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“There’s no question kids are missing out on very critical social skills. It puts everybody in a nonverbal disabled context, where body language, facial expression, and even the smallest kinds of vocal reactions are rendered invisible.” – Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist.

Gen Z were the first generation to grow up amidst social media, with the first notable site, Six Degrees, being created in 1997. Rapidly, social media has proliferated out of control, gaining popularity across the well known sites we know today. 

But what effects has this had on generations starting with Gen Z and that of which followed?

A popular documentary released on Netflix called ‘The Social Dilemma’ examines this and the damaging effect that this has had on children’s social skills. Teenagers in particular have been the primary focus and their ability to create new relationships.

“We’ve created a world in which online connection has become primary. Especially for younger generations. And yet, in that world, anytime two people connect, the only way it’s financed is through a sneaky third person whose paying to manipulate those two people. So we’ve created an entire global generation of people who were raised within a context with the very meaning of communication, the very meaning of culture, is manipulation.” – Jaron Lainer, founding father of Virtual Reality Computer Scientist

In America, a short survey was conducted to discuss this by The Teen Advisory Board (TAB), and they discovered:

– 75% of teens said social media negatively affected their romantic relationship

– 77% chose texting as one of the popular ways to start a relationship

– 82% said texting is one of the two ways to end a relationship.

As children engage in face-to-face communication, they are developing social skills through vocal and visual cues which brings context to the situation. These communication cues can be portrayed through eye contact, tone of voice, facial expressions and space between individuals (Knapp & Hall, 2010).

But if children are communicating solely through social media, they aren’t learning these non-verbal communication skills that are necessary to succeed in life.

It has become trendy across all social media platforms for Gen Z to joke about their social incompetencies with comments such as needing their parents to book doctor’s appointments for them because they’re afraid to talk over the phone, but to what extent is this going to affect how society will function in the future? 

“We’re training and conditioning a whole new generation of people that when we are uncomfortable or lonely or uncertain or afraid, we have a digital pacifier for ourselves. That is kind of atrophying our own ability to deal with that.” – Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Google and co-founder of Centre for Humane Technologies

Perhaps social media isn’t the future, but something that needs to be changed or consumed in extreme moderation.

We rely on health advice from an industry that simply promotes the latest fad, designed to exploit the vulnerable out of their money. Diet culture wants us to feel bad about our bodies, leading us down a dangerous path of disordered eating behaviours and exercise misuse, inevitably, only profiting those who fool us.

Weight loss TV shows, stick thin celebrities, the ‘obesity epidemic’, Body Mass Index (BMI), bad foods and ‘skinny’ jeans. As a millennial, these were terms and images I was heavily exposed to throughout my childhood and teenage years.

I was a 15 year old girl, eagerly jogging on my treadmill in front of the TV while watching The Biggest Loser. I would dream of living a life like the contestants, exercising for hours on end and following strict eating regimes to ‘transform’ my body.

At school we learnt about BMI, and were required to calculate our own measurements; an activity becoming a petri dish of comparisons and judgment.

The influences that I grew up with were seen as normal, and even healthy, but have resulted in detrimental and dangerous outcomes. I am not alone in my history of disordered eating.

Close to 1 million Australians are living with an eating disorder, with less than one quarter of those receiving treatment or support. A 2012 report commissioned by The Butterfly Foundation, found that females make up 64% of the total.

Eating Disorders

An eating disorder is a mental illness which can be identified as an unhealthy preoccupation with exercise, body weight or shape, and eating habits. Eating disorder behaviours can include restricting, bingeing, compulsive overeating and purging. Purging can extend to vomiting, laxative abuse and excessive exercising.

There are also secondary eating disorder behaviours, which can often fly under the radar due to the influence of diet culture, which creates a sense of normalcy when it comes to obsessing over wellness.

Secondary Eating Disorder Behaviours

Carolyn Costin is a clinician, author and speaker, well-known for her expertise in the eating disorder field. In her book 8 Keys to Recovery from an Eating Disorder, she discusses food rules, food rituals and exercise dependance.

Food rules:
  • Being unable to trust internal hunger and fullness cues without a ‘rule’ or ‘guide’.
  • Limiting choices of foods or food groups based on rules.
  • Measuring foods based on numbers such as calories or time.
  • Feeling a sense of control over food, and therefore out of control when food rules cannot be followed.
Food rituals:
  • Participating in food behaviours that create a sense of ‘safety’ around food.
  • Preparing food in a specific way.
  • Consuming foods at the same time every day.
  • Eating foods in a particular order.
  • A feeling of anxiety if the food ritual cannot be followed.
Exercise misuse:
  • Compulsive exercise is a commonly justified behaviour.
  • Exercise is no longer a choice, but an obligation.
  • Exercise is linked to self worth.
  • Exercise is continued through injury and illness.
  • Social engagements are cancelled for exercise.
  • Exercise is used to compensate for eating.

Diet Culture

Diet culture has a long history, and its roots are embedded in the media, science, medicine, religion and racism today. The anti-diet movement has been established to fight back against an industry that we are conditioned to believe has our best interests at heart.

Christy Harrison is an intuitive eating coach, anti-diet dietitian, and author of Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating.

She describes diet culture as a system that:

  • “Worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue, which means you can spend your whole life thinking you’re irreparably broken just because you don’t look like the impossibly thin “ideal”.
  • Promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status, which means you feel compelled to spend a massive amount of time, energy, and money trying to shrink your body, even though the research is very clear that almost no one can sustain intentional weight loss for more than a few years.
  • Demonizes certain foods while elevating others, which means you’re forced to be hyper-vigilant about your eating, ashamed of your food choices, and distracted from your pleasure, your purpose, and your power.
  • And oppresses people who don’t match up with its supposed picture of “health,” which means you experience internalized stigma and shame—and perhaps external stigma and discrimination as well—for all the ways in which you don’t meet diet culture’s impossible standards.”

Diet culture is cunning and clever, we may not even realise when it is meddling with our lives. The identifying trends and behaviours are so normalised in society today, that it sneaks up on us in workplace lunch rooms, at social events, even through our internal voice, which may echo the food rules from our dieting pasts. Diet culture is inescapable.

“The implication is clear: eating anything other than the correct diaita made people less than fully human. The term diet, then, was bound up from the start with ideas about morality, restriction, the renunciation of pleasure, and the superiority of certain races.”

The Anti-Diet Approach

Anti-diet is anti-diet culture. The approach has a focus on overall wellbeing, rather than weight loss, and it shows us how the foods we eat and what our bodies look like, are not tied to moral virtue or social status.

Diet culture makes us believe that we have to ‘beat’ our hunger and change our bodies in order to find happiness and self worth.

Christy says, “Diet culture is a form of oppression, and dismantling it is essential for creating a world that’s just and peaceful for people in ALL bodies.”

Research supports this notion and confirms that diet’s don’t work. A 2019 study concludes: “The increases in BMI and WC were greater in dieters than in non‐dieters, suggesting dieting attempts to be non‐functional in the long term in the general population.”

To adopt the anti-diet approach, we need to keep our wits about us. Organisations know that diets don’t work, and have been moving away from language such as ‘diet’ and ‘weight loss’, instead, changing their language to terms like ‘wellness’. The diets have not ceased, they have just changed forms.

Diets are often disguised through buzz words such as ‘protocol’, ‘clean eating’, ‘health reset’, ‘nutrition challenge’ or ’lifestyle change’.

How can we adopt the anti-diet approach and fight back against diet culture? We can keep an eye out for diet culture red flags.

Diet Culture Red Flags

  • Wellness programs with a weight loss focus.
  • The use of before and after photos.
  • A program that gives food a moral value such as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, including ‘traffic light’ systems and the like, that categorise foods.
  • Eliminating foods or food groups, without a medical reason.
  • Focusing on numbers such as calories, percentages, or time.
  • Buzz words like ‘cleansing’ or ‘detoxing’.
  • Tracking of calories, exercise or steps.

What can we do now to start adopting the anti-diet approach? We can identify diet culture through it’s red flags, notice our own internal dialogue when it comes to food, say no to fad and perfectionistic diets, and unfollow social media accounts that make us feel bad about our bodies or food choices. When we stop engaging in diet culture, diet culture loses its power.

“Weight loss doesn’t heal people from their internalised weight stigma. Bad body image is not cured by weight loss.” – Lisa DuBreuil in Anti-Diet.

As Australia’s cosmetic surgery rates surpass America’s, our obsession with social media and the current COVID-19 pandemic creates a minefield for those who struggle with disordered eating and body image issues.

 So far, 2020 has been a lot to process. In what will most likely be a once-in-a-lifetime historical event, the world has been totally affected by COVID-19 – a virus which has so far killed more than 264,000 people.

As Australia combats this, most of us have found ourselves on leave, unemployed or working from home. As the lockdowns have progressed many businesses have shut down and the nation’s gyms have not been immune.

In recent weeks, there has been a lot of content online focused on exercising from home, especially on Instagram, which has become flooded with posts about ‘body goals’, losing weight and becoming ‘healthier’ in quarantine.

The COVID-19 pandemic offers numerous triggers for those who are struggling with an eating disorder or those with distorted body image and low self-esteem.

“We understand that the prevalent discussions around stock-piling food, increased hygiene measures, food shortages and lock-ins can be incredibly distressing and triggering for people experiencing disordered eating or an eating disorder,” states The Butterfly Foundation in relation to COVID-19. 

When you combine these triggers with an increase in spare time to spend scrolling social media, such as Instagram, this can create the Perfect Storm.

Instagram and its tribe of entrepreneurs and models is no stranger to criticism from body positivity advocates, largely because the app is focused on images, a majority of which are highly edited. The concept of Instagram is the ideal social media app- share images and see images of your family and friends – plus your favourite celebrities, bridging the gap between fan and friend.

Instagram launched in 2010 and had 1 million users within two months, it has since been purchased by Facebook and become one of the largest social media platforms in the world.

The New Yorker journalist Jia Tolentino has talked extensively concerning the phenomenon of Instagram models, and their strikingly similar looks in ‘The Age of the Instagram Face’. 

She writes, “The gradual emergence, among professionally beautiful women, of a single, cyborgian face. It’s a young face, of course, with pore-less skin and plump, high cheekbones. It has catlike eyes and long, cartoonish lashes; it has a small, neat nose and full, lush lips.”

The commodification of women was once selling the products to make us beautiful, but as ‘Instagram Face’ rises and social media continues to excel, cosmetic surgery becomes more commonplace than it ever has been before.

Presently Australia’s cosmetic surgery numbers have surpassed America’s; in 2017 Australian’s spent more than 1 billion dollars on plastic surgery, surpassing America’s procedures per capita numbers, a feat considering America is often considered the ground zero for enhanced beauty.

Since when did this new prototype of a woman, a mish-mashed version, a high light reel built to bend over; a tiny waist, big lips, no blemishes- become the new standard of beauty, and how achievable is this?

Claire Finkelstein has been a clinical psychologist for fifteen years and is co-founder and co-director at Nourish.Nurture.Thrive, a multidisciplinary practise based in Melbourne and the Mornington Peninsula that specialises in helping young people who struggle with eating disorders and body image.

Claire and fellow clinical psychologist, Ainsley Hudgson, started Nourish.Nurture.Thrive after years working in the public health system and seeing how overwhelmed it had become with a “growing population with eating disorder concerns,” says Claire.

Isolation, quarantine and an increase in social media can be very triggering for not only those who struggle with eating disorders but anyone who finds themselves feeling out of control in this stressful time.

“Everybody is showing their exercise routines at the moment, everybody is making those jokes about putting on weight during lockdown and I think it’s just incredibly triggering even for people with a fairly robust sense of self-confidence and body image but particularly for people who are in the eating disorder space,” says Claire.

The showing of exercise routines is found on Instagram amongst other social media, promoting diet culture.

Diet culture is defined as a system of beliefs that worship thinness and oppress people who don’t meet this beauty standard and idea of health. The one underlying fact for nearly all diets and wellbeing programs is that thin is best, demonizing certain food groups and body types, all while promoting the most important idea of them all; if you weren’t so lazy you’d have the body of your dreams.

“It feels like you can control your weight, so in a time when you feel out of control you try and control your weight and what we know is that your weight is biologically determined within a set point and that’s one of the difficulties – all these messages around ‘this is something we can do’ and if you’re not doing it successfully you’re inadequate and that is such a damaging, damaging story that is part of diet culture,” says Claire.

The infamous ‘beauty is pain’ mantra handed down to young girls from their mothers has a whole new meaning, the pain having grown from a waxing strip full of pubic hair to a surgery scar or a vigorous training regime.

Earlier this year glamour magazine Girls Girls Girls collaborated with Sex and the City’s Cynthia Nixon to create a video titled ‘Be a Lady they said’. The piece included various clips from movies, news, and glamour shots to tell the story of the myriad of requests and expectations women are meant to be adhering to, ironically the women featured in the video are beautiful, thin and passive.

One of the most impactful lines reads,

‘Be a size zero, be a double zero, be nothing, be less than nothing.’

Cynthia Nixon spits these words at the screen as it turns dark and the sound of someone’s heart flatlining takes up the darkness. It is powerful commentary on the notions behind our desires for female perfection and the gruesome control it creates.

As Naomi Wolf states in her classic, The Beauty Myth, published in 1990, obsession with beauty and thinness is a form of control and oppression.

“A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one,” says Wolf.

The US health and weight loss industry is worth an estimated $72 billion and Australians are estimated to spend $452.5 million on weight-loss counselling services (and the low-calorie foods and dietary supplements that go with it) in 2019-2020.

These figures show what has been in the shadows all along – this business is big money built off the back of diet culture. A truth hid underneath the bright lights of Instagram, the ‘life updates’ and the relatable posts – the influencers who make you feel like a family, like you could look like them if you had the grit – when you’re just a customer.

 Resources and coping mechanisms

For those who are spending a lot of time online and feel triggered by the change in routine, there are ways to seek help, guidance and support.

The Butterfly Foundation suggests that stretching, light exercise, talking to a loved one, drawing, being creative and mindfulness techniques can help you support your health and wellbeing during this crisis and stop negative body thoughts.

Their Helpline is also open on webchat, email or phone from 8am-midnight, 7 days a week.

Claire Finkelstein from Nourish.Nurture.Thrive admits boycotting social media is unrealistic, especially as it is one of our main sources for communicating with the outside world, however, she does recommend an ‘audit’ of who you follow.

“Use social media to connect rather than compare, use it to engage with people who are important to you, who you feel supported by, who give you a laugh who make you smile, who make you more connected and less alone and try to engage less with social media that leaves you feeling terrible afterwards,” says Claire.

Unfollowing accounts that make you feel inadequate or leave you feeling unhappy and starting to follow body positive accounts instead can stop that downward spiral of self-loathing many of us find triggered by social media.

“Research shows if you have a diverse imagery, diverse bodies, diverse beauty, or other images like architecture, animals or whatever makes you feel good – that that can really dilute the impact, the negative impact of imagery that doesn’t make you feel good,” says Claire.

Below are resources for those who need help.

The Butterfly Foundation:

T: 1800 33 4673

W: https://thebutterflyfoundation.org.au/

Beyond Blue:

T: 1300 22 4636

W: https://www.beyondblue.org.au/get-support/national-help-lines-and-websites

Gender reveal videos are the latest social media craze for expectant parents looking for a fun way to disclose the gender of their baby-to-be. However, an increasing number of couples, including many celebrities, are opting to forgo this trend in order to raise their children gender neutrally.

In 2019, the leading children’s entertainment company, <a href=”https://news.mattel.com/news/mattel-launches-gender-inclusive-doll-line-inviting-all-kids-to-play”>Mattel</a>, launched ‘The Creative World’ doll range, enabling children to choose from a range of skin tones, hairstyles, clothes and styling options.

“Toys are a reflection of culture and as the world continues to celebrate the positive impact of inclusivity, we felt it was time to create a doll line free of labels,” says <a href=”http://www.barbiemedia.com/bios/executive.html”>Kim Culmone, Senior Vice President of Mattel Fashion Doll Design.</a>

Is now the time to embrace the progressive initiative of gender-neutral parenting?

<span style=”color: #33cccc;”><strong><em>So, what does ‘gender-neutral’ actually mean?</em></strong></span>

The term ‘gender neutral’ relates to avoiding the assignment of roles and expectations based on someone’s gender.

The goal is to move away from stereotypical assumptions and encourage increased creativity and freedom for individuals to choose who they want to be.

Many feel growing up in a gender-neutral environment increases one’s tolerance of others.

<span style=”color: #33cccc;”><strong><em>Why should we encourage gender-neutral parenting?</em></strong></span>

Encouraging boys to only play with trucks when they really want to play with dolls, for example, conveys a message that their true desires are not valid. Growing up in an environment where a child feels they need to hide their true self could lead to problems later in life as the child faces an ongoing internal emotional battle.

Many feel growing up in a gender-neutral environment increases one’s tolerance of others.An understanding that people can choose how to dress and which sports they enjoy, regardless of gender, can mean they meet  with acceptance rather than judgement.

Some argue that a lack of diversity in the workplace begins in childhood when gender is often assigned to certain hobbies and interests – girls dressing up as nurses and a boy dressing up as a builder, for example – conveying a message these jobs are gender specific. Increased exposure to the possibility of male nurses and female builders could enhance a child’s freedom when choosing a career.

The way in which we respond to our children when they are scared or upset can reinforce gender stereotypes<em>. </em>When boys cry, some parents feel they need to show less compassion to encourage resilience, whereas girls are often shown more affection. Perhaps if we removed these gender specific responses, we may encourage our sons to grow up unafraid of expressing emotions.

Supporting children to express themselves authentically and make choices based on what feels good to them could help nurture increased creativity and strong self esteem.

Some argue that a lack of diversity in the workplace begins in childhood when gender is often assigned to certain hobbies and interests.

<span style=”color: #33cccc;”><strong><em>How can we create a gender-neutral environment?</em></strong></span>

For many, creating a gender-neutral environment means no longer buying blue for boys and pink for girls and choosing colours and images that do not enforce a particular gender stereotype.

It may mean ensuring household chores are gender-neutral, encouraging children to learn it is not just their mother who cooks the meals and it is not just their father who takes the rubbish out.

We could encourage children to play with all kinds of toys, have various hobbies, play a variety of sports and read an assortment of books. Enabling children to see that girls also play football, boys can practice ballet, girls play with trucks and boys play with dolls, for example, helps children develop a mixture of interests and skills.

For some, raising children in a gender neutral environment can take a more extreme approach. In 2010, a Swedish couple opted to keep the sex of their baby, ‘Pop,’ a secret to discourage stereotypes being placed on their child. Many are following this example and choosing to not use the pronouns ‘him’ or ‘her’ at home, opting for ‘they’, which is deemed more gender inclusive.

<span style=”color: #33cccc;”><strong><em>Could gender-neutral parenting cause harm?</em></strong></span>

<a href=”http://lindablair.co.uk/?LMCL=uvrFql”>Clinical Psychologist, Linda Blair</a>, feels parents may be doing a disservice to their children. Linda argues that ‘between the ages of three and seven, children are searching for their identity, a part of which, is their gender.’ Children want to feel a sense of belonging and ‘fitting in’. Avoiding the assignment of a gender may make a child feel confused about who they are and where they fit in a society where gender roles remain prominent.

There is a concern that once a child starts school, their gender-neutrality may open them up to ridicule and bullying. Most children grow up in traditional households where gender is assigned at birth, which could make school years incredibly difficult for those who do not identify with a specific gender.

Many worry that children will grow up without a strong sense of their own identity and will never truly feel they belong. This may impact on their emotional wellbeing as they grow into adulthood.

The way in which we respond to our children when they are scared or upset can reinforce gender stereotypes.

<span style=”color: #33cccc;”><strong><em>What does the future hold?</em></strong><em> </em></span>

Many feel it will not be long before gender-neutral education systems are introduced. A preschool in <a href=”https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-14038419″>Sweden</a> has taken the lead on this, being the first of its kind to create a gender neutral environment, offering a variety of gender inclusive books, toys and sports; the use of pronouns that assign gender is also not allowed, opting instead for the term ‘friends’, ‘they’ or the genderless pronoun ‘hen.’

While some feel raising children in a gender-neutral environment will support their emotional wellbeing, others still worry it will create a childhood of confusion. When one of the largest doll making companies in the world introduces a more inclusive doll range, it is reflective of our ever evolving society in which gender identities are becoming more fluid.

What’s wrong with a father concerned about his daughter’s virginity? 

Rapper T.I has been in the news recently for comments involving his 18-year-old daughter, Deyjah Harris.

T.I, aged 39 and born Clifford Joseph Harris, has been a rapper and actor for decades, cementing his position as a R&B superstar in the early 2000’s.

The scandal gained traction in early November after T.I was a guest on the podcast  Ladies Like Us with Nazanin and Nadia for their episode titled ‘Life Hacks’.

In the episode, T.I discusses his daughter and how every birthday he takes her to the gynaecologist to check if her hymen is intact. Throughout the podcast hosts Nazanin Mandi and Nadia Moham laugh as T.I describes his obsession with Deyjah’s virginity.

The hymen is a thin membrane that covers the opening of the vagina, with the tearing of the hymen typically associated with the loss of virginity. In reality there are many ways a hymen can break that has nothing to do with sex (such as horse riding and tampon use).

“Look, doc, she don’t ride no horses, she don’t ride no bike, she don’t play no sports, man. Just check the hymen please and give me back my results, expeditiously” said T.I. in the now infamous interview.

Since the worldwide discussion of her virginity, Deyjah Harris has deleted all her social media, including her Instagram @princess_of_da_south that boasts a following of 1.5 million.

T.I’s daughter rose to fame through his family’s long time running reality television program T.I & Tiny: Family Hustle that followed the rapper and his family’s life after T.I’s prison sentence ended.

T.I’s comments sparked worldwide discussion over the construct of virginity, which is the idea that virginity is a construct created by society and the patriarchy, with patriarchal ideals as the foundation. The construct placing a large focus on commoditising women’s bodies and women losing their purity after sex.

T.I’s comments are problematic for multiple reasons, one of the most unsettling being how the rapper seems to believe he owns his daughter’s virginity.

This is still a common practice, with the concept of virginity stemmed in the idea that women’s bodies are not their own, they belong to their fathers and then are passed to their husbands.

The loss of virginity has also always been associated with heterosexual sex, with the loss of virginity for members of the LGBTI community having always been blurry.

As a society, sex, sexuality and virginity need to be discussed openly and regularly with young people. It is a pivotal part of a child’s growth and teaching children how to respect sexual partners and how to understand consent from an early age is crucial.

In Australia our sex education is heterosexual orientated and starts when children are aged 11 or 12 (depending on the state). The Victorian Government’s health advice and services focused website, Better Channel health offers advice for parents of young children for discussing sex and sexuality.

Parents should aim to be approachable to their children so they don’t seek sex education from other sources, such as their peers or the internet, states Better Channel Health.

In the Netherlands children as young as four are taught about sexuality, a sexual education program that is recognised worldwide.

The Netherlands has some of the best results of sex education, low teen pregnancy rates, high rates of contraception use and high rates of young people losing their virginity in a safe, fun and wanted way.

The T.I scandal raises many issues that in society we seem scared to raise and discuss, is it that over- protective fathers are a symptom of the patriarchy, or some would argue is this just feminism gone too far.

New York Time’s Best Selling author and Professor at Houston University, the amazing Brené Brown gives us her insight into navigating middle age – or should I say, the Midlife Unraveling.

In my late thirties, my intuition had tried to warn me about the possibility of a midlife struggle. I experienced internal rumblings about the meaning and purpose of my life. I was incredibly busy proving myself in all of my different roles (mother, professor, researcher, writer, friend, sister, daughter, wife), so much so that it was difficult for any emotion other than fear to grab my attention. However, I do remember flashes of wondering if I’d always be too afraid to let myself be truly seen and known.

“I was incredibly busy proving myself in all my different roles.”

But intuition is a heart thing, and until recently I had steamrolled over most of my heart’s caution signs with intellectualizing. In my head, I had always responded to the idea of “midlife angst” by scoffing and coming up with some politically and therapeutically correct way of saying that midlife whining is pathetic. The entire concept of the midlife crisis is bullshit. If you’re struggling at midlife it’s because you haven’t suffered or sacrificed enough. Quit pissing and moaning, work harder, and suck it up.

As it turns out, I was right about one thing – to call what happens at midlife “a crisis” is bullshit. A crisis is an intense, short-lived, acute, easily identifiable, and defining event that can be controlled and managed.
Midlife is not a crisis. Midlife is an unraveling.

By definition, you can’t control or manage an unraveling. You can’t cure the midlife unraveling with control any more than the acquisitions, accomplishments, and alpha-parenting of our thirties cured our deep longing for permission to slow down and be imperfect.

Midlife is when the universe gently places her hands upon your shoulders, pulls you close, and whispers in your ear: I’m not screwing around. All of this pretending and performing – these coping mechanisms that you’ve developed to protect yourself from feeling inadequate and getting hurt – has to go. Your armor is preventing you from growing into your gifts. I understand that you needed these protections when you were small. I understand that you believed your armor could help you secure all of the things you needed to feel worthy and lovable, but you’re still searching and you’re more lost than ever. Time is growing short. There are unexplored adventures ahead of you. You can’t live the rest of your life worried about what other people think. You were born worthy of love and belonging. Courage and daring are coursing through your veins. You were made to live and love with your whole heart. It’s time to show up and be seen.

If you look at each midlife “event” as a random, stand-alone struggle, you might be lured into believing you’re only up against a small constellation of “crises.” The truth is that the midlife unraveling is a series of painful nudges strung together by low-grade anxiety and depression, quiet desperation, and an insidious loss of control. By low-grade, quiet, and insidious, I mean it’s enough to make you crazy, but seldom enough for people on the outside to validate the struggle or offer you help and respite. It’s the dangerous kind of suffering – the kind that allows you to pretend that everything is OK.

We go to work and unload the dishwasher and love our families and get our hair cut. Everything looks pretty normal on the outside. But on the inside we’re barely holding it together. We want to reach out, but judgment (the currency of the midlife realm) holds us back. It’s a terrible case of cognitive dissonance – the psychologically painful process of trying to hold two competing truths in a mind that was engineered to constantly reduce conflict and minimize dissension (e.g., I’m falling apart and need to slow down and ask for help. Only needy, flaky, unstable people fall apart and ask for help).

“Everything looks pretty normal on the outside. But on the inside we’re barely holding it together.”

It’s human nature and brain biology to do whatever it takes to resolve cognitive dissonance – lie, cheat, rationalize, justify, ignore. For most of us, this is where our expertise in managing perception bites us on the ass. We are torn between desperately wanting everyone to see our struggle so that we can stop pretending, and desperately doing whatever it takes to make sure no one ever sees anything except what we’ve edited and approved for posting.
What bubbles up from this internal turmoil is fantasy. We might glance over at a cheap motel while we’re driving down the highway and think, I’ll just check in and stay there until they come looking for me. Then they’ll know I’m losing my mind. Or maybe we’re standing in the kitchen unloading the dishwasher when we suddenly find ourselves holding up a glass and wondering, “Would my family take this struggle more seriously if I just started hurling all this shit through the window?”

Most of us opt out of these choices. We’d have to arrange to let the dog out and have the kids picked up before we checked into the lonely roadside motel. We’d spend hours cleaning up glass and apologizing for our “bad choices” to our temper tantrum-prone toddlers. It just wouldn’t be worth it, so most of us just push through until “losing it” is no longer a voluntary fantasy.

Midlife or Midlove
Many scholars have proposed that the struggle at midlife is about the fear that comes with our first true glimpse of mortality. Again, wishful thinking. Midlife is not about the fear of death. Midlife is death. Tearing down the walls that we spent our entire life building is death. Like it or not, at some point during midlife, you’re going down, and after that there are only two choices: staying down or enduring rebirth.

It’s a painful irony that the very things that may have kept us safe growing up ultimately get in the way of our becoming the parents, partners, and/or people that we want to be.

Maybe, like me, you are the perfect pleaser and performer, and now all of that perfection and rule following is suffocating. Or maybe you work hard to keep people at a safe distance and now the distance has turned into intolerable loneliness. There are also the folks who grew up taking care of everyone else because they had no choice. Their death is having to let go of the caretaking, and their rebirth is learning how to take care of themselves (and work through the pushback that always comes with setting new boundaries).

Whatever the issue, it seems as if we spend the first half of our lives shutting down feelings to stop the hurt, and the second half trying to open everything back up to heal the hurt.

Sometimes when the “tear the walls down and submit to death” thing overwhelms me, I find it easier to think about midlife as midlove. After two decades of research on shame, authenticity, and belonging, I’m convinced that loving ourselves is the most difficult and courageous thing we’ll ever do. Maybe we’ve been given a finite amount of time to find that self-love, and midlife is the halfway mark. It’s time to let go of the shame and fear and embrace love. Time to fish or cut bait. I don’t think midlife/midlove is on a schedule. I was forty-one when it hit, but I have friends and I’ve interviewed people who found themselves smack dab in the middle of the unraveling as early as their mid-thirties and as late as their fifties. The only firm timing for midlife/midlove is that it ends only when we physically die. This is not something you can treat then dismiss. The search for self-love and acceptance is like most of the new ailments that hit at midlife – it’s a chronic condition. It may start in midlife, but we have to deal with it for the rest of our lives.

And, just in case you think you can blow off the universe the way you did when you were in your twenties and she whispered, “Pay attention,” or when you were in your early thirties and she whispered, “Slow down,” I assure you that she’s much more dogged in midlife. When I tried to ignore her, she made herself very clear: “There are consequences for squandering your gifts. There are penalties for leaving big pieces of your life unlived. You’re halfway to dead. Get a move on.”

Once the shock of the universe’s visits wears off – and you get over thinking, Oh my God! I’d prefer a crisis! – there are several ways to respond:

I hear tell that there are actually people who pull the universe closer, embrace her wisdom, thank her for the opportunity to grow, and calmly walk into the unraveling. I try to spend limited time with these people, so I can’t tell you much about how this works.

Another option is to deny that any of this ever happened. Of course, denial is not so easy at this level – it is the universe that we’re talking about here. Pretending that midlife is not happening requires active denial, like putting your fingers in your ears and singing la-la-la-la-la. As sweet and childlike as that may sound, these folks are normally not so sweet and childlike.

“Pretending that midlife is not happening requires active denial, like putting your fingers in your ears”

After the ear-plugging and humming, the only way to maintain your denial of the midlife unraveling is to become even more perfect, more certain, and more judgmental. For these folks, allowing just one ounce of uncertainty or doubt or questioning to bubble up could cause rapid, involuntary unraveling. They can’t be wrong – their lives could spin out of control. They march through life, teeth and butt cheeks clenched, without flinching and, often, without feeling.

 

There’s also the numbing option. If there’s one thing that we’ve mastered by midlife, it’s how to take the edge off of feeling pain and discomfort. We are so good at numbing – eating, drinking, spending, planning, playing online, perfecting, staying really, really busy. If every midlifer who “only drinks a good glass of wine with dinner” stopped drinking, there wouldn’t be a vineyard left in business. Unfortunately, what makes midlife different from the other stages that we’ve managed to survive, is that the symptoms don’t improve over time. Choosing to numb the midlife unraveling is choosing to numb for the rest of your life.

 

Last, there’s the “no holds barred” resistance response. I liken it to existential cage fighting. You and the universe go into the ring and only one person comes out. This, of course, was my option.
When the universe came to me, I listened. And when she was done whispering, I pulled back, looked into her eyes, and spit in her face.

 

How dare she ask anything of me! I had worked and sacrificed and paid enough. I had spent my life saying “yes” when I wanted to scream, “Hell no! Do it yourself!” I had met every deadline, expectation, and request possible. I had earned every bit of my armor and I was enraged by the idea of giving it up.
I expected her to walk away like the dejected mother of an angry teenager, but she simply stood in front of me, wiping the spit off of her cheek.

 

We stared at each other for a minute, then I said, “I’m not afraid of you. I know what you’re asking and the answer is no. I’ve spent my entire life building these walls and digging these moats – do you really think a little whisper is going to intimidate me? Do I strike you as the unraveling type?”
I’m not ornery or rebellious by nature; it’s just that I spent thirty years trying to outrun and outsmart vulnerability and uncertainty. The fact that the almighty universe had descended and asked me to turn myself over to her custody didn’t mean a damn thing to me. I’m not the surrendering type.

 

She was quiet.

I didn’t back down. I was my own little emotional militia. I put on my most serious game face and said, “I know what you’re trying to do and it’s not going to work. I’m prepared. I’ve spent a decade researching and writing on shame and vulnerability and all of the hard shit that you throw around to scare people. I’m ready.”
She looked back at me with loving eyes, then said, “I’m sorry it has to be this way, but clearly this is how you want to do it. You leave me no choice.”

 

Her calmness was unsettling. I was afraid. She wasn’t backing down. So in this moment of sheer terror, I did the only thing I knew how to do when confronted with fear – I bullied her. I gave her a small shove and said, “Then bring it!”
Her loving eyes didn’t change one bit. She just looked at me and said, “I will.”

 

When the Universe Brings It
I put up the fight of my life, but I was totally outmatched. The universe knew exactly how to use vulnerability and uncertainty to bring down this perfectionistic shame researcher: a huge, unexpected wallop of professional failure, one devastating and public humiliation after the next, a showdown with God, strained connections with my family, anxiety so severe that I started having dizzy spells, depression, fear, and the thing that pissed me off the most – grace. No matter how hard or far I fell, grace was there to pick me up, dust me off, and shove me back in for some more.

 

It was an ugly street fight and, even though I got my ass kicked, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. There was a significant amount of pain and loss, but something amazing happened along the way – I discovered me. The real me. The messy, imperfect, brave, scared, creative, loving, compassionate, wholehearted me.
Maya Angelou writes, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” I’ve always honored the power of story. In fact, I believe so strongly in their power that I’ve dedicated my career to excavating untold stories and bringing them up to the light. In some miraculous way, I feel as if this midlife unraveling has taught me – in my head and my heart – how to be brave. I’m still not good at surrendering or “living in the question,” but I am getting better. I guess you could say I’ve graduated to “writhing in the question.” Not exactly Zen, but it is progress.

 

“I discovered me…the messy, imperfect, brave, scared, creative, loving, compassionate, wholehearted me.”

As far as my relationship with the universe . . . well, we’ve actually become very good friends. I even came to love and trust her when, in a quiet moment, I looked deeply into her eyes and realized that she, the universe, was me.

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Women Scientists: Dr Katie Bouman photographed a black hole for the first time, but did you know that women have been blowing scientific minds for hundreds of years? Read about these six incredible women scientists with your daughter, and watch her eyes go wide with wonder. 

Every little kid has a dream of being something when they grow up: a footballer, a singer, a lawyer, a crazy scientist who turns a car into a time machine – the limit does not exist for the aspirations of children. Rarely if ever do our childhood dreams turn into realities, sometimes because we change our minds and even more often because we are told that those dreams are just not realistic. The same could be said for these incredible women scientists who pursued these dreams and didn’t give up!

For 29-year-old Harvard professor, Dr Katie Bouman, her dreams came true last month when the computer program that she and her team developed made it possible for the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) – a network of eight connected telescopes around the world – to capture an image of a black hole for the very first time.

https://twitter.com/bendhalpern/status/1116071099584974849

Now, we take a look at six other remarkable ladies who not only rocked the world with their incredible discoveries, but prove that dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them. 

Margaret Hamilton

 

When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin began their epic journey on 20 July 1969, their lives were in the hands of hundreds of NASA scientists, including Margaret Hamilton. A hardware-related problem on board the lunar module Eagle could have wrecked the day, but the software designed by Hamilton and her trusty team of engineers compensated for the fault and allowed the boys to safely land on the moon.

In 2016, she was awarded the Medal of Freedom by US President Barack Obama, who said, “Her example speaks of the… spirit of discovery that exists in every little girl and little boy who know that somehow to look beyond the heavens is to look deep within ourselves.”

Jane Goodall

Pictured above with her chimp teddy Mr H, the inspiring story of Jane Goodall started with a childhood dream to see the African wilderness. After working as a secretary, she saved enough money to travel to Kenya. During her expeditions to the Gombe Stream Reserve, she gradually gained the trust of the chimpanzees and made many surprising discoveries.

She discovered that chimps not only make and use tools, but they can form close relationships and experience a range of ‘human’ emotions like joy, despair, fear and love. Today, she is an avid conservationist, a United Nations Messenger of Peace and has even been knighted by the Queen.

Mary Anning

 

During the time of King George III while Jane Austen was writing her famous collection of novels, a young Mary Anning was digging about in the dirt on the now-named Jurassic Coast in England, looking for what she called ‘curiosities’. Later, she would discover that they were actually fossils of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals.

Her many incredible finds, including full skeletons of an ichthyosaur, a plesiosaur and a pterodactyl (think of the flying dinosaurs in Jurassic Park) are now on display in the Natural History Museum in London. Oh, and she also pioneered the study of fossilised poo.

Grace Hopper

 

Rightfully known as ‘Amazing Grace’, this mathematician and computer programmer is remembered for her invaluable contribution to modern computing. Grace Hopper served in the US Naval Reserves during World War II and made it her life’s work to make computers accessible to the general public. She developed a programming language called COBOL, which was based on actual English words instead of numbers and was the first person ever to receive the Computer Science Man-of-the-Year Award.

Marie Curie

 

Would any list of distinguished scientists be complete without Marie Curie? She and her husband Pierre Curie made many notable scientific breakthroughs, including the discovery of two new chemical elements, namely polonium and radium.

After her husband’s death in 1906, she continued her work, eventually discovering a way to measure radioactivity. This earned her a Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Three years later, she invented the Petits Curies, which were mobile X-ray units that were used to diagnose battle injuries during World War I.

Valentina Tereshkova

 

Valentina Tereshkova was not only the first woman to ever visit space, she also remains the youngest person to ever do so. She was selected for the mission because of her expertise in parachute jumping. In 1963, at the age of 26, she spent three days flying in space and orbited the Earth a whopping 48 times. On her return, Valentina Tereshkova was so well-liked and respected, she ended up on a Soviet stamp.

“I’m just a Catholic mother of four sons with a problem that only girls can solve: Leggings.”

In an open letter to The Observer, Catholic mum Maryann White slams leggings for being “so naked, so form-fitting, so exposing”. She urges young ladies to abandon the comfortable garment in favour of jeans so that concerned mothers won’t have “to find scarves to tie over the eyes of their sons to protect them from [girls like] you.”

In her letter to the student-run newspaper at the University of Notre-Dame Indiana, she recounts an incident in which she and her sons were at Catholic Mass and seated behind a group of young women dressed in “very snug-fitting leggings… and short-waisted tops” – saying that the leggings looked as though they had been painted on.

“They didn’t stare, and they didn’t comment afterwards. But you couldn’t help but see those blackly naked rear ends. I didn’t want to see them — but they were unavoidable.”

“My sons know better than to ogle a woman’s body — certainly when I’m around (and hopefully, also when I’m not). They didn’t stare, and they didn’t comment afterwards. But you couldn’t help but see those blackly naked rear ends. I didn’t want to see them — but they were unavoidable.”

She draws laughable parallels between leggings and the iconic “slave girl outfit” that Princess Leia is forced to wear in the sci-fi classic Star Wars, saying that the outfit was a way for Jabba the Hutt to “steal her personhood”. Ms White blames the fashion industry for promoting a product that “has caused women to voluntarily expose their nether regions,” and goes on to say that she is ashamed of the young women who choose to wear them.

Responses to the letter, which you can find here, were varied. Some supported the troubled mother, saying that young men are naturally drawn first to a woman’s body. They suggest that these poor young boys can hardly be expected to think with their heads in these cases and that young ladies should cover up.

Others were less enthused by the conservative views touted in what was a declaration of war not only on leggings, but more significantly on a girl’s right to wear whatever she wants.

Students responded with ‘The Legging Protest’ – a day dedicated to wearing and celebrating leggings and the freedom to wear them without a lecture from concerned Catholic mothers.

Just days later, students responded with ‘The Legging Protest’ – a day dedicated to wearing and celebrating leggings and the freedom to wear them without a lecture from concerned Catholic mothers. The event page on Facebook includes a response to Maryann’s letter. They say:

“Leggings are not slave girl outfits and women do not wear them so they can be catcalled or stared at. And no one is forcing us to wear them, but we have the right to wear them, the right to choose what we put on our bodies… The belief that viewing a woman’s bottom is inescapable is the reason that men in our society believe that they have the power and the right to mistreat women.”

The #MeToo movement has exploded into the global conversation in recent years, supporting victims of sexual harassment and empowering them to speak up. As parents, there is now an obligation to educate our kids and empower them to be strong, respectful and educated young boys and girls.

The #MeToo movement started in 2017, when accusations against Hollywood mogul producer Harvey Weinstein created a ripple effect within the entertainment industry regarding sexual harassment and assault. Since then, the movement has trickled down into all layers of society. In the age of #MeToo, how do we help our children to navigate this social landscape and raise them to fearlessly tackle the world in the hope of a fairer future?

The movement has sent shockwaves through the workplace, encouraging women to speak up in the wake of sexual harassment and has also ignited movements such as #TimesUp. The initiative lays its intent bare in the first sentence on its website, which reads, “The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment, and inequality in the workplace.”

“The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment, and inequality in the workplace.”

Since the explosion of both #MeToo and #TimesUp into the public conversation, women who had been sexually harassed or assaulted shared their stories all over the world. The movements, which are driven by social media, have changed the conversation by allowing women who once felt like victims to feel empowered to stand up for themselves.

#MeToo has changed the conversation by allowing women who once felt like victims to feel empowered to stand up for themselves.

#MeToo isn’t only about women, and it isn’t only about adults. In the midst of this changing cultural landscape, there comes no better time to teach our children about empathy, relationships, consent and communication. The focus should not only be on raising strong, empowered girls; but also on raising respectful, caring young boys.

The focus should not only be on raising strong, empowered girls; but also on raising respectful, caring young boys.

Tips for raising empowered boys and girls: 

  1. Talk to your children about consent.

Teach your girls to set boundaries and teach your boys to respect them. Have open conversations that foster values of empathy, communication and respect. As a child, consent begins with ‘no means no’. It means teaching them to set boundaries, but also to respect boundaries set by others. It is not only the job for the girl to make a boy or man respect her. It’s these lessons that also need to be taught early to boys.

  1. Encourage both your sons and daughters to be upstanding for gender justice.

The time of #MeToo has been remarkable in the march towards gender equality. A recent study found that engaging with traditional ‘girl’ toys and entertainment (most notably Disney Princesses) can lead to reinforced gender stereotypes and increased vulnerability. Have open conversations with your children about these gender roles and encourage them to engage in all sorts of activities. Girls who play sports, wrestle and build Lego, as well as play with dolls, have a diversified notion of what ‘girls’ do and are therefore more likely to perceive themselves as strong, confident and assertive.

On the other hand, boys are taught to be tough, never cry and always be strong. As parents, we should strive not to reinforce stereotypes that indicate boys are ‘weak’ if they cry or feel emotions. Teach boys, as well as girls, that humans experience millions of emotions and its okay to feel the full range of them.

  1. Educate yourself

It is most important that our children have strong role models to look up to and guide the way in which they perceive themselves, gender stereotypes and social cues.

Of course, these simple tips won’t solve the problem or completely eradicate any notion of sexual harassment in the world that our children will grow up in – but it’s a start. If the next generation of children are instilled with these lessons from the beginning, then perhaps attitudes will change and the problem will be lessened in the future.

Writer, educator and mother Polly Dunning shares her insights on remaining true to values of feminism in the roles of marriage and motherhood which are perceived to have embedded sexism and misogyny.

My mother always said to me ‘There’s nothing like marriage and motherhood to radicalise women’. She was speaking, of course, about the noticeable absence of feminism in young women who have not yet come up hard against the structural discrimination that still permeates our world. I thought she meant other women. I was already a feminist. I come from a proud line of feminists going back at least three generations. I was already radicalised. I already had my eyes open to the sexism and misogyny embedded in the roles of wife and mother that I one day wanted to inhabit. I was prepared.

Or so I thought.

I already had my eyes open to the sexism and misogyny embedded in the roles of wife and mother that I one day wanted to inhabit.

It started with marriage. It was not that my relationship with my husband changed. It didn’t really, except that our commitment felt more formalised. It was other people’s reaction towards me that changed. I knew theoretically that it might, but somehow the reality made my blood boil. Seeing my surname erased and replaced by ‘Mrs …’ (I kept my own name) on letters and seating charts, even in jest, felt like a real blow. It was the first time sexism hit me in the face quite so blatantly and hard. How dare I not give up my name for my husbands? The ‘joke’ seemed a way of saying ‘get back in your box, girly.’

But didn’t I know this was coming? Of course, but the visceral experience of it was different. Suddenly my feminism wasn’t just academic. It also wasn’t just about the shadows of lower pay for traditionally female professions (like mine) or working harder to be thought of as ‘good’, while blokes doing half the job were bloody marvellous. This message was clear and no one was even trying to disguise it: you are a married woman, you should change your identity to become part of your husband’s.

The ‘joke’ seemed a way of saying ‘get back in your box, girly.’

This was a minor inconvenience, yes, but it signified something more. That as a woman I am not supposed to determine my identity for myself. I am public property. This sense was exacerbated by pregnancy. Suddenly people I’d never met felt they had the right to touch me, give me diet and medical advice, and tell me how I should be feeling. The reality was that, although I was ecstatic to be expecting a child, I hated being pregnant, but this didn’t seem to be acceptable to say. I’m a woman, and was soon to be a mother, so I had to be ‘enjoying every moment’ of pregnancy and feeling privileged to be unable to walk more than a few hundred metres, unable to sleep yet constantly exhausted, nauseated, and heavy.

…as a woman I am not supposed to determine my identity for myself. I am public property. This sense was exacerbated by pregnancy.

When my son arrived this sense that everything I did was up for public scrutiny intensified. It feels as if mothers work for society as a whole and so every member feels they have the right to give us a performance review at any given moment. Suddenly everything from what (and how) my son ate, when he slept and what he wore, to what I ate and how often I exercised became open to discussion and debate from total strangers. How to be a mother seems even more publicly determined than how to be a woman. But here’s the rub: you’re always doing it wrong.

But your husband is always doing it right. The fact that my husband researched and purchased the pram for our son, and knows the difference between a 000, 00 and 0 clothing size makes him father of the bloody year. I hear women talk about how amazing their husband is for changing a nappy, or fixing a bottle, or ‘helping with the baby’ (I think the word they’re looking for is ‘parenting’). I’ve lost count of the number of women who think it’s perfectly fine for them to do all the night settling and feeding because their husband has to go to work the next day. I do wonder what they think they do all day, because I don’t think they get their nails done and play tennis. I don’t even think they go to the toilet alone or drink a cup of coffee hot.

Here’s the rub: you’re always doing it wrong. But your husband is always doing it right.

And this makes me furious. Childrearing and mothering is so undervalued that we truly think that a man needs sleep so he can go to work and marginally improve the company’s bottom line more than a woman needs sleep so she can raise the citizens of the future. Both mothers and fathers need a whole lot more sleep than they’re getting, but neither needs it more than the other. Why is what traditionally (and usually) mothers do considered to hold such little value?

Yes, I always knew this would happen. But the sexist reality of marriage and motherhood has hit me hard, maybe because I thought I was so ready for it. Now I am well and truly radicalised, just like all those women before me, and that is a great thing. I no longer remain politely passive in the face of casual sexism. I’m not worried about how my feminism will make others feel. Why? Because they already unconsciously dismiss me as ‘just a mum’ anyway, so who cares if I make them uncomfortable? I’m done with only pointing out sexism at appropriate times and events. If you can’t handle the truth about what it’s like to be a wife and mother, don’t invite me for dinner because I am too bloody tired to pretend anymore.

Now I am well and truly radicalised, just like all those women before me, and that is a great thing.

Polly Dunning is a writer, educator, student, wife and mum. She writes on the subjects of feminism, parenting, and education, and has been published in various media including the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Daily Life, SBS Life, Women’s Agenda, Essential Kids, and the Mum Life Project, and contributed to the book ‘Unbreakable’ edited by Jane Caro. She is an experienced high school teacher and is currently enjoying the thrills and spills (oh, the spills) of maternity leave with her two young children.