Sunday, March 16, 2014

On Money, Debt, Poor Choices, and the Parts of Ourselves We Wish Would Go Away

I have hesitated to write about this topic before because it is so taboo, or rather because I have so much shame around it. I am someone who has always had a job and worked hard at my jobs. I believe in work and being generous and I believe that money is not everything.

I work with people experiencing homelessness and I have preached so many times how important it is to remember that our identities are not wrapped up in our money, either our possession of it or lack of it.  I believe this completely. And yet money, in this world, does matter. It matters that we be able to pay for the things we have and pay back our loans. It matters in terms of eating and being stable. 

I went to a college that I could not afford. It was the most transformative, amazing experience for me, but none the less I could not afford it, which was not a reality I was in touch with at the time. My parents have given, and continue to give, me so many amazing gifts, both emotional and monetary (I have an amazingly supportive family who have repeatedly gone above and beyond for me), but they were not able to pay the family portion of the tuition. I still went to the school. I could have chosen to transfer, but I didn't. The jury is out on whether or not this was a good choice. I'm not quite sure how I slid through frankly. A lot of kind people in the registrar's office would lift the hold so I could register for classes. I would pay just enough to get my grades processed. It's actually kind of amazing. I so much wanted to be in school there. I so much wanted that education, even though I had no idea at the time what an unwise financial choice it was. A few people really understood how tight it was for me, but I did not process the amount of stress placed on me during this time. I would often fall asleep worrying about whether or not I would be able to pay for classes. I would have nightmares about the campus police walking into my classes and escorting me out, alerting all my fellow classmates that I did not belong there, that I shouldn't have been getting that education and experience. 

Needless to say during this time I got incredibly good at repressing thoughts about financial woes because it was the only way to emotionally function. I am someone who is decidedly overly sensitive and so the idea that I was "not doing what I was supposed to be doing" really undid me. It undoes me. By the time I finished my classes needed to graduate I had a lot of direct debt to my school, not just loan debt, which is a really unusual thing. I got to walk with my classmates and I finished my classes, but I did not receive my diploma for years after. I have a lot of compassion for younger me. I wish I could go back and counsel her and console her. 

So much of the fear I associated with money and financial decisions has really plagued my life as a 20 something. I decided to go into a field where I have had incredible jobs, but they are not the most lucrative financially (although I feel incredibly gifted to be able to be employed doing work that is meaningful to me and provides for my needs). I have struggled to make my payments. I have made mistakes. I have struggled to face my financial fears, which of course has made my financial situation all that more stressful. I do not want to look at the whole financial picture for fear of what it will tell me about how long it will take to attain certain goals that I have, like graduate school, that I have put off for years due in large part to cost and not having the financial background where I would be able to get comprehensive enough loans to pay for it. 

My dreams of my college security officers escorting me out of class have transferred into dreams of me being arrested by the police and taken to jail because of my debt. I clearly read too much historical fiction as a child, as the idea of debtors prisons seem realistic to me. 

This year I have been really trying to face it all head on, which is liberating, but if I'm going to be really honest, is also incredibly scary. It makes me sad to see how my financial choices have been so governed by fear. It is hard to look at this part of myself and feel that I'm a person of value. It's an area where I can easily be very cruel to myself, feeling like I have failed, and continue to fail, majorly. It is hard to face financial struggle. It scares me mightily. It makes me question fundamental truths that I believe about myself, that I am good, and smart, and kind. 

The purpose of this post is not merely to bum you all out to no end, but it is to be radically honest about an area of my life that I feel great shame around. I used to think that it was a wee bit tacky to disclose so much on a blog, but I think I've moved beyond that. I really want to write this down because it feels less heavy when I do. I want to be honest because I believe when we bring things into the light they can start being healed. I also believe that there may be other people out there in my world who are facing similar fears, realities, and paths. I know for some people money issues seem so silly, so mundane, so irresponsible, but for many of us it's our main area of growth. 

So I am writing this as the first of many posts about my movement from of a place of fear and denial around money into a place of clarity, bravery, and responsibility. I am committing to posting at least once a week about this little journey of mine. I'm hoping that writing about it can serve as a way to stay accountable, to be honest with myself and others, and to open space for other people in my life to maybe be honest about things that are plaguing them, but they feel too ashamed to name. 

Saturday, March 8, 2014

On Loving Women, Not Being Thin, And International Women's Day

Happy International Women's Day World! I love this day. In the past I've hosted parties for International Women's Day and I'm thinking of reviving the tradition. I value this day so much because I've been gifted to have the most incredible women placed in my life. They have shown me the heart of resilience, beauty, joy, and spunk. My mother is particularly notable to me whenever I think about women who inspire me, or really anyone who inspires me. She has demonstrated to me every day of my life what it means to love without condition, to meet each day with a sense of purpose, and she has instilled in me a deep well of self worth. My mother's love for me is a truth beacon.

So every International Women's Day, in addition to celebrating all the incredible women that have been, are, and will be,  I think about an issue that women are disproportionately facing in our country and/or world. This March 8th, I found myself thinking about weight and beauty standards. Men certainly also face pressures around body presentation, but ridiculous standards of beauty seem to plague us ladies. Standards of beauty certainly vary significantly around the world and in this post I'm focusing primarily on North American standards of beauty relating to weight.

I was thinking about my own relationship with weight and beauty tonight. I am not a thin woman. I have never been a thin woman. Even at my lowest weight, I am someone with curves. I have broad shoulders and hips and no matter how fit I am I still carry fat. I sometimes wonder if I hail from more Nordic lands than I know about. I am deeply gifted at storing fat. With the exception of snow driving, I weather winter very well.

I feel very fortunate to have had a mother who focused more on the beauty of one's character and spirit than on cultural norms of beauty. I am fortunate to have been a strange child, channeling the great women leaders throughout history while playing dress up. It was a gift to grow up in a community where thinness was not paramount and around people in spiritual practice who saw beauty in all life. Being on swim and waterpolo teams trained my mind to believe my body was good and strong. When you spend the vast majority of your time in a bathing suit around other people in bathing suits the small vanities tend to fade. No one cares about the stretch mark, or the bit of fat, or the awkward tan. Living in a college co-op, which drew people to it that had a propensity for the nude, further solidified for me that bodies of all shapes and colors are really remarkable and that nudity is not always sexual. My body could be many things; it is many things. I have amazing friends who do not spend all their waking hours consumed by the fire breathing media dragon's non-truth:
that to be beautiful you must be thin, and have flawless skin, and be within a certain skin color palette, and have curves in only the right places. I have a partner who loves me and does brave and amazing work around asking himself and other men to really confront what many cultural outlets have taught them about what makes women beautiful.

All this to say, I am one of the non-thin women who is really lucky. I cannot imagine how challenging not being thin as a woman in a mainstream North American context would be without a lot of the fortifying influences that I have had. And even with all of my life giving, truth telling influences, as a women who has always "struggled with weight" (such a strange phrase right...I don't really struggle with weight, in fact I put it on really easily) sometimes the non-truth telling fire breathing dragon perches in my head. I begin the insidious internal dance around my weight. The questions start coming up, "Are you working out for health or weight? Is it okay if it's for weight? If it's for weight does that somehow betray your ideal of beauty in all people? Why does weight matter so much? Why do I really love what I see in the mirror, but worry that others may find me lacking? Why does no one ever ask, 'Have you gained weight because you're looking really good?'? Have painful relational things in my life been related to my image?" Basically I begin the downward spiral into, as Ann with an E would say, the depths of despair. I just really begin losing faith in humanity and then in myself for allowing myself to spend even a minute on a topic so insipid and unhelpful. I'd like to think that I have better things to think about and do in my life and I'm right, I do. However, it does not mean that the very unhealthy and pervasive culture messages around thinness do not take their tole and require attention.

The reality is that being heavy in mainstream North American culture is stigmatized and this stigma, I believe, is the most acutely experienced in women. I have had men I respect deeply admit that they feel they are really open about the appearances of the women they date, with the exception of weight. They do not think they could date someone heavy. These men are brave and I admire them for being so forthright about this, but it's pretty heartbreaking. I cannot count the number of stories women, who have been told they are heavy and or believe themselves to be heavy, have told me about how they have been treated poorly on dating websites, on dates, in the workplace, in their families, and even at doctor's offices. Because of their weight, their bodies somehow become a valid and appropriate topic for conversation and critique.

There are multiple studies, focused in North America, that illustrate that women who are perceived as heavy face barriers in the workplace as well as in their dating lives. Now thinness is not the paramount of beauty worldwide and I think it's important to note that thin women in many cultural contexts are treated as less desirable, much like heavier woman are treated in the United States. This post is discussing heavier women in the United States, but points to the larger global issue of how women's bodies are culturally co-opted and forced to fit into beauty standards that separate us from each other, making some women part of the "in" group and some women part of the "out" group, which of course can leave all of us with a diminished sense of self worth and a compromised sense of sisterhood. It's also critical to note that this standard of thinness also creates a culture of discontent and body cruelty for women who would not, by others, be considered heavy. This beauty standard harms us all.

As I reflect on the issues of weight in the light of International Women's Day, I cannot help but offer a genuine prayer and call for each of us, whether we are the women or men who are on the heavier end of the spectrum, the man or woman who loves someone who is not thin, the person, whether woman or man, who finds themselves in judgement or revulsion over heavier bodies, or the person who is secretly attracted to people with heavier frames, but is too ashamed to admit it, to work daily to bring forth a paradigm shift when it comes to standards of beauty and desirability that separate us from each other and from ourselves. The reality is that heavier bodies are beautiful too and not just for the sake of being politically correct. Heavier bodies are truly beautiful, just like thin bodies. We interface with the world through our bodies, we are integrally intertwined with our bodies. They are desirable. They are valuable. Most importantly they belong to fellow human beings who have bright minds, big hopes, deep hurts, and a desire for connection. Even when I have my depths of despair moments around the culture of weight in this country and my place in it, I know on a pretty profound level that my body, in all its sizes, is a tremendous gift and that it is a thing of beauty, as I am a thing of beauty. Sadly, I do not think that all women (people) know this.

On this International Women's Day let's treat all women's bodies with respect. Let's do the hard internal and societal work to really understand what it is to love ourselves and others and get out from under this oppressive standard of beauty.

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