Are you going to the Women's March on Washington? If you're not familiar, I think the organizers do a better job of explaining the mission than I ever could:
"The Women’s March on Washington will send a bold message to our new government on their first day in office, and to the world that women's rights are human rights. We stand together, recognizing that defending the most marginalized among us is defending all of us."
My family lives in the D.C. area, so I was pumped to go, but it turns out I'm going to be out of the country then. Aggh, such bad timing. I really wanted to be a part of this.
Since I can't be there in person, I decided to donate instead. They're not even half-way to their goal, so you may want to consider donating too if it's a cause you care about. I don't have a lot of money, but every little bit counts, so I'm happy to contribute what I can. Hopefully, others will consider donating as well. I think it's a great way to send a public message to our president-elect and his administration that they aren't above the law, that human-rights matter, and we're going to hold them accountable to those standards.
Are you in?
First, I want to start this post by saying I don't blame my mother. I'm not angry with her in the least. She did the best she could with the information and the culture that was available to her at the time when I was growing up.
But maybe we can learn from our parents without condemning them.
I just want to say that growing up with the absence of a body image isn't the same thing as a healthy body image. It's a vacuum that gives a negative body image plenty of room to establish itself later.
When I was growing up, I think my mother decided to avoid teaching me a bad body image by protecting me from as much exposure to femininity as possible. By today's standards this might seem a little strange, because it feels like we're only starting to accept that being girly doesn't equal bad, but that's what she chose to do. For example, she wore makeup to work, but I never once saw her put it on because she did it at 5 am in the morning. Even when she got dressed up for parties in the evening, I never had the chance to watch her get ready and maybe learn a little. She always kept the door to her bathroom closed.
She didn't take me clothes shopping. Ever. Instead, clothes would occasionally appear on my dresser, haphazardly, without a lot of discussion about what I really needed. This meant I was never exposed to "pink" commercialism or its subtle messages about appropriate gender roles, and so I never had issues with defining my sense of self so narrowly. The downside was I also never learned to communicate to my mother what I needed in terms of specific items of clothing, like non-sports bras, age-appropriate dresses for school dances, pants when I outgrew my school uniform, or shorts and t-shirts for gym (I wore a turtle neck to my basketball games, I have proof!). If I ever did ask for specific things (I recall a cute 90s-era spaghetti strap jumper at Wal-Mart that was sold with the accompanying white shirt you were supposed to wear underneath - so it was very modest), my request was shot down with undisguised negativity. Message received? Heck no you can't wear feminine clothes. How dare you ask. I also kind of blame my poor shopping abilities on these experiences (I'm just awful at buying appropriate clothing).
Frankly, I looked like a mess growing up, and I always felt like it was my fault. I believed I was a slob, which was reinforced by my parents when they would criticize how I was dressed! I remember them giving me a hard time about always wearing a sports bra - but those were the only bras they had bought me! I had no other choice but to wear them. In retrospect, this was insane, and I can only blame my parents' busy schedules and their long commutes into D.C. for their general cluelessness about the state of my wardrobe.
At that age, they controlled my appearance, not me. So why was I getting blamed for it? And today, I really don't appreciate those comments they made about my appearance, which were one of the few examples of their active participation in molding my negative body image, but maybe had the greatest effect. (The research certainly seems to support that. Seriously, just do not comment on your children's appearance or weight. It's so destroying and it doesn't help).
When I turned 16 and got my driver's license it finally meant a new kind of freedom to control how I dressed and took care of myself. I would drive to the local CVS and spend hours in the store poring over foundation and mascara choices. Was I ivory? Or classic ivory? Was it really better to wear brown-black mascara instead of deep black, like the magazines said? (It's not, always go black, trust me.) Or I would drive myself to the mall and root through the sales rack at the Gap or Banana Republic. Finally, my babysitting money was coming in handy so I could buy myself t-shirts and stop wearing those weird mock turtlenecks my mom had bought me five years prior. I discovered Victoria's Secret wasn't a den of loose women, but just a place to buy a bra. I solved a lot very basic problems I was having with my appearance, and started fitting in a lot better at school.
And so I developed my own feminine identity in the absence of any kind of direction from my mother.
I think she thought she was protecting me, but it wasn't working. I was just developing a bad body image all on my own. She treated her femaleness as something to be hidden. Like I said, maybe it was just the culture of the time. She became a professional in an era of shoulder-pads and power suits; when to be feminine was obviously to be less. If she wanted to earn money and get promotions, she had to project a certain masculinity. Maybe she thought she had to do the same for me. I get it.
But that meant the only role models I had in order to learn how to be a woman were in magazines; from "it girls" like Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears. I particularly liked Marie Claire for their slightly more feminist angle and body-positive message compared to other publications, but it wasn't like they were censoring their ads too.
So now when I look at myself naked in the mirror, I see a flabby, overflowing gut, like Jabba the Hutt. Logically, I know this is false. I weigh less than 130 lbs (not sure where exactly, I don't weigh myself anymore). I wear a size two. I'm healthy by any appropriate standard. But I only see a chubby pig because I'm directly comparing myself to those magazine ads. That's what I think a woman's body is supposed to look like. Even though I know it's photo-shopped, I can't help it. It's literally the only idea of a woman that I have in my head, and I struggle to quash that image every time I see myself in the mirror. Or even when I'm looking at other women in real life I often catch myself consciously judging them against air-brushed models, which is AWFUL. But the problem is I only have reason to tell me that my body image is warped. I have no intuition for it, and so it I feels like I never really absorb or believe the message.
Look, I don't think it's possible for mothers to protect their daughters 100% from bad body image role models, like the kinds you see on TV or in women's magazines. They'll be exposed one way or another. But I wonder if my mother had ever worn a bikini, or put on mascara in front me, or let me choose my own school shoes, maybe I wouldn't have turned to magazines as a role model, and then maybe I would have had a better body image for both myself and others.
But I guess the only way I can find out is to do my best with my own daughter, if I ever have one, and then wait and see what she blames me for.
Regardless if I have daughters, I think the one thing I can do now is model as healthy a body image for other girls as possible (and boys too, I guess). Which means wearing a bikini even when I don't feel like my body is perfect. It's a real body, and I'm slowly learning to appreciate it. It means taking pride in my academic and professional achievements without putting down my appreciation for a cute pair of shoes. And foremost, it means just being nice to other women. Kids learn from example. There's no amount of lecturing that will convince them to feel positive about their bodies if we don't model that positivity for them.
What do you think? How was your body-image shaped? What would you do differently?
Good morning kids, today's another episode of "Podcasts You Should Be Listening To."
I listen to a lot of podcasts. Love them, especially to get through my 2.5 hour daily commute. Who would of thought that a weird return of radio for the 21st century could be so awesome?
Anyway, I wanted to share a few shows I enjoy that are made by women because a) I am a woman, and it's always nice to hear about the world from non-male POVs, and b) these podcasts are so good I think they stand on their own in the top ten, independent of gender. Guys, take note. You want to understand women better? Maybe give these women a listen.
So here they are. 5 podcasts, by women, for everyone.
Call Your Girlfriend - Where you go when you want to listen to two super-cool feminists talk about the patriarchy, shine theory, periods, and spot on career and friendship advice. Staged as a phone-call between two long distance best friends, I'm obsessed with what the lovely Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman have to say about the news and culture.
The History Chicks is hands-down one of the best history podcasts out there. Beckett and Susan research and discuss different women in history, like Laura Ingalls Wilder, Josephine Baker, Catherine the Great, and so many more. I inhaled their back-catalog. There are so many interesting women who've lived in the world and the History Chicks make sure we know who they are.
You Must Remember This - Tales of old Hollywood and other strange events surrounding the movie-making business. I binge-listened to the Charles Manson series. I had no idea that so much violence stemmed from one fucked up guy's desire for rock-and-roll fame. Longworth has a knack for telling great stories about stories and the people behind them.
Sampler - Brittany Luse knows where to find the best podcasts and isn't afraid to tell you where to go to get them. I rely on Sampler to introduce me to new shows I'd never have thought to try out on my own. Totally essential. She gets me out of my internet echo chamber.
Death, Sex, & Money - Conversations about the tricky stuff we don't normally like to talk about. One of these days, the great Terry Gross (of one of my other favorite shows, Fresh Air) is going to retire, and Anna Sale is going to be her natural successor as the great interviewer on public radio. Death, Sex, & Money is sort of like This American Life, less twee, but just as awesome.
Every few months, the pink debate seems to rear it's ugly head on the internet. It's always there to some extent. Should we actively encourage girls to pursue less "girly" things. To avoid wearing pink or purple, or decorating their rooms with unicorns?
My family did this, though without much fuss. My mother just never took my brother or me to the toy store. I honestly don't remember even seeing Barbies or pink Legos, or whatever else is supposedly in that dreaded aisle. To her, that seemed to be the easiest way to avoid all the pink nonsense. So I grew up without Barbies or playhouses, and without regrets about it either. It's not something I feel like I missed out on.
But my family took that anti-pink policy to something of an extreme. No only did I not have "girly" toys, anything associated with appearance was sort of taboo in my house. No makeup. No cute shoes. No good clothes. We did not discuss our looks, ever. My mother wore makeup for work, but I never saw her put it on. It was like this secret, slightly shameful thing she had to do to maintain a professional appearance, but she wasn't comfortable with it. She was a hippie, I can't blame her for feeling that way.
But I received too strong a message: that any vanity was bad.
And so, in the spirit of Throwback Thursday, I present this:
Yes, that's me, probably age 11. Wearing a turtleneck beneath my basketball uniform...
Why? My Dad was the coach for my team - why would he let me walk out of the house looking like that?
Because that's all I had. When you take vanity, or lack of, to such an extreme as we did in my house, you start to look down on basic things like clothes. We never went shopping, not for lack of money, but because we didn't like it. You get exposed to the pink debate if you go shopping. So instead of buying me a basic t-shirt, I had nothing to wear beneath my basketball jersey except the same shirt I wore for my school uniform.
I told this story to my parents the other day and they didn't believe me.
"There's no way we would let you wear a turtleneck while you played basketball," they said.
To their credit, they were sort of horrified when I whipped out this picture.
I'm not mad. It didn't ruin my life. It many ways it helped me, I think. I had to have a tough skin in middle school looking like that with my home-cut bangs, my turtlenecks, and my high-water pants. My parents just didn't see it at the time. They were focused on teaching us new things; making sure we were creators and not just consumers. They were working hard at their careers.
My Mother was the world's best role-model for a little girl. She was smart, well-respected at work. She had interests and friends. She was warm and friendly. She's still all of these things. But she didn't have time for appearances back then, and neither did my Dad.
Eventually, I just had to figure it out for myself. I budgeted some babysitting money to buy t-shirts from the Gap and jeans from American Eagle. I got my hair cut by a professional. I didn't start wearing makeup until grad school, but I taught myself how with youtube videos. Now I like the way I look, but only because I gave myself permission to be a little vain.
So don't thumb your nose completely at the pink debate. It's ok to want to look nice or appropriate. Please don't teach your daughters that they're being frivolous or "girly" (I hate how that's become an insulting word!) if they want to look nice. Balance, people. It's all about balance.
Alright kids, in keeping with tradition, I'd like to highlight two books in a series and make an argument that the second, less popular book is superior to the first (see my earlier defense of Speaker for the Dead in favor of Ender's Game).
I don't know why I do it. Maybe it seems unfair that such great books are overlooked just because they weren't written first? Or maybe, as I believe, after the author has gone through all the hard work of building a world in the first book, they can at last write the story they really wanted to tell in the second book, resulting in a far better story. Just a theory.
I want to talk about Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea Cycle; a fantasy series that begins with the eponymous A Wizard of Earthsea. The series started as a trilogy, and you'll sometimes see it incorrectly described that way online, but Le Guin had since expanded it into a quartet with the publication of Tehanu. (Edit: Writer Janet Ursel was kind enough to alert me that there's actually a fifth book as well! The Other Wind.) Strangely, I've only read the first, second, and fourth books, but not the third (Edit: or fifth...). Guess I need to put them on my list.
A Wizard of Earthsea is one of my favorite fantasy books. I love the world, which had a more mythological tone than high fantasy. I thought its concept of magic was cool when I was a kid, and then when I learned about semiotics in high school, the significance of Earthsea's magic system blew my mind. The idea that you can control anything as long as you know it's one true name (when sign = signifier), well, that just makes sense to a bookworm (or a fantasy minded linguist).
Our hero, Ged, also known as Sparrowhawk, studies this magic of words and mistakenly believes he has mastered the language. That hubris almost kills him when he summons an evil spirit into the world that he cannot control. He spends the rest of the book sailing about the archipelago of Earthsea to understand this dark magic he has unleashed, simultaneously hunting it and running from it. It's a beautifully written story, short and sweet. The world-building is particularly strong, as you'd expect from Le Guin. I found it a lot more interesting than the Tolkien-imitations that tend to dominate the fantasy genre.
But A Wizard of Earthsea isn't perfect. It touches on this great sense of evil, but I always found its shapelessness to be slightly unsatisfactory. The book also meanders, especially towards the end. To be honest, I can't even recall the conclusion beyond the most basic plot. It was just a little too abstract for me.
Regardless of these shortcomings, I enjoyed the book, and as soon as I could, I used my babysitting money to purchase the second book in the series, The Tombs of Atuan (I was probably around 13 or 14 when I first read them).
As the second book in the series, The Tombs of Atuan does a lot of things that tend to annoy readers, which probably explains its lack of popularity. First, it introduces a totally new character, Arha, who is unrelated to anyone in the previous book. Arha is the current and reincarnated priestess of "The Nameless Ones," an almost forgotten religion of ancient gods who existed before the world had a form.
Second point against this book? She lives in an isolated nunnery with other novices, old virgins, and eunuchs. I'm sure every boy who ever picked up this book read that setting and put the book right back down again. Maybe I'm stereotyping, but I've found that boys don't like to read books about girls, not at least until after they've grown up a little.
Then it takes Ged almost three quarters of the book to show up. No one who thinks they're reading a direct sequel to A Wizard of Earthsea is going to push that far through the story to find out whether their original hero reappears.
But that's the trick, Tombs is not really a direct sequel to Earthsea.
Despite everything that is working against it, I don't remember struggling with The Tombs of Atuan at all. The opening chapters were strange enough and the writing simple enough to pull me right into the story. I liked Arha, who was spoiled and haughty, but also lonely and increasingly frightened. I was interested in the mysterious tombs of the ancient ones, and the modern temples of the god-king and other cults. Where did these religions come from? Why was one dying and the other thriving? And like Earthsea, Tombs is a coming of age novel and has a school-ish air to it, which I always enjoy. Arha spends her time learning the rituals of the high priestess and the secrets of the labyrinth that lies buried deep in the earth beneath the tombs. How can you not enjoy that?
You could read Tombs all by itself, having never read Earthsea, and I don't think the story would suffer at all. Ged is a catalyst in the novel, practically a plot device, but the story is really all about Arha. What do the Gods mean to her? And what does she mean to them? That's part of the mystery and it takes a while to really understand her.
Just because Ged isn't the star of Tombs doesn't mean it isn't good, if not better without him. Throughout the Earthsea cycle, I don't know if we even understood Ged. What motivated him? Why did he feel compelled to fix his mistake? But I felt like I knew Arha by the end of Tombs, and felt for her.
I've subsequently loaned this book out so many times and people never return it, so I've had to buy it again and again to ensure I always have a copy ready to reread whenever the mood strikes me, which is fairly often. It's a great book, overlooked, but special.
What do you think? Have you read The Tombs of Atuan? Did you like it? Or is the classic, A Wizard of Earthsea better?
Happy Friday folks! T and I are flying up to Long Island today for my cousin's wedding this weekend. I'm super excited for her and her amazing fiance. My cousin's father and mother are celebrated in the fine dining industry up there, so I think there's going to be some pretty amazing food that I'm looking forward to consuming.
How about you, any fun end of summer plans? I can't believe the season is almost over. Summer is my favorite, so I'm a little bummed.
While I'm avoiding the end-of-summer blues with wedding fun and champagne, here are some links to help you do the same. See you on Monday!
After decades of censoring the genre for being too subversive, the Chinese communist party now favors science fiction. Why the change of heart? (Vox quoting the full interview between Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro, via @worldofscifi)
Which is kind of ironic considering the FBI suspected Ray Bradbury and his fiction of being pro-communist. (Open Culture)
"The year without summer." How a volcano eruption in 1815 caused local devastation, changed world weather patterns, and had a profound effect on artists and writers. (NY Times)
Why the "Bechdel test" should be called the"Bechdel-Wallace" test...according to Bechdel herself. (The Atlantic)
Also, here's the "Bechdel test" comic if you haven't heard of it. Does your fiction pass the test? (Dykes to Watch Out For)
Sooo, this happened at the Hugo awards. (wired.com)
A helpful chart for punctuation rules. (Electric Lit, via @MargaretAtwood)
A short list of hackers in science fiction over the last 40 years. I've unfavorably reviewed two of these seven books here on the blog, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't read them. These stories are part of the larger conversation and community in science fiction. You won't understand the full impact or references in subsequent books if you don't have a decent background or knowledge of these (sometimes disputed) classics. And I think your fiction will suffer too, out of ignorance if nothing else of what's already been done and what remains to be done. (And It wouldn't be a proper link roundup if I didn't include an @SFSignal link to Kirkus Reviews)
It's a dream job of mine to teach a survey course on science fiction, but there's just so much to read! I'd probably be unprepared and some kid in the back of the room would own me on Tolkien or something.
Writer, editor, scientist.