Before things get too toxic, I want to say that, honestly, I love looking at stylish women in catalogs. As a child, I spent long hours perusing the women's apparel section in a Penney's catalogue. (Especially, ahem, the intimate apparel).
Although I've never ordered a stitch of women's clothing, I enjoy the images, especially the way editors and photographers trace out narratives in the better ones. To this day, in waiting rooms, I'll often take a Lands' End over Newsweek. Why? Because it's soothing and vaguely reassuring. You know, it's summer, somewhere, the Hamptons haven't been washed away yet and women resemble the young Andie MacDowell. All is right with the world.
But lately, I've been feeling really unmoored, longing for family folks marking the moments of their lives in a corny old catalog. Instead of healthy girls and happy women looking poised and relaxed, I'm seeing ladies climbing up sheer rock cliffs and doing headstands. They are beaming, resplendent, radiant, and men are nowhere to be found they are the women of Title Nine.
Named for the 1972 law mandating gender equality in education, the company, based in Berkeley, Calif., is a retailer of women's athletic apparel, through its distinctive mail-order catalog. Their booklets show page after page of fit, active, overachieving women, with brief bios on their jobs as environmental lawyers or marine biologists. It's tempting to say they are "real women" wearing Title Nine clothing, in the sense that they have "real jobs" and "real stories." But they are so not real. They're tripping through verdant mountain paths, surfing in Hawaii, running their own businesses, and still finding time to read the great Russian novels and learn obscure healing traditions. They are grown-up Moosejaw girls who have come into their own or have at least come into their trust funds. No undernourished, emaciated teenagers here if only the challenge were that simple. It's not enough to be thin; you need to grow up, get a yoga body, a small business and a modest California house.
It's exciting to see a retailer reject old-fashioned assumptions about women. Unfortunately, here they've embraced a set of tougher, more unrealistic assumptions instead. Forget worrying about your waistline, ladies: Have you finished your fucking dissertation yet? What are you doing to save the environment? Take these samples:
"Whether she's working to protect native endangered plant species or traveling to New Zealand to teach the art of lomi-lomi massage, Ane is 100 percent Hawaiian inspired."
"A civil engineer who splits her time between Alaska and Hawaii, an Ironman triathlete and gourmet cook."
Notice how none of these women is going into the ghetto to teach English or working part time as a bartender to finish grad school? Or having too much wine and puking at Red Lobster? They're healthy and have interesting jobs. They're crawling over marinas and college campuses.
In fact, the tactful reader suspects a bit of résumé-padding. Not mere legal researchers, entrepreneurs, pilots or botanists; they're high-flying, high-earning and hyphenated "legal researcher-entrepreneurs" or "botanist-artists," seemingly capable of holding advanced yoga poses with dignified calm.
In fact, one thing these women don't do much of in the catalog is work. Somehow they're able to have "big city" jobs in small towns near Lake Tahoe, where they go jogging, fly fish, kayak, groom horses and snack on fruit, activities that go well with a $40 "vitality" T-shirt, a $39 limestone skort and $89 apricot survivor sandals.
Remember, ladies, to spend your money with a clear conscience. It would be vulgar to splurge on a stylish, eye-catching hat, but it's OK to debit $80 on "just-right cycling" shorts, if you're going to be charging through mountain streams on your BMX.Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]