'Girls Can Only Be One Thing' & Other Lies

Don't take career advice from 9-year-old boys.

When I was 7, a boy two years older asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up.

We were playing make-believe at my house, pretending my bedroom was a bank branch. First I was the teller (called Lori or Jill, or some other name more mainstream than Sari) and he was the customer, then we switched.

A few days before, while visiting Chemical Bank with my mom, I’d stocked up on pink deposit slips, yellow withdrawal slips, and best of all, a blue ball-point Chemical Bank pen that wrote so, so smoothly, and which made a pleasing, subtle clickity clackity sound as I glided it over the shiny, white “ditto” paper my dad brought home for me from the elementary school where he taught.

(No surprise that I would grow up to find ASMR videos soothing.)

^^^This woman, who goes by “Gentle Whispering ASMR” on YouTube, is my favorite ASMR…artist…?…practitioner…?

As make-believe games go, “Bank” is a pretty blah one, especially when you’re too young to have ever used money. A few boring pretend-transactions in, the kid switched gears and inquired about my career plans.

“I’m going to be an actress/singer/dancer,” I said, “and also a writer, and a teacher, and a nurse, and a stewardess, and a bank teller.”

“No, you can’t do that,” he informed me. “You only get to be one thing.”

“Are you sure?” I asked, adding that my father was a cantor/teacher/actor/opera singer.

“But you’re a girl,” he said.

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It was 1972, ironically the same year Free to Be You and Me unleashed its optimistic, oversimplified message of gender equality on the children of white liberals, but before I received my copy. I took this disheartening dictum — from a fourth-grader — to heart. I began worrying — in second grade — about my future. How would I narrow down my prospects and make the right choice? What was the right path for me? What if I chose the wrong one? Would I be stuck on it for the rest of my life?

I kept worrying about it through high school and college, and after, too. Honestly, I still wrestle with what he said, even though I am happy now with where I’ve landed. What if I want to do more things? What if I want to write and edit and teach, as I do (three things!), but also sing and dance? What if I burn out on what I’m doing — or online publishing gets further disrupted and I need a to find a new line of work, like some of my colleagues have?

Which brings me to something of a counter-narrative I was happy to read this week in the Washington Post, about women in their 50s switching, later in life, to careers more aligned with who they are: Changing Channels: Millions of women wait years to fulfill their dreams — or to figure out what their dreams are.

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How did I ultimately wind up on a right path for me? I didn’t have an easy start — not as easy a start as I thought I would after some promising college internships. Let’s fast-forward to 1987, the year I graduated…

A few installments ago, I told you about my summer internship at Newsday, followed by freelance work for the Albany Times-Union and Metroland my senior year. After all that, I assumed I was set for a career as an arts journalist. Then I graduated and started looking for jobs.

It never occurred to me that as a 22-year-old, I’d have to now take a step back and work up to the kind of jobs I’d already been doing. I sent my resume and clips everywhere, but got zero bites. To hold me over, I took at job at the costume jewelry counter at Macy’s, weekends and three weekdays, leaving two weekdays for job interviews.

I scoured the help wanted section of the New York Times. (There was no internet yet.) Each week under “editorial” there were listings posted by the Helen Akullian agency, but they were mostly $12,000-a-year “gal Friday” or secretarial jobs at book houses and magazines, and required typing tests. You needed to be able to type 60 words per minute.

After not hearing back from a single publication on my own, I brushed up on my typing (I’d failed that and gym in high school) and went to see Helen. She took a look at my resume and clips and told me I had to make a choice: I could become a secretary at the kind of publication where I wanted to write, and hope it would lead to something bigger, or I could write, right away, for a trade publication.

I interviewed for both. At the consumer magazines she sent me to, Helen instructed me to refrain from showing my clips, because she thought I’d seem too ambitious and unwilling to pay my dues.

Here’s where I think I made the wrong choice and derailed myself early on: I was impatient for a chance to be a writer right now, and got myself stuck, for a good eight years, in trade publications.

The good news is I didn’t take the first job I was offered, at a magazine covering the pest control industry. (There is a trade magazine for everything.) I was drawn instead to Body Fashions/Intimate Apparel, then published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, covering the women’s underwear trade.

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I took my job at BF/IA  (as the industry referred to it) verrrry seriously. It may not have been the arts pages of the New York Times, but I was going to act is if it was.

I was given the title of assistant editor. I focused hard at my first press event, a presentation by the Schiffli Embroidery & Lace Association, taking copious notes on how bras, panties and slips were given their frilly embellishments. (It was actually pretty fascinating!)

I was not going to be hidden like the underthings I was writing about; I going to shine in this job, and that was going to eventually help me get myself out from under the trade magazine bushel. I took on extra-credit assignments, and applied my arts writer flair to them.

I wrote a long essay — my first longform! — drawing connections between Madonna’s penchant for wearing bustiers and bras publicly, and the Rococo period of art, when Jean-Honoré Fragonard painted The (Happy Accidents of the) Swing, in which a woman’s long bloomers peek out at the viewer.

^^^ Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s The (Happy Accidents of the) Swing

Oh, how important I felt visiting the Mid-Manhattan Library in pursuit of permission to reprint this masterpiece — in an underwear trade rag. I was so proud of the resulting piece, I stayed late the night that month’s issue came out so I could sneak 10 copies home.

When BF/IA flew me to a bra-fitting promotion at a Marshall Fields in Chicago sponsored by a company that manufactured underwire, I looked to it as an opportunity to build my chops as an investigative journalist. By gum, I was going to get the bottom of what percentage of women wore the wrong size bra, and why!

But aside from those two assignments, I found the job tedious and stifling. I wrote a column called “Behind the Seams,” featuring round-up pieces on trends in underwear design. Per the publisher’s instructions, I interviewed only those manufacturers who’d bought ads that month, and allowed them to dictate and approve what was published. There was no proverbial “wall” between editorial and advertising, as I’d been told in my college journalism courses there should be.

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I went back to Helen Akullian and begged her to find me a job at a consumer magazine. While I waited for one to materialize, I attended a press event for Givenchy Intimate Apparel and there met a reporter for Women’s Wear Daily on the accessories beat, who was about to shift into a new job. She was happy to introduce me to her editors.

Women’s Wear was different from other trade publications. I’d been peeking at it since I worked for my garmento grandfather on Seventh Avenue. Sure, it had industry news, but it was real news, not just content advertisers dictated. Women’s Wear also had attitude, and it had a gossip column and occasional arts coverage. Plus, Fairchild Publications also had W Magazine and a new additional celebrity/gossip sister magazine called Scene.

If I could take a sort of lateral step to that trade publication, maybe in time I could move over to their arts and gossip departments, and get myself out of trade publishing before long. I’d been at BF/IA only eight or nine months when I was hired as assistant accessories editor at Women’s Wear. My salary jumped from $17.5K to $23K. I felt like a total big shot.