I sat comfortably on my couch in our house in Urbana, IL with my pajamas on and fresh-made popcorn in my (one-fingered) hand. I looked over at my parents for just a moment to see their reaction. We had been watching with anticipation as each celebrity arrived on the red carpet, and Cher had just stepped out of a black limo wearing a designer original. It was a black beaded show-girl-worthy two-piece gown by designer Bob Mackie. It was like nothing anyone had ever seen before. Not only was Cher’s naval showing, but towering on her head was a two-foot piece made of rooster feathers. “Wow, I can’t believe she is wearing that!” I was stunned but fascinated by her fashion statement. Later that week, what was known as the “Indian dress” was the subject of much attention and mostly criticism in the media. Many didn’t even refer to it as a dress, calling it instead, the “Spiderman Outfit.” Cher’s outfit was just too different to be regarded as beautiful.
“Oooh! I love that one, Cecilia. Try that one on.” Close since our days together at NYU Law School, Cecilia was more than just any old friend. On that particular day, we were both invited to our mutual friends Marc and Diane’s wedding coming in April. We had entered an exclusive shop in Westport, Connecticut for one purpose– to hunt for the perfect pair of shoes to match Cecilia’s new dazzling pale lavender dress. There was absolutely no point for me to look for a new pair. Whatever I decided to wear for the wedding, I already had my sole pair of dress-up shoes: silk ankle boots, originally white, but died black after my wedding. They were made by a shoe designer named Peter Fox, whose primary clientele were Broadway dancers. His shoes were known for comfort. “You like these the best?” She was holding up the shoes I loved the most. “Cec, yes, they’re just perfect.” They were strappy and silver, and adorned with a design that sparkled from the store lights.
And with that, Cecilia grabbed her size without even looking at the price. “Cec, are you sure?” My friend turned to me, with her dark brown eyes twinkling along with the shoes. “Positive.” In that moment, Cecilia had offered me the most priceless gift. For the first time in my life I got the chance to pick out the fanciest of shoes. Although this would hardly make the bucket list of any other woman I know, the night of Diane and Marc’s wedding, I enjoyed the distinct pleasure of simply watching my close friend wear the beautiful shoes that I had chosen. She noticed me gazing at her feet and put her hand on my shoulder and squeezed. “How do you like them, Meg?” “Oh my gosh, Cec. They are just perfect! I know it sounds crazy but on an emotional level, I feel as if I am wearing them.” Cecilia looked at me and laughed. “You know what? You are actually lucky you only have to look at them. These shoes are beginning to kill my feet.” I smiled, thinking she was trying to make me feel better but then looked around the room. As I stood in my very comfortable boots, most every woman was dancing barefoot.
LMAO. That phrase I always found a bit crude but that is exactly what I was doing as I watched Ellen DeGeneres deliver pizza and then ask Harvey Weinstein to cough up some cash (using Pharrell Williams’ hat) to collect payment at the Academy Awards show this past Sunday night. Earlier in the week, I also watched Ellen being interviewed on Good Morning America by co-host Robin Roberts. She was happy to share some fun with Robin, but also enthusiastically described her strong relationship with wife, Portia di Rossi. As I watched Ellen being interviewed, I couldn’t help but think about how both of these women are immensely loved by the American public, and how Ellen’s announcement years back that she is gay probably helped Robin herself come out a few months ago. But things weren’t always so cheery for Ellen. In 1997, in what became an infamous episode in the fourth season of her self-titled popular sitcom, Ellen’s character came out publicly to a therapist played by Oprah Winfrey. Ellen had come just come out in an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show confirming to millions, “Yep, I’m gay.” But Oprah herself could never have been prepared for the severe backlash that followed. After the episode aired that Spring, she was on the receiving end of countless antagonizing letters and acidic phone calls. Some venom hurled to Oprah even went as far as, “N—go back to Africa. Who do you think you are?” The fallout also followed Ellen. Extreme religious groups staged protests (calling her ‘Ellen Degenerate’) and studio executives even received death threats that required security at their homes.
With all of this in mind, I recently read an article titled, “F.D.A. Weighs Fertility Method That Raises Ethical Questions.” Apparently, the Food and Drug Administration is reviewing a fertility procedure to make a baby free of particular defects. The most recent meeting was meant to address the scientific issues about the procedure, such as risks to mother and child, without focusing on the ethical questions. Dr. Alan Copperman, director of the division of reproductive endocrinology and infertility at Mt. Sinai in New York stated, “The most exciting part, scientifically,” he said, is to be able to prevent or fix an error in the genetic machinery.” The article continued, describing how others were sounding (scientific) alarm bells, such as the potential for unforeseen new genetic abnormalities.
Scientific possibilities aside, this past week I couldn’t help but to think about this new fertility initiative from an ethical perspective. When I consider what those doctors are trying to ‘fix,’ I suspect that people that look like me (or my sons who share my condition), lacking eighteen fingers and toes, offer a good example. Yet, ironically, I am convinced that I am a more insightful, thoughtful and loving person (and parent) as a result of my own imperfections than I would have been otherwise. In fact, if you tried to turn back the clock and give me the option to be born ‘perfectly,’ I would respond with an emphatic ‘no thanks.’ Many don’t believe me when I say that, I can tell. But as I watched the celebrities walking in narrow, high-heeled shoes on the Red Carpet, I couldn’t help but wonder, are all these people’s lives so picture perfect anyway? After all, thanks to my funky feet, you’ll never see me squeeze into torturous heels and stagger around trying to keep my balance.
Beyond my condition, (and of course recognizing that there are certain conditions-Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease comes to mind) that the world could do without, but I wonder what other human flaws this new fertility treatment might try to prevent or “fix”? Would we start to lose our tolerance for human defect or cast blame at parents for letting their children be born imperfect? In contrast, I think these past couple of decades have been the greatest ever in our collective history when it comes to accepting and including people of all traits and appearances. Ellen is unconditionally embraced by the vast majority of Americans now and she’s goofing on all of Hollywood as host of the Academy Awards. And then I watch beautiful women like style blogger Jillian Mercado (who was born with Muscular Dystrophy and uses a wheelchair) star in Diesel’s new campaign. I see so many examples of progress toward inclusion and acceptance and I wonder what kind of people we will be if we use science to whittle away at our very real yet challenging differences that make us who we are and perhaps were meant to be.
I think Oprah said it best in a recent interview about Ellen: “The reason people like Ellen so much, is that they see themselves in her.” If that is the case, then what can be considered a ‘defect’ or a negative in one decade clearly can be considered fully acceptable, possibly even beautiful in the next. How can we risk “fixing” all of that?
As I watched each stunning outfit worn by gorgeous women at the Oscar’s, I couldn’t help but to think about Cher’s Indian dress. Decades later, it is now considered one of the most iconic outfits of all time. As designer Isaac Mizrahi described in a recent interview, “That dress made the Worst Dress List. Now, in hindsight, it is viewed as iconic, even stunning. Mackie’s vision was simply ahead of its time. Now it is more than acceptable to show your mid-drift on the Oscar stage or not. We are simply catching up with Cher. What was viewed as ugly and different is now considered beautiful.”