Tuesday, April 15, 2014

To Thine Own Self

Being a girl is hard. 

Being a boy is hard, too, as is being a woman or being a man. But I was reminded today of how much the world is stacked against girls and young women - it wasn't anything big, not some momentous event, but it was commonplace and constant. 

I went clothes shopping with my sister. 

All of the wonderful moms I know who are raising daughters seem to be imparting to them a wildness and a confidence. Be yourself, they say - and it's a classic bit of advice, made seemingly meaningless for its ubiquity. But being yourself for young girls is both necessary and a significantly packed term. It can mean painting and drawing, digging in the dirt, wearing comfortable clothes, speaking and moving fiercely. It can mean being one with nature, and it can mean taking a yoga class. It's not easy, but there is something as yet unburdened in those first years when girls have no other thought than to truly be themselves. 

My sister was like that. Once she started talking she told us absolutely everything. Her laughter was unfettered and her hugs were tight. Her body was a vehicle for her fearless personality. 

Why does that have to change? 

I remember being my sister's age, thirteen, and hating my body. Part of that was family stress, part was mental illness, and part of it was going to a school and being of the age when thin was in, when Abercrombie models were perfection, when I was in daily competition with my best friend as to how little we could eat. It was an unspoken rule: be like the other girls. Be pretty. Be perfect. Starve. 

Fortunately, my sister has a lot more sense than I did. I can't tell you how miraculous it is for me to see her eat. She has a good core of strength and a solid sense of reality. But I'm afraid of the world around her. 

Going clothes shopping for a teenaged girl is a joke. Girls' - and women's - sizing is absolutely arbitrary. There's no standard, no universal measurements, and each brand will use a different measuring tape. Sure, you might come close to some consensus if all you buy is Target brand, but most of the time each item is different, and your top is a different size than your bottom, and your bottom might as well be the last sacred mystery facing mankind. It's ridiculous, plain and simple. 

Helping my sister pick out shorts? Laughable in its inconsistency. She now wears sizes I wore when I was ten and sizes I wore when I was twenty. Four pairs of shorts, three different sizes, many different misconceptions about the female form. I'm so glad that my sister has better sense than I did - I absolutely would have died, if it were I trying on clothes - because she knew she looked great and felt great in those shorts, and that was all that mattered. 

But the deck, as they say, is stacked against us. How can we think of ourselves, and what box do we check off, when it comes to how we measure our bodies? How can we overcome the stigma of size? Of weight? Of shape?

Little girls don't think that way. When I see pictures of my mom friends' girls, there is no indication that they care about the size of their pants. It only matters if they are dirty or clean - actually, it probably matters a lot more that they are comfortable and good to move in. 

When did our bodies become a battleground?  

I'm not saying that the size of our jeans is the only way we understand ourselves. We are more complex than that. But why is it that we have to endure the uncertainty and possible shame which comes with something so basic as clothes shopping? Is it not enough that we are bombarded with fat free, low carb, high protein food advertisements? Are we too jaded, too used to accepting the picture perfect actresses on television? Is the message not clear enough - over size six need not apply? Have we not been shamed enough? 

Do we really think our girls need to be shamed that way, too? 

And beyond that - what is this power, this female body, which needs to be vanquished? Not only does my sister need to find shorts in three different sizes, no; she needs to make sure she isn't inappropriate, distracting, tempting. I understand that clothes should address utilitarian needs (so delicate bits hanging out would probably be a problem) but what is so worrisome about legs? I really do get that her clothes should serve a purpose - warmth, comfort, ease of movement - but, for me, any hint of the word "modesty" makes me clutch at my hair and moan. I find nothing offensive about my sister's body. Again, in the situation of her school making rules about the usefulness of clothes, I'm all for it - but once the line is crossed, once it becomes about covering up a woman's body because of "distraction" or "modesty" or "what's appropriate," then I think we all must wonder -

What is inappropriate now, on a girl, which wasn't when she was three or four? 

What on her body is shameful? What must be covered - not for her sake, but for our own? 

The deck is stacked. A woman's body is an object to be randomly categorized, to be judged, to be covered up in case of someone else's discomfort. Is it any wonder, then, that I at thirteen years old reviled my body, that I starved it, that I both flaunted my too-thin abdomen and did five hundred crunches a day? That I thought of my physical form as both an object and as a manifestation of my internal flaws? That I laughed at diets - not eating was easier - and that I, at the same time, took diet pills? 

I wasn't born that way. We weren't born that way. 

My sister is probably the coolest person ever (though I admit, I am biased) and she uses her body to do things like eat and jump, curl up with a good story, walk around the neighborhood with her friends, go clothes shopping and be, against all odds, okay. But I hazard a guess that her attitude is not common. She's a fantastic young woman who doesn't really give a darn. But how many of our girls look in the mirror and see something both undesirable and inappropriately desired? Sizes and school dress codes. Shaming, coveting, covering. 

This is another topic for which I have no answer. It's taken me - oh, I have no real estimate, because it has been quite a journey - it's been only in the last year that I have come to terms with my own body. And, as much as I am embarrassed to say it, a lot of my own acceptance comes from the praise of others. A year ago I was trying to stop eating to fit into a bridesmaid dress. Less than a year ago I met an amazing group of friends who love every body type. I've internalized the external, and I think that is the legacy of shaming and approval-seeking which is the hallmark of our society. 

And no one wants that for our girls. I'd spit in the face of anyone who would put that burden on my sister. 

For a positive spin on this topic - I, a recovering anorexic, and my amazing mother and father, have managed to teach my sister that her true worth is in her head and not in her pants. That's not only a legacy - it's a promise. We will not judge, will not burden, will not shame. We will go clothes shopping and pick what fits. We will not bestow upon her our society's obsession with weight nor our culture's obsession with modesty. And knowing that I can be a part of that, I feel better able to assert that all of our girls deserve the same education, the same respect, the same love. 

It is possible. Because we were not born hating our bodies, objectifying our bodies. 

All we need to do is help girls be themselves. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014


I've written here, frequently, about my experiences in Columbia - about the differences between my childhood in the city and my adulthood in the suburbs. I've mourned the lack of nightlife and culture, and I have celebrated the benefits of living in a safe environment with good schools, close family, and a growing community. I explored these topics from the perspective of apartment living, which, all in all, was not that far removed from how I grew up. We didn't know the people who lived across the hall, we had little responsibility in the upkeep of the building, and we lived on the third floor without a garden and with no expectation of limited privacy. So, though we had been living in Columbia, there were many similarities to the indifference and anonymity of an apartment in the city. 

I had no idea how much things would change. 

Buying a house in my parents' village of Oakland Mills was a dream come true for me. I couldn't wait - living within walking distance to the grocery and the Second Chance, to my mom's house and my sister's school? Perfect, and just what I had wanted. I thought of walking in my own neighborhood, with sidewalks and crosswalks and flower-edged tree lines, as a slice of the city in the quiet of the suburbs. And I have a deep attachment to Oakland Mills - my mom has thrown herself into the community, both through participation and through her writing, and that passion has been passed on to me because I have seen her fight for what is good, what is changing, what could happen. And through her I have met many other Oakland Mills residents who are equally invested in life here, who are now my neighbors, and who I hope will come to be my friends. When we found this house, this oddly shaped Pacesetter in my desired village, I thought yes, yes! This is my home.

And it is my home, much beloved, but it definitely comes with a steep learning curve. 

For one thing, people are really friendly. 

This is not a bad thing, not at all! But it is a surprise. It seemed like we had lived here for five mintutes but we had been welcomed by so many of our neighbors, whether it was at the Second Chance or in our front yard. The family across the street came over and offered their help - and they had made us a cake! A cake! My husband laughed at me because I eyed it with a good dose of suspicion (this was, after all, a kind of friendliness I had never experienced), but the cake was delicious, and a week later that same family helped us unload our new deck furniture - they're not only friendly neighbors, but genuine. 

Another thing - people are really curious. 

Those same neighbors joked that it was our turn, now, to be the new family on the block. I didn't quite get what that meant, but I do now! Earlier this week I was sitting on my deck - and it was morning, so I was still in my jimjams - when I heard someone greet me from behind the bushes. Now if this had happened in the city I probably would've gotten my butt out of there, but the fellow was quite nice and made chit chat with me as his dog sniffed around and my heart raced in my chest (I was also without my glasses, and I still have no idea what this gentleman looks like). I know he was being nice, giving me a quick welcome, but it further proved to me that friendliness and curiosity go hand in hand. And while there is a level of privacy afforded to us - trees, bushes, a fence in the front yard - there is still some guy out there who saw me in my pink kitty nightgown. Oh boy. 

And it's not just people who are curious - it's the wildlife. I am pretty sure that there's a groundhog living in my courtyard. Now, I definitely prefer groundhogs to rats, but I started googling and oh my gosh, they have claws! And we've got a very frisky cardinal doing his mating dance and chirping at passing females with an impertinent joie de vivre (he announced his presence by pooping on my head within the first week). Bunnies are everywhere. There's a cat which likes to cry at my front door at dawn. It's one part hysterical and one part mystifying. Apartment living did not come with quite this level of local life. 

Now, I'm still a city girl in many ways. While I joke about things like safety and indifference, I know that I'm not painting the whole picture and not being entirely fair. When I told my Grandmere about the fellow in the bushes, she said, I can see Grandpere doing that. My mom said the same thing - that he used to check out his neighbor's houses through their windows. And it wasn't totally unsafe where we lived, of course. But I do feel a difference between Bolton Hill and Oakland Mills - it's a combination of factors, the groundhog, the homemade cake, the omnipresent avians looking for a hot date, the kids playing in the streets, the nosiness I'm taking up like a treasured community pastime as I peer out of my kitchen window. 

There are many, many other things I am learning. Having a house involves commitment - maintenance, vigilance, gardening, cleaning. It's both satisfying and terrifying, because even as I learn how to put screens in the windows and clean out the gutters I'm thinking, what if the furnace breaks? What if a tree falls through my roof? What if that darn groundhog messes with our foundation? All of these things enrich my life as a housewife - I certainly have a lot more to do, and a lot more pride to take in my living space. And these were expected changes, for the most part. 

But it's the funny little surprises, the friendliness, the curiosity, which make home ownership into something wholly different than apartment living. My world is different, now. My world has wildlife and neighbors who have seen me in my nightgown. 

I will probably keep writing about Columbia - but to me, it's a whole new place. All of my previous judgements are, if not invalid, very much altered, in a very pleasant way. I have my afternoon walks to the corner store, just as I did in Bolton Hill, and I have neighbors who are curious and helpful, just like Grandpere. And I think I am coming to realize that there are fewer differences between city life and suburban life than I had thought, and far more differences between apartment life and house life. Sometimes it's the simplest things which change our worldview. A cake, a cat, a bit of harmless nosiness. 

I have looked at this house as a fresh start. Sometimes changing location can change who we are, and I think I've needed that. I'm getting another opportunity to consider Columbia, and a better chance to understand the community. I might have to work on catching critters; I will have to work on being a member of an awesome village. Tomorrow I will be making truffles for our cake bearing neighbors. Today I'm sitting on my deck - with real clothes on! - and wondering if the groundhog will pop his head out of his burrow. 

I'm an Oakland Mills citizen, a handy housewife, and what I lack in privacy I've gained in genuine friendliness. 

I think, even though I miss Bolton Hill and Baltimore, that I'm okay with that.