Quelque chose

Quelque chose= something.

Some things:

Things have been fairly quiet for me over the last few weeks. We’ve been having a run of drizzly, overcast days lately. I’m not a fan of rainy weather. It makes me feel like sleeping, not working or being productive.  For days like this week, I have a set of go-to techniques: browsing the blog Paris Breakfasts for pretty pictures, listening to an album of Cole Porter songs, drinking hot cocoa. My favorite Cole Porter song might be “Looking at You.” Here’s Alan Alda singing it in Everyone Says I Love You. 

My mother actually met Alda once, when he was in town years ago filming a movie, and he needed someone to flush out his ear! She was working at a doctor’s office then, so they sent her and another nurse over to the local studio. She says he was absolutely charming and couldn’t have been nicer.  She has a cocktail napkin he signed with, “Thank you from the bottom of my ear.” How sweet is that?

I’ve been doing some tutoring work and awhile ago, I wrote a little  eguide to owning Chihuahuas that came out this week. It’s a small project, designed for new dog owners, not a big exploration of the breed or anything. One of these days, I’d love to write a history of dogs in art. I’m a nerd like that, I know. I also have a few articles being edited over at the Daily Muse and the first one is scheduled to run this week. I interviewed Susan Cain, the woman who wrote Quiet and gave this lovely TED talk:

Susan Cain is the nicest interview subject since Alan Alda. I was a probably too gushy–my childhood was a lot like she describes her own in the TED talk. I was always getting in trouble for secretly reading during math class!

Interview with Stephen Hinshaw, author of The Triple Bind

As my readers know, I was very impressed with Stephen Hinshaw’s book, The Triple Bind, which describes the serious pressures on young women today. He characterizes these pressures as falling into three categories:

1. The pressure to be a straight-A student and/or excellent athlete who gets into a good college and goes on to a successful career, embodying what Hinshaw describes as “traditionally male” skills of competitiveness and career ambition.

2. The pressure to be nurturing (as a caretaker of siblings, friends, or family members) and romantically nurturing, in pursuit of relationships, what he refers to as “traditionally feminine values.”

3. The pressure to be sexually attractive to an extreme degree, what Dr. Hinshaw refers to as “impossibly perfect,”  as embodied by women and teens on film, television, and in popular culture. In today’s culture “sexual self-objectification is continually presented as the epitome of self-confidence, empowerment, and individuality,” so that women are told they’ll feel better about themselves if they buy that lipstick or fit into a certain dress size. His chapter “Bratz Dolls and Pussycat Dolls” examines reality shows and children’s toys to discuss the sexual objectification of women in mass media.

These mixed messages result in girls being asked to “perform like a man but feel like a woman…and then encouraged to believe it’s their own fault if they can’t do both,” while being held to an extreme standard of physical beauty. As a result, many of the young women he interviewed for The Triple Bind feel as though they are trapped in impossible situations, torn between fulfilling family obligations, doing well in school or at work, and being in successful relationships.

In one heartbreaking case, he describes a teen trying to balance her AP classes and her boyfriend’s desire to socialize. When her boyfriend subsequently broke up with her because she was too occupied by her courses, the young woman struggled with depression, declining grades, and her own sense that her efforts to please everyone  had been in vain. Similarly, many young women reported they have difficulty balancing all areas of their lives. One sixteen-year-old described her ‘greatest concern’ this way:

“I think the biggest thing is, like, time. How you’re gonna do everything–like if you have those expectations, how are you going to fit in that time, if you only have twenty-four hours in the day, and have to sleep eight of those or nine or however many?” 

Reading his work, I felt the issues raised by The Triple Bind could apply to women of all ages. I contacted Dr. Hinshaw, who is a professor at UC-Berkeley, and he graciously agreed to respond to my questions. His answers are in bold, below.

1. I was struck by your chapter on objectification (“Bratz Dolls and Pussycat Dolls”) and how you describe the ‘sexualization as empowerment’ narrative as the most difficult of the binds to escape. I would argue that this narrative is increasingly difficult for women of all ages to avoid (I see it in my twenty-something peers and in media portrayals of older women, too–what’s a ‘cougar’ but a Pussycat Doll of a certain age?), but do you have any suggestions or strategies for women who want to resist this objectification?

This would be the topic of a new book, entirely. A few thoughts: teach girls (and boys, too, of course) critical thinking–e.g., differentiating ads from facts, understanding the un-reality of the looks of many models, etc.  How to empower a new generation to realize that identity and meaning aren’t tied in explicitly with how you ‘look’?  This will take ‘real’ parenting strategies, active defiance of media images, and a culture in which ‘real’ narratives come to replace the fake [and] looks-only ideals that still permeate our society.

2. What about educating young men and the parents of young boys, about the dangers of by what Peggy Orenstein calls ‘age-compression/sexualization’ of little girls? As a professor and the father of boys, do you have any insights?

The messages that girls hear [and] see are the same ones that boys experience, too.  If boys can learn to handle the almost-impossible adjustments foisted upon them by adolescence and our culture (just as girls need to learn to handle such, too), we might have more of a reality base for communication across the gender divide, which would be a clear first step.

3. Much of your research and interview work seems to indicate that we live in a culture of the gaze (possibly an evolving form of what art history calls the male gaze?) that is obsessed with how women and young girls present themselves–looking effortlessly athletic, sexy, and brainy seems to have replaced actual exertion on behalf of a goal. Do you think that is an accurate characterization?

Gaze–and capturing quick impressions of people–is not just a current scenario, but almost timeless, i think, across our species’ history.  Still, in the crowded and media-saturated world in which we now live, quick gazes (and the impressions they create) may land us on a kind of island of ‘stability’ or ‘being sure’ in a world pervaded by such oversaturation.  But this is a false security, because there is much to learn about people’s ideals/intentions/plans far underneath initial impressions.

4. To elaborate on question 3: Rather than seeing female protagonists struggle, for example, we are usually presented with film montages that elide or compress hard work and struggle into a few moments with a catchy tune (I’m thinking of Reese Witherspoon’s ‘LSAT studying’ montage in the film “Legally Blonde” here). Likewise, our freshmen and sophomore composition courses here often ask students to examine advertisements, and many of my students have stressed that advertisements for/with women are usually set in a studio, often show passive and isolated female models meant to be looked at, etc. By comparison, men’s ads are usually more active–they are shown in groups, outside, or actively pursuing something. Is there anything in the psychological literature that discusses how or why this would be the case?

Not that I’m immediately aware of, but it raises the perennial question of whether media reflect or shape current cultural patterns.  Probably both, of course, but such images promote a female-passive self-view.  One alternative is increased coverage of women’s sports, even team sports–very positive at one level, unless one has to be a ‘hot’ athlete in such sports in order to ‘matter’  (e.g., Hope Solo, recently).       

Thanks again to Dr. Hinshaw for his time & attention. –HB

“For God’s Sake, Woman, Sort Yourself Out!”

It’s been a busy week. I have been working on some articles planned to run at The Daily Muse–an interview with the delightful Susan Cain about introverts in the workplace and another on what yoga can teach you about career success. I interviewed Mandy Ingber and Kathryn Budig via email for the yoga piece, which was really exciting. I’ll keep you posted!

In the meantime, Upworthy.com featured this clip from the UK comedy show, “That Mitchell and Webb Look.” It’s The Triple Bind in sketch form:

Body image & “The Triple Bind”

I have a new essay about going braless up at the body image website Adios Barbie. I confess: it is  slightly anxiety-inducing to talk about your body on the Internet. I’m taking deep breaths right now. Still, I wrote the essay because I think Susan Bordo’s work in Unbearable Weight is important and deserves to be grounded in lived experience and shared with others.

Also on my radar this week is psychologist Stephen Hinshaw’s The Triple Bind: Saving Our Teenage Girls from Today’s Pressures. Hinshaw argues that young women today are trapped in a set of competing pressures that are impossible to negotiate. Compellingly, he describes those binds: “Today’s girl know she’s supposed to fulfill all the ‘traditional’ girl expectations–look pretty, be nice, get a boyfriend–while excelling at the “girl skills” of empathy, cooperation, and relationship building” but  a “successful girl must also master [traditional] boy skills of assertion”  by getting straight-As, excelling in sports, and aiming for a top-flight career, all the while being “effortlessly” sexy and thin. Here’s a FORA talk he gave surrounding the book’s publication.

For anyone interested in these issues, I highly recommend The Triple Bind. I have to give more thought to Hinshaw’s work and what potential strategies young women can use to escape all these pressures. I suspect yoga may offer some alternatives ways of thinking about womanhood, body image, and competition, but I’m still thinking.


New Micro-Essay Up at Treehouse: “Forced Humanity”

I have a new short essay up at Treehouse Magazine called “Forced Humanity.”  They’re a really interesting online magazine that focuses on a thousand-words or less format for fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. For any writers out there, I would encourage you to submit short pieces to them. The editing team is great to work with! Another regular feature is their “5 Things You Should Read About _____,” which inspired my last blog post on yoga books. Keep an eye out for my Treehouse “5 Things” which will be about underrated  books.

5 Things You Should Read About Yoga

So, there are many, many books about yoga in the world. But let’s say you don’t really want a yoga how-to manual, but a memoir or something more personal? These 5 books are for you. They range from spiritual to slapstick in tone, but all are about women who find something important in yoga.

1. Curvy Voices, the collection of personal essays gathered by Anna Guest-Jelley of Curvy Yoga.

You can download it for free here. These 30+ essays from real women describing how they came to yoga and their relationship with yoga practice is diverse, fascinating, and often funny. My favorite might be Noel Rozny’s “The Revolution Started with Yoga Pants.” But don’t miss essays by Mara Glatzel–of Medicinal Marzipan fame–or Melanie Klein’s fantastic “Feminism, Yoga & Body Image.”

2. Donna Farhi’s Bringing Yoga to Life: the Everyday Practice of Enlightened Living.

Farhi is a beautiful writer, exploring the potential of yoga practice to transform your thinking. A quote from her website: “When we realize that what we are advancing toward is not some physical form but an inward recognition of the truth of who we are, then we will not feel ourselves to be failing if we cannot attain difficult postures. “Advance” practice is any movement that brings us closer to this recognition of our true self.”

3. Kimberly Wilson’s Hip Tranquil Chick: A Guide to Life On and Off the Yoga Mat. 

Wilson’s style is breezy and fun; she’s the yoga writer for you if you also enjoy crafting, fashion, and style. The book contains several different sequences, which are playfully illustrated and full of Wilson’s anecdotes about how she left behind a legal job to teach yoga. Since I heart pink, I love this one and Wilson’s follow-up, Tranquilista, about creating a yoga-influenced work/life balance.

4. Lucy Edge’s Yoga School Dropout: A Hilarious, Hapless, and Desperate Quest for Mystic Indians and Tantric Bliss.  

Edge is sort of the Bridget Jones of yoga writing. An advertising professional, she decides to ditch her busy London life and go to an Indian ashram, ill-prepared for the culture shock, demanding regimen, or the ‘serious’ yoga practitioners she meets along the way. I thought she was incredibly funny, but if you can’t laugh at yourself, she may not be for you.

5. Claire Dederer’s Poser: A Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses.
Dederer’s writing, centered on her yoga practice and years of being a stay-at-home mom, will appeal to other yoga moms, particularly those who are frustrated with ‘serene motherhood’ stereotypes. Like Edge, she’s sarcastic and pokes fun at some of the seriousness of yoga culture.

Life Lesson #351: Don’t dwell on it, y’all.

Today I found out that I didn’t get a library job I applied for a few weeks ago. I was a little sad for about a minute–visions of 401ks, good health benefits, and a steady income for helping people danced in my head–but I have several other applications in circulation, and  some potential freelance or part-time opportunities available, so it was easy to thank my contact person for informing me and move on. I went back to reading the new Curvy Yoga collection and working on my EDN final project. I realized it wasn’t worth it to be sad for more than that minute. My small self wasn’t going to pout, sulk, or despair.

Which brings me to this essay on optimism in The Atlantic:
“We also know why optimists do better than pessimists. The answer lies in the differences between the coping strategies they use. Optimists are not simply being Pollyannas; they’re problem solvers who try to improve the situation. And if it can’t be altered, they’re also more likely than pessimists to accept that reality and move on. Physically, they’re more likely to engage in behaviors that help protect against disease and promote recovery from illness…Pessimists, on the other hand, tend to deny, avoid, and distort the problems they confront, and dwell on their negative feelings. It’s easy to see now why pessimists don’t do so well compared to optimists.”

I would describe myself as an evolving optimist. I had the cynical teenager phase–many whatevers were uttered during my adolescence & the eye-roll was liberally employedbut now people are always describing me as “one of those touchy-feely, happiness” types. Some of that is being surrounded by supportive friends and family, having great mentors, and more skills than ever, but attitude is key, too. For me, this means focusing on positive experiences, creating more opportunities, and doing my best to avoid rehashing negative experiences or getting involved with people who make me unhappy. In a nutshell: Don’t dwell on it, y’all.

Of course, there are social barriers to optimism. How many times have you thought: I can’t do this, only X kinds of people can succeed at this…? That’s a common feeling, right? Particularly for women, who are often told to be humble and not taught to market themselves, career or personal development can be a tricky thing–you’re always bumping up against self-imposed limitations that aren’t accurate. Rosie Molinary had a great essay on daring to call yourself an artist, which many of us feel nervous about–me included, which explains each adaptation of the blog’s tagline, as I become more and more comfortable with that language. I wasn’t ready to call myself a writer for a long time. Yet, I’m doing all kinds of writerly things I never anticipated doing when I was 19 or 20.

Being an optimist sometimes runs counter to other peoples’ expectations, too.  When I was doing my undergraduate majors in history & art history, I would tell strangers what I studied and their eyes would glaze over.  When I say glaze, I mean glaze. It was rare to find anyone who had an enthusiasm for those subjects. So, the conversation would include the question, “What are you going to do with that?” I’m so glad Ken Robinson is here talking about passion and finding your interests as a counterpoint to those kinds of conversations.

On the Bookshelf: Zinsser’s On Writing Well and Revision

I’ve been thinking a lot about outlining and the writing process this week, since I re-read William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, a fantastic guide to non-fiction writing. Zinsser is a proponent of editing and revising for clarity. He actually provides examples of un-edited and edited text, making the book a great choice for visual learners. One of my favorite Zinsser techniques is Socratic:

“The writer must therefore constantly ask himself: What am I trying to say? Surprisingly often, he doesn’t know. Then he must look at what he has written and ask: Have I said it? Is it clear to someone encountering the subject for the first time? If it’s not, it is because some fuzz has worked its way into the machinery. The clear writer is a person clear-headed enough to see this stuff for what it is: fuzz.

I don’t mean that some people are born clear-headed and are therefore natural writers, whereas others are naturally fuzzy and will never write well. Thinking clearly is a conscious act that the writer must force upon himself, just as if he were embarking on any other project that requires logic: adding up a laundry list or doing an algebra problem. Good writing doesn’t come naturally, though most people obviously think it does… Good writing takes self-discipline and, very often, self-knowledge…”

 In my everyday life as a writing tutor, I ask students these kinds of questions constantly. When I begin a one-on-one tutoring session, I ask my tutee what they are most concerned about. Often, they’re worried about grammar, conclusion-writing, and “flow.” In the tutoring universe, “flow” is usually organization by another name. Students–like many aspiring authors, I’d imagine–are freaked out by organization. It’s big and scary and complicated. They don’t even want to go there. Flowbecomes the easier way to talk about organization.After talking about big concerns, I’ll ask the student to read their essay aloud or alternate reading paragraphs aloud with me. That helps identify little things–typos and shifting verb tenses–that the writer will have missed while writing. It’s really easy to miss many things, especially if you don’t use outlines to give yourself structure as you work. Usually, then I have a discussion with the writer about their goals for the essay and how to respond to the prompt, their ideas, and the current draft. Sometimes that means addressing something in the prompt they haven’t covered, or  it means switching paragraphs around. Every session is as unique as the work. My goal is to look at the work with new eyes–or beginner’s mind, for the yogis. That way, I help the students see their writing with new eyes.
More and more, I think revision ought to be praised, not treated as drudgery. Like Zinsser, I think those who write sans planning will need to go over their work closely for clarity. Especially asking themselves if all the paragraphs and sections make sense and are coherently organized–possibly even if the sentences transition well from one to another. Often, lack of a plan means that the writing has big holes in it, where the writer hasn’t conveyed all the information inside their heads. Maybe I could call that the “Swiss Chesese Syndrome”? Sound good?
Many people resist revision and end up with fuzzy machinery–I’m just as guilty as anyone else. A few years ago, I wrote something for workshop and failed to edit it clearly before turning it in. To my horror, I realized at the end of the workshop that I’d committed  a Freudian slip that ruined the  piece.I was telling a personal story about discovering that my grandmother had once misled me about something in the Bible. I was in elementary school and she was then opposed, as the Baptists say, to ‘the beverage use of alcohol,’ and told me that it was because “Jesus turned the wine into water at a wedding.” Only years later did I discover the Bible was the other way ’round–by seeing a ‘water-into-wine’ fountain in a circular!  Great story, right? Except, in writing this story down for workshop, I’d transcribed it correctly–Biblically, anyway– as “water-into-wine,” said Grandma. Whoops!
It would have been no big deal if I’d been a better editor of my work at the time and have caught it before workshop—but I wasn’t. So, let my mistake be a lesson to you: practice revision. Some useful steps:

  1. Read your work aloud. Adjust your word choices for voice & aim for a natural, pleasing sound. Eliminate repetitiveness.
  2. Check for typos and ‘water into wine’ moments.
  3. Outline your own essay. Does it include what you want it to include, per Zinsser?
  4. Can you explain the thesis or story in one sentence? I used to hate it when people asked me this question, but in retrospect, those were my fuzzy-thinking-writing moments.