A Toronto Transformation

Feminism

Mother Nature Partnership

You know how you have that friend who makes you feel like a total underachiever? They’re not only constantly doing a million cool things, but they’re excelling at them. They’re world-changers, go-getters, creative geniuses, and probably just plain old regular geniuses too. They’d be completely insufferable if they weren’t also damned hilarious and kind.

My friend Alice Irene is one such annoying genius. Just hearing about the things she has on the go at any given time makes me want to take a nap.

A couple of years ago after meeting Veronica Kettle of the African Women Education and Development Forum, Irene came up with an idea to address the challenges many women around the world face due to harmful taboos attached to menstruation in their communities.

For many women around the world, menstruation is considered an actual curse, to the point where, in some cultures, they may be banished to a tiny isolation shed, offering inadequate shelter from the elements for the duration of their periods so that they will not contaminate their own homes with their “impurity.”

Even when not taken to such extremes, the taboo, shame and mystery around menstruation, combined with the prohibitive cost of feminine hygiene products, often means that women are forced to use ineffective methods to manage their periods, which can in turn endanger their health.

It’s not difficult to see how women in developing countries being prevented from working for several days every month, all while feeling ashamed and confused about their own bodies could have a hugely negative impact not only on their physical and mental well-being, but on their economic security and that of their families as well.

So how do you go about empowering women living in a culture with such stigma?

Well, if you’re my amazing friend, you start a partnership with the African Women Education and Development Forum, send 350 reusable menstrual cups to women in rural Cameroon and invite them to take part in workshops where information about menstruation and female reproductive health is distributed and discussed by/with health professionals. For many of them, it was the first time they had access to this vital information about their own bodies.

The response from every woman who took part was so overwhelmingly positive.  Reading their feedback and realizing what a huge impact something as simple as a small, sustainable tool and a little bit of knowledge would have on their lives got me more than a little choked up. I immediately volunteered to help with whatever needed doing for the next phase of the project.

The next phase, as it turns out, will be taking the project to 5000 more women in Cameroon, a  number we will be able to reach in part because Mother Nature Partnership, it was announced this week, will be one of the (over-the-moon thrilled and grateful!) recipients of the Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges Explorations grants!

We still have lots of work and fundraising ahead of us to make this happen, and I’ve taken on the task of trying to drum up some interest through social media, which is where you, my internet savvy friends come in.

If, as your good deed for the day, you would be so kind as to show this fantastic project some love by following us on Twitter and/or by liking us on Facebook, well I’d be just tickled.

Or, if any of you bloggers are interested in the project, and feel like writing about it or how to go about taking something like this from an idea in the shower to an actual living, breathing organization, please-oh-please feel free to drop me a line!

Beauty is in the Critical Eye of the Beholder

Whenever I hear a woman putting down her appearance  or talking about excersising or dieting or “cleansing” with the specific goal of changing the way she looks, my instinct is to model the opposite behaviour.

Suddenly I’m terrifically confident about or indifferent to my own appearance. I’ll talk about how much I love food and how I really only exercise so that I can continue to eat large amounts of it without dying, (and for the endorphins and an excuse to wear stretchy pants).

I tell my friends they’re stunning brilliant and amazing and they don’t need to worry about their looks. I genuinely mean it and I genuinely think it’s insane when any of them lament some aspect or other of their physical appearance.

And yet, I understand it too.

I understand that the cosmetics and fashion industries rely on our insecurities and dissatisfaction with ourselves, our looks or other aspects of our lives to make their money.

I understand that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, making the standards of beauty we are all supposed to strive for just totally crazy. Who decided unibrows weren’t sexy anyway?

You’d think that because I understand that, and because I understand that focusing and convincing women to focus so much on their appearance, not only undermines their acheivements, but can keep them from even trying to achieve in the first place, because I have strong, smart un-superficial role models  it would be easy for me to say no thanks, throw out all my cosmetics, buy only ethically manufactured, comfortable, durable, functional clothing and just opt right out of that system.

I want to be a stronger person, to be secure and happy with who I am, to have enough going on in my life that I’m not left with any time for trivial vanity, and often, or at least sometimes, I am that person. But sometimes I’m not.

So on top of feeling ashamed of the way I look now and then, I also feel ashamed that I care, for being so susceptible to advertising and societal pressure, for being distracted by superficial crap like how long my eyelashes look or what my waistline measures. Double the guilt! Lucky me.

But there are undeniable advantages to being considered conventionally attractive. Beyond the praise that comes along with a trim figure, a pretty smile, or carefully styled hair, studies have disturbingly shown that “good” looks can have an impact on your career, with thin, pretty women earning more and being promoted over women outside of that category.

How do we teach kids or ourselves that it’s what’s inside that counts, when the society we live in and the media we consume are so determined to convince us otherwise?

I don’t really have a solution, beyond teaching children to value kindness and intelligence, loyalty and determination, to prize deeds over looks, to worry about health over hairstyles.

We can teach them to turn the critical eye advertisers would have them view themselves and their bodies with back on to the media and the advertisers themselves.

And maybe they can teach it back to us.

 

Sexism, Racism and Annoying Jewelry at the Opera

When I was little there were four cassettes awarded highest rotation on my Fisher Price tape recorder: The Little Mermaid, The Velveteen Rabbit narrated by Meryl Streep, Celine Dion’s The Colour of My Love, and Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

So it was with an eager nostalgia that I got dolled up and headed off to see the latter performed at the gorgeous Elgin theatre on Friday.

While no, “Colour of My Love,” Mozart’s music was as delightful as I remembered, and I wriggled happily in my seat as the orchestra launched into the familiar first act.

We were seated next to the most enthusiastic opera-goer imaginable. She was made entirely of binoculars, delighted, hearty  laughter and and “brava!s”. She almost made up for the woman behind us, who wore a bracelet that I’m pretty sure was made of twenty pounds of tiny tambourines, bells and scrap yard metal and flailed about almost constantly even after the woman beside her told her she was driving her insane. Haha. I actually sailed right on past irritation to giggling incredulously at the situation. It was pretty unreal.

Plus I was distracted by the marring of my childhood memories by the crazy amount of sexist and racist garbage being beautifully sung from the stage. I feel like the line “Men are strong where we are weak, they always think before they speak” sung by some ladies defiling an awesome manly temple with their lady feet may have been left out of my Mozart for kids cassette. Or maybe I was just too wee to be aware of it.

There was also a fair amount of uncomfortable shifting during scenes featuring the villainous antics of the “moor,” the princess’ jailor, who has problems controlling his lust and refraining from being just a general jerk.

In the end, the young white, boring couple of wimps whose highest aspiration is to get hitched and Sarastro, the sanctimonious, patriarchal male wizardly Freemason guy with the awesome name live happily ever after, while the evil moor and the Queen of the Night, a “proud” woman who dares to try to get back the magic powers Sarastro allegedly stole from her late husband before kidnapping her daughter for herself are cast into hell (or maybe just fall down some stairs, it wasn’t entirely clear) along with the queen’s lustful ladies in waiting.

And let that be a lesson to you all.

Apparently some productions tone down the racism and sexism for modern audiences, leaving out the skin colour of the evil jailor, for example, which I think I might be inclined to do if I were directing this particular show as I don’t think it actually furthers the story and it would still make sense without it, but others argue that the integrity of the opera would be ruined if these details were left out.

What do you guys think? Would you update a story like this or would you leave it as is and just hope that the audience is viewing with a critical eye? If you have children would you take them to see this show and if so, would you talk to them about the stereotypes and misogyny in it, or would you ignore it and just enjoy the music?

The Ripple Effect of Misogyny

Every morning I start my day by blearily stumbling into the kitchen and prodding the power button on my radio (yes, I still have a radio). I catch some news and weather on the CBC before I start my walk to work, and switch to a local pop station to put a spring in my step while I stroll.

It is extremely challenging to find my beloved catchy, singalong pop, (yes, I have a radio AND terrible taste in music -judge away) especially in the morning, without having to suffer through at best insipid, and at worst, completely offensive banter between songs.

I landed on KISS 92.5, where the morning show seemed to be a notch above the rest. The banter was funnier, wittier and less mean-spirited than most, and the hosts actually had me laughing out loud on my walk on more than one occasion.

Lately though, I’m noticing a pattern on the show that I find disturbing. I can’t remember what exactly first sent my spidey senses tingling, but I can think of three things that rubbed me very much the wrong way on the show recently.

The first was when the two hosts made fun of the show’s whipping boy “Damnit Maury” for once asking to be set up with a woman who models for Guess. They thought it was just hilarious that he thought he might have a chance with a model. A chance at what, exactly, I’m not sure, as I don’t think it was ever specified, but the whole thing just grossed me out. I don’t recall them saying anything along the lines of, “She’s so much smarter and funnier and kinder than you.” All that was clear was that she was a model and therefore some kind of prize to be won. It was all clearly said in fun, but definitely reinforced some disturbing ideas about a woman’s worth.

The second strike for me was when Damnit Maurie used the opportunity he was given to speak with Ontario’s new Premier Kathleen Wynne after her swearing-in ceremony to ask her about her penchant for pantsuits and how she is planning to “win us over in the fashion department.” Wynne graciously answered his question with humour, while pointing out that he probably wouldn’t have asked the question if she were a male politician.

Even if Damnit Maurie lives under a rock large enough to shield him from realizing that the focus on the appearance of women in positions of power is a common tactic used to undermine that power, and discourage other women from striving for those positions, you would think that once it was pointed out to him or the station why many people would find this question offensive he or the station might show a little grace of their own and apologize. Instead, morning host Roz lamented the population’s missing sense of humour and I lamented his and others inability to understand why it’s offensive to insinuate that this politician has to “win us over with her fashion choices” rather than with her ability to represent the interests of Ontario citizens, to think, to speak, to lead. When, as Wynne herself pointed out, you would not ask that question of a man.

Yesterday I tuned in just in time to hear Roz’ opinion on the “uproar” surrounding a photo of 17-year-old figure skater Kaetlyn Osmond run on the front page of the Globe and Mail. The photo is a close-up of Osmond, mid high-kick, the red gusset of her costume in full view. It’s an awkward and potentially embarrassing in-your-face kind of angle that takes away from the confident smile on her face. Unsurprisingly, the KISS morning host didn’t see what might be problematic about the image, saying that if anyone sees something sexual in it, then there is something wrong with them and that people are just looking for things to be offended by. (Yes, because barely-covered crotches have no connection whatsoever to sex).

What offends and exasperates me about the photo is actually how seldom female athletes make it on to the front page of a newspaper like this, and how, when they finally do, the shot that’s chosen is not only of a sport where the outfits are flimsy and skintight but the photo is taken from an upskirt angle. A couple of years ago my mom actually conducted a little experiment and collected all of the sports pages in a couple of papers for a year to see if this was really the case, and the comparison between men and women’s media coverage was even more stark than we’d understood it to be (this, despite our National Women’s Soccer team kicking every butt that came their way that year). The full page, colour photos inevitably went to the men or to the women in sexier outfits.

Kaetlyn Osmond certainly deserves congratulations and attention for her athletic achievement, but that could be better illustrated with a million different photo angles or just some thoughtful cropping, thanks (The Globe’s editor has since admitted as much in an apology on their website).

I’m not looking for things to be offended by. I don’t have to.

Yes, on their own, these could all be considered minor transgressions, but they don’t exist in a vacuum and each one contributes just a little bit to a culture of misogyny . That’s why it’s ok to be offended by seemingly small things, and important to say something about them.

To be clear, I don’t think that either of these radio personalities hate women, and I know there are probably zillions of people who share their opinions and who refuse to acknowledge sexism that is not as obvious as someone saying that men are smarter than women. However, they are a great example of how you don’t have to actively hate women to contribute to a society where misogyny is free to flourish.

Misogyny is sneaky. It doesn’t always come along out of nowhere in the form of one easily identifiable old white man screaming that women should be kitchen slaves and exist only to fulfill men’s desires and nurture their children.

It comes in little slivers that work their way inside our psyches, it wears away at us over time, it subtly slithers into our culture in bits and pieces until one day we look around and realize it has become the status quo.

I wish we didn’t have to be vigilant. I wish I could just laugh these things off, but I can’t. Because the more we let slide, the closer we are to an avalanche. And an avalanche is so much harder to stop than a couple of seemingly harmless pebbles.

 

Happy International Women’s Day

 

Let’s listen to a little Feist, shall we? (Just when I thought I couldn’t love her more, at her concert at Massey Hall over a year ago she implored her fans to be good little activists and do their part to stop the then-proposed mega-quarry threatening environmental degradation to a ludicrous amount of area farmland.)

I love that we have a dedicated day to celebrate the achievements of women. I’m so grateful to the feminists and activists who’ve come before me, and happy to count myself among those still working towards a world where people are not discriminated against based on something as inconsequential as gender.

This year in particular my hat is off to the four courageous women who started the Idle No More movement, demanding accountability from the Canadian government in regards to its promises to First Nations people and better treatment of the environment, and to my fellow Torontonians, Heather Jarvis and Sonya JF Barnett, co-founders of Slutwalk, an amazing, now international effort to  shut down victim blaming in cases of sexual assault and harrassment.

Who are the women you admire today?

Catcalls are not Compliments

Most people who’ve met me would probably tell you I’m a very upbeat, friendly sort of creature. Even on days when there’s no particular spring in my step, I tend to smile automatically at the people I pass on the street.

Few things wipe that friendly smile off my face like a bad old-fashioned cat call.

I’ve been hissed, barked and howled at, had my body, face and hair appraised and commented on, been propositioned or just told what someone might like to do to me, or have me do to them more times than I would care to count since I was 14 years old. And all of this by complete strangers.

Just last week I was walking down the street at 8:30am, bundled up like a big old toasted marshmallow, when a man winked, licked his vile lips at me and said, “Heyyyy, little girl-” before I drowned him out with my ipod.

Disturbing on multiple levels. “Oh heyyyy…confused pedophile?”

Unfortunately, I am in no way the exception. I have yet to meet a woman who has not experienced some form of this type of harassment.

Some would argue that I should just be flattered, take it as a compliment. But the thing is, I have in fact been complimented by strangers. I’ve had both men and women I didn’t know compliment my smile or my eyes or my dress. They smile an open and friendly smile, look me in the eyes and don’t expect anything in return and it absolutely brightens my day.

The people who leer and jeer and catcall expect something. They want to get a reaction out of the people they harrass. And God help you in trying to figure out what that reaction might be. Say thank you and you’re liable to encourage further or more inappropriate remarks, ignore it and watch how quickly you transform from “Baby!” into “stuck up BITCH,” yell or answer with some colourful language of your own and risk getting deeper into an altercation.

Sometimes, of course, it’s not your reaction they want, but that of the buddies they’re trying to somehow impress or bond with or prove their super-awesome, all-important heterosexuality to.

Either way, it’s tough to walk away from many of these situations without a little stormcloud of annoyance, rage, fear and disappointment trailing along with you.

It’s so disheartening and, depending on the setting, frightening, to encounter that kind of blatant objectification and lack of respect.

There’s this attitude that women’s bodies are public property, that by leaving our houses  dressed in anything but a burqa, we’ve consented to having our bodies commented on and leered at. People who just accept this kind of behaviour as an unchangeable status quo are operating on the assumption that men are beasts, creatures of lust who just can’t be expected to somehow control their special man urges.

It’s a dangerous way of thinking.

It leads to some guys thinking it’s ok to crouch down on the ground on a bar dance floor and reach through the crowd to put their hand up a stranger’s skirt (this actually happened to me. It took me a second to register what was happening and I don’t think I’ve ever been so enraged in my entire life. I grabbed the offending hand and yanked the guy up through the crowd so he was face to face with me and told him quite loudly in no uncertain terms that if he ever did something like that to anyone again he could expect to be murdered. By me, specifically.)

It’s a way of thinking that leads to people being rape apologists. It leads to victim-blaming and slut-shaming.

Also, it’s nonsense.

Last I checked, men had brains and free wills and the capacity to behave with empathy, respect and kindness towards their fellow human beings.

Some of them just have to be reminded to actually use that capacity.

How do you guys feel about this issue? Do catcalls bother you? How do you typically react to them? If it does bother you, do you ever try to educate the perpetrator as to why?

Between a Scalpel and a Hard Place

People post a lot of stupid things on Facebook (Why yes, I will accept this award for understatement of the decade, thank you very much).

Usually I respond by either hiding offenders’ updates from my newsfeed or just severing my tenuous facebook friendship with them completely.

Once in a while though, I get sucked in.

The most recent incidence of this was after a former small-town journalism colleague posted a link to a daily mail “article” beyond ludicrously entitled: “Anjelica Huston, 61, becomes Hollywood’s latest pillow face victim as she displays her suspiciously plump cheeks.”

Whatever the everloving hell that means.

The mean-spirited article pile of nonsense features a couple of unflattering photos of the actress, who looks like she has probably had some cosmetic surgery and comments on how her newly smooth face makes her neck look “crepey.”

Great. Excuse me while I pack my bags for an extrasolar planet, please.

My facebook pal’s comment on the piece was somehow not: “Can you believe how needlessly cruel and weirdly invested in other people’s physical appearances this writer/publication is?” but rather, he took a look at it and the unfortunate photos alongside it and asked instead, “Why do people do this to themselves?”

Now, it’s not a totally unreasonable thing to ask if he was genuinely somehow unaware of any possible reason someone would choose to have cosmetic surgery. But I had a hunch, what he was really doing was just gleefully feeding into the freakshow frenzy.

The follow-up comments from his friends, all women, confirmed my suspicion:

“That is frightening.”

“she looks like jabba the hut”

“She looks like a Jim Henson creation now. Time for her to only be allowed on the radio.”

“joan rivers doesn’t look so strange anymore.”

Yes, I could have just ignored the whole thing and gone on with my day, but it had been a long one and I was in no mood!

No. Mood.

Normally, I try to approach these kind of conversations in a really gentle, non-accusatory manner because I really like to try and get people to look at things from a new perspective without feeling like they’re being attacked. But um, this time I said this:

“Yeah, I can’t imagine why an aging actress or woman would ever feel pressured into taking desperate measures to try and turn back the clock. It’s not like North Americans or Hollywood place an absurd amount of value on youth and beauty. It’s not like we ever make fun of women who don’t fit the mould of young, thin and pretty, right? Give me a break.”

Haha. Did I mention I was in no mood?

I just get so sick of people thoughtlessly buying into the lose-lose situation set up for women in the media and by extension, the rest of us. If Ms. Huston had some cosmetic procedure that other than magically making her look perpetually 35, there were no tell-tale signs of, she would be celebrated. It is beyond unfair that women are expected to meet an impossible standard, and then decried and laughed at if they are seen to be making any visible effort to do so.    

I get what people mean when they ask, “Why would someone do this to themselves?” It can seem baffling at first glance that someone would be so obsessed with the idea of appearing younger that they would be willing to let someone cut them or inject them with poison or what have you, often with some strange results, but I don’t think you have to dig too deep to find an answer.

 Yes, if I ran the zoo, everyone would just go through life without dying their hair, and cosmetic surgery would be used only for, I don’t know, fixing severe burn scars or wounds that reminded people of traumatic events or something. We’d all happily get old and grey and be content with our own and each-other’s different shapes and sizes. We’d prize deeds over looks.

But for now, since some other crazy zookeeper appears to be in charge, I’m just going to try hard not to judge when someone gets swept up in that near irresistable urge to conform to expectations. In short, I’m going to try to be kind.

Unless, of course, I am in no mood.

Nice to a Fault

Last night on my way to a friend’s, I popped in to the bank to grab some cash from the ATM. (Not because I have to pay my friends to let me come over…I’m really cool guys. I swear).

No sooner had the door swung shut behind me than I noticed I wasn’t alone. As the scent of strong body odor reached my nostrils I realized there was a man standing in the vestibule. He wasn’t getting cash, in fact, he wasn’t doing anything at all. Waiting for a friend? Maybe. Waiting to punch a petite woman in the face and take her money? Possibly. The bank was on a busy corner, with plenty of people passing by, but I still felt extremely uncomfortable.

And yet. Rather than just do an about-face to get myself out of the situation as quickly as possible, I proceeded to stage an elaborate charade in which I pantomimed frustration at my card or the machine or something not working and walked out making an annoyed face with no money.

Now, maybe this guy should have been more afraid of me, because that kind of behaviour is insane, my friends.

And why would I do such a thing? To maybe spare the feelings of a complete stranger? To prove that I give everyone the benefit of the doubt?

I could have, upon making eye-contact with the lurker, just thrown up my arms, yelled “NOPE!” at the top of my lungs and dashed back out into the street and that would have been perfectly ok. Whether he was a serial killer or just a perfectly nice guy with a weird fondness for a vestibule, he would probably just have assumed I was nuts and carried on with his evening.

And even if his sensitive soul was wounded by me doing an awkward slow motion retreat back out the doors when I encountered him, making no effort to pretend I wasn’t afraid of him, so what? Maybe he’d learn not to be a creepy, unsmiling lurker (not that it’s necessarily less creepy to be a smiley lurker) who hangs around in atm vestibules where people get their money!

Have any of you encountered this kind of thing? Do you ever find yourself going above and beyond to be polite or spare someone’s feelings even when you don’t feel totally safe or comfortable in the situation? Does this ever happen to men?

No Excuse

Yesterday it was announced by news outlets that a series of sexual assaults has been committed against women and girls in my age group in my neighbourhood over the past couple of weeks. 

My heart immediately went out to the women who were attacked and I heaved a sigh of impotent frustration as I felt a little kernel of fear settle into my belly, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy my solitary walks home from Barreworks in quite the same carefree way for a while.

Inevitably, in came the emails and Facebook messages from concerned loved ones, kindly reminding me to be extra alert and aware of my surroundings and to protect myself and my girlfriends as much as possible.

In this particular situation, where it is known that someone seems to be targeting a specific demographic in a specific neighbourhood, it is helpful to be advised to consider taking any extra precautions that are possible.

But what exactly are the precautions to take against a man who approaches women from behind and assaults them? I’m lucky enough to live with a guy who is happy to meet and chaperone my walk home after dark and I can afford to shell out some money to take public transit most of the way home, and hopefully that limits my chances of being attacked by this/these particular rapist/s.

Not everyone is so lucky.

Fortunately, everyone’s favourite Toronto mayor’s niece has helpfully tweeted some positively foolproof advice for women hoping not to be raped: “Stay alert, walk tall, carry mace, take self-defence classes & don’t dress like a whore.”

 Stay alert, sure.

At barely 5’2” I’m not sure how tall I can really walk. I guess I could dig out my platform heels?

 I suppose I could carry mace, although it’s illegal to do so, and from what I’ve heard would be just as likely to harm me as any potential attacker.

I could (and have) taken a self-defence class, and sure, if I wasn’t paralyzed with fear I would do my darndest to fight someone off, but I have to admit, being smaller than some 10-year-olds, for me, successfully incapacitating a grown man would all come down to sheer luck.

Don’t dress like a whore.

Well.

Now that’s a tricky one. Are platform heels considered whorish? Probably by some. I guess I can cross “walk tall” off my list, then. Lipstick? A short skirt? A push-up bra? No bra? Nail polish? Ankles showing below my burqa?

And then of course there’s the fact that how you dress has NOT ONE GOD DAMNED THING TO DO WITH IT.

Rapists don’t lurk in the bushes waiting for a woman with just the right length of skirt to walk by. They attack people, regardless of what they are wearing because they want to feel power over another person or because they live in a society that says it’s ok to follow their basest instincts, to ignore a person’s right to be free from harm, where they know they’ll be forgiven because it is so commonly believed that by daring to leave the house and allow whatever random body part is fetishized in that particular region to show or almost show, a woman must secretly want to be attacked. 

They will rape you because they are a rapist, because there is something wrong with them, not because there is something wrong with your outfit.

Don’t dress like a whore?

I’d be hard-pressed to imagine a more hideously ugly and just supremely stupid thing to say in the wake of such a disturbing wave of attacks.

So, to clear things up for any men who might be confused about how to tell if it’s ok to have sex with a woman, what you’re looking for is not, in fact, whorish clothing.

What you’re looking for is ENTHUSIASTIC CONSENT.

 There is no excuse for rape.

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