Will you hate me if I tell you I own two pairs of Christian Louboutin shoes?
Will you like me more if I tell you that each time I bought a pair I worried that I couldn’t afford them?
Would you keep reading if you thought I was wearing a size 2 Marc Jacobs dress as I type this? Or would I be more likeable if it were a size 12 dress from J.Crew? Or what if I told you that I’m writing this in my nightie and slippers at my home computer with my hair in a ratty ponytail?
I ask you because the sisterhood can be more perilous than lunchtime in a high-school hallway. It’s not a sisterhood, really. It’s a snicker-hood. Lord help me if I decide to give other women advice – about work, motherhood, anything – while looking great in designer clothes with nicely blown-out hair. Fashion is often characterized as unifying entertainment – the female version of the Super Bowl – but it can be divisive, too.
The irony is rich. Fashion magazines display beautiful images of thin, gorgeous models in expensive dresses, which we emulate, imagining a better self. But if a real-life woman looks fabulous in her designer clothes, we do one of two things. If she doesn’t have salaried work and is married to a wealthy man, we tend to question her relevance. And if she’s a powerful business woman, who has style, big dough, a great husband and kids? We put her down for being elitist and sanctimonious, especially if she’s brave enough to give advice on how to get where she is.
The envy – because it is envy – prods its dark twin, resentment.
It was the Sheryl Sandberg pile-on that set off this column. Just have a look at the commentary that has circulated about the COO of Facebook, whose new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, was published earlier this month. She and her message about how women can help themselves in the workplace have been accused of being out of touch with ordinary women. Her seemingly magazine-perfect lifestyle only fuels the criticism.
In 2010, after she had joined Facebook as second in command behind Mark Zuckerberg, she was profiled in Vogue. Looking gorgeous in a red, sleeveless body-con dress, the now 43-year-old mother of two was described in the piece at her home, tucking her children into bed, then emerging after 10 minutes to answer her door, dressed in a Calvin Klein dress and black Prada ankle boots.
That description in Vogue was used as fodder in a scathing column about Sandberg’s new book by Maureen Dowd in the New York Times. “She has a grandiose plan to become the PowerPoint Pied Piper in Prada ankle boots, reigniting the women’s revolution,” Dowd sniped. Joanne Bamberger in USA Today said Sandberg was adding to women’s guilt over not acting with enough ambition. “Sandberg’s argument ... just requires women to pull themselves up by the Louboutin straps,” she wrote. High-end fashion was the weapon used to take her down a notch. As Anna Holmes observed in the The New Yorker, “Criticism presented her as a superficial, fashion-obsessed Marie Antoinette muscling her way into a milieu she didn’t belong to and couldn’t possibly understand.” Do men diss their powerful brethren for their Gucci suits if they dare to give career advice? Don’t think so.
Apart from the facile put-down about fashion, I was distressed by the smallmindedness of the Sandberg backlash. Why is the solidarity of the sisterhood sacred until one member gets what someone else wanted but couldn’t have or, more likely, realized she didn’t want? Are we so insecure about our own choices that we have to attack women who make different ones?
If you read Sandberg’s book, you’ll see how carefully she picks her way through the minefield, acknowledging that not all women want the same thing, that whatever a woman chooses in terms of career and family is fine and valuable. And several times, she lays bare her own insecurities, missteps and struggles, including pregnancy sickness, crying at work and secretly pumping her breast milk while on conference calls. She keeps pointing to her feet of clay even if they’re sporting red soles.
It’s true that the paucity of women at the top of the corporate world is not all a matter of ambition; it’s about the structure and environment of companies. Sandberg says there’s work to be done in that area, but she also wants to help women ascend the corporate ladder, or climb through its jungle gym, as she calls it. Learn to negotiate for better salaries, she urges. (She didn’t always.) Sit at the table with the men during meetings rather than taking a seat on the sidelines, as she once did, too. Don’t shy away from promotions just because you think you’ll want children one day. Don’t underplay your talent just to be liked.
My take on her advice? When an elite tells the rest of us how it works, lap it up. There are unspoken rules in the living rooms and boardrooms of the rich and powerful. Wouldn’t you want to know what they are?
Besides, we should be able to open our minds to the reality that everyone, despite lifestyle or income, has a struggle of some sort. Life isn’t perfect, as Sandberg herself points out. From my own experience, I know this. And I also know that the more aware you are of your own shortcomings and the more open you are to constructive criticism, the more likely you will be to have your own satisfying version of the big, beautiful juggle.
But you don’t have to take my advice, especially today.
I’ve got my wicked thighhigh boots on.