Thursday, January 31, 2013

When Ethical Frameworks Collide: What Happens When Everyone is Right?

I've been thinking a lot lately about how we construct our ethical frameworks. The article that finally sparked me to try to put my thoughts together was Hannah Waters' "Death to the House Cat."

See, a new study has found that cats are killing billions (with a "b") of birds and small mammals every year, endangering several populations to the point of possible extinction. This has prompted some people, perhaps most notably New Zealand's Gareth Moran, to call for stray cats to be euthanized and all pet cats to be neutered or spayed and kept indoors, even to the point--in Moran's case--of the eradication of their own population.

Now I have two (solely indoor, and spayed, for what it's worth) cats, and that argument sent shivers down my spine.

I tried to get photographic proof of their existence in one nice picture,
but they're cats, so they refused to cooperate. 
Of course, the suggestion that we euthanize stray cats sounds very inhumane. I'm an animal lover who has adopted pets from the Humane Society and believes in responsible pet ownership and humane treatment. Killing cats doesn't sound like it fits into that world view at all.

But when I read Waters' article, I realized it was more complicated than it at first seemed:
The problem is that trap-neuter-release programs don’t work (3). Cat fertility is so high–a single female can have 3 litters of 4-6 kittens each year–that just a small percentage of the population needs to be reproductive to make up for the natural death rate. (Even if most of the kittens born end up dying before reproducing.) Additionally, trap-neuter-release isn’t even cost-effective compared to euthanasia, even if all the cat feeding, capturing and neutering is performed by volunteers (4). 
And, meanwhile, all those neutered cats are still doing what they do best: catching and eating small animals. 
She concludes that cats should be controlled through "humane killing, just like many other invasive species."  The argument is one of conflicting ethical frameworks. On the one hand, there are advocates for feral cats who believe that their humane treatment is supreme in this debate. On the other hand, there are advocates for biodiversity that say the lives of the native bird and mammal populations should be more important.

I'm not taking a side in this debate (and I'm not euthanizing my cats), but it did make me think of another complicated article I read recently.

It's about quinoa.

Quinoa


Quinoa has become something of a fad grain in the United States, and it is particularly popular among the "foodie" crowd. This Guardian article points out that many vegans tout the benefits of quinoa as a good source of protein without the ethical problems of food from animal sources. (I think the article relies a little too heavily on the assumption that it's mostly vegans increasing the demand for quinoa (when really, it's vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores alike), but the ethical question remains). Because quinoa is suddenly much more in demand than it used to be, the cost of it has increased so much that people in Peru and Bolivia, where it is grown, can often no longer afford it. That means that a staple of their diets has been priced out of their accessibility. There are two competing ethical frameworks in this debate. On one hand, there are ethical concerns for the treatment of animals, and on the other hand is the ethical concern for the people who depend on quinoa as a native food source. 

That article in turn reminded me of yet another fascinating article that illustrates these problems. In this article, Jackson Landers makes the argument that eating deer is more ethical than eating soy:
A wild deer requires no killing until the moment of harvest to produce some 40 pounds of meat, even from a smallish animal. The deer lives free of cages, electric prods, hormones or antibiotics. No other animals are trapped, poisoned or shot to bring it to maturity. The blood footprint of the venison burger may be less than that of a tub of popcorn.
He argues that because traditionally harvested soy requires the killing of many animals through pesticides and pest control measures like hunting, the deer meat is actually the result of less animal suffering than the vegetarian option.

Again, this is a question of frameworks. Which position do you privilege? How do you make your decision?

The thing that strikes me about these three debates is that I think many of us can recognize the value of the arguments on either side. Even if I ultimately think that trapping and neutering feral cats is the choice I prefer because I am privileging the viewpoint of the cats, I can't rightly say that I don't see the point of the people who argue for biodiversity. Even if I decide that eating quinoa isn't worth the cost to Peruvians, I can't say that I don't understand the concerns of vegans who are trying to eat in a way that reduces cruelty to animals.

So what happens when two groups have equally thought-out, justified ethical frameworks that cannot co-exist? What happens when those two frameworks intersect in your own life? How do you make ethical decisions when you can see the benefits of both? Can you think of any other examples where this kind of conflict arises?

Photo: Emily Barney

Whole 30 Review: 30 Days Without Sugar, Dairy, or Grains

I mentioned at the beginning of this month that I was doing the Whole 30 challenge. Sharing many of the principles of the Paleo diet, this eating plan eschews grains, dairy, and sugar for 30 days. It's really very strict, requiring an avoidance of even natural sweeteners like honey or agave nectar and legumes like beans.

The first week on the plan was tough, as I had a lot of cravings for very sweet things and not many recipes in my arsenal to stave off hunger and boredom. With a little help from Pinterest and sources like Civilized Caveman and PaleOMG, I managed to keep our meals interesting.

I had read and heard personally from plenty of people for whom this way of eating had dramatically improved their life. People talked about increased energy, clearer skin, and fewer headaches. Truth be told, I was a little skeptical because anything that sounds like a cure-all is usually just snake oil, but I was excited about challenging myself to eat healthier and to break some bad habits. I've made it the full thirty days, and here's my takeaway.

The Pros

Breaking the Sugar Habit- 

There's debate over whether sugar can be addicting or not, but there is little debate over the fact that--whether sugar is a "poison" or not--we're getting too much of it. In fact, it's estimated that the average American is eating 152 pounds of sugar a year, that equates to 42.5 teaspoons per day, or nearly four times the recommended maximum. 

You may be shaking your head and thinking that there's no way you are consuming that much sugar a day (and maybe you're not), but if you're not absolutely diligent about reading labels and you're consuming pre-packaged food, you're probably getting more sugar than you think you are.

An average 12-ounce soda has 10 teaspoons of sugar in it. That's one can. That also doesn't take into account that sugar can be lurking in everything from your ketchup to your bacon and that there's mixed science on how the body processes different types of sugar (such as HFCS).

For me, this 30-day challenge put all of that into perspective by making me realize that I don't need any of those added sugar ingredients. I can make perfectly filling, satisfying meals without any sugar at all.

donut

It also taught me that I can go into a meeting that's packed full of cookies and donuts and not eat any.

Money, Money, Money

We bought a lot of groceries. We had to stock up on some long-lasting staples like olive oil and coconut oil. We also had to buy some pretty expensive things like almonds and cashews to keep on hand. In addition, we stuck mostly to free-range and grass-fed meat, which doesn't come cheap. 

On top of all of that, we had to go to the grocery store very often. In fact, we were there at least twice every week, and sometimes three times. Fresh produce doesn't stay fresh long, and we really couldn't eat out, so we had to make sure we kept meals on hand. 

I was a little afraid to add up all our food costs at the end of the month. When I went to do it, I found out something surprising: we had more money than usual. 

Even though we bought a lot of expensive foods and we bought them often, we still spent less than we did in a typical month. This is because we didn't eat out at all. We also didn't buy many pre-packaged foods, which tend to drive up the total bill in a hurry. So even though we were buying more expensive food more often, we spent less money. It was like magic.

Rethinking a Meal

There were several times during the month where I hadn't planned ahead as well as I'd have liked to. (Hey, I am working full-time, raising a toddler, and getting a PhD, after all). One of these days in particular, I felt stumped. I only had odds and ends in the fridge and no real meal plan, but it was midday and I was hungry. This is a day when I normally would have run up the road to St. Louis Bread (Panera, for the rest of the world) and bought myself a relatively healthy lunch of soup and a salad. Instead, since it is a bread company and practically every menu item is forbidden, I had to figure something out at home. What I ended up making was this:


That's chicken cooked in cumin, chili powder, and salsa on top of spinach with mango salsa and guacamole. It was delicious. 

Another lunchtime favorite was chicken in red wine vinegar with garlic, oregano, red peppers, red onions, mushrooms, and spinach. 

I began to see all of these whole foods as possibilities that I never saw before. I adapted recipes (once putting peaches in a turkey meatloaf) in ways I never would have considered before. I also realized that a meal didn't have to be a meat with two sides as I'd been conditioned to think. I could just as easily eat some scrambled eggs with mushrooms and then have some cashews and raisins later. 

The Physical Impact

We had already made a lot of dietary changes over the last few years. I had already stopped drinking caffeine, artificial sweeteners, and most processed foods. Because of that, I wasn't really expecting any major physical changes from this diet. 

I was surprised to discover that the stomach pain and general queasiness that I just thought was part of life practically disappeared. Upon closer examination, I think I probably have a dairy sensitivity, but I wouldn't have made the connection until I eliminated dairy. I also noticed that I generally felt pretty good. I didn't get headaches. My energy levels were stable, and I felt clear-headed and sharp most of the time. 

I did not do this to lose weight. I did, however, weigh myself at the beginning and end to see if there was any change. Since I wasn't actively trying to lose weight, I didn't avoid the more calorie-dense foods that the Whole 30 people suggest avoiding if you want to see weight loss. I ate plenty of avocados, sweet potatoes, and fruit. I never counted a calorie. I never denied myself food if I felt hungry. I sometimes made banana almond butter shakes. I also--if we're being honest--didn't make it to the gym as much as I'd hoped. I fully expected my weight to remain about where it was. 

I lost 10 pounds. 

I don't think that weight is a correlated indicator of health. I do not think you can tell how healthy someone is or isn't by the number on the scale. I do think, though, that we can do unhealthy things that will impact our weight, and I think that the fact that I lost 10 pounds in 30 days while eating whenever I wanted means some of the foods I was eating before weren't great for my body. 

The Cons

Social Impact-

People do eat out while doing the Whole30, but I don't see how. It was nearly impossible to find foods in restaurants that were compliant with the plan as is, and I am just not forward enough as a person (I'm an introvert!) to grill the wait staff on every single ingredient and figure out a way to make the necessary substitutions. Basically every salad dressing I came across had sugar in it (though I now know they can be made deliciously without it). Even something as simple as plain grilled chicken was often grilled in vegetable oil, which isn't allowed on the Whole 30. It was intimidating to eat out.

Also, talking about food makes people jumpy. People tend to think that when you're restricting what you eat that you're also judging what they eat. I didn't want people thinking that they couldn't drink a beer (also no alcohol on Whole 30) or eat a cookie just because I wasn't.

That made the social impact of the Whole 30 hard to swallow (see what I did there?) sometimes. It was tough finding a good place to meet people when we went out, and I wanted to let people know that I wasn't turning my nose up at their hospitality out of malice. I also think it would be really hard to do a Whole 30 challenge (especially for the first time) if the other people in your household weren't also doing it.

Tea parties, however, were allowed. 

Food and Pleasure-

As Melissa's position in this debate over whether cocoa powder is allowed in the plan demonstrates, there's more to the Whole 30 philosophy than simply restricting certain foods. She says that the Whole 30 isn't just about eating better foods, but also about breaking psychological habits like needing a dessert at the end of dinner or craving some chocolate. 

I completely understand the need to break bad habits, but some of the things considered bad habits are the pleasure of eating. I think that food can be a very pleasurable experience. Making something with your hands that can sustain your body is a very rewarding process, so is the physical enjoyment of smelling and tasting food that is good. Laughing with friends over a great meal is wonderful. I don't think that food should simply be fuel for our bodies, but also food for our souls. I do not want to rid myself of all emotional connections with food. 

The idea that creating a "pizza" out of approved foods is somehow "cheating" because it's still too pizza-like is strange to me. I want to eat good food, and I want to enjoy it, and I don't see anything wrong with finding a place where those things overlap. 

Bottom Line

I'm really glad that I did this challenge. I feel more in control of what I eat and that I have a better sense of how to put together healthy food. I also never felt deprived, and it was really only hard to follow for the first five days. After that, it became second nature. 

I won't be on a Whole365 (and even the creators of the program don't suggest that). I will be adding  some of the "forbidden" foods back into my diet (honey, some beans). I do think, though, that we'll pretty much stick to this way of eating for the meals we prepare at home. I like the way I feel when I eat this way, and I think that the food is nourishing and enjoyable. I also think that I'll do the full challenge every so often to make sure that I'm keeping bad habits (especially depending too heavily on pre-prepared food and sugar) at bay. I won't be as strict when it comes to eating at restaurants or other people's houses. Oh, and I'm going to have a cupcake and probably some pizza tomorrow. 

Photo: uberculture

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Blogging, Money, and Feminism: Weighing the Costs

Something very interesting happened today. A blog that I have been following regularly for a few years changed into paywall model. Gina at The Feminist Breeder announced her new subscription format today.

The conversation about this decision on her Facebook wall has brought up a lot of questions for me.

Money

First of all, I want to go on record to say that I think Gina has every right to charge for her content and that I wish her nothing but luck in being able to make her skills and passions profitable. I also think that her fees are reasonable ($5/month, $35/year), especially when compared to comparable content like magazines.

That said, I won't be paying for the content. 

This isn't because I don't think it's worth $5 a month, and it isn't even because I can't find $5 a month to spend on reading content. (It is, and I could). However, I currently have well over 100 blogs in my Google Reader feed, many with topics that are closer matches to my own personal interests than The Feminist Breeder's. I absolutely cannot afford to pay $500 a month to read these blogs. 

Judging from her responses to readers about this decision (which have ranged from excited to disappointed to angry), it appears that Gina has several reasons for making this decision. A public legal battle with an anti-homebirth internet persona has brought calls on her sponsors to drop their ads from her pages, a strict WHO code compliance has made it difficult to join bigger ad networks (though, shout out to BlogHer for letting me opt-out of all formula ads in their network!), and a general frustration with the abuse she takes from trolls on the internet have all combined to make this the right decision for her. 

The thing that struck me the most though, was when she said this:
"I understand if people can't/don't want to pay for it, but accusing me of 'denying privilege' because I'm asking for payment for my work is just about the most anti-feminist thing I've ever seen on this page (and BOY, I've seen a lot). Ladies, if I want something you make, I'll pay you for it. If I can't pay you, I won't ask you to make it for me. If you're willing to give it to me for free under certain circumstances, then I'll say THANKS! But at no time will I insult you because you won't work for free. Please, ladies, STOP working for free."
There's not much money in blogging. Well, I take that back. For a very narrow section of blogs, there's money, but there's not much money for most blogs, especially for blogs that serve as a sort of niche market for social issues, like the feminist blogs out there. At the same time, a lot of feminist work is being done online, and it's a great asset to all social justice issues to be able to connect and share ideas online. But when blogs that are doing a lot of that work are including figuring out economic sustainability models into their goals, we have to have a discussion about how we value that work.

I blog as a hobby. It's the one space where I get to wear all of my hats simultaneously, and--for that--it's a reward in and of itself. It makes me a better scholar, teacher, mother--a better person, really--to get my ideas out on the page and get feedback from other people. Sure, I sometimes spend longer than I should researching some silly little blog entry that's going to get a few thousand hits and then vanish into the cyber world, but I know that when I start doing it. I don't ever expect to get rich blogging, and I'm happy when the money I bring in from ads is enough to cover the expenses of paying for hosting fees and maybe a couple bottles of wine over the course of a year (and I don't drink expensive wine).

Am I hurting feminism by "giving it away"? Are bloggers who don't charge for their content devaluing themselves and--by extension--the others who do similar work?

Obviously, I'm biased when I say that I don't think so. I think that blogging has helped me professionally and personally, and I have never seen it as a for-profit endeavor. I don't think that choosing to run community writing workshops for free or helping friends edit their resumes is devaluing my skills, either. We all have to find a balance between the work we do for money and the work we do for love, and when the two intersect, we can rejoice.

That said, I understand that there is a need for people to do this type of writing and work that are paid for it. We need consistent, high-quality, high-traffic sources for these conversations, and that takes time, talent, and resources. That takes money.

I don't know how to resolve the fact that I won't pay for Gina's blog now that it's moved to a subscription service with the understanding that paying people for what they produce is important. If every blog on the internet suddenly went to the same model, I would probably choose two or three blogs and hope that would be enough to fill my desire for knowledge and community.

I'm glad that's not a choice I have to make and that these things are free, but I hope that my joy doesn't cost the people creating those blogs more than it should.

What do you think? What are the economic ethics of blogging? Would you pay for the blogs you read? Do you pay for the blogs you read? How do you find a balance between work you do for pay and work you do for love?


Photo: 401(K) 2013

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Keeping My House "Show Ready": How Do People Do This?

As my previous rantings on the topic have probably made obvious, housecleaning is my Achille's heel. I have skills. I'm good at things. This is not one of them.

I realize that "I'm just not good at housecleaning" sounds like one of those things that people say to avoid pulling their share of the work, but I have no one else to pass these chores on to, so I get nothing out of saying it.

In the past, this weak link in my chain of abilities wasn't really a major problem. I'd have to send myself into a cleaning frenzy when people were coming over, and I'd sometimes get overwhelmed by clutter and feel the stress of it, but--for the most part--we just lived with dusty baseboards and piled up laundry.

But now our house is on the market. We're supposed to keep it "show ready," which the realtor says in such a calm aside, as if "show ready" doesn't really mean "cleaner than your house has ever been ever, but every single day."

On top of my less-than-stellar housekeeping skills, we also have a toddler, two cats, a dog, and a house too small to fit all of our stuff (thus the reason for selling it in the first place). I know there are lots of things that could be done, and I know that a massive de-cluttering where we sacrifice the mounting piles of stuff to the garbage and Goodwill are definitely in the future, but I'm at a loss as to how to actually do that and then keep it that way for any length of time. (And by any length of time, I mean longer than five minutes. Have you seen what a toddler can do to a kitchen?)

This, for example, is what happens when she goes to "make hamburgers."
How do people do this? This is not a rhetorical question. I know that they do do it, so I want to know how. I've been looking online for tips, but these minute-to-minute breakdowns of how often to scrub your sink just aren't cutting it. 

Help! Please!

Free Breast Pumps For Everyone!

I caught part of an NPR story about breast pumps on my way home today. Yummy Mummy, a New York-based boutique shop that caters to breastfeeding women, has had to double its employees, buy warehouse space, and open a call center within the last two weeks. Why? Because breast pumps are now covered free of charge under the Affordable Care Act.

As one might imagine, not everyone is happy with this development. 

The NPR report focused on how the people buying pumps weren't shopping around, but instead going for the most expensive options because they weren't footing the bill. They also reported that some people who had already purchased their own pump out of pocket were buying a second pump because "Why not?" They made it sound a little like women were out buying breast pumps the way they are out buying jewelry. 

Maybe they are. 

Parenting certainly has status symbols and ridiculous measures of "success" that are based on purchases. When there are strollers that cost considerably more than my first three cars combined, we know that we're dealing with some niche markets that are based on more than just quality. Sometimes brand names are used to make a statement. 

I certainly think that could happen with breast pumps, but--as someone who used a breast pump every single day for a year--I also know that this is an area where quality matters. 

breast pump overload

A hand pump is not going to cut it if you are needing to pump to provide your baby meals on a consistent basis. When I forgot an important piece of my pump at work one day, I tried to make do with a hand pump and ended up in a tough spot: not enough milk to cover that day's feedings and quite a lot of discomfort. If that had been my primary means of getting milk, there's no way I would have been able to feed my baby exclusively breast milk for the recommended time

I don't know how to explain the way that it feels to not get enough milk while pumping. Until I experienced it, I wouldn't have understood how stressful it feels. Watching those bottles and begging them to fill so that you'll have enough food for daycare the next day is so frustrating. This was especially true for me in the early weeks of breastfeeding. I went back to work when my daughter was seven weeks old. She was still eating every two hours. I was dealing with the emotions of leaving her with strangers for the first time and the guilt of being away from her. Being able to provide milk for her was one way that I felt connected to her even when we were apart; when that ability was put into jeopardy on days when I couldn't produce enough milk, it had profound emotional consequences for me. 

Sure. I could have supplemented her feeding with formula, and I know that this is the best option for many women and the only option for some women as well. But that wasn't what I wanted to do, and having a pump that worked well was the only way that I could meet that particular goal. 

If you look at the reviews of different pumps, you can see pretty quickly that there is a difference in performance. The First Years pump, for instance, which is one of the more affordable brands at around $80, gets a lot of negative reviews from women who tried to use it for consistent, daily pumping.

Several people talk about how the pump lost suction, had milk back up into the tubing, or had the motor go out. These are not minor problems. If you get milk in the tubing of your breast pump, it can contaminate the whole system. If you lose suction and cannot pump milk during a time when you need milk, not only will you not have the food your baby needs but you could also end up with engorged or infected breasts. 

Of course, there are still some negative reviews on the more expensive brands (Medela and Ameda, for instance), but there are far fewer complaints than on the less expensive ones. 

These malfunctions are also why I question the scoffing at the people who are buying a second pump "just in case." While I do think that buying two top-of-the-line pumps is probably unnecessary, this is not a product that you can just not have. If you use a breast pump, then you need a breast pump. If the one you have stops working, then it's not always possible to wait the time to repair or ship or even to buy another one.

Finally, the NPR report focused on the fact that there is no such things as a free meal--or a free breast pump. We pay for these "freebies" through our insurance premiums.

However, we also pay for the consequences of women not being able to meet their breastfeeding goals. While I think it is every parent's right to formula feed if desired, we can't ignore the fact that formula feeding is often a subsidized act as well. This 2011 article explains that WIC provides almost half of the formula consumed in the U.S. WIC itself recommends breastfeeding and tries to promote it through education and support. A woman interviewed for the NPR report said that she doesn't think having breast pumps will necessarily increase the number of women who breastfeed. However, the CDC and the AMA both note access to a breast pump as one of the contributing factors to breastfeeding success rates. When working outside the home is necessary to sustain a family financially (and that's the case for many, many families), then a breast pump is not a luxury item. It is a necessary tool to help those women meet the nutritional and health needs of their families.

Finally, breastfeeding has been found to reduce a wide range of diseases, including asthma, type 2 diabetes, respiratory disease, and ear infections. If the concern is about the financial costs of health care, can't we see than an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure?

Photo: madichan

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Recycled: Some Thoughts on Balancing

Everyone told me that becoming a full-time faculty member would be a huge change in my time management, but I had also been working an 8-5, so I thought I was well-prepared.

I was both right and wrong. Since I was already used to getting up, I scheduled myself for 8am every day. Many of my colleagues balk at such an early routine, but I was already used to it, so it's been an easy transition. Starting the day early also means that I have flexibility in my afternoons.

And flexibility is good because I was wrong about how easily I would adapt. Sure, I was already working full-time before, but this is different. The little things pile up quickly and my days are less predictable. Before, I had set times to catch up, but now that time may be taken up by a student who needs to talk or a last-minute meeting. Also, having to be at a desk for eight hours a day often drove me crazy, but it gave me a lot of time focused on a single task.

Overall, though,  I'm managing the balance fairly well. I'm teaching a full-time course load, raising a very active toddler, taking a graduate-level Spanish translation class, working on my PhD exam, writing this blog, and still finding time to do things like hang out with my family and friends.

People sometimes ask me how I do "it all." My initial answer is "I don't." I think that the message that we have to do it all is a damaging one. There's a lot of "all" out there. I'm satisfied with picking out the pieces that feel important and ignoring the rest. And sometimes even those pieces are an absolute mess because we are more than a snapshot of our lives at any given moment. Our lives and the circumstances surrounding them change, and we change with them. Doing it all is a myth.

But I do think there are some very practical ways to make balancing multiple roles a little easier. Here are the ones that are most important to me.

SPACE
Create Separate Spaces for Different Realms . . .  I move back and forth between my home, the campus I work on, and the campus where I'm a student. At first, I thought I could just stay in my faculty office. I realized quickly that wasn't the case. Instead, I set aside time each week where I  go to the other campus and sit in the library to do work for my PhD. When I tried to do that work in my office, I was still focused primarily on my role as teacher, and there's always something for a teacher to do. I couldn't pull myself out of the teacher role long enough to get into the student role.

Similarly, I have different parts of my home that I mentally associate with work. The dining room table is the place where I grade papers or do homework. It provides the most functional surface and it gets me away from the living room (where the TV lives) and the kitchen (where the dirty dishes taunt me like middle school bullies).

"Your mama's so ugly she can't even finish her Spanish translation."
Finally, I joined a YMCA that's located halfway between my house and work. It makes it (relatively) easy to fit in a workout without drastically changing the rest of my schedule.

. . . But Keep them Flexible.
 

 Even though I have separate spaces for separate occasions, it can become easy to fall into a trap of rigidity. If I convince myself  I can only study in the grad school library, for instance, then it's not all going to get done. There are days when I won't be able to make it to library. My daughter might get sick. My husband might go out of town. Things are bound to go wrong. So I have spaces where I prefer to do certain things, but I also make sure to keep enough of the stuff I need for any given role on hand that I can do the most important things from anywhere. And if that means that I run outside one afternoon because the route home isn't taking me by the gym or if I end up closing my office door when my office hours end and forcing myself to read some Cicero, then that's what happens.

And that brings me to . . .

STORAGE
Have Separate Bags for Each Role. . . I am a bag lady. I have a work bag that contains my laptop, notebooks, and pens. I have a tote that contains the books I need for the classes I teach and the papers I have to grade. I have a gym bag that contains my gym clothes and toiletries. I have a lunch bag that contains, appropriately enough, lunch.

It can be a pain to get out of the house with all these bags, but separating the stuff out lets me know that I'll have the right thing in the right place. I can leave my gym bag in the car while I'm at work, and I have my laptop in a sleeve so I can slip it into the gym bag and lock it up (I live in a city, and I really don't want to have my laptop stolen). If I don't need the books to go home with me, I can leave them in my office and fold up the tote bag. Having all of these different bags may make me look unhinged when I'm walking out of the door, but they make my day much easier.

. . . But Have a Stable One, Too. 
All that said, I was having a problem. I was moving my daily necessities--wallet, keys, phone--from bag to bag throughout the day. Finally, I got a little purse to keep these things in and it goes with me no matter what activity I'm going to. If I'm going to the gym, it can fit in the gym bag. If I'm going to work, it fits in my desk drawer. If I'm in the library, it fits in my work bag. And if I have to run to the store, I can take it by itself.


The other form of stable storage: electronic. I know it's not completely stable. The internet can break. Files get lost. But having things saved in Google Drive or on my flashdrive (which also stays in that go-everywhere purse) means that I have a lot of information and work on hand no matter where I go. (And I've already written a post on what other pieces of technology help me out the most.)

TIME
Allow Yourself More Time than You Think you Need . . . 
Early on, I was underestimating the time it would take to get things done. Two hours would be plenty to grade those papers, I thought. If I have thirty minutes, I can finish that Spanish homework. I would schedule myself back to back to back and then when something ran over it would throw everything off. So I started overestimating the time it would take to do things. Sure, my daily plan looks less impressive, but it's much less likely to send me into a tailspin by dinnertime.



. . . But Don't Forget the Value of a Few Minutes. 
But then I found I was doing the opposite. I would schedule myself an hour to do my Spanish homework, and then it would only take 45 minutes. I'd look at the clock and say to myself, "Oh, 15 minutes. That's not enough time to do anything." And then I'd zone out and play Triple Town or something (don't play Triple Town. It's addictive.) Now, I'm not saying that you should never zone out and do nothing or something less "valuable." Everyone needs to look at a celebrity slide show on Huffington Post or kill some zombies with anthropomorphic plants now and then (don't play Plants vs. Zombies. It's even more addicting.) But when that happens three or four times a day, you end up eating up a lot of time that you could have used to get something else checked off your list. And I prefer to have very busy days so that I can have more relaxed evenings. By six or seven, I want to be done to spend some time with my family and check Facebook or whatever. That doesn't happen every day, but it wouldn't happen at all if I didn't take advantage of that "extra" time during the day.

Sure, 15 minutes isn't enough time to grade a stack of 25 papers, but it is enough time to grade a few of them. If I do that a couple times over the course of the day, I've made a real dent in it. The trick (for me) is to identify a set of tasks that can happen with interruption. This is particularly important when I have time between student meetings because students notoriously show up late or not at all. If I constantly put off starting any task because I was waiting for a student, I might end up doing that for an entire hour without anyone ever coming by. Grading short papers, checking email, reading for class, short lesson planning are all things that I can start and stop without a lot of trouble.

CATEGORIES
Separate Out the Different Parts of Your Day by Role . . . 
So, I have separate spaces and bags and tasks based on what role I'm playing. It's pretty clear that I spend a lot of time separating my day out into different roles. I alternate between focusing on being a teacher, mother, wife, friend, student, daughter, etc. throughout the day. Separating the goals and ways to reach each of these things in my mind is sometimes really important.

. . .But Don't Worry When They Bleed Together 
But I can't ever pretend like I'm not a mother while I'm teaching or that I'm not a teacher while I'm a student. Some of my roles are with me constantly, and that's okay. If I'm hanging out with friends and I see a news story about education that's important to my role as a teacher, I'm going to pay attention to it. If I'm teaching and I get a call from daycare that my daughter is sick and needs to be picked up, I'm going to go get her. The goal is not to break myself into a robot with modes that can be activated with the flip of a switch; the goal is to do the best job I can to balance these roles on any given day.

And that balance isn't the same every day. I think of it like the Sims (geez, I've mentioned like three completely addicting games in this post. I'm sorry.) In the Sims (or at least the last version I played, which was a few years ago) there were bars that measured your Sim's happiness broken into categories like "Hunger" and "Socializing" and "Hygiene" and "Bladder." They didn't all have to be full for your Sim to be happy. The Sim could be pretty hungry, but as long as those other things were taken care of, s/he would be okay. However, once any one of those bars dropped down to the danger zone, it didn't matter how well the other ones were taken care of. Basically, even if you're in a room full of great friends with good food, peeing your pants is still going to put you in a bad mood.

So, I can let some things slide as long as the overall balance on my different responsibilities is taken care of. I can put off grading a stack of reading responses for a day or two as long as my students have gotten the feedback on their major paper. I can wait to do that reading for my PhD exam as long as I've been keeping in touch with my advisor and feel on track. But as soon as something crashes, it needs all my attention, so I have to keep it up to a reasonable level.

And that brings me to:

FAILING
Avoid Picking Apart Every Little Thing You Didn't Do . . . Sometimes things aren't going to work out. There are going to be days when nothing goes right. There are going to be days when the car breaks down and the daycare closes and your dinner burns and the computer crashes. There are going to be times when you feel like you're failing. Stop beating yourself up over it and get back on track for the next day. The longer you spend agonizing over every little thing that you could have, should have, would have done differently, the longer it will be until you can actually do anything differently.

. . . But Let the Meltdown Happen When it Comes.  
That said, sometimes you just have to break down. Sometimes trying to attack everything with a healthy dose of optimism and a can-do attitude is just damn exhausting. Grab a pitcher of margaritas (or whatever your equivalent is) and some friends and let it all out on the table. Then try again later.




What would you add? How do you keep things together?


Disclosure: This post from my archives is being re-run as part of BlogHer's Smart Mom's Guide to Being Busy editorial series, brought to you by Rice Krispies and BlogHer.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Identity in Balance Essays: What Roles Do You Balance?

This blog has grown quite a bit in the past few months (thank you!) You may remember the Identity in Balance Writing Series from earlier last year.



This is the premise:

We all wear many labels. Some we wear our whole lives, and some shift as our relationships to those around us change. We are mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, teachers, students, friends, feminists, Democrats, Republicans, daughters, sons, employees, bosses, and a host of other identities that weave together to make us who we are in any particular time and space. Sometimes those identities easily merge together, but often there are excesses in the overlap, spaces that might confuse us, spaces that make it challenging to figure out who we are. Balancing Jane maintains that it is in those spaces that we find out the most about ourselves, that when we are forced to simultaneously own two labels that we might not have placed together we figure out what we stand for. It is also by inhabiting those spaces that we learn to appreciate other people, for if we can be more than one thing, then so can they, and that means that our preconceived notions of them are always--at best--an oversimplification.  
And the responses were fantastic!

Danielle wrote about being a feminist who submits to her husband.

Scott shared the challenges to balancing his identity as a stay-at-home dad. 

Jennifer wrote about being a feminist mother who wears lipstick.

Shannon wrote about being Catholic and feminist. 

Mitch wrote about being a hunter and a conservationist.

Emma wrote about being upper-middle class and not having a car.

Martha wrote about being a liberal Texan.

Since then, I've thought a lot about how much exploring our own identities and how they intersect and interact when we might not expect them to really teaches us a lot about ourselves and the world around us. Recognizing the complexities in our own identities inevitably leads to recognizing the complexities in others, and that means that we are also more able to have hard conversations with someone who has a different perspective if we can recognize the way that we navigate those tensions in our selves.

It teaches us so much, in fact, that I'm hoping to make it an assignment in my classes. My developmental writing community college students are often juggling many, many roles. They are full-time employees and parents. They are part-time students and former drug addicts. They are full-time students and athletes. They are fresh out of high school and living on their own for the first time. They are military Veterans and returning to school for the first time in decades. They are complicated, full, and interesting people who don't always see themselves with the richness they bring to the world around them. I feel like giving them this writing assignment will give them the opportunity to explore those tensions and flesh out a sense of who they are now and who they are becoming.

I plan to show them some of the essays submitted here as samples, and I'd love some more examples. I'd also love to see some more reflections on what makes you tick, how you navigate these journeys. So, I'm renewing my call for essays and would love to see what you have to say! (And if you want to submit a post under a pseudonym or anonymously, that's fine, too).

Pick any two labels that you wear (by choice or necessity) and reflect on how they intersect. Start with I am _________ and _______. Of course, these are not your only two labels, but these should be two that have, when combined, given you some insight into yourself or the world around you. Share what wearing those two labels has meant to you. 
It can be an essay, story, poem, photograph (I think there's some great photography potential here), etc. Send me your submissions at balancingjane [at] gmail [dot] com or post it on your own blog and send me the link so I can share it here. Be sure to include a short byline about yourself (and linking to your own blog, if you have one) if you want. I look forward to reading your reflections!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

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

Here are the things I've been reading that have made me happy (The Good), sad (The Bad), and intrigued (The Curious).

The Good

This video from The Features:


The petition to cancel Shawty Lo's reality series All My Babies' Mamas worked. (I'm happy to see it go, but there is an interesting argument for keeping the show here).

Strawberry Mohawk has some great tips on how to hang art on your walls and make it look fantastic (complete with wonderful pictures). 

Check out these artistic representations of the "Missed Connections" section of Craigslist. 

Sporcle has a fun quiz on famous women. How many can you get right?

The Bad

These reports of how personhood amendments are being used to criminalize pregnant women send shivers down my spine. Women drug out of their house and forced to undergo c-sections? Women charged with murder when one of her twins died because she opted for a vaginal delivery? Shudder. 

Remember how Seventeen magazine was all about the body positive message and getting young girls to love the bodies they have? Well, partnering with The Biggest Loser and its new shaming of teenagers seems . . . not like that. 

What is it with lists that rank women's "hotness"? It should probably come as no surprise that a MRA website dedicated to showing that "masculinity is being increasingly punished" would produce a list of the 9 Ugliest Feminists, but shouldn't mainstream magazines like GQ and Esquire show sounder judgment. Since I don't want to send anymore traffic to those sites themselves, you should read these responses to the 9 Ugliest Feminists, GQ ranking women by race, and Esquire declaring Megan Fox's beauty a detriment because she's not ugly like Adele, Amy Adams, and Lady Gaga.  

The Feminist and the Cowboy is a book that made something of a splash when a former feminist said that meeting a "real man" changed her errant ways and taught her that her proper place was to submit. Perhaps finding out that while she was writing that book she was being sexually and physically abused by that real man should feel like some kind of vindication for feminism, but it really just feels very sad. 

Rush Limbaugh says that all abortions should happen "by gun.


On Gun Appreciation Day, there were multiple accidental shootings at gun shows across the country by the people who continue to tell us that guns--and unfettered access to them--make us safer.

The Curious

Dr. Freedhoff explains why using kids on The Biggest Loser is not an effective way to address childhood obesity:
The biggest losers each and every season aren't in fact the contestants, they're the viewers. By watchingThe Biggest Loser and basing their devoted adoration only on the proverbial "after" pictures, but not the "after-after" pictures, viewers are being taught non-sustainable approaches to weight management that in turn the medical literature suggests promote hatred of those who struggle with their weight, and potentially of themselves.
Do you sneak healthier foods into your child's meals? Mine's only two and I've been hiding carrots and zucchini in her spaghetti sauce for a while now, but this post from the Lunch Tray made me think about some of the implications of sneaking food.

Fit and Feminist talks about how seeing women's bodies that don't fit a narrow definition of beauty (like on Girls or in the locker room) can positively impact us:
There’s evidently plenty to criticize about “Girls,” but for all of the flaws her show may have, one of them is not Dunham’s willingness to get naked. Maybe if more of us knew what other women’s bodies actually looked like, instead of seeing nothing but the stagecraft and trickery of the mass media, maybe we’d all be less inclined to obsess over the “flaws” of our bodies because we’d understand that there is nothing freakish or wrong about us, that we are all lovely just the way we are.
This post from two to one about consent, sex, and religion is fascinating:
What angers me most about this entire debacle is the underlying, contrasting paradigms of sexual ethics. Reflecting on this now after several years have passed, I realized that we were literally speaking two different languages: theirs being of an insatiable drive to transgress boundaries due to sexual urges, and ours being of mutual respect and care for physical boundaries despite sexual urges.
I read this wonderful post about the importance of seeing other viewpoints from Halfway to Normal, and then I read this post about the stark differences in political world views as illustrated by two citizens of a small Ohio town. Together, they contribute to an interesting question on where we go from here.

This xoJane post about how hard it is to make new friends once you're outside of the situations that sort of forced you to make friends (like school) is interesting and generating some good conversation in the comments.   

So that's what I've been reading this week. What about you?


Friday, January 18, 2013

Waiting for Life to Start: "As Soon As I . . ."

As soon as I finish this degree, I'll be more fulfilled and I'll start my career.

As soon as I lose ten pounds, I'll be happier and I'll buy new clothes.

As soon as I get this new job, I'll be secure and start saving some money.

As soon as I move, I'll be more satisfied and I'll decorate.

As soon as my child is potty trained, life will be calmer and I can pick up my hobbies again.

It's great that we're goal-oriented creatures. Making goals and working towards them has given us some fairly amazing things as a species, like indoor plumbing, iPods, and beaming the Mona Lisa to the moon (no, for real).

Roomba in the office area
And Roomba, we can't forget Roomba
But all of that focus on future goals can be a problem, especially when it comes to our individual lives instead of the advancements of a larger professional community. It's called impact bias, and Dan Gilbert talks about it quite a bit in his very interesting TED Talk on happiness (if you've got some time, it's really worth the 20 minutes to watch the whole thing). 


Gilbert explains that happiness is something that we synthesize, and we're actually quite good at it, but we're really bad at understanding the control we have over it. Instead, our brains trick us into thinking that happiness is a thing we can find rather than a thing we can create. Impact bias is one way that our brains mess with us: 
From field studies to laboratory studies, we see that winning or losing an election, gaining or losing a romantic partner, getting or not getting a promotion, passing or not passing a college test, on and on, have far less impact, less intensity and much less duration than people expect them to have. In fact, a recent study -- this almost floors me -- a recent study showing how major life traumas affect people suggests that if it happened over three months ago, with only a few exceptions, it has no impact whatsoever on your happiness.
Impact bias, then, is assuming that a certain thing is going to have a greater impact on our lives than it actually will.

I am so very guilty of this. I am a fairly goal-oriented person, and I always seem to think that completing the current big project (or, more often, big projects) will magically send spirals of sunshine and rainbows into every facet of my life. I've done this with school ("As soon as I finish my Master's, I'll finally be doing what I want to do with my life.") I've done it with parenting ("As soon as she starts sleeping through the night, things will be easy.") I've done it with housing ("As soon as we buy a house, I'll feel like a real grown up.") I've done it with my own body ("As soon as I lose two sizes, I'll buy new clothes because that'll be a size I'll be happy with.")

That last one demonstrates one of the real risks of impact bias. If we're constantly waiting for some big thing (that may or may not happen) before we can do some other thing (that probably needs to happen), we're missing a lot of opportunities.

If I wait until I drop two sizes to shop for clothes, then I don't have clothes. And if I don't have clothes that I like to wear to work and when I go out, I'm less likely to feel comfortable doing those things, which is going to--in turn--make me less happy. A self-fulfilling prophesy.

As Lesley from xoJane does a great job of explaining, changing your body size isn't going to change who you are:
If you were comfortable and confident with yourself, irrespective of your body size, in the before, you will probably continue to feel that in the after.
But if you are unhappy and unconfident with the person you are when you begin your weight loss, that weight loss will not fix these things. It won’t renovate your whole life. You will probably continue to feel that way no matter what size you’re wearing.
This isn't just true of weight loss. Sure, getting that degree might be a requirement for whatever particular career you're going into, but that piece of paper is not going to fundamentally change who you are. The actual education very well may (and probably should) change you as a person, but you get those benefits from going to the class, reading the assignments, talking to your classmates, etc. In other words, it's the day-to-day drudge that transforms you, not the magical moment of passing the finish line.

Even with something that does seem to have a big, immediate, life-changing impact isn't always going to make as big of a difference as we think it is. Sure, getting a big promotion at work or getting a new job dramatically transforms your life from one day to the next. This is especially true if said promotion/job takes you from a state of poverty to a state of financial stability. That's a radical change. It has the opportunity to transform your life. But when it all shakes out, we often still end up struggling to put that extra money in savings, or we end up racking up new bills. The habits that we cultivated before the change tend to follow us into the after. (And, as I've talked about before, the myth of money buying happiness is a particularly hard one to shake).

We have to make goals. They're important to make sure that we grow and reach our potential and do the things that we want to do with our lives, but we also have to make sure that we're not using our goals as an excuse to not reach the potential that we have right now. Get the clothes that make you feel good now. Start saving the money that you can. Even if you're in the depths of sleep deprivation from raising an infant (and I feel you), find some time for your hobbies.

There are very few magical moments in creating (or destroying) a good life. Most of the time it's the little things that count. Grab them. That's how you create your own happiness.


Photo: melissajones

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Sharing Lives: What Stories Are Ours to Tell?

“How joyful to be together, alone as when we first were joined in our little house by the river long ago, except that now we know each other, as we did not then; and now instead of two stories fumbling to meet, we belong to one story that the two, joining, made. And now we touch each other with the tenderness of mortals, who know themselves...” -Wendell Berry 
Wooded path


I am a mother because I have a daughter. I am a wife because I have a husband. I am a teacher because I have students. I am a sister because I have a sister and a brother. 

Our interactions with other people make us who we are. We get our identity by navigating a series of relationships that intertwine and fade and pick up again and start anew throughout our lives. We can remake ourselves through reinvigorating our relationships to others, and we can destroy ourselves by breaking down our bonds. Sometimes intertwining our paths with the wrong people can break us down; sometimes diverging from them can build us back up. 

A path is not made by a single set of feet treading over it once. A path is forged by a series of feet that trample it at different times and in different ways. There are times when we walk together and times when we diverge. There are times when we walk alone, but our steps are later retraced by someone else. 

We do not forge paths through lives by ourselves. 

Those paths are our stories. Those paths are at the core of who we are and what we do. They are what we share with those around us and what we leave behind for the world to see. 

That is why I cannot agree with this article in the Atlantic by Phobe Maltz Bovy discussing the ethical problems of parents writing about their children online:
While serious revelations pose a greater threat to a child's reputation, humiliating stories may be more likely to destroy a parent-child relationship. A child might sympathize with writing about his illness, but not about that time when he was three and wet the bed. And a story of everyday parenting challenges could still reflect poorly on a child down the line. Between two equivalent candidates, who would hire the one who once begged for $600 jeans?
Bovy pulls no punches in criticizing "mommy bloggers" for putting their children's privacy on the line. She says that someone is guilty of parental overshare if they meet two criteria:
Two criteria must be present: First, the children need to be identifiable. That does not necessarily mean full names. The author's full name is plenty, even if the children have a different (i.e. their father's) last name. Next, there needs to be ambition to reach a mass audience.
So, she's talking about me. You know my name, and I blog to a "mass" audience (though "mass" is really a modest number, but this blog is open to the public). I am careful about what I choose to share about my daughter, and I very much do consider how the things I share might impact her as she grows older. I also completely agree that children have a right to not be exploited for profit and fame, as I recently wrote about over the proposed Shawty Lo reality show. I absolutely respect that she is an individual who is going to have to navigate her own life.

But the idea that the stories I share are not mine? (As Bovy puts it, "these parents' 'courage' involves telling stories not theirs to tell.") That's pretty ridiculous.

If I am telling a story about how my daughter's yelling "no-no" at the doctor office made me question how to best handle bodily autonomy in toddlerhood or her experiences with mediated reality, then I am sharing my story, too. Sure, her story is intertwined with mine. I am talking about her, but I am not some external observer taking notes. This is a huge part of my life and my thoughts.

What would a story look like if we could only tell parts that our solely our own? Could I even tell you what I ate for breakfast? Perhaps not. What if I bought it from someone and my breakfast is part of their life? What if I ate it with a friend? What if I thought about how much I missed my husband as I dined. Best to not give out such private details.

Bovy also makes an exemption for fiction, but it seems fairly arbitrary. Stories are stories. All fiction is rooted in truth. All writers write from their own experiences, whether that's an attempt to record them as factually as possible or an attempt to fill in the gaps that reality has left lacking. We write what we live, and we live with other people.

This is not new. Blogs have not fundamentally changed us. As I wrote before, we've always shared our lives; the technology may change the delivery, but not the motivation. We're also judging our children's possible future reactions by outdated norms:
What if our kids find these things we've said about them in five or ten years? Well, we're judging their reactions against outdated norms. Their reactions will be situated in a completely different context. They and all of their friends will have had their pictures posted on Facebook, their first tooth tweeted, their lives documented. Trying to fight that seems to me as pointless as trying to get people to start getting their Christmas card pictures created as individually painted portraits. This is the digital landscape we live within, and we will adapt. We've had a lot of practice. 
We've always shared our lives: Mark Twain's eulogy for his daughter , Sylvia Plath's poem about pregnancy, Audre Lorde's tumultuous relationship with her mother outlined in Zami, Anne Lamott's touching memoir of her early months of single motherhood, the real people Hemingway used as characters for The Sun Also Rises. 

We have no stories that are our own. We only have our own voices. Everything else we share.

Photo: lostajy

Side note: Check out blue milk's great post on this article for some further reflections on how writing about our children is more complicated than simply exploiting them for fame.


Monday, January 14, 2013

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

It's time for me to go back to the real world this week. This morning I got to meet two of my new classes and tomorrow I'll meet two more. It's such a great feeling to get all caught up in that excitement. Many of these students are in college for the very first time. They're mixture of enthusiasm and anxiety is contagious, and it makes me feel a little like conquering the world. 

Then I remember how much work I have to do to get ready for the semester and decide the world will have to wait.

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

The Good

My daughter is obsessed with YouTube clips of Sesame Street. That's how I discovered this delightful thing:



Offbeat Mama has some good tips for enjoying a family road trip. I'm excited to try some of these out. Road trips always sound like so much fun in theory, but they never quite make it there in practice. 

The Bad

What does Howard Stern think being raped is like? Apparently like seeing Lena Dunham perform nude scenes on television. Yes. He actually said that. 

The Curious

Feministing wrote an open letter to Slate's advice columnist Dear Prudence to point out her repeated rape denials

This NY Times article about a family who actively pursued restorative justice for their daughter's murderer (and fiancĂ©) is really interesting.

From 2007 to 2011, the city I live in (St. Louis, MO) had free birth control as part of a national trial. The results?  
Abortion rates among those women were less than half the regional and national averages: just six per 1,000 participants compared with 20 per 1,000 women nationwide. 
The rate of teenage birth among study participants was just 6.3 per 1,000 compared to 34.1 per 1,000 teenagers nationwide. 
One reason for the significant improvement is because 75 percent of the women chose to use long-acting methods such as implants and intrauterine devices, Peipert said.
Renee at Womanist Musings speculates that Django Unchained may be Quentin Tarantino's "broken clock" moment:
Django Unchained is a movie worth seeing. Far too many people are willing to form an opinion on the movie based on what they have read or their discomfort with Quentin Tarantino. It adds to the dialogue about race and slavery even if Quentin Tarantino is so high on himself that he now sees himself as the sole arbiter of Black history in film.

That's what I've been reading. How about you?

Featured on BlogHer Today

My piece about the media coverage of the woman who was found dead after her baby was found alone in an apartment complex is featured on BlogHer today.

Syndicated on BlogHer.com

Friday, January 11, 2013

Talk to Me!

I just switched to Disqus comments. I was getting a lot of spam on Blogger comments, so I had to keep the captcha thing on it, which made it something of a pain to comment. I'm hoping this makes it a little smoother. 

microphone

The previous comments are supposed to get converted over sometime in the next 24 hours, so if you wrote a comment here that has disappeared it will (hopefully) be back soon. 

In the meantime, I'd love to check and see how these new comments are working, so talk to me!

To give you some inspiration, I just came back from my daughter's two-year check-up where she had to get two shots. She took each one without making a sound, which I think is kind of amazing. So, to test out my comments and think about moments of bravery in the face of danger, what's the bravest, most impressive thing you've ever faced?

Photo: Daehyun Park

Thursday, January 10, 2013

When is a Woman Not a "Real" Woman?

Several people have (rightfully) taken issue with phrases like "real women have curves" or "featuring real women" used to promote movies or magazines showing women that aren't as thin as typically seen in pop culture.

The Fat Nutritionist explains:
ENOUGH already with all this real woman garbage. We’re all real women, for fuck’s sake — the thin ones, the pale ones, the dark ones, the hairy ones, the not-hairy ones, the short ones, the tall ones, the young ones, the older ones, the fertile ones, the sterile ones, and yes, of course, the fat ones. If anyone has the temerity to identify as a woman in this culture, I’m handing them over an Official Membership Card and inviting them to the pool party, since, you know, I’m a real woman and all.
Dori Hartley took the concept to task in this article:
So, now, in order to feel good about being large, you have to loathe what's small. You can't just love your self, you have to hate someone else. Those Victoria's Secret Angels? If you're snorting and huffing and puffing over how sickly they look and how vile they are with their slim legs and their pouty young wet lips, then, doll face, you've bought the entire package. You are now a full-blown hater. You're everything you wanted to get away from. Now you know what it's like to be on the other side of the fence. Now, you too, can hate.
The pushback has sparked a tumblr dedicated to featuring women of all "shapes, sizes, colors, styles, and backgrounds" and images like these:




This is on my mind because of Lesley's excellent xoJane post about Lena Dunham and the complaints about her "forcing" her uncovered body upon the viewing public. (If you haven't read it yet, I highly suggest you do.)

In it, she turns a critical eye on the consuming public, which is exactly where I think a critical eye needs to be focused. She says this of our hypocrisy:
For all our talk about wanting to see more so-called “real women” in the media we consume -- a problematic category itself, as all women are “real,” no matter how near or far they might be to the female beauty ideal -- we are awfully quick to condemn a woman who is showing us reality in a very plainspoken, unvarnished way.
She also links to another post that she wrote earlier where she questions whether we really want to see more "real" women in print. In that post, she says this:
I’ve asked whether we really want to see “real” women in media in the headline to this piece, but it’s a trick question: All women are “real,” even the ones who are extremely slender, even the ones who are traditionally beautiful, even the ones who make their livings by representing a beauty ideal subsequently rendered impossible via the addition of Photoshop.   
And this last line is the only place I disagree with her, but I think it's a biggie. Lesley (and others) are absolutely right to note that simply changing the images we see in magazines will not be enough to eradicate internalized narratives of what makes someone "beautiful." We are quick to hold onto those standards, even when we cannot meet them ourselves. They're absolutely right to say that we have to question our own values and, as Lesley puts it, have a "change of heart" as well.

But I do think there's a time when a "woman" isn't a real woman, and that's when her image has been edited out of the realm of reality.

Beauty Redefined has a Photoshop Hall of Shame that features comparisons between unaltered images of women and altered ones.

This includes images like this one of Britney Spears:


And this one of Faith Hill:


In both of those examples, the real women (Ms. Spears and Ms. Hill) have been edited to be thinner, smoother, and generally more "presentable." At what point, though, does that image stop being a representation of their actual selves. At what point is that image no longer an image of the "real" Britney Spears and instead a fake image inspired by her likeness? 

Wherever that line may be, I will argue that it is crossed very often in advertising and media, as can be seen with this infamous ad from Ralph Lauren:


That's supposed to be model Filippa Hamilton, who was later let go for not fitting into the clothes with her size-4 frame. In an interview about this photo, she said this:
I was shocked to see that super skinny girl with my face. 
Notice the way that Hamilton describes that picture. She calls it "that super skinny girl." She doesn't see that image as being representative of herself but of some other person. However, that other person does not exist. That other person has been created out of manipulations of Hamilton's own body.

Kate Winslet also famously took on her manipulated cover of GQ magazine and said that she doesn't look like that. Cindy Crawford once said that she wishes she looked like Cindy Crawford.

If these women themselves does not think these pictures are of them, can't we agree that these are not  pictures of a "real" woman?

Watch this fantastic video that explains how dehumanizing and troubling these images can really be:


In an earlier post, I wrote that I think we need to remember the real motivation behind these images: profit. Magazines are primarily sponsored by companies in the beauty industry, companies that depend on us to feel flawed in order to spend our money to "fix" ourselves. The more images of unattainable standards they can throw our way, the more dollars we'll throw theirs. 

So I agree that accepting "real" women in our media will require a change of heart, but I think that we need to recognize that there is a time when a "woman" is not real, and that's when the real woman's likeness has been manipulated until it no longer represents a real person at all. Accepting every person does not mean we have to accept that