My right to bare arms

Illustration - Women's right to bare arms

Illustration by Wes Bausmith / Los Angeles Times

By K.C. Cole

In the heat of summer, women of a certain age are wondering whether it's OK to abandon sleeves and let their upper appendages just hang out. Or is concealed carry the only option?

Does it matter how toned you are? Or is crepe-paper skin even on decent biceps enough to make you “disgusting,” as one woman put it. And the older you get, the bigger the quandary.

Michelle Obama was accused of illegal bare arms possession back in 2009 — and she's (almost) as toned as it gets.

The issue came into focus for me recently at an informal brunch on a very hot day. I was in a sleeveless top, but with a few (young) exceptions, other bare arms were barely to be seen.

I felt not just alone but confused. I later consulted an often-sleeveless friend who said she was similarly surprised to see that “cover up” seemed to be the new consensus regardless of the heat. “I guess I didn't get the memo,” she said.

Women who weren't born yesterday remember the hard work of overturning the kind of rules that forced us into girdles so our butts wouldn't bounce. For us, being told to hold something in, cover up or hide out has definite negative connotations.

But it's not that simple.

Another old friend was giving me advice about lipstick recently (essentially: “wear some”). A young friend was appalled: “Isn't she a feminist?”

Yes. She was a founding writer of Ms. magazine and edited a book of feminist humor and satire. She was also a fashion model, and she is still my go-to make-up advisor (though you wouldn't know it by looking — at me, that is).

None of this should be a surprise. Feminists want to look good too. But for some people, it's hard to get beyond binary. You're either against lipstick (and women as sex objects), or for it.

The older you get, the bigger the quandary. -  

In my experience that was never true. I met my writer/humorist/fashion model friend 32 years ago when we were pitted against each other on “The Today Show.” The producers were expecting a cat fight. I'd recently been on the same show pushing a book about having babies and was very pregnant. My pal-to-be was writing for Vogue about feminist issues. So the “mom” (me) and the “feminist” (her) were supposed to duke it out about whether mothers of young children should work (as if kids weren't work enough).

It made for a dull interview. We agreed on almost everything. Co-anchor Jane Pauley was confused. (She was also, we later found out, pregnant with twins.) If the producers had bothered to read my friend's columns they could have avoided the confusion. Her feminist essays were mostly about raising her sons. She went on to write a second-wave classic, “American Mom: Motherhood, Politics and Humble Pie.”

Feminism, to us, was always about the right to make the choice. Heels or Birkenstocks, leggings or sweats, stay-at-home-mom or corporate exec. Often, the answer was “all of the above” though not necessarily all at the same time ( as Sheryl Sandberg's “Lean In” seems to imply).

Is bare arms one of those feminist dilemmas? Or is it more a matter of simple vanity versus sweltering head?

One woman with ample wrinkles but show-off biceps told me I could be both kinds of cool as long as I had the right attitude. If I was confident enough, bare arms would be fine.

“What's your attitude,” she asked. I wasn't sure.

A therapist told me that women worried about aging skin should do what she did: have a face lift.

“Sure,” I said, “that fixes your face, but what about your neck, your arms?”

“Cover up,” she said. She couldn't have been more than 50. Cover up for the rest of your life? That seems unacceptable.

Arms aren't the only conundrum. As the old saying says, age can make you feel you have to choose between your face or your figure. (No question about it: fat can plump up wrinkles.)

If you choose your figure, you trade that belly and elastic waists (and smoother skin) for a life without carbs or wine. On that one, at least, I'm clear. Fat chance! It'd take a lot more than vanity to make me give up potatoes, much less pinot noir.

But on the matter of arms, the jury (and sometime the arms) are still out.

K.C. Cole is a journalism professor at USC and a former science writer at The Times.

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July 26, 2015