Posted in Life philosophies

We all have drama

Today’s blog post serves as a bit of sequel to the post I published yesterday. I’d talked about allowing ourselves to acknowledge that feeling unhappy is usually a rational response to unhappy circumstances, and not a state that we should suppress.nIn addition to realising that it’s largely futile to feel bad about feeling bad, I’ve learned during the past ten years that it can sometimes feel like other people’s trouble can make it difficult to talk about our own difficulties.

For example, how can I complain about the behaviour of my neurotypical preschool-aged twins, when many parents cope with far greater challenges because their children may be on the autism spectrum? What right do I have to find it hard to juggle university and motherhood, when I’m doing it with the full support of a loving spouse, an au pair, and a wide network of amazing friends and family members? Other mothers have tackled tertiary education as sole parents, with very little help and support. And let’s be even more macro about it: do any of us, living in peaceful, stable, developed-world countries, have any right to complain about anything, given how awful life is for so many people in the world? The hackneyed phrase ‘first world problems’ is universally employed to dismiss the rights of most of us with electricity and internet access to complain about anything.

I’ve concluded that we all have the right to find our own lives difficult. Although it is always very important to maintain perspective – and being cognizant of the challenges that other people face helps us to do that, I think – we also shouldn’t discount our own problems, just because other people might have bigger problems. After all, if my life is utter mayhem, and yours is merely very busy, does knowing that my days are busier do anything to make your daily experience less busy? Of course not. The two things are entirely unrelated. We can both find our lives busy: we’re not competing in a Busy-ness Olympics, with only one medal available to the busiest person. I’ve had many, many friends who have told me that they’re finding life hard, but who have then hastily continued to say that, of course, it’s nothing compared to what I’m doing. But again, it’s all perspective. I can’t hack life as a stay-at-home mother. The challenges of that life are different to mine, but they’re not less than mine. I may have to stay up very late to write essays or complete assignments, but I also get to leave my house every day and have conversations with adults, and focus on things that don’t involve Paw Patrol or sandwich fillings.

We should grant ourselves the right to acknowledge our own dramas. Failing to do so can make people really unhappy. I know this first-hand: when my babies were tiny I felt terrible that I found new motherhood so grim, given that I’d spent four years trying to conceive. I had also been in a Facebook group of women who were all struggling to conceive, and in many cases had dealt with numerous heartbreaking miscarriages and failed IVF attempts. I am not typically inclined towards guilt, but I did feel really bad about not enjoying every moment of being a mother, because I knew exactly how lucky I was to be a mother at all. Misguided people who responded to my cries for help by telling me that I should enjoy the baby stage probably had no idea how awful it was to hear that, when I was already feeling dreadful about not revelling in the experience.

This stage passed when I realised that life with baby twins was really hard, and that recognising this didn’t mean that I wasn’t also aware of being lucky to have children. Both things were true. And I could find my life hard while still feeling empathy towards those who hadn’t yet started their families. I can even find life with children difficult, while remembering that some people have lost their children – a tragedy I can scarcely even contemplate. I am certain that experience would finish me, and I marvel every day at the grace and resilience of the parents I know whose children are no longer with them. Here’s the thing: my life could be immeasurably worse, but that recognition tends to happen in retrospect, after the tantrum has passed. It’s bloody difficult to call to mind that perspective when your four year old is shrieking at you and you’re snapping and shouting back, and they’re crying, and you’re feeling like the world’s worst parent.

We all have drama. We are all allowed to have drama. Yes, we should be mindful of the struggles of others, and do what we can to help those who have greater problems than ours (whether that involves cooking something delicious for a stressed friend, or setting up a regular donation to a refugee charity, or whatever else we can do to help people on both a micro- and macro-scale). Yes, we should never stop counting our blessings, when the daily storms of our own lives abate a bit and we have capacity to take stock. But we should not dismiss our own problems, simply because others have it even worse. We should reserve a tiny bit of the compassion we extend to others, and grant it to ourselves.

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Posted in Life philosophies

It’s OK to feel bad

Today’s blog post talks about one of my personal life philosophies: that it’s OK to struggle when times are tough. Rather than giving ourselves permission to acknowledge that our feelings might be a completely rational response to a difficult situation, too often we seem to compound their struggles by feeling bad about feeling bad.

A few years ago I was struggling to deal with some potentially life-changing news affecting somebody very dear to me (and, by association, me). I spent months trying to come to terms with the situation before accepting that I was feeling worse and worse, and needed help. Fortunately for me, help was available via my employee health coverage, so I arranged for a short course of sessions with a local counsellor.

At my first appointment I poured my heart out, telling the counsellor what was going on and how I was feeling about it. And rather than trying to reassure me that everything would be OK (which was what most well-intentioned friends and family members did), he simply agreed that it was an awful situation. And then he told me that I should be feeling scared, stressed, unsettled, and overwhelmed, because I was dealing with a scary, stressful, overwhelming, unsettling problem. In other words: it was totally normal to find this particular moment in my life difficult. This was such a straightforward message, and I’m sure some people might not have found it comforting to hear expressed so bluntly, but it was the perfect feedback for me. It gave me permission to stop adding ‘guilt at finding life such a struggle’ to the emotional burden I was carrying around. I can’t pretend that I felt better overnight, but getting this explicit permission to accept and acknowledge the reality of my situation certainly helped me to move on. I still had hard days, but they were never quite as hard after that.

I had a reminder of this life philosophy when my twins were newborns. Life with two babies was astonishingly hard, particularly during the ‘witching hour’ that, in our house, lasted from 5pm until 10pm virtually every night of the twins’ first twelve weeks. At our standard six-week paediatrician’s appointment I tearfully explained hat one of the babies had to have colic or reflux and probably needed medication, because the behaviour we were dealing with was so awful and unsettled. The paediatrician, a big bearded South African chap, very kindly explained to me that what I was describing was completely normal: this was just what newborns are like. His advice? Give up. Stop trying to keep to a routine – instead, make dinner, put the babies in a wrap to have a protracted evening snooze, eat, watch TV, and leave the whole bedtime attempt until later in the evening, when they might be ready.

I’d started life as a twin mother feeling that I might be able to handle it, largely because everybody reassured me that following a routine was key to success. I loved routines in my professional life, so I was sure I could transfer that approach to parenthood. The shock of discovering that babies aren’t robots and can’t just be programmed according to what you’ve read in a parenting manual was a terrible shock to my system, and the stress of trying to keep to a routine hugely contributed to my struggles. Being given permission – by a medical professional – to do less was a revelation. Again, it didn’t result in a miraculous change in my circumstances, but it did help me to find some equilibrium (and ensured that we actually ate dinner occasionally).

As I’ve mentioned before, I sought help earlier this year to deal better with the challenges of juggling university and family life. In that case, I was able to devise strategies that could actually improve my situation (which isn’t always the case with other problems, including the ones I’ve already described), but the benefit of the help was not just the proactive nature of the discussions: it was also the recognition that my situation was hard.

Sometimes, life is tough. Our babies won’t sleep. Our children are challenging. Our jobs or university lives run us ragged. We grapple with health problems, either affecting ourselves or those close to us. We have awful flatmates. We have relationship dramas. I’ve learned the hard way that the worst thing we can do is to fight against the perfectly understandable feelings that occur as a reaction to tough times. When you’re having a hard time the last thing you should be doing in putting on a brave face, or privately beating yourself up for struggling. Be kind to yourself. Do what makes you happy. Talk to a professional, if that’s what works for you (it definitely works for me). Vent to friends and family members, and assure them that they don’t need to solve your problems – they just need to listen. Remember that it’s OK – it’s normal – to find life difficult, so just go with it. This too will pass.

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Posted in Pop culture

Podcasts

Today’s blog post talks about my current favourite podcasts – a couple that I’ve listened to for a while, and a few that are new discoveries for me.  Qualities I like in podcasts:

  • Funny (they don’t have to be side-splittingly hilarious, but I appreciate some wit)
  • More than one presenter (solo-presenter podcasts don’t do it for me – I like the dynamic of two or more witty people interacting with each other)
  • Smart (even if they’re mostly just being funny)

Fletch, Vaughan, and Megan

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I like Fletch, Vaughan, and Megan because they manage to be very funny, but without resorting to cheap shots or being mean-spirited. And because they’re on mainstream radio (with the podcast being a daily ‘best of’ summary of their morning show), their podcasts are G-rated and can be played in the car without your young children picking up any phrases you’d rather they didn’t hear. I’ve loved this podcast for years – it’s reliably excellent, and I make sure we’ve downloaded a good stock of episodes before embarking on long car journeys. I’d rate them as the funniest media personalities in New Zealand, by quite some margin. And they often help to restore my faith in my fellow Kiwis: Megan is actually a pretty serious feminist, once you listen to her attitudes on a few issues, and Vaughan is a really enlightened character.

My Dad Wrote a Porno

My older sister, Pip, suggested this podcast to me a couple of months ago, and I am so grateful – it’s bloody hilarious. The premise is brilliant: if your father decides to write a truly dreadful erotic novel, what better thing to do than grab a couple of your friends and read it aloud? This stuff is not for the faint-hearted, because the erotic novels they’re critiquing are disturbingly bad, filled with the kind of sex scenes that could send you fleeing to a nunnery. And it’s definitely not child-friendly, obviously. But all that aside, I thoroughly recommend this one. It routinely causes me to snort-laugh while travelling on my morning bus.

Happier with Gretchen Rubin

I’ve written before about how much I enjoy Gretchen Rubin’s work, and her podcast presents bite-sized morsels of the messages in her books. She delivers it with her sister, Liz Craft, and together they make helpful suggestions of small changes that might improve their listeners’ general happiness levels. They are also very frank about they ways in which they inadvertently sabotage their own happiness. I like how honest they are, and I appreciate the thoughtfulness of their approach. They also have a really nice sibling relationship, which is something I always appreciate.

Happier in Hollywood

This podcast is a spin-off of Happier with Gretchen Rubin, and stars Liz Craft and Sarah Fain, her long-term writing partner. This is a very new podcast – only seven or eight episodes in – and I really enjoy it. It’s a more casual version of the original Happier podcast, and Liz and Sarah are witty and irreverent. It’s also entertaining because it’s set in the context of Hollywood and the world of TV production, which sounds bonkers.

The Other F Word

This podcast was on my list of things to check out for ages, primarily because one of its hosts is Sara Singer Schiff, a friend and ex-colleague from my time working for a US-owned internet company in London, in 2000 and 2001. Sara was such a lovely woman, and when I saw on Facebook that she’s started a podcast I knew it would be good. I wasn’t wrong – I’m only two episodes in, but I really love it. The Other F Word is all about embracing failure: about how the times when we don’t succeed actually make us human, and should be accepted and celebrated, not hidden away. I like the dynamic between the hosts, and I love the whole premise of this podcast – plus, it’s great to hear about Sara’s life, given that we live thousands of miles away and have only seen each other once in the past 15 years.

The Guilty Feminist

This is a brand new discovery for me – literally (I’m only one episode in) – but it’s very funny, and also successfully manages to make me think about how women of my generation are navigating feminism. I really like it so far, and I’m looking forward to to listening more.


Do you know a great podcast that you think I’d enjoy? Please let me know!

 

Posted in Work

Studio

When I signed up for an urban planning degree I had no idea the extent to which Studio papers would dominate my academic life. These papers teach students about urban design principles, both through learning the various theories and through applying them at different scales. The work is presented on A3 posters, typically as a combination of text and graphics.

For me, these papers were an enormous learning curve, and one that was particularly stressful in the first semester. To produce work to a suitable standard we were expected to use Photoshop, and, later, AutoCad, and these are not easy things to learn while also trying to produce work for submission. Photoshop is not at all intuitive when you’re trying to get to grips with it, and even after two and a half years my skills are very basic.

My friends and family have heard and seen how much my Studio papers have dominated my university life. Each assignment would require so much work – not just to digest design theories and come up with concepts, but to physically produce the posters for submission. We also typically had to write a 1,500 word report to support each project. Formatting pages in Photoshop is such a laborious process, and pretty much the worst kind of task for anybody with latent perfectionist tendencies (like me): you can’t help but want to make sure every line is perfect, and it’s exhausting. Our tutors would work with us on a consultation basis: we’d produce work, they’d critique it, we’d try to fix it, they’d critique it some more, we’d try to fix it again, we’d cry, we’d threaten to drop out, and we’d finish everything at the last minute. Because of the nature of the consultative process, it was seldom possible to finalise design decisions until late in the project, because you would continually refine your work in response to tutor feedback and the theoretical stuff you were reading.

However, a fortnight ago I finished the final studio assignment of my degree – a cause for great celebration. So, for your viewing pleasure, here’s a sample page from each of my assignments. Amongst many other things, it shows how my design skills have improved, albeit very slightly…

First Year

1: Street scape study

This was an attempt to learn about the principles of urban design (legibility, permeability, etc). The Photoshop skills required for this one nearly killed me.

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2. Residential typologies

We were allocated different residential typologies and had to find a good example of our option, and write about it. My example was a cool building in Zurich.

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3: Designing an apartment building

We were allocated an existing residential site and had to demolish the house and replace it with a small apartment building, which we had to design. I tried to design a family-friendly building, to challenge the idea that families in New Zealand can only live comfortably in detached houses. We were expected to hand draw all of our plans, which was seriously challenging.

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4. Analysing a block and its surrounding area

This was my least-favourite assignment of the entire degree…

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5. Redesigning a low density housing area

This was the continuation of the last assignment, and involved redesigning the street network, and replacing low density housing with apartments.

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Second Year

6. Analysing my neighbourhood

This and the following assignment were my favourites – I love working at this scale, and I want to specialise in community design when I’ve graduated. In this assignment, we analysed our own neighbourhoods according to neighbourhood design principles, which included producing a hand-drawn map from memory, to see how we actually perceive where we live (blank spaces in some annotations are the result of me removing identifying information).

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7. Neighbourhood redesign

I absolutely LOVED this assignment. We were allocated a neighbourhood near where we lived, and had to redesign it to better incorporate design principles (to support things like a better pedestrian experience – with smaller blocks and fewer cul-de-sacs, for example) and higher density housing to complement existing low density housing.

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8. Designing according to the Unitary Plan

The Unitary Plan is the document that will shape Auckland for decades to come, but there are many questions regarding the design outcomes that are likely as a result of its rules. For this assignment we had to redesign a site in accordance with the Unitary Plan.

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9. Designing a town centre

For this project we had to redesign an area designated by the Unitary Plan as a town centre. We were told that the design had to include a central plaza, so this was mine. I made use of a lot of photos I’d taken in France, to illustrate my design ideas. This was also my first time designing with AutoCad, which was wonderful once I got used to it: so much easier to make changes.

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Third Year

10. A ‘catalogue’ for a future design

This assignment involved developing a ‘catalogue’ of buildings, in order to design according to the guidance provided for creating a Pedestrian Pocket (a transit-oriented development).

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11. Regional design strategy

For this assignment we wrote a big literature review to explore concepts related to regional growth strategies, and supplemented it with a proposed strategy to add 70,000 new dwellings to a currently-rural part of Auckland.

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12. Group regional growth strategy

For our second-to-last assignment we had to work in small groups, collectively refine our regional growth strategies, and write a report to explain our decisions.

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13. Transit-oriented Development

My last Studio assignment! I designed a transit-oriented development, designed to provide housing for around 4,000 people, and jobs for around 8,000 people (using a lot of the ‘catalogue’ I developed from a few assignments earlier).

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Despite the huge amount of work involved, and the severe stress and sleep deprivation that producing assignments often entailed, I did really enjoy this component of the degree – no feeling at uni matched the satisfaction of finishing these enormous projects, or of getting good grades for them. Although I don’t intend to pursue an urban design career as a practitioner, the area of the field upon which I would like to focus will definitely make good use of the knowledge and experience I’ve gained. 

Posted in Work

Life offline

Today’s blog post explains what life has been like during the past three months.

I’ve had a really busy semester, with eleven pieces of course work due over the twelve week period. I’m nearly finished for this half of the year, and then I’ll have three weeks off with the family, and an additional week off with my mother, sunning ourselves on a Rarotongan beach.

I changed how I approached university this year. 2016 was my first year as a full-time student (this time round, anyway), and it was hard. I felt driven by a lot of self-imposed pressure to achieve very high grades, partially because I was fixated on whether I might want to pursue post-graduate study, which would require scholarships (which are usually contingent on grades), and partially because I have a healthy ego and had fooled myself into thinking that I should do really well at everything. The outcome was good grades, but at the expense of a lot of personal happiness for me and for those who are closest to me: I worked a lot, had many late nights, and was permanently tired, which was stressful for all concerned.

But this year I got some help from an amazing counsellor I know, and devised a strategy that would better enable a reasonable work-life balance. Amongst other things, this included:

  1. Treating uni like a job: working there all day, but not taking work home with me in the evening;
  2. Acknowledging that, when my degree is finished, nobody will care what marks I received for each assignment, or even what my grades were for each paper I sat; and
  3. Recognising that, while it is important to be ambitious, it is equally important to be happy.

For the most part I have managed to keep these guidelines in mind. I’ve left my laptop in my locker at the end of the day from Monday to Thursday most of the time, with occasional assignment-related exceptions. I’ve only had three or four very late nights of assignment-writing, and I’ve even managed to cut back on the amount of weekend work I was doing.

The change has been transformative. Although this past semester has been the busiest one to date, I haven’t felt stressed out by it – I’ve had none of that horrible, overwhelmed, ‘the slightest thing is going to reduce me to tears’ kind of feeling that was pretty much my default throughout much of 2016. I think the most fruitful change I’ve made was the decision to stop work at the end of each day. I am at uni from 8am until 4.30pm, Monday until Friday, and I spend most of that time in lectures, or working on assignments.

I’ve also learned about opportunity cost from a personal perspective. At the moment, I have to prioritise university, because I don’t have the time and energy to juggle it with a busy social life, for example. This means that the kids and I have far fewer play dates than was the case in 2016. Although I miss my friends, and really enjoy it when we do get to see each other, I know that this period of my life won’t last forever, and I’m better off being realistic about how much time I need for study, rather than cutting my uni time short and paying the price later. Luckily, my friends are lovely, understanding people who totally recognise what I’m up against. My husband is endlessly supportive of my workload, and my children are very tolerant and accepting, and cared for by a wonderful au pair who ensures that their non-kindy time is filled with fun. And I did manage to squeeze in a weekend away with four twin mum friends a few weeks ago, which was just what I needed.

I found it easier to focus on my work after learning about the benefits of mindfulness. I wanted to improve my ability to do one task at a time, instead of attempting to multi-task and not doing anything well. I picked up some tips via the free courses provided by two apps – Calm, and Headspace – and both were excellent. During the first few weeks of the semester I’d listen on my phone during my morning bus ride, and would sit there with my eyes closed and my headphones in, meditating. My habit is now to meditate each evening, when I go to bed. It definitely helps me get to sleep very easily. I need to get better at meditating each morning, to set myself up for the day ahead.

I’ve also tried to eat more healthily this year. My attempts to be a sugar-free abstainer still face occasional hurdles, and I seem to have morphed into a 90% moderator, but I will continue to work on this habit. Another habit I’m trying to develop – regular exercise – remains elusive, and although I’ve been able to link this to a lack of time throughout the semester, I now have time while on study leave, and am still not running every day like I’d intended.

The last change I’ve made this year is the decision to consciously spend less time online, specifically on Facebook. I love Facebook because it enables me to keep updated with my friends’ and extended family’s lives, and because I’m in some fantastic groups, full of amazingly smart and interesting women. When my uni work is going well I don’t find it difficult to be disciplined about staying off Facebook during the day, but if I’m struggling with a tough assignment it is too easy to go online and become embroiled in a fascinating conversation, or mindlessly scroll through people’s updates. To combat this, I’ve asked Tristan to change my Facebook password, so once I’ve logged out, I can’t get in again. I’ve also removed the Facebook app from my phone, so I’m even less tempted. For a few weeks I just had Facebook on our iPad at home, but recently, with two huge deadlines and an exam within ten days of each other, I’ve logged out there as well. I find that, after a day or two, I barely miss it.

Facebook isn’t the only online distraction, and to stop general time-wasting I’ve found a cute app called Forest, to help me be more mindful of the time I waste reading online news when I should be working. It enables you to grow virtual trees while you don’t use your device – and if you give in and leave the app, your tree dies. It’s a visual reminder that you really don’t want to waste time online when you could be working. It’s helped me to keep my phone out of my hand, and my mind on my work, so I think it was $2.99 well spent.

The changes I’ve made are working for me: less stress, better sleep, fewer late nights – and, very surprisingly – higher marks for my course work. I had braced myself for my grades to take a dip, and had told myself that this was an acceptable trade-off in light of the benefits of my new approach. Yay for happy side effects!

 

Posted in Feminism, Life philosophies

Grey hair, don’t care

Today’s blog post explains why – in 2010, when I was 35 – I stopped dyeing my hair.

There are two reasons:

  1. The minor ‘opportunity cost’ reason; and
  2. The more significant ‘colouring grey hair is anti-feminist’ reason.

Opportunity cost

I stopped dyeing my hair because I no longer wanted to spend at least a couple of hours every four weeks in a hair salon. I also didn’t want to pay for colouring my hair on a regular basis (and didn’t want to pay for cheaper dye and try to do it at home – I am pale, my hair colour was brown, and I was insufficiently dextrous to manage the job without dyeing my ears and having strange dye markings on my forehead and neck).

If you’re disinterested in feminist discourse, this would be a good place to stop reading. If you choose to keep reading, but then find what follows wildly upsetting or offensive, please feel free to start your own blog, write a rebuttal, and send me the link.

Colouring grey hair is anti-feminist

I believe that, whether we choose to accept or acknowledge it, ALL women living in the developed world are viewed according to a very narrow set of appearance standards, and we all follow those standards to some degree.

This does not make us ‘bad feminists’: it makes us people who may choose to challenge some standards but not others. This can be because we have internalised some of the appearance standards so successfully that we genuinely believe that we choose to prefer a certain look entirely independently of the societal expectations placed upon us – and it’s very hard to test that, because you’d need to raise somebody entirely free of the influence of appearance standards, which is virtually impossible. Signs of this thinking can be seen a lot when you do what I did, and stop colouring your hair: I’ve honestly lost count of the number of friends who have told me that they think my hair, which must be at least 40% grey now (and ‘grey’ is a euphemism – my hair is going white), looks great, but that they can’t imagine doing the same thing because their hair won’t look as good as mine. Actually, that’s a lie: virtually everybody I know with whom I’ve ever talked about my lack of hair colour has made that comment, so I could pretty much add up all of the female friends and family members I’ve spoken to in the past six years, and give you a precise figure. These women genuinely don’t believe that they will be able to ‘pull off’ grey hair. And it’s true that, in some lights, my greying hair looks sun-bleached, or even deliberately highlighted. But let’s be honest: you don’t have to look at it for long before you realise that it’s just grey hair:

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It can also be that we are well aware that we routinely accept appearance standards, despite knowing that they are unfair, unrealistic, or unattainable. There’s no shame in that – we are social creatures, and it’s important to us to be accepted and recognised by our broader tribe. However, I believe that we shouldn’t be disingenuous about it. We can acknowledge that we feel pressure to look a certain way (even if it’s self-inflicted pressure, because we’ve grown up believing that only smooth legs are attractive, or that wrinkles are ugly, and now we can’t de-programme ourselves), but that we continue to met the appearance standard regardless. Or it could be that we’re steadily trying to de-programme ourselves, one element at a time. It takes confidence to do that, and some women never obtain it in sufficient quantities to reject even one of the appearance standards. There’s nothing wrong with that – but, again, I think it’s a good thing to be cognisant of what’s going on.

The appearance standards aren’t a new phenomenon: women have been expected to look a certain way for a long time, and certainly long before the proliferation of mass media that we now often hold accountable for the appearance standards against which we’re judged. In virtually every example, appearance standards have developed from what heterosexual men consider to be attractive at the relevant point in time. It has been a few centuries since both men and women felt obliged to wear makeup, elaborate wigs, and restrictive or excessively decorative clothing in order to appear fashionable or attractive. Men recognised that time spent on adorning themselves was time that could be better spent on any number of alternative pursuits, and men’s fashion and appearance standards became simpler. However, the standards for women continued, and still continue.

Some examples of the appearance standards that apply almost exclusively to women include:

  • Maintaining an artificially low body weight;
  • Wearing makeup;
  • Removing body hair in order to have smooth skin (instead of to avoid a beard);
  • Wearing restrictive or impractical clothing;
  • Using cosmetic surgery or other procedures to avoid or correct signs of ageing; and
  • Dyeing grey hair.

These points highlight the key theme of the appearance standards applied to women: the value placed on women appearing as young as possible, for as long as possible. Men are allowed to age gracefully, but women are encouraged by a wide range of subtle and blatant practices to view any physical evidence of ageing as intrinsically unattractive. There’s a reason for this, of course: historically men have valued women primarily as the bearers of their children, and as we age we obviously lose the ability to conceive. Younger women are also traditionally more malleable and less likely to contradict men.

So, when we wear makeup to make our complexions look smooth, with the flushed cheeks and darker lips that mimic sexual arousal, we’re emphasising youth. If we shave our underarms, legs, and bikini lines, we’re harking back to the time when we were younger and didn’t have as much body hair. Younger women are often slim, and as we get older we tend to gain weight (particularly after having children). I believe that all of these statements apply, even if we don’t fully appreciate that these reasons are why we feel compelled to wear makeup, remove body hair, or stay as slim as possible. And the blatant attempts to conceal ageing through cosmetic procedures and the cover-up of grey hair really don’t need any further explanation.

I think it’s obvious why this is all anti-feminist: feminism is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.’ Appearance standards that apply almost exclusively to women are, by definition, anti-feminist. Obviously, there are some exceptions – there are some men who choose to colour their grey hair, or use cosmetic surgery or other procedures to combat the physical signs of ageing. We live in a rabidly anti-fat modern society, so men also may feel pressure to view their body fat with disgust (although you don’t see many men around who are maintaining an artificially low body weight). And many younger men take a great deal of pride in their general grooming and personal appearance – but the effort required will almost always extend no further than having a good haircut, and shaving regularly. Recently, shaving has become less of an issue in light of the hipster fashion for beards, that most masculine of facial accessory.

For the most part, the men in our lives spend a tiny fraction of their time devoted to their appearance, particularly when compared to the time spent by the women in our lives. What confounds me is how – even in an age where I honestly know of very few women who, when forced to set aside their prejudices against the term ‘feminist’ and whatever undesirable political or social connotations it holds for them, and instead just acknowledge its true meaning, wouldn’t qualify as feminists – so many of us keep obeying the appearance standards. We don’t question why it is that, for example, men’s underarm hair is totally normal, but women’s underarm hair is regarded as ‘dirty’ or ‘gross’, and cultures where women don’t shave under their arms are ridiculed for it. Do women have special magical underarm hair that becomes more offensive when they sweat? Or is it simply because any normal bodily odours are regarded as ‘unfeminine’, and woe betide any woman that doesn’t value and emphasise her femininity?

And pertinent to the topic of colouring grey hair: why is my 72 year old mother unwilling to stop dyeing her hair, because she feels like it will make her look like an old lady (despite being an absolute legend who got her law degree in her fifties and is still practising, helping families in crisis on a daily basis), while my 72 year old father has snow white hair, and not much of it left, but wouldn’t dream of concealing it? My mother is quite justified in her concerns, in my opinion: in a professional context people possibly would make negative assumptions about her competence and mental acuity, based on their perception of how older women typically think and behave, but those people would almost certainly not make the same assumptions regarding my father. My mother has a young face, and with dyed hair she does look younger than 72. Like I said, it’s a man’s world.

So, I stopped colouring my grey hair because I was fed up with imposing yet another appearance standard on myself, and, in particular, an ageist appearance standard. I refuse to accept the idea that greying hair is ugly, or that looking older is a bad thing, or that getting older is a bad thing. We systematically undervalue older people in society, and it is a disgrace. One day soon it’ll be our parents who are being disregarded and seen as sexless, witless, and irrelevant, on account of their age – and then, before you know it, it’ll be us.

Like I said earlier, many women with strong feminist sensibilities are on a de-programming spectrum when it comes to appearance standards – and many more of us are entirely and unhappily aware of the appearance standards, but choose to keep obeying them. I don’t colour my grey hair, but here’s what I still do:

  • Prefer to be a body weight that is on the light side of healthy for my height;
  • Wear makeup on occasion (although I’ve stopped wearing it at all on a day to day basis);
  • Remove ‘excess’ body hair (in the summer, at least); and
  • Make at least some attempt to wear flattering clothes, most of the time.

The above list is why I have no judgement for anybody who chooses to get Botox, dye their hair, live on a permanent diet, put their makeup on as soon as they wake up each morning, and remove all hair south of their eyelashes. Also, I have no judgement because it’s none of my business what other women choose to do to their bodies. However, I do harshly judge women who feel that it’s appropriate to criticise other women who have rejected certain appearance standards (and this includes consumers of magazines that gleefully highlight any apparent step away from the appearance standards by celebrities who may have gained weight, or neglected to get a face lift after their thirtieth birthday). My suggestion is this: rather than making unpleasant remarks about somebody’s hairy legs or whatever, we should probably wonder what we can do to gain the same amount of body confidence that the hairy-legged woman possesses – after all, she’s turned her back on something that most of us are still enslaved by. And any woman who negatively comments on the physical signs of ageing in another woman needs to worry less about what people look like, and more about what people do.

Posted in Life philosophies

Abstaining and moderating

The year is only a few weeks old and already I’ve recommended Gretchen Rubin’s fantastic book Better Than Before to several people who want to change their lives in small and meaningful ways. I really enjoyed this book when I first read it in 2015, and again when I reread it recently: Rubin explores the science behind forming and maintaining habits, reasoning that establishing patterns of behaviour as habits makes it easier for most people to achieve daily goals, because they no longer have to expend much mental energy on choosing to behave in a certain way. Her rationale is that, like we don’t need to put any effort into brushing our teeth twice a day – it’s just a habit – we can develop similar habits in all areas of our lives.

A key element of her book is what she describes as the Four Tendencies: four personality profiles that shape how people respond to internal and external expectations. They are: Upholders (who find it easy to meet their own goals, and the broader ‘rules’ of society); Questioners (who find it easy to meet their own goals, but only worry about other people’s rules if they believe that they’re sensible and relevant); Obligers (who always strive to meet other people’s expectations, but sometimes struggle to meet their internal goals unless they can externalise them – like having a running partner to ensure that you stick to a running plan); and Rebels (who don’t want to be tied down by their own goals, or anybody else’s rules. I really urge you to seek out this book and learn more about it all (and also listen to Rubin’s podcast, which is excellent, and follow her on Facebook, and read her blog). Better Than Before is full of useful strategies for establishing good habits (and dropping bad habits), tailored to work with your ‘Tendency’.

Today I want to talk about an idea that Rubin discusses, because it resonated with me when I first read Better Than Before, and continues to make sense to me. Essentially, she challenges the accepted wisdom that attempting to totally give up something – particularly in the case of trying to eat healthily, for example – is doomed to fail, and that moderation is key. Rubin’s response to this idea is that moderation works for some people, but that for many others total abstinence is easier. Her rationale is that abstinence actually takes far less mental energy than the effort required to decide how much moderation is enough. Here’s an extract from Better Than Before that explains her perspective:

Within the study of habits, certain tensions reappear: whether to accept myself or expect more from myself; whether to embrace the present or consider the future; whether to think about myself or forget myself. Because habit formation often requires us to relinquish something we want, a constant challenge is: How can I deprive myself of something without feeling deprived? When it comes to habits, feeling deprived is a pernicious state. When we feel deprived, we feel entitled to compensate ourselves – often, in ways that undermine our good habits.

I realized that one way to deprive myself without creating a feeling of deprivation is to deprive myself totally. Weirdly, when I deprive myself altogether, I feel as though I haven’t deprived myself at all. When we Abstainers deprive ourselves totally, we conserve energy and willpower, because there are no decisions to make and no self-control to muster.

“Abstainers” do better when they follow all-or-nothing habits. “Moderators”, by contrast, are people who do better when they indulge moderately.

Abstaining is a counterintuitive and non universal strategy. It absolutely doesn’t work for everyone. But for people like me, it’s enormously useful.

As an Abstainer, if I try to be moderate, I exhaust myself debating: How much can I have? Does this time “count”? If I had it yesterday, can I have it today? In Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, a character remarks, “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it,” and it can be a relief to give in, to end the tiresome mental chatter about whether and why and when to indulge. But I’d discovered, abstaining cures that noise just as effectively. I’m not tempted by things I’ve decided are off-limits. If I never do something, it requires no self-control to maintain that habit.

This was a bit of a revolutionary concept for me, but it totally appealed to my Upholder nature: I’ve always enjoyed giving stuff up, because I like reminding myself that I control my body and my life, and am not in thrall to anything or anybody else. So, last summer, I gave up my drug of choice:

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And I discovered that Rubin was right: it was FAR EASIER to just never eat sweets, rather than endlessly trying to moderate my sweet-eating (I really love sweets). I didn’t go all hard-core and “I QUIT SUGAR!!” about it (in other words, I wasn’t religiously reading lists of ingredients when buying loaves of bread), but I stopped eating things that were obviously full of sugar: sweets, chocolate, soft drinks, fruit juice, cakes, biscuits, and all desserts and puddings. I also tried to eat less fruit and more vegetables.

This was a hugely successful strategy for me: I lost four or five kilos, which was nice, but more importantly I gained a huge amount of energy as my blood sugar stopped climbing and plummeting in response to what I ate. I found that, as time went by, my typical eating each day involved a lot more protein and vegetables, and that it was no hardship at all to eat in this way.

But… during 2016 my university year was horrendous, and I started comfort-eating sweet stuff occasionally. And then a little bit more often. And then nearly every day. And then daily. And it confirmed for me that I am not a Moderator: I love sweet food too much to be able to control myself. ‘A bag of sweets on Friday night’ would turn into “Oh – we’re going to the cinema, so I’ll have my bag of sweets on Tuesday this week”, and then Friday would arrive and I’d have that bag of sweets again – plus a hot chocolate nearly every day, and biscuits if they were around. The outcome has been the return of those four or five kilos I lost, and while that’s not a drama (I’m a healthy weight at either end of that particular equation), I know that my body doesn’t function well when I eat too much sugar: I don’t sleep well; I get more tired; I have digestive issues… really, sugar IS a drug for me, and not a good one.

So I’m on my third day of my return to sugar abstinence, and this time I’m determined to stick with it. The whole situation has reminded me of something else Rubin has written in the past, about how having a slip-up is sometimes necessary in order to remind you about what works for you. And if you’ve also struggled to control your consumption of something, maybe you might want to try the Abstaining approach too, and see if ‘deciding not to decide’ works for you.