Chubbettes fashion ad for "girls 6 to 16" that appeared in
LIFE magazine, dated August 20, 1956. Found in the wild
over at History by Zim: https://www.historybyzim.com/
WHEN psychoactive medicine first hit the masses it must have seemed like a remedy for every-dang-thing troubling women. Doctors in exam rooms all over the U.S. scribbled in their tablets and tore off prescriptions, no doubt giving the gals a gentle lecture on being a good girl, and being happy, along with the newest and most promising pill to ease the woes of womanly existence. We've been called crazy, bitchy, hysterical - you name it - in order to medicate us into oblivion instead of embracing us as the legitimate people we are. A modicum of respect may have been all that was needed.
I can recall the mother of a childhood friend in the early 70s who walked and talked very slowly. Oh, she was a lovely lady. Her hair was done and she was dressed nicely - even as she wore a fancy pink day-robe and matching feather slippers many days. Yes, she was truly lovely. She never raised her voice or widened her eyes to exert herself for, well, anything. In fact, she may not have fully opened her eyes for a very long time. She always struck me as a teensy bit odd for this, and so one day as Sara and I played in her back yard I inquired about her mother's calm and slow movements and voice.
"Oh my mom is very, very nervous," Sara replied. "She takes a pill and it makes everything better for us."
"Us?" I asked.
"ALL of us. Me, my brother, and especially my dad." Sara continued. "When my mom is nervous, none of us are happy. Now that she takes Valley-oom we are all happy."
Many decades would pass before I'd come across the kitschy film, Valley of the Dolls on The Criterion Collection. Directed by Mark Robson, the 1967 film seeks to give viewers a glimpse of "Cutthroat careerism, wild sex, and fierce female protagonists...attempting to navigate the glamorous, pressurized world of big-time show business," yet that is decidedly not what I saw. (Source: The Criterion Collection) Being an adult with my growing years far (very far) behind me, I saw the 1977 version of Valley of the Dolls- the version of those women with growing children in their care. I'd like to say that the first person this movie called to my mind was Sara's mother but it was my own mother who I recognized in the film.
" SELF: It is a persistent thing. "
I remember well a good many days in which my own mother, having her struggles as a woman transplanted from the atomic age into the haze of a narcotics filled 70s, slept for hours as the rest of us carried on without her. It was the unbrave new way doctors (and families) were dealing with women's hysteria, nervousness . . . our humanness. For all its garish attempts to be a film of the Hollywood lifestyle, what the VOD movie really delivered was a crystalized vision of women not only in the grips of addiction, but also crippled by a pervasive inability to control their own fate in the midst of a society that would do nothing whatsoever to enable them to climb out of the numb stupor prescribed to them under the guise of respectability in a white coat. Most of the women in the narcotic haze were brand new to adulthood, of course there were things to work out! Yet something prescribed by a doctor had to be the right option, for the latter were human sized gods and in these cases, the young women were their obedient subjects. Instead of finding their own voices, their very selves, these beautiful women went to sleep, or were pepped up, exercised, shook, rolled, what have you. And when they returned to themselves once again, they took another dose of something else to give them the opposite effect, or found themselves facing the same issues that sent them to the doctor's office in the first place.
Self: It is a persistent thing.
While under the influence of these little colorful morsels of escape, women also drank alcohol or smoked pot. Sadly, Hollywood offers many examples of those caught in the grip of these things. Sandra Dee and Judy Garland come to mind.
Without these aids, perhaps one develops coping skills, ways to function and communicate in interpersonal relationships. One may even go so far as to (gasp) be an equal toward everyone they meet. One may learn to negotiate boundaries, to say no, to say yes, and to become a self-directed adult and citizen who manages multiple responsibilities.
Let’s be clear: Life can and does deal out some doozies. Trauma, deep and abiding hardships, and abuses do occur and cause one to truly require the assistance offered by psychoactive meds. Severe experiences exist in the mind for a lifetime, and many people carry burdens far beyond what we can imagine. I do not diminish that fact, nor do I assert that people should not seek the help they need. No, I’m attempting to address the entire notion of medicating women (and girls) for the inconvenience others perceived them to be for a very long time leading up to the time period represented in Valley of the Dolls. It was another dark era, one of excessive prescribing of serious drugs to avoid the growing unrest women were facing in the modern world. It was a pat on the head, when a reckoning was in order. Only instead of a pat on the head, "the 'valley' [was] not a place but a narcotized state of mind, and the 'dolls' [were] the pills that rouse them in the morning and knock them out at night." (Source: The Criterion Collection.) While affected women lived like zombies the rest of the world went on without them, without their true, lively and vibrant presence.
Lest we think my mother, Sara's mother, or any other woman is being held in judgment, I'd like to say that it has been the physicians I've held up to scrutiny for having seen the results of their carelessness. Both women I discussed here did go on to see bright, beautiful days filled with the light within each of them! This is an observation most of us have made by now, as anyone can do by simply scrolling through some vintage ads.
More than the narcotics, more than the speed, the weight loss pills and diets, the exercise devices, or any other product that was likely a fine thing within its proper use, was the pervasive insistence that women need fixing. Many-a-woman has spent her best years and in some cases her entire life trying to fit into the size, behavior, hair-color, etc. that those around her seem to want her to be. Instead of showing the world the authentic loveliness that she inherently is, she’s chasing a version of herself that doesn’t exist. That is where all this "fixing" women seems to lead.