Barnard President: Today's 'Wonder Women' Must Reframe Feminism
Originally published on Mon September 16, 2013 4:06 pm
There was a time when Debora Spar was used to being the only woman in the room. As a professor at Harvard Business School, she was surrounded by what she describes as "alpha men of the academic sort — men with big egos and big attitudes and an awful lot of testosterone."
Then, in 2008, she found herself in the opposite situation: She became the president of Barnard College, the women's college affiliated with Columbia University, where "there was barely a male in sight."
Spar's new book is Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection. In it, she calls for a new feminist agenda, though she is quick to admit that she wasn't interested in feminism when she was young, and managed to get through college without taking a single women's studies class. Her book draws on her own experiences as a professor, a mother of three and a wife of 25 years.
She tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross about the misinterpretation of feminism by a younger generation, and the pressures women face.
On the idea of having it all
The image I had ... was perhaps this trivial one, but it was important to me. It was the image of that Charlie perfume commercial that played all of the time on television when I was growing up. And it was the image of the Charlie girl — who was this exquisite woman played by Shelley Hack — who was clearly going off to some kind of very exciting professional job. She had a beautiful pantsuit on, and a beautiful briefcase. And some of the ads also showed her going out after work with very attractive men, and some of the ads showed her holding a very beautiful little child by the hands.
So it conveyed this image — and I've subsequently realized that a lot of women my age had the same experience with this ad — it conveyed this image of this sort of effortless combination of work and motherhood and sexuality and professionalism and ease. The Charlie ads, and essentially a lot of the media that we were bombarded with in the 1970s, really showed these effortless images of women combining the traditional lives of women as wives and mothers, with this new, exciting reality of being astronauts and astrophysicists and pretty much anything they wanted to be.
On how feminism got misinterpreted by a younger generation of women
I think what happened was that feminism was really a revolutionary movement, and like all revolutionary movements, it wasn't about personal satisfaction or personal success. It was a social movement. It was about civil rights; it was about expanding access; it was about bringing fully half of the population into society with all of the rights and responsibilities that men had.
And somewhere along the line ... the message of feminism got watered down and misinterpreted. It's easy to blame the media for doing that, it's easy to blame people like me who somehow heard the message but didn't get it; but women of my generation and younger — not all of us, but many of us, I think — really saw feminism as a battle that was over because we were the lucky recipients of the victory. ...
If we hadn't read the textbooks, if we hadn't participated in the marches, what we were getting was watered-down Charlie feminism, which is about this fantasy, this idea that we can have it all, that we can be everything. And I think once you start marching down that track it's very easy to turn inward. Rather than seeing the opportunities that feminism created ... they very easy morph into expectations.
It drains the energy out of the broader social goals, and it makes women nuts.
On the new feminist agenda
There's an interesting semantic shift going on. I think there's a lot of focus right now on women's leadership and on diversity, and many of the items that fall under those umbrellas would have fallen equally under feminism, they've just shifted the names a bit. I think we need to continue some of feminism's earlier fights. We still don't have good child care in this country. We know we still don't have pay equity. ... We still don't have support networks for working families.
On the pressure women face to be attractive and impressive
Just pick up any magazine off the shelves: Women are expected to be beautiful and sexy and to revel in those things really from the time they're quite young to the time they're quite old. That expectation is just out there. It's in the ether; it's in the music we listen to; it's in the books we read. I think it's unrealistic to assume that just because a woman shows up in a business school or on a trading floor or for an internship that somehow those other pressures are going to go away. So women really are feeling the pressure to be hugely successful professionally, and really sexy and attractive, in addition to being good mothers and everything else.
On sharing the story of her struggle with anorexia
I think once anyone gets caught up in anorexia, it's very hard to retain a sense of logic. Most anorexics are so skinny that they can't possibly be attractive. ... You lose your sense of perspective, and that's really the tragedy there.
I think by telling my story — and the fact that I clearly got over it, I'm clearly not skinny anymore — I can at least put that out there as something that might give my students and other young women a different model to think about, to realize that the key to success is not by starving yourself.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. There was a time when my guest was used to being the only woman in the room. As a professor at Harvard Business School, Debora Spar was surrounded by what she describes as alpha men of the academic sort, men with big egos and big attitudes and an awful lot of testosterone.
But then she found herself in the opposite situation when in 2008 she became the president of Barnard College, the women's college affiliated with Columbia University, where there was, she says, barely a male in sight. She reflects on some of the similarities and differences between men and women in her new book "Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection."
Although she calls for a new feminist agenda in the book, she's quick to admit that she wasn't interested in feminism when she was young and managed to get through college without taking a single women's studies class. Her book draws on her own experiences as a professor and mother of three who's been married for 25 years.
Debora Spar, welcome to FRESH AIR.
DEBORA SPAR: Thank you, it's a pleasure to be here.
GROSS: So your book starts with you five weeks after giving birth to your second baby. You're in a yucky airport ladies room on the way to a business meeting. You're pumping breast milk in the ladies room, and you're in your business suit with leaky breasts, and you're thinking, so I guess this is having it all. What was the revelation for you?
SPAR: Well, it's really not a very attractive image at all, I must confess, but it was one of those rare moments in life when, you know, the light bulb really does go off. And, you know, I had one of these probably pathetic smiles on my face as I realized that, you know, this was kind of the image that I'd always looked forward to and that the reality that I was living at the time was much less fascinating and fabulous than I had ever sort of imagined it would be.
GROSS: What was the image you had?
SPAR: Well, the image I had, and I talk about this a lot in the book, was perhaps this trivial one, but it was very important to me. It was the image of that Charlie perfume commercial that played all the time on television when I was growing up, and it was the image of the Charlie girl, who was this exquisite woman played by Shelley Hack, who was clearly going off to some kind of a very exciting professional job.
She had a beautiful pants suit on and a beautiful briefcase, and some of the ads also showed her, you know, going out after work with very attractive men, and some of the ads showed her holding a very beautiful little child by the hand. So it conveyed this image, and I've subsequently realized that a lot of women my age had the same experience with this ad, it conveyed this image of this sort of effortless combination of work and motherhood and sexuality and professionalism and ease.
The Charlie ads, and essentially a lot of the media that we were bombarded with in the 1970s, really showed these effortless images of women combining sort of the traditional lives of women as wives and mothers with this new, exciting reality of being astronauts and astrophysicists and pretty much anything they wanted to be.
GROSS: Two things. First is - I have to quote the ad: Kind of young, kind of now, kind of free, kind of wow. And secondly...
SPAR: It's a great line. I mean, who wouldn't want that?
GROSS: With Bobby Short singing it at the piano.
GROSS: But secondly, part of me wants to say, really? You fell for that commercial? You fell for the most...
SPAR: I totally fell for that. I totally fell for that. And I think - and I've noticed, both doing the research and talking to women, that the generations are very, very narrow at a certain point in time. So I was born in 1963. I started watching that commercial around 1973. So I was 10. You know, I wasn't a world-weary, cynical 18-year-old even. I was a 10-year-old.
And, you know, right around that time was also when "Charlie's Angels" came onto the air, "The Bionic Woman." So young girls were really bombarded with these images not of feminism per se and not of social struggles, but with this fantasy world of women combining these very, very exciting professional lives with everything else.
And yeah, I did, I totally bought it.
GROSS: Speaking of feminism, you write you grew up consciously avoiding feminism, not taking women's studies classes in college. And at some point you started to think that you needed some kind of larger framework to understand your life and the lives of other women. What was that point? When did you realize that?
SPAR: You know, I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit, it came relatively late to me. I mean I may be a slow learner. But I made it all the way through college and graduate school and the early years of my professional life without really thinking that being a woman was anything but an advantage to me.
And that moment that I describe in the book of being in the ladies room at LaGuardia Airport and trying to, you know, pump breast milk as I was rushing off to meetings, that was my first little mini-revelation. And then it was, you know, later and more slowly over the course of my life, and I was working at Harvard Business School at the time, when I realized that all the women were disappearing, that many of the women I had gone to college with were no longer in the workforce, that many of the really talented women who had been my colleagues at Harvard Business School were no longer there, and perhaps most scarily, that many of the young women I was teaching at Harvard Business School, who were very talented, very smart, were going out into the workforce but then retreating pretty quickly.
And it was really the agglomeration of those different experiences that made me realize that there really was something fundamentally different about trying to be a working woman than there was, still, trying to be a working man.
GROSS: Were they retreating from the workplace because they were raising children?
SPAR: That's generally the pattern both that I experienced and that I know now was true from the data, that it is when women become mothers, and particularly it seems when they become mothers of a second child, that they tend to either retreat or pull back from their working lives.
GROSS: You have three children. You have two sons and a daughter. And you didn't retreat. You had your first two children, who are birth children, when you were young. And then you had your third child when you were in your late 30s, I think, and you adopted her when she was six.
SPAR: I adopted my third child, yeah.
GROSS: So how come having children didn't stand in the way for you?
SPAR: Well, I think it's a combination of factors, you know, and I think the most important of which is I was lucky. You know...
GROSS: And let me ask that as a dual question. How come having this high-powered career that you have didn't stand in the way of having three children?
SPAR: Well, I think I was lucky to begin with. You know, my kids, thank goodness, were all healthy. They all were - sort of got with the program early on. So I never had the, you know, horrifically painful moments of really having to decide whether I was going to be in a position to take care of my children or continue with my career.
I was very lucky to have parents who lived relatively close by and were willing to drop everything to come help out with my kids when I had crises. I had in-laws who were willing to do the same. And one of the points I make in the book is that if you're going to try and do - you know, have both a working life and a family life, you really need family support around you, and I had that.
I think the other thing that I've reflected upon is I was actually in a career where having children was hard, but it wasn't impossible. Once upon a time I thought I was going to be a diplomat and was all set to go into the Foreign Service, and somewhere in the back of my mind I think I realized that that would have been a harder career to combine with a family and children.
Academia is not easy, but it has the great advantage of allowing you to be the master of your own time. I think women who work for law firms or consulting firms or investment banks, where they really have to be physically in the office for long, long periods of time, I don't think it's impossible for them either, but I think it's harder.
GROSS: Another question about feminism. You write: My generation made a mistake. We took the struggles and the victories of feminism and interpreted them somehow as a pathway to personal perfection. We privatized feminism and focused only on our dreams and our own inevitable frustrations. Can you expand on that for us?
SPAR: Yeah, and I'm glad you read that one because that's one of the - in my mind one of the more important sections of the book. I think what happened was that feminism was really a revolutionary movement, and like all revolutionary movements, it wasn't about personal satisfaction or personal success. It was a social movement.
It was about civil rights. It was about expanding access. It was about bringing fully half of the population into society with all of the rights and responsibilities that men had. And somewhere along the line, and it was pretty quick because I'm just a little bit younger than sort of the first feminist generation, but somewhere along the line that...
GROSS: I should say you were born in '63.
SPAR: '63, so I'm just a couple years after sort of the peak. But the message of feminism got watered down and misinterpreted. And, you know, it's easy to blame the media for doing that. It's easy to blame people like me, who somehow heard the message but didn't get it. But women of my generation and younger, not all of us but many of us, I think really saw feminism as number one a battle that was over because we were the lucky recipients of the victory, so by the time I went to college all of the Ivy League was coed, you know, there were no longer any legal restrictions on women going to schools or pretty much anywhere.
So we thought the struggle was over, and if we hadn't read the textbooks, and we hadn't participated in the marches, what we were getting was what, you know, I call this sort of watered-down Charlie feminism, which is about this fantasy, this idea that we can have it all, that we can be everything.
And I think once you sort of start marching down that track, it's very easy to turn inward, and rather than seeing the opportunities that feminism created as this, you know, just incredible set of opportunities, they very easily morph into expectations. You know, if I can be an astronaut, I should be an astronaut. If I can be a Supreme Court judge, I should be a Supreme Court judge.
And so then rather than fighting for broader social goals, it's very easy for individual women to turn inside, to turn inwards, and say gee, you know, why am I not more successful, why am I not more perfect. And that of course is really problematic.
SPAR: Well, in two regards, first of all because it drains the energy out of the broader social goals and because it makes women nuts because, you know, nobody is going to be perfect and if we set perfect and having it all as the standard, we're all going to fail all the time.
GROSS: You think we need a new feminist agenda. What do you think that agenda should be?
SPAR: Well, I think part of it is out there. I mean, there's an interesting sort of semantic shift going on. I think there's a lot of focus right now on women's leadership and on diversity, and many of the items that fall under those umbrellas I think would have fallen equally easily under feminism. They've just sort of shifted the names a bit.
But I think we need to continue some of feminism's earlier fights. We still don't have good child care in this country. We know we still don't have pay equity, although we're moving a little bit closer in that direction. We still don't have support networks for working families. You know, forget about working women, just for working families. It's well known that, you know, we fall behind many of our other Western country peers in terms of provisions for maternity, paternity and family leave, in terms of how we take care of our elderly parents and other relations.
You know, having one parent stay at home to raise a family is an inequitable distribution of labor, but it's an efficient one. It's one that works. Insofar as we've moved away from that social structure, we have to start thinking of ways to create other social structures.
And where feminism I think perhaps not so much got it wrong but may have been over-enthusiastic was in presuming that somehow men would just jump in and pick up their share. And I think men have jumped in and picked up their share, but their share's not fully 50 percent. So we have to both nudge the family situation, we have to nudge the family dynamics, we have to nudge the workplace dynamics, we have to move the governmental dynamics, which are very slow to move in this country, and somehow try to imagine a re-jiggered society where people of all genders can work and can have a family life and aren't making themselves totally miserable in the process.
GROSS: My guest is Debora Spar. Her new book is called "Wonder Women." We'll talk more after a break; this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is Debora Spar, author of the new book "Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection." She's the president of the women's college Barnard and a former professor at the Harvard Business School.
There was a recent article in the New York Times, in the Sunday New York Times, about a kind of experiment at the Harvard Business School to equal the playing field a little bit and make things more comfortable for women there and have more women professors there.
I know you've read that article, and I'm wondering what you found most interesting about the things that were tried at Harvard Business School.
SPAR: Well, I think one of the things that I found most interesting, and this may be reflecting my own, you know, personal experience of, you know, having been there and then having been thrust in an environment where I think about women's leadership all the time, is just how hard it is because it's so tempting to want to say gee, Harvard should just fix this problem, and we should make the boys behave, and we should have more junior women.
And it just turns out it's really, really hard to do. And I don't think that has much to do with any idiosyncrasies of Harvard or Harvard Business School. It's kind of, you know, sadly still the way of the world, particularly when you get into organizations that are very powerful and that are really driven by lots of smart and ambitious people.
You know, the women are having a tougher time. And I think one of the really interesting things that HBS is doing right now is that they're focusing on the nitty gritty of the problems. And this is where HBS really is - has a lot of strengths because it's full, of course, with researchers.
The article talked about training women to learn how to raise their hand, which of course sounds absurd because these are very smart, talented women, and one can presume they learned how to raise their hand a long time ago. But having been in that classroom for as many years as I was, I can really attest that that's true.
Women in the classroom, not all of them but many of them, they put up their hand more timidly. They put up their hand only when they feel they have exactly the right answer, whereas the men seem to have much less problem with just shooting their hand up whenever they, you know, sort of feel like they have something to say. And so by actually pulling the women aside and teaching them how to raise their hand, again, it sounds somewhat silly, but I think it's really starting to pay off.
I think the school is also tackling what to my mind remains a more troublesome problem, and that's the lack of female faculty members. Young women have a really tough time in the classroom at HBS, and the school is really trying to figure out how to give young faculty members, women and people of color, which the story didn't touch upon quite as much, how to give them the support and again how to train them.
And, you know, it sounds silly, but I experienced it. I came to Harvard Business School after having been a really good teacher elsewhere, and I got slammed my first year in the classroom because it's a different classroom, and I really had to learn - part of it's just the physicality of being in an amphitheater classroom with 92 people literally staring down at you with their hands in your faces. And learning to manage that environment is tough.
GROSS: When you say you got slammed in the classroom, what happened?
SPAR: Well, I got, you know, really terrible evaluations, which as a first-year professor is devastating. I had lots and lots of comments about my looks and other attributes that...
GROSS: What kind of comments about your looks?
SPAR: I'm not going to remember them or want to say them explicitly, but I had the double-whammy. I was pregnant my first year in the classroom. And I was younger than most of my students. So far from being the authority figure in the class, I was something else, and that was very hard. It's very hard to deal with personally. It's very hard to deal with professionally. And I stuck it out in large part because I had wonderful mentors who, you know, sort of swooped down and helped me.
And some of the help was just moral support, but much of it was tactical, you know, literally saying, you know, here's how close you can get to another person in class. Here's things you should say and shouldn't say. And sometimes I feel that older men in particular are reluctant to give that kind of assistance to young women because they worry that it's patronizing. They worry that it's too personal. But, you know, I credit much of my professional success to a number of older men who really helped me with kind of the nitty-gritty survival tactics that allowed me to get on with my career.
GROSS: One of the things I found really interesting about that New York Times article about trying to equal the playing field for women at Harvard Business School, there was an anecdote about, you know, women trying to be equal in the school and everything, and then there's a party, and some of the women from the business school show up in Playboy bunny costumes.
And then the question was, so what are you - how do you respond to that? And I'm wondering how - what you make of that and if that's the kind of confusing behavior that you've come up against, where, you know, women want to be equal and taken seriously, and then they'll do something that is - would be perceived by many people as being like overly sexual and also just a kind of throwback to the pre-feminist era that's not about being equal, it's about being perceived as a sexualized and only a sexualized being.
SPAR: And I think this really is indicative of a much broader problem that I don't think in any way is specific to Harvard Business School or anywhere else. I think it goes back to what I call in the book the double- or triple-whammy of expectations that women, and particularly young women, face today because it's clear. You know, just pick up any magazine off the shelves. Women are expected to be beautiful and sexy and to revel in those things really from the time they're quite young until the time they're quite old, and that expectation is just out there. It's in the ether. It's in the music we listen to. It's in the books we read.
And I think it's unrealistic to assume that just because a woman shows up in a business school or a trading floor or for an internship that somehow those other pressures are going to go away. So women really are feeling the pressure to be, you know, hugely successful professionally and really sexy and attractive, in addition to being good mothers and everything else.
And so I think to - you know, when those pressures manifest themselves in something silly like bunny suit costumes, I think it's - it's unfortunate, but it's understandable, and I think we somehow just - we have to try to lower the pressure and to kind of excuse it because men do goofy things, too.
I mean, I don't know what costumes the men showed up in for that party, but I'm guessing that they were probably pretty goofy, too, and yet we never talk about those. And I think that, too, is part of the broader problem, that we're just always focusing on professional women and something, so, and their Halloween costumes, and their child-rearing practices, and their cooking skills. We never raise those questions about professional men.
GROSS: Debora Spar will be back in the second half of the show. Her new book is called "Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Debora Spar, author of the new book "Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection." She's the president of the women's college, Barnard, and is a former professor at the Harvard Business School.
One of the things you write is about sexual attitudes that you grew up with. And you write, we had sex like men. What do you mean by that?
SPAR: Well, I was really the first generation to be brought up post-feminist with the presumption - or maybe I was the second generation - that sex wasn't something that you had to wait to enjoy until you were married. It was really a huge societal change if we think about it because throughout pretty much all of the rest of history, women were not allowed to have sex until they were married, whereas men were. And all of a sudden it became quite possible - both in terms of the social norms and in terms of birth control - for women to have sex way before they were married.
GROSS: And you write, we took the pill and had abortions but we didn't fight for reproductive rights.
SPAR: Right. And that sentence is really referring to women of my generation and younger because by the time I became a teenager, Roe v. Wade had been won, and so women of my generation didn't fight for reproductive rights because we presumed we had them. And one of the interesting things and scary things that's happening right now is much younger women - it's my students who have, you know, have always grown up presuming that they have full reproductive rights - are all of a sudden getting a little scared. And so we may in some ways be seeing a reversal of history, where younger women are now beginning again to think about fighting for reproductive rights because they're worried about having them taken away.
GROSS: In your book you describe an evening in which you brought in a group of young women for pizza and brownies and talked to them about their sex lives. These were not your students. They were not women you knew. You didn't even want to know their names so that they could talk freely. What was the point of this session?
SPAR: Well, I wanted to talk in the book about the sexual norms and the sexual expectations that young women were experiencing. And I had read all the studies and those were great, and I picked up things from my students and for my kids and their friends, but I really wanted to ask the hard questions. And because by nature the sexual questions are so awkward, I wanted to do it with a group of young women who would feel comfortable and who wouldn't worry about revealing themselves to me, or worse, that I would ever reveal their stories.
GROSS: What kind of questions did you ask them?
SPAR: I started out just basically saying, you know, would you tell me about your sex lives? And it started off very slow and stilted, as you'd imagine. But within about 15 minutes, they just kind of took off and were really telling me stories that were both, you know, sort of amusing and fascinating and at some level scary because many of these young women were very promiscuous, and some of them were happily promiscuous. But the scary ones were the ones who were very promiscuous and didn't enjoy it. And that's something that I just touch upon in the book because I wanted to underscore that. If women are part of the hookup culture and they're loving it, that's great. That's freeing. That's liberating. But if women are hooking up and having sex with people they don't know and they're not enjoying it and they're feeling empty at the end of it, I think that's a problem. And I really felt for some of these young women because it seemed to me that there was a beautiful part of life that they had somehow missed.
GROSS: And what bothers you about them doing the hookup stuff and not enjoying it is first of all, they're not enjoying it, but also are you asking yourself for whose sake are they doing this?
SPAR: Right. And of course, after they had, you know, had enough pizza and brownies and they were really becoming self-reflective, they were asking that question of themselves. And they couldn't really put their finger on why they were doing it. It was this is just sort of what happens. But given the opportunity to reflect on it, you know, a number of them were saying gee, you know, I'm not sure I want to live my life this way for much longer. You know, they all imagine themselves settling down very monogamously at some point in their lives. They just sort of couldn't imagine how they would get from their current state to that imagined place.
GROSS: When you were talking to the young women who you had assembled to, you know, interview them about their sex lives, did you talk to them about pornography in their lives and in the lives of the men that they knew and how they thought pornography was affecting their own sex lives?
SPAR: You know, I did. And I have to confess that this was one of the areas where I found myself feeling hopelessly middle-aged. These girls were watching a lot of porn. They had been watching a lot of porn for a lot of years. And because that's what they had grown up with they, you know, they couldn't compare it to anything else, but they were speculating that watching all this porn really had raised their expectations of how their sexuality should be, of how it should look, of how they should perform, and it didn't strike me as a very useful development. It really struck me, again, as a very twisted expectation that these women were falling prey to, and I suspect men as well.
GROSS: So the group of girls that we're talking about that, you know, you talked to about their sex lives, how old were they?
SPAR: They were between 19 and 24, 25.
GROSS: And when you say that they were watching a lot of pornography, were they watching it alone? Were they watching it with partners?
SPAR: To the best of my understanding, they were watching it by themselves online. I didn't push them all that hard because I think at that point I didn't really want to know that much more.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Debora Spar. She's the author of the new book "Wonder Woman: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection." She's the president of Barnard College and a former professor at the Harvard Business School.
Let's take a short break. This is FRESH Air.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Debora Spar, the president of Barnard College and the author of the new book "Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection."
And it's kind of asking like do we need a new feminist agenda? What are the issues that we have to address now so that women can have home lives with family and work lives as well.
I want to ask you about body and self image because you write personally about that. I want you to tell the story of when you were 14 and wearing a new bikini at a pool party. And you say at the time you were five foot seven, you weighed 114 pounds, and you were surprised and confused and thrilled to see your friend's father and brothers staring surreptitiously every time you jumped from the diving board. And the next day you say, I quietly started to starve myself.
And reading that, I guess I wasn't sure how to interpret it, whether you were starving yourself because you wanted to be even thinner than you were to get even more attention, or whether you were starving yourself because you thought the men and boys were seeing you as being like so sexual and that made you uncomfortable and you wanted to be less sexual. So explain that to me.
SPAR: I must confess, I can't explain that and I probably need years of therapy to try to explain it. But the best I can do is just lay out that sequence of events. You know, I remember that day in the pool. I know exactly, you know, how tall I was at the time and how much I weighed, and I started - as many 14-year-old girls do - I started to starve myself the next day. And I'm surely not alone in that. The rates of anorexia in this country are extraordinarily alarmingly high. And although anorexia has different origins for every girl or woman, there's a lot of folks who tell similar stories, that they fell into anorexia right about the time they had puberty, right about time that their sexuality starts to manifest itself. So I don't know why I did it. You know, I really, really don't. But I do know that it became an obsession for me, as it does for so many women. And it's a really, really tough one to break out of.
GROSS: You know, I guess what I was wondering from that story is whether by starving yourself and becoming thinner you were hoping to make yourself more sexual or less sexual.
SPAR: I honestly don't know. I really don't.
GROSS: Oh, OK.
SPAR: I just know I wanted to get thinner.
GROSS: So it wasn't even attached to...
GROSS: So you were anorexic for three years. You stopped having periods. Your breasts disappeared. Did you think you were becoming more attractive during that period?
SPAR: I think once anyone gets caught up in anorexia, it's very hard to retain a sense of logic.
SPAR: Most anorexics - and I never got that bad - but most anorexics are so skinny that they can't possibly be attractive. And I remember my poor parents, you know, showing me pictures of women or pointing out women on the streets, saying do you think she's pretty, do you think she's pretty, you know, you're much thinner than she is. But you lose your sense of perspective, and that's really the tragedy there.
GROSS: Having experienced anorexia yourself, I'm sure you've had students who've had eating disorders. How have you approached it as somebody who has experienced it and understands it in a way that maybe your average doctor doesn't and maybe your average adult doesn't? You're an authority figure that they could look up to, but you also, you've been there. What do you feel like you can do to help?
SPAR: You know, that's a very delicate situation because I'm not a counselor, I'm not a clinician so, you know, I'm rarely in a position of being able to give specific advice to young women. What I can do is when I see someone who I know is anorexic I can make sure that she gets professional help. And I do think, you know, maybe, maybe I'm being too optimistic here, but I think by telling my own story and telling the fact that I clearly got over it, I'm not skinny anymore, that I can at least put that out there as something that might give my students and other young women a different model to think about - to realize that, you know, the key to success is not by starving yourself.
GROSS: So you have three children. You bring up the subject of extreme parenting in your book, the kind of parenting where the parents are involved in every aspect of their child's life and every minute of the day there's another activity to be overseeing or taking the child to. And you think it's very stressful for the parent and maybe unnecessary for the child. I'm interested in hearing what you have to say about that.
SPAR: Well, I think parenting tends to move in pendulum swings. That, you know, different generations want to parent in different ways. But I do think we are sort of at the extreme end of that pendulum right now, with parents micromanaging every element of their child's lives, from what kind of musical instruments they play to who they - who their playmates are to what college they go into. And I think although well-intentioned, it certainly just drains time from the parents - particularly the mothers, who tend to do the most of it. And, you know, because I see the kids at the far end of this, I see this when they, you know, they show up at college, I really think it raises serious issues about how good this is for the kid because, you know, ultimately, by the time you send a kid off to college or out into the real world, you need them at least to be self-sufficient for them to be independent. You know, and I worry that, you know, some of the kids I see, they've had their hand held for so long that it just actually makes it harder for them to figure out how to make their own way in the world.
GROSS: It's interesting. You write that when a time - it comes time for admissions and deciding like who gets into the college, what you're interested isn't in seeing a list of extracurricular activities or that they had an adventure abroad, you're interested to see if they're deeply passionate about something.
SPAR: Yeah. We look for character. I mean you can't always see this on a college application, but you can kind of tell when people are just checking boxes, even if they've checked lots and lots of boxes. And while box-checkers may be OK, you really want a kid who's about something, who is committed to something, who is in love with something, who is talented at something. And the box-checking actually takes you away from developing those passions or just, you know, exploring the world and, you know, having the passion just, you know, present itself.
GROSS: So you kept your name when you got married. I see both things happening now: a lot of women keep their name; a lot of women change their name. And I'm just kind of curious how you made your decision to keep your name.
SPAR: You know, it's sort of funny. My husband is 10 years older than I am and he was of a generation where just by ideology women kept their own names. So he kind of just presumed right from the start that I would keep my own name, and by that point I had published one or two books and so my professional name was out there and mine's also much shorter so it just seemed to be a sensible thing to do.
GROSS: OK. Debora Spar, thank you so much for talking with us.
SPAR: It's been my pleasure. Thank you so much.
GROSS: Debora Spar is the author of the new book "Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. Spar is the president of Barnard College, the women's undergraduate college affiliated with Columbia University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.