Monthly Archives: October 2012

No Butts About It

If you’re like me, you find secondhand smoke unpleasant, irritating and a downright menace to your health.  A raft of studies has confirmed the dangers of inhaling secondhand smoke.  To reduce its impact, we’ve banned smoking in the workplace, restaurants and other public places.  But those bans have produced a new menace:  street smokers.

You know who they are. They’re the people who insist on smoking while they’re walking down the street, right next to you and me.

Sure, they’re angry because they can’t light up in stores and theaters the way they used to.  They miss smoking in their favorite bars and restaurants.  And they’re annoyed that they can’t smoke at work anymore.

But hey, street smokers, don’t make the rest of us suffer.  You should be content to pollute your own homes (even if you are endangering the health of your spouse, your children, and the family dog).

But are you?  No, you’re not.  You’ve become street smokers.

You stride through our city streets, puffing away with complete disregard for anyone else.  I’ve come close to being burned by one of your smoking wands too many times to keep it to myself anymore.  You’ve got to be stopped.

Okay, I admit you’ve been entrapped by carefully designed advertising, depicting smoking as glamorous and seductive, inducing you to start smoking at an early age.  Convinced by Big Tobacco that smoking was “cool,” that it would make you more attractive to the opposite sex, you began smoking in your teens, then found yourselves addicted.  So maybe I should pity rather than condemn you.

Sorry, I just can’t.  Uppermost in my mind is the health and safety of us nonsmokers.  First and foremost, I worry about secondhand smoke.  But I also worry about the prospect of burnt skin and ugly holes in my faux designer duds.

Maybe you think smoking outside is harmless to others.  Wrong!  If you’re within ten feet of me on a busy sidewalk, or standing near me as I wait for a stoplight to change, I can’t avoid inhaling your smoke.  And the burning end of your cigarette is more dangerous on the street than off, where you rest it in an ashtray instead of waving it mere inches from my skin and clothing.

Another problem you’ve caused:  Your discarded butts are everywhere.  They now make up one of the worst sources of unsightly litter on the city’s streets.

Instead of pulling out that cigarette when you’re walking next to me, try being a bit more creative.  Maybe an entrepreneur could open “smokers’ lounges” in high-density locations.  (Here’s a idea free of charge:  Call them Smokebucks–a Starbucks for smokers.)  Surely most cities could support one or two.

If you tried, you could initiate some even better options.  You could try a nicotine patch, investigate hypnosis, or join a support group.  In the meantime, don’t expect me and my fellow nonsmokers to shower you with sympathy.

Listen up, street smokers.  Nonsmokers are fed up with you.  We’re tired of inhaling your smoke as you walk in front, behind, or next to us.

We’re tired of dodging the red-hot tips of your cigarettes as we walk through the city.  If you don’t cut out your lung-damaging, skin-threatening street smoking, we’ll organize.  We’ll form a group called ESS (Eliminate Street Smoking).  ESS will create a new morality that makes it unacceptable to smoke on the street.  We’ll lobby for laws banning street smoking, just as drinking liquor and spitting on the street were banned long ago.

If none of this works, I’ll come after you myself.  I’ll pull that burning stick out of your nicotine-stained fingers, hurl it to the ground and crush it underfoot until it’s dead.  No jury in the world would convict me of causing harm to anyone—especially you.

The Lip-Kick Effect

Despite what some pundits may say, much of our economy is still mired in a recession.  Efforts to budge the numbers upward have had some success, with thousands more private jobs created in recent months.

But many Americans still feel stuck in neutral or worse.  How do we cope?

Researchers at several universities recently concluded that the more insecure the economy, the more women spend on beauty products, especially lipstick.  They’ve dubbed this phenomenon the “lipstick effect.”

I prefer to call it the “lip-kick effect.”  When one of my daughters was quite small, she pronounced “lipstick” as “lip-kick,” and her mispronunciation became family legend.  It now strikes me as an even better moniker for the “lipstick effect.”

Five separate studies confirmed this hypothesis.  They found that during recessions over the past 20 years, women have reallocated their spending from other items to beauty products.

Why do women confronted with economic hardship seek out new beauty products?  The researchers came up with a host of reasons.  Most significant is a rational desire to attract men, especially men with money.

Another reason?  It’s simple:  Lipstick can boost a woman’s morale.

I cheerfully admit that I’m a (credit) card-carrying member of this particular group.  Like most women, I get a kick out of lipstick.  And while uncertainty reigns, we women get our kicks where we can.

A brand-new lipstick can be a mood-changer.  How many times have we witnessed women in the movies or on TV applying lipstick in front of a mirror, then smiling at their reflection?  That scene rings true.  Lipstick can make women feel better.  And lipstick is a pretty cheap thrill.

Leonard Lauder, chairman of the Estée Lauder Companies, reportedly announced that lipstick sales went way up after 9/11.  I’m not surprised.  Estée Lauder lipsticks, at 18 or 20 bucks each, are a bargain compared to a $300 pair of shoes or a $900 designer handbag.

But some lip-kicks are even cheaper.  When women need a quick pick-me-up, we can saunter down to our neighborhood drugstore and head for the cosmetics section.  The dizzying array of available lipsticks can put a smile on almost any woman’s face.  There’s the usual overabundance:  lipstick, lip gloss, lip stain, lip liners, all in countless colors and textures that are constantly changing.

For $8 or $10, we can choose from scores of glittering options.  Many purport to last longer than ever before.  And now there are the plumpers, lipsticks that claim to have the improbable ability to puff up one’s lips.  In the past, puffy lips were sometimes viewed as less than glamorous, but fashions change, and today it’s chic to have plump lips, leading some pouty stars of movies and TV to obtain them via collagen injections. (Ouch!)  A plumper-lipstick sounds like a much better idea.

Women feel even more triumphant when they enter the drugstore armed with its weekly ad, featuring a sale price on a new lipstick.  Two-for-the-price-of-one sales have disappeared, but most of us will settle for buy-one-get-one-50%-off, especially if a manufacturer coupon deducts another dollar or two off the price.  Sometimes these smart-shopper techniques enable us to walk out of the drugstore with two lipsticks for $4 or $5 each.

Aside from sugary candy bars or high-fat French fries, where can you buy another indulgence for so little?

Sure, like most Americans, I’m concerned about our fragile economy, the war in Afghanistan, turmoil in the Mideast, and all of the other pressing issues of our time.  But drugstore cosmetics clearly provide a happy (albeit temporary) distraction.

There’s a popular saying:  “Slap on a little lipstick…you’ll be fine.”  Women like me heartily agree.  I’m smiling just thinking about the one I’ll buy tomorrow.

It’s Time to Pass the Paycheck Fairness Act

How many working women think they’re paid fairly for the work they do?  Right now, with the economy still struggling to provide jobs for all those who want them, many women are probably happy just to be employed.

But women are still paid only 77 cents for every dollar men receive, making unequal pay a continuing problem for American women and the families who depend on their wages. (According to a recent report, women are the primary breadwinners in 40 percent of American households.)

In 2010, April 20, designated as Equal Pay Day, marked how far into 2010 women had to work over and above what they made in 2009 to earn what men earned during 2009 alone.

Currently languishing in the U.S. Congress is the Paycheck Fairness Act (the PFA), proposed legislation that would level the playing field for working women.  The PFA would amend the 1963 Equal Pay Act (the EPA), which made it illegal for employers to pay unequal wages to those who perform substantially equal work.  Although enforcement of the EPA has narrowed the wage gap, a sizeable disparity still exists.

The PFA would help change the status quo.  While other civil rights statutes have been amended numerous times, the EPA never has.  The result: its enforcement tools are outdated, making the gender-disparity in pay hard to eradicate.

The PFA wouldn’t create an onerous burden on employers because it wouldn’t give employees any new rights.  Currently employers must comply with the EPA.  The only difference is that women would be better able to enforce those rights.

Many of the bill’s provisions make no demands on employers whatsoever.  One provision would merely create a grant program to help women and girls develop salary-negotiation skills.  Another would improve the way the government collects information from federal contractors.  Other provisions focus on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, e.g, giving EEOC staff additional training to better identify and handle wage disputes.

Of course, some provisions directly affect employers.  Most significantly, the PFA would give women the same remedies as employees discriminated against on the basis of race or national origin.  Currently women can get only limited awards like back pay.  The PFA would allow women to get compensatory and punitive damages for pay discrimination.

The PFA would also prohibit employers from retaliating against women who share salary information with their coworkers.  This kind of information-sharing helps employees learn about wage disparities and discrimination, but currently employers can retaliate against women who share such information.

Further, the PFA would allow an EPA lawsuit to proceed as a class action under the rules that apply to other federal lawsuits instead of the harsh 1963 rules that have never been amended.

Finally, a significant loophole now keeps women from winning cases brought under the EPA.  Employers who are paying women less than men for equal work can claim that the difference in pay is based on a “factor other than sex.”  This language is too broad.  It’s been used to introduce factors like a male worker’s stronger negotiation skills.

This is not what Congress intended when it passed the EPA.  The PFA would alter this language and allow different pay for men and women only when an employer can show that the difference relates to job performance and business necessity.

Congressional leaders like Nancy Pelosi have issued a ringing endorsement of the PFA.  U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, one of the PFA’s 36 co-sponsors in the Senate, agrees.  Senator Dianne Feinstein has also joined Senator Boxer and endorsed passage of the bill in the Senate.  Significantly, President Barack Obama noted his support of this legislation in his speech before the Democratic Convention in 2012.

It’s time for Congress to act.  Let’s make pay equity a reality for America’s working women.

[A version of this commentary previously appeared as an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle.]

High Heels Are Killers

by Susan Alexander

I’ve long maintained that high heels are killers.  I never used that term literally, of course.  I merely viewed high-heeled shoes as distinctly uncomfortable and an outrageous concession to the dictates of fashion that can lead to both pain and permanent damage to a woman’s body.

Now, however, high heels have proved to be actual killers.  The Associated Press recently reported that two women were killed in Riverside, California, when a train shoved their car into them as they struggled in high heels to get away.  The car got stuck on the train tracks when the driver tried to make a U-turn.  The women emerged from the Honda and attempted to flee as a train approached.  A police spokesman later said, “It appears they were in high heels and [had] a hard time getting away quickly” as they tried to run on the gravel surrounding the train tracks.  The women were 18 and 23 years old.

Like those two women, I was sucked into wearing high heels when I was a teenager.  It was de rigueur for girls at my high school to seek out the trendy shoe stores on State Street in downtown Chicago and purchase whatever high-heeled offerings our wallets could afford.  On my first visit to such a store, I was entranced by the three-inch-heeled numbers that pushed my toes into a too-narrow space and revealed them in what I thought was a highly provocative position.  If feet can have cleavage, those shoes gave mine cleavage.

Never mind that my feet were incased in a vise-like grip.  Never mind that I walked unsteadily on the stilts beneath my soles.  And never mind that my whole body was pitched forward in an ungainly manner as I propelled myself down the store’s aisle toward the mirror on the wall.  I liked the way my legs looked in those shoes, and I had just enough baby-sitting money to pay for them.  Now I could stride pridefully to the next Sweet Sixteen luncheon on my calendar, wearing footwear just like all the other girls’.

That luncheon revealed what an unwise purchase I had made.  I was stranded in a distant location with no ride home in the offing, and I began walking to the nearest bus stop.  After a few steps, it was clear that my shoes were killers.  I could barely put one foot in front of the other, and the pain became so great that I ultimately removed my shoes and walked in stocking feet the rest of the way.

After that painful lesson, I abandoned my high-heeled shoes and resorted to wearing more “sensible” lower heels.   Sure, I couldn’t flaunt my shapely legs quite as effectively in lower heels, but I managed to secure male attention nevertheless.  Instead of conforming to the modern-day equivalent of Chinese foot-binding, I successfully fended off the back pain, bunions, and corns that my fashion-victim sisters have suffered in spades.

In recent years, I’ve noticed the trend toward even higher heels, and I grieve for the young women who buy into the mindset that they must follow the dictates of fashion and the need to look “sexy.”  All around me, I see women wearing  stilettos that force them into the ungainly walk I briefly sported so long ago.  TV and movies have surely fostered this trend (witness “Sex and the City”).

When I recently sat on the stage of Zellerbach Hall at the Berkeley commencement for mathematics students, I was astonished that most of the women hobbled across the stage to receive their diplomas in three- and four-inch-high sandals.  I was terrified that these super-smart math students would trip and fall before they could grasp the document their mighty brain-power had achieved.  (Fortunately, none of them did, but I could imagine the pain that accompanied the joy of receiving their degrees.)

The deaths in Riverside demonstrate an even more dramatic problem.  When women need to flee a dangerous situation, high heels surely handicap their ability to escape.  How many other needless deaths have resulted from hobbled feet?

When we celebrate the Fourth of July, I urge the women of America to proclaim their independence from high-heeled shoes.  If you’re currently wearing painful footwear, bravely toss those shoes and shod yourself in comfy ones.  Your wretched appendages, yearning to be free, will be forever grateful.

[A version of this commentary previously appeared as an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle.]