Sunday, February 11, 2007

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological term which describes the uncomfortable tension that comes from holding two conflicting thoughts at the same time. More precisely, it is the perception of incompatibility between two cognitions, where "cognition" is defined as any element of knowledge, including attitude, emotion, belief, or behavior.

The theory of cognitive dissonance states that contradicting cognitions serve as a driving force that compels the mind to acquire or invent new thoughts or beliefs, or to modify existing beliefs, so as to reduce the amount of dissonance (conflict) between cognitions. Wikipedia

Nancy Pelosi, a 66 year old grandmother who has become the first female Speaker of the United States House of Representatives.

A 62 year old grandmother who posed nude for a billboard in Times Square.

I heartily commend the Dove pro-age campaign using “real” women in their ads rather than professional models and I believe their slogan that “Beauty has no age limit.” I answer, “Yes!” to their question, “Can a woman be beautiful at any age?” They also ask, “What’s better than knowing you’re beautiful?” (My answer to that will take another blog!)

I think the problem is that we are establishing an ideal of physical beauty for older women (just as we have always done for younger women) that most older women will not be able to achieve. Some people age well, others don’t.

I am also wondering if we will soon see a billboard with the photo of an older man nude in Times Square. Or watch a TV program about men who look young for their age and discuss how they should dress and wear their hair and make-up in order to look their best.

This is perhaps a sensitive issue for me because I was the daughter of a mother who was truly beautiful. Family, friends and strangers would often comment on the beauty of my mother and then remark on how much I looked like my father. My father was a nice looking man but I couldn’t envision him as a beautiful woman. I adored my Daddy and was always proud to be like him but I wanted to look like my mother. I grew up in an era when beauty was a great asset to a woman. (I think it still is.) More important than being intelligent, having an education or being athletic. There were exceptions, of course. But the exceptions were so exceptional that they weren’t really role models for most of us. In the 40’s and early 50’s most women grew up to be wives and mothers and everyone knew that boys and men fell in love with the pretty girls.

The pretty girls were the popular girls, pursued by the football players. Football players were the popular guys and they went out with the popular girls. Occasionally they would date an “attractive” girl, attractive being a euphemism for those girls who weren’t actually pretty but weren’t actually ugly either and had something else to recommend them. Sometimes they were “cute” or “sweet.” Another euphemism. For girls, physical looks and social status were the main criteria for determining who was popular and who wasn’t. For boys, it was social status and athletic prowess.

I was a wife with four children when I read Betty Freidan’s “The Feminine Mystique” published in 1963. The book spoke to me powerfully and, although I never burned a bra, I became an ardent champion of women’s rights. The right of women to have the same opportunities that men enjoyed. Now, over forty years later I have witnessed many women becoming the “first woman” to do or become many new things. I wept when Andrea Lee Hollen, USMA 1980, graduated from the United States Military Academy, the first woman to do so. I wept when the first women were ordained as priests. I wept as I watched Barbara Harris become the first woman consecrated as a bishop. Most recently I wept when Katharine Jefferts Schori became the first woman elected as Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the USA, the first female primate in the Anglican communion. I weep with pride and joy and because my daughters, granddaughters and my great granddaughter can choose to pursue dreams that I never dreamed possible. In 1974 at the age of 40 I went back to college to complete a degree that I had put on hold when I married. Several of my friends did the same and we all pursued professional careers and, at the time, that was considered sort of daring. Older women returning to school.

So, here we are. A 62-year-old grandmother in the nude on a huge billboard in Times Square. Annie Liebovitz took the photo and it is a beautiful photo. But I don’t know how I feel. I’m not sure what I think. Is this progress for women?


  1. Hi Dona, we'll see if my comments get thru. I remember when you first took up the computer, and I was already putzing around on it. I 'm still putzing, and boy, look at you now, girl. My coming of age book was "I'd Run Away from Home, but I'm afraid of crossing the street". I read it about the same time as you read yours. I think I was in Council Bluffs, Iowa, expecting baby #2. I actually found it again at the OG book sale. Well, your article is very well timed. I just read the Dove ad today for the first time. It is so great that even magazines are beginning to realize that women over 60 do still exist. Well, maybe just beginning. Love, Gloria

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