Fit, Fearless and Fifty
Fit, Fearless and Fifty
I recently read and reread Gabrielle Bernstein's book "The Universe Has Your Back". Or to be honest, I "listened" to it over and over again on my long commute to and from work each day.
The suggestion to read "The Universe Has Your Back" came to me after I wrote a heartfelt, angst-ridden post on Facebook. In my post, I admitted to the Facebook world that I was struggling. It was early September or late August - I don't remember. I had just finished my 9th summer working at Appel Farm's residential summer camp. This summer had been my hardest summer yet for many reasons. I was consumed by overwhelming feelings of uncertainty; I reached out for help via a Facebook post and the universe answered with the recommendation of a book.
The premise of Bernstein's book is that if you make the shift from fear to faith, you will feel a sense of power in a world hellbent on making you feel powerless. I took the lessons of her book to heart and especially connected with the Kundalini meditation, "Satnam", where you repeat the sounds "sa - ta - na - ma" while pressing your thumb to your other four fingers. Practicing this meditation settled my mind and gave me a feeling of peace. Once my mind settled, I was able to examine what it was about this past summer that had made me feel just so powerless.
Camp is hard. You are working around the clock in an emotionally charged environment. As an empathetic person and a mom, I care deeply for the campers who are in my charge. I was, and am, especially good with helping homesick kids and their parents. But dealing with homesickness is draining and tough; your camper's needs come first - above your own needs and even above the needs of your own children. During camp, the needs of my kids, took a backseat to the needs of other people's kids.
I was also taking care of counselors who are not much older than my own kids. This summer, one of my counselors developed a seizure disorder. This was my first experience directly dealing with epilepsy. One night, I was woken out of a deep sleep by her co-counselor. She was having a seizure in the bunk while her campers slept. I went to her and held her through multiple seizures as we waited for the ambulance to arrive.
This evening was especially hard on me: my own child had literally just been diagnosed that week with epilepsy. They were at home with my ex-husband, their father, and I was an hour and a half away, worried sick, feeling powerless, consumed with mom guilt. Who was going to make sure my child was safe when they had a seizure in the middle of the night? Here I was helping someone else's child and I couldn't even help my own.
Mom guilt is real.
Apparently, my child has had epilepsy for quite some time. We just thought they were careless - a space cadet, a child who had their head in the clouds.
One time, they fell off the toilet for no reason when they were too old to fall off the toilet for no reason. Another time, they inexplicably stepped out onto a road and were hit by a car and had to go to the ER. One summer, while riding their bike at the beach, they unknowingly drifted directly into their grandfather's path who was riding by their side, resulting in another trip to the emergency room. This past spring, they walked into graduation and got lost and fell out of line as soon as they entered the auditorium. Throughout school, teachers would complain that they weren't paying attention in class. I would take the teachers' side and wonder, what was wrong with my child? Were they ever going to grow up?
Putting a counselor into my care who was suffering from the same disorder as my child was no coincidence. At the time, it made me feel frightened, overwhelmed and stressed out. But really the universe was showing me that it had my back. It made me confront my own fears about what a diagnosis of epilepsy means and it made me realize how important it is to be there to take care of those that you love the most. The universe knocked me down this summer, hit me on the head and opened me up to the realization that it was time for me to leave Appel Farm - a career move I previously had never entertained. My daily 3+ hour commute was no longer tenable. I needed to be closer to home.
In Bernstein's book, she talks about the importance of recognizing signs. One night I was dining outdoors. when I turned my head to see a squirrel directly behind me with a huge nut in its mouth. I decided that a squirrel with a nut in its mouth was my sign - reassuring me that I am on the right path, that everything is going to be okay, reminding me that the universe has my back. (Of course, it helps that it is autumn and there are a plethora of squirrels running around with nuts in their mouths. I may have just as well chosen leaves falling from trees as my sign!).
On my first day off after quitting my job at Appel Farm, I was greeted by my sign, right outside my window.
From the time we babies are plopped down in front of a TV screen or are handed a cell phone to occupy our curious minds, we are bombarded with images of what an ideal woman looks and acts like. As a young girl growing up in the 1980's, I remember clearly the images of prepubescent Brooke Shields sexualized in ads for Calvin Klein Jeans. She was absolutely stunning: thin, willowy, seductive. The message was clear - women are put on this earth to attract men - whatever it takes: we must starve ourselves to appear virginal and untapped. These ads were not meant for the women and girls who would be wearing these jeans - these ads were targeted at the men who would subversively tell us by their words and actions that this was the only acceptable ideal of female beauty.
I am around the same age as Christine Blasey Ford - the woman who accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault last month when they were both teenagers. These images of Brooke Shields selling Calvin Klein Jeans were also ads they both saw while coming of age. I cannot blame these ads on that assault, but the portrayal of women in advertising is certainly to blame for societies skewed image of women and as a consequence, for the actions of men who behave badly towards women.
This representation of woman seen through the eyes of men has been going on since the beginning of time. During the Ukiyo-e period of art in Japan (1600 to the late 1800s), feminine beauty was idealized in wood block prints of gorgeous, pristine women dressed in the height of fashion. Ukiyo-e prints are one of the first examples of the use of the idealized women in advertising: these prints were used to sell cosmetics, especially white face powder, lip rouge and black paint for darkening eyebrows and the teeth of married women (why not just put them out to pasture and shoot them?)
When our consumer culture took off in the 1920s, so did our use of images of women to sell products. In 1928, Betty Crocker was introduced to American women to advertise instant cake mix. She was represented as demure, motherly, and soft. Over the years, the image of Betty has evolved: Betty is now a modern, working woman, raising a family while working full time and doing it all, with a smile on her face and not a hair out of place. Betty was definitely the precursor to Martha Stewart - another impossible feminine ideal.
One of the earliest and most iconic working woman to be portrayed in advertising was Rosie the Riveter. Rosie was used in 1942 as wartime propaganda aimed at recruiting women to work in the defense industries during WWII. These ads encouraged women to not only work, but also to be glamorous on the job while keeping a lovely home and being a good mother. After the war, advertising turned its back once again on the working woman: an ad by Adel Percision Corp portrayed a child asking, "Mother, when will you stay home again?" Working mothers never win.
The National Organization for Women was formed in the 1960's. In its efforts to eliminate gender-based stereotypes in media, NOW created the "Barefoot and Pregnant" Award, issued annually, tongue-in-cheek to persons in the community who had done the most to "perpetuate outmoded images of women and who have refused to recognize that women are, in fact, human beings."
I wish I could say that the Barefoot and Pregnant award was a turning point for the use of female stereotypes and unrealistic, misogynist ideals of women in advertising. It wasn't: examples persist throughout the decades since. Enjoli Prefume Ads in the 1980's used sexy yet capable, working women to sell their perfume. Women could not only "bring home the bacon", they could "fry it up in a pan" while never letting "you forget your a man". Kate Moss's heroin chic look for Calvin Klein in the 1990's helped make anorexia an epidemic.
In 1993, A young Meghan Markle (see video here) protested Proctor and Gamble ads that made it seem like only women did the dishes. As part of a social studies assignment, she and her classmates were asked to evaluate messages in advertisements. Of the P&G ad, she said, “I don’t think it’s right for kids to grow up thinking that mom does everything." Markle wrote to Proctor & Gamble asking them to change the wording of the commercial to "people all over America are fighting greasy pots and pans" and much to her surprise, they complied.
Her protest and P&G's response were a step in the right direction, but women are still leading impossible lives - held to unreachable, impossible standards by the media. Yes, we may be closing the gender pay gap and shedding light on sexual harassment. But, there is still a price to pay for "bringing home the bacon". We can have everything as long as we, like Rosie the Riveter, look great, keep our homes clean and raise perfect children. Nothing has really changed.
Just last year, Mr. Clean celebrated Mother's Day by shaming women into getting back to what is most important in life: keeping their homes clean. And just last month, United States senators sent a clear message to women - keep your mouth shut. Boys will be boys.