Bases Loaded

Real life in real time.

Women, Weight and Work: What do we really value?

The perks of being a thin woman.

Thanks to women like Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug, we female baby boomers came of age educated, braless, and emboldened to become politicians, playwrights, CEOs or, in my case, journalists. We were determined to be more than someone's pretty plaything, and we certainly weren't going to starve ourselves to please men. We looked down on the chauvinistic construction workers who greeted our morning commutes with catcalls.

Most of my female Yale classmates did become successful. We had prestigious jobs, often along with marriages and children. It's not that we didn't care about our looks, but we defined ourselves by our work. Still, as the years passed, the time came when a particularly beautiful friend called me and said, "It happened. I was in exercise class and there were these women who looked better than I did. Not because they were born prettier, but simply because they were younger, and their waistlines were trimmer." The construction workers whistled less often. We wore cover-ups by the pool, even in the shade.

We told ourselves that our expanding waistlines were the inevitable result of having children and entering middle age. We tried to distance ourselves from the media onslaught of ever slimmer women smiling at us everywhere we looked. As Americans got fatter, it became even more desirable to be thin. But that didn't matter: We boomers had our work--our important work--and that was a truer measure of our worth than our weight.

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And then the work stopped. The baby boomers got slammed in the current recession. Totally without warning, I was one of those who got swept up in the wave of buy-outs and layoffs, losing a job I'd done successfully for more than 20 years. We thought we were stars in our professions, and perhaps we were, but we were also expendable.

Without my job and the income that went with it, I became consumed with worry. Aside from the obvious financial worries, I worried about who I really was. No longer a high profile journalist, I was, in fact, no different than any other middle-aged, slightly overweight woman living in the suburbs, picking up her daughter from school. My sense of self-worth plummeted, and I couldn't sleep or eat at all.

Yes, that's right, I couldn't eat. The weight I thought was a result of middle age dropped off. The muffin top--gone. The slightly double chin--gone. When I ran into some former colleagues, I dreaded the looks of pity I expected to see in their eyes. Instead, their first words were "you look great!" and some even seemed envious. I was forced to buy new clothes and I discovered that yes, you can wear skinny jeans after 40.

As I became slimmer, the everyday world became friendlier. People started smiling at me more, and men became flirtatious. Construction workers sometimes glanced my way again. No one seemed to care what my job was or wasn't. Instead of my status going down, it seemed to go up, socially at least. It had been a while since I knew what it felt like to be a "pretty woman." It felt good - but should it?

What does it say about our society that so many decades after women's liberation, a woman's looks, and especially her weight, are more important than ever? Women buy magazines filled with articles on dieting and looking pretty, with an occasional article on getting ahead at work...including what to wear while doing it. Young women routinely wear size zeros, a size (if zero is a size) I don't think they even made when I was in my twenties.

It bothers me that it's not as important for men to be thin. I see plenty of middle-aged guys with flabby bellies, but they're not treated as if they're invisible, especially if they have good jobs. I've also heard men make unkind remarks when a slightly overweight woman walks by, even if she's less overweight than they are. 

Even so, I admit that I like the newfound attention I am getting, as I sit by the pool without a cover-up, in a bathing suit that isn't black. But I'd still rather have my job.

Catherine Olian is an award-winning journalist and a former producer with 60 Minutes.

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