May 03, 2012
(+++) LIFE LESSONS FOR WOMEN
Bay and Her Boys: Unexpected Lessons I Learned as a (Single) Mom. By Bay Buchanan. Da Capo. $25.
You Are What You Wear: What Your Clothes Reveal about You. By Jennifer Baumgartner, Psy.D. Da Capo. $16.
Bay Buchanan’s memoir about raising her three sons is a classic example of a “celebrification of ordinary life” book: it could have been written by just about any single mom, with only a few words and the locations of events changed, but Buchanan got the chance to create it because she is a former Treasurer of the United States and a well-known conservative political strategist and commentator. This does not render her observations and thought processes any less valid, but neither does it make them any more valid than those of people without her “celebrity credentials.” Although family values usually associated with conservative thinking (American style) lie at the heart of many of Buchanan’s ideas, she really has little to say or suggest that any woman in a similar situation will not have tried. The target audience, clearly, is women (and perhaps some men) who know who Buchanan is and like what she stands for politically and socially, and will therefore want to know how she handles tasks of everyday parenting. Bay and Her Boys is straightforwardly written and forthright in expression; there is nothing startling or new in it, but it may be useful for single parents in confirming that they are on the right track by their own standards if those standards happen to parallel Buchanan’s. “Kids need parents for a lot more than food, shelter and a trip to the park,” Buchanan writes in one of many obvious remarks that some readers may appreciate as affirmations. “Their mom and dad are the anchors of their life, the cornerstones of their family. It is within this unit that kids are meant to learn the lessons of life.” When the “unit” contains only a single mom, “compensate for no dad in the home,” says Buchanan, adding that in her case, “Extended family, single-sex schools, and church are where I found amazing people who willingly entered my kids’ lives and provided remarkable examples for them.” She also urges single moms to take the high road and give the kids a chance for a relationship with their father: never let them think they were responsible for the divorce; do not share details of the breakup with them; do not say bad things about their dad, but go out of your way to tell them positive stories about him; and let them see their father as often as possible. Buchanan tells the tale of her own divorce in brief and in what seems to be a sanitized form, and gives her now-grown boys – Billy, Tommy and Stuart, especially Stuart – space to tell stories about their upbringing in their own words. Most of these, with minor modifications, could be the tales of any family – about testing limits, handling school, and dealing with rules: “Don’t change your rules to conform to the latest fashions, cultural trends, or the advice of others,” Buchanan writes. “They aren’t responsible for your children – you are.” Fortified by her own family background – she was raised a staunch Catholic, the seventh of nine children – Buchanan seems to have had little trouble establishing and enforcing moderately strict rules for her boys. And she was extremely fortunate that none of them had significant medical or social issues, and were able (this was one of her rules) to take up a musical instrument and play a sport every year, even if reluctantly and not always with much success. Yes, there were incidents of shyness, of misbehavior, of teenage shenanigans (mild ones: one of Buchanan’s rules was “absolutely no dating before age 16”); but by and large, when Buchanan writes that “my boys brought out the best in me,” she sounds sincere – and she clearly brought out the best in them in a variety of ways. Her approach will be too rigid and dogmatic for some parents, and too heavily focused on organized religion: “In high school I made them go to church outings and youth camps in the summer as well as seminary during the school year – a religion class held at 6 a.m. on weekdays.” And her insistence that there is a single “right path” for raising children could become grating to readers not familiar with her politics. But that is exactly the point of Bay and Her Boys: it is likely to be read only by people who share enough of her worldview so that they will nod approvingly, time and again, at what she has to say.
A more-complex book about a more-superficial subject, You Are What You Wear is clinical psychologist Jennifer Baumgartner’s attempt to explain the rationale behind women’s wardrobe choices, shopping patterns and clothes preferences in general. Using nine simplified and easily understandable case histories (actually composites), Baumgartner presents “the psychology of dress” in an entertaining fashion that is not quite as revelatory as she seems to consider it to be. “When You Buy More Than You Need,” for example, discusses “emotional shopping” and the possibility of “compulsive buying disorder.” To deal with this, Baumgartner – after acknowledging that “clothes are pieces of art on hangars” – suggests shopping without a wallet, putting items on hold so you can decide which ones you really need, disabling automatic-fill-out accounts at online merchants so you must laboriously enter information before making any purchase (giving you time to think about whether you really want to buy something), and so on. “People read our outside to see who we are on the inside,” writes Baumgartner in one of many non-revelations. But this leads many women to choose clothing that projects images of who they want to be, not who they actually are. So, if you do not dress your age, it may be because “in our culture, ‘old’ is associated with becoming irrelevant and unattractive.” The approach for women trying to dress in clothing that is too young for them, says Baumgartner, is to know who you are, determine who you want to be, accept where you are chronologically, then update favorite items and learn fashion by watching what other women your age – especially ones you admire – are wearing. Obviously, this prescription goes far beyond choosing more-flattering or more-appropriate clothes, since it requires a level of self-knowledge and self-understanding that may not be easy to obtain; and Baumgartner gives little guidance on getting to that level. Still, her basic approach – which is, boiled down to its essence, to think about your clothes and be mindful of what they say and why you buy and wear them – is worthwhile. “We become our own billboards, sometimes literally,” she writes in a chapter on “When You Are Covered in Labels” – but the observation applies in general. The women (or composite women) profiled by Baumgartner tend to make her points for her rather too neatly – for instance, in the “labels” chapter, Baumgartner asks Mary what she would do if she had all the money in the world, and Mary promptly responds, “‘Well, if I had all the money in the world, I wouldn’t need logos. …[They make] me feel like I am somebody. I want to look like I am successful.’” Baumgartner does a good, if often rather obvious, job of analyzing what different forms of clothing say about the women wearing them, and her positive reinforcement will be appreciated by women who genuinely want to change their look: “Your outfit will always work when it is chosen for the best version of you.” You Are What You Wear may not really be revelatory, but it may be thought-provoking for women who have not considered just why they buy and wear particular clothes, and it can at least nudge those who are unhappy with their look toward taking some steps to improve it.