I really should have written this for March 8th - International Women's Day - but I was too busy being sick and writing about other things. I do need to thank my Facebook friend Lacey Woodbury for reminding me that this was an important subject, and I needed to give it time of day.
As far as being a girl is concerned, mine was an interesting situation growing up. On one hand, I was an "accidental" baby - the doctors told my mom she couldn't have children, but she had me anyway, so by the time all was said and done, my parents and grandparents really didn't care what gender I was as long as I was alive. So, from that standpoint, nobody was disappointed.
On the other hand there was an interesting dichotomy in our family: ultra-feminine, yet powerful, women, who managed to work, raise children, keep impeccably clean apartments, cook, sew, knit and read - all while wearing lovely dresses and high heels; and strong yet laid-back men, who went out and held high-level posts, and earned more in their jobs than the women did, yet never managed to retain full control of the money or cared to do so. My mother initiated my piano, ballroom dancing and English language lessons. My father taught me astronomy and how to build castles the size of our entire apartment out of the many construction sets he bought me. My grandmothers taught me manners, how to set the table, host a party and be ladylike. My grandfathers made sure I read up on history, biographies of writers, politicians, artists and scientists (of both genders), and literary classics.
Given all that, being a girl in my family was an interesting deal: you were expected to have the mind as sharp as any man's, but the manners and social skills of a woman, with the requirement that you keep everyone happy at all times and be a pillar of strength thrown in for good measure. Looking back on it, I do agree that this was a bit much - especially when I became the family matriarch at the ripe old age of sixteen - some elements of this upbringing served me very well later in life. And so, as I think about it, I can summarize being a girl into the following...
Being a woman involves many roles. One of the dangers is getting stuck in one role and letting it impact all the others. How many of us let our jobs take over our spare time, our stress levels and any energy we had left for sexuality? How many of us gave up the smallest bit of glamor and self-indulgence for the sake of motherhood?
While I don't think it is possible to completely separate our roles from one another, we should at least try to put some boundaries between them into place. You cannot (and should not) be a professional 24/7. That role should be reserved for your work hours, and if those are starting to creep into your nights and weekends (and believe me, I know what I'm talking about), it is time to have a conversation with your boss and set some work/life limits or find another job (as terrifying as it may sound - again I am not unfamiliar with this).
While having a new baby does take over your entire existence, the baby does eventually get bigger. Yes, of course, you are a parent for life, but that doesn't mean you can't step away for a couple of hours to have a drink and a laugh with your girlfriends. Trust me - it is your husband's child too, he is capable of keeping it alive while you take a break. You just brought another human being into the world - for crying out loud, don't you think you have earned the right to be a carefree girl for at least a few hours a week?
Have chore days and non-chore days and make it inviolate. If Monday is your laundry day and someone tosses something into the basket on Tuesday - tough, they'll just have to wait till next Monday or wash it themselves. If Friday is your grocery day, then put responsibility on your family members to make sure they put the stuff they need on the grocery list before you go shopping. If they have an urge for Doritos on Sunday - fine, but they'll have to go get it themselves or wait till the next grocery trip.
Separate your roles. Allowing yourself to be a woman and yourself instead of being a housekeeper, an accountant, a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister, or a friend is not selfish - it is right and it is therapeutic.
Show some leg
When was the last time you wore a skirt or a dress? No really, when was it? Yes, pants are good for some things some times: working in the garden, riding a horse or a bicycle, climbing, hiking, doing heavy lifting, working an assembly line, and (according to Hillary Clinton) running for President. They are, however, not end all be all.
When I worked as an engineering intern and later - as an engineer - I was forced into wearing nothing but jeans and t-shirts and steel-toe shoes for two years, and then - not necessarily jeans and t-shirts, but still pants and simple tops and still steel-toe shoes for another two years. It is amazing how much you come to appreciate skirts and dresses when you have virtually no opportunity to wear them.
Show some leg, ladies, it is one of the girliest girl things you can do for yourself. Of course, not all of us have legs that go on forever with perfect thighs, knees, calves and ankles. However, I do believe that there is a right skirt out there for each one of us.
Most of us can get away with the wider skirt that hits just at the knee and the wraparound dresses work on the large portion of the female population. However, if you are not certain, go and try them on! Grab several and keep at it until you see the one that makes you smile at your reflection in the mirror. If the big department stores scare you, go to a smaller boutique. If you are intimidated by the mirrors-all-around fitting rooms, bring a friend for moral support. If you are reluctant to put your calves and ankles out in the open, start your skirt search in the winter, when you can hide them in the boots, and then slowly work up the courage to transition to a smaller shoe. Scared of heels? Try wedges and the stacked kind - not only do they provide sturdy support, they also "open up" your ankle making it look delicate and refine, regardless of how big-boned you might be.
Find the right skirt or dress for yourself, and the shoes to go with it - and make a point to wear it at least once a week. You'll be amazed to discover that you suddenly have a figure, a posture and legs worth looking at.
What do you wear to work? Is it the eternal black pants and white shirt? Or is it the black pants and a top or a twinset of some other color? Or is it the rectangular business suit you've had for years that gives you all the shape and appeal of a filing cabinet? Or - even worse - if you work from home it's either pajamas or jeans and a t-shirt, because "I work from home, so who cares what I look like?" Well, for starters, why don't you? That is, why don't you care what you look like? Aside from the fact that your sweats don't exactly make your husband howl with lust or set a good image of a successful professional for your child, shouldn't you be the one giving a damn, first and foremost?
Ladies, please... Looking good, being feminine and being a tough professional woman are not mutually exclusive. I am not suggesting that you start wearing stiletto heels, mini-skirt and bare midriff to work - god, no! That would be very bad taste! However, I would like to point out that there are office wear alternatives that allow you to show off your lovely figure and look professional at the same time. And if you work from home, well aren't you the one complaining that you "don't have any reasons to dress up anymore"? Well, do it, damn it! Dress as if you are going to the office!
Before you turn on me and tell me that I have no idea what I am talking about - actually, I do. After my stint as an engineer, I have worked in the banking industry (talk about a place of male domination!). You know what I have discovered? Once I started dressing like a girl - tastefully, yet with the full realization of my femininity - the job had actually gotten easier. Sure, when I walk in wearing my colorful dresses and high heels, the men in a conference room might think I am an airhead, who slept her way to her current position, and only works to subsidize her addiction to clothes. But then the project negotiations begin, or a data analysis presentation, or a forecast governance meeting, and I open my mouth, and fifteen years of professional experience, backed by a Masters' Degree come out. Oh, but it is a satisfying moment, to see the astonishment on their faces, and the realization that a perceived fashionista-bimbo is actually the one who is running this show... That alone makes it worth dressing up for the office (aside from the fact that I just happen to like dressing up).
You need empowerment? Instead of trying to blend in and be "one of the guys" and hiding your sexuality and femininity, wield them like double swords. Use your steel-trap mind in combination with your feminine sensibility, planning and charm. Yeah, the glass ceiling will still be there, but oh, how much you will make your male counterparts squirm, realizing that the ceiling is nothing more than their invention and that with women like you around, that invention won't exist for much longer.
If you are married, you probably (although not necessarily) wore a nice dress for your wedding. Maybe you were a bridesmaid or a guest at someone else's wedding. Maybe you were invited to some other black tie occasion at one time or another, at which point you felt completely flustered because you never dress up.
"I don't have anywhere to wear an evening dress." "We don't really get out that much." "Isn't all evening wear uncomfortable? I wouldn't even know where to start!" Well, whose fault is it? Do you not get out because you don't want to, or because you don't think you could ever look good enough for an upscale place or a super-formal occasion?
Find something... Even if you live in a very small town, there is something going on somewhere, and it is frequently publicized on the Internet. Benefits, concerts, plays, recitals, themed parties - there is an event out there, just dying for you to show up as a complete glamor queen.
Not all formal wear is uncomfortable, nor does it have to be black. Try different colors, try different fabrics (satin is sexier and more versatile than velvet, by the way), try patterns, try textures - just try. As with skirts and dresses, explore a bunch of options until you hit something that makes you go, "Wow! Is that really me in the mirror?!" We all deserve to be fairy princesses from time to time, so why deprive yourself of your chance?
...On the other hand, sometimes some of us fall into another extreme, by getting so encased in their designer clothes, shoes and bags, that they have a breakdown whenever they break a nail or lose a bead off their cashmere sweater in limited-edition hot pink.
Set aside some time with the specific purpose of not taking yourself too seriously. Whatever you do with that time - it cannot be work-related or a chore. It must be messy and fun. A paintball fight... A giant cooking session using every pot and pan in your kitchen... Trying your hand at painting or claywork... Going to the beach with your girlfriends and building a 10:1 scale naked sand sculpture of Hugh Jackman... Anything that allows you to wear overalls, get incredibly dirty and have the most side-splitting laugh of your life.
You do that sort of thing minimum once a year, you suddenly realize that being two days behind on your dusting is really not the end of the world.
Nature is amazing, don't you think? It never takes a break. It never complains about being too thin or too fat. It just keeps on growing things, reviving things, creating things, while remaining beautiful and ever-changing. Obviously, we don't have all the power of creation at our fingertips to pull off this stunt, but we can still take time and admire all things natural.
Even if you live in a big concrete jungle of a city, there must be a place somewhere - a park, a garden, or at the very least a flower pot - that you can take time to watch and enjoy and revel in, because of how perfect and beautiful it is seemingly without any effort at all.
I know my appreciation of nature increased ten-fold, when I became seriously involved in photography, which forced me to be still and observe things, look at them closely, and admire them from a variety of distances and angles. Zooming in on the heart of an orchid... Discovering a deeper color in the petal of a hibiscus flower... Looking into the eyes of a hummingbird... That's meditation. Give it a try.
Oh, dear, the S word... When I was dating my first serious boyfriend, I remarked at one point that , considering what a troublesome baby I turned out to be, I hoped that my parents at least had a good time making me. Boy, the argument we had over that one! He was appalled that I could even think about my parents in those terms, and I, for the life of me, couldn't understand why I shouldn't have thought of them that way considering I knew for a fact that I was their kid (just look at the pictures), and they had to have had sex in order to have me.
If you have been in a relationship for a while, the question of sex becomes challenging and confusing, especially if you have a child or children. When to have it? How to make sure the kids don't walk in on you? Does making an effort to be sexy and to set an atmosphere even matter, considering you are together anyway, and have been that way for a long time, so it's not like there are any surprises there?
As far as kids are concerned, the best advice I've ever found comes from Trinny and Susannah Take on America by Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine. They suggest that, once your kids are out of their baby years and are familiar with the concept of bedtime, you should feel free to pull a fast one on them every once in a while: set all the clocks in the house an hour ahead, and send the little buggers to bed early to have that precious "you" time.
As for other matters... Well... What is your bedroom like? Is it your private sanctuary off limits to anyone else but you and your partner, unless it's an emergency? Is it sumptuous, cozy, relaxing and generally everything your haven should be? Or is it flooded with kids' toys, dog toys, stray socks, unread magazines and catalogs, odd bits of work-related paperwork you brought home and other things that have nothing to do with sleep or sex? (Let's face it - sleep has to be in there somewhere because, as Robert Heinlein pointed out, "bed is a multifunctional piece of furniture".)
If the latter is the case, then maybe you and your partner need to have a Bedroom Consortium and determine how you can bring your space back to being yours. Isn't it bad enough that the rest of the house has been taken over by your kids' stuff ever since they were babies? You deserve to re-take ownership of at least one room, and considering that it is your relationship we are trying to spice up here, it can't be your home office or his workshop - it has to be someplace that both of you can enjoy, ergo the bedroom.
This need not be a multi-thousand (or even multi-hundred) dollar renovation. Certainly do peruse magazines and catalogs for ideas, if you yourself are decoratively challenged (I can completely relate). Soft Surroundings in particular has lovely bedroom spreads that could give you some great thoughts about colors and textures you could employ. Brylane Home isn't bad either - and a lot less expensive to boot.
Take a weekend to clean the place up (your partner needs to be involved too - because this is a project for both of you), and keep it neat. Consider that picking up five small things once a day is a lot easier than picking up thirty-five small things at the end of the week. Once you can see the room that you have unearthed from under all the stuff, see what magic you can work with the ideas you got and with your local discount stores like Ross, T. J. Maxx and Marshall's.
Do make sure to reach some type of consensus with your partner before you settle on a color and pattern scheme. You might want to swath it in pink and purple gauze with sparkles a la Turkish harem, but that might seriously frighten your partner, because he might feel as if he landed in the middle of a Barbie explosion. Consider earthtones, or darker richer colors like royal blue, forest green and burgundy that are more likely to appeal to both men and women.
Once you have the right environment, in which to celebrate your romance, you will suddenly realize that dressing up in sexy lingerie or lacy Victorian-style nightgowns doesn't feel so silly after all. In fact, old overstretched leggings and worn-out t-shirts will feel out of place - and that is not a bad thing.
Peruse Hips and Curves, Agent Provocateur and Victorian Trading for lingerie and nightwear ideas. Erotic wear has evolved far beyond the somewhat tawdry offerings of Frederick's of Hollywood and Adam & Eve. Options for classy, sophisticated, sensual women are out there for you, so that you can be a bedroom siren without any risk of appearing cheap or slutty.
While you are on a lookout for some interesting bedroom wear options for yourself, look to see what is available for your gentleman. I am not talking about leopard print thongs or microbriefs with red lips all over them. But satin pajamas or silk boxers? You'd be surprised how interesting that could get.
If you are afraid that your sexy surprise might come across too silly to your partner, well, forgo the surprise part and just agree on having a bedroom date, for which you will be appropriately dressed (and by you I mean both of you). Put on your seductive finery, walk into your beautiful private space, and see what happens.
Images courtesy of Fashion Bug, Victorian Trading, Hips and Curves, Maria K.