Thursday, April 20, 2006

Two different ears, two different stories

Today in the Starting Over house, the women -- and we millions of women watching, for some reason!, at home -- learned two very different lessons. One young woman, let's call her A., the latest addition to the group, got a intense lesson about fiscal responsibility. Her debt has been mounting for years until at last it's swamped her: she can't rent apartments, she can't get a job, and she owes a total of $24,000. Life Coach Iyanla fashioned obstructive bracelets out of fake credit cards, each of which represents a bill A. hasn't paid.

Meanwhile, Z., a long-time resident of the Starting Over house, is about to graduate. Yay for Z.! She's learned to hug. (I'm not kidding -- apparently her mother once accused her of trying to seduce her father, and it scarred her to the extent that she couldn't comfortably touch anyone, even family members.) To celebrate her growth, a Style and Beauty Expert appears in the House. The Style & Beauty Expert takes one look at Z.'s casual hairstyle and worn out, bland outfit and diagnoses her.

"Honey," says Style and Beauty expert, "you are a victim of the C-word. Comfort." (At this point, the other women make low, agreeing "mm-mm" noises as though they were in church and the pastor invoked turning one's back on sin.) "The truth is, nothing's more comfortable than being beautiful."

Score one for -- what? I'm not sure. The Style & Beauty Expert takes Z. on the reality TV whirlwind makeover tour of a clothing shop, salon, and dematologist's chair. As the dermatologist peels the dead skin off of Z., she says encouragingly, "This doesn't hurt, right? So you should do this all the time! Because you're worth it."

Amazingly, L'Oreal is NOT a sponsor of this program; but the effectiveness of its advertising has clearly infiltrated everyone on the show. "Because you're worth it" is a mantra all the women repeat as Z. is treated like Dorothy in Emerald City. She says it too.

Meanwhile, back in the House, A. is still putting her past in order. What did she spend the $24K on? She can't even remember. Why did she spend it? Oh, that she recalls: she felt entitled. She wanted "pearls, diamonds. To look cute," as she puts it. Ominous music plays.

A financial counselor visits A. and talks to her about how rich people, middle class, and poor people spend their money differently. Immediately A. tenses up. "I don't like people telling me to live within my means," she says. More ominous music. Oy.

Here we have it friends, perfectly captured in a half-hour of televised entertainment, the eternal conundrum women in this country face. Look cute! You're worth it, and anyway, it's your responsibility! Go ahead and get that microdermabrasion, or credit card, or pretty green dress and heels. Simply being comfortable means you're not doing your part to be a fully realized woman, and it probably also means your mother did wicked Freudian stuff to you as a child.
-- But wait, don't overspend, don't get that credit card. Actually you're not entitled to any of that shit and you need to put fiscal responsibility ahead of personal attractiveness. Come on, what's the matter with you? You're acting like a selfish kid.

I personally am so frightened by both of these extremes, or rather of the judgement that seems to accompany them, that I spend almost nothing. Money sits in my bank account, growing at its incremental rate, and I watch it from afar wondering at what point I'll reach the point where I can relax. For this I am rewarded: my parents tell me I can handle money. It would be funny if it weren't so sad.

Women seem to very rarely receive any constructive advice on how to handle money. They're told only that they should spend and spend and spend, but not too much and, somehow, wisely. Maybe men aren't treated better, maybe it just seems that way to me; certainly I've heard that no one in America knows how to save anymore.

I do have to say though after watching this episode I feel better about setting up that IRA.

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