“The madame will be joining us soon. Her horse sprained his ankle on the journey down Second Avenue,” my grandpa said in a mock British accent. My grandpa is a writer, and jumps at opportunities to knit fantasy into everyday experience, be it with affected accents or outrageously butchered attempts at Mandarin. It was a hot Sunday morning, and we were sitting at a table in a quiet café, waiting for my grandma, “The Madame,” to arrive.
I met my grandparents for meals quite regularly over the summer. This brunch was, to the best of my knowledge, just another catch-up session, a “chat and chow,” as my grandpa likes to call it over text message. Usually, between my grandpa’s stories and my grandma’s ponderings, we hardly even have a moment to glance at a menu or chew our food—although it somehow all gets chewed because none of us ever leaves a crumb behind.
My grandma arrived in her usual state—twenty minutes late, wearing a long, flowing skirt, and with the flowery grandma smell that probably takes eighty years to curate. Quiet as she is, she is an incredibly perceptive woman. For this reason, whenever I see her, I am particularly aware of my appearance. As any timid girl in her early twenties, I want to display to her that I am a put-together, self-actualized adult.
Once my grandmother slowly made her way over to our table and kissed me hello, she silently began to assemble a microphone device, which I graciously accepted. She is severely hearing impaired, so she requests that her conversation partner wear a five-inch microphone device on a draw string. This makes conversing a bit complicated for her, since it enables her to talk to just about one person at a time.
Whenever the microphone is around me, I try and bring up a book I am reading for class, or some social drama I’ve been scrutinizing, hoping for some advice. While advice coming from older generations is usually spiced with sexist, old world values, this is never the case with my grandparents. My grandmother is not just a regular old-world relationship advice spewer. She is very rational—she was, in her time, the top scorer in the U.S. on the medical school entrance exam, and became a doctor at a time when this was more of a rarity for women. Because of this, I always expect her advice to be modern, intellectually sound, and well thought out. She, in a sense, has a professional degree in advice spewing. She is a psychiatrist, specializing in sexual dysfunctions.
Once she had kissed me hello and placed the microphone around my neck, she pulled a small notebook out of her purse. It seemed that she showed up to the café with her own agenda for the conversation. In this notebook was a list, written in perfect (yet somehow still nearly illegible) cursive. At the top of the list was the word “Attraction.” She explained to me that she had compiled a list of ways to make myself more sexually appealing to men. Perhaps after several years of stories about my unsuccessful boy dramas, and because I was the only one of my sisters who had yet to bring a male suitor to a Passover Seder, she sensed an insidious pattern. She thought that I, the granddaughter who perhaps most closely followed in her professional footsteps, didn’t know how to appeal to men.
These aren’t the first pieces of sexual musings I’ve received from my grandparents. I grew up with the faintest awareness that there was a shelf of books filled with my grandparents’ work. I had repeatedly requested that my parents move these books or cover them up, so that I did not have to explain the titles (e.g. The Sexual Self and Night Thoughts: Reflections of a Sex Therapist) to my friends during play dates. In fifth grade, when had to write weekly book reports, our teacher encouraged us to challenge ourselves. We supposedly had the reading-IQ (though perhaps not the emotional IQ) to take on just about any book. I decided to read one of my grandpa’s books. Compared to the titles of my grandma’s books, his titles seemed rather benign and age-appropriate. I ended up choosing my Grandpa’s Only a Girl Like You for my book report. In those days, book reports followed a basic template: summarize the story, and explain how you relate to a character. Since the main character was, indeed, a female who lived in New York City, I decided to compare myself to her. I remember sitting with my babysitter in my bedroom, with the book supine on my lap, clicking away at my desktop Dell. I wrote, “I am similar to Christine (the main character) because she slept with different boys every night, much like I sleep with different stuffed animals every night. I am not like Christine because she had “pear shaped breasts,” which I don’t have.” My teacher wrote in the margins “is this book NC-17? Please see me.” After googling what “NC-17” meant, I was absolutely mortified. I decided that I would never touch one of my grandparents’ books again. I didn’t start reading my grandma’s books until this fall. The titles that used to make me laugh and feel uncomfortable now seemed extremely interesting (and quite relevant to my gender psychology lecture and psychoanalysis seminar).
My next exposure to sex psychology was during my first week at Princeton. During a freshman orientation speech, the question “Professor, what’s your favorite sex position?” boomed out across McCarter theater, directed at Dr. Ruth Westheimer, American sex therapist and popular author. The question was followed by a chorus of uneasy, muffled laughter. We were, after all, in a room with two-thousand-some eighteen year olds, ranging dramatically in sexual experience. We were about to enter a four-year journey which is best characterized in the media as a time of both sexual promiscuity and frustration. Dr. Ruth, as she likes to be called, fielded the question amicably. (Though her doctorate is from Teachers College and is in education, she had a career as a therapist, and is better known for her cultivated media personality.)
So there I am, my first week at Princeton University, listening to an old Jewish lady talking explicitly about intercourse. Later, my roommates and neighbors laughed with each other and exchanged winces about Dr. Ruth’s speech. Many of them came from families where sex was a taboo topic, not to be casually discussed at a dinner table in front of parents, let alone grandparents. But to me, Dr. Ruth was not a spectacle. If anything, she was a gimmick, an entertainer probing for laughs, compared to my own grandma. I had, in fact, heard the words “intercourse” and “orgasm” come out of the mouth of an old Jewish lady many times before this opening address.
The list that my grandma presented to me was nothing like Dr. Ruth’s entertaining approach. The list (which she courteously ripped out and presented to me) included more objective tips such as how to wear my hair, which body parts I should accentuate, the shape of pants and shoes I should wear and how to walk like a woman. However, were she to read this article, she would likely scold me for reporting it in this style. In fact, after our conversation, she sent me a long, thoughtful email explaining to me that she was not too wedded to any of the actual recommendations. She simply found these in psychological journals online, and insisted that I not publish them in this paper, as the public would (in her words): “have at you (and me) with pick-axes, machetes, and hacksaws, not to mention guns, grenades and nuclear bombs.”
So, to respect her wishes, I will precede the following discussion with this small, essential caveat: my grandmother was simply reporting perhaps unfounded findings she had read in psychology journals, and compounded the ones that she saw as relevant and interesting. She presented them for the sake of discussion, and by no means does she endorse her beautiful script literature review. Ideals of sexual attractiveness differ for every individual, and these by no means should be taken at face value.
The findings she presented to me were, for the most part, pretty predictable and intuitive. She relayed to me that there is a strong correlation between waist-to-hip ratio and perceived “attractiveness,” a rather Darwinian theory that is reviewed in Wikipedia. She told me that this was not a universal trend but more related to Western culture. She said that she observed that women with waists that are smaller than their hips, and who transfer their weight from one hip to the other without trying to even out their gait, “women who are distinctly not ready for the next tennis shot or base run,” tend to attract the male gaze. She also commented that clothing which emphasizes “secondary (and primary) sex characteristics” (whether or not these are considered to exist for the past few decades) also tend to have a broader range of choice in male companions (“whether or not there are human animals identified as male in today’s world”). These include pants that narrow at the ankle, and small shoes.
A more nuanced finding she shared with me is that women (with long hair) are perceived to be more attractive if they alternate between wearing their hair up and down. When their hair is up, she says that this implies a sense of mystery and intrigue—an aesthetic that screams “but wait! There’s more!”
At the end of her please-don’t-publish-this email, she told me to “expand” my rib cage, “drop” my shoulders, and “waggle gently” when I walk at my own risk of giving what is perhaps an outdated message: “that your self-esteem is healthy and that there are times when you really enjoy male attention, even if it rejected as leading to anything else and connotes no intellectual or spiritual message.”
After this brunch, I wasn’t quite sure how to digest the tentative recommendations that she presented to me. I decided to tuck away the cursive list in my wallet, and worry about it later. Up until that moment, I had been content with my self-prescribed role in our family dynamic—out all of the grandchildren, I was the most young, the most quiet, and the most single. And that’s the way I imagined it would always be. It seldom occurred to me that I too would become an adult, and have to operate in a world driven by sex, and hence appearance.
Part of me was grateful, for being spoken to as an adult. But another part of me was disappointed. I had shown up to brunch wide-eyed and excited, hoping to represent myself as a self-actualized, well-adjusted college girl who reads books and has some neat thoughts. But even my rational, level-headed grandmother was presenting me with uninvited suggestions that were vaguely similar to the sewage waste advice that dribbled out of she who must not be named in her over-cited letter to the Daily Princetonian.
Whether presented through the context of fiction (my grandpa), exhibitionist humor (Dr. Ruth), old-world advice (Ms. Patton) or academic discourse (my grandma) my reaction to sex advice always seems to be the same—sex and sexuality is personal, and advice should be dispensed seldom and sensitively. Despite how intimate and personal sex is, “self-actualized adults” still have the temerity to impose their opinions upon the less experienced. Older generations feel obligated to shape and teach their offspring to live up to the same expectations of sexual maturity that they were subjected to. But this cycle of traditional advice-giving and getting can be misleading, and lead to self-doubt and confusion. When it comes to the pursuit of sexual satisfaction, or any flavor of satisfaction for that matter, maybe it is best not to spew advice unless explicitly asked.