Learn a New Language from a White Boy

20160707_162819[1]By the time the WordPress robot posts this update, I will be on my second trip to China, sputtering through a four-week language immersion course in Harbin. Before leaving, I got a preview of it on my son’s field trip to our local urban Chinatown. We were part of a big group of elementary school students in a dim sum restaurant where the busy staff didn’t seem to be taking seriously the religious dietary restrictions of two students I was responsible for, so in desperation, I spoke to the servers in Mandarin. When our exchange was over and the servers were gone, there was a beat of silence, big-eyed kids, and the other mom at the table saying, “I was not expecting that.”

No. At the first few syllables, non-Chinese speakers hearing me hacking away at my not-quite second language usually look horrified, like I’m an idiotic monster trying to do some excruciating Mickey Rooney fake-Chinese comedy. They relax when they see my noise accepted by Chinese-speakers, and then I go from an idiotic monster to a unicorn.

In China, no one is surprised to hear unicorns blundering through the language that is not only local, but the most spoken language in the world. Most people nod at me, maybe smirk, maybe feel bad about discussing special pricing for foreigners right in front of me, correct my speech with cool matter-of-fact-ness, and when it’s over, they might say something about how I shouldn’t get too discouraged.

The reaction of Chinese-speakers outside an explicitly Chinese social context is different again. I was having ‘coffee’ with my professor and her baby in a suburban café, far from Chinatown, when she waved me to the counter and told me it’d be okay if I used Chinese to order a drink. The staff would understand. Ever the obedient student, that’s what I did. The café lady laughed at me. It’s a typical reaction. I didn’t think much of it, smiled, waited for it to pass. What was different about this encounter from the rest of the times I’ve spoken Chinese “in the wild” was that I was standing next to my professor–the person who, more than anyone else, is responsible for teaching me Chinese, who knows something of how difficult it’s been, how profoundly nervous I once was to do anything but read a script. She interrupted the laughter, telling me the lady was just surprised. What I’d said was fine. Later, I asked another professor why Chinese speakers in Canada laugh at me. He described it as “laughter of encouragement.”

These are the explanations of my teachers, friends, and mentors—people who nurture and protect my determination to study and learn Chinese. But it’s not all about me and they may be protecting more than that. I’m old enough to have seen Wayne’s World in its theatrical release and I remember the extended punchline of a joke that is nothing more than an ethnically Scottish North American (like me) having a conversation in Chinese. Hilarious, right? Mike Myer’s on-screen Chinese is strange and overwrought but the fact is, when Chinese is “toned down,” it’s unintelligible. I already walk a line too close to unintelligibility to risk crossing over it because of something like shyness. I can’t afford to hold back. I’m not making fun. I’m just trying to make sense.

There is one more kind of reaction I get when I use Chinese. It comes from a certain kind of person, always—always—an English-speaking man I do not know well. It has happened online and in person. I’ll mention I’m studying Chinese, that I’ve traveled there, might even say something about being a graduate student in a modern languages department. Then the man tells me he is interested in languages too, maybe even in Chinese. Am I using Duolingo? All of this is fine until, instead of asking me anything about learning languages, he shuts down my attempts to enter into a discussion and simply tells me about learning languages. I mentioned the laughing Chinese-speaker phenomenon to a man like this and he told me my lack of understanding of the tonality of Chinese pronunciation must leave me accidentally saying silly, laughable things. Actually, when he took a trip to China, he was praised for his near-native pronunciation of the half dozen pleasantries and place names he had learned to say. Guys like these tend to be the same ones who post memes about Ockham’s Razor, and the simplest answer to my observation about laughter was surely not a complicated, inequitable connection between the English-speaking majority in our community and the ambivalent relationships it fosters between local ethnic diasporas and their ancestral languages. No, the simplest explanation was that I must be foolish.

I was ticked off but still a unicorn. I smiled at white Chinese-language-mansplainer, and you can probably guess what I said.

你说中文吗?

It’s the Chinese equivalent of “Parlez-vous français?” or “Hablas español?” – the kind of phrase the barest of beginners ought to know.

He blinked. “Sorry, what?”

Mm-hm, that’s what I thought.

Ode to an #uglyfeminist

I do not wish to be beautiful. I’ve learned a lot and lost nothing of lasting importance by going through life far from beautiful. I am complaining about nothing. I wouldn’t be thinking about ugliness at all if it hadn’t come to the social media forefront recently with the Twitter hashtag #uglyfeminist.

The hashtag is as troll-ridden as it sounds. It’s not a springboard for enlightening discussion (something the Internet is not known for anyways) but a brawl. On one side of it are misogynists who think it’s clever to reduce millennia of struggle for safe and equitable conditions for half of humanity to a joke where women they do not find sexually attractive are simply frustrated at being unworthy of the social favour men mete out. On the other side are women posting pictures of themselves showcasing their conventionally attractive looks to—I don’t know—prove #notallfeminists are ugly. Some feminists actually do fulfill their social obligation to look the way men want them to, and shame on men for not fulfilling their side of the social contract, I guess.

Now, I won’t tear down my Twitter sisters any further for living their struggle in the ways they see best. I continue to believe that tossing out wedges for women to drive between each other—like the #uglyfeminist hashtag—is an old device men use to make peace for themselves by keeping women preoccupied attacking each other. I won’t do it. But I will share a few things I’ve learned about why ugliness matters.

Ugly is the opposite of beautiful – the opposing end of a crude, arbitrary, culturally constructed spectrum of physical attractiveness. As long as the lights are on, the appearance of beautiful humans affects the people around them. Beauties are able to change other people’s behaviours, beliefs, and sway their emotions just by looking the way they look. Don’t argue. If this wasn’t true, the multi-billion dollar advertising industry would not exist in the form we all know. Most of the time, being beautiful makes the daily hassle of social life easier. It’s a form of privilege and power.

On the opposite pole of the spectrum, we ugly folks have our own kind of power over people.  Like beautiful people, we affect other’s behaviours, beliefs, and emotions simply by showing up and looking the way we do. The effects are different in nature but not in potency.  But where the beautiful can inspire warmth and affection they may not deserve, we can inspire disgust and derision we don’t deserve.

I’ve experienced disgust and derision based on my looks. Most of it happened in junior high school when both my looks and the people around me were at their worst. I’ll spare us the details but on a rainy day in 1987 I was voted ugliest girl in school by a group of loud, rude boys who didn’t know me at all.

They were personally offended that a girl would let herself be so unattractive to them. My looks were transgressive. They flouted the social code that promises boys they’re important and social life ought to be constructed to keep them happy, comfortable, and gratified. As part of that social code, girls are expected to look the way boys want us to.

By being ugly, it was as if I didn’t know how important boys were—or worse—that I knew and I didn’t care. The boys knew in a tacit, latent way they probably didn’t fully realize they understood, that I needed to be punished for my transgressive ugliness. If looking bad all on its own wasn’t aversive enough for me (it was) they would provide the aversion themselves by humiliating me in public. And that’s what they did.

Girls responded to my ugliness differently. At nearly every all-girl-party I went to—especially ones with older, big sisterly girls—I would be given the gift of a makeover. Someone would stick my head in the sink and set about changing my life, just like in the movies. In the late 1980s this meant curling irons, hairspray, and loads of eye makeup. It was sweet and noble and futile. When the big makeover reveal moments fell flat (unlike my high, sprayed bangs) I felt an especial hate for my ugliness, for its imperviousness to makeovers—its rejection of my friends’ love and goodwill.

Sensing my parents’ reaction to my “awkward phase” was bittersweet too. “Awkward” is a term grownups apply to gently describe the unbalanced strangeness in the form and features of children they remember as silky, sparkly babies.  Adults say “awkward” like an apology, with longing and grief. Longing and grief spring from love. There’s heartbreak in the word “awkward.”

I wish I could say I was ugly as part of some precocious feminist stunt—that it was about rebellion and wilful disobedience to oppressive social norms. That wasn’t it at all. I was ugly because I needed my braces off. I needed my body to relinquish the emergency weight it added to get me through the growth spurt that never came. I needed my hair to grow out of the awful cut my well-meaning mother chose for me. I needed to start buying my own clothes. I needed the 90s to start so everyone else would wash off their eyeshadow, let the aerosol out of their bangs, and join me in low maintenance grooming regimens. I needed mean-boys to grow up. Eventually, all of that happened.

Is being ugly what made me a feminist? It must have been one of thousands of factors. Did it make me the frustrated, bitter, unwanted man-hating caricature of the #uglyfeminist hashtag? Clearly, it didn’t. Most of the people who mean the most to me are men—my husband, my five sons, my father, brothers, cousins, brothers-in-law, friends, mentors, colleagues. I don’t spend much time baking them cookies or ironing their shirts but I do love them in my own way.

And it goes like this: a few years ago, I caught one of my teenaged sons sharing an unflattering photo, a candid shot, of a 13-year-old girl we know, the daughter of a family friend. He and a male friend who had never met this girl were laughing, mocking, and posting the photo in a fairly obscure region of a social media website. The odds of the girl ever seeing it herself were low. That didn’t matter.

“Honey, don’t,” I said to my son. “That girl is me.”

This is the gift I, an ugly feminist, try to give to men instead of beauty. It’s truth, which, as sweet, silly Keats says, is beauty after all.

6 Ways Men Can Talk About Feminism Without Sounding Like IDIOTS

I want to help.

There’s a lot of ignorant talk about feminism in my social media feeds lately. And I want us – no, I want you, men — to be able to talk about women and feminism with all the good will you intend and without the whole thing backfiring, blowing up in your face, biting you in the butt — whatever ironic disaster metaphor best describes that awful, idiotic feeling of trying to speak respectfully only to find you’ve botched it.

“You crazy! I’s just tryin’ a help!” My favourite line from Glen in “Raising Arizona”

I’m not talking to depraved, deliberate “Hey Baby” misogynists.  And I’m not addressing domestic sexism where men talk about “babysitting” their own kids or “helping” with housework in the places where they live and eat. I’m talking to grown, educated men who attempt egalitarianism and make a mess of it. All of the following faux pas come from my own experiences. I’ve heard them said, often directly to me, by men who should know better. Sometimes they’re said combatively, sometimes just clumsily, but always ignorantly. So let me help.

Men, do not say:

1)      “I’m the only man here so I’d better be careful.” This statement, spoken by men when they’re outnumbered in a group of women, says you are behaving differently than you would if you were surrounded by men. It implies you fake deference for women in our presence but will speak more freely and truthfully when we’re absent or properly subdued by the unspoken threat latent in an abundance of male bodies. Don’t be careful. Be kind. Don’t be fake. Be honest. And if your honesty is going to offend us, fix it in a genuine way, not simply by censoring yourself. Definitely don’t expect us to be charmed or grateful you’ve put on your bogus lady-manners for us.

This “outnumbered” statement is doubly offensive because it implies women are volatile and violent and it’s only our typical lack of ability to physically dominate men that keeps us sweet. It suggests we’ve been waiting to indulge in violence against men. The further implication is that the standard male-dominated power structure is needed to preserve the peace.  The same “logic” has been used to justify racist regimes. It doesn’t apply to women either.

2)      “I wouldn’t dare have an opinion on that…” This statement is often meant to be a jocular, humble approach to women’s issues. It’s a man admitting he’s not an expert. While that’s nice, it also effectively ends conversations where women have more relevant or detailed knowledge and experience than men. Just because men may not be experts in an area, just because in the end they may have to defer to women on a subject, they are not excused from participating in discussions of these issues. All women’s issues are human issues important to all genders. Refusing to risk talking about them is not respect. It’s marginalization.

3)      “Can you explain to me how this is sexist?” Even when this is an earnest question, it’s problematic. To some of us, this question sounds like you’ve pointed to the sky on a nice day and petulantly demanded, “Explain to me how that’s blue.” Sexism is so vast and pervasive, so much a part of our worldview, it can be hard to address. We do want to talk to you about sexism. We want to help you understand the sky. But it should take some effort on your part. Do some research. Prepare yourself to talk with us about feminism. It will take time. I can’t explain decades of social theory and a lifetime of discrimination in one pithy quip you can carry in your wallet and pull out to test if things are sexist. The key to understanding sexism is empathy – looking at things the way someone else, someone of a different gender, would see them. Though empathy can never be perfect, it is a skill that can be cultivated. But no one else can do it for you.

4)      “I have a mother (wife, daughter, sisters, etc.) so it’s not like I don’t know anything about women.” Hey, everyone is related to females. That’s how our species works. You are no more of an expert on women for having a mother than anyone else born on the planet. So don’t expect us to be impressed or to add any weight to your claims just because you’ve got close genetic or legal ties to women. We can already tell you’re related to women by the way you, you know, have skin and guts and breath.

5)      “My lady-friend says feminism means XYZ and you don’t XYZ therefore you are not feminist.” There is no Feminist Rulebook, no Feminist Gestapo that storms our houses, inspects our feminism, and revokes our title if we don’t adhere to strict, narrow guidelines. Feminism is like any complex, big-tent idea system – like communism or capitalism or Islam or Christianity or other ideologies loosely shared by huge, varied groups of individuals.  One of the things holding feminism back is in-fighting between women. If you foster those schisms, you are an opponent of feminism, not an ally. Don’t think we don’t know what you’re doing. Let us agree to disagree without fomenting more discord. Especially since we don’t recognize a central arbitrator of what’s good feminism, you’d better not dare to cast yourself in that role. A woman is a feminist because she says she is. She does not have to negotiate her feminism with you.

6) Don’t talk about our gender as if it’s a magic power. Good women are good people — nurturers, caregivers, etc. — because of choices they make, not because there’s any magic determinism in our sex organs forcing us to be good. Give us some credit. Don’t understate and diminish our free will or our humanity. Just like you, we can always choose to be bad. Some of us do. An angel acting angelically isn’t all that special. A real person choosing to act angelically is and it deserves respect, not a bunch of sentimental, simplistic mumbo-jumbo.

Bonus (So I don’t have to rename the post): Enough with “beauty.” Unless you’re judging a beauty contest, it’s not appropriate to comment on strangers’ appearances. Especially when spoken to a group, it comes across as insincere, patronizing, and placatory (see item 1). It can even seem creepy. A good rule is if you wouldn’t tell men they’re beautiful in the same setting, don’t tell women they’re beautiful. Too much is said about how we look anyways. Set it aside and appreciate other things we bring to social life.

There now, back to the social media fray.

Here Baby, There Mama: Don’t Politic My Hair

Let me tell you about the angriest I’ve ever been with my husband. Our not-quite-two-year-old son needed his long, wispy, angel hair cut. He hated haircuts and would carry on like a calf getting branded. It was always awful. My husband told me he’d take care of one particular haircut by himself. He took the baby into the bathroom and buzzed his head with electric clippers.

I was furious.

Yes, the baby’s hair grew back. And no one – not my oh-so-scolded husband, not anyone – has ever buzzed it again. The baby is fifteen years old now. His hair is still light blond but it’s also thick, silky, and he wears it long. I love it. Everyone loves it.

That’s the angriest I’ve ever been at my husband. I’m very lucky. I have an excellent husband. I also have an excellent mother. Guess what makes me angriest about the way she raised me. Once again, it’s haircuts. I’m not one to try to blame my mother for everything. She was and is wonderful to me and my six siblings. But she is a demon in a hair salon.jennyshort

Her first six children were born within seven and a half years. No, she’s not crazy. She’s just talented at pregnancy and babies. My mum is never happier than when she’s raising a baby. I don’t understand it — the same way I don’t understand people who are happiest when they’re cooking or playing soccer or doing math.

With a family like that, I guess Mum needed some short-cuts – literally. Five of us are girls — though it was hard to tell from looking at us when we were kids and our mother was choosing our haircuts. Mum had this idea that short hair on girls was “stylish” and modern – that and it didn’t need any time consuming combing or binding with elastics.

amyshort

Some people look fine in short hair. These people are not in my immediate gene pool. We all looked horrible. We knew it even though our mother raved about how pert and bold we were and how boring and backward our girl-friends were with their gorgeously normal shoulder-length bobs. But we were respectful, filial girls and I didn’t rise up and put an end to my mother’s terrible haircuts until I was in the tenth grade. That was when I grew my hair long – crazy long – and never went back. My sisters have thrown off their chains and grown out their hair too.

We all have the hair we want now. We’re educated, independent women exercising control over our own bodies and using a whole lot of high-end conditioner every morning. That’s the happily ever after, right?

Unfortunately, personal preference isn’t the only thing being read into hair length lately. Some click-baiting doofus wrotesarashort an article in response to the recent Hollywood revival of the pixie cut that made my childhood so awkward. He trolls on about how women cut their hair short to perturb and alienate men. The article has been answered by far more thoughtful pieces claiming long hair can be a patriarchal weapon meant to signal reproductive receptivity and with it, submission to oppressive forms of traditional gender roles.

Actually, for most people from my ethnic group anyways, long hair is just the natural state of all hair, for men and women. It’s now been unnaturally politicized by both sides of the gender divide. One of my brothers-in-law snapped and told my sister she had to cut her hair because she looked like the wife of a fundamentalist cult leader. I guess that wasn’t the impression he wanted his colleagues to have of their successful family business. My sister keeps her hair long anyway and sometimes twists it into a tight, top ‘o the head, power-bun that is authoritarian and formidable and totally awesome.

maryshortI admit I’m still insecure enough to worry whether anyone mistakes my long hair as a sign there’s something oppressive in my relationships or worldview – something amiss with my feminism. There isn’t. I’ve written more in defense of feminism than many people will ever read in their lifetimes.  I have nothing to be insecure about.  Part of enjoying my personal autonomy is invoking my right not to cut my hair if that’s what makes me happiest.

All that anger from the beginning of this story – with my husband and my mum – it’s petty. I’ve let it go and moved on. Even in the teeth of the crises, I never had much to complain about.  Unless it’s a token of religious observance, everything that’s said about another person’s hair length seems just as petty to me. And in realms of pettiness, what’s important aren’t the choices we make but the fact that we are free to make those choices.emshort

Sometimes, as Freud is rumored to have said, a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes, a haircut is just a haircut – no social agenda, no revolution, no patriarchal violence – just pretty protein sprouting out of a scalp. When it comes to the way I wear my hair, all I’m trying to say is that I love it long – on my sons, on me, on my sisters, even on my mother herself.

Me, My Mum, and My Sisters Today

Mothers of All Brothers at the Mall

My sister had just posted a new picture of her baby on Facebook.  In it, my big-eyed, beautiful niece was wearing layers and layers of frilly pastel ruffles.  Beneath the picture, I wrote, “I didn’t know ruffles were the big thing right now.”  Even for idle social media chatter, my ruffle comment was pretty idle.  I didn’t expect anything to come of it.

But then, out of the vastness of time and space, through the miracle of post-modern social networking, another comment came answering back from an old friend of mine.  I didn’t know she and my sister were in touch.  I was surprised.  Frankly, they hardly know each other.  Frankly, my friend and I hardly know each other anymore.  We were closest during our early teenaged years, before I outgrew the worst of my hideous phase and started encroaching on her boy-chasing territory.  Things had been very quiet between us for a very long time.  But now that ruffles were on the table, she had something to say to me about them.

“That’s because you are the only girl in your home,” she told me, “And I don’t think that ruffles were ever your thing…”

She was right about that.

“…Little girls LOVE ruffles,” she continued, emphasis in the original.  “And sparkles, and tiaras, and glitter, and magic wands.  Maybe you should see if you can get a girl to balance out all of that boyness in your house.”

Maybe I’m crazy but it read like a smack-down.  It sounded like my family of nothing-but-sons was being called out as karmic.  She may as well have written, “You like boys, do ya?  Well, take THAT, boy-stealer.”

I replied by doing what anyone put in my position would have done: I quoted out-of-context Bowie lyrics at her.

“There’s only room for one and here she comes, here she comes.”

Unlike me, my old friend – the ruffle expert – has a daughter.  She goes shopping for tiny frilly dresses while I’m pushing a cart full of black and navy sweatpants.

I’ve heard people remark how tragic it is that mothers of boys don’t have as much fun shopping as the mothers of girls.  The idea is familiar enough to make it feel like everyone must agree.  But who actually makes this complaint?  I took a straw poll, pulling comments out of Internet parenting forums dedicated to mothers of all-boy families.  I was looking for any self-reports of mothers being disappointed about not being in the market for pretty dresses for anyone but ourselves.

Here’s what I found: hardly anything.

Every now and then, a long, sad venting post would appear where a mom of boys lists everything about parenting that hurts her.  Once she’d started brainstorming her disappointments, she’d usually toss in a line about shopping.  But in pages and pages of healthy, happy chit-chat about raising boys, it was nearly impossible to find any boys-only moms complaining about the lack of sparkles in their laundry.

So who keeps talking about how sad we must be?  It seems the people most likely to think shopping in the pink section is important are people who are actively enculturating a little girl with prissy, Western notions of acceptable gender roles.  These people care very strongly about it.  But guess who doesn’t care much about it?  Everyone else.

Groaner at the Scholastic Book Fair

Groaner at the Scholastic Book Fair

Shopping may be a strange and backward place for flagrant plays of gender politics but it’s a real one.  Most of the time, gendered shopping is a marketing tool meant to get parents with kids of both sexes to buy double the merchandise they need because pink bicycles burst into flames if boys try to ride them.  It’s got nothing to do with what’s good for the human psyche and everything to do with selling products.

When it comes to underwear and tampons, I can see the wisdom in dividing the marketplace between the sexes.  But when I walked into the Scholastic Book Fair at my kids’ school this winter and saw a table labelled “Books for Boys,” I got angry.  Thanks, Scholastic, for making sure arbitrary gender division in education and the arts stay staunchly and clearly defined.

And thanks, I guess, to everyone harbouring any compassion for women who only mother children of the opposite sex.  Go ahead and feel sorry for us.  In truth, there are reasons for boy-moms to feel a little lonely – a little empty.  They’re real and I believe they’re profound.  The reasons women might mourn for never creating another human in their own image are existential, rooted in our personal identities, our senses of our own immortality, and our fears about dying alone.  And that makes the suggestion that our feelings are all about vapid unfulfilled shopping fantasies outrageously offensive.

“Bring it On” — A Sexist Challenge on Childbirth

“I had a lady friend years ago… who was a mother of several children. She had a bout of shingles. She told me she would rather give birth. I have had shingles. Bring it on.”  — A male friend of a friend on Facebook.com, July 26, 2013

mumjoe

My mother and her first grandchild

Facebook is a hurt-feelings-machine.  It’s an Offense-O-Matic.  It’s a Jerk-A-Tron.  It can make ordinary strangers sound like idiotic, sexist monsters.  We all know this.  However, Facebook is also the only place I can reliably see pictures of my nieces and nephews so, like most users, I have reasons to put up with the website that outweigh the heaps of garbage I find there.  But the comment quoted above – one made in response to a comedy sketch about a bogus medical device that transfers the pain of childbirth contractions from mothers to fathers — reads as particularly loathsome to me, even by Facebook standards.

When it comes to empathy for the ordeal of childbirth, I prefer quotations like this one:

“I’m sorry.  I didn’t know it could be like this or I would have told you.”

That’s what my mother said to me moments after my first son was born.  She didn’t say it because she was ignorant of childbirth and hadn’t worked hard enough to prepare me for it.  She had borne seven children herself and been frank with me about her experiences.  She knows much more about childbirth than most people will ever know.

But my mum was still shocked at how differently childbirth unfolded for me.  Unlike Facebook-Shingles-Man, there’s no bravado, nothing dismissive or smug in her response to my very personal passage to motherhood.  Standing at my hospital bedside, Mum knew my labour had been twice as long as any she’d ever had.  She had watched me struggle with the second stage – the pushing part where things usually developed quickly and fruitfully for her.  For me, it went on for hours, until the whole debacle finally ended in a traumatic, complicated delivery of a baby whose size was so out of proportion with mine that the doctor had said, “I can’t believe he was in there.”  My mum knew if we hadn’t been in a modern hospital that night, it would have been the night that I died.

Shingles.

My son’s birth was not what my mother had expected – and that was something I hadn’t expected.

Birthing a child is different for everyone, even closely related people like mothers and daughters.  And every time I had a new baby, his delivery was different from the other ones I’d weathered.  I don’t know why.  Maybe it had something to do with my age, the babies’ sizes, the tides, the placement of the pins in some Voo Doo doll – I don’t know.

Apart from physical differences, childbirth medical interventions also vary based on where we are, who attends us, and our personal choices.  My boys were delivered by four different doctors plus a boomtown nurse left alone with me while a fifth doctor was on lunch.  Even though I asked, none of my deliveries worked out so I could have much pharmaceutical pain relief.  Every time my children were born, I was right there for all of it – mind, body, and soul.  That’s certainly not the case for every mother.

Our bodies are different.  Our surroundings are different.  Our babies are different.  In addition to concrete factors like these there are innumerable emotional, social, cultural and other issues colouring our childbirths – enough factors to keep the experience infinitely variable.

I think the case of shingles is actually a good example of how social and psychological factors exacerbate suffering.  My mum taught me this too.  Only for her, it wasn’t shingles.  When I was an elementary school kid, she was hospitalized for kidney stones.  She said it hurt a lot, like having a baby, only there was nothing to hope for at the end of it.  There was no mounting sense of love to convince her that the pain was meaningful and worthwhile.  In light of that, I’m sure she, like Facebook-Shingles-Man’s “lady friend,” would have said she’d rather give birth than pass her stones.  Birth is hard but, unlike disease, it isn’t a bad thing.  Heck, I’ve been mired in arguments so painful I would have rather given birth than listened to another word of them.  But that doesn’t mean the experiences of birth and disease, or birth and a nasty argument, are equivalent.  What it does reveal is that the meaning of suffering affects our perceptions of it.

And there’s far more to withstand in childbirth than just pain.  There’s also fear and panic.  Birth is scary.  For some of us, the fear grows worse every time.  I was nervous when I was admitted to the hospital the morning of my first labour.  But by the time I arrived in an ambulance for my fifth labour, I was terrified – phobic and crazed.  No one in the comedy sketch that started me on this tirade had any comic device for transferring the fear of childbirth from the mother to the father.  Maybe even they know there’s nothing funny about that.

Yes, I get punchy when I hear people talking about birth as if it’s some kind of syndrome – a universal experience we all live through in exactly the same way.  I get especially punchy when that person is a man out to appropriate the most powerful and sublime of female powers for himself by equating it with a disease he’s suffered.  Clearly, what Facebook-Shingles-Man said was sexist – disgustingly so.

And then it’s more than sexist.  It would have been offensive even if it hadn’t been a man who’d said it.  What arises from the bad assumption that birth is the same for everyone is the worse assumption that we’re qualified to evaluate and pass judgment on each other’s reactions to childbirth – or anything else we suffer.  Looking at somebody’s suffering and joking about it or daring them to “bring it on” is never a decent thing to do.  It’s a perversion of empathy.  It’s a mistake my mum – someone wise and acquainted with the breadth of human experience called motherhood – taught me never to commit.

Misogynizing Modesty and the Male Brain

Jessica Rey is also a Power Ranger

Here it is: my first blog-post to begin with a disclaimer.  I love my friends.  It doesn’t matter if I haven’t seen them in years and I’m mostly just a part of their facebook landscapes.  I find them smart and good and kind.  In my horribly flawed way, I want to reflect the same qualities back at them.  And with that, I hope what I write below will, as my wise friend Debbie says, “be taken in the spirit in which it was intended.”  I don’t mean any harm. I don’t think any less of anyone. I’d just like to share a different perspective.

Now I’ll blurt it out: I can’t take much more of this recent, popular video clip.

It’s a speech given by Jessica Rey (yes, the actress who plays the White Power Ranger on the kids’ TV show).  She heads a company selling swimsuits to women who want a bit more fabric in their swimwear than most mainstream clothing manufacturers offer.  It’s not the sales pitch in her speech that bothers me.  And I take no issue with Rey’s personal desire to dress modestly or her efforts to make modest clothing more available to consumers.  For many reasons, I also prefer clothes that cover my torso and I know how limited my options are when it comes to shopping for clothes, especially swimsuits.  I’ll even take it a step further and say I believe we’d all enjoy a healthier, happier, more egalitarian world if we’d reserve some of our loveliness for home use only.  Rey and I and all my friends who re-posted this video clip are on the same team.  Go Go Modesty Rangers!

But I still do not like this speech.  Rey does manage to make some good points.  However, she spends much of her time on stage mentioning (I won’t say “citing” because no attempts at citation except dropping the name of an Ivy League university are ever made) conclusions she’s derived from studies done on men’s neurological reactions to viewing images of women in scanty clothing.  She says researchers found that viewing these images lit up the same areas of the male brain used when looking at objects like tools.  The men appear to be relating to the women as objects rather than connecting with them as human beings.

Let’s set aside controversies over these kinds of studies and take the research and Rey’s analysis at face value.  It looks like men have a problem. Men dehumanize women when prompted by immodest clothing.  The suggestion that women and girls could help men deal with this problem is a good suggestion.  After all, there’s not really any such thing as a male problem or a female problem.  Every problem is a HUMAN problem.  And in light of that, the solution to the human problem of men objectifying women cannot be simply to keep women’s bodies covered.  It must also be to change the way men think about us.  Women can’t fix this for men.  We can help.  But men need to work at it too instead of denying their part in favour of blaming us.

Another thing that bothers me about arguments like Rey’s is the implication that if something can be registered on a brain scan, then we’re dealing with a “natural,” inescapable fact of life and we’re all powerless to change it.  We’re stuck with it.  We’re helpless and the best we can do is to lower our expectations of each other.  It astonishes me, over and over again, how often these “natural” neurological effects appear to excuse bad male behaviours.  It’s plain old neurosexism.

In reality, the physical and electrical landscapes of our brains can change and develop over our lifespans in response to the behaviours in which we choose – choo-choo-choose – to indulge.  In other words, it’s impossible to tell if men’s brains react to women in scanty clothing as objects because men are born that way or if they have this reaction because, over time, men have trained their brains to file us in the same mental drawer as screwdrivers.  Maybe they’ve permitted this to happen.  They may have even nurtured it into being.  The mere fact that a phenomenon is visible in a scan doesn’t tell us nearly as much about its source as some of us would like to believe.

Immodest clothing may be muttered as an excuse for disrespecting or even assaulting women.  But I challenge anyone to name a time in history when men have not objectified women and reduced them to sexual props.  It doesn’t matter what the clothing customs of the day were, every culture has struggled to keep women safe from abuse and assault.  It’s more evidence that what makes objectification such an enduring problem aren’t the clothes women choose but the terrible choices made by the men around them.  In our imperfect world, clothing may be a factor but it is not a cause.  Male will is the cause.

I’m currently raising a family of boys.  I don’t have a daughter to take swimsuit shopping.  However, I do have sons who need to be schooled in how to see women and girls.  They live in a home where their baby brothers were breastfed, demonstrating the true purpose of breasts.  They need to be taught about equality and their personal responsibility to meet every other human with respect.  They need to be decisively corrected when they do or say something sexist. They need a loving but socially subordinate relationship with a woman to whom they can have no sexual connection at all — that’s me.

Any efforts women make to dress modestly are helpful as I try to teach my kids to see women as more than sexual objects.  But it’s all secondary to the real solution.  The change needed to correct problems like the ones Rey talks about must happen at the source of the issue: in the socially moulded minds of boys and men.

Maybe Jessica Rey meant to say all of this but got distracted promoting her business and ran out of time.  I sure hope so.  Here’s what I want instead of speeches like hers:  I WANT US TO STOP TALKING ABOUT MODESTY ONLY IN TERMS OF MALE SEXUAL RESPONSE.

Yes, this includes slogans like “Modest is Hottest!” whether it’s used as a cheeky catchphrase or as the trade-name of merchants admonishing us to “show you are hot, but don’t show a lot!”  As I understand it, using the adjective “hot” to describe a person’s physical appearance originally referred to specific physiological responses including raised heart-rate and increased blood-flow in another person.  Increased blood-flow – there’s an eight-letter “e” word for that and it’s not always a good thing to elicit in someone else.  It seems even the backlash against scanty women’s clothing hasn’t extricated itself from a fixation with male arousal.  Whether it’s done by showing skin or not, emphasizing how important it is for women to be “hot” is part of the problem.

Modesty has benefits other than “hotness” and these are the ones we ought to be teaching girls.  We can still talk about male responses but we ought to present them as male problems, not the results of shortcomings of women.  We can present modest dressing as something generous that helps men improve themselves instead of making it into a responsibility we bear alone.  Modesty is a good choice because it can be a sign of a woman’s confidence in her mind, strength, and character.  It throws down the crutch of physical allurement and meets men on their own terms.  It can be a sign of the respect we feel for ourselves and demand from others.  It’s comfortable.  And it makes the sight of the parts we keep hidden more scarce and, thereby, more valuable and meaningful when we do choose to expose them.  Modesty preserves our social power including – but not only – our sexual power.