Sunday, April 25, 2010

Designer Vaginas

The push toward cosmetic surgery to “mask” the effects of aging is not news, and as the likes of Heidi Montag will attest, its practice is growing at an alarming rate with young women as well. What is talked about a lot less, though, is cosmetic surgery below the belt or, put another way and a lot more specifically, “designer vaginas” – a moniker granted it in a 2005 Globe and Mail article.

Both men and women today have wildly distorted impressions of so-called “normal” genitalia. Research repeatedly shows that women in particular are widely unfamiliar with real genital diversity, so they tend to rely on marketing and images provided by doctors and other professionals with ridiculously narrow aesthetic and sexual ideals. The reality is that the size, shape and form of a woman’s genitalia vary greatly, and change over time – we are as diverse “down there” as we are in our faces or our fingerprints.

That’s what I learned from the New View Campaign when I interviewed them several years ago. A grassroots organization formed in New York about 10 years ago, its purpose is, among other things, to challenge distorted messages about sexuality, and to expose aggressive marketing tactics that normalize women's dissatisfaction with their bodies.

We’re talking women as young as 15 years old, going in for procedures such as drastic labia amputation or clitoral unhooding, with poor research on the consequences.

My question is this – how did we get here? How did we get to the point where we are so fucked up about our bodies, women of all ages are lopping off bits and pieces of their private parts in order to feel desirable?

The pressure to conform to a commonly agreed upon norm can be a highly oppressive force. We see and allow for diversity in nature much more easily than we do in our bodies, or for that matter, our sexual experiences. We’re always thinking about whether we measure up. Biologist and sex researcher Alfred Kinsey dedicated most of his life to educating people in this realm in the 1940s and 50s, yet we’re still dealing with a lot of the same (recycled) attitudes today.

Why are we so afraid of being different? As we age, and develop a more intimate relationship with our own bodies and our selves, this question might be more relevant than we think.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Grief As Skill

Someone I interviewed once actually talked about this – grief as a true skill of life, “an equal of the ability to love.” Now I’m the sort of person who sits up and takes note when I hear this kind of talk. I am interested in how people deal with what they find difficult; what their attitude toward death is; how they respond to crisis or what they do with the dark undercurrent of their emotions. I have always felt that to be really alive or to live our lives fully we need to make peace with the things we find hellish. That there is a great deal to learn from that we find arduous. So I invited him back for another interview. I wanted to ask him what this “grief as skill” thing was all about. I wanted some insight that might help me in adjusting to the death of someone very close to me.

The man I refer to here is Stephen Jenkinson.

Turns out that the skill of grief and the skill of dying are pretty much in the same camp. It all has to do with living your life as if whatever it is won’t last; that “the cradle of your love of life is death – the fact that it ends.” Okay – so living as if today, or this moment, could be your last – I can dig it. But I think there’s more. I want in on this “grief as skill” business. So I ask him.

He’s happy to indulge me. He talks about “letting the grief be part of the story,” and “a moral intelligence; a willingness to know the fabric of life for what it is.” I am struck by the beauty of how this all sounds. But what really gets me is when he describes the skill of grief as a “the willingness to remember – an understanding of what a discipline of the heart it is to remember, even when it pains you to do so.”

Not the same as memory, he tells me. First, he starts by defining “to remember”. He says it actually means, “to gather back together again.” That when someone you love has died, “doing” grief means being willing to remember. Because the opposite to “remember” is “dismember”. Once you understand that, he tells me, you understand the full consequence of forgetting someone.


So I’ve been thinking a lot about this forgetting business. About how references to it can be found in music, art, literature and even social media. We “forget” about our troubles by drinking them away, or sing about “forgetting” someone who has hurt us. “Forget about it,” we say, as an expression of good will when someone we know feels guilty about their behavior. The examples are endless. And what about the daily routines of living in a fast-paced, western culture? Do we habitually “forget” about one thing in order to focus on the next? Put our family “out of mind” in order to bring our best to the job? Block out the disturbing exchange we just had with a friend, because it’s just too uncomfortable to allow it any room?

How much of our lives is a series of disjointed events, a stage play of multiple personalities acting through varying mindsets, never the twain shall meet?

Surely there has to be times that “forgetting” is a positive, constructive thing to do? The thing that helps us move on? Forgive? Come together? I don’t know anymore. But it did occur to me that when “forgetting” turns into a habit, it becomes pathological. To forget is to dismember. Shit – that’s heavy. How many body parts have I got strewn across my life – my psyche? Does my left hand even know what my right hand is doing?

It is in this vein that the love of my life – my beloved Mishka – saved my life. Her death continues to riddle me with anguish, but at 48, I now find myself thinking about what it might mean to not be leaving stuff behind anymore. To bring this part along with that part, and so on – to introduce all the bits and pieces.

To be “willing to remember” whatever I need to, regardless of how much it pains me, in order to learn “the deep skill of living.”

That sounds like a life’s work – one I welcome with an open heart. Because I will never forget her.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Flexibility: The Holy Grail

It seems to me that one of the hardest parts about aging is the tendency to become enslaved by habit; those parts of our lives that we do over and over again on autopilot, simply because it is what we know. And I do mean enslaved. Like getting so locked in to a pattern of behavior that any effort to resist it feels like swimming in jello. The God of Apathy takes over.

I suppose that’s partly why we fall into these habits in the first place – the apathy or depression about getting older. A realization that, in my experience at least, comes in stages. It starts with this sense of time speeding up, somewhere between 40 and 50. Then you start noticing shit about your body that’s difficult to deal with – it doesn’t work the way it used to; the wrinkles, sags or grays start sneaking up on you. Or you start surprising yourself with the stuff that comes out of your mouth. Or it dawns on you that people don’t look at you the same way anymore. It’s insanely easy to start panicking. You want to rewind the tape. What happened to my waist? My biceps? My face? Did it all just catch up to me? Who is that looking back at me in the mirror? Did I just say that? Who the hell am I?!!

So you start comparing. And thinking a lot about who you were. And if you’re not careful, you wake up one day confronted with how regimented you’ve become – the days bleed into each other, and the phrase “same old, same old” takes on a whole new meaning. You think about getting out but the prospect is unnerving. As the saying goes, “old habits die hard”. That’s because the older we get, the harder it is to mix it up. Flexibility of mind, heart and body becomes something we have to work at. We’re hanging on to how it was five years ago, or whenever, trying to slow down the rate at which time seems to be slipping through our fingers. We resist change by courting the familiar. And before we know it we are going through the motions, resigning ourselves to the process of aging, as if we lacked choices in how we experience it.

All of this, ironically, as we avoid facing death. We tell ourselves that doing so is giving up on life. Educator Stephen Jenkinson sees it very differently. “The skill of dying is the same skill as deep living,” he tells me. That the extent to which we can embrace death is the extent to which we can live our lives. “Not success...not growth...not happiness. The cradle of your love of life is death. The fact that it ends.”

I’m thinking that gives me options. Options I never had before.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Pamela Anderson Just Doesn't Get It

Okay – I have a serious confession to make. I am an avid fan of Dancing with the Stars. Every week I go to embarrassing lengths to make sure I am primed, Mondays at 8pm, to catch all the glory on my small screen. I schedule my clients around it, I plan my evening meal, I rush home from whatever appointment I happen to be at. Just like I did when I was a teenager, ridiculously and hopelessly addicted to The Monkees on television.

And I have been keeping this a secret for years.

Now I should say, in my own defence, I have plenty of well thought out reasons for why I do it – meaning that I’ve actually thought about it – but it’s also just great fun to watch. For those of you unfamiliar, the basic concept behind the show is the pairing of people from all walks of life (boxers, actors, Olympic medalists, comedians, journalists, etc) with professional dancers to take a crash course in how to dance ballroom. In front of 20 million people. It’s a competition – a serious one, with good taste. It features decent judges who give constructive feedback without exploiting the contestants, as frequently seen on “reality programs” like American Idol (aka Simon Cowell). What makes a couple advance is a combination of the judges scores (50%) and audience votes (the other 50%). And part of what makes it interesting is that it is always surprising to see who takes easier to dance than others – and it’s often not who you expect it to be.

I am not a fan of ballroom dancing. But I am fascinated by the correlation between body language and character, and how a person’s physical conditioning (for example, in sports training) can interfere with their effort to expand their range of movement, or to learn a whole new “language”. Whether we are athletically trained or not, we are all prone to patterns in the way we move that can become habitual, and this in turn can have a real impact on our mental and emotional states. Any effort to change these patterns can wreak havoc on our field of perception. Take, for example, the Olympic skater on this season’s show who stepped on his own foot during training, or the NFL star who struggled to find his “feminine” side while gliding across the floor. Our biggest obstacle in any creative endeavor is often not what we don’t know, but rather what we do know.

Another really interesting aspect of the show is to see how people connect (or don’t connect) with their partner and their audience – and how both, in turn, influence voting. Dance is far more than just technique, after all. Are they merely going through the motions, or are they, through their partner, connecting with the emotion in, or the tradition behind, the dance? Are they peddling a façade, or do they make some attempt at being real, or reaching out to the people who are watching them?

Pamela Anderson’s debut on DWTS couldn’t be a better example. Famous for her “look at me, aren’t I hot” antics on camera, and her flagrant willingness to expose herself as much as possible for all her adoring fans (ie. men and boys who like watermelons for breasts) – she has been no different here. What is surprising, however, is that despite the lack of any training whatsoever, this woman can actually dance. The first two segments earned her decent scores from the judges. But she just couldn’t resist carrying on in her usual way off stage. At one point, while being briefly interviewed about her performance, she was overcome with the sudden need to search for some unknown object in her brassiere, then cup her prized possessions with her own hands in order to “adjust” them on live television.

The voters didn’t go for it. Though she earned admirable praise from the judges, she managed to land herself in the bottom two after audience votes were tallied. The look on her face betrayed a real disconcertion. As if her life-long perception of her own popularity was being shaken to the core.

Pamela Anderson, you just don’t get it. Not everyone wants to be treated as if they were a 16 year old boy cradling their member. Give it a rest. You’ve been carrying on with this tomfoolery for most of your adult life. What are you really made of, anyway?

Thus, another aspect of the DWTS appeal. Even those who can dance are challenged, albeit on a different level. Will Anderson rise to it? Or will she revert back to what is safe, and what she is used to?

To the rest of us (older) women in the real world, we are challenged all the time in ways that Anderson will never know. Midlife brings hormonal changes and aging bodies. We are asked to dig to the core for who we are and what we value - and we often don't see it coming. We’re in another league altogether. And thank god for that.