This week I came across an article about how Gloria Steinem weighed in on Miley Cyrus’ incredible shrinking costumes in her ‘Wrecking Ball’ video and her VMA award appearance. Gloria’s point was that our society is the problem, rather than Miley’s poor choices. “But that’s the way the culture is. I think that we need to change the culture, not blame the people that are playing the only game that exists,” she said. Huffington Post went on to state, “we’re even more glad to see Steinem’s comment as the last word on this matter.”
That’s the only game that exists? The only way a young woman can get noticed, or get ahead is to get naked and have sex with a wrecking ball and Beetlejuice? Gloria, I love you, but no. (See what I did there? I didn’t let it be the last word on this matter.) How about succeeding in a different way?
I managed to major in 3 subjects and graduate in 4 years, get accepted to and graduate from medical school, complete two internships, a prestigious residency, and an even more prestigious fellowship without ever once sleeping with a professor or appearing naked in public–except for that one time my skirt was tucked up in the back of my pantyhose but that’s a different story. What was my secret, if sex appeal is the only way to win the game? I worked my ass off.
I didn’t date or party in college. I worked. I was told I wouldn’t have time to triple major and graduate in four years and that I would not be likely to attend the med school of my dreams by an adviser who then patted me on the butt. I knew he was wrong because a male student had recently done just what I was proposing. So I ignored my adviser and did it too. I learned to stay out of arm’s reach with the butt-patters and to cheerfully embarrass the would-be harassers. It turns out that men will control themselves beautifully if they think they are in danger of being laughed at.
I didn’t get married or feather my nest in my 20’s, and I didn’t backpack across Europe. I stayed up all night every 3rd or 4th night on call for 5 years. I read hundreds of thick books filled with five dollar words, and weekly journal articles filled with $25 words. I studied for my boards and passed them because I got the answers right, not because I looked cute in my suit. I know this is true, because I wrote two of my board exams, and I was pregnant and not exactly looking my hottest during both oral exams.
I stayed up late and got up early. Just like everyone else in medicine. But it’s not just medicine where hard work leads to success. Taylor Swift is a gifted and attractive entertainer and I like her songs. But I think that Miley Cyrus is a better singer and a naturally prettier person. Yet Taylor Swift is phenomenally successful, and she doesn’t have a problem keeping her tongue inside her mouth for the whole song. Sheryl Sandberg is the COO of Facebook. She worked and negotiated for it. She didn’t sleep with Mark Zuckerberg. She even wrote a book about how she played the game to help other young women play too. I have girl crushes on many women who succeeded with effort and talent, such as Elizabeth Warren, Cecile Richards, Wendy Davis, Meryl Streep, Arianna Huffington, Lisa Bloom and more colleagues in medicine than I can count. Yes, attractiveness has contributed to the success of some of these women, just as it contributes to the success of some men. But all of them managed to shine without making fools of themselves on construction equipment. For Gloria Steinem to say that the only way a woman can succeed is with her sex appeal is to give up on all the wonderful work she and other brave women like her have done. Sorry, Gloria, but I’m not ready to surrender that yet.