Girl Magic, Part I

My sons just spent a week dribbling footballs. They tackled, ran, shot on goal. While I watched my own kids, out of the corner of my eye, I was also watching the girls who were there. Some were thin and lanky, all giraffe legs up to their armpits. Many were strong and wide, thighs thick with muscle. They wore pink and blue and black and neon of all shades, pony tails flying as they thundered across the artificial turf.

Like my sons, they dribbled and tackled, ran and shot on goal. What they didn’t seem to be doing was wasting any time worrying they were too flat chested or too buxom or if their thighs were too thick or GodForbidIDon’tHaveAThighGap. They were just out there, under the blazing sun, letting their bodies be bodies.

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I have wasted literal years worrying about my body. I think of the glossy magazines I read as a teen and a young woman. The ones filled with advice, not about how to navigate the world, but how to give a better blow job. Nothing about how to play the stock market, but how to get the perfect brow. There were entire issues devoted to bathing suits. How to pick a suit to flatter your flat chest. Or minimize your wide hips. How to get the most ass coverage in your bikini bottom. Basically one giant how to.

How to get you to look the most like whatever body ideal was on offer that year.

They change like the wind, those ideals.

Which, I guess, is the point.

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51,840

That’s the number of hours I reckon I’ve spent dieting. Conservatively. Hours spent counting calories, going hungry, denying myself, starving my cells. As if starving them is going to cajole them into forming and reforming into something different. Something unobtainable.

51,840 hours spent chasing some unicorn, only to occasionally grab an ethereal horn and be told “Hey, not that unicorn! The one over there!”

Dieting? It’s nothing more than modern day foot binding. It is wrapping ourselves in restrictions and stifling our growth until what we are left with is misshapen and unhappy and bent and ugly. Oh, the outside may be thin. Or muscular. Or curvy AND muscular, whatever the shape du jour is, but the inside? As misshapen as a foot full of gnarled toes.

How can it NOT be? How can you possibly spend all those hours chasing some intangible nonexistent and not be warped?

If I look back and take stock at the number of hours, of years, I’ve wasted?

It’s devastating.

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Why are we so invested in making sure women are unhappy? Because that’s what it is. You can’t be starving and happy. You can’t be in a state of constant restriction and be satisfied. You can’t be in a forever state of denial and feel fulfilled.

Oh, trust me. I have felt the virtue of self-sacrifice, of denial, of restriction over my head like a halo, shining bright for all to see. Like a gold star pinned to my chest. As if denying myself, sometimes starving myself, is something to be proud of.

I am in my late forties. My body is changing yet again. And at times, yes, it absolutely feels like a betrayal–because it’s not the body I know or recognize. Yet rather than saying, ‘hey, this is the body I have now, let’s see what it can do!’ I still sometimes try and trick and starve and shame my body into thinking it is something else, somebody else’s.

For what? I don’t even know. It is impossible at this stage of the game to tease out what I like/want from what I’ve been told to like/want over the last forty years.

I do know all the hours we spend binding our bodies could be spent doing something else. I haven’t picked up a women’s magazine in years. Maybe nowadays they are telling girls how to stop volunteering their time and demand payment. To stop managing the emotions of everyone around them. Maybe they are telling girls that it is pointless trying to compete with boys because their achievements matter in their own right, not just in comparison to men.

Or are they still talking about how to pad out your double A cup with a chest full of ruffles and how to maximize ass coverage at the beach?

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Sometime in the last year or two I watched a video of a slam poet. In one riff she spoke about how women’s bodies synch their menstrual cycles.

Our vaginas talk to one another, she said.

What wondrous witchcraft is that? No wonder why so many are afraid of women. Our bodies speak to one another, silently and profoundly. Our bodies? They confer with the moon and the tides and whisper to each other in unison. 

Hell, you should be afraid.

Because if you ever needed any proof of magic, there it is right there.

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Serena Williams won the Australian Open while she was pregnant. Marathon runners pace themselves through 26.2 miles with blood running down their legs. At any given time, female athletes are performing at all levels from junior varsity to professional while they have their periods. Running, scoring, tackling, slamming, sprinting, jumping. All while bleeding, cramping, and fighting blinding headaches…and pretending its not happening.

Ask any woman you know what it’s like to work, to perform, to negotiate a deal, to run up and down a field for 90 minutes while she has her period.

Don’t you dare tell me women are not strong.

Women’s bodies are magical.

We are magic.

I see that magic every day. I saw it in those girls on the pitch. I see it in the women I know.

I just keep forgetting it for myself.

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I’m a smart, capable woman who studies the how and why of this. And I struggle. Because that is how ingrained it is.

All those wasted hours.

51,840

Sometimes I imagine, just for a moment, what I would do if I could get back the hours I’ve spent dieting. Or the hours of shaving, plucking, applying make up, drying, curling, straightening, cutting my hair. The money spent on creams and lotions meant to tan, tighten, remove, cover, conceal. What I would do if I got all of that back?

An embarrassment of riches–the hours, the dollars, the space in my head, the room to breathe.

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It’s a neat trick, right? Convince half the world’s population to spend untold woman hours on something unachievable. It’s one way to stop them from achieving greatness. Get them in on the act, they start policing themselves, and their own bodies.

Jedi mind trick shit.

Women have been achieving greatness and great things, of course, in spite of all this. But imagine the potential we could unlock if we got all that time and money back.

Just imagine what we could do if we unwound that cloth that is binding us as surely as any foot, and let ourselves breathe out.

Those girls playing football? They are magic. I am magic. You are magic.

Ideals come and go. But magic lasts forever.

Don’t forget.

 

 

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Mother Heart

I am not a religious person.

I don’t got to church or temple or mosque. I don’t pray or bend a knee to Goddess or God. But after nearly fourteen years of motherhood I have come to believe in something, something fierce and  powerful and universal. Something outside of me, completely out of my control. Maybe it is Mary, or Hera, or Gaia. I don’t know the answer to those kind of questions. I only know that I’ve felt it. I’ve been wrapped up in it, been at one with it, some Jedi force of motherhood–birthed of something primal and fierce.

It would be poetic to say this connection to some universal mother’s heart is born of having had the lullaby of another’s heartbeat tied to your own for nine months, but I don’t think that’s true. There are mothers who did not physically bear or carry their children who know exactly what I’m talking about, and of course there are fathers, whose hearts rend and tear and rip as sure as any mother’s.

Yet there is something uniquely feminine and mysterious about the moon and the Earth and birth and the way it is all knotted together in this unknowable universe. There is something uniquely feminine in this great, universal beat of motherhood.

Maybe the drum beat thrum is tied to the planet or to the tides, like the blood that flows each month or the way that waves lap and play upon the shore. Maybe the gargantuan beat is held in place by the gravity of our own selves, hanging as pregnant as a full moon, ripe and heavy. It doesn’t matter. Through everything, it beats steady and strong.

Through mist or magic, or maybe even just the mundane, when you love a child, your own heart joins the chorus, picking up the tempo.

And so you go, until another mother’s heart suffers the unimaginable. When that happens, that central heart which sets our beat slows in mourning. It grows heavy.

Today I learned the son of an old playground friend had died. It was the kind of news where you do a double take, a triple, when you are sure you have misread or misunderstood. Because of course it makes no sense, no sense at all to lose a child, a child who was not ill or sick, a child who you’d only seen smiling and happy.

In what order of the universe is that ever acceptable?

And for the briefest of seconds you imagine the unimaginable–and in that split second of time, you can feel the splinter of another mother’s heart, in tandem with her grief, in solidarity with her loss. As my friend mourns her son, the heart of every other mother she knows weighs a little bit heavier, and the hearts of all the mothers those mothers know. And so on, and so on.

Perhaps that is why women keen and wail as they bury their dead. A dirge, not only for the dying, but for the living as well, a mourning song to lose yourself in, or to hide within while you put the pieces of your heart back together. Or a message, coded in grief: our hearts are breaking with you. Let us take the weight and bear it, even for just the space between a heartbeat or two.

A collective bleeding, a collective beating. That collective is why so many women, so many mothers, are affected so strongly by the pain and suffering of any child, their own, but the children of others they know and love, the children of strangers, who are in pain, the children of faraway countries who hurt. Because somehow, even though we didn’t bring those children to the breast, didn’t swaddle them against our heart, didn’t love them with the same ferocity and tiger’s growl of their parents–we feel it, because we have all imagined it. We have all had nightmares, shuttered our minds against the unimaginable.

When the unthinkable happens to someone we know, to a child we know, we are forced to confront it.

Let the Mother heart take over, my friend. Let the collective beat of all those motherhood hearts carry you through while you pause, while you put yours back together.

Let us provide cover for you while you need it.

I’m not religious. I don’t got to church or temple. I do not pray, not to any recognized Goddess or God. But I bow down to that great beating heart of humanity, of motherhood.

I know there are those of you who do. And if you do, please spare a thought, a moment, a prayer or a word for a family who is grieving. Who is suffering the unimaginable.

 

For Deb

 

 

 

I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends

I hate asking for help.

But…living away from family and the familiar, I’ve learned that sometimes, it’s a necessity. And while my natural inclination is to come close to killing myself trying to do 600 things by myself, I have gotten much better at asking for help when and where I need it.

Example: Like many Americans, I learned to drive in an automatic car… and that’s all I’ve ever driven. (This is stupid, by the way. Americans should learn to drive, like the rest of the civilized world, with a stick shift). After three and half years in Denmark with nothing but bikes, we finally got a car. Guess what? It’s a stick. There are a hundred reasons why I didn’t learn to drive it, none of worth going into here, but only a few involve my fear of careening into a Danish cyclist while I am busy trying to figure out what gear to be in.

Anyway, my kids go to this amazing brand new school out in the middle of nowhere. Surrounded by water. It’s great. It’s also a complete and utter pain in the ass to get to. If my husband drops them in the morning in the car, our transport options home are limited.

Pro tip: biking home in sideways wind and sleet is environmentally friendly. It is also not fun.

So sometimes (ok, often), I shuffle over to a friend and if they’re headed my way, ask for a ride. Like a teenager looking for a lift home. I suck up my pride (or embarrassment at the notion of being a 47 y/o woman who doesn’t know how to drive a stick shift, a la Driving Miss Dina) and ask for a ride. Sometimes people say yes, sometimes no. And that’s cool. But they always say “just ask”

So I do.

And you know what? It makes my life so much easier to get a ride home. So I ask.

I need a little help, so I ask.

Almost every woman I know will literally run herself ragged because she doesn’t want to ask for help. I don’t know why, but I suspect it’s fear of appearing weak or incapable. It’s the same reason that women get pissed off if their partner suggests getting someone to ‘help’ them clean the house.

Pro-tip: If you say “maybe we should get a cleaner because it looks like you could use some help,” a woman is going to hear “you think the house is a mess and I’m incapable of keeping it clean.”

Pro tip: Just do it. Just hire the damn cleaner, don’t outline the reasons why you think your partner needs ‘help’.

I think it’s a byproduct of having to do everything twice as hard and three times as well to get a foot in the door. I think it’s fear of giving anyone a window into a vulnerability or a weakness that can be used against you. Fear of not living up to expectations, or perhaps a fear of proving someone’s negative expectations right.

Pro tip: Everyone else is lying about what they can do as well as they say they can all by themselves, and if they’re not lying, they’re probably miserable, over-tired, or sex-starved.

This is….not me. Not even in my head.

(Note: I’d be interested to hear if stay at home males–more and more common on the expat circuit–are averse to ‘help’, and/or internalize the suggestion as a failure to keep up….or, if, as I suspect, they are smart enough to take the damn help and free up their day for other things.)

There are only so many hours in the day and you only have so many hands and there are only so many directions you can stretch in at once, even if you’re Elasta-Girl.

Sometimes you need to ask for help.

The most successful people are successful because they don’t try to do everything by themselves. They hire other people to do the stuff they aren’t good at or don’t have the time for or just can’t do. But so many of the smart, successful women I know insist on doing everything, driving themselves into the ground. When I ask them why they don’t reach out, they always say “I hate asking for help.”

The twist? These are usually the very same women who will bend over backward to help someone else in a pinch, who will take on extra kids and extra volunteer hours to help out another woman who can’t, who will stay up until midnight cooking enough spaghetti Bolognese for seventy-two Boy Scouts. (You know who you are…)

Here’s the thing: asking for help, far from being weak, should be a sign of strength. We all know what we’re capable of. Smart people recognize when and what and where their boundaries are and don’t try to do it all. CEOs are not writing checks and answering phones and setting up meetings for the designer who’s going to re-do the conference room. They pay other people to do that stuff. It’s all important stuff that needs to get done…but it doesn’t all have to get done by one person.

What women do, what mothers do, what stay at home partners do is important, but even when presented with the evidence of a hacked up lung, so many won’t ask for help.

Pro-tip: Ask for help when you need it. I’m not talking about asking an acquaintance to loan you fifteen thousand bucks. I’m talking about help here and there as you need it. A ride home, an unscheduled playdate, a sleep-over. And trust that if it’s too much, the other person will say no.

Pro-tip: If someone asks you for help and it’s going to throw not just a wrench, but the whole toolbox into your plans, say no. Help is a two-way street. The person asking must abide by the answer, and the person being asked, must manage their own answer.

I hate asking for help.

Nah, scratch that. I used to hate it, but you know what?  I have accepted I can’t do everything. Nor do I want to do everything. Like bike home in the Danish wind, which blows in every direction at once.

I get by with a little help from my friends.

 

 

Women’s History Month: Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)

Confession: I have a semi-obsession with today’s featured woman.

Rosalind Franklin was born in London in 1920. By the age of 15, she knew she wanted to be a scientist. Her father, however, wanted her to be a social worker.

Nevertheless, she persisted.

She entered Newnham College in 1938. By 1945, she had earned a doctorate in physical chemistry from Cambridge University.

In 1951 she began working as a research associate at John Randall’s lab at King’s College. There she met Maurice Wilkins, both of whom were assigned to work on separate DNA projects. Wilkins, perhaps unsurprisingly, assumed Franklin was a technical assistant and not a peer. Franklin, being a woman, was shut out of certain opportunities…

“Only males were allowed in the university dining rooms, and after hours Franklin’s colleagues went to men-only pubs.”

Nevertheless, she persisted.

Between 1951 and 1953, Franklin, with the help of a student, Raymond Gosling, “was able to get two sets of high-resolution photos of crystallized DNA fibers. She used two different fibers of DNA, one more highly hydrated than the other. From this she deduced the basic dimensions of DNA strands, and that the phosphates were on the outside of what was probably a helical structure.”

“She presented her data at a lecture in King’s College at which James Watson was in attendance. In his book The Double Helix, Watson admitted to not paying attention at Franklin’s talk and not being able to fully describe the lecture and the results to Francis Crick. Watson and Crick were at the Cavendish Laboratory and had been working on solving the DNA structure. Franklin did not know Watson and Crick as well as Wilkins did and never truly collaborated with them.”

“It was Wilkins who showed Watson and Crick the X-ray data Franklin obtained. The data confirmed the 3-D structure that Watson and Crick had theorized for DNA. In 1953, both Wilkins and Franklin published papers on their X-ray data in the same Nature issue with Watson and Crick’s paper on the structure of DNA.”

In 1956, Franklin was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. While undergoing treatment she continued to work, publishing 13 papers throughout 1956 and 57.

She died in April, 1958.

In 1962, Crick, Watson and Wilson were awarded the Nobel Prize for their discovery of the double helix model of DNA.

Rosalind Franklin: The Badass Scientist whose research was responsible for the discovery of the DNA model.

Rosalind Franklin: The woman whose name you most likely never learned.

Read more about Franklin here.

Happy Women’s History Month.

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So, why am I obsessed with the colossal shafting of Rosalind Franklin? Franklin represents to me all the hurdles that women did (and do) face in fields that are dominated by men. Shut out from networking and the casual sharing of information over dinners and clubs, in backrooms and labs, she STILL managed to produce results.

Current books which do mention Franklin talk about her abrasive attitude and difficulty to work with–traits thrown at groundbreaking women all the time. Imagine working, as the only woman, in an isolated environment, without access to the same information, and essentially being told to smile more.

Imagine what she could have done had she had access to the same information, the same level of academic involvement and confidence in her career, the same networks and assumptions.

Imagine indeed.