On Get-Ups and Glitter: The Conflict of Appearance and Athleticism for Women at the Olympic Games

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The Rio Olympics have been underway for less than a week, and already, a few notable trends have emerged: those athletes who happen to be women are kicking ass; and many of those involved in reporting on the Games just can’t get over the fact that these awesome athletes happen to be women. My news feed is full of indignant (and justified) responses from feminist commentators (google “sexism olympics” for the latest criticism).

It’s heartening to see this response–we’re still a very long way from equality anywhere, but you can see the tide starting to turn. One reason that sexism has persisted is that it has, in the way of all pernicious ideologies, made itself seem totally normal and unremarkable over the span of…well, always. But bit by bit (and thanks to a combination of influences ranging from Title IX, to activism against racism, sexism, ableism, and queer-phobia, to the bizarrely-random-but-occasionally-democratizing social media), we’ve started to really see just how weird and wrong it is to limit our definitions of the individual according to the appearance of their body. Moreover, the meaning of the body is no longer just the special and obscure concern of academics–people everywhere are asking why one group of people get to define how other groups ought to be, and are getting really impatient when the answer is no more rational, no less lame than “because we said so.”

But change happens slowly, and lessons have to be repeated over and over again before they sink in.

Ten years ago, in the wake of the 2004 Athens and 2006 Beijing Olympics, I put in my feminist two cents, critiquing the way in which women were held to unfair standards of appearance in many sports. The article was academic, and probably longer than you want to read now–I’m re-posting a condensed version here, but if you’d like to read the whole thing (and see my carefully-cited sources), it’s online here.

“The Woman Athlete Revealed:

The Problem of Get-Ups and Glitter for Female Olympians” 

Popular Culture Review. 18.1 (2007): 49-60.

In most events of the Olympic games, while the athlete’s appearance plays a role in psychological competition with her opponent, her choices for physical presentation are largely dictated by function, by what will help her be faster, stronger, more focused. Nevertheless, in a significant handful of events—those that attract the most spectators and media coverage— clothes seem literally to make the girl. Unlike their male counterparts, in events like beach volleyball and gymnastics women are required to make their appearance part of their performance, on top of, and as a distraction from, their athletic ability. That they must wear costumes means that both they and the audience are made self-consciously aware of their femininity and sexuality, in a way that is not expected from men or women in most other events. The requirement of many women athletes to focus on the appearance of their bodies, rather than their function or skill, is a sign of a persistent inequality both on and off the playing field.

…[O]ur culture has so far been very reluctant to accept the crossing of gender lines by either sex in athletics. When we encounter athletic events where men demonstrate “feminine” skills and appearance and vice versa (men’s figure skating vs. women’s softball), our conceptions of safe normalcy become disturbed, and our discomfort becomes channeled into suspicions about the athletes’ adherence to gender norms and expectations about gender propriety.

To alleviate or deny this suspicion, most sports still maintain “separate spheres,” or division along gender lines. Within the realm of women’s, or ladies’ sport, female athletes are encouraged to demonstrate the “feminine apologetic” (Roth and Basow 252), to reassure spectators—not to mention themselves to a certain extent—of their femininity and heterosexuality, of their conformity to and support of social conventions and the sexual status quo… 

…In spite of the prevailing assumptions about gender and bodily comportment, female athletes in many sport events have long appreciated and pursued the same kinds of achievements of strength, speed, and aggression that have always appealed to men. Women athletes today have proven their skill, fitness, and competitiveness, have narrowed the performance gap with men in many events, and have won the attention and admiration of spectators. Nevertheless, media coverage of women’s sport outside the Olympics is so scanty as to give the impression that there is none. As Shields et al. have found, 90% of non-Olympic sport coverage focuses on men; over the course of the 1996, 1998, 2000, and 2002 Olympics, while women received proportionately more coverage than male athletes, it remained “largely focused on sports/events traditionally stereotyped as ‘appropriate’ for women and girls [and] unless a ‘gold medal’ was at stake, the coverage of less ‘feminine’ sports/events was at best thin” (Shields et al. 5). At the same time, women who do not do well at the feminine apologetic by virtue of appearance and interests are regarded with suspicion as somehow not quite properly female (both their sexuality and their sex are conflated and called into question) and receive less media attention (which often translates into reduced financial support for their events).

In the cases of those female athletes who appear appropriately feminine, enough to secure media attention and commercial endorsements, marketing strategy directly exploits their heterosexual attractiveness as much as it highlights their abilities…[And] when women do attract media attention it is often for reasons other than pure interest in their game. 

Of course, it is important to acknowledge that appearance and the choice of what to wear in Olympic or international competition is not solely defined by gender conventions. In fact, the lack of concern with appearance in so many events makes those few where it seems primary stand out all the more strikingly. For example, in equestrian events or rowing, the choice of what to wear is determined by tradition and function, rather than gender. Long pants, high boots and a helmet make sense for straddling the back of a large animal, the jumps of which can take a rider several dangerous feet off the ground; equestrian sports have been quite egalitarian in participation and attire throughout their history in the Olympics. Similarly, in rowing, while men and women do not compete against one another, they are at least equal in terms of how they perform their sports and dress for them. In the hot weather of a typical summer Games, tank tops and shorts are good choices for mobility and comfort for both sexes.

In many sports, the body is certainly on display, but mostly for the simple reason that too much clothing can get in the way: it can be hot, and excess material soaked in sweat from heat and exertion can be uncomfortable and add weight. Moreover, with today’s technology, athletic clothes are often designed to be tight and form-fitting, not for the sake of sexiness (or not primarily so), but so that the material can provide support to muscles and delicate areas, or enhance speed by reducing friction or drag. It is for this reason that swimmers have actually started to wear more clothing rather than less: the new unitards or leggings are supposed to make the swimmer faster than the skimpier Speedos of the past. Display of the body is also undoubtedly a legitimate psychological strategy, to intimidate the opponent and build confidence within the athlete’s mind. A body that looks invincible, through the choice of how to cover it, may actually be so; a player who wears a small amount of clothing, or clothing or accessories that attract attention for their own sake, may give an impression of confidence, insouciance, or irreverence that may effectively rattle an opponent.

Beyond the value of possible psychological advantage, there is the value to the player of publicity—and here is where appearance can start to have political or ideological ramifications. …Many observers would argue that adding a bit of sex and glamour to a sport is a legitimate, necessary strategy to attract spectators and money in a very competitive marketplace—and the idea that sport exists for its own pure, noble sake is simply naïve. Better to get the money and the attention than be forced to give up the game. Witness the enduring problems of women’s basketball and soccer. Title IX has made all sport far more accessible for girls and women than ever before, and there are excellent female athletes competing at the highest levels; but even the biggest team sports cannot compete with men’s leagues for media attention and fan support (Shields et al. 1, “Media” 9). In a male-dominated industry, producers, governing bodies, and commentators often argue that women may be capable of impressive athleticism, but they simply do not play as fast, aggressively, and skillfully as men. If men will not accept women in some sports as athletes, then it seems to be a necessary evil to appeal to their interest and money as sponsors and consumers through sex appeal.

It is hard to argue when the athletes themselves insist that their bodies are their own, and they can decide freely what to do with them. While feminists may feel concern for the female athlete’s soul, the athlete herself may feel very positively about her participation in the spectacle of sport…From a certain post-feminist point of view, marketing the athletic female body can be “empowering…allow[ing] women to revalue their own bodies as a source of pleasure, freedom, and legitimation in their own terms and as a resource for their own power” (Carty, 5). 

…But one may be skeptical that these athletes are making their choices in complete freedom—that their concept of freedom is not in fact one that has actually been constructed for them in a culture that has tolerated a certain amount of sexual equality, but which has also found ways to assimilate and commodify feminist principles of choice to serve its own ends: “Though women may be voluntarily posing to show off their muscular bodies, these new body types had to be first accepted by men and then be transfigured into [commodified] images of sexuality” (Carty 6). The sexualized, eroticized bodies of both male and female athletes are sold by the media, and eagerly consumed by the fans, making such bodies objects, not autonomous subjects with real political power: consequently, “the kinds of individual ‘empowerment’ that can be purchased through consumerism seriously reduce women’s abilities to identify their collective interests” (Dworkin and Messner, 350).

Take, for example, one of the most popular events at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece: beach volleyball. Jose Cuervo, the tequila company, created beach volleyball through heavy sponsorship in the late 1970s, and, according to one company spokesman, intended it to be a “legitimate sport with a party lifestyle” (qtd. in Jay, 201). Perhaps it is not then surprising that the uniforms for the women’s athletic competition were very nearly the same as what the female dancers wore while entertaining the crowd and the media during breaks in play. According to the rules of the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball [up until 2012] women players [were] required to wear proportionately less fabric than the men: “The top must fit closely to the body and the design must be with deep cutaway armholes on the back, upper chest and stomach (2-piece)…The briefs should…be a close fit and be cut on an upward angle towards the top of the leg. The side width should be maximum 7 cm [2 ½ inches]. The one piece uniform must closely fit and the design must be with open back and upper chest” (“Beach Volleyball” 3). Although the rules allow for one-piece bathing suits for women, the de facto uniform [was] a bikini.

There is certainly no reason for the women to wear bikinis for this event. It is true that a game played on the hot sand, at a beach, does not lend itself to heavy clothes, but the bikini was obviously not the most functional choice: after every play the women had to adjust their briefs because they were riding up—not a terribly sexy move, and a sign of some discomfort. Surely if the women had been wearing the same functional, and probably more comfortable, apparel as the men are allowed, a tank top and shorts, they would have played just as well; or, if the bikini is the more optimal choice of attire for performance, then the men would probably wear some version of it too. While the Women’s Sports Federation supports the choice of athletes to wear revealing uniforms, they make a distinction between reasonable choice, and regulations that require “minimalist uniforms to increase [female athletes’] attractiveness to male spectators, a standard which is even more suspect if such requirements are not identically applied to male athlete uniforms” (“Uniforms” 2). I would argue that the beach volleyball bikini is indeed “suspect.” 

Update: as of 2012, the Federation has changed its rules, and women are allowed more leeway than before–now, in the current Games, we have athletes making choices about their competitive apparel based on their personal values as well as functionality. (Call me cynical, but I’m guessing the bikini-clad athletes are still going to be the ones featured in the tequila ads. )

[And then there’s gymnastics…] Men and women athletes perform in several different events—men do the rings, but women do the balance beam. One event they both do is the floor routine, but even here the criteria are very different. Both perform impressive feats of tumbling and flipping, both have to demonstrate strength and flexibility, but the men go through their moves almost as though they are trying not to be graceful; whereas, in addition to demonstrating athleticism, female gymnasts also have to demonstrate sexuality and femininity, to music, by performing dance moves that are coy, flirtatious, even seductive. All of this despite the fact that many “women” gymnasts are actually still adolescent[s]. Until recently girls as young as thirteen competed in the Olympics, and often did very well by virtue of the lightness and mobility of their undeveloped bodies. Although girls cannot now compete in the Olympics until they are sixteen, their bodies are still trapped in a state of early-adolescent appearance because of the rigors of years of training… And yet, in their routines, in addition to displaying impressive athletic prowess, they must also demonstrate sexualized, feminine behavior, a disturbingly inappropriate, and arguably irrelevant, requirement.

In all their events, male gymnasts wear pants and tank tops; women are required to wear body suits with bare legs. The sport’s regulations make some stipulations for modesty: “the cut of the leg of the leotards must not go above the iliac crest (hipbone)…and the line of the leg must not start or drift between the glutei (buttocks).” The leotards must not be too low cut on the chest, and the “design or transparency of attire must not allow exposure of undergarments, trunk, navel, or other private body parts”. At the same time, the clothing must be “skin tight to enable the judges to evaluate the correct position of the body” (“Competition Attire” 40). And, while there are no specific regulations for or against it, female gymnasts often wear make-up and hair glitter; even in discrete amounts, this is an additional element of theatricality that, again, we do not see matched by anything comparable in the men’s performances.

It is not clearly stated in the regulations why judges are able to evaluate the correct position of men’s bodies in their uniforms, which, though slim-fitting, are not skin tight and cover substantially more surface area, but cannot make the same assessment of women’s bodies unless they are more exposed. Nor do we ever hear discussion, during coverage of gymnastics events at the Olympics, of why the women are required to display themselves more in every aspect of competition, through the choreography of their routines, or through the wearing of blush and glitter. The explanation that I would offer is that the judges, and everyone else involved in the production and consumption of gymnastics, are all seeing the athletes’ bodies in very different ways according to sex, and seem to be looking for something extra—aesthetic, sexual—in the women’s performance that they do not require from the men. What this means for the athletes is that while the men may concentrate solely on demonstrating strength and skill, women must do the same, while also concentrating on disguising or minimizing any implication of real physical power. Men go out on the competition floor and do gymnastics; women do gymnastics, plus theatrics, plus seduction; these female athletes are always burdened with the obligation to expend extra mental and physical energy on self-consciously performing the version of femininity expected of them in a sport, and by extension, a culture that is still firmly divided along gender lines.

It has been difficult, in the course of this research, to discover any stated rationale for these separate expectations in gymnastics; there may not in fact be any official policy on hair glitter.  Ask gymnasts to explain and they will say that it is just the way it has always been done—and that may be as good an explanation as any. That is the way it has always been done, since the beginning of the sport for women: in other words, women of the so-called post-feminist era are competing or performing according to the values of a pre-feminist era. When sports of the modern Olympics were chosen for men, the emphasis was on celebrating the masculine body, its ability to be powerful, fast, aggressive, warrior-like. When women were allowed to compete at the Olympics in the early twentieth century, at first it was on a very limited basis, in sports considered appropriate for celebration of feminine ability—which was not masculine; the emphasis was on skill, to be sure, but also on qualities such as grace, flexibility, and artistic expression. Arguably, the idea of mostly-male Olympic organizers was that if women had to be present at the games, it was to be as artists, and not athletes at all. Their presence was tolerated as entertainment, and was not originally conceived of as sport. Even when competition in events like track and swimming became matters of national honor in the Cold War, while female athletes who could beat women of the Eastern Block were welcomed with relief, it was still very necessary for them to exhibit femininity on and off the track—to prove it in fact, through a regimen of sex testing that persisted in the Olympics until 1999 (Cahn 264, Fields 160, Carlson 4). The scandals of the cold-war era Games, when several Eastern European and Chinese athletes were found to have genetic abnormalities, or took massive amounts of drugs to change their sexual characteristics, only confirmed the suspicions of many that women could never be that good in athletic competition if they were “real” women.

Doubts about a woman’s ability to combine athletic prowess and “true” femininity persist. There is still a strong sense that if a woman is good, if she exhibits features of athleticism usually coded as masculine, like strength and speed, she either holds onto her femininity, and so never approaches the standards of masculine athletic success—or, if she is really good as an athlete, there must be something wrong with her as a woman. Men are not free from sexual stereotyping either in events like figure skating or synchronized diving; but it is nevertheless the case that it is socially much easier for a man to pursue many different sports without anyone questioning his fitness as a man to do so. 

In the modern Olympics, women have achieved near parity in terms of numbers, and yet true equality eludes them in many events—and where there is inequality in some events, there is really inequality for all. Women athletes in some of the most popular and heavily-covered events of the Games are trained and rewarded on a whole other level than men are, for how they look and dress as much as how they perform. At the most benign end of the scale, both women and men are rewarded for their sexual as well as athletic appeal, and are able to make use of this appeal to intimidate rivals and earn extra endorsements and media coverage: a form of power some would argue. At the most pernicious extreme, these women, often really still girls, are required to display sexuality and femininity in order to compete. They cannot simply be athletes: they are always required to think of themselves from the outside, as spectacles, as symbols of “normal” sexuality and gender which reassure viewers (and participants) that the combination of “female” and “athlete” does not pose any threat to social order. 

As long as women athletes are required to have this split focus and split experience of their identities and abilities, they cannot pursue their sports with the same concentration and potential for development that men can. Their sex holds them back—not because they are weaker or less skilled, but because they are always both overburdened, and incomplete. “Complete” would be represented by the word “athlete,” rather than the words “female athlete.”

That women are competing at the elite level of the Olympics, in multiple sports, and, increasingly, on their own terms when it comes to apparel and looks, is a sign of great progress. That the physical power and skill these athletes display is still not enough to overcome societal expectations about gender is a sign that we’ve still got a lot of work to do.

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On Community

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I worry about loneliness.

During those times times in my life (the literal and figurative Februaries) when I’ve been very lonely, I try very hard NOT to think about loneliness—that just compounds the misery. But because loneliness is horrible—and because it’s in my nature to worry about many, many things—even when I’m happily not alone (the literal and figurative Augusts), I’ll have fleeting moments of profound, disconcerting concern: sure, I’ve got people now, in this moment, I’ll think. But what if that changes? how will I manage the next time I’m alone? what should I be doing now to guard against an uncertain, potentially-lonely future?

To clarify—when I talk about being alone, I don’t mean solitude. Some of us need a certain amount of time on our own, away from the demands of the world—away from the noise, motion, emotion, and (often disordered) thoughts and behaviors of others. Overwhelmed, over-committed, over-stimulated, overcome, over-done, we need peaceful stillness (and a bit of ice cream and Netflix) to restore a sense of balance for ourselves, to get our own disorder back in order. That kind of restorative solitude isn’t a problem, it’s an absolute necessity.

But being the kind of person who needs that kind of solitude often goes hand-in-hand with being the kind of person who doesn’t—can’t, really—have a huge network of friends and relations. We can’t help but be who we are, and some of us are simply not built for extraversion: we might be shy; we might be hard-wired for aversion to crowds, and telephones; we might recoil, completely involuntarily, at the idea of joining things, or calling people out of the blue, or networking, or small talk, or making the first move, or sharing personal space with people we don’t know.

You see the problem.

We want to be friendly and make connections, we really do…But: when everyone else is making phone calls (how?? how do you just barge into the personal space of someone on the spur of the moment?? the exposure! the intrusiveness! the claustrophobic feeling of being trapped, stuck, yelling into our little boxes and never being able to hear what the other person says? horrible!!), or going bowling (shoes that other people have worn!!), or effortlessly working your way into conversation circles to chit-chat about manicures at cocktail parties (it’s like what they say about being an anesthetist—long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of intense panic), or most social interactions which many people consider completely normal and even kind of fun—Nope. Just. Can’t.

The last networking reception I was at, I got my one free glass of wine, made two laps of the room trying to look open, alert, and approachable—which doubtlessly resulted in me actually looking shifty-eyed, skittish, and a little crazed—and ended up wafting around helplessly like a stray plastic bag on a windy street—buffeted by the social currents, aimless, superfluous, unwanted.

You extraverts never imagined that putting on a Hello, my name is —— badge could be so fraught, did you?

The world seems to be set up by extraverts expressly to make being extraverted easy, and to make being introverted a constant, sisyphean ordeal. In other words, some of us find it really, really hard to make a lot of friends.

This is a problem that many people just don’t care about most of the time, because they just don’t have to. Sorry, that sounds a bit judge-y, but I’m not wrong. Maybe you’re naturally outgoing; or are, by birth or relationship, part of a relatively large, close-knit family; or you’re lucky to live or work with sociable, community-minded people; or some combination of those circumstances—then the idea that you would need to make a deliberate effort to get and keep people around you probably never crosses your mind. In fact, you’re more likely to occasionally think—depending on the day— that you’re blessed, or afflicted, with too many people rather than too few. You’re living the norm, and, kind of by definition, we tend to take the norm, the default, the status quo for granted.

I’ve done it myself: I’ve gone through phases of my life where I’ve had my hands full with relationships, and family, and friends. I’ve taken the situation for the status quo; I’ve been complacent, maybe even a little self-satisfied. I’ve even been peripherally aware of others making overtures of friendship to me, and have brushed them off because I simply felt that my social and emotional dance card was full. It’s a nice kind of excess to have, and the kind we make make note of in our gratitude journals without really grasping its value. Often—like the song says—you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.

But we live in tenuous, unstable times. Communities and families don’t have the cohesiveness that they once did. We idealize, fetishize, our private space as a sign of independence, success, status, no matter how resource-intensive and anti-social. Whether by choice or exigency, we form bonds and then we break them, or they get broken for us, or they just…dissipate. We get caught up and worn down by the need to look after others at work, then by the need to look after ourselves outside of work, and, in a stupid irony, the more we have to rely on ourselves for care, the less time and energy we have to connect with others who could share some of that burden with us.  A relationship ends—a marriage, a friendship—and takes other connections down with it. Financial and professional survival drives us to move. We’re so distracted by the illusion of connection that we mistake our online interjections (hey! look at this! look at me!) for the work of building and maintaining relationships. We discover that friends and lovers are just like us—that is, occasionally provoking, needy, or boring—and when we can’t be as patient and compassionate with them as we wish others were with us, we avoid, we fade…and in the absence of any entrenched social mechanisms to keep us tied to one another through our moments of weakness and pettiness and fatigue, the next thing you know it’s February, and everyone has somehow become no-one.

It’s not February now—literally or figuratively—but it has been before and will be again. Winter is coming, and all that, and you don’t want to be stuck on the wrong side of the Wall when it does.

So when you contemplate the impending return of cold and darkness, what do you do to ensure that you’ve got all the people you need to mount a good defense? Because it’s now, in (figurative) August, when you have to take conscious steps to prepare for (figurative, nightmarish) February.

You might say that your defensive strategy is just to chill the f*ck out, because, as someone who is untroubled by either introversion OR what seems to be a near-paralyzing degree of hyper-vigilant anxiety, you’re pretty sure there’s nothing to worry about. Things will sort themselves out.

Every hear the story of the grasshopper and the ants? Here’s a dirty little secret: when a laid-back person congratulates herself on how easily things sort themselves out, it’s often because, somewhere, there are neurotic, hyper-vigilant, hyper-responsible people toiling neurotically behind the scenes to ensure the sorting out gets done. Grasshoppers believe, with charming romanticism, that no non-professional relationship ought to require anything so vulgar as work. Ants know better. If we ever actually did just chill the f*ck out, we know that activities would not get planned, reservations would go unmade, invitations wouldn’t be sent, and, when the grasshoppers failed to rsvp yet again, invitations wouldn’t be re-issued with “high priority” and “read receipt” alerts added. In short, civilization (or, at least, our social groups) would collapse utterly.

Plus, ants like me couldn’t chill the f*ck out even if we wanted to (and we do, but just can’t).

Faced with the prospect of February, of long nights, empty of company and thus full of terrors, there can be no other strategy than to disregard the dangerous insouciance of the grasshoppers,* and to continue working, fretfully, anxiously, to shore up the defenses, to enlist as many allies as possible, to build up our stores of people.

I wish it weren’t such difficult work, so high-stakes, so costly in terms of time and emotional energy. I wish it were work that was just done already, once and for all, preferably by somebody else (why can’t it??).

I’m going to have to join things. I’ll have to issue invitations. I’ll have to lose sleep wondering about the significance of every delayed or missing rsvp. I’ll have to lobby and organize and chivvy. Heaven help me, I might have to join MeetUp.** 

It makes me tired just thinking of it.

But there’s no other way. Each of us—not just neurotic, only-child, introverts like me, but all of us—is vulnerable to being alone when we don’t want to be. And if we wait until (figurative, nightmarish) February to help one another, it’ll be too late. Community is our only defense against the loneliness that threatens us all. And yet, since communities don’t just happen any more (if that was ever the case), they have to be made. More precisely, people (all the ants, all the grasshoppers) have to make and nurture them, with intention, with effort, even with a bit of neurotic hyper-vigilance. We might have to cooperate; we might have to share; we might have to get over ourselves, and occasionally be where it’s noisy and crowded.

Building a community seems like work we shouldn’t have to do—it’s (literal and figurative) August now, and the cold and darkness seem very far away. But when winter comes—and it always does—it’ll be worth the effort, to calm the worry now, and to stave off deprivation then.

Let me know when you’re ready to get to work.

*You can accuse me of mixing metaphors all you like. I’m perfectly confident, however, that Jon Snow is an introvert completely familiar with a Westerosi version of the grasshopper/ant parable, and his frustration at being one of the latter trying to save the former in spite of themselves is what makes him look so continually tortured and put-upon.

**But dammit, I will NOT use the bloody phone. That’s my line in the sand. Stop yelling into those little boxes and use literacy and technology to communicate like civilized people.  

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On Surrender

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Apparently, a key indicator of how well- (or how poorly-) controlled my anxiety is, is how much I’m meditating. As in, I tend to wander from the mat when I feel like my life is unfolding in a more or less manageable fashion, only to drag my scattered, recalcitrant, self back to my seat when I just Can. Not. Deal.

Which is why I was meditating earlier today, for exactly that reason, the whole not-being-able-to-deal thing: Too many competing obligations and responsibilities—no single one actually costs that much in terms of time or attention, but while I can manage 5 things with some equanimity, I just start to go squirrelly when the things number in the DOZENS (well, only two dozen—but turns out that two dozen things a day is 1.5 dozen too many). Too many different people, wanting or needing too many different things. And just too many Provocations. So many Provocations: IT, HR, the road, the guns, the ignorance, the prejudice, the stubborn, benighted, commitment to doing things badly, unethically, stupidly, and/or hatefully.

I don’t want to be anxious, distressed, or angry. But I’m all of those, too often. Remember all those f*cks I vowed I was going to stop giving? Turns out I’m useless at not giving a f*ck. Or, more accurately, I’m way too good at giving all the f*cks about all the Provocations, without seeming to change a single one of them, which is, in a very important way, one of the most provoking things of them all. 

So to attempt to deal, to get a grip, to give slightly fewer f*cks in order to give my poor mind a break, there I was, meditating, or trying to, which means I was trying to stay focused on the breath, no more and no less…and in actuality thinking obsessively, ruminatively, and with a lot of very genuine hostility about all the Provocations, and about how much time and energy I waste trying to counteract the Provocations, and how much additional time goes into composing all the speeches in my head wherein I imagine telling the Provocations just how wrong and obstructionist they are, plus all the time wasted scolding myself for being so easily and distractingly provoked in the first place.

All this time that I was very much not focused on the breath, a very kind, mindful woman was speaking in gentle tones about the theme of this particular meditation session, which was “surrendering to what is.” We were several minutes into the session before I realized that’s what our theme was, because I was too distracted by the unremitting, uselessly-imaginary battle going on in my head, in which I was (channelling Brienne of Tarth) absolutely, stubbornly refusing to surrender in my noble defense of Reason and Justice. 

I tried to focus on the breath. In. Out. In. Out. The kind, mindful woman reminded me of just how much distress we experience because we insist that things must be different than they are. I kept breathing, and tried to accept her argument, to surrender to it.

Nope. Nothing doing.

That is, I know she’s right…kind of. I’ve worked on this in meditation, and therapy, and self-help books, and Oprah’s magazine. I’ve made a lot of progress, really! I am far, far more accepting of What Is, of Provocations over which I have no control, than I used to be. That’s Progress. 

But:

(see, this is how the non-surrendering always goes, always starting with “but…” escalating to “moreover” and then spiraling out of control from there…)

But: there are things in this life—Provocations—that are so provoking at best, so terribly destructive at worst, that we cannot, must not accept them. Nor can we surrender to them. Sure, you can’t control whether you enjoy this person’s company, or despise that one, or fall in or out of love with the other. You really (alas) can’t magically transform yourself to be more clever, or beautiful, and thus more successful, desirable, or loved. Certain things just Are the Way They Are. Moreover, WE are just the way we are, and, as the kind, mindful woman advises, surrendering to the inevitability of being ourselves is probably the most compassionate (most difficult) move we can make. Yes. Agreed.

But: the Provocations are things that are, that should not be, don’t need to be, oughtn’t to be. Moreover: no kind, compassionate person who cares, not just about the peace of her own existence, but about the well-being of others in the world—no good person can just let those Provocations stand.

Sometimes the Provocations seem relatively inconsequential: the little mind which insists on a foolish consistency, the bureaucrat or functionary who puts their need to feel important ahead of educating, healing, or, simply, helping to make others’ lives easier. These Provocations are, in the grand scheme of things, petty—and yet, how insidious such selfishness and complacency and obstructionism can be! When we are distracted, worn down, side-tracked, and aggravated by these seemingly-petty, unnecessary, obstacles, we are thwarted—a little bit here, a little bit there—in our efforts to teach, to create, to care. The energy that we want to put into being good gets sapped, and—sadly—it’s too easy to do harm, to respond with pettiness—which can never fix the initial insult that provoked us and so just ends up becoming a Provocation to someone else.

The hurt and resentment and self-protective stubbornness fostered by those petty provocations makes it harder for us to prevent the really serious ones—the ignorance, fear, intellectual or moral laziness, or selfish indifference which fuel prejudice, hatred, and violence.

Would it be better for me, more relaxing, if I just let go of my anger and distress when confronted by petty, bureaucratic tyranny? Almost certainly. But: if I surrender and accept mediocrity and incompetence so that my life can be easier, I run the risk of making life more difficult for others, which seems very wrong.

Would it be better for all of us, easier, to just surrender to what is, to accept that we live in a hate-filled, violent culture where too many of our neighbors believe that the way to really feel like they’re somebody is to take power, happiness, safety, and life away from others? Of course it would be easier—it has been easier—which is why racists, misogynists, homophobes, and every other kind of bigot can hijack nightclubs, theaters, schools, communities, and laws.

That’s where I draw my line in the sand. I don’t know if resisting, kicking and fighting, will change much—it often doesn’t seem to—and it’s certainly not going to make my life easier, or less stressed. But: too much of what is, just shouldn’t be. I can neither accept it nor surrender to it; moreover, nor can you.

Instead: we can accept love, kindness, thoughtful courtesy, learning, creating, and caring. We can surrender to the uneasiness, the messiness, the vulnerability that ensues when we don’t hide behind self-centered indifference. We can accept that it’s not just understandable, but necessary, however uncomfortable, to combat ignorance and hatred. We can accept compassion. And sometimes we can, we must, surrender to the anger, the outrage, which motivates action.

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On Continuity

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(Content warning)

As it happens—and I say this without any defensiveness at all, honestly, really, because I’m secure enough in myself that I don’t need to prove anything about my attractiveness and worth by ensuring that you all know this—I’ve been on several actual dates in the last year. But if I haven’t dissected, catalogued, stuffed, and mounted every single one of them, and put them on display as artifacts of my history (and proof of my attractiveness and worth), I’ve had my reasons.

In some very few cases, the dates have gone well enough that to even reveal that much strikes my superstitious mind as the utmost, fate-tempting, folly—and consequently, I’ll say no more, to forestall jinxes. Far more typically, the dates were just more of the same—confrontations with incompatibility; provocations to impatience, ennui, and occasional pity; recoil from physical and personal qualities I could never have anticipated would bother me, until they assumed alarming human form on this or that barstool, throughout the city, from one tedious week to the next. Time spent, for stories just not worth telling.

So I can’t tell you the really, really good stories (yet), and I won’t bother you with the demoralizingly-dull ones…which thus only leaves the truly, truly awful ones. (And there are fewer and fewer of those, because my writerly desire to accrue material has been gradually replaced by a wiser desire to husband scarce resources). I’m not sure that these awful stories are ones I should tell, or that you need to read. If I tell a story that’s funny, or maybe bittersweet but heartening, then maybe I’ve added some good to the world. But if I tell a story that might distress you, and yet change nothing, then is it worth telling? You might feel sympathy for me (and heaven knows, I do love my sympathy); you might feel both personally and generally outraged. But you won’t be able to do anything to change its outcome. In which case, what will this story actually do for you? And never mind you, what will telling it do for me?

This particular tale of romance and seduction took place in the bleakness of last winter, but I’ve held on to it since then, not because the incident left me especially hurt, but rather because the malign gloom of last February had already weighed me, and my writing down, quite enough, to the point where I felt (as I so often do) like the Lady of Shalott, stuck with her loom and her mirror and her curse. I was “half sick of shadows.”

Why do I feel compelled to tell this story now, instead? Well, now is…not then. That thing, then, is done, finished, not the thing that is happening—no longer the thing that is immediately and factually a moment of my life, a thing to be endured. Now it’s just a thing that happened—to me, incidentally, though it could just as easily have happened (and has, and does) to anyone else. Now it’s a thing that happened that I can mine and exploit for the purpose of telling stories to you, for you (fine, yes, for me).

Rightly or wrongly.

So:

Once upon a time, when the city was under siege by winter, and we all felt the weight of the snow pressing in on us from all sides, keeping us from going anywhere, doing anything, seeing anyone, A. and I reached our limit and had to Get.Out.

And not Out to just any old place. Not at all. Instead, we seriously and earnestly did what we were supposed to do, which was to Get Ourselves Out There. We didn’t do something we actually wanted, for no better reason than that we wanted it; we did what single women are enjoined to do, and which we grudgingly accede to, so that we can say we did our due diligence. We got Out There and—heaven help us—went to look for men.

We had discovered that one of the newest things in dating is…cocktail parties. That is, everyone is so fatigued, disillusioned, fed up, and over all the self-promotion, and lying, and photoshopping when you shouldn’t and not photoshopping when you should, that the prospect of actually meeting other human beings, live and in person, seems marvelously novel. The big online companies (there might just be one giant OmniDate by now, studying us and moving us around like chess pieces) in their infinite wisdom make arrangements with a bar here, or one of those paint-your-own picture outfits somewhere else, invite us all, and then leave it up to us to make Romance happen.

Not surprisingly, we’re not much better at it in person than online: a few of us stand around haplessly, edging toward the perimeter of little conversation circles, hoping the cute guy talking to the woman less attractive than ourselves will lose interest in her and focus on us; or if we’re holding our ground in the circle, strategically shifting a hip or shoulder to include the cute guy, or keep out the creepy-looking one who’s been skulking around with a socially-underfed look, and whom we are all hoping won’t attempt to talk to us. As might be predicted, every physical type we don’t like is over-represented. Too many beards, too much indifferent dental care, too many badly-fitting clothes. Men strike up conversations, ask me what I do, then, failing to register it as anything significant or interesting, start holding forth on something I’m kind of an expert on, and when I gently suggest an alternative to their opinion, insist that they have to disagree with me. Because this is how they provoke interest and attraction, by insisting that their target is wrong about pretty much everything as a gambit for expounding on how right they are.

Finally, I end up talking to someone who seems quite reasonable. Professional, very liberal, apparently on sound financial footing, living in a nice neighborhood and not in his car, fit, well-read, appreciative of a good vocabulary. We joke about how we could make the online dating screening process much simpler if we just gave a few multiple choice questions on vocabulary and history (“Which of the following is the president of Africa?” Or “A soporific is a) an especially absorbent sponge; b) something you put on sunburns; c) related to the word terrific; d) all of the above”). He watches Homeland and other approved tv shows. We exchange stories about our sports injuries and our stubborn refusal to obey doctors’ advice to just lay off. From this conversation, we make inferences about one another’s values, status, intelligence, and lean-to-fat ratios. Since we’re actually in the same room, each can assess whether the other is attractive. The results are favorable. A. is at this event with me (and beset by a succession of unfortunate hobbits), so I have the advantage of having her impressions too. We agree that my candidate seems perfectly nice and worth seeing again, not hobbit-like at all in appearance, though we’re concerned that he might be a little too earnest, a little too mild-mannered.

He and I trade numbers. After the appropriate interval, I hear from him—he asks me out and we continue to exchange messages in the days leading up to the date. He’s glad he met me, and looking forward to getting to know me better over dinner. And a good dinner too—no Panera or terrible seafood place where no-one but tourists go—French food and everything.

The actual date goes really well. Though I’m a bit self-conscious at first, I start to feel comfortable with him. I make a few somewhat-arcane pop culture references and he gets them; we have a good exchange that ranges from the original SuperMan series on tv with the improbably-fleshy George Reeves, to spelunking, to the question of whether liver is ever edible. Somewhat atypically, we don’t really get into anything too terribly personal; most people can’t resist talking about their romantic history at least a little bit, and dropping a few hints about what they’re looking for—but we don’t really get into any of that. I take that as a good sign, that he might—according to standard dating advice—prefer a certain amount of healthy reticence as part of getting to know one another in a more relaxed way.

And of course, through the whole meal, he’s watching me, I’m watching him, continuing to take one another’s measure.

As we leave, he offers me a ride home. I say that’s not necessary, I can take the train very easily. But it’s miserably cold and our city is still barely navigable on foot, and the date has gone well. I make the calculations we make: he’s attractive, but the concern about him being a bit too earnest and mild-mannered persists. I’m not absolutely smitten, but I’m interested, and I’m definitely cold, so I figured I’ll take the ride, but will thank him politely and leave it at that.

I’m sorry—maybe this story isn’t as gripping as it could be. Well, I’m not quite done yet:

After a completely pleasant but innocuous drive, he pulls up to my house and stops the car. He asks a few questions about the neighborhood, which I answer, talking a little bit too much out of nerves, as, of course, this is a pivotal moment in any date.

He looks at me significantly. We all know this look. I, of course, can’t avoid remarking on it a bit clumsily: “You look like you’re going to make a move,” I venture. “I am,” he says, and does.

Ironically, it was just the day before that I’d been talking to a class about the perils of the Rochester-type hero, who, after 150 years of evolution culminates in Robin Thicke and Christian Gray and Jian Ghomeshi—that self-appointed dominant man who takes what he wants, and who knows what we want better than we know ourselves, and is all too willing to show us, because even though we say we don’t want it, or say nothing at all, they know we do. Editorializing pretty freely, I had warned the men and women in the class that such a man is more trouble than he’s worth, and is, in real-life practice, a menace. You don’t want to be him, and you don’t want to date him, I said, drawing on my seniority and wisdom, to save these poor, impressionable, young people from having to learn the hard way.

Which is one of the many incongruous thoughts I had in my head as this earnest, mild-mannered non-hobbit-y municipal lawyer attempted very energetically and roughly to get my clothes off in the front seat of his car. Instead of the relatively chaste good-night-this-could-be-the-start-of-something kiss I was expecting, he was All.Over.Me.

Thanks to our horrible New England winter, I was swaddled head to toe in so many layers, the man would have needed to be an Egyptologist armed with heavy-duty bandage scissors to actually get at anything important. Which didn’t keep him from trying—he clawed my parka open, trying to get one hand down and the other up. I wasn’t scared. Rather—and this is the familiar experience—I felt slightly dissociated from what was happening. The whole situation seemed absurd, surreal: when he suddenly hit the button on my car seat to full recline, I thought, Didn’t this come up in Happy Days, as a move that Fonzie could pull off but Richie could not?

I wasn’t exactly cooperating, but confused by what was really happening, I wasn’t fighting either. Because I had—had—thought he was quite nice and attractive, and had been curious to see where things would lead, I kept expecting that the present frenzy would settle down into something normal and pleasant.  But it just didn’t (this whole episode was maybe 5 minutes? 10?). He did pause at a certain moment (“Oh good,” I thought, “now it will be normal and pleasant??”)—to suggest we go up to my apartment. I realized that he thought things were going really well. I declined, saying, as one does, that I didn’t want to move too quickly. He said, “well, it’s not like it’s our first date.” I didn’t argue the point with him; I didn’t see the point in debating much—I just wanted to get away. I insisted I had an early morning, so needed to go in. He walked me to the door, where he attempted to maul me further (and I actually have to use the world “maul,” which is supposed to be for rabid dogs and starving bears, in a sentence pertaining to my life). I left him grinning, proud of himself for scoring so well on this oh-so-successful more-than-first date.

The text I received the next day seemed to come from a completely different person: exactly the normal, sweet, complimentary, note you’d expect from someone you’d want to see again, looking forward eagerly to the next date. I felt like I’d been with both Jeckyll and Hyde in one evening. This was definitely not the text of a man who had any idea that his behavior was dangerously close to assault.

But it wasn’t assault, was it? I felt surprised, angry; what might have been hot in another context, with another person, had instead been unpleasant, annoying, distressing. And the incongruity between his demeanor when we met at the cocktail party, over dinner, in his earnest and polite text the next day—and what he had been like in the car and on my door step—all left me very confused. Could I be misinterpreting what happened? Perhaps I misremembered? Perhaps I had sent mixed signals? 

I told all of this to A. as she made me dinner.  I asked, “Do you think I’m over-reacting?” Arrested in the midst of stirring her red sauce, A. stood in her floral apron, wooden spoon suspended mid-stir, a look of revulsion and horror on her face. “No!!” she exclaimed. She was aghast. Everyone I’ve told has been horrified on my behalf. My therapist was appalled. My friends’ therapists have been appalled. “No,” A. said firmly. “He was wrong, not you.”

I texted the man back, explaining that we wouldn’t be going out again. I could simply have sworn at him, but instead, I doubtless wrote him more than I should, and yet (unlike him) was taking pains to be accurate and clear. I concluded by saying, “I’m really confounded by the trajectory of the evening, and wish I’d been more assertive about my own needs sooner. I ended up unscathed, but seriously dismayed and disappointed. I want you to know this, because I really hope that my being honest with you now will save other women from similar experiences.” I didn’t hear back from him.

What I hope happened was that my message hit him with the full force of a Damascene epiphany—that the sudden realization that he hurt me, and has almost certainly hurt other women—knocked the breath out of him, and left him quaking with disgust and shame. I hope that he talked to a friend or a therapist, and took a good long look at who he is, and how he relates to women. I hope that he looked at his son—oh yes, he’s someone’s father—and vowed that he will teach that young man that you never, ever, thoughtlessly, greedily, aggressively seize another person without their consent. That’s what I hoped would happen, but of course, I have no way of knowing. It’s just as likely that he cursed his dating fortunes, for consistently wasting his time on one crazy woman after another.

And every day, the news is filled with stories far, far worse than mine, of people saying, and taking, what they want, and then petulantly blaming the other for complaining about it.

You might not think so, because I’ve just written 2500 words which might suggest otherwise—but I’m really fine about the whole thing. That man’s behavior—clueless and clumsy? misogynistic and violent?—didn’t leave me traumatized, or feeling dirty or used, or frightened. I did—still do—have moments where I wonder what I did that made him think his advances would be welcome, or what I should have seen, sooner, to avoid the whole situation. I did—and still tend to—blame myself for being too trusting and open. Because I should feel badly about the vulnerabilities posed by my own good nature.

And I confess, that a couple of days after that very awful date, as I was schlepping from office to gym to apartment, from routine, to productivity, to solitary laziness, back to routine again, only with the added burden of snow, slush, darkness, and cold…I confess that there was a moment where I nearly succumbed to a wave of exhausted despair. This man, in and of himself, was nothing more than a nuisance. But what was so demoralizing, was that it wasn’t just that one—it was the dozens and dozens of them—the ones who seemed great but who didn’t want me; or who were probably great but whom I couldn’t bring myself to want; or the ones who could barely look after themselves, with no friends, no impermeable roof over their head, no hobbies, no interests, no health insurance, no values, no sense of humor, no capacity for care or respect that wasn’t childishly needy or menacingly and tediously controlling, no ability to be with me without hurting me in ways both great and small. How many more, I wondered, could there possibly be? How much more could I Get Myself Out There? How many more such dates could any of us possibly endure?

Asking those questions, as I slogged through winter, I almost—nearly—stopped. My courage nearly failed me.

But what a depressing story that would be! I was composing it in my head, and got to that point and thought—

No.

No, all of them do not get to drag this story down. I’m not one of those postmodern types who has to defy narrative conventions, and disrupt the readers’ need and expectation of a happy ending in favor of how things really are, which is random, and entropic, and bleak. Call me old-fashioned, but I will insist that the story turn out better than that, that it won’t have a tragic ending, or just some edgy, blank, openendedness. Nuh-uh. This is not that kind of story. I’m not that kind of protagonist.

So the denouement of that particular chapter, only one of a much larger, much more gratifying, story, the plot of which is still in the phase of rising-action with no anti-climax in sight—went like this:

I had a moment where my courage nearly failed me.

And then I shook it off, and just kept going.

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On Envy

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Trying to name the seven deadly sins is like trying to name Santa’s reindeer—by the time you’ve listed 5, you forget which ones you started with, and can’t remember what you’ve left out, and then wonder why there has to be so many of essentially the same thing anyway. So: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, pride. I think. But those seven seem excessive: aren’t lust, gluttony, greed, and envy all about wanting what you can’t have, or wanting more than you deserve? And sloth involves wanting too, although in that case it’s a desire for comfort without working for it the way others have to. And anger is often prompted by being frustrated in all of those desires, which tends only to fuel them more rather than satisfy them (and, no, leaving lust out wasn’t accidental).

Yet isn’t pride at the root of all of them? either overweening pride, where you believe that you deserve something, anything, everything as much, if not more, than others; or maybe the pride that wars with shame, where you suspect that perhaps you’re not getting what you want because you secretly don’t deserve it, but you can’t muster the humility or grace to keep yourself from being angry that you don’t have it anyway, which only makes you more angry with yourself.

One thing worth noticing here—in this conception of sin, it’s not specific actions or behaviors or results that are (at least not directly) the problem; rather, you’ve fallen from grace when whatever you’re doing is motivated not by virtue—chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility—but by vicious, self-absorbed desire.

All of which is enormously helpful in understanding pre-twentieth century western art and literature, but, for someone like me, protestant by birth, more pagan by disposition, not easy to apply in real life. Though now that I come to think of it, I bet that one reason artists and writers represented the conflict of vice and virtue to the point of obsessiveness for hundreds of years is that the move from theory to practice is tricky for all but the most saintly among us.

I think my greatest sins, or at least the ones that I’m consciously troubled by, are anger and envy—and we can’t have those without pride, so throw that in too. The anger…that one I’ll save for another time, or you can just find me on social media where I air many of my grievances (but not all, because there are so, so many!) with regularity and fulsome detail.

As for envy…envy and jealousy have hounded me for as long as I can remember. Things I have been envious about in my life: being allowed to wear jeans (when I was 6); being able to run fast or hang on better (because I was never as fast or strong as the others); being a normal size and shape for our age (and not too big in the wrong places too early); not having to wear glasses; getting 10++ on our social studies maps (what kind of teacher even pits children against one another on the basis of 10+ and 10++??); being popular with the other girls; being liked by the boys; being asked to dance; being more outgoing; being more ambitious, or focused, or disciplined; singing, writing, dancing better and more; sacrificing more for art; knowing exactly what to do and what to be when you grow up; being leaner; being more relaxed; making more money; just being better.

Or, in other words: why don’t I have what they have? why do they get what I want? are they more popular, relaxed, wealthy, slim, loved because they’re better than me, or because I’m being unfairly overlooked (because maybe they really are better than me)? Why do success, money, love, health, easy relationships, good vision, nicely-aligned knees, natural talent, expensively-bought opportunity—why does all of what I might like or need come so much more easily to them than to me?

These are deeply neurotic questions, and, obviously, very self-absorbed ones—and knowing that doesn’t make anything better, because now I’m not just envious, I’m greedy, angry, and proud. (Not to mention frequently fatigued by the workings of my own willful mind, which tends to makes me slothful).

Our contemporary dogma of self-improvement and self-love dictates that we mustn’t be so hard on ourselves; that we should, instead, practice self-compassion and focus on gratitude for everything we do have. This advice is what we call problematic. I confess that injunctions about relaxation/forgivenness/gratitude administered by people who get to make a living being relaxed, forgiving, and grateful (yoga and tai-chi instructors, Oprah) make me rather livid. If it were that easy for me—not you, enlightened one, but me—to watch my anxiety and envy float by like clouds in the sky, or leaves in the current, don’t you think I would have established the habit long, long ago, and would now also be teaching yoga and mindfulness instead of writing fretfully about the jealous restlessness which has fueled too much of my career up to this point??

(So add that to the list: I also envy people who can practice mindfulness).

We’re advised to practice gratitude in the form of giving ourselves credit for what we have achieved—material success, status, milestones of “healthy adult development.” Yeah, that doesn’t work. I find it very hard not to make invidious comparisons. Maybe I do have many wonderful qualities, maybe my life is full of wonderful things, including my own hard-won accomplishments—but isn’t there a danger in that kind of appreciation, where what makes it possible for me to be appreciative is an awareness that I have things that many other people don’t? Even worse is when I have looked at people I’m jealous of, and consoled myself that while I might not have their money, success, or romantic happiness, I’ve also escaped the very things—loss, debt, disappointment, foibles of looks or personality—that might make them unhappily envy others.

That is, I don’t need to be envious, because look how enviable I am!

Well, that’s no good. No good at all. That kind of gratitude is just a disguise for seemingly-intractable pride, with the additional temptation of schadenfreude. A recipe for being insufferable, to myself, if not to others.

(Also, incidentally, this mindset is one of the major pitfalls and distractions of being a subject within neoliberal, capitalist ideology. But let’s save that topic for another day.)

Something I have noticed in recent years, which might yet save me: as I’ve gotten older, and as the world keeps getting stupider and more imperiled in so many troubling ways, while others make valiant, hopeful struggles to save it in others—a lot of the stuff that used to matter so much as motivation for both envy and ambition…just doesn’t, now. I try very hard not to think too much about the degree of jeopardy we’re in—never mind as individuals, as a whole species—but insofar as that menace is always lurking in our peripheral vision, it does provide a bit of perspective. As does age, and the inevitability of death. Anything could happen—tomorrow, next year, or in the next 10 seconds—and fretting about professional and material status is a tremendous waste of time that we just don’t have. And there’s so much randomness to our lives—when you’re younger, everything seems so high stakes, and your success and failure seems to hinge entirely on you—how hard you work, how good, or pretty, or thin, or interesting, or ambitious, or whatever you single-handedly make yourself. But with enough experiences to form a more representative sample, you can see that while you can—and ought—to make an effort, to take responsibility, to be active on your own behalf, what you can actually control is a mere drop in the bucket compared to all the stuff that you can’t. Genes. The way your circumstances shape your personality, intellect, and looks before you’re even capable of neurotic awareness of such things. Class. Sex. Race. The luck of the draw of what country and decade you’re born in. The randomness is incalculable.

And for that very, overwhelming, humbling reason, the randomness has become, oddly, very comforting. I’ve started to become much better at accepting that I’m who and where I am just…because, and, while I could make myself quite crazy (and have done) trying to influence one tiny portion of my otherwise implacable fate, I’m capable of moments of contentment when I’m able to just enjoy the ride. Envy, pride—and all the greed, gluttony, and anger that goes with them—bother me much less (I do, however, have a newfound appreciation for sloth, and lust, which have been given an unfairly-bad rap). I’m a long, long way from being enlightened, but being less envious at least makes me feel lighter, and perhaps makes the practice of virtue a little bit easier.

There. That’s something to feel grateful for.

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On (Im)modesty

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If we accept the premise “horses sweat, gentlemen perspire, and ladies glow”—then that makes me a horse.

Far from looking dewy and slightly sparkly, like the semi-adolescent models in fitness magazines (what do they use on those girls? vegetable oil and craft glitter?), I swelter, exude, lather. I drip. I’ve come close to doing myself an injury in fitness classes, slipping on my own self-made puddles of sweat. The puddles don’t glow, nor do I.

For that reason, when I work out, I try to strike a balance between satisfying our laws of public decency, and wearing as little as possible so as to ensure maximal evaporative cooling. Which is why I was really irritated when I tried out my new sports bra. If you’re any bigger than a 32A, finding a sports bra which keeps your breasts comfortably strapped down without creating breast-like lumps elsewhere on your body becomes an ongoing obsessive quest; so when I found one that fit decently, on sale! I bought it in hurried triumph. I noticed in the dressing room that the cups were padded, but had assumed that I could take the foam out (possible with many major brands). But no: not only was that padding completely sealed into the bra’s architecture, an extra little tag chirpily drew my attention to the “extra petals, for modesty!” Petals?? I read this tag when it was in one hand, and the bra in another—meaning that I couldn’t take it back, and that I was, as a result, doomed to be weighted down by an overheated, extra-sweaty, saturated, but petalled, bosom—all for the sake of modesty.

But whose modesty is being (forcibly) protected here, and why?

It’s a confusing time to have a chest. On the one hand, my gym’s ad campaign dares us all to bare it all. The shameless co-opting of actual activism for the sake of marketing garbles more nuanced meaning, but the more crude point for the female consumer is that somehow our empowerment and authority depend on being more or less topless in public, as long as we conform to traditional expectations about beauty, combining the radically political with the radically fit and hot. To the barricades! Fight for liberation and freedom… with all the spare time and energy that you don’t have because you’re doing a triple-header of spin, conditioning, and yoga every day and have given up sugar!

If you can manage to get cut, then gym culture is happy to encourage you to parade around as nearly naked as possible—except not completely. Your lycra should look like a second skin, asserting the fact of your body very clearly, while also pretending that you’re not completely, dangerously human and female. You have to be vigilant about the fit of the crotch in those yoga pants, and you must definitely have modesty-petals in your sports bra, so that your gender and sex are as anatomically and socially accurate as Barbie’s. You pay a lot of money for workout clothes and evening wear and bathing suits which make it clear (to whom?) that your milkshake can bring everyone to the yard—and then go through contortions in the change room, putting your bra on over a towel, so that no-one ever sees you actually naked.

Meanwhile: a state representative in New Hampshire has the temerity to defend women’s right to breast-feed in public, and is attacked with stunning vitriol by her fellow (male) elected officials; Fb has a tendency to censor confusing and upsetting images, such as women feeding babies, or bare chests which would be completely unproblematic on a cis-gendered male body, but which suddenly become provocative on a trans-gendered person; young feminists campaign to “free the nipple!”; older feminists hesitate to say the word out loud in their classrooms for fear of getting in trouble with human resources; we’re taught to be terrified by breast cancer (though no-one can tell us when to get mammograms); we feel rather edgy with our Save the Ta-tas! t-shirts in support of breast cancer awareness; but we get embarrassed mentioning them in polite, mixed, non-sexual conversation, even though we count on the girls to get us into impolite, mixed, sexual conversation (and HR reminds us that neither is ever acceptable in the workplace). We know that we make our chests, along with rest of our bodies, targets if we foolishly take the risk of going out—to work, to a bar, to a political rally, in the street, on the train—anywhere really, where our chests could give us away as female, and incite everything from catcalls to assault, which is always our problem, for calling attention to ourselves and not keeping harm at arm’s length. 

If we’ve grown up with a chest, we’ve learned to be simultaneously obsessed with, afraid of, and humiliated by our own bodies, all the time.

What’s wrong with us? We’re not born this way. Plenty of us have now-mortifying pictures of ourselves at 5 years old, topless on the beach—and no-one cared: not the other children, including boys, not our parents, not the authorities, not politicians, and—because those were the blissful prelapsarian days before a heedless parent might put a photo like that on Fb, and then have it commented upon in every vile crevice of the internet—not random pedophiles and misogynists and Mrs. Grundys. No—there is a time in life when a chest is just a body part, and not a source of angst or agita to either onlookers or its owner. If you’re born male and stay that way, generally speaking that time lasts your whole life—your chest can be any size or shape, but there’s really never any external pressure or judgement on you to do anything about it. Yes, I know, men suffer from body image pressures too; but as horrible as a man might feel about his body, he still has the social and legal rights to be cold at the office, or to go topless and petal-less at the beach, or at a nationally-televised sporting event, if he wants to. For female people, the time when they can be carefree about their chests is pretty brief, ending somewhere after that mortifying beach photo—somehow, we all agree that that chest becomes increasingly problematic, and stays that way for most of a female person’s conscious life.

Well obviously, you might say—you can’t let little girls/teenage girls/adult women/breastfeeding mothers/sun-worshipping seniors run around naked in public, where every terrible pervert could stare at them and plot vile crimes or degrading sex acts or just made somewhat uncomfortable…But we’ve just established that male people can run around in exactly that condition at any age. Why is it different for female people—with the notable exception of when people are paying them to do exactly that? Feminist author Caitlin Moran has an easy test that applies here: “You can tell whether some misogynistic societal pressure is being exerted on women by calmly enquiring, ‘And are the men doing this, as well?’ If they aren’t, chances are you’re dealing with what we strident feminists refer to as ‘some total fucking bullshit’” (How to Be a Woman).

Please don’t worry—I’m not advocating letting anyone’s 8 year old run around topless! —because unfortunately we do live in a world where they would be leered at, and coveted by perverted people, who would then blame the little girl for inciting their perversion. But that’s exactly my concern:  we’re teaching children to be afraid of and for their own bodies for the rest of their lives, all so we can keep them safe from the perverts, or protect “good” (male) people from their own base desires. Isn’t the real problem here the unequal, oppressive, irrational, hateful, and generally-messed-up relationships that organize our culture, of which perversion, sinful temptation, and base desire are the ugly result? Why are adults fetishizing children? why are men (often the same ones who think that they deserve to drive and vote by virtue of their superior reason) so weak in the presence of the demonic female body that they need to cover it from head to toe (while also depriving it of the right to drive or vote), or stone it into submission?

While children anywhere, or disenfranchised, oppressed women almost everywhere, can’t be faulted for not making this their fight—those of us living in relative freedom can. If a woman wants to nourish her child in public the way any mammal, by definition, would, then the only correct response, if you feel you need to make one—and unless you have some direct stake in the feeding of the child you almost certainly don’t—is “can I get you a more comfortable chair?” If an adult person of any sex or gender makes an informed decision about what to do with his/her/their body, which might include taking their top off at the beach, or cutting the damn petals out of the sports bra, or practicing modest dress and a covered head as a sign of humility before their deity—then you just let them do it. If you’re in public and you happen to notice that a person’s body seems female, no matter how covered or uncovered it is, whether you find it attractive or not, whether you find yourself overcome by desire, or disgust, or confusion—you simply leave it alone. You don’t touch it unless invited to do so, you don’t judge it, you don’t comment on it, and you certainly don’t hurt it. It’s not our job to keep you at arm’s length, to cover ourselves in embarrassment or fear, to pretend that we don’t have a body, to be disgusted or afraid of it on your behalf.

Socially, legally, sexually, theologically, economically, medically—in general, the only body with which you have a right to meddle is your own. Not mine, hers, his, or theirs. It is not the job of those of us walking around in female bodies—however we came to inhabit them—to protect you from what we are. 

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On Getting On With It

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Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action. (Shakespeare, Hamlet, III.1.84-89)
You have to be careful about making New Year’s resolutions. As all sorts of research on behavior and motivation explains, changing deeply-ingrained habits is really hard; changing some of the fundamental characteristics (being introverted, super-energetic, anxious, optimistic, etc) which make us who we are—is next to impossible. And yet this is exactly the stuff we go after with our New Year’s resolutions: I resolve to stop stress-eating (which is really misery-eating because I have a horrible boss who I’m afraid to stand up to; or fear-eating because I’m lonely and convinced I’ll never find anyone; or frustration-eating because I can’t find the courage I think I need to make the changes in my life that would really make me happy). If you make a resolution without understanding what problem you’re really trying to solve, then you’re likely to do things which undermine the best intentions, like choosing an unrealistic time frame, or being wildly ambitious. You go out strong (you give up food for a week and exercise like a fiend), crash hard (stop using your expensive gym membership, eat a whole tub of sour cream and onion dip with a big bag of chips), then feel ashamed and angry at your failure—all of which makes it even harder to try to change your behavior again the next time.

So, as I’m making my resolutions for this year, I want to be sure that I choose the goals that match the problems, that I make a reasonable and achievable plan, and that I give myself lots of encouragement and reward for making good efforts.

Let’s apply all that sensible advice to my own situation. My resolutions are as follows:

1. dance more (as soon as I get some tendonitis under control)
2. work on my French more
3. write more
4. read more
5. speak my mind more in my writing and in my relationships

In other words—I want to be more fit, youthful, focused, organized, creative, expressive, and interesting. Really, just more more. And in order to meet those goals, I would have to somehow obtain a radically different personality, not to mention a radically different job. I would need Virginia Woolf’s “500 a year, and a room of one’s own.” And for the amount of dancing I want to do, I would also need to have much of my connective tissue swapped out entirely. As far as I can tell, neither remedy—being independently wealthy, 3-D printing of replacement tendons—is currently possible.

But if I look carefully at what’s really keeping me from becoming this other version of myself—or at least, a version who does more of what she really loves and values—it’s not the absence of a wealthy patron or science-fiction-y medical breakthroughs that’s the problem; rather, it’s my own insecurity and fear. I don’t have unlimited time to be a renaissance woman—I’ve got a day job which makes modest, but nevertheless substantial demands on my time; but I don’t have time to dance and read as much as I need or want to because I’m a terrible procrastinator. I can occupy myself really productively, doing the less important things as an easy way for me to feel both competent, and also less guilty about not facing up to the higher stakes stuff, which I conveniently don’t have the time to do on top of the other busy-ness. I don’t write more, or speak more openly and honestly to people, because I’m afraid of doing the wrong thing, of looking dumb, of offending someone. If I finally do face up to the difficult things, I hesitate, and stammer, and offer all manner of softening context to try to preserve others’ good opinion of me, which often results in the thing not getting done properly at all. And, often, rather than face up to things, I set conditions: I’ll work on this, or do that, once I’ve done pretty much everything else—and funnily enough, there’s always pretty much everything else that absolutely, necessarily, vitally needs doing before I take on the thing that frightens me the most.

Take this post for example. So, I kind of got caught up with a lot of things in the summer—there was a lot of very pleasant diversion; there were also a couple of work-related projects that haunted me, like Frankenstein’s monster, reminding me at every step of my creative and professional failings. I made a rule for myself, that I would get back to my blog As Soon As I Got Those Two Things Done. I’d reward myself, I said, for enduring various trials by getting back to my little creative efforts. Except of course the monstrous jobs stubbornly resisted completion (exorcism), so nothing got finished, or even started.

Then the lack of starting started to become its own problem, its own source of embarrassment and fear. You know that thing, where you know that you should call that friend, but you get busy with other things, and time passes, and so you just kind of don’t, and then more time passes and you start to feel embarrassed for not calling her, and then your dread and mortification start to overwhelm your desire to reconnect, and you start ducking her—once your good friend—in grocery stores, or pretending that you didn’t see her at the gym because you weren’t wearing your glasses, and you generally act childishly avoidant, rather than face up to the discomfort of taking responsibility for your own actions? It’s been kind of like that, only with writing.

Do you know that I’ve been working on my Great Return to Blogging since September? I have started and abandoned several drafts, writing and re-writing and never finishing one single post because all that work just wasn’t saying what I wanted to say. What I was doing was writing an elaborate apology, and I wasn’t allowing myself to write anything else until it was done: confession and penance. And yet (it only took me four months or so to realize this) no amount of apologizing, or defensive excuse-making was ever going to be enough: you can do all the masochistic penance you like, but if you haven’t actually sinned, you’re never going to be granted absolution. Especially when the only one acting as inquisitor and judge at this auto-da-fé is me.

I’ll spare both you and me an elaborate analysis of my psyche explaining how I got caught up in this vicious cycle of procrastinatory avoidance and hobbling anxiety. It’s all just silly.

New resolution: be mindful of when you’re being motivated by unreasonable fear, and rather than avoid it, face up to it, and stop giving a f*ck (My 2015 resolution was to swear more. I haven’t sworn as much as I could have because I was afraid people would disapprove; but that’s just one more f*ck I’m going to stop giving!)

I know perfectly well that this is far easier said than done. Where’s my careful analysis of problems and motives, causes and effects? where’s my plan? my reasonable time-frame? all my achievable steps and encouraging rewards? Who cares! These are f*cks I can’t be bothered to give!

When I want to do something, and start thinking, oh but I really should do X so that the world continues to approve of my good behavior, or I can’t fail at that project if I don’t actually do it, or I mustn’t say what I think in case I’m judged as unpleasant, or I shouldn’t do that thing that’s FUN because it’s not mature or dignified enough—then I must remind myself of how little f*cks I—or, importantly, anyone else who matters to me—give.

(Don’t worry—I’m not an idiot, and I totally grasp the importance of discretion, judgment, and diplomacy. I also realize that I can neither afford, nor reasonably expect, to just chuck every responsibility, petty or significant, that I have. But it’s not the responsibility that’s a problem, it’s the excessive fear and giving-of-f*cks that has to go!)

The simple act of using a really bad word (even with the SFW asterix) over and over again is really liberating! Even better, I just got something written and didn’t even notice time passing–I had twinges of conscience, passing thoughts that perhaps I should be doing the ten other things that would make somebody (who? my mother? my guv’nor at the office? the anxious, f*uck-giving version of myself?) satisfied, but then I ceased giving so many f*cks, and did what I wanted to do. What I needed to do. What it was actually, unapologetically fun to do. The next time you see me fussing about how best I should spend my time, remind me: New year, new you. Give zero f*cks, and get on with it.
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