Archive for January, 2008
You must see this New Yorker cartoon. Too perfect for this blog.
This term came to me today, when talking with a woman who seems to feel the need to compare everything. Not with malice, but compare nonetheless.
The comparison is often disguised as a compliment, and almost always lands in the other person’s favor. “Oh, your hips are so much narrower than mine.” “Your child is so much calmer than mine.” “Your house is so much cleaner than mine.” (Please note that most of the time these statements are clearly untrue!)
Then, that begs the horrible back and forth that my DH and I jokingly refer to as the “YSS Dance.” (“You’re so skinny! No, you’re so skinny!”) I love to dance, but for that one I will always rather sit out.
Nobody wins in a culture of comparison. There is no right answer to those comments. What, do you then insult yourself or insist that you, in fact, don’t sleep or clean your house? (I’ve tried this — “Really, you should see all the crumbs under the rug!” — but, ick. What does that accomplish? Who does it make feel better?)
It’s hard not to join the dance, and feel the need to compare myself. And it often feels that if I don’t self-degrade or compare back in return (sometimes I just answer with silence), I’m seen as snooty or rude. It’s a no-win situation.
Really, I just want to say, my silence is in honor of you! You’re above this! Can’t we just be comfortable with ourselves and each other?!
At heart, that is what I think this is really about. Being comfortable enough with ourselves — who we are, what we have, what we look like, all that stuff — that we don’t feel the need to always debate whether we are better or worse off than others.
I know, that’s not an easy task, and I certainly haven’t achieved it fully yet. Perhaps it’s hard-wired, and a crazy notion to think we can change this. But, you know, I’ll take crazy over the “YSS Dance” any day. Why couldn’t we change this?
What do you think would happen if everyone vowed to stop these comparison conversations? Just each and every person stop before saying the comparing thing. Or greet the comparison with a smile and silence. What would our conversations sound like, in the dressing rooms, on the playground?
Do you think it would be different? Would our culture change with this adjustment?
I’d sure like to try it and see.
Nancy Lee is a friend of mine from my doctoral student days. We hit it off, as we both had “real life” experience prior to entering academia, found certain hard lines of our field a bit confounding, and questioned whether we wanted to take the hard-driving, tenure-track path.
As some of you know, I jumped ship four years into my Ph.D. work, in 2004, left with a Master’s, and am quite content about both the experience and its end. (See my whole story in the forthcoming book, Mama, Ph.D.)
Nancy, on the other hand, stuck it out, and completed her doctorate in 2007. I’m so proud of her for accomplishing the goal that meant so much to her.
Then, however, against much pressure, and after much agonizing, Nancy still decided not to follow the traditional tenure-track path, at least right away. (This is a big deal in the academic world.) She is doing some teacher-training work for the university, taking some training herself to be a yoga teacher, and just taking a breather to figure out what she really wants.
As many of us know, stepping away from others’ expectations of us takes a lot of courage. So, I asked Nancy to share a few of her thoughts about success and “having enough,” in my latest four-question interview.
Here are the answers she wrote for us. You’ll see the academic in her, and also the centered yoga woman:
1) What does “having enough” mean to you?
Having enough means I’m generally content because I’m living according to my personal values. For me, having enough means knowing your limits, setting boundaries, and making peace with what you think others expect of you versus how you intend to live your life. Having enough means a woman no longer needs to justify her actions to others—let them be perplexed by your decisions, it’s okay.
Having enough is also about what I choose to surround myself with and how much is enough to make me happy. This could be in the material sense. But it can also be in the sense of external markers of reputation, prestige, or rank. Some people thrive on acquiring more stuff. Others are addicted to achieving greater distinctions. Still others are driven by both. For me personally, having enough means feeling pretty satisfied that I don’t have to be that way and the world won’t stop turning. Having enough also means giving back to others—because I have enough to go around!
2) What do you think about the concept of “having it all” in our culture?
Without getting into the sociological and historical reasons, I think “having it all” has come to be the standard of success for certain socioeconomic classes in American society. For example, the burden can be heavy for middle-class women who internalize contradictory class standards: there is the drive to excel professionally that can conflict with the drive to have a home life, especially for women with children.
If a woman wants a certain standard of living and/or must accrue enough social capital in jobs that are driven by prestige, then the negotiation between work and family life can become a singular source of anxiety. Especially as middle-class women are today also under the pressure to be “perfect” moms, which typically means they’re expectated to squeeze out more quality time with their kids even as their work environment fails to provide them the necessary flexibility to do so.
From my roots I know that working-class women are far from immune from the work-family balancing act and in far too many ways have it much tougher. But they may or may not have a concept of “having it all” since this notion seems only possible if one has attained a certain level of educational, economic, and social capital to make the idea (or delusion?) a feasible prospect. Working-class women are perhaps less burdened by the idea of having it all than by the problem of having not enough, e.g. income, health care, child care, education, etc.
3) How do you define success?
Success can be the feeling connected to an achievement. The achievement in question can involve your job, your family, hobbies, or anything in which you invest effort and sacrifice and positive outcomes result. Success can make you happy, but to be happy you needn’t be successful.
Personally, I think contentment is a better measure of happiness than success. I also think that the older I get, the easier it is to ignore social expectations of success for the rewards of living life according to personal values and priorities.
4) Can you describe a defining moment in your life when you had to choose between “having enough” or pushing for more? (And how did it turn out for you?)
After graduating with my PhD this summer, I was offered a prestigious postdoctoral research fellowship at a prominent research university in the medical and public health sciences. After anguishing for weeks, I turned the offer down. My husband could not relocate with me; I considered but in the end decided against setting myself up for a gruelling weekly commute.
I felt flying between two cities on a weekly basis (in a job sure to suck up more than 40 hours a week, as academic research jobs inevitably do) would affect my health and also put great pressures on my marriage. I didn’t want that.
The postdoc would have looked fantastic on my academic CV. But the pressures I would’ve had to face wasn’t worth the bragging rights. I’m happy to report that I don’t regret the decision one bit. Other doors have opened and my husband and I are leading the life we want.
Do you relate to Nancy? Have you ever walked away from others’ expectations? How did that go for you?
I had this odd dream the other night.
My DH and I were sitting at the foot of our bed watching one of my friends give us a “fashion show” of her new bathing suits. Only maybe she was actually modeling new plastic surgery for us, because my friend did not have her own body, she suddenly had a Victoria’s Secret body.
You know the one I’m talking about — large, perky breasts with just the right cleavage, then tiny, toned and fatless from the tummy down. The body (with interchangeable heads) that prances in our faces in Victoria’s Secret commercials any time we turn on network television after 7 p.m.
So, in this dream, after a couple of my VS-bodied friend’s catwalks up and down our hallway-runway, I got annoyed at my husband for just being there, clear to both of us I was having issues with her body (and it’s potential appeal to my husband).
He said to me, smiling, “What’s the matter, Megan? You’re comfortable with your body.”
And I snapped back, “Nobody’s that comfortable!”
I woke up, told him about the dream and had to laugh. The exchange was oddly true-to-life. And I had commented on those commercials the night before, in my usual feminist media studies teacher way, noting how often we see the ads even just watching a couple hours of TV a week.
Dream husband is right, I am generally comfortable with my body — but it was a long road getting here. I went through high school in dance classes feeling fat and watching friends battle anorexia and bulimia, myself sometimes eating only an apple at school all day and then gorging when I got home, and even trying appetite suppresant pills a friend gave me (the only drugs I ever tried through high school and college!). That was all with a rare mother who had a healthy body image, and being naturally thin myself.
It took years of talking and writing, finding friends with healthier body images, taking women’s studies classes in college, and intensely studying gender representations and media in graduate school to truly (almost completely) let go of those deep-seated body issues and feel really good in my skin. I did my Master’s research on The Vagina Monologues, performed in the play three times (!), and I taught college classes in which we tore apart images of women in media.
And, still, I had this Victoria’s Secret dream.
The battle for healthy body image in this culture, for women and increasingly for men, is still raging as wildly as certain other undesirable wars. Even young women (and not-so-young women) who are given every positive message at home must still deal with unrelenting media images of unrealistic, ridiculously seductive women’s bodies that supposedly define “perfection,” thus leaving us to simply buy more and more products in attempt to achieve an impossible look. (Airbrushing. Need I say more?)
I think often about how I will attempt to help my daughter through this inevitable fact of growing up now, female and American.
Then I come across a book like BODY DRAMA: Real Girls, Real Bodies, Real Issues, Real Answers by Nancy Redd and I get a breath of renewed hope for my dear little girl. Actually, I sing Hallelujah!!
When MotherTalk sent a call for reviewers of this new book, I emphatically pleaded my case to review it. I wanted to see what this twenty-something former Miss America swimsuit competition winner and Harvard women’s studies graduate had to say to all the young women out there about their bodies.
Bottom line, what Nancy Redd says, and shows, girls and women in this book is, in a word, revolutionary.
It’s not for the prim our faint-hearted, I warn you. Although I also think those are the ones who may need this book most. Nancy Redd leaves no taboo body topic undiscussed — or photographed — in this book, unlike any I’ve ever seen. (Not at all shocking to this Vagina Monologues veteran, but I have no doubt this book will be burned in certain sectors, like many truth-telling tales before it.)
I actually worried a bit at first sight of chapters titled “Boobs” and “Down There” that she wasn’t going to deal with serious issues or take a feminist (read: woman-affirming) perspective. But, in reading the book, I see that she uses these titles to ease girls into the chapters and make them more accessible.
Once inside, Nancy does the serious work of talking straight with her readers about real issues they may face, all the while underlying every discussion with a message to learn to embrace your body and respect yourself, and be healthy without striving for “perfect.” She does an excellent job of tearing apart media images of women, in a comfortable “girlfriend” tone.
BODY DRAMA shows photos of (incredibly brave!) young women, and all their unmentionable body parts, to give the rest of us peace of mind that our bodies are “normal.” (Seriously, I love these girls.) And the book takes on airbrushing (hallelujah!) with a photo spread every person needs to see (page 240).
This amazing young author set out to write the “book she wished she had” growing up female in America (and in the beauty pageant circuit) to help her deal with her body. She uses important research (backed by a Dr. Angela Diaz, Director of the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center), and courageously reveals her own very personal experiences, to give young women the tools to embrace themselves and all of their uncomfortable bits.
This book is a gift to everyone, really — teenage girls, teenage boys, their parents. It makes women real again in this culture of highly unrealistic images of women.
And she even taught this teacher a few things!
In an interview, Redd says she faced a lot of scrutiny while writing this book, and I sincerely applaud her bravery and faith for continuing on and getting it published as it is. She says her most important advice to young women and their mothers is “to talk!” She explains that, as close as she and her mother were, they never had “the talk,” as she calls it, saying, “nor did she share any of her personal body dramas with me, which left me at a total disadvantage growing up.”
I can relate to this. As mothers, we all try our best to equip our daughters for this complicated world, while also just being women navigating this complicated world ourselves.
For me, I will take Nancy’s advice and talk with my daughter about body dramas as she grows, and I’m saving this book as a tool for later, when we need to discuss some of the most uncomfortable body dramas (and especially ones I didn’t have to deal with as a teen myself — the body piercing stuff? bikini waxing?). She will have plenty of body dramas. I have them. (Even still in my dreams!) And Nancy Redd takes them on with courage, knowledge, humility and compassion.
Thank you, Nancy Redd, for BODY DRAMA, and for sending the message to women young and old and everywhere that our bodies, as they are, are enough.
I’ve gotten excited lately about writing affirmations.
Affirmation. “A positive assertion,” as Miriam-Webster defines it.
This idea to write affirmations got sparked when Christina Katz asked me to write a little column called “Closing Words” for her new Writer Mama zine (link in the works). The assignment was to end her zine each month with a little affirming thought for her audience of writer moms, using my concept of “Being/Having Enough” as the general theme.
Me, being the nerd I am, started doing my research on the actual form of affirmations. I bought books of affirmations. I looked up the rules. And I realized that much of what I love to do — from my writing to my career counseling to my conversations with friends — involves the kind of perspective and purpose that affirmations accomplish.
In writing, an affirmation is a short, present-tense statement of empowerment. It’s often accompanied by a quote and/or a musing, and always ends with a statement to repeat (the affirmation). I’m sure you’ve seen them.
I’ve realized my style and my passion about the idea of “Having Enough (In a ‘Have-It-All’ World)” is actually quite well-suited for this form.
So, while my monthly Writer Mama column has not turned out to be quite an official affirmation in form (although it is affirming!), here at Having Enough (In a ‘Have-It-All’ World) I am now going to post a real, official, true-to-form affirmation for you (and for me) every month.
Here’s my first affirmation, for January 2008. (I’ll hereafter post my monthly affirmations on my sidebar as well.) Please let me know what you think! (If you really like them, maybe I’ll post them more often!)
“To know you have enough is to be rich.” – Tao Te Ching
Having enough is internal. You can have it right now, at any moment you choose.
It is not in your home, your car, your awards or diplomas, your clothes, your jewelry. It is not in what you have or don’t have, be they things, jobs, marriages, children, vacations. It is in your mind and in your heart.
Envision it. Believe it. Know it. Right now. You have enough.
Repeat: I have all that I need in this moment. I have enough.
My mom forwarded me this article, “The Struggle to Contain Ourselves,” from yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. It talks about the $6 billion — yes six billion dollar — storage and organization industry in our country.
Yes, Americans have so much stuff that we spend $6 billion a year on storage for it. And, still, this article says, 75% of Americans have so much clutter in their garages that they don’t have room for a car. (This stat came out a UCLA study on our country’s “storage crisis.”)
It’s funny, one of my proudest feats over Thanksgiving break was creating a labeled cubby system that organizes my daughter’s toys, our mail, cameras and cell phones. I love it, it’s so tidy and pleasing to look at. But we did spend a few bucks for this lovely organizing system (and it’s a cheap one compared to many). We literally had to bend our budget to simplify our stuff.
Even though we try to live simply, I was going crazy from the stuff piling up in our living room. Toys, mail, wires, receipts. Argh!
When our daughter gets new toys, we give away or put away old ones. We try not to buy stuff we don’t need. We reuse bags (I admit, my one holiday gift this year is my fancy new envirosax, a set of five lush, colorful bags that roll up and fit into a little pouch in my purse, which I love — again, I spent money to save resources, I know!).
DH and I try to fight the obsession with more stuff, asking family members to pitch in together for one gift for our DD, instead of six; asking the mail carrier to stop delivering all the ads that we never look at (that, it seems, is an impossible request); cleaning out our bathroom cabinets and sticking to the same few natural products.
And, yet, I read this WSJ article, and I know I’m a part of this crisis. I know I chose to spend money on organizational products to simplify my life. To buy more to have less. It’s quite a paradox.
I think we’re doing better in our house, and I appreciate the progress. Change does not happen overnight, and we’re not extremists. But, still, we have too much stuff, buy too much stuff. We all have too much stuff.
This is nothing new, but it’s something to keep thinking about and keep working on. And if the fact that we spend $6 billion every year in this country trying to organize our stuff doesn’t blow your mind, I don’t know what will!
Instead of resolutions this year, I decided to post five new links. Blogs and web sites that truly speak to the concept of “having enough.”
As I’ve explored “having enough” this year, I’ve realized it applies on so many levels. The level of enough stuff. Enough education. Enough growth. Enough space. Enough activities. Enough comparisons. The list goes on.
I’ll continue to explore this year, write when I have something to say, and let this blog evolve organically as it has. And I’ll add to my favorites (and blogroll) these sites that friends have led me to, or I’ve stumbled upon, in 2007:
3. The Story of Stuff – a 20-minute film and tips on cutting the destructive cycle of consumerism.
4. The Natural Child Project – for parents, the tagline: “Children reflect the treatment they receive”
5. Jen Lemen – writer, artist, doula who creates amazing inspirational posters and blog posts.
Add these to the list of other sites on my blogroll, and links from other posts this year (like Birthdays Without Pressure, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, and Green Halloween), and my Resources page, and “having enough” ideas seems to be flourishing everywhere. Not bad.
I’d love to hear of any “having enough” related sites that you know and love, too.
Thanks, as always, for visiting, and here’s to a great ’08…