All Ladies comes courtesy of Thrillist's Renata Sellitti in a piece entitled "Why Girls Hate Game Of Thrones: The reasons she throws shade on your medieval man show." Her arguments include such gems as "We hate gross things. Know what's gross? Screwing your sibling," in reference to the relationship between twins Cersei and Jaime Lannister, girl-trolling like "It’s hard to follow," or nerd-baiting, including "It reminds us of the kids that used to play magic cards in the cafeteria. And people who go to Renaissance festivals." At least Sellitti has the originality to attribute new obnoxious ideas to all women who watch television, though she doesn't reach the heights of originality scaled by the New York Times' Ginia Bellafante, who suggested when the show premiered in 2011 of the incest and prostitution plotlines "that all of this illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise."
This kind of treatment of women as if they're narrow, fantasy-averse, or pervy, makes me want to slowly and carefully lower my forehead to my desk repeatedly in imitation of Mad Men's Peggy Olson (to use a Sunday night prestige show reference Bellafante might appreciate). Bellafante may not have ever met "a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed toThe Hobbit first," and Sellitti may believe that "Eating a giant drumstick and drinking out of a goblet is cool, just not every Sunday night for three months straight." But there's something bizarre about the inability to imagine that some women dig stories about swords and sorcery, even to the extent that we'll strap on custom costumes ourselves, not just gather in front of the television on Sunday nights to watch other people wear them.
Did it occur to Sellitti that some of us tune into Game of Thrones precisely because it is like a soap opera, except with a wider range of roles available to women? Or that, for the straight ladies, the show offers up an unusual amount of man candy, particularly in its third season? Maybe we're actually interested in what will happen when Danaerys Targaryen starts liberating slaves and conquering cities. Maybe want to know if Tyrion Lannister can find a way to pay off the Iron Bank of Braavos, or whether Arya Stark will actually get revenge on the people who murdered her friend, killed her father, and brainwashed her sister? Perhaps we're curious about things other than traditional lady business—what Sellitti calls "the romantic crap" in her advice to men to get the women in their lives on board
I'm fine leaving them with their Lorrie Moore volumes and their Mad Men episodes—in point of fact, liking The Hobbit and Game of Thrones doesn't preclude me from reading fiction by women or crushing on Ted Chaough. I just wish they wouldn't get so perturbed by those of their fellow women who like to spend a little time in Westeros.
From a healthcare perspective, Angelina’s Jolie’s case is pretty clearcut, even if her personal decisions were fraught and complex. Her insurance presumably paid for her breast-cancer gene tests because her mother died of ovarian cancer.* When women like Jolie appear to be at higher than usual risk for breast cancer, their risk factors are punched into a mathematical model and out comes a magic number that helps us make health care decisions. A first-degree relative with breast cancer is pretty much a slam-dunk, and most insurance companies will pony up the cost for Myriad’s monopoly-priced diagnostic panel.
For the rest of us, figuring out risk is trickier. The standard breast-cancer model, the Gail model, tends to underestimate risk, and doesn’t take into account all sorts of well established risk factors such as obesity, alcohol consumption, exposure to radiation, use of hormone replacement therapy and family history of breast cancer in relatives more distantly related than a sister or mother. As a baseline, the average risk of U.S. women is 12.2 percent, or the risk of one in eight women getting breast cancer if they live through old age.
When my doctor used the Gail model, my risk was slightly higher than average, about 14 percent, but neither of us found that reassuring. That’s because I have two grandmothers and a great-grandmother who died of breast cancer or ovarian cancer, which is genetically related to breast cancer. My doctor referred me me to a genetic counselor, who ran a more sophisticated risk model called the Tyrer-Cruzick that upped my estimated risk to 19.8 percent. That’s two-tenths of a percent lower than the risk that triggers the use of “high-risk” detection tools like regular MRIs in addition to mammograms. Welcome to the gray zone of risk assessment. Both my counselor and I thought I should get tested for the BRCA genes, but my insurance carrier firmly disagreed. At over $3,000, Myriad’s test is too expensive for me and most other women to get, regardless of what they and their doctors may think.
So why didn’t I just cough up the money? Isn’t my health and life worth it? A couple of reasons. For one thing, I learned that our fear of breast cancer is clouded by misconceptions. We tend to think of breast cancer as a heritable disease, but in the vast majority of cases, it’s not. Straight hereditary factors only account for about 10 percent of all breast cancers. And while the BRCA genes are the well-known poster children of risk, they get more credit than they deserve. In families with histories of breast and ovarian cancer, about half do not have BRCA mutations at all.
Given my family history, I could have a genetic flaw like the one that originated on a BRCA2 gene in 16th century Iceland. Or my grandmothers could have inherited one of the 700 other distinct “founder effect” mutations on BRCA genes discovered in Dutch, German and Pakistani populations, among others. But it’s just as likely they had totally different genetic variants that can cause breast cancer, including TP53, PTEN, STK11/LKB1, CDH1, CHEK2, ATM, MLH1, and MSH2, or ones that are as yet undiscovered.
I decided to opt for a much cheaper panel that tested for several known genetic mutations, the dominant BRCA ones excluded thanks to Myriad’s DNA-grabbing patent. When that panel came back negative, I was relieved. Many companies offer these tests, including 23andMe, which does it for $99.
Using the models, tests and screens made me feel like I was doing something, but ultimately, they’re not terribly meaningful. It’s not even very helpful to know your magic risk number for breast cancer. Most women with lots of risk factors will never get breast cancer, and many without the big risk factors will get it nonetheless. In other words, many of the standard risk factors (early puberty, late menopause, obesity, older maternal age, obesity, smoking) are fairly useless. The reason is that we still don’t know really know what causes breast cancer. But at least most of us don’t have Jolie’s BRCA gene (it occurs in 1 in 500 people), and for that, we should be thankful.
Correction, May 14, 2013: This post originally stated that Angelina Jolie's mother died of breast cancer. She died of ovarian cancer.
It’s that time of year, folks. Winter coats are being stored away, blossoms are dappling the trees, and before long, the annual summer parade of skinterns will begin.
Skintern is a term I first heard from a male colleague who disapproved of the yearly ritual of scantily-clad young women showing up to do summer internships at our company. (This was before I started working at Slate.) Every June there would be a new batch, just as clueless about appropriate office attire as those from the year before. Think dresses so clingy they leave nothing to the imagination, tops worn without a bra and tied together with string, daisy dukes, sheer harem pants, and cleavage straight out of a men’s magazine.
But don’t worry, ladies. I’m not here to judge. I’m here to help.
I spent most of my early 20s is a state of panicked confusion about what was appropriate professional attire. And I get that when it comes to office wear, summer is the worst of all: It’s hot outside, you want to look good, and often there’s no clear company dress code. But fear not! Follow the tips below, and I promise you won’t get fired—or the intern equivalent—for your sartorial artlessness. (No luck if you’re terrible at your job, though. The perfect A-line skirt can only do so much.)
Nothing see-through. No sheer shirts, dresses, or pants. If you are wearing anything that doesn’t block light, you should wear something that fully covers you underneath, like a full slip or cotton tank top.
Your bra and underwear are your business only. When it comes to thongs, lace, and patterns, to each her own. You rock whatever garments make you feel great. However, no one at the office should know anything about your preferences.
Save your skin. Mini-dresses, mini-skirts, short-shorts, halter-tops, and half-shirts should not be worn in a professional setting. (When in doubt, if the article of clothing has a hyphen in it, it is probably off-limits.) More than a hint of cleavage should be avoided—and no bare backs. Showing skin in the office does not make you look sophisticated, it makes you look naked.
Shoe choice matters. I’m less bothered by sneakers and flip flops than laceup, over-the-knee boots and sexy four-inch heels. You may have picked a wonderfully appropriate skirt or dress, so continue the winning streak by saving the glittery platform sandals for another occasion, like pole dancing class.
The shorts conundrum. I am unable to offer you a hard and fast rule about shorts. I wear (appropriate-length) shorts to work. My boss does too, because “What else are you supposed to wear when it’s 90 degrees outside?” Slate’s HR manager, however, says shorts are a no-no—though she would not stage a shorts intervention unless the offending culottes were “distracting.” Since opinions vary, this brings me to my next point.
When in doubt, ask. I hire and manage some interns during the summer, and exactly one intern has asked me what was appropriate to wear to the office—and I respected her for asking. A friendly HR manager, internship coordinator, or person you report to should be happy to give you a few guidelines specific to your office, especially if it means she won’t be getting an eyeful en route to the coffee machine.
Now that you are armed with this essential knowledge, go forth into the workplace and impress everyone you meet with your hard work and keen intellect. Ladies, I will see you on the other side of the glass ceiling.