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On Becoming Visible: The Perpetually Unfinished Post 3 comments

I’m on a bit of hiatus from my weight loss endeavours, holding relatively steady at a loss of about 69 lbs since June, 2007. A slow and steady loss. I’m 21 lbs away from my ultimate goal. It has been quite the journey over the past couple of years.

For my entire adult life, I have identified as a feminist, even before I was really clear on what was meant by this. I was quite the activist in the 80’s, ramping up a few local movements in the Niagara Region where I was living, serving on the board of a rape crisis centre, being part of a large coalition that founded the Women’s Studies programme at Brock University, being a T.A./lecturer there in the first three years the programme ran.

There are many schools of feminist thought. I disagree with some and wholly embrace others. At this stage of the game, feminism has served to instruct me on the myriad of intersecting systems that I live within, am bounded by. None of them – from the economic/monetary system and its weaknesses that are now becoming clearer to our food production and delivery mechanisms to the values used within business to interact with either the labour force or the environment to the very rules, most unspoken, that guide our interpersonal communications – none of these systems were influenced in any meaningful way by women, or by people with the deep cellular knowledge that women and men are equal but different creatures on this earth. We swim, all of us, men and women, in a world designed from the perspective of those who hold the most power in our society – white, straight men. Those who thrive within these structures, male or female, are those who can best adapt to these systems.

As A.W. Schaef says, and I am paraphrasing, the white male system is not reality. It is just a system. Once you can identify it all around you, you can see that it isn’t reality at all. After you have your “a-ha!” moment, you can step outside it and observe. And, to an extent, protect yourself and, if you are clever, you can be more conscious of maneuvering in and out of the system and being less damaged by it.

In a way, by revealing the systems we operate in, feminism helped me to understand form and content. So has music. Mozart could write a kick-ass concerto, yet it is still a concerto. The form is intact. He rocked the form. The 20th century saw revolutions of new form as blues and jazz musicians punched holes in pre-existing structures to create brand new ones, on the fly. Phillip Glass comes along and says “fuck the form” and writes whatever sounds good to him. When you can see, touch, feel and deeply experience the “form” as a separate construct, as “not a given” but a choice, you can choose to operate within it, partially within it or to exit it altogether.

Another more pertinent example has to do with the ongoing, fascinating and irritating discussion of “butch/femme” as identities within lesbian and queer circles.  Notions of maleness and femaleness, the “rules” which govern these as forms of existence, do not originate with the women who live their particular slant out, or are at least conscious of this gender dichotomy as they go about making their choices about how they present to the world. We didn’t create gender constructs – a society that is governed by the male gaze did. So, once you understand you are being asked to play a game that erases your natural identity and replaces it with a version acceptable to the male gaze, you can decide whether to play along and ruffle fewer feathers, to rebel and scream bloody murder at being shoe-horned into someone else’s definition of your gender … or make up your own gender twisting game. (Gender twisters have more fun, in my experience … but I digress …)

Power – or as feminists are more comfortable stating, “empowerment” – exists in understanding the form, the rules, and thus understanding that one has choices about how to relate to the form.

Choice. Choices. Options. As I look back on so many years of thinking about all of this, I can see that feminism has programmed me to build my own life, according to my own rules, and to seek to always operate from a position in which I have the greatest number of choices. I can choose to play along. I can choose to rebel within the context of any given situation. I can reject entire frameworks and circumstances and re-create new ones that are more life-giving. Ultimately, I think this is what our feminist foremothers had in mind.

Parallel to being a feminist for my entire adult life, I have also always been large-ish. Each year, I’d add a few more pounds. Mostly, this didn’t bother me much. I felt healthy and reasonably fit. Aside from my weight, I’ve never much cared for what I look like, thinking I was rather odd-looking and knowing that there was not much I could really do about that. Besides, as an out lesbian feminist hanging out with mostly other out lesbian feminists, we all were so much above the white patriarchal rules that equate physical appearance with having value. Pshaw. Beauty emmanates from within and rises above any notion of physical self, right?

Along came a series of events, including some weight-triggered health issues experienced by a member of my immediate family, that made me look very closely and carefully at my choices around my particular physical form. Changes needed to be made, and I am the only one able to affect them. And so it began.

I need to state here that, as of June 2007, I also strongly disliked how I looked. My external “heavy set” presentation to the world did not reflect my internal sense of self. There was a disconnect.

I used the support of an excellent commercially available system which I’m not willing to promote here but will happily chat to anyone about if you’d like to contact me privately. The weight started to come off as soon as I made some significant changes to portion sizes, upped my fruits and vegetables and eliminated vast quantities of carbs. I realize now that I’m actually in a life-long struggle with carbs.

As the weight came off, it became easier for me to be more active, and to be more motivated about being active. In 2008, I started to do some strength training.

Right around the half-way point, almost exactly at the loss of 35 lbs., I became visible to others in a way I’d not experienced before. Men, and women, were suddenly more interested in engaging in conversation, flirting and otherwise noting my presence. I found, and continue to find, this fascinating, flattering, and disturbing. With almost every drop in weight – and I do tend to drop five pounds at a time, and then plateau – the ratio of visibility has risen.

I like the experience of being “seen”. It makes life a bit easier in some ways.  It feeds my confidence which adds more positive energy to the mix. I certainly like the changes that strength training has created although I can’t say that I’m particularly enamoured of the activity itself. I like feeling strong and healthy – I think this projects something out to the world beyond simply that my body is smaller and a different shape now. I adore how my cardio levels have improved to the extent that I don’t feel like I’m coughing up a lung every time I come off a hard shift at hockey. I seem to be skating a bit faster, as anyone would if they were stronger with fewer pounds to heft about.

This experience of being “seen” is a mixed bag, though. It makes me angry that men who work in the same office as me now stop by my desk to chat, for no reason in particular. I was never acknowledged before in this way, at all. Women who had never taken the time to chat me up before actually make the effort now.  If I may cut to the chase, our Western, male-programmed view takes for granted that “smaller, fitter” means “hotter” … yet, this has always been something I’ve questioned and very consciously rebelled against.  Surely, our collective programming around responding to a particular “form” and making assessments about “content” from it is simply learned behaviour and not that ingrained.

And herein lies the real kicker. This experience has taught me that my own deep internal programming matches that of the men and women now taking the time to acknowledge me. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t think I look “better” now. I can’t tell you how conflicted this makes me when I consider this issue, and how it takes the punch out of me being really truly angry with anyone for chatting me up. It happens early on, this programming, and it runs deep.

Perhaps part of what people are “reading” differently is that the disconnect I experienced before – the outer self not reflecting who I felt I actually was – has been addressed. This body feels more “me”, and perhaps that is what people are responding to, more of a sense of wholeness. Apparently, the revised “me” also has much longer hair … and that requires a blog entry all of its own.

I see that I actually started writing this post in the first week of March 09. And here I am, about to hit submit in mid-May 09. There is so much more to say on this issue … and I hope you will join me in the conversation.

Oops – My Feminist Slip Is Showing 1 comment

Here is Robin Morgan's recent take on HR Clinton Vs. B Obama. I don't always agree with Morgan, but on this she has struck a chord with me.

Speaking personally, and from an arm's length perspective up north here, there is something vaguely unsettling about the rush to Obama and the dismissal of HRC. Obama is brilliant, engaging, and very Kennedy-esque – what is not to like in that? Until reading this, I couldn't quite put my finger on it.

It is the double standard, the mantle of legitimacy that a male merely assumes and that a woman has to stridently re-draw and re-draw for the electorate. The constant reminders of her qualifications start to sound defensive … what a hard road she has in front of her to stay away from any territory that can allow the subconsciously biased media to dismiss her in the favour of the more camera and microphone ready opponent.

The US, and the World, would not suffer from an Obama presidency. He would be an excellent choice. But the US, and the World, will have lost an opportunity to re-align our gender and sex-role perceptions dramatically, and to finally challenge the patriarchy that has caused so much damage worldwide. And this can't help but benefit everyone, regardless of race. 

Unfortunately, I have no insight into rogue's excellent question about putting HRC up against John McCain. I'm just not close enough to the US political machine to respond. Lots can happen between now and November, and HRC is a clever and talented politician. Isn't it interesting that political skills get praised in men, yet seem somehow unappealing and unattractive in women? Men have "spirited comebacks" and women "claw their way into contention". Interesting. I'll end with a quote from Robin Morgan's piece …

I’d rather say a joyful Hello to all the glorious young women who do identify with Hillary, and all the brave, smart men—of all ethnicities and any age—who get that it’s in their self-interest, too. She’s better qualified. (D’uh.) She’s a high-profile candidate with an enormous grasp of foreign- and domestic-policy nuance, dedication to detail, ability to absorb staggering insult and personal pain while retaining dignity, resolve, even humor, and keep on keeping on. (Also, yes, dammit, let’s hear it for her connections and funding and party-building background, too. Obama was awfully glad about those when she raised dough and campaigned for him to get to the Senate in the first place.)

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Out of Sorts Click Here To Comment!

This phrase, “out of sorts”, originates from manual type-setting. A “sort” is one of the molded-lead letters or characters that a typesetter would insert into the machine to be coated in ink and pressed against paper. To be “out of sorts” means you have run out of a particular letter or character. Not the end of the world, but not convenient or productive.

And this is me right now.

The following thought occurs to me – it is not my original thought, but I am pleased to have it drawn to my attention from time to time. Particularly at times like this. “Out” lesbians are, by definition, non-conformists*. We have had practice, at a deep level, at breaking the most basic of societal norms. Try coming out to your mother who is expecting a son-in-law and grandchildren whose cheeks she can pinch, or your boyfriend who is expecting marriage, and suddenly living outside the rules in other ways seems less of a problem. We tend to live on the outside, looking in.

Next, try being a lesbian who also identifies as feminist who also identifies as an entrepreneur. See, in
my apparently twisted mind, I believe women’s empowerment and freedom is rooted in economic stability. If a woman can, independently, earn enough to support herself, then she gets to make her own choices,
including choosing where and with whom to live (if anyone). I thought, again in my twisted way, that being independent and stable – and helping others to become so as well – was A Good Thing.

As it turns out, it is a lonely thing. There are a handful of people who “get it”  and a lot of funny and, frankly, deeply disapproving looks from people who are more rule-bound than me, from feminists, from socialists, from capitalists, from straight suburban women, and from the birkenstock lesbians who think I should be less independent and more of a communal team player. Why not use my skills to “better humanity”, they ask?

Well, I kinda thought I was helping as an instructor @ a college. I also think simply not being a burden on
the system, or my family, or another person, is somewhat of a statement. I remember, about 10 years ago, attending a trade show with a group of employees of the program I managed. The program was sponsored by Industry Canada, private businesses and the college that I am currently employed by. This program had two objectives:

a) Hire and train college/university students and recent graduates to help small and medium-sized businesses get on the Internet (we hired and launched 210 student advisors in the 3.5 years I was there);

b) Get as many small and medium sized businesses on the Internet as possible (our office hooked up over 3500 businesses in 3.5 years)

So, there I was at this trade show, with about 10 awkward, geeky but nicely dressed young people. About half of them had English as a first language. The rest were terrified to speak with any business owners,
one-on-one. I had trained them and coached them but now it was up to them.

That same day, a handful of my “friends” were coming to the show for their own reasons. These were people who had heard me describe my job, but had really no clue what I did. They dropped by our display area to find a bunch of busy young people engaging with very keen business people. As I was chatting with my friends, and standing back and keeping an eye on things, the students kept coming over – one by one – and waving appointment cards at me, smiling, and saying “I did it!” Some of them hugged me. After a few of these, one of my “friends” looked at me, quizzically, and said, “Venus, they really love you!” Myfriend was clearly shocked. She thought my job title was “Project Manager”, which she interpreted as “slave-driver capitalist pig”, I think. I was angry at her level of surprise, and at her clear assumptions about my vocation at the time.

The truth is that I’ve attempted to apply my business and technology skills in non-profit situations and it has been disasterous. A culture clash of the highest order. I guess I apply the same twisted thinking to non-profits as I do to women: economic stability = freedom and choice.  I find the kind of good management that leads to economic stability in non-profits to be sorely lacking, and I have found my attempts to encourage it to be soundly re-buffed. I concede that my attempts may have been insensitive
to the vastly different “culture” but, in truth, it is the “let’s just feel good about what we are doing” mentality that breeds a lack of attention to fiscal health.  I have found out that a single individual cannot change group mind-set.

Q: How many people does it take to change a group dynamic?
A: Most of the power-brokers, and they have to want to change.

There is a Rita Mae Brown quote that I’m particularly fond of … The problem with conformity is that everyone likes you but yourself. The dilemma of the non-conformist is the lack of a specific peer group. We can be chameleons and assume a pleasing demeanor that gets us through various situations – but the feeling of truly fitting in is so rare.  I remember this from high school, in a way, when I was in two bands (concert and stage/jazz), drama club, editing the school newspaper, in a choir, playing softball and hockey, teaching music and generally trying to get decent grades. Not enough of a jock to feel included in the horseplay, not geeky enough to pass with the pocket-pen protector crowd, not an academic high-achiever, not fully an artsy person. Not completely fitting any mold.

Last week, a techie guy was at my place solving several pressing computer issues for me. He did a great
job – and he kept eying my Spanish flamenco guitar on its stand near the computer. I noticed how his nails were trimmed and I said, “Do you play classical guitar?” and he said, “Yes, and I’d LOVE to try your
guitar.” He was a wonderful player. I could have listened to him all day. He finally confessed that he has his own recording studio and actually trained as an audio technician before becoming a computer
geek. He showed me his website for his studio and it is very impressive. Next, he noted the framed photo of Joni Mitchell on the wall and asked about it, too. Turns out he is also a professional photographer … and I thought “Eureka! … Another one!” Jack of all trades, master of none! Except – he actually seems to be master of all, which is quite amazing.

Thus, at the moment, I am “out of sorts”. Out of energy for being the various people I’m supposed to be
in order to have some semblance of a peer group at all. I’m sure I’ll gather my sorts back up again and trundle back out into the world and find ways to fit in. But it feels hard right now, like I’ve been doing
it for too long.

*By stating this, I do not mean to imply that lesbians are the only folks to qualify as non-conformists. This just happens to be my version.

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