Thursday, 19 March 2015

Mummy, am I beautiful?

Recently I watched my two girls play dress up together, which is not an uncommon sight in our house.  I looked on with amusement and pleasure as my six year old teetered about the house in a long abandoned (pre-motherhood) pair of five inch heels, while my ten year old fashioned herself a dress out of a satin nightie.  They had both helped themselves to a tube of Rimmel in “shocker” and the scarlet grease was smeared around both their mouths.
Playing at being grown-up, at being women. Comic and colourful caricatures of what they will one day become.

For my eldest at least, with puberty just around the corner, the metamorphosis from spindly limbed, unpolished and pink cheeked child into that most exotic of creatures; that of woman, is fast on its way. Her induction is likely to be a painful affair, involving shaving, waxing, plucking, filing, moisturising, exfoliating, squeezing, brushing, curling, straightening, soaking, steaming, sweating and starving. This is of course without even mentioning cramps, underwire and P.M.T; some of the more obvious discomforts of womanhood.

  I describe a particular experience of course; and I should know, because it was my own and my mothers before me.  I don't think my experience is an uncommon one. Indeed, visit any Boots store on any street corner in Britain and you'll see a dizzying array of potions, paints, implements, chemicals and creams, all purporting to do that one thing that is so terribly important if you're a woman: Achieving real and lasting beauty.

For women it is an ambition, nay, a social imperative to be beautiful. It is something to aspire to, to yearn for and to set huge store by, whilst growing up and learning the ways of womanhood. I wonder, how have I, as their mother, contributed to my daughters’ need to be beautiful?

It's because inside me there is a persistent and desperate need to be beautiful too. And its roots are strong and very, very deep.

I was born with a cleft lip, colloquially known as a 'Hare lip,' but I've always detested the pejorative feel to that term and so have never referred to it as that.  Put simply, I was born with a split down one side of my mouth; my upper lip being most affected as well as my nose.  I've had numerous procedures to correct this condition, all of them painful, the last one at age twenty-six, which was a particular joy. The surgeons have done an amazing job; I look what one might call "normal," which pleases me no end but was never actually my goal growing up.

I didn't want to look normal.

I wanted to be beautiful.

Surely this is a pointless and unattainable ambition, for how can one be truly beautiful with a scar down the middle of one's mouth? How can a woman be beautiful with such an imperfection, when we're trained to view beauty as the absence of imperfection and flaws?
If I am ever described as beautiful I always feel that "despite the scar" is being silently uttered, for I could never be considered beautiful because of it.

Ok, pity party over, because actually I think that at times my mother has suffered because of my defect (quirk of birth, condition...whatever) far more than me; after all, I have no memory of the trauma of the first corrective surgeries; nor of the isolation she must have felt when I was born and was less than perfect, and people avoided her out of embarrassment or worse still, disgust. She once
commented that a friend's birth to a baby with a hole in the heart elicited open sympathy, (as you'd expect) whereas my birth, which involved a facial deformity, engendered a less compassionate response. People were undoubtedly uncomfortable about it. Living on a terraced street at the time, within a close-knit community, she remembers watching people walk past with gifts for her friend's baby, whilst never once knocking on to say congratulations to her. She has memories of being out with me in the pram, and having people come over to look and gush over the "new baby" and seeing their faces freeze with horror when they saw me.  She can talk of being in the doctors' surgery amongst a room full of whispering mothers and having the receptionist ask if she'd be "more comfortable in a side room."

I'd like to think we're more enlightened now; more understanding and compassionate. I'd really like to think that. My poor mother's experiences of having a child with a facial deformity in 1979 were anything but. This heavily influenced her attitude towards me, in particular her insistence while I was growing up that I was beautiful, for aren't all little girls beautiful? She has always rushed to reassure me that this is absolutely the case. With every new operation, each new procedure, it inched me a little bit closer to a “normal” face and a touch closer to achieving true beauty.

“Does it look better mummy?”
“Yes, you look beautiful!”
“Is my nose less crooked now?”
“It's lovely!” 
“Are my teeth straighter?”
“Yes, they look great!”
“Is my lip still wonky?”
“No. You are beautiful.”

My mother’s motto when I was growing up, whether she was dragging a brush through my waist
length hair, or pulling it into tight rollers to achieve a true late eighties poodlesque perm, and I was complaining and whining as only a ten year old can, was always, “You have to suffer to be beautiful.”

Looking back, I can honestly say that I have.  We have both suffered for me to be beautiful.

My mum is a warrior of a mother; she would do all in her power for me to be happy, and isn't happiness for women and girls utterly bound together with the notion of being beautiful? We’re taught this from the cradle, through a frothy, frilly preponderance of pink and prettiness.  Girls are beautiful. End of.

The consequences of not matching up to this standard are well known, and well documented. Anorexia and bulimia, appallingly low self-esteem, comfort eating, depression, crippling anxiety, general misery and unhappiness.  I look at my girls and I know I would do anything to spare them from any of these things, of course I would. Any mother would.

Are my girls beautiful? Yes. They are my children; I gave birth to them forty-eight hours apiece in screaming agony, and have marvelled and delighted in every inch of their peachy soft, delicate little bodies ever since.  They are wholly, unutterably beautiful to me, which does of course make me wonder then, would it matter to me at all if anyone else never thought the same thing. In other words, does their value come from how the world perceives their beauty, or from how they themselves perceive it?

I know some incredibly attractive people.  I know some people who are unusual and unconventional looking, and I know some people who would be considered unattractive, and/or possibly ugly – I hate that word! Here's the interesting thing though: If I asked each of these people to rate their “beauty” or to tell me how happy they were with their physical appearance, the answers might surprise me.  People who the world views as beautiful don't always agree with the world, and the more I hear of people who are dissatisfied with their appearance, the more I'm convinced that seeking beauty as a goal in life is totally pointless.  Even if you did manage to eat the right diet, do the right exercise, wear the right clothes, have the right hair, wear the right make-up, be the right age, etc, etc, life and the passage of time have a way of trying to lay you low.

You're going to get older. You're going to get ill from time to time. You might have a baby.  You might have a disfiguring accident.  Life isn't full of many certainties but I know this for sure; nobody is beautiful forever.

Why then do we invest so much time and effort on pinning our happiness to something so fleeting? Something so hard to define anyway? Something which is actually far more subjective than we give it credit for?

No answers on a postcard please because this was, of course, a rhetorical question. I'm well aware of why women need to be beautiful (*cough* patriarchy) but that's a blog post all of its own.

I don't want to push the notion of beauty at my daughters. I want this to be the last word they use to describe themselves.  They are smart.  They are funny.  They are kind and imaginative and spirited and adventurous and thoughtful and loyal and fierce and a thousand other things that they've not even learned to be yet. I will not limit their potential by pinning their future happiness on something as nebulous as beauty, for as soon as you set this as your goal what you're actually striving for is the approval and validation of others. Self worth has to depend on more than what we see in the mirror, but unfortunately it so seldom does.

In my efforts to be more God centred, it is to Him I look when seeking approval and affirmation. Why do I not look to myself? Well, I've proved time and time again that I am no judge of my own behaviour, or of my own esteem; I regularly find myself wanting or paradoxically, I rate my own efforts too highly.  My opinion of me can't be trusted.

How then does God see me? How does He see my daughters?

Psalm 139, verse 14, tells us:

You are fearfully and wonderfully made.

Or, in the NLT version:

Wonderfully complex.

When my daughter’s ask me that dreaded question: Do I look beautiful Mummy? I will think twice before enthusiastically answering with a resounding yes. Instead, I will answer with this:

Darling, you are fearfully and wonderfully made. You are too complex to be merely beautiful. You are unique and you are eternally precious. You are loved. And despite what this world will try to tell you, you are enough.
 Are you beautiful?
You are so much more than that.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

"I'm not sexist, but..." - Some questions for the Men

So, you're not sexist right? Come sit beside me, and we’ll chat for a while. I've got a few questions to ask you. You might not like some of the questions. You probably won't like the answers. I wonder if you'll recognise yourself at all? Ok, let’s go:

 If a woman is strong, opinionated and confident, do you think of her as bossy and argumentative? Would you ever describe a man as such? How easy do you find it to take orders from a woman? Has this even ever happened? How do you feel about women in leadership? Do you think of them as being equal to men in leadership roles or do you consider them outside the norm and unorthodox?
Do you expect your voice to be heard before anyone else's? Do you expect your views to be taken more seriously than other people's? Do you listen seriously and thoughtfully when people criticise you? Do you ever take their comments on board or do you dismiss them out of hand? Consider how your reaction might be different depending on who is saying it, for example, do you value the opinions of men more than women?If you work in a leadership role, is it possible this tendency to be heard more has overlapped into your personal relationships?

Do you ever apologise? Genuinely and sincerely? Do you find this easy? Do you think it's necessary? Have you ever considered the fact that women apologise  continuously, due to the socialisation that demands girls be polite and “nice.” We apologise for standing in someone's way, for sitting down on a bus, for not having our wretched clubcard with us at the checkout, for our baby screaming, for not being in when someone calls, for not replying straight away to a text message, for not having done the vacuuming, for being ill, for not having done our hair that day, etc, etc, sorry, sorry, sorry. Do you??

Look at your relationships with your kids. If you have sons and daughters, do you treat them the same? Do you give your daughter as much freedom as you give your son? Do you have the same expectations for both? Do you allow your son to hit and kick and call it “play fighting?” Do you accept the same behaviour from your daughter? Have you ever excused your son’s behaviour by saying, “that's boys for you?” And have you ever considered how this attitude might be a self-fulfilling prophecy? Have you ever thought about how imposing or restricting your son to a traditional model of “boyhood” which precludes dressing up, dancing, role play with dolls etc, and overemphasises rough, physical play might be damaging? Do you even believe that boys have masculinity foisted upon them or do you think it's innate? If you believe it's innate, what would your reaction be to a child who didn't conform to your ideas of gender? And do you realise that by pushing masculinity as something for your son to aspire to, you're actually guilty of misogyny, since what you actually want is for him to be anything other than feminine? And are you aware that concepts of masculinity and femininity are socially constructed codswallop anyhow? No?

Do you find yourself describing women primarily by their physical characteristics, for example, the blonde, the pretty one, the fat one? Do you automatically value a woman more, in the first instance at least, if she's attractive, young and slim? Are you conversely more likely to dismiss a woman if she's old, fat and unattractive? Do you have a model in your head of how women ought to dress? Do you think that women should have to shave their legs and under their arms? Are you disgusted by women who don't? Are you derisory about such women? If so, have you considered how you are colluding with patriarchal norms?

Do you use pornography? If so, have you considered how this might be damaging to women and girls? Have you thought about the links between pornography and violence towards women? Do you think about the women who are involved in pornography, or do you ignore their personhood while you consume images of them? Do you think that the objectification of women is a bad thing? Can you see how this can't be contained just within the porn industry; that it inevitably spills over into everyday life and attitudes? Are the women you look at real women to you, with families who love them, with real identities, thoughts, hopes, dreams…feelings? Do you dismiss this by telling yourself that they've chosen to do it, so that makes it acceptable? Have you ever considered that choices made within a system of patriarchy, aren't really choices at all?

Do you do your share of the housework? Shopping? Cooking? Do you expect a pat on the back for cooking for your partner every once in a while, or putting a load of washing on? If you've got guests over, do you make the tea or does your partner? Do you claim to be inept at certain tasks, such as cooking dinner or baking, operating the Hoover or iron, sorting laundry into brights, whites and darks, even making a cup of tea, yet claim absolute superiority over driving the car, booking holidays, controlling the finances, general knowledge…most other things that aren't housework or childcare?

If you've got children, are they mainly your partner’s responsibility? Who puts them to bed at night? Who gives them their bath? Who gets up with baby in the night? Do you change your fair share of nappies? Again, do you expect your partner to be grateful if you do these things? Do you feel as if it's inherently her job and you're helping her out? Who liaises with the teachers at your kid’s school? Who washes the P.E kits? Who makes sure the school shoes and uniforms fit and who goes to buy new ones? Who makes the packed lunches? And helps with the homework?

How do you spend your spare time? Do you fit this around the family, or is your time your own? Is watching the football/going to the gym/playing on the Xbox/going to the pub, sacrosanct? And the family must fit around it? Does your partner enjoy the same freedom? Has your career been disrupted or put on hold so that you can have a family? Or does your career come first, and not necessarily for financial reasons? If there are compromises to be made in this area, who makes them; your partner or you?

Do you believe that the fact that women have a womb makes our brains significantly different to men's? Do you think that our ability to create life and nurture it makes us less able to do other things? Have you not considered that our ability to do something that men can't, actually gives us additional skills? Why has this one biological fact been used as an excuse to suppress women rather than celebrate us for the one thing we are capable of doing which men can not? Mentally, do you automatically designate certain tasks as being something that women are naturally good at? Such as caring for small children and the elderly? Have you ever considered why this might be? Have you never noticed how all the jobs involving care tend to be poorly paid, have long hours and inevitably, overwhelmingly are done by women? Do you think this is a coincidence?

Let's take a look at the books on your bookcase. How many were written by women? Would you be happy to read something written by a woman, particularly if it's characterised as “chick lit?” Dig deep now; do you inherently assume that men's literature (note: literature, not bloke lit or some other equally derisory term) is more serious and intelligent? Have you not noticed how women's writing is denigrated by downgrading it with a cheap and fluffy label?
Do you enjoy women's comedy? Consider women to be as funny as men? Ever wondered why comedy panel shows are overwhelmingly filled by men? Have you even noticed there is a male-bias in certain sectors? What about prime time entertainment shows? Have you noticed how often they are presented by young women coupled with an older man? Can you think of an equivalent example where the opposite is the case; a young man paired with an older woman? In fact, have you even noticed the complete dearth of women from the television once they reach a certain age, and yet men’s careers continue to flourish? How the currency of men increases the older they get, but women's value diminishes?

Do you acknowledge that the reason for all these things is because we live in a patriarchy? A world ruled overwhelmingly by men, for men, servicing their needs, wants and desires. A world where men have the power and women are largely excluded. A world where men dominate politics, most leadership roles, exercise overwhelming moral authority through our churches, schools, criminal justice system and the media, and have control over the majority of property and wealth. Do you see how this obviously filters down into our day to day relationships with one another? Our daily interactions? Our familial relationships and how we connect and engage with one another?

Perhaps you don't agree. Perhaps you don't think we live in a patriarchy. Maybe you even want to challenge the very notion of the word. But please, have a moment of inner honesty and ask yourself if the reason you don't want to help overthrow the patriarchal system (denying its existence amounts to the same thing) is because you, as a man, benefit enormously from keeping things just as they are? Do you agree that women are oppressed? And if so, do you see how it's possible to collude with that oppression, in ways you might not even have been aware of?

Are you a sexist?

Yes. You sure as Hell are.

Ps: #NotallMen ; )