Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Let's Be Real: Balancing Life's Roles

I've been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be real


Real has a few different meanings. To be real can simply mean to exist. It can also denote a degree of authenticity. It can display membership, belonging, give you a right to claim a position. 

We also use it as a yardstick. We say that "real men don't eat quiche" or "real women have curves," and it lets us draw arbitrary boundaries around broad identities in order to make them more exclusive, more secure. 

There are problems, to be sure, with these exclusionary statements, many stemming from the fact that the people who make the claim often don't have the authority to exclude. There has been a lot of pushback against these narrow messages because taking such a broad identity category as "man" or "woman" and trying to add membership requirements is damaging. 

There's something else going on here, too, though, and that's what I want to look at. 

It's not just those broad categories of identity that get caught in the "real" trap; it's all of them. 

Real runners don't listen to music while they train. 

Real mothers breastfeed. 

Real wives cook dinner every night. 

The list goes on, and on, and on, and on. There are arbitrary, externally-motivated qualifiers placed on virtually any role that you want to play. Someone will be unhappy with how you're doing it. Someone will insist that the way you are doing it isn't good enough. 

You are not real. 

I've been thinking about just how frustrating and omnipresent these messages are recently.

Yesterday, I read Jezebel's article "Sorry, Neo Caveman, But Your Paleo Diet Is Pretty Much Bullshit."  In it, Madeleine Davies argues that because actual paleolithic cave people had both digestive systems and dietary choices different from modern man's that the entire "Paleo" eating movement was ridiculous. (Really? And when I used this diet for a month, I totally thought that neanderthals had access to Lara bars and almond butter shakes mixed up in expensive blenders. Damn it. Back to the drawing board.)

 Davies is trying to denigrate the people who adhere to this lifestyle choice because, in her estimation, they aren't "real" enough. If they aren't eating like real cavemen, then their entire foundation should crumble. It doesn't matter if it makes them feel healthier or stronger or gets them away from processed foods. It only matters that their beliefs are "bullshit" because they don't live up to some arbitrary standards that no one was actually trying to impose on them in the first place. 

This idea of "real" came up again today in my classroom. I teach developmental English at a community college, and one of my students said that another teacher had told her my class wasn't "real" college because it was a remedial class. I had to dial back the reaction I wanted to give, but I assured her that this was definitely real college. She is, after all, paying real money. I am, after all, really grading these papers. I do design real assignments with real grades. They do real homework and learn real things. 

It seems to me, actually, that there is not one thing that I do in my entire life that is "real" enough for the outside world. I'm not a "real" mom because I use daycare and--according to some people--depend on my husband too much in the day-to-day work of housekeeping and child-rearing. I'm not a real teacher because I teach developmental coursework. I'm not a real runner because I'm overweight. I'm not a real writer because I'm just blogging. 

It reminded me of something my friend Amanda wrote about the pressures of graduate school. Her main point (which is worth a read, so go check it out) is that we have to find a way to balance goal-setting for the future with living in the present. On the way to making that point, she said this:
Over the course of this past semester, I confessed to several of you that I was actually pretty miserable. About three weeks into the semester, as my son was screaming in my ear about an hour past his bedtime, I told my partner “I quit.” At the same time, I regularly tell people how lucky I am. I love my job. I have colleagues telling me that I’m doing a “good job.” And, presently, I’m still here, here being in this PhD program, and I don’t have any actual intention of leaving, leaving being not completing the degree program requirements. How does that make any sense? It’s not at all a case of indecision – I think instead it’s a symptom of the multiple stresses in my life right now. And I also think it’s a matter of intention and choice in working to manifest the present I want, and not quite yet succeeding.
Being a real graduate student is sort of a big deal in academia, and doing something crazy like having a kid or getting married (especially if you're a woman) can send big red flags to the professionals around you that you are, in fact, not real at all. If you cannot devote every waking minute to this graduate program, if you decide that you need to seek full time employment during this educational endeavor because you'd like to, I don't know, put a roof over your kids' heads or something, you are most definitely not focused enough, not driven, not serious, not "real." (In addition to being a pretend teacher, runner, wife, mother, and paleo dieter, I am also a pretend graduate student.) 

It was reading Amanda's post where it really hit me.

Every single role that we play can consume us completely if we let it. Even something as simple as a hobby can become an all-encompassing, all-consuming demand on our time, energy, thoughts, and life if we listen to those who claim to know what makes it real. 

Think about it. Do you like to bake? Well, in order to be a real baker, you need to bake from scratch, of course. And scratch might mean that you also need to grow your own spices, grind your own wheat, raise your own chickens so you can collect your own eggs, and lovingly craft each meal that you make. If you only do some of these steps or only do them sometimes, you're a fake. 

Do you like to write? Well, in order to be a real writer, you have to get up every morning and write for at least two hours before you do anything else. You have to send your work off to be published and go to conferences and get paid. You are certainly not a real writer if you sneak it bits of composition between nap times and working hours. You are a fake. 

And don't even get me started on beliefs and causes. 

You care about ethical food? Well, you're not a real ethical eater unless you boycott every single thing touched by a GMO and never, ever, not once eat an artificial dye and only buy your produce from the farmer's market and even then wash it three times in organic food spray. Is that a box of instant oatmeal in your cabinet? Oh wow. You are a fake. 

You care about feminism. Well, you're not a real feminist unless you think about feminism first and foremost in every single decision you make. You had better not wear lipstick, but you better wear sexy lingerie (for you, of course, not for a man), and you shouldn't breastfeed because it tethers your boobs to another person's needs. In fact, you might just not want to have kids or get married at all. You fake. 

I (at least partially) blame the internet. On the internet, we are not complete people. On the internet, we belong to tiny little pockets of communities that are wholly focused on a minuscule part of ourselves, and the people within that community become slivers of their entire being. They can hone in on all of the "flaws" you have in this one, tiny area of life without seeing the whole picture. If you are on the knitting message board, then all anyone need ever know about you is your knitting skills. If you are on the feminist blog, then all of your comments must constantly be about feminism. If you are on the site for teaching your calico cat to karate chop, then that's all those people know (or care to know) about you. Any deviation from the script because you have other concerns or other purposes in life is a failure. 

But that's not what it means to be real. Being real means giving what you can to each part of who you are and remembering to nurture the whole self. Being real means doing things that make you feel complete and at peace. If you give your all to any one of those things, you lose the chance to give anything to all of those other parts that make you who you are. You have to be cautious with your resources. Some of the things we do replenish us, but none of them is capable of replenishing us at the rate that giving everything takes it away. If you are not careful with how you allow yourself to expend your energies, you will lose them. 

I may not be a real anything else, but I am a real person. 

What do you think? Do you ever have the pressure to be more "real" at something you do? Has someone told you that you aren't "real"?  


  1. This is a great post, and I admire your restraint in the face of a colleague's asinine comment about your class. This argument about "real" seems hand-in-hand with our anxieties about having it all. In terms of race, I hear and have this argument all the time about my least favorite word, "authentic."

    So, I too just read the Jezebel screed about the paleo diet, and while I think the article's tone is childish, I wonder if the author's reaction might have more to do with an larger tone of many (or, at least some) of these dieters, who can often try to hold a monopoly on "real" eating. I've often heard from diets modeling themselves after "ancient" menus that this is how our bodies are "meant" to eat, which only reinforces the idea that their diet is a return to the real, and our modern diet is somehow fake. Michael Pollan debunks a lot of this thinking in Cooked, in which he describes how our guts and brains have evolved to eat very much like we eat today (save for all the processed junk). "Real" so often gets tangled with "natural" in arguments about breastfeeding, diet, organic, off the grid, etc. It's hard to know at any given moment who's being excluded and who's being exclusive.

    I've missed your blog and am just now catching up!

  2. I agree that there are people in the paleo crowd (and in so many other fad diet crowds) that get preachy and definitely fall back on that same "real" rhetoric to justify a holier-than-thou attitude. I will never understand why we get so concerned about what other people are eating.

    That language of exclusion (especially with that real-natural connection you bring up) definitely gets wielded far too often.

    I haven't read Cooked yet, but I've read and really enjoyed Pollan's other books, so I'm looking forward to it.

  3. Just when I was giving myself a pep talk that I am a "real" artist and having issues of who do I think I am... you write this amazing post that helps put things in perspective. Thank you once again for an amazing read!

  4. Oh, and it leads to such tedious contentions like "not all X is X" (as in "not all lies are lies", or "not all lies are -really- lies").

  5. My experience has been much different from yours. I have never felt like I couldn't identify as an American or that it was a bad thing for other Americans to do so.

    You say, "my sense of identity is internal and not related to hobbies, interests or activities," and I'm not trying to tell you how you identify, but I don't WANT an identity that isn't connected to "interests or activities." I enjoy my interests and activities, and they are a part of who I am. Being a writer, that's part of who I am. Being a mother, that's part of who I am. Being a teacher, that's part of who I am.

    "maybe you need to think about how you're showing only a piece of your true self." I feel like you missed the point. I am ALL of those pieces, but inevitably some people are only going to see certain pieces at a time because I am not able to simultaneously exhibit every piece of who I am to every person, nor would I want to. My issue is that I think we sometimes get caught up in the judgments of a narrow segment of people without stopping to think about all of those other pieces of ourselves that those people don't know about. We're the only ones who truly know all those pieces (maybe that's what you mean by having an "internal" sense of identity?), so we are the only ones who are in a place to judge how "real" we truly are.