03/25/2014 05:41 EDT | Updated 05/25/2014 05:59 EDT

Why Women Still Suffer From the Ally McBeal Effect

Unless you have been living under a rock, you have probably heard something about the current debate about whether women today can, "have it all." I have not yet read Lean In, or any of the other books stirring up the debate, but my general feeling is that women have no doubt made huge strides in the last few decades towards equality even if we still have a very... very... very long way to go.

I am not going to directly address the motherhood versus career issue, but instead discuss another area that I feel has been swept under the carpet a bit: the Beauty Myth. If you were born in the 70s like I was, you probably remember Naomi Wolf's ground-breaking book, The Beauty Myth, or you are familiar with the works of Susan Faludi and some of the other feminist writers from the 80s and 90s who challenged the objectification of women, the focus on our appearances and the unrealistic standards of beauty to which we are held. I still remember the inspiration and optimism I felt when I read Wolf's work: I truly believed we were on our way to a better place. But I was wrong.

I call it the Ally McBeal effect. Of course, I can't prove an actual connection, but I know that somewhere around the time Ally McBeal aired (1997), we took a major step backwards when it comes to the Beauty Myth. In case you are not familiar, Ally McBeal was television show created by David E. Kelley, that aired on Fox for 5 seasons. It was a legal dramedy starring some impossibly beautiful female lawyers portrayed by Calista Flockhart, Courtney Thorne-Smith, Portia de Rossi and Lucy Liu (and some goofy male ones).

Between the first season and the second season, Flockhart, who starred as Ally McBeal, transformed from extremely thin to ridiculously skinny. Her weight-loss made waves. The media accused her of being anorexic, but she denied everything. The other actresses also seemed to start shrinking. A few years ago, de Rossi published a book about her experiences, Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain, detailing the eating disorder she developed while working on the set. I have also read articles that suggest after the show was cancelled, Flockhart went so far as to admit that she may have been exercising a bit too much and eating not quite enough at that time.

Regardless of what was going on behind the scenes of this particular show, there was a bigger change, also noted by social critics at the time: all of a sudden the impossible standards of thinness, already imposed on fashion models, began to be imposed on female actors. Just compare Jennifer Aniston and Courtney Cox in the first versus last seasons of Friends. They both shrunk significantly!

In 2014, nothing has changed. Despite all the talk over the past several decades, models and actresses are still skinnier than is possible without going to extremes for most folks in the developed world. Most of the rest of us, in fact, are moving in the opposite direction. We now discuss obesity, ad nauseam, but eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia no longer seem to be on anyone's radar as a major concern.

What's more, not only do females today have to be skinny (with big boobs), we also have to look 25 even if we are 55. Recently, a picture of a 60-year-old bikini-clad Christie Brinkley graced the cover of People Magazine. In the photo, Brinkley looks exactly as she did 30 years ago! What is she, made out of chewing gum?

I think what has been missing from the debate about whether women can be mothers and still rule the boardroom is that we are not just expected to put in the same amount of work in the office, and still more at home, we also have to find the time to go to the gym, pull on skin-tight shape wear, prepare gluten-free, carb-free, Paleo, blah, blah, meals, get Botox, gel manicures, and buy expensive serums, lotions, and potions proven to even out our complexion, hide fine lines, and reduce sagging. This all tends to interfere with one's 12-hour workday and 24-hour parenting duties.

As former Alberta Premier Alison Redford, recently discovered, women, unlike men, also have to be nice. Well you know what? Sometimes one gets grumpy when one is hungry, tired and having difficulty breathing because one's organs have been squeezed into what are essentially modern-day corsets and things the fashion industry calls shoes, but are really torture devices.

Throw in the issue of violence against women (rape was recently glorified by students on several university campuses, for goodness sakes!), and you have a world where gender equality is pretty darn impossible.

So can women have it all? No. Not if ALL means looking like Jennifer Aniston, being CEO of a blue chip company, and being an involved/selfless/nurturing/breast-feeding-while-not-showing-our-breasts parent without the help of a team of paid employees. All this saddens me, as I have two young daughters who will inevitably be exposed, and affected, by these absurd ideals.

I am not, by the way, blaming men. While they are not subjected to the same impossible aesthetic ideals (although yes, I know men are starting to feel more pressure), I don't believe it is a conspiracy. Much of it is fuelled by greed from the beauty and diet industry preying off our insecurities. Many women also feel more pressure to conform to these ideals from other women than from men. But there is no doubt that fat, unattractive, old women are largely invisible in our culture, and they face biases and discrimination based on their appearance to a larger degree than do men. If we are to get ahead in the public sphere, our appearances, unfortunately, matter. We cannot have it all based on what ALL currently means. We've come a long way baby, but we still have a lot further to go.


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