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Monday, October 29, 2012

Who's afraid of feminism?

It all started with Backlash, by Susan Faludi, a book I read at the ripe old age of 16. It was followed by a series of de Beauvoir's. That was it. I had turned into a feminist.

Or, should I say, I had now discovered I was a feminist. Because, after all, despite all the bad press, being a feminist only means one wants the same rights for men and women.

I was recently reading that anyone who claims not to be a feminist should have to explain why s/he does not believe in equality between men and women. That's what feminism stands for, whether we like it or not.

During my college years, although surrounded by educated, intelligent people who seemed to have a healthy dose of critical thinking, I was confronted to a variety of individuals who claimed that feminism was not needed anymore. At this point in time, they would argue, we have achieved equality. Why still bother with feminism?

I would have loved to take each of these people to my "gender theory" classes. They would have had a blast. I would have loved to shoot at them all the facts and numbers on women's poverty, gender pay gap, spousal abuse, household chores share, glass ceiling, under-representation of women in science and leadership positions (and over-representation of women's skin), etc.

But anti-feminists seem to have one common characteristic that makes it very hard to discuss with them: they are blind. Moreover, they tend to be hard of hearing. Finally, they have a quasi-pathological reticence to reading anything that might suggest they are wrong about the whole gender equality thing. They so want to believe we're done with that topic, it's not even funny.

I know where they are coming from: yes, there has been huge improvement in the past decades. But improvement does not mean good enough, and let's not forget how recent the changes are, from a historical perspective. In the grand scheme of things, we could revert to where we were around the time my grand-mothers were born (they are both still alive to tell you about it if you wish), and it wouldn't even be surprising or unusual. Rights are gained and rights are lost everyday in this world. Just look at gay marriage. So let's not take anything for granted. Vigilance is key. Especially with the rise of fundamentalism we are witnessing these days. This is a small planet. Smaller than we think.

It might feel good to convince ourselves that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds... but it doesn't magically make our world fair. Feminism is one of numerous examples that inequality remains pervasive; it only so happens that I'm focusing on this one today.

On this kind of sensitive topic, and because of what I have just said, discussions often turn out to be frustrating for both parties. For the sake of some friendships, in some instances I have decided to simply let it go (the topic! not the friendship!)

I have also decided, for the sake of my own peacefulness, that I needed regular breaks from reading, writing and talking about feminism. It is stressful to focus on the dark side of things. As a consequence, feminist issues are not on my mind half as much as they were during my teens and early twenties. I do, however, still notice blatant stereotypes and double standards when I see them. Only this past few weeks, here's what I have inadvertently stumbled upon:

Gender expectations in children

First, a reminder that toys are almost always designed with one specific gender in mind, in a very mutually exclusive way. Even our good old Lego's fall victim to this phenomenon. If you care about the ideas you put in your children's mind when you offer them toys, educational as they might be, please do take a look at the two following videos, and learn what happens when a building catches on fire in Heartlake City, or when someone in Lego City gets hungry.

Well documented. Smart. Undisputable. Priceless.

Nothing wrong, you think? What kind of messages are our children getting? And you think they know better? That it will have no effect on the adult they become? Really?

If you need another example of gender expectations and pressure to conform to stereotypes, take a look at the Cookie Monster costume currently offered for toddler boys and girls. I'm not even gonna ruin your fun by telling you what's wrong with those costumes. You tell me.


Gender expectations in adults

Everybody's entitled their pain and anger when it comes to dysfunctional love relationships or ones that end. But there is a line between experiencing your anger and imposing it on the other person. When I first saw this video (see below), I was appalled at the body language it contained. Pay good attention to how he moves around her. Would you be overly surprised if, in the midst of it, he suddenly hit her? I find it rather disturbing. This is what our kids are watching (and learning from, whether we like it or not).

Finally, as seen on the big screens at the gym: the Indian F1 Grand Prix.

What's wrong with F1, you'll ask. (What's wrong other than it being such a polluting "sport", I imagine is your question.) Did you see the "women in red"? With the roh-so-very-short-skirt? At the race there were dozens of clones of her all over the place. Were they part of the mechanics team? No. Were they photographers, journalists, security guards? Neither. Were they serving refreshments, then? Nope. What they were "doing" was standing there, being pretty, everywhere the winners  went. Lined up in groups of three or more, depending on the location. They were, let's not be afraid of words, mere decorations. They enlivened the decor.

I'm sorry, I did not hear you well... the concept of  "woman as a sex object" doesn't exist anymore? No? Ah. Thank you for reassuring me.

For more on this fascinating topic, please pay a visit to this website.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Walk your way to happiness

What do you do when you feel overstressed, frustrated and bored at the same time?

What do you do when you just came back from the trip of a lifetime and find it harder than expected to get back to your routine?

What do you do when you know there's nothing particularly wrong, unpleasant or problematic in your life... and you know it's rather just a few minor annoyances and some level of dissatisfaction? Plus the feeling that you're kind of stuck in a rut

What if you feel something needs to change? 

What if the something that needs to change is inside of you more than outside?

How do you get out of that yucky spot?

Once again I was experiencing the "Sh*** summer really is over now" syndrome.

I considered running more, but I already run four times a week, and I am prone to injuries. Overdoing it is not a good idea. Plus it's time-consuming: you have to change, you have to shower. I don't have that much time, and I already shower enough as it is with all the workouts! 

I considered meditating, but to be honest I didn't feel like it. I felt I had to find more serenity within myself before I could actually sit still, eyes closed, for 20 minutes in a row. Or else I would just be way too restless.

Everything else I considered was quickly dismissed as not an option: taking to the bottle, moving to a different country, shaving my head... it sounded kinda fun, but nah.

Spending my days wearing fleece PJ's, wrapped in a soft blanket in front of the fire, sipping on chai tea... that sounded a little bit better... but I would quickly get complaints, I'm afraid. "Where's the document you were supposed to translate?" "Where's my lunchbox?" "Where's my clean socks?" And more importantly: "Meooooowwwwww?" (which can loosely translate as "Get off your bu** and fill my bowl/open the door for me/scratch me behind the ears)

So instead of those appealing ideas, I ended up cleaning my kitchen cupboards. It did me good, it did my kitchen good, and it will do good whoever ends up with my supernumerary bowls, pots and pans.

The snag, however, is that I cannot possibly make this a habit: my kitchen would soon be completely empty.

I needed something that I could repeat over and over again. Something that would enable me to evacuate the stress without creating more in the process, that would demand almost no effort, that would be good for me physically as much as mentally, and that was time and cost effective.

While I was trying to put all those conditions together to get a bigger picture of the ideal solution, my father-in-law called, and while we were chatting of different things he mentioned how much he enjoys his daily walk.

Walking! I thought. That's my solution! Walking is easy: it's controlled by the cerebellum and so is pretty much an automatic movement. No need to pay attention to your gait (and breathing). Your body just does it on its own. Walking is slow: you have time to notice your surroundings, you have time to notice your thoughts. Walking is repetitive: it puts you in a state that facilitates relaxation and contemplation. Walking is simple: your regular clothes and any street/road/trail will do. You don't even need to bring water (not in Canada, in October, anyways).

Plus, walking burns calories!

So this morning I went. I walked. After 20 minutes or so I stopped by my favorite pond to have a little chat with the ducks and listen to the wind blowing in what's left of leaves in the trees. 

As I was walking back something magical happened. All of a sudden my problems appeared much smaller. I have been struggling with a certain relationship, unhappy about the way the person behaves towards me and unsure of how to react. After walking this morning, my mind seemed clearer and more serene. I didn't feel upset about this relationship anymore. I felt plentiful and detached.

And when I sat at my computer to work, I was calm and focused.

I think I'll be walking again tomorrow! Will you?

Saturday, October 20, 2012

All you need is less

Yes. Less.

This has never been so true as nowadays in this fast-paced, consumerist world.

As in some sort of conspiracy, every piece of reading I lay my hands on these days emphasizes the power of less. This might be partly related to the books I recently finished:

By Denis Grozdanovitch: L'art difficile de ne presque rien faire
(my translation: the difficult art of doing almost nothing)

By Dominique Loreau: L'art de l'essentiel (Jeter l'inutile et le superflu pour faire de l'espace en soi)
(my translation: the art of the essential - throw away the useless and the superfluous to gain space within yourself)

By Jon Kabat-Zinn: Wherever you go, there you are (a book on meditation and the importance of here and now)

As you will see, the "Less is more" principle applies to many areas of our lives.

Less speed

We keep chasing our own tail like a dog caught in a frenzy. Why? What's so urgent? Is it? Really? Sometimes I look at all of us rushing in all directions, and it almost looks like we're anxious to die! Whoa. Slow down. Sssslllllooooowwww dddddooooowwwwwn. Breathe in. Breathe out.

(If it helps, listen to this song.)

Less stuff

We SO don't need all we have. We SO don't need all the things we don't have but plan (or hope) to get. Yet we think we do. Why, I'm not sure. It might have something with the pressure society puts on us (media included - see below).

Why do we feel such a need to consume all the time? Is it normal that not a day goes without us buying something? (Whether it's for us or for someone else)

Do we really have to spend that much (or that often) to stimulate the economy? Do we really need to consume products and services all the time to have a functional, dynamic society? Even the experts are beginning to question it. Whether it's for our own sanity or to save the planet, let's cut down on stuff.

Also, why do we hold on to old stuff we don't even use? This fall I will put to use some good advice I read about excessive stuff. I will get rid of everything I haven't used or thought about in the past year. (Beware if I offer you my junk! Be strong! Say no!) It feels daunting to eliminate, but most of what we keep, we do for all the wrong reasons. Out the clutter, in the peace of mind. From now on, I will acquire less. Keep less. Give less. When I really want to give, I will give my time and my attention, instead of stuff.

Less media, less advertising, less constant stimulation

I'm not inventing it. It's been studied: TV makes us fat, it makes us dumb, and, according to some, it can even make us aggressive. Notwisthanding the often questionable contents of TV shows themselves, a third of our screen time is spent watching adds that only make us crave junk food or objects we don't own yet (and that, in most cases, we don't need at all... no matter how hard we try to convince ourselves we do).

Advertising can be extremely insidious. Among other notes from the teachers, I just go a yellow slip that looked like any other teacher message, and that said in bold, underlined letters "Please return this slip to school". The message was signed "Your teacher". My first reaction was to read it right away, thinking it was something urgent and/or important. On the back there was a space for my name and address. When I looked closely, however, I noticed it was an advertisement for a subscription to a kids' magazine. I have nothing against kids magazines, mind you, but I thought the way it was presented was misleading. They were taking your name and address even if you were not interested. Why, do you think? To send more advertisement, that's why! Let's not be naive here! They were not asking for any money now, either. Which is never a good sign, by the way. We're constantly bombarded by all sides, and now this? Enough already.

Less food

We all know that when it comes to "treats", or anything that's not really part of a food group (booze, bad fats, anything sweet, etc.), moderation is best. But research has also shown that eating less food overall is correlated with longevity. It might be a good idea to leave the table with a not-quite-full stomach. Recently I saw a super centenarian on TV (he turned 114 years old if my memory is good), and when asked about his strategy for living a long (and healthy) life, he replied: "I don't eat very much." It's worth a try anyways! If it doesn't make you live past a hundred, it will definitely help with digestion, that's for sure!

On food and other pleasures, I'd like to share my recent reading of epicureanism. Contrary to what we tend to think, Epicurus did not encourage human beings to indulge in limitless pleasures. He did believe that pleasure is the greatest good. But to attain pleasure, he said, we should aim for a modest lifestyle. There is a limit to being controlled by our desires; and so Epicurus advocated a simple life. (For more on the topic, see this link.)

Less parenting

I'm realizing it more and more. We "parent" too much.

First, we put our kids in innumerable extracurricular activities. I was reading "Have a new kid by Friday" (which sounds more utopic than it is; the book is actually full of good advice) and one of the first pieces of advice the author gave in case of recurrent bad behavior was to cut down on those countless classes, courses and clubs our kids are registered in. I have also read numerous articles about the importance, for children, to experience boredom. As one author put it, "It is only when they are truly bored that children actually get to listen to their own thoughts". Which, it's easy to understand, is the path to creativity and introspection. With nothing to do (and no electronics to keep them disconnected from the here and now), children - oh miracle - start thinking. What comes out of it can be fascinating.

Second, we talk too much. (And I know my own mother will love this one.) We repeat. We explain. We negotiate. Constantly. Enough! If you've explained it once, why would you have to re-explain it all? Children are smarter than we think. They know what they're supposed and not supposed to do, and they know why. Let's not insult their intelligence by repeating it over and over again (well unless they're toddlers, but that's a different situation).

Deep down inside, we all know it: actions speak louder than words. But for some obscure reason, we don't feel good about letting our kids deal with the consequences of their actions. It's as if we don't want them to experience discomfort. So instead, we keep talking. Blablablabla. Their mind is already miles away. We're not teaching them anything at all.

This week, I had a good opportunity to apply my "less talk, more action" theory. My eight year-old daughter forgot her water bottle at school (for the hundredth time this year already). I quickly found another bottle in my cupboards for the next day, and put it in her lunchbox while reminding her that she now had to bring back two bottles. As you can guess, on the next day, she came back with... none. (Someone over there will soon be able to start a collection.) My first reaction was to get upset, to tell her how annoying it was (she is very forgetful of her things and I have grown increasingly tired of it - understandably I think). My second reaction was to dig in my cupboards to try and find a third water bottle she could now use. Then I thought to myself "Wait a minute, mama. What's the best way to teach her to remember to bring back her bottle(s)?" And that's when I decided to send her lunch with no drink at all (there is a water fountain at school anyways). Guess what: the 2 bottles quickly came back!

Children really don't do that well with too many possessions. My youngest daughter, who is 6 years old, owns more clothes than really is necessary (and a good part of it is my fault). You would think that this overabundance of options makes it easier to pick an outfit in the morning, but what it does in fact is make it overwhelming: we have been fighting about clothes every single morning for a few weeks now (if not more). It was driving me crazy. I tried different strategies: letting her pick her clothes, or picking her clothes myself, the night before; limiting the options by removing all out-of-season clothes (or else she would go for tank tops in January and velvet/corduroy/thick whool in the summer). But it did not help; she was still unhappy (and so was I; who likes to be whined and screamed at first thing in the morning?) My little angel always had a very precise idea of what she wanted to wear, which of course she did not own, like a yellow polka dot dress with a pink ribbon around the waist, and nothing else!!! One morning, I decided I had enough. After she left for school, I went to her room and emptied her closet and dresser, leaving only the PJs and the underwear. When she noticed, that night, I told her that from now on all her clothes would be in my room, that she would not have access to them, and that I would put an outfit on her bed for the next day every night while she slept. I dreaded her reaction. But she had almost none. It's been a full week now, and not only does she put on the outfits I pick for her without complaining, the first thing she does when she sees me in the morning is to hug me (as opposed to throwing a tantrum). How refreshing!

Less toxic relationships

We need to take one serious look at our relationships. Too often, we get caught in routine (and, incidentally, in co-dependency) and become blind to the fact that certain relationships do us more bad than good. Do you have such relationships? Do some frequently turn out to be more unpleasant than pleasant? Does the mere idea of talking to certain people make you tired? Does frequenting some leave a bitter taste? Then why do you keep seeing those people? Why do you call them? Why do you get caught in their unhealthy ways to interact with others? Protect yourself. Take your distances. There are wonderful relationships in this world, and those are the ones we should nurture. Period.

Less complaining. Less worrying

By now we all get it (I hope): Sh*** happens, and it happens regularly. Better get used to it. Better not get ourselves all worked up. Being overly upset in the face of life's vagaries and contingencies only means one thing: we are still so self-absorbed and self-centered that we believe (in some sort of magical thinking) that nothing bad should ever happen to us. Proof: when something bad does happen to us, our first thought is: "Why me?" Well, why not, I say. Why would I deserve all and only good things when there is so much bad stuff in the world (happening to innocent people most of the time, by the way)? That makes no sense. When we think "Why me", it's only our ego talking. Shut it, ego. Life will bring bad stuff. Better get used to it. Also, for heaven's sake, let's not worry about things that haven't even happened yet. Instead, let's practice, no matter what spiritual allegiances we have or haven't, the Buddhist virtue of detachment. Or, as Nikos Kazantzakis, the Greek writer, aptly put it, let's tell ourselves: "I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free."

What we do need more of

The only things we need more of (apart from love, of course), are:

- quality down time: slouching in front of the TV doesn't count, drinking neither. Talking a nice, relaxed walk, or a bubble bath, doing yoga, listening to pleasant music, meditating, praying, observing nature, rocking in a rocking chair (which has been shown to have great physical and psychological benefits! Really!), knitting and crocheting (our grandmothers had it right!)...  those do count. Fifteen minutes a day might be just what the doctor ordered.

 - exercise: everyone but the kitchen sink knows it: exercise has countless benefits, and I think I've emphasized them enough on this blog in the past, but just to be sure: pretty much anything you're dissatisfied about in your life, like high stress, anxiety, depression, poor body image, fatigue, aches and pains and discomforts, low quality sleep, unhealthy habits, unsatisfactory sex life... name it... it's almost certain that regular exercise can improve it drastically. (For malfunctioning washing machines, though, you will have to call a specialist.) Everyone has time for exercise. My friend K works "full-time and more", has 3 young children and a dog, her extended family (on both sides) lives far away... yet she still manages to work out. You can do it too. Exit the excuses, and put on those sneakers. Now.

- fruit and vegetables: research has shown that regardless of your other life habits and genetics, eating generous portions of fruit and vegetables significantly decreases your risks of the most common serious health problems that plague North Americans, namely heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. So go ahead and grab those greens! (Or reds. Or oranges. Or blues.) Bon appetit!