Woman in a state of dysphoria

dysphoria  (noun)  A state of unease

* * *

I’m on the tram, entering Melbourne from the southern suburbs, coming up to the intersection of Flinders and Swanston streets, when it hits.

Bonds – the Australian underwear brand – has gone for complete saturation in its ‘100 Years of …’ campaign. There are smaller ads behind the benches at the tram stop (‘100 years of bums’), there’s a larger one appearing periodically in the electric signboard wrapped around Young and Jackson on the corner (‘100 years of wow’), and finally there’s the huge billboard topping them all: ‘100 years of babes’. Babes.

Bonds 100 Years of babes editWhat kind of make-me-puke, patronising language is that?

That this particular ad happens to include a couple of men, not just women, doesn’t really improve things. In fact, it could hardly be a more perfect illustration of a straight-up split between your bog-standard masculinity and femininity. The boys are muscular, they’re wearing more clothes and they look ready to jump in and ‘drive’ … whatever it is that needs driving. The girls are very slender, they’re exposing more skin, and by their looks and postures, they’re communicating they’re probably OK with not driving right now. I’m sure somewhere in their real lives they’re as ready to drive as the next person; they just aren’t being encouraged to communicate that right now.

Don’t get me wrong. I know it’s all meant in good fun. And don’t think it’s the amount of skin being shown that’s getting to me, either. As underwear goes, Bonds is pretty innocuous.

What’s getting to me is seeing my own kind perpetually represented as utter boobs. And this – layer upon layer of ads, in the very heart of the city – amplifies the effect a hundredfold.

As if that weren’t enough, L’Oréal is presenting a campaign on the other side of the tram stop. ‘ColourRicheMakesMe …’ More pouty faces – passive, ever-promising.

L'Oreal tram edit

Seriously! Are they for real?

Of course, no one takes ads literally, least of all the people who create them. Everyone knows they are about brand recognition and persuading people to buy stuff. Everyone recognises the tricks of the trade, the game that’s being played. I mean: don’t they?

Yet behind all the strategies, all the noise of advertising, is one mammoth deceit: that to respond to the choices they present is an exercise in genuine power. Those whispery, distracting choices that are not so much about briefs or boyleg, orange fever or silky toffee, as they are about opt in or drop out

And it is that opt in or drop out message that gets us in the gut, that haunts so many of us every time we think about what our life might be and how we’re supposed to set about making it happen.

Is that what we want? For our environment to be choked with images that set us up to believe opting in is first and foremost about maintaining a mirage of self? That it is necessary to look and behave in certain ways before we can even begin to feel entitled to act, to challenge, to count?

* * *

Dysphoria – a profound unease – is to look up one day and see your own kind represented everywhere you look, and to nowhere see yourself.

It is not that I want to see physicality like mine represented everywhere I go. I’m not talking about wanting to see tiny women like me looming from billboards and tram stops, posturing and flaunting. ‘Tiny’ doesn’t much express my self-identity in any case. The me‑ness of me.

It’s not the body, as such, that I’m talking about.

I’m talking about power, capacity, mind.

Many women refuse to be an ornament, and to fritter away precious life on what is merely ornamental. Let me see that message dominating the advertising and media, everywhere I turn.

Many women have accepted the challenges and responsibilities of choice, and have made their own way, prepared to ride the consequences. Let me see that kind of courage plastered across the heart of my city.

Many women know that to stop and to wait and to fantasise about what life might bring is pure poison to a living soul. Let me see represented those women, who are realising the pure and serious ambitions of their girlhood.

* * *

The performance of ‘femininity’ attached to being female – have I ever really understood it? Why on earth do we acquiesce to it even still? Stand that way. Walk that way. Wear that thing. Show or not show. Bend your head and bare your neck. Smile. Smiiiiile.

Some women say that being different to the ‘ideal’ freed them, as girls, to follow another path, to define themselves another way.

Molly Ivins, a political commentator whose particular speciality was covering the toe-curling shenanigans of Texan politicians, wrote:

I should confess that I’ve always been more of an observer than a participant in Texas Womanhood: the spirit was willing but I was declared ineligible on grounds of size early. You can’t be six feet tall and cute, both … I spent my girlhood as a Clydesdale among thoroughbreds. I clopped along amongst them cheerfully, admiring their grace, but the strange training rituals they went through left me secretly relieved that no one would ever expect me to step on a racetrack …

Sometimes it’s our inability to fit in that saves us – writers, artists, entrepreneurs, and general treaders-of-the-road-less-taken.

* * *

If you were a bit more clued in than I generally am about these things, you might have recognised that one of the models in the blitzkrieg of Bonds ads is the Australian rapper Iggy Azalea. In fact she is the new Bonds ‘ambassador’, aka ‘brand babe’. (Could two terms be more oxymoronic?)

And you might say – well – isn’t she an example of a woman making it happen? Getting on with her stuff? Choosing?

And yes, she absolutely is. After all, she moved from Mullumbimby to Miami at 15 by herself, partly to get away, partly to pursue her interest in music. She’s got to be the opposite of gutless. But still she’s in there, pouting and posturing like the others, in fact outdoing them on all counts.

Like I said, Bonds underwear is pretty innocuous. Iggy brings an injection of sex hitherto unknown to Bonds advertising. Or at least, that was my reading of the situation, until I read this quote from Pacific brands chief executive David Bortolussi in the Australian Business Review:

‘What we love about Iggy is her straight-talking, can-do, Aussie girl personality.’

Uh … right.

* * *

There are antidotes to all this. I mean, apart from moving to your own desert island or writing frustrated blog posts or just somehow remaining inured to it. They are like tiny bursts of colour – impudent knots – in a huge fabric of business-as-usual.

Australian comedian Celeste Barber sends up the posturings of celebrities in photos she posts on Instagram.

Sonia Singh, a Tasmanian scientist made redundant from Australia’s primary science research organisation, CSIRO, had the brilliant idea of taking a handful of overpainted dolls and replacing their ludicrously exaggerated ‘make-up’ with natural-looking features. Photos of the dolls went viral, and a new business was born.

There’s a ‘#nomakeup’ Twitter feed and stories crop up from time to time of women (and occasionally men like Karl Stefanovic) who are challenging the conventions of ‘feminine’ presentation.

What’s striking, though, is how often these are about expressing what women are not – that is, that women are not just about their bodies – while making the challenge in a way that is still body-centred.

Is it my imagination, or do we grow more faint-hearted when we try to express just what it is we are?

Perhaps it’s that we’re reluctant to exchange one straightjacket for another? Fair enough.

Maybe that leaves us more space to challenge, to enact, to invent, to hammer out our real and our possible selves with commitment, if not downright ferocity.

Maybe that Leaves us free to focus on women can do, not on what they are or what they look like.

Next International Women’s Day (Tuesday, March 8), I want to see the intersection at Flinders and Swanston given over to HUGE images of women who are getting on with their stuff – and trampling the gender divide nonsense underfoot while they’re about it. No posturing or pouting.

That would cure my dysphoria, right enough.

© From the desk of a tiny person 2015

Grace Jones, and it’s all relative

The conversation turned to Grace Jones, whose music Daniel was playing as he cut my hair. ‘You know Grace Jones,’ he said. ‘She’s not that tall.’

Daniel, who owns the salon, Knows People. It turned out she had dated a friend of his.

‘Wow,’ I said. ‘In pictures she looks huge.’ Thinking of a portrait of her I’d seen in a magazine decades before – Jones at full height – dressed, as I remember it, in a minimal amount of shiny black plastic. Since there was no one to compare her to in the photograph, the impression remained of an exceptionally tall, physically powerful woman, one who would tower over most men as well as women.

Daniel laughed, a bit startled, and said, ‘But of course, it’s all relative.’

What he meant was, maybe I had chosen the word ‘huge’ because I am under five foot myself.

But it isn’t all relative – not like that.

* * *

My world’s not so different from Daniel’s: the average height range that I interact with is the same. When I look out at the world, I don’t perceive it as being peopled by giants, just because I am unusually small.

Likewise, when I look inward to myself, I perceive myself neutrally – without height. I fill my personhood completely, without deficiency.

The story shifts, though, when it comes to interactions with people and things. When I bump up against the world. That’s when it starts to become relative.

* * *

A woman said to me once, ‘What happened to you?’ Not really a question.

No sooner do you begin to navigate the social space than you begin to observe how people respond to difference, to otherness. Sometimes it’s with curiosity. Sometimes it’s with reserve or uncertainty or nervousness about how to speak or behave.

Sometimes, it’s with outright repugnance; where difference is received and responded to as if it were an illness – something festering and contagious.

* * *

There is a whole literature of disgust out there, including a compilation of papers enticingly named The Revolting Self.

Joshua Greene, author of Moral Tribes, has noted that ‘Disgust … is a “withdrawal” emotion that originally evolved to expel contaminating substances, such as feces and rotten meat, from the body.’

However, disgust has come to perform a far more complex role in our social interactions. It keeps us away from, or limits our contact with, those who might be ‘contagious’: either in the sense of actual physical illness or disease, or through moral defilement or deviation, or through the mere suggestions of any of these.

It operates, too, on the social level, to separate us from those who have suffered misfortune, or who are unknown to us, and are therefore potentially risky to us. Who may extract a social cost.

We reserve some of our most vehement disgust for the body which deviates from the ideal, e.g. the impaired or obese body. Theorists say this may be because such a body displays, and reminds us of, our universal vulnerability as animals to disease and damage, to death and decay.

Steven Seidman writes of the ‘Other’ as being seen and experienced as ‘defiled’, existing in ‘an existential space between the human and non-human’, and mocking ‘what is considered normal, healthy and civil’.

The Other may as a result experience exclusion; being set apart from the usual social and political order; being denied decision-making capacity; and losing, or never gaining, respect, honour and dignity.

It is likely we will be, every one of us, challenged to view the object of our disgust with humanity; with any comprehension of their personhood.

* * *

Andrew Solomon observes in Far from the Tree that terms such as ‘illness’, ‘syndrome’ or ‘condition’ are often used to ‘disparage a way of being’, while the word ‘identity’ is used ‘to validate that same way of being’. The reality, he suggests, is that many people experience both ‘illness’ and ‘identity’ as part of the same concept of self. He suggests that what we need, aside from a new understanding that accommodates both in a complete view of the self, is ‘a more ecumenical take on healthy’.*

What might this new take on healthy look like? Feel like?

The answers may lie in another key idea of Solomon’s – an epiphany, as he describes it:

Having always imagined myself in a fairly slim minority, I suddenly saw that I was in a vast company. Difference unites us.

It is not merely that there are numerous social groups, each with their specific, often isolating, ‘difference’, which share this deep unity. It is not simply that an attribute, like a birthmark or obesity, can render a person ‘different’; that a change of circumstance, such as ageing or a slide into poverty, can render a person different, who never was (in that way) before. It is that ‘difference’ is a fundamental part of being human: we are, each and every one of us, different from one another.

It is this, I think, that healthy looks like: an understanding, highly developed and valued across society, that we each have our imperfections, our vulnerability to harm and misfortune; a consciousness that even what we view as ‘perfect’ in ourselves or in those we love may appear anything but to someone else. That what we view as flawed in another may be anything but, in their eyes.

On a political level, a healthy public realm consists of each part of society being able to be seen and heard; being able to present its perspective and to make its case. There is no single perspective or voice, no perfection, no normal, which can stand for all of us.

As Hannah Arendt posited in The Human Condition, the very fact that ‘everybody sees and hears from a different position’ is why being seen and heard by others matters.

Achieving this kind of conversation on both a political and an interpersonal level must mean learning to put aside, to cease assuming a right to, the automatic expression of disgust for others whose personhood is other than we think it should be.

As for what a more ecumenical take on healthy might feel like: I think it might feel like a self that is not only at ease with itself by itself; but which, out in the social space, is privileged, like any other, to expand into full personhood – without prejudice, and without even the remotest expectation of experiencing the defilement of disgust.

* * *

Given the point I’m making about the many perspectives that exist and that must be acknowledged if we are to have a healthy social/political space, the logic of denying Daniel his ‘it’s all relative’ in our conversation seems questionable.

But of course, there are commonalities, too, for the people in a society, especially those who share a common space. Each one like a pivot point of agreed value or measurement, around which perspectives shift and flow. It might be something as trivial as the average height of the population. It might be something as crucial as recognition of the universality, and value, of our differences.

I imagine these commonalities emerging, existing, being reaffirmed over time, through the conversation; and shifting, too – evolving over time – as we converse.

© From the desk of a tiny person 2015

To the woman who believes Adam Goodes should apologise to her (once) 13-year-old daughter

Dear Joanne

I’m not sure if ‘Joanne’ is your real name, but they say in the news this is how you are known, so I hope you won’t mind if I call you this.

I have been thinking a lot this week about the way people are responding to Adam Goodes, the way they are speaking about him.

I have watched the unedited video of Goodes speaking to the press in May 2013 after your daughter, Julia, called him an ‘ape’ from the sidelines of the Collingwood/Sydney match.

I have also watched a short video in which Julia says she didn’t mean ‘ape’ as a racial slur. She appears to be smiling, a bit giggly, but it could just be nervousness, the unaccustomed attention.

You – I assume it is you – appear at the end, explaining that she is just a naïve young girl from a country town who ‘doesn’t really get out that much’.

In the press conference, without hiding the hurt she has done him, Goodes stresses her young age, her innocence, the fact that she didn’t know what she was saying. Just as you do.

Yet now you, along with others, are saying that Goodes’ response to that incident – gracious and thoughtful as it has been – has contributed to the constant booing directed towards him over the subsequent two years.

This, although he has only ever been supportive of her and understanding of the circumstances which led her to say what she did. Here are his words:

Unfortunately, it’s what she hears, the environment that she’s grown up in, that has made her think that it’s OK to call people names. I can guarantee you right now she would have no idea how it makes anyone feel by calling them an ape. I think it was just a name-calling that she was doing …

He insists, has insisted from the beginning, on the need for others to be similarly supportive and understanding of her, to not target her on social media or anywhere else.

Despite this evidence of his insight, his generosity of spirit, you have advice for him. It is that he ‘probably should apologise because maybe he should have picked his target a little bit better’.

Yet you know perfectly well he did not ‘pick’ her from the crowd: she drew attention to herself. Loud and clear, with a banned racial epithet.

He did respond, instantly, to hearing the epithet directed at him by a person – identity and age in that instant unknown – sitting on the other side of the boundary wall, as he happened to run past it.

You also say that ‘having her questioned by police without an adult being present was absolutely disgusting on the part of himself and the AFL’.

I agree with you – she should not have been separated from her guardian under any circumstances.

Yet you must know that Goodes had no control over the way security at the Collingwood/Sydney match responded to his request to have her removed from the crowd. Racial vilification is banned by the AFL. Offenders, if they can be identified, must be removed.

Goodes regretted, intensely, that this particular offender was just a young girl.

He’s made his feelings about the experience abundantly plain, with words like ‘gutted’ and ‘cut’ and ‘shattering’. He’s explained how hearing a young girl call him an ‘ape’ reduced that moment – of team victory, as well as of glowing personal achievement – to nothing.

You describe this expression of profound feeling as ‘carrying on like a pork chop’.

Your lack of empathy for him can surely be explained by what this whole business has meant to your family; what it has done to Julia.

But no. In the Sydney Morning Herald last week, you are quoted as saying that your daughter has ‘been going on quite nicely, she’s at school, and she hasn’t worried about this event at all’.

OK, I’m sorry about this, Joanne, but I’m having trouble understanding what you can possibly mean then when you say, ‘I do think people shouldn’t boo him at the football, they should be trying to encourage him to be a better person than what he is.’

Just how does this work?

How much of a ‘better person’ does Adam Goodes need to be before we can relax from trying to improve him?

Let’s for the moment put aside all the honours – being Australian of the Year for 2014 – twice winner of the Brownlow medal – three times his club’s ‘Best and fairest’ player – and an incredible array of other football achievements. Let’s put aside his work for Indigenous Australians through the Go Foundation, which he co-founded, and his advocacy against racism. And let’s put aside the challenges of his Indigenous Australian background, and the anguishing, absolutely disgusting fact that his indigeneity is still, still something we’re having to talk about in terms of ‘disadvantage’ and that he has to deal with, as baggage, every day.

This man – this football legend – has treated your daughter with gentleness and concern. When he spoke at the press conference of your daughter’s innocence, he was not being a fool, and he was not playing to the media. He was being generous. He was doing everything he possibly could to give her a chance.

And Julia has that, if she is encouraged by you and others to take it. A magnificent chance. To turn this moment around, to become a young woman who’s learned to challenge behaviour like her own at thirteen. Who, perhaps, can lead others.

Another thing that was clear in that video. People speak of Adam Goodes as a leader and a spokesman for Indigenous Australia. But that’s only part of the truth.

Judging from his conduct and words in the video I’ve watched today, he is far more than that. He is demonstrating there what a strong, dignified, moral human being looks like.

To me, he looks like a role model for all Australians. You and me included.

With best wishes –

© From the desk of a tiny person 2015