Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Beauty Myth is alive and well

My almost-four-year-old daughter often tells me she wishes she had "flat hair". What she means is she wishes her curly hair was straight. Some might put it down to the early adoption of a lament from women throughout the ages - wanting the opposite of what we have. But it's more than that. For a while I was concerned that it was some kind of self-loathing at the ripe old age of three. But it's not that. For my daughter, I realised the reason she was keen on "flat hair" was because she was bothered by the number of comments her curly hair attracts. She told me she doesn't like people talking about her hair all the time. And especially doesn't like being called "cute", which she associates with babies. And she is not a baby, she is a three-year-old girl. 

Maya gets attention pretty much wherever we go. Most outings include one or two or sometimes several instances of well-meaning friends or passers-by telling her how cute, beautiful, gorgeous she is, specifically in relation to her hair, eyes, eyelashes, skin. She's over it. My son, who's six, used to get similar comments up until around the age of 4, but they were never as frequent. Now that he's a bit older and his hair is not as curly and not as blonde, he escapes the running commentary. My fear for my daughter is that she will never escape it. Well, maybe when she's about 40 it will start to drop off. At which point hopefully she will feel liberated rather than disappointed that her social currency is waning.

So what's the big deal? I know people are well-intentioned, why can't she (we) just take a compliment and get on with life? Is my 3-year-old ungrateful or just shy? Or is it something else? I don't blame her for being uncomfortable with having her looks scrutinised. While I can see it's in some ways a natural inclination to comment on something that is pleasing to the eye - aesthetic beauty is and always will be important to humans - I also think there's something else at play. Girls are socialised to be as beautiful as they can be - and to bask in the glory of said beauty. Beauty is the ultimate aim and the ultimate prize.

I understand the urge to praise beauty aloud - I certainly feel it in relation to my daughter, and my son for that matter. They are so beautiful to me. I do occasionally indulge my urge to tell my children (and other people's children!)  how amazing they look, but most of the time I bite my tongue, or I try to re-frame it with emphasis on how clever they are or how hard they tried, because it's not all there is, and it will fade as other qualities go from strength to strength. 

Saturday, May 19, 2012

A different perspective

Last weekend I took the train to Sydney with my children to meet up with my husband who was staying in a hotel in the city for business. I decided to take the train to save money, and hopefully arrive less stressed. Besides saving petrol costs we would be pocketing the $40 a day that the hotel charges for car parking, and avoid the Friday night traffic snarl on the  Harbour Bridge . At the last minute I remembered the large pram travel bag that I had sold on eBay and agreed to deliver to Sydney for the buyer to pick up.  Oh well, the hotel was only a few blocks from the train station so we could catch a cab there. (I’m a thinker).
So as it happened I arrived at Central with two small children, a medium-sized suitcase, a handbag, an extra bag with train-entertainment-related paraphernalia, and a large pram travel case (minus the pram). We three waddled over to the taxi rank and the driver helped us load our things and ourselves into his cab. Off we set; after two and a half hours on the train plus a full day of school and preschool, the children were tired and hungry, but also interested in this novel way of travel.
As soon as we got out of the train station car park, we saw that the traffic was bumper to bumper. The taxi driver sighed. I remained calm. Surely it was worse than it looked. But no. Ten minutes later we had moved what seemed like only a few metres and had no way of getting out. The meter ticked over. I felt myself tense up. At this rate the cab fare would be a fortune and completely negate the money saved on parking. 

The taxi driver apologised for the traffic and said he would try a detour. It turned out to be just as bad, and he apologised again. I told him there was no need to apologise - he was hardly in control of the traffic. While we sat in traffic, we started to chat. I told him I'd come down on the train from Newcastle. He said he'd been there with his kids on the cheap Sunday family fare. I asked whether his kids, who he told me were 9 and 11, had enjoyed it. He said "They like any chance we get to spend time together as a family. I work 70 to 80 hours a week and my wife works too." He said it in a very matter-of-fact manner but his words shocked me.  He told me he was lucky he had bought a house 15 years ago because these days he would not have a chance. He said his wife worked as a cashier at Aldi. He had come from India 20 years ago and saved every cent to put a deposit down on his home. Since then he's been working twice the normal number of hours in a working week, driving cabs to pay his mortgage. 

So often we hear about stressed families with parents in high-pressure jobs, working to pay for family holidays, extracurricular activities, school fees. We read sage advice about how these families just need to "slow down", to find a "work/life balance", to "choose to live with less." I wonder how this advice would apply to my friend the taxi driver.I also thought back to my own childhood - my mother raised three children on her own whilst working as a nurse, and "choosing to live with less" was not an option for us.  The taxi driver told me business was not very good these days, but he had no choice as he was not qualified to do anything else. He proudly told me the names of his children and the schools they attended. He complimented me on my daughter's name, which is popular in India.  The trip of a few blocks took 45 minutes. When I got out of the cab with my kids, he reluctantly told me the fare had come to $40 and apologised again for the bad traffic. I was more than happy to pay the fare, aware that it would have otherwise only gone to a faceless corporation who did nothing to earn it other than own the building where I had parked my car.  When I told my husband that the cab fare was $40, he remarked "so it wasn't really worth it to catch the train then." I reassured him that yes, it had been worth it. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

Why Are Men Hell Bent on Destroying Each Other?*

Why do men always have to knock each other down? Frankly, I'm sick of it. It's the reason they don't get ahead in the world - they're too busy having a go at each other.

Men find it difficult to succeed in the workplace, because they are forever taking credit for work that's not theirs, making people redundant, overlooking others for promotions, and all manner of unkind behaviour.

They are aggressive, taking their frustrations out on other men with their fists, and if they're not physically fighting then they're backstabbing their mates by sleeping with their partners. They don't call their mates on their birthdays, they don't organise get-togethers, and the competition on the sporting field is not friendly. Is it any wonder they struggle? Men are their own worst enemies.

In the gym, if a guy sees another guy fitter than him he will suck in his gut and think bad thoughts about his rival. He will never congratulate another guy on a job well done. He will leave a bro for dead if he sees a woman they both like in a nightclub. They mock each other all the time, making jokes at other guys' expense. Case in point: any bucks night -  ritual humiliation at its best. Why are men so hell bent on destroying each other?

Politics, that male-dominated sphere, is full of backstabbers, liars and egomaniacs. Men spend the first third of their lives competing in the playground only to tear each other down in the public arena too.

Sure, men are occasionally able to enjoy a beer together or even lend a supportive ear, but pubs and football fields should come with a warning that not every one plays nicely.

Do women brawl with each other after too much to drink? No. Do women call each other charming names like "pussy-whipped" when their friends are willing to compromise with their partners? No. Do women fart in each other's general direction and then laugh? No.

The macho posturing, the aggressive threats, the dick-swinging competitions, the merciless mocking, the disloyalty - dudes, the dogfighting has got to stop. You've got to band together, or you've only got yourselves to blame for your problems.

* In case you didn't pick it up, the above is a satire based on this post that trots out the old chestnut that women are our own worst enemies. I'd love to see a considered piece on internalised misogyny and how when we blame an entire gender for things that both genders do and are responsible for, we are reinforcing that misogyny. Instead, I wrote this piece.