Thursday, August 11, 2016

On being a woman.

This post is not going to be about my expat life in France, just a heads up.

As I've mentioned in the past, I write to cope when tragedy strikes.  Mostly, I've been feeling affected by the recent attacks in France, since I've been living in France for the past two years, and I've come to really cherish my adopted country and its values.  But I've been living at home this summer, working at St. Lawrence University while between academic years in grad school in Lyon.  For the most part, it's been rejuvenating for my soul.  Living in the lush, bucolic scenery of Upstate New York, spending much-needed time with my parents, getting to spoil my niece for a week in Maine.  But this has been a summer of unexpected, unintended reflection.  Reflection about what it means to be a woman in today's whirlwind culture.

According to the current patriarchy-hating definition of feminism, I really don't consider myself a feminist.  I grew up in a family that placed equal emphasis on the strengths of two hard-working, competent, and loving parents.  The division of labor was a joyful celebration of each of my parent's skills and best qualities, and it never occurred to me that one gender could be considered "better" than the other.  My mom guided me with the definition of feminism that she adheres to, starting in the 60s and 70s when she was a young woman dealing with very real issues.  Being a petite woman with a hell of a lot of intelligence and capacity to achieve was considered a challenge to men in the workplace.  She once told me a story about someone telling her, "You're pretty smart for how short you are."  What.  The.  Hell.  That was probably the first time I realized that my mom is petite because her commanding presence is towering.  I joke that I have my mom at home, and I see Lisa Cania, Vice President, when she's at work.  I see my mom, my emotive, gushing supporter, the woman who is always right when it comes to matters of the heart... and then I see the same woman at work, a consummate and poised professional; open, knowledgeable, kind, respected, and in-tune to the intricacies of her sensitive job at the university. This woman is the feminist role model I had growing up, and hers is the feminism I adhere to.

To the feminism of my mother, all men are not evil, would-be rapists.  I realize know that I must have grown up in a bubble of truly great men as well, because the rabid, man-hating brand of feminism that seems so popular was initially very jarring to my sensibilities.  My father, my brother, my uncles, my voice professor in college, my boyfriend, his father... all of these men who have been close to me, have taught me, supported me, and guided me are all truly good men.  It hurts my heart to think that people could see any of them as innately bad.  I am also a petite woman, and I've had my share of teasing, but I've never envisioned myself as small.  I've never been treated as small.  I like to think that my power comes from within, nudged along through the years by all the wonderful women and men in my life.

Sadly, this worldview seems to be incongruous with the national dialogue.  I realize too that I've been extremely lucky to be surrounded by such people.  I know there are women who truly are surrounded by people who would mean them harm, who would want to dominate them, tear them down, physically hurt them through the manifestation of insecurities, fears, and ignorance.  The world isn't a rosy place - I understand this fact more and more every day.

All of the national attention surrounding the victimization of women and the denouncing of men has made me very uncomfortable - not because I think it's stupid, or I wish it would go away, but because it has jolted my memory into remembering times in which I wasn't respected as a woman.  I've been catcalled countless times (in English and in French), a guy on a bus once put his hand on my leg when I was pretending to sleep so I wouldn't have to talk to him, I've had to tell men "I have a boyfriend" to get them to leave me alone (when what I would ideally say is, "I'm not interested" - end of story).  And the one I blocked so long from conscious thought - my repeated statement of "no" was ignored.  I don't know if it was right to block this kind of thing out of my mind since I truly never dealt with it, but I think partly I didn't want it to define me, I didn't want it to be part of who I was as a woman.  I'm guessing most women have a story like this that they also either don't want to deal with, don't want it to define them, or don't even want to acknowledge.  I count myself lucky since I've never been assaulted, but oh my god, the fact that that's even something to be counted lucky is kind of horrifying.

This urge to write has come to a head after I heard the news of the woman who was killed while jogging in Massachusetts.  I saw the story trending on Facebook, and when I clicked the link, I realized: I knew her.  For a semester at BU, we were suite mates.  I didn't know her well at all, but I remember her as being very sweet, kind, and extremely beautiful.  And then I realized something else while digesting the disturbing facts: this could have been me.  I'm a runner too, and I like to go for runs wherever I am, whether in the city or somewhere rural.  But now, reeling at the small, personal connection, I'm not going to run outside anymore while at home.  I am too scared to go out on my own.  I thought to myself, "I wish my boyfriend were here so we could go for a run together outside," and as much as I enjoy my running buddy, Ben, it is so unfair that I should feel too scared to go out on my own.  I use my running time to free my pent-up thoughts, to solve my problems, to work out my frustrations, and often that is best left to do alone.

Mostly at the moment, my heart is heavy and sad.  I'm feeling bombarded by negativity with the endless news cycle, all the relentless attention given to a sociopathic, violence-inciting moron, the despondent refugees all over the world, the simmering racial tensions, the dangerous ideologies that give gruesome hope to young people who have nothing else to cling to.  But I'm also feeling so much positivity and inspiration from the Olympics right now.  Every day, it's another story about how much the women are dominating, tales of their impressive and extraordinary athleticism and skill.  Watching and reading about these powerful women is a shining light in a dismal dump of society.  I marvel at their muscular bodies, and I think that I've never seen anything more beautiful.  I see strong women who are representing the best of what a culture has to offer, and I feel a little braver for it.  I feel like it's ok that I'm not a skinny twig, trying to make my body conform to an unachievable, waif-like societal ideal.  I am empowered to feel beautiful because I have muscular legs from running... and I don't want this feeling ripped away from me by the fear that the exercise that gives me joy could also be fatal.

So how do I move forward?  Right now, I really don't have an answer for this.  But I know that I won't start hating men simply because a girl I once knew briefly in college met such a tragic fate.  I won't curl up into a little ball because Olympic women's outfits and hair are more interesting than their dominance in their athletic field.  I will reach back and look to the example set by all the pillars of goodness that have helped shape me.  The confident feminism my mother embodies, and the kindness and respect that my father has always, without a waiver, shown women.  The strength, wisdom, and creativity displayed by my aunts, Nani, music teachers, godmother, and friends.  The cherishing love and admiration I feel from Ben.  I look with joy at how my brother and sister-in-law are raising their daughter, and I hope that when she is my age, she will feel confident, beautiful, and brave, and that she will be able to run wherever she wants without fear.

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