The New York Times ran a story on Monday about how, despite progressive social policies, women in France are still suffering under unrealistic expectations. They are expected to work hard (for less pay and prestige), be good mothers and have taut vaginal muscles. Yes, that’s what I wrote. And that’s what it says in The Times:
“Weeks after giving birth, French women are offered a state-paid, extended course of vaginal gymnastics, complete with personal trainer, electric stimulation devices and computer games that reward particularly nimble squeezing. The aim, said Agnes de Marsac, a physiotherapist who runs such sessions: ‘Making love again soon and making more babies.’ ”
I’m not sure whether to be envious or appalled. But before we unpack the whole vaginal tightening social program, a few more things about France:
France ranks lower in gender equality than the United States, most of Europe, Kazakhstan and Jamaica, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2010 report.
French women earn less than French men but work twice as hard at home and with the children. They have more babies than women in other European countries (where the birth rate is very low), and they take the most anti-depressants. France, “may look Scandinavian in employment statistics, but it remains Latin in attitude.” It’s still ”an old Gallic macho country,” says philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy.
Part of the problem is a “a patriarchal corporate culture,” part of it is the expectation for women to be gorgeous, stylish, brilliant cooks, wonderful mothers and wage earners. Valérie Toranian, editor-in-chief of Elle magazine in France tells The Times that ““French women are exhausted. We have the right to do what men do — as long as we also take care of the children, cook a delicious dinner and look immaculate. We have to be superwoman.”
This article helps me understand the point of view of controversial French feminist Elisabeth Badinter, who recently claimed in her best-selling book Le Conflit, La Femme et La Mère (The Conflict, The Woman and The Mother), that women are being oppressed by the outlandish demands of “natural motherhood” such as cloth diapering and breastfeeding. I have big issues with some of the things Badinter says, but she probably didn’t sell a lot of books because French mothers are happy.
America is not far off either. It’s a bit better with the equality than France, but a lot less progressive in terms of benefits and subsidies for families. One mother of four tells The Times that she hardly pays any taxes at all due to the increased benefits and rebates for parents. Daycare and good quality education are provided free of charge to taxpayers. Women in France also have more control over their sexuality–birth control and abortion are legal and subsidized. But women still don’t hold the top jobs in corporations and politics. (Hey, there are not a lot of moms on our Supreme Court, either. And last I checked, American women’s pay was at what, 77 cents on the male dollar?)
But back to the vagina. Should our government cover kegels coaching? (Ha! Like they even cover basic dental care!) I think in some specific cases women can benefit from this kind of personal training, but most women would do just as well quietly going about their kegels at the office… while making the same salary as their male colleagues.
The institutionalized efforts to make sure that not just French women, but French vaginas, can “do it all,” (supply both children and pleasure) does seem to reflect a kind of anxious perfectionism very much centered around, well, everyone other than the owner of the vagina.