Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Invisible Work: When Even Doesn't Add Up

I am reading Liz O'Donnell's new book Mogul, Mom, & Maid: The Balancing Act of the Modern Woman. I highly recommend it, and right now it's getting 5 stars on Amazon. (Full disclosure: I'm quoted in the book, but that's not why you should read it.)

Early in the book, O'Donnell talks about the "invisible work" that happens behind the scenes of housekeeping. She notes that even when the gender division of the actual day-to-day tasks are even, women still find themselves doing more of the mental work of keeping track of all these tasks. One woman quoted in the book (Sharon, an MBA at an investment firm) says:
"It's not just the laundry, it's the mental awareness of the laundry. I know my son has only seven pairs of pants. I know it's swimming day on Tuesday. I think through if his swimming stuff is packed up, including the swim cap. It's the small details. And anything related to a doctor's appointment, dentist, birthday parties, playdates, car pools, that's me."
I've written about my own family's challenges in creating an equally shared parenting atmosphere. We've gone through our ten million tiny negotiations and are currently in a period where things are working pretty well. I am under no illusion that it is permanent, though. Schedules will change; our daughter will get new hobbies; work demands will increase; something in the house will break. What we have managed through all of those negotiations is creating a framework for figuring it out. Sometimes the waters are choppy, but I never fear that our ship is about to wreck. We just have to get through it until we're in smooth waters again.

So the thing that interested me in this quote wasn't the concept of "invisible work" because that's the thing that we really had to negotiate in our own household. My husband was always willing to do whatever work was necessary in the house or with our daughter, but for a long time, I was the one who figured out what that work was. It was my job to plan meals, make grocery lists, figure out what laundry needed to be washed when, and navigate the schedule for daycare. Now, some of this is because my skills (read, unhealthy obsession) in punctuality are a little more keen than his. But most of it is just that somehow that responsibility fell on my shoulders, almost innately. It was a series of conscious negotiations that led us out of those habits.

What interests me about that quote above, though, is how little that responsibility is talked about, especially when its analogous function in the corporate world is so pronounced.

We use economic/corporate-home life analogies all the time. We talk about motherhood as the "hardest job" in the world. We compare our time spent with our children as a return on investment. We talk about the mommy gap in terms of dollars and cents.

So why is it that this invisible work remains so invisible in the home when it is showcased in the corporate world. The "invisible" work is the planning, the strategizing, the structuring, the delegating, and the mapping. It's the work that can't be clocked with concrete tasks completed, and it's the work that often can't be finished in a given timeframe because it is ongoing and compounding. It is, essentially, the work of CEOs, managers, the "big wigs."

In the corporate world, most of us don't bat an eye that the CEO of McDonald's makes millions while the workers doing the actual labor of production don't make a living wage. Sure, some of us (myself included) point out the hypocrisy and unethical structure of this, but most people acknowledge that the CEO does a difficult task and deserves a higher salary for it. Managing all of the components of a corporation is mentally taxing, delicate work. If someone high up in the chain of command makes a mistake, the cost is substantial. And if someone that high up makes a great decision, the profit is immense.

I don't want to dwell too long on the connections between the home sphere and the corporate one. Personally, I think that we need to stop relying so heavily on capitalist narratives to frame all of our decisions and values. However, I feel there's a hypocrisy here. If we're going to recognize the value of planning and strategy in our corporate world, then we need to recognize those same skills when they take place behind playdates and piles of laundry.

At the very least, can't we use the connection to understand that someone who has been out of the workforce raising children and running a home has a set of very admirable and transferable skills at his or her disposal?

Monday, October 28, 2013

New Media Guidelines for Children

The American Academy of Pediatrics has released new suggested guidelines for media use in children.

This is the first update that the AAP has given since 2001, which means that these updates are now occurring among a wave of tablets and other portable devices that weren't nearly as popular or widespread just ten years ago.

The new guidelines suggest the following for parents:
  • Limit "entertainment screen time" (a distinction that wasn't present in the earlier recommendations) to less than two hours per day; discourage the use of screens at all in children under 2 
  • Model appropriate technological behaviors for children
  • Make a media plan that includes prohibition of screens in bedrooms and during mealtimes
They also make some recommendations for pediatricians, including one that piques my interest:
"Challenge the entertainment industry to create positive content for children and teens, and advocate for strong rules about how products are marketed to youth." 
double your pleasure!

As my previous writings on the subject have probably made clear, I am at an odd intersection on this one. I unabashedly love pop culture and media in its infinite forms. Personally, I am consuming media several hours of the day. I run while listening to an audiobook; I listen to music while I cook and clean; I watch television regularly. I don't think that my own media use is the problem it's sometimes made out to be.

PhD in Parenting has a great post on this subject exploring why we are so quick to call a mother who reads a blog while her children play at her feet "inattentive" while we wouldn't bat an eye if she were reading a paperback instead.

So, I do think that some of our fears and anxiety are just overblown hand-wringing that have accompanied every new technology that has ever existed.

That said, I also think that it is immensely important that we are aware of the messages that our children are receiving. I love media so much because it grants me the opportunity to explore the world around me in far-reaching ways. It's very important that we remember our children may not be so well-equipped for those journeys, especially when the content involved includes violence and messages about body image and identity.

The media we consume (especially when it is inundated with advertisements) is designed to send us some very specific messages. If we don't consciously question those messages, it's very easy to fall victim to them--and that's true for adults. Children are even more susceptible to them because they don't yet have the analytical cognitive abilities and practice or the life experiences to put them to the test.

I do believe that how much screen time our children gets matters (and I try to limit my own daughter's screen time to something close to the recommendations), but I think it matters far more what they watch.

That's why I am happy to see the AAP's recommendations for advocacy and pressure on the entertainment industry, but I don't know why that recommendation does not also extend to parents. We should be demanding better for our children, and we should--above all--vote with our wallets. Don't buy media that doesn't send the messages you think deserve to be sent. Buy media that does. The market will follow our demands.

My only real question about the AAP recommendations is whether they are set too low to be of much use. The AAP themselves admit that the actual usage of electronics by kids far surpasses their recommendations. Even children in the youngest category (including infants) now have access to screens at increasing rates. Most kids report spending 8 hours or more a day on "entertainment media." Once multitasking is taken into effect (surfing the web while watching TV, for instance), it's a collective 11 hours a day on average (or all of their waking hours). The AAP says there should be no screen time for children under 2, yet there are entire television stations and websites dedicated to this age group.

It's clear that the AAP guidelines aren't being followed by many people, and I worry that the recommendations are so far removed from most parents' realities that they won't seem applicable at all. Our media landscape has undergone drastic changes, and the risks and benefits are amorphous, especially since some of the impacts can't be measured until the current group of children become adults. Still, it seems to me like our recommendations and expectations need to be tempered by actuality.

How can we ensure that our children get the healthiest combination of media literacy and media limits? Are the AAP guidelines realistic for you and your household?

Challenge the entertainment industry to create positive content for children and teens, and advocate for strong rules about how products are marketed to youth.  - See more at: http://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/Pages/Managing-Media-We-Need-a-Plan.aspx#sthash.1gfy8uOX.dpuf
Challenge the entertainment industry to create positive content for children and teens, and advocate for strong rules about how products are marketed to youth.  - See more at: http://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/Pages/Managing-Media-We-Need-a-Plan.aspx#sthash.1gfy8uOX.dpuf

Photo: sharyn morrow
Challenge the entertainment industry to create positive content for children and teens, and advocate for strong rules about how products are marketed to youth.  - See more at: http://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/Pages/Managing-Media-We-Need-a-Plan.aspx#sthash.1gfy8uOX.dpuf
Challenge the entertainment industry to create positive content for children and teens, and advocate for strong rules about how products are marketed to youth.  - See more at: http://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/Pages/Managing-Media-We-Need-a-Plan.aspx#sthash.1gfy8uOX.dpuf

Sunday, October 27, 2013

John Legend, Robin Thicke, and Sex Positivity

(Warning: I'm going to include some still shots of the unrated version of "Blurred Lines" later in this post that might be NSFW.)

I've pretty much stayed away from the fallout over Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines," linking to a few posts about its use of the clothed men/naked women trope and a bone-chilling comparison of the lyrics to words spoken by rapists to their victims.

I then read a few feminist defenses of the song. These were focused on an alternative interpretation of the lyrics (primarily) and video as sex positive.

This post from Polemique has the tagline "Dear capital-F Feminists, Please Stop the Slut-Shaming. Love, a lower-case-f feminist."

The author goes on to claim that the lyrics sound "like a women's lib anthem," explaining:

And that is exactly what Robin Thicke’s character is saying! “That man is not your maker”—he’s saying her boyfriend doesn’t own her! Granted he has a vested interest in saying that, in that he wants her to stray from her relationship to be with him, but essentially he’s reminding her that she’s an independent person who can make her own decisions about her sexuality, regardless of whether she has a boyfriend.
She then says that all of the insistence that the pop culture images of sexual encounters focus on mutual respect and equality ignore the fact that some women want to be dominated in their sexual exploration:
Who made you the bedroom police? Did it ever occur to you that there are a lot of women who like that? Who are in healthy relationships in which each partner has mutual respect for the other as a human being? It is none of your business to decide what the boundaries of respect are in a consensual relationship!

These article gave me pause. Was I slut shaming by being adamantly opposed to this song/video combo? For turning the radio dial as fast as I could if my daughter was around to hear it (and pretty fast even if it was just me in the car)? Was I shutting my mind to valid expressions of sexuality and reinforcing a good girl/bad girl dichotomy that I otherwise rail against?

I don't think so. And here's why.

Videos aren't always the best place to judge a song, but in this case, Robin Thicke adamantly defended the video in an interview with GQ, going so far as to say "what a pleasure it is to degrade women" since he normally respects them. When he talks about the inspiration for the song, he says that "We started acting like we were two old men on a porch hollering at girls like, 'Hey, where you going, girl? Come over here!' That's why, in the video, we're doing all these old men dances. It was great."

So I think it's fair to say that the artist sees the nature of the video and the nature of the song as intricately linked. And the video creeps me the fuck out, and I don't think it's because I'm being a prude.

The fact that Robin Thicke (and the other male performers) are always clothed while the women are naked creates a display of dominance and inequality that isn't about sexual enjoyment to me. Even in bed, Thicke keeps his clothes on:

Then there's the fact that the lyrics are not merely suggestive of a sexual encounter, but the use of drugs to create a predatory atmosphere:
Baby can you breathe/I got this from Jamaica/It always works for me/Dakota to Decatur/No more pretending
He is specifically saying that he is giving women drugs (until they can't breathe) to inhibit their ability to "pretend" they don't want to have sex with him. It "always works" for him, across the country. This is a discussion of serial rape, and I'm supposed to feel guilty for calling it out because I'm not sex positive?

Do You Want to See a Sex Positive Video Done Right?

But I am an unabashed lover of pop culture, and I didn't want to write a post simply tearing down "Blurred Lines" for the montage of sexism that it is. 

I would rather point out where I see pop culture getting it right, and that's in John Legend's "Made to Love." 

This video has nudity and sex that falls out of society's narrow bounds: interracial sex, multiple partners, homosexuality, and voyeurism. But it also has what "Blurred Lines" lacks: intimacy, connection, and depth. Just take a look at some of these stills from the video.

This single is from the album Love in the Future, and it's an album filled with lyrical exploration of sexuality, often in forms that aren't culturally-approved. 

Here are some lyrics from another track ("Save the Night"): "I'm not a one man band/I want to sing a duet/You and me would sound much better/You look so good in my bed." Here's another line from the same song: "How about we go and save the night/I can see you want it and so do I."

That's not all that different from Robin Thicke's crooned "I know you want it," at least not on the surface. But placed among a context of mutual desire, it becomes sexy, not creepy. Legend's lyrics suggest attentiveness to his partner's cues, not a demand to stop "pretending." 

The feminist defenders of "Blurred Lines" insist that we should be open to displays of sexuality that are outside of the narrowly-defined cultural norms, and I agree. But that shouldn't include predatory use of drugs, a display of women as playthings to be discarded, and a demand to ignore pleas of halting a sexual encounter. 

John Legend's display of sexuality demonstrates that consent is sexy. How you let it all shake out after that is up to you, but it has to begin with consent. 

John Legend thinks all men should be feminists and isn't afraid to bare it all himself (or recognize how over-the-top those displays of sexuality can sometimes be with a little humor). 

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Judging the Family Unit: Politics and the Collective Conscious

The New York Times has an interesting article examining the role of Heidi Nelson Cruz, wife of now-(in)famous Senator Ted Cruz.

The article lists the ways in which the team are somewhat oddly matched, including Cruz's volatile tendency toward non-negotiation stances and his wife's more collaborative style. Some Democrats have been using her position as managing director of Goldman Sach's to call out a hypocrisy, especially when it comes to her husband's health care coverage:
Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, tried to push Mr. Cruz into admitting that he was on his wife’s blue-chip Goldman health plan — a sign of hypocrisy, he implied. And then Mrs. Cruz’s boss, Goldman’s chief executive, Lloyd C. Blankfein, turned up at the White House to urge against a devastating debt default, one of the issues with which Mr. Cruz had become closely associated.
“I have to say, honestly, I’m not involved with any of those issues at our firm,” Mrs. Cruz said. And if her husband was evasive about where he got his health coverage, Mrs. Cruz was blunt.
“Ted is on my health care plan,” said Mrs. Cruz, who has worked in Goldman’s investment management division for eight years.
It made me think of a similar (though obviously more blatant) familial hypocrisy brought up in politics recently. An Idaho Republican running for State Representative, Greg Collett touts his "extreme" views when it comes to government involvement in personal lives. He is adamantly opposed to government-run healthcare. But it was recently revealed that many of his ten children are on Medicaid.

Sarah Palin faced immense backlash as her abstinence-only stance came head-to-head with her own teenage daughter's pregnancy.

How about the discussion of Meghan McCain's stance on gay rights as opposed to her father's?

And, of course, any time an Anthony Weiner or a Bill Clinton gets publicly caught up in an illicit affair, our critical lens turns immediately to their wives' reactions and character.

Still holding hands

How Closely Should Our Ties Bind?

Look. I have some family members who I wouldn't want you using as a measure of my competence or humanity (the ones who refused to eat in the same room with my black husband come to mind.)

But I have to admit that I am sympathetic to many of these cries of hypocrisy. There are clearly shades of grey in these examples. Mr. Collett's children did not enroll themselves in Medicaid, so that certainly does seem to be a hypocrisy of his own making, but should we judge Sarah Palin for her daughter's actions? Should Ted Cruz's wife's profession be up for scrutiny? Should Hilary Clinton's reaction to her cheating husband be a factor in the discussion of his public penance?

To some extent, I guess the answers to these questions don't really matter. These people are placed under that level of scrutiny whether they culturally deserve it or not. We are judged not only as individuals, but as a collective family unit, and there's some sense in that because our individual selves are shaped and intimately connected not just to our spouses and children, but also to our teachers and students, our neighbors and bosses, our cousins and friends.

We are social creatures. Our social connections matter.

It reminds me of watching Goodfellas and trying to figure out how I felt about the main character's wife. When they met, she was ignorant of his mob connections, but very quickly realized there was something off about his affluence and wealth. Later, she was a silent and passive co-conspirator who accepted the benefits of his criminal life but assumed none of the responsibility through criminal acts herself. Finally, as their lives began to unravel, she became an active participant in his illegal affairs, turning criminal in her own right. 

At what point did she become implicated, morally speaking, in the acts of her husband. We have some answers for this in the legal system, but they are largely based on what we can prove a conspirator knows. I'm more interested in what it means to tie yourself to someone whose decisions tacitly become a part of your life. At what point do their morals interfere with your own? At what point do their decisions become intricately tied up with yours? 

If my husband uses our jointly earned money to buy products I see as unethical (clothes manufactured at sweatshops, say or chicken from an abusive factory farm), am I implicated in that act even though I don't consume the product? If my daughter decides she wants to work as the photo editor of a magazine someday and uses software to manipulate people's bodies into unrealistic representations, does that mean I can no longer write about my moral views on that issue? 

It's clear to me that our associations matter. Who we choose to spend time around is an immensely important part of our own perspectives on reality. Decisions made (even tacitly) within a family unit are a reflection upon that family as a whole.

But that association only extends so far. At some point, our decisions do become autonomous, and our seemingly unified family unit might have factions and cracks that the public cannot see. 

Where does the collective conscious of a family/friend/work group end and the individual stance of the members begin? How can tell when there's hypocrisy afoot?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Role Models and Weight: A Follow-Up Without all the Cussing

A few days ago, I wrote about being fat-shamed by an automated email after I participated in a health screening for an employee program designed to promote healthy living.

Admittedly, my initial response wasn't particularly mature (though I still think it was warranted). After a few days to reflect upon it, I wanted to explore it a little further because I am certain I'm not the only person being shamed by machines right now.

After receiving results within the recommended range on literally every other metric (glucose, both cholesterol measures, cholesterol ratio, cotinine, and blood pressure), I was told (as if I wasn't already aware) that my BMI was cause for an "ALERT."

Here is the advice that they gave me:
Successfully managing your weight plays a large role in managing your cholesterol, triglycerides, and risk for conditions such as metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Always remember that you are an example for children and friends. You can help them stay at their ideal weight by guiding them to eat healthy low fat food and spend time together playing games that are physically active or taking walks together.
Nevermind that the very reasons they gave me for "managing" my weight (cholesterol, triglycerides, etc.) are already managed based on their very own results in the exact same report. The implication that I can't be a role model because of the ratio of my height to my weight is insane to me. And it enraged me.

In the past two weeks alone, here are the things my daughter has witnessed me doing. I've gotten up on several mornings and ran, including two times where I ran six miles in an hour. I've taken roller skating classes. I've gone to work, graded papers, and studied for my PhD exams. I've played games, cooked dinner, and danced with her.

She brought over a copy of Where the Sidewalk Ends and her toy computer to "study" with me the other night:

Not only am I capable of being a role model despite my apparently horrendous body, but I already am one. 

Then, to add insult to injury, I visited the site for the health program and saw that I had been awarded points for my in-range results. I got 600 points each for cholesterol, blood pressure, cotinine, and glucose. If I had gotten an in-range BMI, they informed me, I would have been awarded an additional 1000 points. 

I don't know why I cared so much, but I suddenly really, really cared. This program (which I otherwise really like, and which really has helped me set reasonable fitness goals and motivated me to reach them) was privileging BMI over all other health indicators. 

I wrote them a quick email in their form questionnaire asking them why they had made this decision. They responded that because "BMI levels over 25 are associated with many different health risks, we provide more points for a healthy BMI than we do for other biometric screenings." They admitted to a social stigma based on look-based rather than health-based goals, and assured me that they do not reward the 1000 points to people who are under the recommended BMI either. They also mentioned that they had BMI alternatives (getting body fat measurements from a doctor using calipers or analytical machines). 

That's all well and good, and I even believe that they have the goal of health in mind (everything else about the program is in line with that). But that's not how they present it. By giving BMI almost twice as many points as any other metric and by not mentioning the BMI alternatives on the main pages of the site, they create a false equivalency between size and health, an equivalency that is all too prevalent. 

I responded to their response with this:
Thank you for your response. I have had very positive interactions with your company, and I am hopeful that you will take this into consideration.  
For a little more context, I'd like to share some personal background. The only time in my entire life that I have fit BMI standards was when I was 17 years old. In order to meet them, I was eating about 500 calories a day: one Slim Fast shake and a few handfuls of Special K cereal. I also ran on a treadmill for two or three hours a day, obsessively counting calories in and out. I was starving myself. I was miserable, depressed, and hated my own body. Both my behavior and my eating were disordered. After almost a year of this kind of behavior, I clocked in just under the highest range of "normal" for my BMI. I assure you there was nothing healthy about it.  
I'm way past the time when someone else's idea of what my body should look like can make me act in that way, but I know that there are plenty of people for whom an insistence on BMI as a standard of health can trigger them to adopt some very unhealthy habits. BMI itself was not designed to be used on individuals (it was designed to measure aggregate populations), and much research shows it to be a flawed metric.  
It wasn't until I saw that you were privileging it over all other indicators (by giving it more points) that I felt compelled to write. I truly would like to see the research that impacted that decision. What proves that someone with a BMI over 25 is at a greater risk than a smoker if they don't also have high blood pressure or cholesterol, for instance? I truly don't understand why this indicator deserves almost double the point value of any other. 
I'm now the mother of a little girl, and I worry about the future and how she will learn to view her own body. Our culture's obsession with thinness to the detriment of all other health factors is mind boggling to me.  
Your program has helped me immensely. This is the second time I have used it (I had it through a previous employer), and in both instances, Vitality helped me set and keep longterm fitness goals. There have been several days when I would have talked myself out of a gym visit until I think of those goals and talk myself back into it. I was really excited to see it come to my new place of employment and immediately started telling co-workers about my previous experiences with it.  
I can't, though, recommend it to anyone else until I know that you are not feeding into a narrative that puts body size over healthy habits, and that's exactly what I feel like privileging BMI over other health indicators does. I am happy to hear that you have BMI alternatives (which I will look into for my own measurements), but they certainly aren't showcased on the site the way BMI is. Please consider the impact of not only your philosophy toward body size (which seems to be in the right place), but also the rhetoric surrounding how you present it to your members.
This whole conversation was sparked because a machine told me I couldn't be a role model, and that took me back to the one and only time I did make my body "worthy" of being an example. When I lost forty pounds in high school, I did indeed draw positive attention. People asked me about my workout routine. They wanted to copy my "diet." My diet was starvation, and my workout routine was obsessive. If there was ever a time that I was not a role model, that was it. No one sent me any emails warning me of that, though.

What do you think? Do you know of any research that would justify granting BMI double the points of any other health indicator? Would a message about your role model status be a motivator? Can size and health concerns co-exist reasonably? 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Blogging to My PhD: Peter Elbow Helps Me Clean My House

Peter Elbow's book Writing Without Teachers is a delightful anomaly among my exam reading list selections. Compared to, say, Kenneth Burke or James Berlin, Elbow's writing is clear, straightforward, and easy to read. This book is a particularly breezy read because it's not even aimed at academics. It's aimed at writers, especially writers who are doing so outside of an academic context.

Despite the relative simplicity of his presentation, Elbow's thoughts are proving to be immensely important to my overall research ideas. His discussion of the believing game and the doubting game and the importance of metaphor in developing new ideas are proving to be fertile ground for connections (as I wrote about here.)

But today I want to step outside of the academic and talk about how Peter Elbow has helped me in an area in which he probably had no intention of helping when he wrote his book: housekeeping.

Oct 04 (66)

Regular readers of this blog will find it no surprise when I tell you that housekeeping is the bane of my otherwise pretty well managed balancing act. (I even wrote about it through an academic lens when I was reading Patricia Roberts-Miller's Deliberate Conflict). Elsewhere, I've mused about everything from the cultural impact of our gendered narratives on housekeeping to the quite desperate plea of trying to figure out the secret

In Writing Without Teachers, Elbow calls for a very practical practice of freewriting. He insists that aspiring writers make themselves get up every morning and write without stopping for a short period of time, say ten minutes. They can write about anything they want. The results will likely be a mess. Most of what they write will not make it into a final draft--or any draft at all. The important thing, Elbow insists, is that they do it: just write. 

I have no trouble making myself write. In fact, I am often writing when I'm supposed to be doing other things (there's a basket of laundry to be folded calling my name right this second). 

"You can't hide from us. We see you!"
There are times when I will wake up in the middle of the night and need to write. I've learned to stop fighting it. If I get back into bed and force myself to close my eyes, I will toss and turn for hours, arising  unsatisfied on all accounts: physically and emotionally. If I just get out of bed and write, I can go back to sleep. 

I have never awoken in the middle of the night and needed to clean. Sure, I've had a bout of insomnia that I used to get some cleaning done, but the urgency to clean was never the catalyst.

But Elbow isn't talking to people who awake in the middle of the night with their fingers itching for prose. He's talking to people who want the finished product of the work we put into writing but who don't necessarily love the process. He's talking to people who are like me--when it comes to cleaning. 

It was the advice of the profanely-named Unfuck Your Habitat that made the connection for me. It's a website for people who hate to clean, and it provides tips and motivation. Their primary model of cleaning involves breaking down all of the work into bite-sized chunks, the 20/10 being the most common (20 minutes of cleaning followed by a 10 minute break followed by another 20/10 until you are done.)

Elbow suggests something similar with freewriting. Force yourself to do a 10 minute freewrite, re-read what you wrote. Circle what's worthwhile; then do a 10 minute freewrite on that thing. Re-read that and circle what's worthwhile. Do another 10 minute freewrite. In this way, you'll whittle down the clutter in your mind to get to what you really want to write about. 

In this way, I whittle down the literal clutter of my house and get to a home I can stand living within. 

Peter Elbow says that we should arise each morning and force ourselves to write. It's just 10 minutes. Likewise, I now set a timer and force myself to clean each evening. It's just 15 minutes. 

I never would have thought that 15 minutes would make a difference, but it does. In five minutes, the toys and books are put away. In 10 minutes, the dishwasher is unloaded and loaded, leaving me a sink that I can see. In 15 minutes, the kitchen is swept. If my husband and I do it together (and we usually do), we can get a load of laundry and a quick wipe down of the bathroom in there, too. 15 minutes. There are days when I can't do much, but there's never a day when I can't give 15 minutes. 

So, there you have it, study for your PhD, and you'll find all kinds of helpful life lessons. (Or, perhaps more accurately, study for your PhD, and you'll be so desperate for justifiable procrastination that cleaning your house starts to look appealing.)

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Health, Weight, and Haters

This is going to be a quick post. I just wanted to vent some frustration. I'm participating in this program at work that helps you set health goals and rewards you for meeting them (a program I generally like and enjoy using). They offered a free health screening where you get blood panels and measurements and then you're offered advice on how to become healthier based on the results.

My results? Every single panel came back healthy: blood pressure, trigylcerides, HDL, LDL, cholesterol ratio, glucose, and cotinine. All of them. Except one.

My BMI is high, and that gives me a big, red exclamation point screaming "ALERT" about my impending unhealthy doom.

So they start giving me a list of helpful suggestions for how to address my health ALERT. Eat fruits and vegetables with every meal, work out for at least 30 minutes 5 times a week, and the oh-so-helpful advice to manage my weight because I need to "always remember that [I am] an example for children and friends."

Perhaps by the end of the day I'll be in the right headspace where I can respond to this with dignity and grace, talk about how maybe my regular exercise, positive outlook, and healthy eating can be an example no matter what I weigh, but right now, this is all I got:

Thursday, October 17, 2013

If We Tackled Other Crises the Way We Tackle Rape

If you run in the virtual circles I run in, you've no doubt heard about Emily Yoffe of Slate and her victim-blaming, slut-shaming post that tells women that they need only stop drinking alcohol to quit bringing about their own rapes. The most pertinent paragraph for me was this:

Let’s be totally clear: Perpetrators are the ones responsible for committing their crimes, and they should be brought to justice. But we are failing to let women know that when they render themselves defenseless, terrible things can be done to them. Young women are getting a distorted message that their right to match men drink for drink is a feminist issue. The real feminist message should be that when you lose the ability to be responsible for yourself, you drastically increase the chances that you will attract the kinds of people who, shall we say, don’t have your best interest at heart. That’s not blaming the victim; that’s trying to prevent more victims.
There have been some great responses to it, and you should check out the feedback from Jezebel and Feministing.

There's nothing novel or groundbreaking about her argument. I hear it all the time. We're just looking out for women's safety. You know, this is about protection.

Let's look a little closer at Yoffe's claim that "Young women are getting a distorted message that their right to match men drink for drink is a feminist issue."

You know what, no.

I was a college girl (who, yes, occasionally drank) not all that long ago. I didn't get the message that I had to match men drink for drink. I did get the message, constantly, that I could never leave a drink alone. And if I ended up without a ride back from wherever I was, I was terrified--terrified--of any dark alley or offered lift from a guy I didn't know that well. The messages I received made me suspicious of just about every man I encountered.

The problem is not that girls aren't being told to be fearful enough. As Ever Mainard captures pretty well in this stand-up bit, we're very aware of the potential dangers surrounding us:

On a recent post I wrote about being catcalled, several friends responded to me (both in person and on the blog) that the fear of being catcalled or harassed has kept them from working out. Women make plans to go out in groups, go home early, carry their beer bottles into the bathroom with them, keep mace on their keychains, and hold their breaths every time they have to cross a dimly-lit part of the sidewalk. 


Fear is an instinct, and we're getting the message loud and clear. Wanting to be safe and un-assaulted doesn't need to be taught; it's ingrained in us. 

All of this focus on the victims of rape instead of the perpetrators of rape is mind boggling to me. What if we tackled other social issues with the same reasoning? 

All of those starving children should just be told about the importance of eating. 

All of those murder victims should just be told how important it is to remain alive. Why would you put yourself somewhere where there are guns or knives or poison?

Don't homeless people know the value of shelter? 

A woman who drinks does not cause rapes. Rapists cause rapes. And rape culture produces rapists. Until we accept and deal with that reality, it will continue. 

Women and Rhetoric in Politics: Are Ladies Really So Nice?

The Huffington Post has an article today with the attention-grabbing headline of "Men Got Us Into the Shutdown, Women Got Us Out."

While that title may have been chosen primarily for its ability to drive pageviews, there does seem to be some truth to it. The so-called "suicide caucus" responsible for the (now failed) demand to defund Obamacare that temporarily shut down the government is overwhelmingly male: 76 out of the 80 participants. It was also overwhelmingly white (79 out of 80).

Likewise, it seems that after negotiations in the House sputtered out for the final time, the leadership leading negotiation in the Senate was largely female. From the HuffPo post:
Out of the 14 senators on the bipartisan committee that laid the framework for the debt deal, six were women. Susan Collins (R-Maine) started the group, and Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) took part in negotiations.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that women were so heavily involved in trying to end this stalemate,” Collins told The New York Times. “Although we span the ideological spectrum, we are used to working together in a collaborative way.”
Senate = Good

As someone who cares about politics, rhetoric, and gendered norms, this topic is very interesting to me.

As I've written before, I am frustrated by the implication that women aren't (or shouldn't be) as aggressive as men when it comes to rhetorical argument. Still, the narrative persists (and is often backed up with data) that men and women communicate differently. This short piece from Discovery does a good job of going over the common tropes when it comes to this belief: women ask more questions, men don't like to apologize, women are less direct, men are more aggressive, women pick up subtle cues, men require straightforward responses. Here's a slightly more nuanced discussion from The Atlantic. Finally, here's a slightly more academic discussion from Towson University.

It makes sense that men and women would communicate differently because communication is a large part (in fact, since I believe that communication is tied up in every part of our construction of reality, I'd be willing to argue it's the only part) of our public performance. And our public performances are closely tied to our sense of identity: the identity we feel within and the identity we want to project outward as well as the identity that is read upon us by others regardless of how we view ourselves. Since the gender binary is deeply entrenched in our cultural norms, it's only logical that those expectations would show up in the way we talk. 

Still . . . 

I don't think we're looking at the full picture when we say that "women are better at negotiating than men." Sure. Women are often trained from childhood to be "nice" and "polite" while boys are encouraged to become "real men" through more aggressive and confrontational play. One only need to look at the gendering of children's television shows and toys to know that. 

But I think that there's another layer that we need to examine. It struck me particularly as I listened to Ted Cruz dismiss public polls suggesting that the American people disagreed with his position. I genuinely believe that Ted Cruz thinks that the polls are wrong, and I think it's because Ted Cruz does not understand what it is like to be in a minority position. 

Take a closer look at that "suicide caucus." This excellent New Yorker article explains that they represent constituents who are no longer in the majority in several different categories:

The members of the suicide caucus live in a different America from the one that most political commentators describe when talking about how the country is transforming. The average suicide-caucus district is seventy-five per cent white, while the average House district is sixty-three per cent white. . . .

The members themselves represent this lack of diversity. Seventy-six of the members who signed the Meadows letter are male. Seventy-nine of them are white.
As with Meadows, the other suicide-caucus members live in places where the national election results seem like an anomaly. Obama defeated Romney by four points nationally. But in the eighty suicide-caucus districts, Obama lost to Romney by an average of twenty-three points. . . . 

In short, these eighty members represent an America where the population is getting whiter, where there are few major cities, where Obama lost the last election in a landslide, and where the Republican Party is becoming more dominant and more popular. Meanwhile, in national politics, each of these trends is actually reversed.
 Not only are they out of touch with the national trends, but they are witnessing a shift in cultural power. It was not that long ago that a majority minority American population seemed out of the question; now it seems inevitable. People in rural Colorado want to secede from their state because they feel they don't get equal representation with urban districts; they seem to not understand that there are more people in urban districts.

It's easy to think that your views are representative of the whole if you live in such a way as to (intentionally or unintentionally) block out the views of most of the people around you. It's easy to, like Ted Cruz, think that the polls must just be wrong. You know what you've seen, and you extrapolate it to the entire country.

What does this have to do with gendered rhetoric?

There aren't that many women who haven't had the experience of being in the minority position. We live in a patriarchal society. Women's views are frequently ignored or downplayed for no reason other than our gender identities. We are catcalled to remind us that the spaces we inhabit are not really ours. We are harassed even in virtual spaces simply because we are women. We are underrepresented in media, national politics, and corporations.

We don't have the luxury of conveniently thinking the polls are wrong. We are used to having to struggle against a more powerful majority to have our voices heard.

I suspect this is why there weren't many people of color, openly gay representatives, or people with disabilities in that so-called "suicide caucus," either. (Though we also need to talk about the fact that all of these groups and others who face systematic oppression didn't have the opportunity to join any caucus at all because of the under-representation they face in our political system.)

People who are used to raising their voices in the face of oppression learn to communicate differently than people who are always joining a chorus. Ted Cruz expected this move to work because he can't imagine a world in which the people around him don't overwhelmingly support him. He is used to being the majority, and he doesn't know how to act when he's not.

If women negotiate better than men, I don't think it's because we've been divinely gifted with some innate power of politeness; it's because we've had to negotiate in everything we've ever done.

We have more practice.

Photo: chriswatkins

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Good, the Bad, and the Curious (Links)

Here's what I've been reading that made me smile (The Good), cry (The Bad), and think (The Curious).

The Good

This kid just really loved a VW camper

In honor of my roller derby ambitions, a friend sent me this video, and it is awesome:

Jungle - The Heat from Jungle on Vimeo.

Reading literature makes you a better person. I knew that already, but it's nice to see some evidence

Here are some cats on glass tables. 

Did you know there's an entire website dedicated to Alex Trebek being snarky? Of course there is. 

Tori at Anytime Yoga has a beautiful letter to her student going through a breakup.

The Bad

The "next" Steubenville (although the incident actually happened earlier, it's just now coming to light) is unraveling in Maryville, Missouri.

When you can't win by the rules, change them! (That's what Congress does.) (As a bonus, Femamom does a great job of explaining why this shutdown is a feminist issue. Get mad!)

For this GOP strategist, being the type of man who would speak to a woman who strips for a living like she's a human being is a bad thing. I can't even with this story.

Oh, Fox News.

The Curious

Some people in rural Colorado want to secede from their state because they don't like the "liberals" robbing their grandchildren of their "heritage."

Read Bicultural Mom's account of growing up poor and on food stamps.

Just because feminist outlets might not like Chris Brown does not mean they get to downplay what was clearly a rape in his childhood.

This guest post by Kristen Craig Lai from PhD in Parenting really hit me close to home. As a child who was raised by a mother who battles clinical depression, it was really powerful to read about the other side of this coin:
This is what parenting with mental illness is all about. You have to do the constant work of managing your illness while also figuring out how to minimize the impact of your illness on your kid(s). And when you’re really on a role you might even find a way to turn it into an asset. I’ve been trying to heal myself for twenty-four years. The very fact that I’m still here and still fighting is a testament to the work I’ve put in. That kind of self-healing and advocacy doesn’t come without some serious self-awareness. The things I have learned on this journey are some of the most important lessons I could bring to parenting.
As an unabashed pop culture junkie (it shows, doesn't it?), I was interested to read Hobo Mama's take on raising children who love TV.

That's what I've been reading, what about you? (And feel free to promote your own work if you've been writing things, too.)

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Having It All Project

Today, I am excited and honored to be featured over at Busy Since Birth as part of Cheryl Stober's Having It All Project.

Pop over and take a look at my post, and then check out some of the other stories in the series to see how they've tried to balance "it all."

Balance beam

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Catcalled Into Submission: A Runner's Tale

It is my favorite weather. The sun is warm on my skin, but the air underneath has that hint of bite. The leaves haven't quite changed, but they're thinking about it, curling around the edges and rasping when the wind blows.

In the summer, running outside makes me feel like an ambling brick of melting cheese. The Midwest humidity instantly soaks my skin, even before I'm out of breath, and I fall out of breath quickly, pulling in the wet air in uncoordinated gulps.

But not in the fall. Maybe it's because I'm actually getting better at running, but I think it's mostly the weather. Today, I ran five miles, and they all felt smooth and graceful. I was running through the oldest parts of my city, remembering why I love it and imagining the history those streets had seen as my feet hit the tilting sidewalks. When I got to the riverbank, I felt invincible, and when I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the windows of buildings, I saw myself as strong. This is why I run. This moment.

Running feet

Walking back to my house, deeply engrossed in the audiobook version of Doctor Sleep that has been keeping me company on these runs, I passed a man painting a fence on the sidewalk. For a moment, I was distracted from the book by thoughts about how nice it was to see the old fence (in front of what looked like an abandoned building) being renewed to a shine. He said something to me. I pulled my headphones off one ear, "What?" 

"You don't look like you need to exercise to me." 

How does one respond to that? I kept walking, but I was still within his view, and it felt weird to say nothing. I'm running my response through my head. What he said wasn't menacing. It might have even been a compliment, though what the hell does that even mean? If I look fit (which--let's be honest--I really don't, especially if "fit" means "thin"), wouldn't you expect me to be running? I rambled off a response, 

"Oh, I could still use a little exercise." Polite chuckle. 

"I'll work it off you." 

By then, I was four or five steps in front of where he was sitting on an overturned plastic bucket, hunched over the metal fence posts. I rolled my eyes, pulled my headphone back over my ear, and kept walking. But I didn't feel strong anymore. I could feel his eyes on me as I walked down the sidewalk. It felt like when you run through a spiderweb on a wooded path. You know it's not physically possible, but you can feel the web on you everywhere even after you pull it off, the stickiness making your skin crawl for several minutes. 


Instinctively, I felt myself withdrawing, imagining myself smaller, trying to become invisible. 

As I was running the exchange through my head, kicking myself for not having some kind of witty retort, a group of men called to me from a porch. They were up hill from me, the brick wall of the porch and a steep incline between us. Again, I pulled my headphones off my ears, "Huh?" 

"Are you walking for cancer?" 

The words didn't even make sense in my head. "Sorry? What?" 

"For cancer? Is that why you're walking?" 

"No. For me." 

"Oh. I saw you when you headed that way earlier. Just wanted to tell you you're doing a great job." 

"Thanks." I kept walking. 

A great job at what? Walking? He didn't see me running because this part of the path had been both my warm-up and my cool down. 

The second man hadn't said anything insulting. Sure, it's weird to congratulate someone on walking on the sidewalk, but it's not necessarily sinister, but his words came so close behind the others that they still felt dirty. I felt dirty. 

And that, finally, is what I'm left wondering. What was that painter's aim? 

Did he know that he deflated me? Did he know that my walk home was a victory lap for someone who had strengthened a body that couldn't even run a mile in the recent past? Did he know that I was lost in my own thoughts, enjoying a book and the company of my own footsteps? Did he know that moments before I had been running along a smooth sidewalk, catching glimpses of myself in windows and feeling powerful and (dare I say it) even a little sexy?

And did he know that after his words (I'll work it off you), all I felt was a deep desire to fold inside myself, to vanish into thin air, to get his eyes off of me? 

Or did he not think about what his words meant to me at all?

And which is worse? 

Photos: Eva the Weaver, Yash Gupta 

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Guest Post: This Fetus (isn’t yet) a Feminist: Questioning Public Ownership of Pregnant Women’s Bodies

Today's guest post is from Kristen Hurst and it touches upon a topic that is very close to me. She talks about how her treatment during pregnancy re-ignited some dormant feminist principles. Pregnancy is a time when the treatment of a woman's body highlights inequities we might otherwise be able to ignore, and it was a similar experience that led me to my own feminist reawakening. Did pregnancy or motherhood impact your personal understanding of feminism?


Yes, that may be your nephew growing rapidly inside of me, but that bellybutton is still mine! During my first pregnancy, I failed to say this out loud, though the thought passed through my mind on a daily basis. I felt frequently overwhelmed and upset and it seemed easy for those around me to blame my hormones for my feelings. The fact that my body was changing also seemed to be acceptable conversation fodder for my co-workers and family members.  On some level I knew that allowing a fetus to take up residence in my body meant that my body also belonged to my future son, but just as I didn’t want to expose my future son to beer, cigarettes, or cat urine, I didn’t want to expose him to his future loved ones reconceiving his mother as a public monument—

Though to some degree, my industry—fashion—condones the practice of women adorning their bodies in a way that makes them more desirable to consume. Fashion may also give individuals the power to subvert the dominant gaze (whether that is the gaze of leering men or the judgmental gaze of our peers), but ultimately, fashion wants you to want what’s “trendy.” I found early on that if I could be just beautiful enough, I could blend in rather than deal with people looking at me as though I were a magazine cover on a checkout stand. With a baby bump far larger than Jessica Simpson’s, I found myself in unfamiliar territory. I didn’t want to have to manage unsolicited advice and hands from strangers. At the time, I didn’t have the concepts to tell strangers or my coworkers or my family this. As a result, I alternated between wearing sweats and the most glamorous “your-bump-is-an-accessory” maternity clothes to work. 

This flux in how I presented myself made me look crazy, which my friends felt free to comment on.  I was so happy to give birth and frantically return back to my pre-pregnancy weight that I’m certain I paid more attention to my running schedule than the infant with whom I was charged to stay at home. I felt like I was “taking my body back,” away from the baby and everyone who touched me over the previous nine months without my permission. Things went similarly with my second pregnancy, though I started to question whether reading articles about how much weight such-and-such celebrity gained was wise for my mental stability. Whatever shreds of feminism I held onto through college barely had a fighting chance as I squeezed into maternity jeggings and heels to parade the dog around my subdivision. My new attitude? Fine, if you’re going to own my body, then I might as well give you a pleasing show.

This seemed to be the celebrity attitude (or coping mechanism?) If anecdotes from myriad mothers aren’t enough, the mainstream media provides more than enough evidence for a case study of how the public takes ownership of pregnant women’s bodies. We chronicle every pound of baby weight, any phantom stretch mark. We speculate about names, about the mother’s age. The photograph of the celebrity is not the celebrity herself, but when in the realm of celebrity gossip do we consider how our relationships with famous women are not with the woman herself, but with our idea of her as presented by blogs, magazines, and television? Celebrity maternity speculation falls clearly in the realm of fantasy. It took my until my third pregnancy to realize this, and to encounter our attitudes towards women’s bodies with a healthy dose of skepticism—

Because it’s not only pregnant women’s bodies that are open for public comment. Celebrity bodies in general, fat bodies, skinny bodies—any kind of non-normative body, really, that receives this kind of attention. I mean, look at how often we speculate whether Jennifer Aniston is pregnant:

Yet, yet again, she’s not! We project evidence onto photographs of her body, just as we project evidence onto the actual bodies of our friends, and onto ourselves. Through my third pregnancy, I realized that the way I talked about my body mattered, and that if I didn’t find witty retorts to people’s comments about my body, I was affirming that these kinds of comments were okay. I had to find the strength to change the conversation around my pregnancy, and that was tough.
To this day, I try not to comment on bodies that are not my own—I don’t know their stories. I do know that recognizing how we interact with pregnant women’s bodies brought me back to the feminism that I accidentally abandoned after college. I hate to end posts without a call to action, but like many others, I’m still learning about what we can do to counter this beyond finding the strength and inner peace to change the conversation about what my weight or sleeping habits or wardrobe are doing to your nephew. He doesn’t belong to you—nor do I own him—and we are not here for your entertainment. 

Kristen Hurst is a stay at home mother of three who enjoys blogging.  She received her bachelor's degree in fashion marketing, and writes often about maternity swimsuits .  When she's not trying to juggle the lives of Casey, Austin and Ben, she enjoys painting and catching up with a great Jane Austen novel.