My oldest daughter is on the verge of turning 14. Every now and then I have these moments where I wish I could crawl into her mind and reside there for a single day. I know this must sound Freaky Friday-ish, but I can assure you my motives are strictly maternal. You see, the two of us have survived most of the waves that typically come to shore with this transitional time in female development. As my daughter has been transforming from a little girl to a young woman, our relationship has remained relatively intact. We have even survived the ups and downs of middle school friendships and boy-ships. The only lingering concern of mine is the category of her relationship with her own body. I wonder if, in the midst of all that has changed in her physical appearance and in the social landscape of her world, whether or not she has been able to cling to the truth that her body is for her and not for the world around her.
As a therapist who works predominantly with adolescent girls and women, I am all too familiar with the shift that an individual’s relationship with her own body can take in those tumultuous and formative pubescent years. Seemingly strong and confident girls can become increasingly insecure and extremely body-conscious. I find it hard to believe that the female brain is uniquely wired with the likes of a ticking-time bomb set to ameliorate any semblance of the girl’s previous sense of selfhood once breasts begin to form and hips begin to expand. I realize that hormones are a powerful force, but I tend to believe they are a force meant for our evolutionary and individual good as opposed to our psychological destruction. Regardless of the purpose our hormones serve, the pervasiveness of this pattern of self-abnegation in female development is undeniable. As a mom to four girls, the fighter in me is determined to do everything in my power to help write a different story with my own daughters.
There is at least one problem with this maternal desire: I’m not entirely sure how to fight this fight. There is a large body of evidence pointing toward a culture that persistently sexually objectifies women and girls as the primary culprit or instigator of female body image issues. Without making media the sole villain in this predicament, it is worth noting that one need only glance at a nearby television screen to identify endless images and messages (both overt and subtle) portraying women as objects and men as subjects. It seems that media is more often than not simply a reflection of the dominant set of values and beliefs, at least among those privileged with the power to influence such messaging.
Psychologists have long believed that we have a propensity as human beings to internalize the messages we are repeatedly told, especially during early stages of development and throughout childhood. Rather than this psychological tenet sending me on a cynical and disempowered downward spiral into a puddle of helplessness against this great and powerful cultural monster, it actually opens up my capacity to hope for change. I know that I am only one voice, albeit a rather significant voice, in the lives of my daughters, but nonetheless I do have the power to deliver a counter-cultural message. I can speak a different message to my girls, but I can also choose to model what it looks like to cling tightly to the truth that my body is for me and not for the world around me. I can learn how to reclaim my agency and reject the invitation to live into being an object of pleasure for others.
In recent years I have become increasingly encouraged by the peppering of some new messaging emerging in media, literature and film. The popularity of children’s movies like Brave, Tangled and Frozen as well as the young adult genre with books being made into films like The Hunger Games and Divergent, is reflective of a broader acceptance of female subjectivity and agency. Not only are there female protaganists present in each of these films, but the characters exude an ownership of their own lives as opposed to the narrative simply happening to them. Could this shift be the rippling effect of third-wave feminism? I certainly hope so because that would reaffirm that this fight extends beyond the walls of my own household.
In theory, all of this sounds doable. In the day-to-day, however, I am painfully aware of how difficult it is to live counter-culturally. Excavating the messages that I have internalized is at the center of this battle. When I hesitate to leave my house without makeup, I am reminded of the deeply embedded message that my beauty is dependent upon wearing a mask. When I read the story of a woman who recently underwent a preemptive double mastectomy and I automatically presume she’ll undergo reconstructive surgery, I am reminded of the deeply embedded message that our breasts are one of our greatest physical attributes. When I opt out of jumping in the pool to play with my clan of all girls because a swimsuit reveals the ways my body has been impacted by the birthing and nursing of the ones I’m lucky enough to call my children, I am reminded of the deeply embedded message that my worth is defined by my culturally-deemed desirability. These are the messages I am working so hard to unlearn and push against. Perhaps if I do enough excavating, my daughter’s will have a chance at internallizing an entirely different set of messages.
In an effort to model wholeness, or τέλειος as I have written about elsewhere, I am going to describe the opposite and equally compelling mystery of the love I found in Ikea with the extreme contempt I discovered in Costco.
Like so many others, I too have fallen prey to the lure of a big box store full of more-than-mediocre quality items in bulk at discounted prices. Ever since I discovered that Costco sold diapers and formula at nearly half the cost of grocery stores I have made weekly trips there for my goods and sundries. In Colorado, I seemed to time my visits where I experienced the giant warehouse nearly empty and I had free reign to peruse at my leisure. Generally, that time was Friday nights. Karl and I would take the kids and sit them side-by-side in the giant carts and meander our way through the warehouse stocking up on everything from dog food to underwear. And the luxury of also being able to skip making dinner at home and instead dine on hot dogs and pizza slices available in Costco at a cheap rate proved equally satisfying.
However, that scenario has not been the case in Seattle. Whether living in the city proper or overpopulation, I can not for the life of me find a time to shop at Costco when I don’t have to park at the back of the lot and sell my soul for a cart just to get discounted fruits and vegetables and milk. Don’t forget the milk! I have tried arriving the minute they open their doors in the morning. I have also tried going over my lunch hour. I have tried arriving thirty minutes before closing time. I have gone on weekends and weekdays, and even holidays. All this trying has led to no avail. There was one time when it seemed like I would be able to drive my cart down the aisles without being forced into an unhappy charade of bumper carts. It was Black Friday. Since Costco is already discounted and wasn’t offering extreme pricing, the store was only moderately busy. O, how I wish every Friday was Black Friday at Costco.
Alas, that is a dream of time gone by. When hope was high and life worth living. Because the tigers come at night, in the morning, and during the day with their cart’s wheels soft as thunder. And they tear your hope apart and they turn your dream to shame.
Now, I wait in one of ten lanes behind six cars to fill my car with cheap gas. Then I get at least 2,000 of my 10,000 daily steps just by walking from my car to the store’s entrance. Then, I traverse the landscape of bulk specialty items like camping equipment and lawn fertilizer on my way to the back of the store only to realize after I added another 2,000 steps that they no longer sell Tillamook Tilla-Moos. Those slices of happiness were apparently on a month-to-month lease at Costco and have recently been evicted.
Then, I patiently wait outside the dairy room rubbing my hands together preparing to shiver. I am pausing to allow the cul-de-sac refrigerator room to empty, and am cut off by another more aggressive cart driver who wore a coat and didn’t need to warm up first. If men experience road rage behind the wheels of their powerful cars, I am a woman who experiences cart rage behind the wheels of my powerful over-sized Costco shopping cart. I fantasize pushing past the island of seasonal confectionaries and ramming the ankles of the one who cut me off. However, I practice my deep breathing techniques and remain controlled and only think angry, expletive thoughts.
I finish my trip having added an additional 4,000 steps because I forgot to get toilet paper and end up in a check out line with four carts in front of me. Because the line is so long, I am conveniently placed waiting in the snack section and taunted by a giant vat of Milk Duds. I am already going to spend a whole paycheck on only ten items, so, why not add the Milk Duds? I won’t even pretend that they will last until my visit next week. Because really, the only thing that gets me through this ordeal every week is a giant vat of something. Given it’s size and caloric content, it should last a long time, whatever that vat of something is, but given that I am feeding my contempt what it demands – sugar to comatize my anxiety – I confess it may be eaten by the time I drive home. Not really. But only because I don’t even like Milk Duds.
In light of our first Feature Story from Margot Hale, I want to offer some data regarding the social norms of grief. Shauna, Sarah and I were at a conference last November where we learned that in America, the standard timeframe wherein it is socially acceptable to grieve is twelve days. That means that after twelve days, people stop bringing over food. They stop asking how you are doing with a tone of empathy. They begin asking, “How are you?” with a raised inflection at the end of their sentences. This subtle shift is indirectly inferring that the only acceptable answer is that one has moved past grief and is now in the process of healing.
After twelve days, grief is seemingly no longer an acceptable burden for others to bear.
Moreover, this social stance makes it awkward for the person grieving to freely share their roller coaster experiences that inevitably follow a loss. After twelve days, they are likely still feeling sad and want to talk about how things were before they endured their loss. But everyone else has moved on and gives the impression that to live in days gone by is to suffer unnecessarily. However, psychologically, this is actually by far and away the most counterproductive measure.
It is in the retelling of the past that gives a grieving individual a firm and faithful foundation from which to begin their healing. Without a past, there is no hope for a future. They remain stuck in an unanchored present without memory or dreams. Allowing someone space to talk about what has happened (past tense) is rooting him or her in his or her experience (now). Unfortunately, what often happens is that people don’t continue to share the past after twelve days, because society expects them to be moving on to a hopeful future. And yet, I cannot stress this enough. Without a grip on the past, the visions of the future are not clear enough to move toward.
A beloved professor of mine once said,
Give me the norms of grieving in the Jewish community any day before those of the Christian church. They allow space for one another’s grief for a year.”
She went on to describe a Jewish custom of covering the mirrors in the home of one grieving. The mirror is traditionally the means of achieving social acceptance by enhancing the appearance. Covering the mirror allows for one to not feel the pressure to conform to social acceptance and gives them the freedom to render themselves just as they are.
I attended another conference more recently where a therapist was talking about a case in a South American culture where a young boy around the age of ten came into therapy mute. He had suffered watching his home and loved ones carried away by a massive flood. His trauma had left him bound up with emotion without words to communicate his feelings. Having some background information of the traumatic event from the parents, the therapist began by asking him to draw what he remembered. She described his initial drawings as chaotic scribbles and showed slides that were hardly recognizable. She also said that when he began drawing he started to speak and his words were as frantic as his fingers scribbling across the page. He took out another paper and continued to draw and tell the story. Each time he came to therapy he drew and spoke and drew and spoke the details of the event. It took several months of weekly sessions, but the drawings he rendered at the end of treatment were ordered and colorful and clear and bright. His ease of speaking had also returned and gone were the frantic anxious words he used to describe the story and in their place was the optimistic intonation that Americans demand after twelve days.
I want to use one more illustration before summarizing these thoughts. Several years ago when I first began my graduate education I attended a workshop that was aimed at helping children grieve in a group setting. Relatively new to the field, I was perplexed and even shocked to hear how children were encouraged to process their grief. The presenter explained several group therapy techniques to utilize. One was to stage a funeral for whom they lost. They would dress up and have a casket and say prayers. And they would want to enact this scene over and over and over again until they understood in their young minds what had really happened. Another exercise was to have the child lie down on the floor on top of a large piece of paper. Have someone trace a marker around their body so they can visually see themselves. Then, the exercise was for that child to find the hurt and draw where they feel it. They would draw pulse marks around their heart. They might have squiggles where their stomach would be. They could draw something heavy on their chest. Group leaders were encouraged to allow the children to find the pain, name it, describe it and tell their story again and again until they had some map of navigating grief, sorrow, loss.
There is a theme in these three vignettes that is counter to American culture of grief and loss. The antithesis of a twelve-day mourning period is illustrated by these more healthy and helpful measures. Don’t forget. Remember. Don’t go mute. Speak. Don’t stay with all of your confusing and painful feelings trapped on the inside. Get them out in a visual manner until you find some peace.
May we begin a community who will honor grief and loss in a way that is healthy, helpful, and ultimately healing. May we give space to tell stories of the past. May we be the listening ears so one needn’t try and forget. May we offer a blank canvas for friends to paint their pain. May we be the safe haven where the one grieving can go after the culturally mandated twelve-day recovery.
I love the question, “If you were stranded on a deserted island and could only take one music album with you, what would it be?” I love the question, because I know the answer. My answer has not changed since I was first asked nearly 20 years ago when I was a freshman in college. The answer unequivocally has always been and forever will be August and Everything After by The Counting Crows. Love me or hate me, the reason why I always choose this album, ironically, is because it has no answers. The lyrics make virtually no sense whatsoever. The words to each song are like poetry set to music and I love to imagine spending unending hours in reverie wondering what Adam Duritz meant when he sang,
Step out the front door like a ghost into the fog where no one notices the contrast of white on white. And in between the moon and you, angels get a better view of the crumbling difference between wrong and right. I walk in the air between the rain and through myself and back again. Where? I don’t know. Maria says she’s dying, through the door I hear her crying. Why? I don’t’ know.
Another similar type of question, with less clear of an answer, often comes up between Karl and I. The question is, “If you could change just one thing about the other, what would it be?” I love that question…and not because I always know the answer. I love that question because his answer gives me an opportunity to know what is most important to him. His answer gives me his glasses for a moment. I get to look through his lens and see the world he sees and ponder for a moment what he wishes for and hopes for and dreams for and longs for. And from his answer, I have a moment to either hear his request and contemplate what he is really asking for and imagine what it might mean for me to honor his wish, or defend my right to remain who I am and continue to act the way that I do and turn my back on the opportunity for change.
However, I think it might take a lifetime of me being stranded on a deserted island to give him what it is that he asks for. When I ask that question, Karl responds with, “If I could change just one thing about you, it would be the way you deliver your opinion or perspective. You say things with such conviction and matter-of-fact conveyance that there is little room for disagreement, argument, clarification, or any other form of dialogue.” For those of you who know me well, you can instantly identify with Karl’s plight. Even when I may not know an answer for sure or have an idea during a brainstorming session, when I speak, it sounds like I do. There are myriad reasons for why this is true of me (I’m sure they will be exposed and explored throughout my stories on this blog), and often a necessary part of my existence. Nonetheless, I would rather be invitational and dialogical than a know-it-all.
So, as I practice with and for Karl, you, dear reader, also are invited to join in the fun. Would you answer one of the two questions posed today in the comments below and join our efforts to create not a place where we know it all, but a space where there is room for and an invitation into dialogue with one another?
Shauna started off our week with a tribute to Kurt Cobain on the 20th anniversary of his untimely death. Therefore, I’d like to bookend our week with my own tribute to Cobain by referencing Nirvana’s hit song, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Wednesday night, I was taking a shower to try and flush out my sinuses. While I absolutely love Seattle in the spring, I do not like the many allergens that show up this time of year. I’ve been coughing, wheezing and itching all over for about a week. So, I thought taking a hot shower with some Eucalyptus oil would clear things up. While the steam did help considerably, I have a flair for the dramatic and often go overboard. So, I thought spraying perfume on at nine o’clock at night would also help to dilate my nasal blood vessels. So, I grabbed a bottle of perfume from the top shelf of the medicine cabinet. It is a fragrance that I never wear. I only still have the bottle because perfume is so expensive, I can’t ever imagine throwing it away.
I spritzed liberally, and guess what? It smelled like teen spirit…the teen spirit of one particular brown-haired girl who wore a burnt orange and olive green Abercrombie & Fitch sweater and was leaning against a tree. Her arms were crossed, but her smile wasn’t. Her green eyes were daring you to know her.
So, there I was, standing in the steamed bathroom with a towel on my head and a robe on my body thinking only of relief from seasonal allergies, and with one spritz, I was instantly catapulted back to my youth, remembering the portrait of Shauna in her senior picture.
Scent is a remarkable thing. It is commonly known as the sense with the most memory. I couldn’t believe how one perfume spray could recall from my preconscious a picture I hadn’t thought of in years. I decided then and there that any chance I get, I’m going to spray some perfume from the fragrance counter at Macy’s, or breathe deeply from a peony blossom, or inhale the citrus oils of an orange peel, or crack the lid off a coffee can, or peel the seal from a coriander tin, or sit in a car that is brand new, and drink in fragrance. I will let scent organically transport me to a time long forgotten. Then, I will sit for a moment and relish the thought of a life once lived remembering the shadows and highlights of that image and will be glad.
What scents do you love? Is there a memory you have any time you catch a whiff of something in particular? Tell us a story about it. We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.