Uniquely Sexy

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My coworker thinks she’s fat.

I had no idea she had such massive body-image issues until quite recently. I observed her pinching her waist flesh through her uniform during a quiet moment at work, and enquired what she was doing.

“Meaty…” was her comment.

“That’s not a bad thing, right?” I was foolish enough to say.

“It’s bad,” came the reply. Wow.

Just to get things straight, this girl is absolutely gorgeous. Amazonically tall for a Japanese, face so striking she could easily be a model if only she wanted to, and a body with actual curves. All that, and so insecure she’s obsessing about her squishy bits at work.

Not that I should be surprised. Thinness is ridiculously pervasive in Japanese society as a beauty ideal. It’s extremely rare to see a woman on Japanese TV who isn’t a lovely, slender twig – occasionally with boobs glued on. In fact, it would be a safe bet to say that the only time my coworker sees anyone even close to her body shape in popular media, would be in the ‘before’ images of all the advertisements proclaiming that “You too can lose weight!”

Popular media like to pretend that there is only one way to be beautiful, and that any person who doesn’t fit with this very specific ideal is not attractive. This is an attitude that has a serious negative impact on the self-confidence of many women – and many men too, because let’s not forget that the media likes to talk about masculine ideals as well. In fact, the media is so insistant on this one perfect ideal, that it’s easy to forget that not so long ago, they were promoting a different ideal entirely.

Body types come in and out of fashion. So, if a plump, lusciously soft, curvy look is good enough for one decade, why is it suddenly considered horrendously ‘out of shape’ just a few decades later? These days, we pride ourselves on individualism. We know we’re all different, all unique, and that’s not a bad thing. So why are we still trying so desperately to look the same?

Rather than obsessing over a single arbitrary ideal, why don’t we all just get over ourselves and accept that a healthy body looks different on everyone? Every person has their own unique qualities that make them attractive, in whatever shape their body is naturally supposed to be. It’s ridiculously sad that most of us don’t even seem to be able to see that.

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Is there anything you’ve learned to love about your own shape that you had difficulty coming to terms with at first, or that other people don’t seem to be as happy with? Or maybe you know someone who’s insecure about a feature that you actually find extremely attractive. Feel free to share share your inspiring tales of uniquely beautiful body-image in the comments section below.

Not a member of the Girls’ Club

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I think it’s time to introduce a new word.

“Equalist”.

This one’s for everyone currently calling themselves a feminist who is sick to death of people trying to put them in the girls’ club with the crazed femi-nazis and leftover bra-burners from the 60s.

This will be a thing.

I have several friends – male and female – calling themselves feminists. What they really champion, however, is social equality. To them – and to me – combating ‘womens issues’ is an important path to a better world, one in which being a man or a woman is less important than just being a person. In which people can succeed or fail based solely on their own abilities and ambition. And in which freedom of self-expression is not treated as some kind of threat to ‘normal’ society.

I have other friends who believe in the exact same thing – and yet clash with me often due to the negative stigma pasted all over the concept of feminism. No matter how many times I explain that my ideals are basically the same as theirs, as soon as I mention the word ‘feminist’, suddenly it’s as though I just said all men are arseholes and major companies should be fulfilling an enforced quota of female employees in the top job positions – just from the qualification of being female.

To be completely candid, there are times when I do get bitter about the way people treat women, just because they’re women. Walking for ten minutes along a busy road never fails to make me furious. I’m sure most women know what I’m talking about – and anyone who’s confused can check out “My Fault I’m Female”* to bring themselves up to speed. The way women are treated is a problem – but the moment a women points that out (or, gasp, gets angry about it), they’re labelled a paranoid bitch feminist. Like if someone is a feminist they must be imagining there’s a problem. Nothing wrong with our society, nuh-uh.

So it’s time for a new word, free from all the negative connotations built up after years of angry women getting angrier because they’re not being heard. It’s time to realise that women’s rights affect everyone – not just those ‘unfortunate’ enough to have been born with a vagina. The stigmatisation and disparaging of all things feminine affects men just as much as women. Human nature isn’t as black and white as we’d often like to believe – and it certainly shouldn’t be decided and assigned depending on what parts we are born with.

And if you’re calling yourself a feminist – or, alternately, refusing to call youself a feminist – because you believe that the world could be a better place if we no longer had to fight for women’s human right to be treated equal AS A PERSON… then it just might be time to consider defecting from the wounded cause with the irreperably damaged reputation and starting anew – fresh and untainted.

* http://myfaultimfemale.wordpress.com/

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Feel free to air your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below

Sexual abuse: The ongoing influence

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Probably more than half my life, I have been aware that my mother has a history as a victim of sexual abuse. My mother, as I have previously mentioned, is a wonderful, strong and loving woman who never stops trying to be the best that she can be. But her experiences have scarred her in ways I can’t even begin to tell. No matter how well she may try to hide it, and pretend it’s all in the past, these things never go away.

One hears stories of children who, having suffered abuse at the hands of an adult, eventually transition from the abused to the abuser, and create other victims who suffer similar fates. Not every victim of child abuse grows up to be abusive themselves. But just because the continuing circle of abuse is a minority occurrence does not mean that most instances of abuse have no affect on anyone beyond the immediate victim. The experiences of one person have an impact on their relationships, which in turn have an impact on the experiences of people beyond themselves. No one who has a close relationship with a sexual abuse victim is truly unaffected, but children are particularly vulnerable.

One of my mother’s deepest fears is the worry that she has failed in her role as a mother. Her experiences have left her severely psychologically damaged, so much so that despite her best efforts, she couldn’t possibly conceal it all from the family that is so important to her. She suffers from depression, and a horrible amount of suppressed anger which breaks out occasionally in frightening mood swings. All she wants for her family, and in extension for herself, is a normal, happy and healthy life. But especially considering that her life has not been, as a whole, normal, happy or healthy, it is hardly surprising that the result may have been less than ideal.

My mother has always tried to be the best mother she could be, but thanks to her many psychological issues – a direct result of her experiences – our family unit wasn’t the most stable. Admittedly, my brother and I weren’t solely her responsibility, but – while my father is not by any means a bad guy – I suspect my mother didn’t exactly pick the most supportive man with whom to start a family. So my mother did the best with what she had, and I’m sure we were far from the most easy-to-raise children out there. On the one hand, I was severely stubborn and anti-social, and then there was my brother.

Possibly due to my own natural tendencies, although my mother’s mood swings sometimes scared me, I always knew that even if she was mad, she still loved me. I could see that she was doing her best, even if, as is natural for children, I didn’t always appreciate it. Her struggle with her own psychological issues resulting from her abuse certainly had an affect on my upbringing. In particular, I picked up aspects of my mother’s reaction to men that I still struggle with today, and which makes it difficult for me to say no to a man, even if I really want to. In a way, this blog is my own response to the various ways my mother’s issues have affected my personality, as I struggle to sort out the healthy social reactions from the unhealthy ones that my mother, with her damaged instincts, unwittingly handed down to me. As things are, I am on the psychologically balanced side.

My brother had it harder. If I was a problem child, it’s possible that my brother was more so. More than anyone, he needed a stable, authoritative presence that my mother just wasn’t able to provide. She never stopped trying, but wrestling as she was with depression, often on the edge of a breakdown, and so severely lacking in confidence that her parenting methods would change every few months as she strove to follow the best advice on how to raise children, she probably wasn’t the most suitable person to help a struggling child learn how to be a healthy, fully functioning human being. My brother doesn’t have the fondest memories of his childhood. He’s not forgiving like me. Although my mother is, to this day, the only one who continues to do her best to help him succeed in his life, he cannot see how hard she tries, or how much love she gives. He refuses to see anything but the times she struggled, and the times she failed.

As long as I can remember, my brother has always been angry – to the point of lashing out, physically or otherwise, at those around him. He suffers from the same mood swings as my mother, without the nurturing instinct that would prompt him to try to reign them in. He’s not a completely bad guy. Sometimes he can be outright sweet. But mostly he’s just angry, and it’s scary. Somewhere along the line, despite her best efforts, my mother’s messed up childhood left a negative impression on her struggle to raise her son. Undiagnosed with whatever behavioural disorder he may have, my mother’s battle to cope due to her own damaged upbringing did its own damage. My mother wasn’t abusive, but her own struggles with her psychological scars had the same affect on my brother that years of deliberate abuse had on her.

My mother’s personal problems caused her to struggle with parenthood in ways a healthy person could never dream of. But this doesn’t mean that she was a bad mother. One of the things I most admire about her was her determination that her life would not dictate what her children would become. She never wanted her children to be carbon copies of her. She tried her damnedest to allow us the freedom to become our own person, with our own values, and our own happiness. But children naturally mimic their parents from such an early age that the parent’s psyche has an unavoidable affect on the development of children’s personalities. No matter how she tried, she could not avoid affecting the social development of her children. But just that she did her best, in my eyes, makes her the most wonderful mother I could ever hope to have. I know she’s not perfect, but I think she’s amazing, and I love her.

My mother is strong, but rarely has she received the support she needed from those around her. Especially in her childhood, but also as an adult and a parent, she is too often left on her own with no one to rely on but herself.  In this, she is far from alone. Sexual abuse and child abuse are uncomfortable topics, and victims are too often ignored. We know that the problem doesn’t go away. But at the same time, as a society, we don’t want to acknowledge the extent of the damage, and nor do we provide the support that is really needed for an issue that has such a penetrating effect not just on the psyche of the immediate victim, but branches in so many myriad ways into the heart of social relationships. The effects of abuse do not stop with the abused victim, but go much further. It follows that support for victims of this issue should go further too.

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The impact my mother’s experiences with abuse have had on her family are just one of the ways the effects of abuse extend beyond the abused. Have you been a victim of abuse, or otherwise had the effects of abuse form an impression on your life? How have you seen this happening? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.

Sexual abuse: The curse of femininity

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My mother is an amazing and strong woman. She is a living example of both the best – and worst – aspects of traditional femininity. When I say this, I mean that she is a nurturing and caring woman who always does the best she can for her family – but she has also been owned by men her entire life.

In an earlier post, I mentioned that a bitch is a woman who is owned by men. But, not every owned woman is a bitch. Unlike the woman described in my previous post, my mother recognises that the situation she finds herself in is not healthy. She does not choose it for herself, nor does she hold any illusions about how much power is granted to her. It’s just that noone has ever tried to show her how to escape this situation, and despite all her efforts, she remains unable to change the culturing of decades.

When my mother was young, she was raped repeatedly by more than one close family member. Her own family not only taught her to be used by men – by uninvolved family members failing to stop this situation, they taught her that she was powerless to stand up for herself, and that even if a man’s behaviour was inappropriate, there was nothing she could do.

The experience of rape, especially in an environment which doesn’t provide the support and justice this serious situation deserves, is one that does not easily go away. My mother does not complain about what happened to her. If she mentions it at all, it is invariably in such a casual voice that belies the seriousness of the crime. But inside, my mother is still a wreck. She suffers from depression, mood swings, and breakdowns, and also has incredibly low self-esteem. Worst of all, she is incredibly wary and cautious of the whims of men. She has been socialised to feel that the safest way of dealing with a man is to refrain from doing anything that may be construed as a challenge to his masculinity. Scarily, this includes running away.

My mother and I once found ourselves in an empty train carriage late at night when a young man boarded the train. From the beginning, it was obvious that there was something wrong with him. Possibly he was drugged out of his mind. As soon as he boarded the train, he noticed us. Coming over to where we were sitting, he began swinging from the poles in the carriage, and proceeded to make moves on my mother.

Obviously, the whole situation was very unsettling, and possibly dangerous. All I wanted to do was move away, and find some people to be witnesses in case the situation turned violent. My mother, equally uncomfortable, had a different instinct. She smiled. Politely, without moving from her seat, she proceeded to answer every single one of this man’s questions (unfortunately, none of which I remember clearly).

Ever since I remember, my mother has been making numerous attempts to resolve her own psychological issues. For a while, she bought every spiritual healing book she could get her hands on. The likes of Deepak Chopra held pride of place on her dresser table. “Think positive thoughts,” many of these books seemed to say, “and your life will become positive.” Well yes, maybe that would help someone whose only problem were severe pessimism. But my mother’s issues understandably run much deeper than that.

Somewhere along the line, she appears to have guessed that gender might have had something to do with her problems. And so, ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’ appeared on the bookshelf. What she learned from that can be summarised by some relationship advice she once gave me. “Men don’t like to talk,” she informed me, “Don’t try to make him communicate. Just let it go.”

And so, everything my mother has ever read to try to help herself with her deep psychological scarring has not addressed the problem at all. All it managed to do was reinforce the idea that the core of the problem lies with her. If she can’t think positive thoughts, and she needs things that men are apparently unwilling to give, then the problem is her fault, and hers alone. Is it just me, or is that all bullshit?

Over the years, I’ve browsed various self-help books and ‘pop psychology’ publications like ‘Men are from Mars…’. I have yet to come across a single book designed to help someone in her situation, which is frankly astounding. The CASA Forum* states that 1 in 5 women in Australia experience sexual violence after the age of 15 – increasing to a scary 1 in 3 sexually abused before the age of 16. This is Australia, not the Congo. But these figures make it clear that situations like that of my mother are far from uncommon. And the occurrence of rape is just a symptom of a deeper problem with the way we have structured society and femininity. This issue affects everyone. So why won’t anybody talk about it?

We, as a society, need to put more effort into educating both women and men about this issue. It is no longer acceptable – if it ever was – to tolerate, and worse, ignore these blatantly negative aspects of social gender division. Women are not accessories to be owned and controlled by men. Logically, this is a recognised fact. But many women still act like submission to men is unavoidable, and many men still act like it is their right to treat women however they fancy. Both these behaviours must stop. Further, we need to give more assistance to those who are trying to get out of this trap, but are not sure how to find the way out on their own.

*http://www.casa.org.au/casa_pdf.php?document=statistics

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Is our society really as resigned to sexual assualt and gender division as the data would have us believe? The below comments section should be used as a discussion board for this topic. If you have an opinion, theory, personal story, etc., please feel free to share it with us.

High heels are not a choice

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High heels. They’re uncomfortable – often painful – difficult to walk in, and incredibly damaging to a surprising extent of the body. Every girl knows this. But there are very few girls out there who will not reach for a pair of heels when they want to dress up.

On my commute home from work every day, I will inevitably see at least one lady tottering in her ridiculous shoes while a row of men in business attire occupy all seats available in the train carriage. “I’ve worked hard all day, I’m tired,” I imagine they’re thinking. “Why should I stand just because some girl decided to wear stupid shoes?”

But is the choice to wear uncomfortable shoes really entirely up to a woman’s own volition? High heels are so pervasive in modern society that the wearing of them is less a fashion option than a dogma which leaves women feeling like they have little other choice. When people think of an attractive, well-dressed woman, they don’t usually imagine her wearing comfy footwear. And this is a bias that women are immediately hit with upon entering a shoe shop. Overwhelmingly, the most decorative, feminine-looking footwear is equipped with a high heel. Anything that isn’t is deliberately designed to be plain, often dowdy – as though women who want to be functional must therefore have rejected any aspirations to beauty.

But, I hear you say, what about ballet flats? Certainly, the recent explosion in the popularity of ballet flats may seem to be an indication that women are increasingly rejecting the heel in favour of more functional footwear. Ballet flats are often intricately decorated, undeniably feminine, and don’t twist and strain the body as high heels do. An improvement, I will admit. Woman-kind has stood up in flat shoes and said “I don’t have to be dowdy to be casual!”. But this is honestly as far as the ballet flat goes. Flat they may certainly be, but functional they are not. The majority of ballet flats have soles so thin as to fail to provide any support for the foot.

Furthermore, the social stigma around flat shoes is such that even highly decorated ballet flats are rarely considered appropriate to replace high heeled shoes for special occasions. They may have replaced the dowdy casual shoe, but they have failed to replace the torturous high heel as an option for formal wear. A woman who wants to look like she has made an effort will inevitably find herself reaching for those heels – no matter how well her fancy, feminine ballet flats might match her dress, they invariably give others the impression that she is ‘dressing down’, and therefore not wearing appropriate attire for the occasion.

Just as heels are still considered the appropriate option for formal wear, they are also considered the most appropriate option for a woman who wants to look sexy – to impress a date, or increase her own self-confidence, perhaps. It is said that high heels visibly define the shape of a woman’s legs and buttocks – and thus increase their sex appeal. In my experience women who look amazing in heels actually look equally amazing without them, but as a society we are determined not to recognise that many women are gorgeous and sexy even without ridiculous footwear.

Of course, there are plenty of women who reject the social pressure to wear high heeled shoes, for various reasons – myself included. But there are still an overwhelming number of women who seem to feel that the social benefits of wearing high heels far outweigh any physical disadvantages. I’m not proposing we burn all high heeled shoes, but I do believe that, as a society, we need to reject the dogma of ‘beauty is pain’. Rather than women putting all of their focus into resigning themselves to suffering through this situation, we need to focus on creating more ways to combine beauty and functionality – and to hold firm to make these functional alternatives socially valid options for any situation.

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How do you feel about footwear options for women? If you have any theories, opinions, or stories you’d like to share, please use the comments section below.

The Conundrum of Love

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It’s the focus of just about every romantic comedy in existence. Two people fall in love. Maybe everything’s rocky for a while, if one or both of them is in denial. But then love is acknowledged, and everything is wonderful. The couple are perfectly matched in personality, and they have a great sex life to boot. It’s what virtually everyone, if they were to stop and be perfectly honest with themselves, desires in a relationship. But it’s not realistic, right?

If the most pervasive stereotype about love we are exposed to in this modern world is unrealistic – what is actually reasonable for each of us to expect when it comes to lasting romance? How do we know if it’s the real thing, or if we should hold out for something better? With divorce rates rising all over the world, many of us stop to wonder if we’re really putting enough thought into our committed relationships. But at the same time, overthinking things seems equally undesirable. Nobody wants to miss their chance at happiness because they were just too goddamn picky.

Thanks to women’s liberation and similar movements, divorce has increasingly become a viable, socially acceptable option for those who find themselves in marriages that just aren’t working. But honestly, this isn’t the only factor at work. Historically, the majority of marriages have been based on some kind of logical benefit. Money, social security, family standing, etc. But increasingly, ‘love’ has become the most considered factor when entering into a committed relationship. And unlike economic and social driving factors, love is highly illogical and unpredictable – particularly to the people who are most concerned.

A large part of what makes love illogical is that there are so many contradicting definitions of the concept. Is having someone who shares your interests and values enough? Or should you hold out for strong physical (chemical) attraction too? Whether you decide to define love as comfortable companionship, or as an irresistible physical attraction, either way most of us are conscious of a perceived risk. On the one hand, if we decide that burning passion is a non-viable basis for a relationship (if it even does exist anyway), we run the risk of finding ourselves trapped in a committed relationship with someone who suits us well enough when we eventually stumble across somebody else who is a perfect match. On the other hand, forever holding out for that one perfect connection can seem like a gamble most people are unlikely to win – with those who lose ending up forever alone.

Too often we may believe that we have found our soulmate, only to break up and, looking back, realise that everything that initially seemed so perfect was an illusion, a trick of our own minds caused by eager willingness to give in to chemical signals of physical attraction. So is every relationship that feels like it is based on some kind of deep connection on a spiritual or physical level necessarily a lie?

We are social creatures, but we are also individuals. The idea of two souls fitting together as one is a lovely image, but in reality we cannot even access the thoughts of another person, let alone connect our own thoughts to theirs. If ever we feel irresistibly drawn to another person, it is a purely physical effect. Chemicals playing with our brain. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that a relationship based on such physical attraction is doomed to fail. The key to every relationship is communication. Even if we feel this strong attraction to another person, we have to remember that a relationship doesn’t turn two people into one being – and we have to make effort to support the flow of communication accordingly. And once communication has been achieved, each of us must give a little, and take a little, and support compromises. It is only when cooperation fails that relationships fall apart.

And as for the original question: What is love? How important is this concept of love as a factor for a successful, committed relationship? And if our happiness is to be shared with another person, how do we know if we’ve found the right person to share it with? Honestly, I’m still confused. I suspect it’s an answer that requires retrospect to be learned. But with all that combined human experience out there, I don’t believe that we should all have to gamble our entire lives just to find out the answer.

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What are your thoughts on the nature of love? Is it like in the movies, or is it actually something much more mellow? And is it really necessary for a happy, successful relationship, or are other factors much more important?

Contribute your theories, opinions, and personal stories in the comments section below. Maybe together we can make some sense  out of love.

It’s a party, and the whole world’s invited

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I love traditional festivals. No matter what the culture, even if they’re staged, traditional style festivals just seem to get under the skin. They make everything exciting – and they help to break down the boundaries between people.

Growing up in Australia, I didn’t get to experience this type of festival often, which is probably why they hold such a particular thrill for me. The closest I ever got as a child was the odd Chinese New Year event and the occasional display of Aboriginal culture. Unfortunately, to the average Aussie a festival seems to be something like Big Day Out – a day spent sweating and drinking with mates as the sun slowly burns the outline of the bits you missed with the zinc into your skin, with maybe a rock band or two for entertainment. A sense of community exists only in the minds of the rowdiest people. I suppose the lack is not really surprising, in a nation with a history only about 300 or so years old.

So living in Japan can be very exciting for me. Especially through the warmer months, there seems to be a festival everywhere you turn. Go for a stroll, and you’ll stumble upon the local young folk rhythmically hefting a local shrine’s festival float (o-mikoshi), as the older citizens shout, cheer, swig beer, dance, and play highly catchy traditional music in a semi-organised, semi-impromptu parade through the town. It’s very much a family event.

But it’s not only the community-run festivals that excite, and break down the boundaries between people.

I recently had the opportunity to witness a staged ‘festival’ organised by the management of a local airport. Strictly choreographed and organised down to the letter, and performed by professional dancers, the traditional aspects of the performance nonetheless managed to create a similar effect to genuine community festivals.

After the organised performance was finished, the barriers were moved. The performers continued dancing, the music continued playing – and in the middle of a crowded airport, passers-by joined in. And it wasn’t just Japanese people, either. In a true display of just how strong is the power of a festival to break down the boundaries between people, a foreign traveller, a Muslim woman in a headscarf, was dancing right along with and among everyone else. Never mind that this wasn’t her culture, she probably couldn’t fully communicate with any of the other dancers, and she wasn’t 100% confident with the moves of the dance – she was still a fully participating member of the celebration.

People want to interact, and want to feel like they’re an accepted part of their surroundings. They just often aren’t sure how to achieve this. The excitement and possibility of involvement of a traditional style festival doesn’t really bring people together per se – it just facilitates what people already want to do. Even in an airport, a place which to most people is nothing but a stop on the way to somewhere else, a festival that wasn’t even completely authentic had the power to create a community spirit in a room full of strangers. Gender, occupation, nationality – the power of the festival cancelled out all differences, and created a single shared commonality: pure excitement and a desire to celebrate. And even if each person was privately celebrating a different thing, just the act of celebrating gave them a togetherness that would probably have been impossible without the medium of a festival.

And to me, this is the whole point of a festival. It’s the reason that every society around the world has festivals, and honestly it’s a quality that most modern-age festivals lack. New festivals these days aren’t designed to draw a community. They’re designed to entertain a group of individuals. There’s very little room for interaction, and little attempt is made to provide any incentive towards becoming a single united group.

The relatively recent mass migration to the cities has caused people to become so used to living among strangers, with no sense of community, that they no longer make any attempt to facilitate the sense of belonging that everyone craves. We’re no longer just ignoring others; we’re ignoring our own need to belong with others. In many places, the traditional festivals of a time in which community was a much larger part of life will continue to fill the gap as much as they can. But in the meantime, it certainly wouldn’t hurt if we could devise some way to create the same sense of excitement and community in a completely modern setting.

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Festivals are not just entertainment, but are necessary for the well-being of both our communities and our selves. In what ways have you felt moved by a festival – or even a community spirit in any setting? And is modern society really losing the ability to facilitate communities? Feel free to leave any thoughts, or any stories you want to share, in the comments section below.