Friday, 14 February 2014

Picture Perfect


My friends and I used to take selfies in high school in the 90s, before digital cameras. We'd hold the camera out at arms length and point it towards our faces and click. Then we'd have to wait until we'd used up the whole roll of film (35mm) and get the thing developed, hoping for the best outcome. Sometimes it was blurry, or I'd close my eyes or roll them back. These days we have no such dilemma. We point and click with our phones and the results are instant. If the photo is 'ugly', we  delete it and do it again and again and again until we're happy with it. Same goes for any picture for that matter. A group shot, the scenery. If it's not up to scratch, we can correct it. Is this reality? Or is it edited, enhanced pretense?

Of course this luxury is advantageous, we can create beautiful images, perfect moments, wonderful memories, but what have we lost in the process. Spontaneity, authenticity, heck even comedy.

Sometimes selfies do go wrong, a quick google search of funny selfies or selfies gone wrong will illuminate my point.  I have to say, this one is my all time favourite.

With the digital age has come a narcissism so intense, that the desire to look perfect in a photo has surpassed any notion of what beauty actually is in real life. Sorry I'm distracted, I can't stop looking at the turd in the photo above and I can't help wondering where the toilet paper is, didn't she wipe her arse?

The reality is that anyone can look amazing in a photo with the right lighting, angles, make up and technique and sometimes the photos we hate of ourselves caught off guard, upon future examination become a beautiful rendition of a moment in time in our lives. Has that happened to anyone before? It has certainly happened to me. I'm not the kind of person that aims for perfection in photographs especially if they are of myself, I don't pose unless I'm taking the piss. I want to capture what I'm doing and how I'm feeling in that moment. Mostly I take photos when I am doing something that I want to remember. A lunch with family, an outing with my husband and baby, an event I'm attending or just something I see that I think is beautiful that I want to capture, something I know I will want to remember, something that has a story attached to it. Very often when I see pictures of myself, I hate them initially. Especially if someone else has taken the picture. I may be standing at a weird angle and my body looks out of proportion. My face isn't symmetrical and certain angles make me look completely hideous. Often however, when I look at that same picture months or years down the track, I don't see the imperfections anymore. I see a younger self, someone who is smiling genuinely because I can never pose in a picture and I remember that I was doing something I loved and having a good time. I used to be embarrassed by photos when I was young, now I look back and think what a self conscious kid I was and for no good reason. The pictures have captured happy memories, mostly. Sometimes I just had the shits and those moments are clear as day as well.

So is it only a question of perception? Do we judge what we see in a photo or in the mirror only by what our brain has been programmed to think is beautiful? That could be an unanswerable philosophical question, but there has to be some influence on what we value as attractive from the images and value systems that surround us. For example if every woman on television is thin, has ghd curls and fake eye lashes, is pouting and has her hand on her hip to look more symmetrical and in proportion, doesn't that become the standard by which we measure ourselves by? With advertising companies bombarding us with images, particularly of women, that have been digitally manipulated - sometimes slightly retouched, sometimes completely altered - does our brain become programmed subconsciously to think that anything outside that idea of perfection is ugly or wrong; despite how completely unattainable it is. In some of these images, necks are lengthened, eyes widened and moved further apart, hair lines lifted, blemishes and lines removed, teeth whitened, skin lightened. Dove have created an amazing video highlighting this reality.

It seems that people these days judge their appearance based on what they see in a photograph or video not what they look like in the mirror or what they look like to others around them, at least those who know and love them and whose opinion of them actually counts. They are not even considering their relationship with themselves when they look at their own reflection or their relationship with others like the person taking the picture or the people in the photo with them, they are looking at the face as an object instead of a subject; measuring and considering its parts individually and independently of each other. Are the eyes wide; are the lips pouty; is the skin smooth. They are not analysing what is behind the eyes or what story the face as a whole is telling. You can smile and pout all you want, but if you are miserable, it is obvious. You can be caught off guard with your eyes rolling back in your head and a stupid shape to your mouth; but if you're blissfully happy, you look it.

With the prevalence of social media and the instantaneous way with which we post self images online, for some people it is becoming more important to look good in a photo than in real life. This brings me to the obsession with erasing lines. We know all too well the claims that cosmetic companies make about creams that are age defying. There's always someone in a lab coat telling us about a new scientific advance that will retard or reverse the process of aging. Nonsense. There is absolutely no scientific (real science, not pseudo science) evidence anywhere that proves that this is true. 

However, these days there are more dramatic ways to iron out our faces short of surgery. Injectables. These do work. They reach the nerves to the muscles to stop them from contracting, which erases and prevents wrinkles. It is temporary. I don't know what that means long term with regular use, I'd be interested to see some studies about the long term effects of this procedure. This study looks at the use of botox on children with cerebral palsy in their lower limbs to limit spasticity. It appears that they needed several injections to make a difference, but not too many otherwise there was no benefit. I wonder if it is the same with its use cosmetically. This article in the UK's Daily Mail talks about the possible risks and these articles in the British Medical Journal bring up some great points about the fact that the 'botox industry' is not well regulated, so although you can find high quality practitioners who know what they are doing, inexperienced and misinformed individuals can get access to the substances and equipment quite easily and hold what are commonly referred to as 'botox parties' where shit can go wrong. There are also concerns about these cosmetic treatments being unlawfully tested on animals.

I recently saw the movie Gravity with Sandra Bullock. I love her, she's such an amazing actress, but her face put me off in this movie. She played such a beautiful, heart wrenching, emotional, thought provoking character who found herself in an impossible situation; one that no ordinary human can even begin to comprehend the enormity of - she was out of this world, literally; BUT SHE COULDN'T MOVE HER FACE! I could see the effort; I could see her eyes forcing themselves to convey her emotions, I could feel the expression and the sentiment, BUT HER FACE!! It was literally frozen. All the feelings were behind a mask, bursting to come out, trapped, their only outlet her eyes, hidden behind muscles that were no longer allowed to function. I'm gobsmacked an actress would do that to herself. And there are so many others. Nicole Kidman in Baz Luhrmann's Australia was another one - amazing film, brilliant cinematography, but all I could focus on was her bloody forehead and her lips, which kept distorting in volume in various scenes. It gave it away that they didn't shoot the thing in sequence that's for sure.

I've always wondered why all the beautiful actresses go nuts with the botox. I remember the first time I saw Courtney Cox on Family Ties. I cut out a picture of her from a magazine because I thought she was the most beautiful actress I'd ever seen. I remember thinking to myself that she was going to be huge and I was right. She was stunning on Friends. Seen her lately? What the hell happened? 


I'm not judging her. I reckon there is plenty of pressure on women to stay young and 'relevant' in certain industries; I'm not blaming the victim, I'm demonstrating the result of what the Dove exercise produces. She was gorgeous, lines and dimples and crows feet and all. Now she looks like a fucking lion whose been smacked in the mouth. She looks like she's in pain. It pisses me off a bit. I feel angry on her behalf. She didn't need to be corrected so extremely. 

Now I don't want to ignore the hypocrisy I feel creeping in. I dye my hair. I must admit, I'm too lazy to do it often these days and am embracing my grey hair. I've never had it coloured at the hairdresser, I do it myself. When I was young I dyed it for fun, just to change the colour and style. These days it is to cover the grey and because the store bought stuff nowadays is ammonia free and full of lovely oils that work as a treatment. I love how my hair feels when I have just coloured it, even though I miss bits underneath because I do it myself and can't justify buying two packets for coverage. I can't reach or see the underneath bits anyway. But at least the top bits look nice. I'm really not that serious about perfecting it, it's just an illusion - smoke and mirrors. 

The irony and inequity hasn't escaped me. My husband whose silvering hair (especially since he's met me - coincidence?) is increasing, wouldn't dream of colouring his hair. I know some men do it, but most don't. It is acceptable. It is seen as distinguished. Aging on a man is ok. It demonstrates maturity, wisdom, wealth. Brings to mind that stupid Budget Insurance ad where the man looks twice the age of his partner who he patronising calls 'love' because her French accent prevents her from pronouncing the word Budget correctly. She's naked in the shower, he's shaving in the mirror, fully clothed. It's normalised to see a man much older than his younger partner. If it was reversed she would be branded a cougar. Which brings me right back to Courtney Cox. I would have been more impressed with her new TV show Cougar Town if she'd let her hair go grey, kept her lines and aged gracefully and still got laid with younger men.

It's time to rethink why we take pictures, what is the purpose? What are we saying when we put a photo of ourselves up on the internet? Are we sharing a moment in our lives, genuinely or are we representing ourselves as an image, an inanimate object?

Here's a fun exercise. Pick a friend on Facebook and go to their photos. How many facial expressions can you count on their faces? Is it the same smile over and over again in every situation or do they sometimes look surprised, puzzled, bored, happy, deep in thought, cranky, drunk, distracted, jubilant, neutral....

Don't judge! Just observe and tell every one you love that they are beautiful once in a while. And look at yourself in the mirror often. Look deep into your eyes, smile at yourself and say it out loud....."I FUCKEN LOVE YOU! "

Monday, 3 February 2014

Kept Woman

As of now, at the time of writing this, I am officially without an income. As mentioned in my bio, I have been an active member of the workforce since I was 13 years old and now I am officially unemployed, not unoccupied; as I write, my baby is crying for a feed and a soothe. She needs me. I am 38 and a stay at home mum.

My first job interview was unconventional. I used to go to a coffee shop, owned by two Greek brothers, before and after school, I was 13. I'd hang out with friends and we would buy a doughnut and a milkshake or something. The older of the brothers was married with a family. He was respectful. The younger brother was single, he was sleazy, sexist, but harmless. The interview went like this:

Sleazy guy: Hey you wanna wash my dishes?
Me: You gonna pay me?
Sleazy guy: Come Thursday night.
Me: Ok

I worked a four hour shift on the Thursday night, learning about how to clean the coffee and soft serve machines and clearing tables and of course, washing the dishes, by hand, they didn't let me use the dishwasher. The older brother cooked; burgers, chips, battered goods. The younger brother served at the counter and made coffees. I helped out where I could. They were impressed and asked me to come back for four hours during the day on Saturday. For the two shifts I got $50. I thought I was rich! Back then, a 13 year old making $50 a week, cash in hand, no tax and getting some work experience as well as keeping myself occupied and learning some great skills. My parents encouraged me to earn an income, but they wanted me to spend half of the money I earned as I pleased, as long as I saved the other half. That never happened. I saved up if I wanted something, like my first pair of Doc Marten boots, but I spent the lot. I loved the independence.

That job led to others and I haven't been unemployed for very long since. I worked in food service some more, I got some casual shifts at a factory with my dad and this supported me throughout university. I got my dream job in a Women and Children's Refuge upon graduating from an Arts Degree at Sydney Uni. I got great marks after high school and had my choice of courses and universities, but I chose the biggest and oldest one in Australia, mainly because great bands played there and they had awesome old buildings and gargoyles and I could hang out in Newtown if I wanted to; and I did Arts because at 17 I had no idea what vocation I wanted to pursue. I did my three years and left. I majored in Sociology, Anthropology and Women's Studies and I still view the world and people through those eyes.

In third year, at enrollment (back then you had to go in person and queue up for hours to sign up for courses, there was no internet in 1995), I was told that I hadn't fulfilled my unit requirements to graduate. Unbeknownst to me, I had failed English in first year. I was great at English at school because I had a wonderful teacher and we studied interesting texts that he brought to life for us. He even ended the year with a study session in the form of a game show to help us remember stuff for the HSC. At the end of the gameshow, we all had to recite a memorised monologue from one of the texts; Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. I'll never forget when the quietest most unassuming girl in the class recited Cleopatra's death monologue and the whole class gave her a standing ovation because she absolutely blew us away, she was that good. I still get goosebumps thinking about that moment. I got Cesar's monologue and I was crap. I always hated public speaking and I made a fucking idiot of myself, I was so nervous. 

Anyway, English in high school - good, at Uni - not so good. I had an old fart of a lecturer who had taught one of my high school teachers, he was ancient in the mind not just the body and he sapped every ounce of joy out of every text we ever looked at. He never made eye contact, he just waffled on for hours about what he thought the author meant. He destroyed any interest I had in the subject and failed me. Prick. I didn't even notice. 

So there I was at enrollment, smug about it being my last year when the student volunteer told me with glee that I would have to pick up another first year subject if I wanted to graduate. I did, Government 101. Boring as bat shit, but it came in pretty handy eventually and I passed with no trouble. 

On graduation day, our valedictorian was John Bell from the Bell Shakespeare Theater Company; all I remember from his speech was that he got drunk at Manning Bar heaps too. I have to say, I didn't make any friends at uni; I was so shy and completely unprepared for the social and political side of study at that age. I drank and watched bands alone and hung out at the library or in quiet corners of the magnificent buildings by myself. I wish I had my personality now, back then. Oh and for the record, no body EVER, in any job interview EVER, has given a flying toss about my degree. Well maybe once; my Women's Studies major impressed them at the interview at the refuge. That's about it. The piece of paper now hangs proudly in my old bedroom at home at my parents' place. I loved studying and being a student, but I couldn't do it for very long because I had to make a living. I wish I could go back to it. I have considered doing some post graduate studies, perhaps via correspondence; these days it is so easy to do that, but it's expensive and time consuming and well that ship has sailed.

The refuge was the jewel in my working life's crown. In high school I was very passionate about human rights. I'd joined Amnesty International and participated in their letter writing campaign to help with the release of political prisoners. I loved the writing aspect of it and thought it was the least I could do from my privileged existence and I took on the task with gusto; memorising whole sections of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At uni in first year, a mature aged student in my Sociology lecture befriended me and told me that she thought I would really enjoy Women's Studies, so in second year I dropped Medieval History (which, like English I nearly failed, but the lecturer at least had the decency to warn me that I was failing, so we agreed that if he gave me a score of 50 and passed me, he would never see me again) and enrolled into Women's Studies. This course changed my life. It validated my gendered experience, it allowed me to understand what viewing the world through a feminine perspective meant, regardless of a gendered body; men can be feminists too. It exposed me to incredible literature and texts, amazing female lecturers and tutors and topics that although directly affect women exclusively, half the population, have consequences for all of humanity. Everything clicked into place. I knew I wanted to work in women's services, so not long after graduation, when I saw the ad in the local paper for a junior to work in a women's refuge, I jumped at the opportunity and I got the job. I thought, 'sheez that was easy!' Especially after hearing that old Arts joke over and over again. You know the one that goes something like: What did the Arts student say to the Economics student? Would you like fries with that? 

Working at the refuge was a hard slog, but inspiring, emotional and empowering. I started there at a time of great transition for the refuge movement in NSW, particularly ours and was at the time working with three generations of women. The first generation were the women in their 70s who had been there from the beginning. They were old school. They still did things the way they did when refuges were first established in the 1970s. With a sense of emergency, they practiced separatist feminism. Men were the enemy most of the time, unless they wore a uniform and even then they weren't to be trusted too much. They didn't document their work other than in day books and journals and photos; they were secretive and cliquey. They were maternal and traditional, but radical for their time. The next wave were the baby boomers. They had money because they worked compared to their predecessors who were often happy to just volunteer, they were occasionally sole parents, they were business minded and professional. They were multicultural and multi denominational. Men too were the enemy, but they focused on educating the boys. Then my generation came along. We introduced computer programs to document our services and designed forms and manuals. We used a consultant and established a value and motto system. We created a structured service worthy of the stretched funding we received. We built upon the values and services that were established over the three generations and reached out further to the women in our community and the network of refuges across the entire state. In my opinion, we had easier relationships with men; we were fortunate to have the strength and independence fought for and won by the women before us. Men weren't the enemy, authority and systems were. Through all three generations - the personal was still the political.

We were a women and children's refuge - a service for families escaping and surviving domestic violence (physical/sexual/psychological/emotional violence) and where in the past, the services were focused on the family as a unit, we could now divide the services into those aimed at the woman's needs and those focused more on the needs of the child. That was the straw that broke this camel's back. I was 23 when I started, 26 when I left. I felt strong and motivated to empower a woman; an adult able to make her own choices, a woman whose potential and instinct for survival I could harness and reflect back to her to encourage her to fight for her rights, to respect herself, to demand safety and justice and the freedom to nurture herself and her children. But when I moved from the women's services section to the child protection aspect of my work, I crumbled. I didn't have the stomach for what I witnessed and saw. I didn't have a heart yet strong enough to protect those babies. I regressed to a child myself and felt too helpless, too weak to revive them. All I could do was suffer with them. As a mother now, I wonder if I could go back to that work. It was debilitating. I'm simply not strong enough and the rage just drowns the compassion and that doesn't help anyone. I quit after a particularly difficult case and after only three years took some time out to process what the refuge experience gave me. I tip my hat to the women who have made this their life. My refuge coordinator is still there 30 odd years later. Her salary was only slightly higher than what I earned as a junior admin clerk in the public service. I bumped into her recently at a union rally for community workers who were fighting for a pay rise. I asked her how she can still do it and not break after all these years and she said to me, "I just keep going".

I've worked in so many different industries: property valuations, community housing, disability support, engineering, domestic cleaning, child minding, fashion, insurance and banking, call centers, medical reception, mostly in a service or admin capacity, never really wielding any power, but certainly making a significant contribution. Eventually I ended up in the public service. I finally got to where I wanted to be; a secure, well paying job, with great benefits, interesting work focusing on social justice, unionised protection, a great bunch of people to work with, in the city - I secretly love Sydney for all it's fast paced, impersonal, aggressive flaws. By the time I was 30 I figured it didn't matter where I worked, as long as I was contributing something meaningful to society, was earning a decent wage so that I could be independent and self sufficient (pay rent, maintain a car, travel a little and not need anyone to support me like my parents or a partner) and build upon a foundation so that I could become a parent and do it right, planned, organised. People tell me you're never really ready to be a parent, but I disagree. You can aim towards being prepared somewhat. I take the role of creating humans rather seriously, shouldn't we? And one important lesson I learned in my studies about women's issues and working in women's services is that if you empower women; if you protect them; if you give them the right, education and freedom to determine and control their reproductive bodies; we would solve the world's problems.  It would certainly be a kinder and healthier society. Matriarchal societies have demonstrated this over and over again, but today we still choose to ignore them. We prefer the patriarchy, we let it win. It destroys men as much as women. Why can't we achieve a balance? What have we got to lose in trying?

I didn't know at the time the circumstances in which I would have a child and although I was raised in a fairly traditional nuclear family, I wasn't sure if I wanted to get married and have babies; I was never going to be a perpetual breeder, but I knew for sure that I wanted to have a child or two if I was fortunate enough. I also knew that I would risk not having children if the right circumstances didn't present themselves. If I wasn't financially and emotionally stable, healthy and well ready to give up myself, even for just a short time while they were babies and dependent on me completely. I would have rather not had kids than had them and not been prepared.

So here I am. At 38, married - I buckled under the pressure. Marriage wasn't important to me. I didn't care about it all, but mine and my husband's parents did and he did and well in the end I did too. We gave everyone, including ourselves a decent party. I wore green; I had a celebrant; we ate great food and cake and danced. I got a nice (cheap) ring, we had a great honeymoon in Tahiti and I took my husband's surname. I struggled with that one, but with every option it was a man's name anyway. My maiden name was dad's, my mother's maiden name her dad's, my grandmothers' names all went back to a man, so I stopped fighting it. My first name matters more to me anyway. So we gave our parents their first wedding, we were both the first born. My husband's sister and my brother soon followed. My sister is a lesbian. She lives with her girlfriend and they've been together for six years. They're still waiting for the government to pull their giant finger out of their sphincter and change the law. It's shit and not fair and we will keep fighting for equality. 

At 38, married and a stay at home mum. I felt a bit lost and emotional this week. This is what I worked towards, so why am I feeling like this? Nostalgic, afraid, ripped off, but ultimately content and vindicated. I earned this! I knew that if I had a baby I would stay at home as long as was necessary to look after it because I don't have my own business and the option from working from home. I'm slightly OCD and there is no way that I would be able to work from home and keep the baby and the house and everything clean and ordered and organised anyway. I'm learning to let things go and writing is one way to immerse myself in something that allows me to ignore everything else (except the baby of course). I also knew that I couldn't go back to the 9 - 5 or in my case 7 - 630 (work is an hour and a half away) straight away so I've decided to take a couple of years off without pay. This makes me utterly dependent on my husband's income; utterly dependent on someone else for money for the first time since I was 13 and I'm a bit terrified and sort of not really ok with it. Now that the maternity and parental pay have run out, and it has literally been a few days, I'm looking for the next way in which I can earn an income, even though I don't really have to.

I fared better than most. With a public service job I was entitled to 14 weeks at full pay (or 28 weeks at half pay - I took the former); then the government helped me out with the parenting payment - 18 weeks at minimum wage. I was happy to take a pay cut knowing that everyone gets the same, including a mother who may be struggling working in a low paying job without the generous maternity leave package that I have access to. I am completely astonished that the current government wants to allow mothers on maternity leave to be paid their actual pay up to $75,000 a year. That is really attractive to someone who earns a great wage, including myself, but what about the women working in factories or retail or the community sector and care industries or the million other jobs dominated by women that don't pay anywhere near what is necessary to live on, particularly when you have dependents to look after and either a low paid partner or an unemployed partner or no partner at all to rely on. A government's obligation is to ensure an even distribution of wealth by promoting and implementing equal opportunity and access. Who are they to determine the value of some mothers over others.

I'm a bit sad and uncomfortable about being without an income even though we more than manage financially because I feel like given all my experience and contributions, in the past and now as a mother, I must be worth something! I've never worked harder than what I do at home, by choice, but also because I care about this role more than any other occupation I've had before - including the refuge. But it's not a job as such is it? I don't clock in or out for that matter; I don't get paid, but I do have unlimited access to the household purse and I don't have a boss besides myself and the baby, she bloody owns me most days. 

For now I must accept this new me and I'm enjoying every fleeting moment of my daughter's childhood - when they say it flies and they grow up quick, they weren't even remotely incorrect. I'm taking pleasure in the little things. Yes they can be mundane and tedious, but I don't mind doing the house work and the cooking (although my husband contributes to both). I am loving spending days just watching my baby play and learn and develop. I don't mind changing her and feeding her and cleaning her and babbling back at her and chasing her around the house as she becomes mobile and ensuring her safety. I've been lucky to find a wonderful network of other women in my community in my mothers' group and on social networking who are doing the same and most of them have more than one child, do all of the above and hold down full time jobs! Women are amazing! And men too, some men, are becoming increasingly focused on the important things in life too. Working to live instead of the other way around. 

Come to think of it, it is exciting to think about the prospect of the next chapter in my working life. Perhaps another baby. Perhaps another job. Maybe neither, maybe both. Time will tell.