For anthropologists, is interdisciplinarity ever truly a meeting of equals?

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I recently read a Twitter post which asserted that interdisciplinarity was never a meeting of equals. As an anthropologist working outside of an academic department I met this statement with some unease. Currently, my working relationships are built on a premise of difference, of working with others from bounded, clearly demarcated professions and of thinking critically about if not directly challenging the taken for granted world views in the industry in which I work. I have written elsewhere about the role, function and value of anthropologists in workplaces, but in doing so I wrote from the basis of anthropologists as different but equal.

However, thinking more critically about this has led me to problematize this idea. I don’t believe I’ve adequately taken into account the importance of boundaries, of professions and their knowledges, and the challenges that anthropological thinking may represent for work practices. This is especially true for working in business contexts when we bring anthropological understandings of persons in the world and our armoury of social and culturally based research skills that recognise, situate and give voice to difference into business contexts. Can work environments which may value and seek unifying concepts and ideas tolerate diversity in conceptualisation, in approaches, in performance, in views and at the end of the day, in business practices themselves?

In working across traditional disciplines, we hope to inform and build something greater than the sum of parts. While this is a hackneyed expression, it’s true in my work where my current project challenges and reinvents our products and services, situating what we would be seen to do traditionally in a postmodern context.

I can’t tell my workmates that we are intimately informed by post colonialism in formulating our practices, or that we’re in the process of radically deconstructing our beliefs in reconfiguring power relationships, or that our project is partially informed by cultural theory, whiteness studies or the centrality of thinking about the authority of the first world within globalisation in determining how our business will proceed and upon which specific decisions will be made. But this is in fact, what we are currently doing. And I do try to tell them.

How have we created a space where these practices are okay, more than okay in business? Is this the armoury that partly informs the anthropologist at work outside of the academy? Or am I on my own here??? And how does this and other knowledge affect the decisions made in my workplace? I still ask myself: what does it mean to work with professionals in bounded disciplines?

While we hope that it isn’t so, in fact what I have termed ‘hierarchies of relevance’ do exist when working across disciplines. And this is part of the reflection on power that demarcates one professional group from another. By this I mean that each professional group maintains the boundaries of its knowledge base, its practices, its rules for conduct and less overtly protects the prestige and culture surrounding its existence within the community. Professionals also maintain control over entry, exit and rule breaking within the profession as well as maintaining controls over the education and transmission of the education that helps to create professionals. In this, professional groups control the knowledge base, language, practice and boundaries that form the basis of their professional identity. As anthropologists, we do this too.

So what happens when professional groups collide? I’m not master (or mistress) of the theories behind interdisciplinary thinking, but I do work within an interdisciplinary context and so am familiar with its practices, if not the theories that underpin it.

So in discussions, working on projects, working both internally and externally the issue of relevance often raises its head. If as the anthropologist I am identified as not having the ‘relevant’ expert knowledge, then my contributions are marginalised, often identified as contributing knowledge in some other, exotic way that runs counter to the usual core practices of knowledge acquisition within the business itself. My contributions are ‘interesting’, ‘quirky’, ‘outside the box’ and, paradoxically sometimes also ‘right on target’. In this way I am relevant, but not as relevant as those practitioners who are seen to belong to the core groups, our consultants, experts and the ultimate targets: the consumers of our products and services. Sometimes, I just feel so not-relevant, it’s just not funny.

As an outsider I will never automatically gain entry into the professional groups with which I work. However, if I hang around long enough maybe they’ll give me an honourary membership after toiling away looking at, investigating, updating, improving, teaching on and training people within their disciplines for so long. As an anthropologist I maintain that little bit of professional paranoia that harks back to Anthropology 101 and studies of ritual, sacrifice, demonization and scapegoating, which not so surprisingly still exist and speak to modern day work practices and contexts quite succinctly, especially for those anthropologists working outside of research in business settings where it’s all too easy to take on the identity of the Other.

It would be so much easier to talk frankly about exactly what I do and where I work, but unfortunately that’s not a luxury that I’m allowed right now, due to an array of policies that police my behaviour both publicly and in private, so suffice to say this is the best that I can do. This form of writing however forces me to think ‘bigger’ about what I do, and so while not completely honest is not dishonest and offers food for thought for many anthropologists (I hope) who work outside the academy as I do.

So are we different but equal? Or just different? As the project I’m currently working on gains pace, I find myself central to the think tanks at work, consulted over and beyond my current job title specifications and have access and input into arenas of work that I wouldn’t ordinarily warrant based on my position alone. I went from fear about this project and its implications, to neutrality, to feeling positive, to being involved by responding to requests for inputs, to embracing and now championing this project.

Now, whenever I’m asked I always come to the party and by that I mean that I complete tasks and contribute over and above whatever’s asked. If I’m asked for an opinion, I give it. If a project needs appraisal, I take time to read, review, comment and advise on it. If a vox pop is required to test the feeling and views of staff on an issue pertaining to the change, I’m already all over it (by nature a chatterbox and also keen to find out how my co-workers are going with things generally). Through my silences and non-attendance, I also make clear my views on some work practices, which in less industrialised and unionised times it is difficult for workers to address directly.

Informally I’ve identified myself not so much as a manager in the workplace – my anthropological training and background would definitely preclude this I think – but definitely as a leader. As there are about a thousand theories on leadership, there’s one that fits the kind of work that I undertake in the workplace, that I inspire and the work that I envision as well. And none of this is on my job description per se, but is alluded to as a potentiality, much the same as the potential or capability of any number of workers with contemporary CVs.

So mostly I find that I’m different but equal and have given my peers, co-workers and management a taste of what the social sciences and anthropology specifically can offer to contemporary work settings, both private and public sector organisations. I still believe that the greatest benefit of having an anthropological background lies not so much in trying to attain a position within the academy, positions which are few and far between and not so easily available to women over forty, but in taking up the challenge of flexibly applying our body of knowledge in diverse contexts, of making the theories, theorists, knowledge and practices real.

Do we lose our specialness, our anthropological know-how, our unique identity as globe trotters seeking to document the life of the Other when we’re not surrounded by like-minded, similarly trained professionals like ourselves? Is our knowledge base and are our practices corrupted and diluted because of our work in interdisciplinary settings? I don’t think so. In contrast I believe that we are strengthened by our ability to work across boundaries as anthropologists continue to fight for relevance in contemporary work place settings. We can only make ourselves relevant by, well being relevant. And this is the challenge that I rise to meet when I go to work every day, carrying the identity of the ‘anthropologist’ through all that I do.

And as I’m always blathering on about anthropology I like to think that I’m also educating people who may still think that my satchel secretly holds a pith helmet, notebook and safari suit. But please see my last post for an update on what to wear to work as an anthropologist.

Photo credit: https://www.newton.ac.uk/files/covers/968387_0.jpg

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The jacket

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I’m trying a new strategy at work to raise my oomph and improve my legit appeal. I’m no slouch when it comes to sparring about ideas, concepts and ways of working – in fact I count myself among the innovators and strategists at work. However, my latest theory is that if you’re partnered up at work with a manager who is always – and I mean always wearing suits, including a tie and jacket that never comes off – then as a woman you’re at a disadvantage when you’re not similarly attired. This is probably true for more casually attired men as well, although because of the gendered inflection at work I don’t think so. Not wearing a suit – and I speak here more of the jacket which holds the greatest symbolic value – creates an inequality, a space that is instantly calculated in black and white terms through our cultural understanding of what it means to be influential, respected and in command at work. And if you’re not wearing a jacket, if you’re not suited up you run the risk of being calculated out.

I’ve taken to jacketing up, especially at meetings and workshops where I’m on show and so too are my opinions, perspectives, assertions, theories, explanations, innovations, insights and recommendations. I’m packaging these all up and wrapping them to be presented by what I imagine my audience seeks, or at least seeks to be reassured of: a confident, authoritative, thought leader who will inspire and transform the meeting or workshop in a way that won’t happen (can’t happen) in my very conservative industry if I was in a T shirt and jeans.

I’m finding that jacketing up lends me the kind of authority – and yes, I’ll say it: power – that paradoxically I have challenged in men, as they embodied a workplace subjectivity of which I was not a part, but am finding that I need to borrow and appropriate through this code of dress in order to exert that same legitimacy and authority. After all, I’m not the one judging and evaluating my performance: others are. We all exist within cultural worlds, and I too have to respond to the cues, norms and expectations of workplace cultures as well. And, as I’ve said before, don’t let anyone fool you by saying, “Oh this is informal, don’t worry too much about your speech/PowerPoint/presentation/evaluation” because you’re always being evaluated in the workplace and this is true of how you present yourself in your manner, attitudes and presentation as well as through the products and efforts of your work. It’s not left to the time of year alone when you drag out the PDR form at your workstation to complete for your manager …

We like to imagine that we live and work in enlightened times, but this is simply not true. Articles and blogs appear on social media and in the press with monotonous regularity with the central theme of how the hell are women supposed to manage in the workplace: the glass ceiling, problems for women within business cultures, managing work/life balance, the impossibility of a career structure and managing fertility, then advice aimed at mums on school lunches, childcare and parenting. This is not part of our overt work cultures, their policies, corporate logos or identities but certainly exist in the everyday practices that are inscribed within our everyday work worlds. Just check out who wipes down sinks at work, cleans fridges and organises catering…

Not all these problems will be resolved by simply donning a jacket and I’m certainly not arguing for that. I’m just painting a picture here….

I’m starting to pay attention to the advice on covering your shoulders, suiting up, opting for plain and not patterned office wear and basically wearing the business uniform. Shirts, (mostly) sensible shoes and even pantihose. I can’t come at flesh coloured hose because that’s just too much of a lie: at least black or smoke coloured hose make a statement. But I’m not sure what I’m trying to do here, and will admit that the motivations that may still be inspiring me may not emanate from ‘How To’ women in business handbooks, or the latest thinking on creative leadership, but may exist in the realms of my unconscious, in which case I don’t really know what’s motivating me and may be using this blog piece to explore these themes. Am I trying to make myself invisible? Am I defeminising myself? Have I failed to remake the workplace in a way that I could own by stamping it with my own style? Am I trying to turn into my male counterparts?

This got me thinking: what are uniforms all about? Clearly they are about conformity. But they’re also about letting the work shine through irrespective of the package that produced it. So the thinking goes. This is the line we push at schools here in Australia when we’re arguing with children about hemlines and not subverting the principle of uniformity when they’re trying to wear Doc Martens instead of approved footwear. “It balances out differences!” we argue. “Everyone’s equal!” we rail. “No one’s at a disadvantage!” we spruik.

Uniformity has its advantages: it’s cheaper than buying a huge wardrobe. It’s easier to mix and match. You tend to buy some things that are better quality and hence less affordable, but probably last longer that your usual top and bottom ensembles. Unless you work in the fashion industry or somewhere in the arts (I wish), or outdoors, if you want to be taken seriously you have to dress the part. I should qualify that by asserting that you have to dress the part whatever that means in your industry. Uniformity promotes a teamwork approach and a sense of belonging (I’m told). We’re all wearing the ‘company logo’ or the ‘badge’ by suiting up. At least you signify that you belong in the business world with a suit anyway.

Uniforms mean that you belong in a place because you don’t stand out like a peacock. You also fade into obscurity a bit, which can have its advantages in providing a bit of a level playing field in the gendered sphere of the workplace. You’re heading towards being asexual. Let’s face it, you’re less likely to be taken seriously in that cute floral number with the red and green pattern teemed with a matching cardigan and high heeled black Bo peep shoes… Having said that, I have worked with CEO’s on projects who were indeed dressed like that. As the CEO, there is the opportunity to be the peacock and let’s see anyone tell her otherwise…

Conversely, uniforms do not necessarily mean uniformity. There are issues of gender, class and ethnicity that inflect business wear, its meanings, intentions and embodiment. Not all suits are the same and if you’ve got money you can wear them well. Probably lots of them. I don’t own many suits, but do have a variety of well-fitting jackets and trouser-style pants to match. As I’m not at the high-spending end I have less to invest but the most to lose if I get it wrong. And considering everything I wear to work (almost everything) is second-hand, from Op Shops, Charity Stores, Bargain Basement Sales and NGOs, I certainly face some challenges in getting it together for work. This is a choice that I have made BTW.

Uniformity also dulls individuality, but like many things, if you have enough money to throw at it, I’m sure your individuality will shine through. Me? I make do with a scarf in Winter, but Summer is challenging as the desire to turn up in less, for example thongs (the flip flop kind, not the G String), a short skirt and a singlet top is really strong most mornings. I have come to accept that much like the mask and the role studied extensively in undergraduate anthropology, the insights about the loss of the subject while putting on masks or fulfilling roles still pertain as we as adults morph into the workforce and attempt to fit in, making use of and attempting to fit into whatever the jacket signifies within your particular industry.

Uniforms are also like wearing armour. I can invoke a whole range of metaphors that invoke the compliance required and symbolised by uniforms and uniformity in military settings, and can admit that this too forms part of the reluctance – and paradoxically the desire – to wear the jacket and join my one force with the many to produce something greater, and be part of the victorious, not losing team at work. Amour is made of precious materials, much too like the fine fibres of a well-fitting, tailor-made suit, increasing the magnetism and appeal of that signified by joining the forces and symbolically shedding my individuality to comply with the command structures and personnel in my workgroup, my battalion.

Like all rules, uniformity in attire is merely an external mirroring of the uniformity required elsewhere both in our schools and in the workforce. It is this symbolic statement that I make by donning the jacket at work as I wordlessly tell my colleagues, my managers and directors and clients that I too am knowledgeable of, can understand and interpret and clearly follow the rules. Bodily adornment is a way in which social codes are embodied and enacted. Think pearl earrings and a matching necklace. Bodily adornment too is also a way of challenging authority, but inscriptions on the body must usually be hidden, because once seen, like the knowledge attained through the biting of the apple in the Garden of Eden, cannot be unseen or unknown ever again, marking the individual for symbolic banishment for, like Eve and Adam, their loss of purity in breaking the rules.

In suiting up, I am implicitly making a statement that while I may come from a different background, may have different methods and approaches, use different theoretical perspectives and offer ‘out of the box’ thinking, I can acknowledge my place in the hierarchy, in the workforce, in the culture of both my own workplace and the industry in which I work at large through my allegiance, through my donning of the jacket and all the associations that form a line through history that have informed and modulated modern business sensibilities in the culmination of my putting it on in the morning.  And I wear it well. Sometimes with accessories…

One day I will dump the jacket.  That day will come when I find myself in a workplace culture where the work is paramount, not so much the appearance of the person.  The kind of work culture that I inhabit now can force your compliance in many unspoken ways, of which subtly policing dress codes is one.  However this doesn’t account for everyone, for other people’s responses to me.  While appearances are still so important at work I will continue to show my proficiency in self-presentation through my allegiance to the code.

Until the day it doesn’t suit me anymore…

Photo Credit: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-qlHIhjpAv44/Uaz4yFIPSTI/AAAAAAAAAJY/-M7jcBYKTSQ/s1600/business-suit-women.jpg

Identity on the Internet


Identity it seems, is fluid and changeable and depends on a lot of things. How do you see yourself? How do you WANT to see yourself? Where is your family of origin?  What sort of groups do you belong to? And what about the family you’ve created for yourself? Who do you hang out with? What sort of work do you do? What are you studying? What are you learning to become? Or even, what hand has fate dealt you, if that’s what you believe? And the most important question, and one that no one really asks outright, but clearly this forms the basis of what we really want to know about each other these days – how do you choose to present yourself?

If the Rachel Dolezal saga has taught us anything, it is certainly that her identity dilemma is not a symptom of the present age, but has been radically transformed by it. The immediate dissemination of the knowledge shared by her parents about her original(?) identity created the kind of transference of knowledge that anthropologists used to call diffusion, very characteristic of knowledge exchange in the era of the internet where everyone, everywhere finds out at once. It seemed that the whole world was shocked, horrified, and in disbelief that someone who was white would seek to represent themselves as black.  Alternatively, there was also support for this position.

Aside from the inherent racism that these sentiments contain, Rachel Dolezal’s choice of identity and how she chose to present herself in her daily life highlights the fluidity of identity through time, space and culture. Is black still black and white still white? Or has this case pointed to the social and cultural categorisation that identity represents?  What about the essential reality asociated with identity (if there is such a thing) and can this be transformed by culture, by an adoption or appropriation of culture?  Is Rachel Dolezal the first person to adopt another identity in the way that she did? I don’t think that, as we all transform and change ourselves throughout our lives. Clearly the issue at stake here related to the tensions inherent in the power relations between black and white in America and indeed point to the same tensions globally.

I am not a scholar of whiteness studies and cannot offer more of a comment than this, but I am intrigued about the ability of Rachel Dolezal to ‘choose’ blackness, much as we choose a partner, a city to live in, a career, a job and a set of values represented through our social, political and economic choices.

Dolezal herself raises the issue of identity construction as reported here: ‘She admits that the controversy, especially the timing of it, caught her off guard. But her hope is that some good comes out of it, if it changes how some people think about identity. “The discussion is really about what it is to be human,” Dolezal said. “And I hope that that really can drive at the core of definitions of race, ethnicity, culture, self-determination, personal agency and, ultimately, empowerment.”’ http://edition.cnn.com/2015/06/16/us/washington-rachel-dolezal-naacp/

All of this debate is intriguing especially when held alongside contemporary social movements, such as the training associated with modern leadership that make claims about authenticity.  Authenticity stands as the leadership sine que non, at least at the moment, to which all knowledge about how to be a good leader is subsumed. To be authentic, to be real, even to be flawed carries with it the badge of the honest, real, leader. To be found out somehow as false within this, is to fail. So if authenticity is at stake as a value, how do we deal with the dilemma of authenticity that Rachel Dolezal represents? Did she not also have a leadership role in her work as a tutor/lecturer at university?  Do we believe what she claims about her identification with black culture and feeling that she too is black as evidence of authenticity? Or is this far too much of a stretch and a betrayal to the lived experience of blacks in America?  Alternatively, understanding the fluid nature of groups, identity and belonging, do we accept her claim of sharedness?

This is a dilemma that I cannot resolve. However it points me to issues of representation that people experience within their everyday lives, and about how identity can be adopted, modified, reworked, even invented and then presented. If the complaint of the modern era is disengagement, is this not partly due to the compartmentalisation of one’s identity? Is a work persona different to the authentic self that you live in your home and everyday life? Can an identity be authentic and be hidden?

We all carry truths about ourselves that may be shared or disclosed but only within certain sets of circumstances, or with certain groups of people with whom we make claims of having a shared history, a set of shared experiences, a shared sense of belonging and hence a shared identity. The ability to keep aspects of one’s self private in this way does not necessarily point to a problem with one’s identity or an inauthenticity, but may instead be part of a lifeplan to care for oneself. I think here of twelve step programs and Alchoholics Anonymous, or other programs where full names and full identities are not necessary for belonging. A shared culture of dependence, of shame, of falling, hitting rock bottom and redemption through a program of shared stories leads to the development of these strength-based communities who rely on the private identity of dependence and the shared journey of recovery for membership.

But what about our identity on the internet? The recent murder in Melbourne of a high profile AFL football coach allegedly by his son highlighted how identities are created, or rather manufactured from fractured pieces of information available electronically. Journalists attempting to create a picture of the alleged murderer highlighted parts of his prolific online diarising, online videos, his world travels and search for an authentic identity, and it seems most importantly details could be gleaned from his now publicised Amazon wish list,

“His Amazon reading wish list fluctuates from titles like Man’s Search for Meaning, to Building Wealth One Step at a Time, and Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How it Can Help you Find – and Keep – Love”
http://www.smh.com.au/national/walshs-nomad-son-spoke-of-fathers-iron-will-20150703-gi4q9b.html

… when we think about how wish lists are constructed, by hitting the ‘add to wish list’ button available on many online bookstores, can we really suggest that the titles contained there tell us anything very much, anything meaningful at all about the identity of the person who clicked the ‘add’ button? What would any of us look like if our identity were attached to our wish lists? I’m pretty sure that mine would look very expensive, as my wish lists contain only the outrageously priced books that I will never be able to afford to own, but will anyone really pick up on that?

The internet also offers the construction of new identities for authors in much the same way that ‘Anonymous’ or pseudonyms used to function in the print era to protect the identity of both the famous and infamous, or even the sex of the writer. In the same vein, we can now present ourselves as ‘The Anxious Anthropologist’, The [insert adjective] [insert noun]’ or a cute reduced handle on Twitter, or as an anonymised group or page on Facebook, or Tumblr, or with a pseudonym to protect our identity on Instagram and many other forms of social media, not even counting the ones where people try to hook up.

If I could rebaptise myself, would I call myself ‘The Anxious Anthropologist’? Probably not, but would you even find my work if I didn’t tell you something about who I was, what I was trying to write about and what existential state motivates me if I were to simply use my own name?

In academia you trade on your name, people search your work by your name, they quote you by name, attach theories to your name, copy practices ascribed to you and your name, hold discussions and tutorial groups to discuss your work undertaken in your name, and so it seems counter intuitive in many ways to adopt a pseudonym when representing oneself on the internet if you belong to, or aim to belong to and be read by an academic audience. Not everyone does this and there are plenty of websites and blogs set up by people who have become the personification of their product: geography, history, politics, anthropology, writing, all the isms… However, some people do trade on their own name, and I would suggest that this is because they are probably secure enough in their positions, in their disciplines and in their writing to do so. I’m sure that plenty of examples to the contrary exist though as well, which points to the irony of the internet: that both can and do exist at the same time.

So, what does this all come back to? Where can you represent yourself as whole, as complete, as the sum of all your parts? Where can you present yourself, your ideas, thoughts and writings to an audience who will accept the disparate parts that make up your identity? Is personhood a salvo of competing selves? How can we be complete, whole and real in the age of the internet? Or is it silly to imagine that this is what’s required at all, when really, if I’m reading your thesis on gender relations, do I really care about your personal history of alcoholism? Or would this knowledge of your personal history add a depth to your writing and hence my understanding of your perspectives were this public? This is true of so many ‘selves’ that we probably all hold within us.

How to reconcile all of this still remains a mystery to me. Comments welcome please.

Photo credit: http://img.wonderhowto.com/img/14/96/63458281265816/0/remove-your-online-identity-ultimate-guide-anonymity-and-security-internet.1280×600.jpg

“You can’t be too thin or too smart”

This is a personal post, not the usual kind and it’s about diets: Israeli Army, High Fibre/Low Fat, Atkins Revolution, Total Wellbeing and more recently the 5:2. It’s also a post about thighs, waists, double chins, fadoubadahs (the fleshy bits under your arms), sagging breasts, side views and scales. It’s about those red dots. And the discomfort of the bits of skin that sit under pendulous breasts and get itchy when you sweat. It’s a post based on watching my mother tie herself up in a corset to go out most days and the fear and loathing associated with buying clothes that I’ve had for most of my life – especially clothes that fit. And it’s not about fashion (weeping). This post is also about car cultures, no time for exercise, a 38 hour work week and an unhealthy and developing appreciation of wine every night coupled with late night snacks. And the promise of medicines, the promise of antihypertensives, multivitamins, fish oil and aspirin. And the statins that are yet to come, but have been promised. I love science.

As I grow in years, I find that I’m shrinking in size. I’m not as tall as I was. But my shoes are a size or two larger than when I was a teenager. Does long term exposure to gravity flatten you out? Along with shrinking and having to look up to teens and pre-teens, the hair all over my body that I’ve spent a lifetime and a small fortune shaving, waxing, tweezing, SilkyMitting, Epiladying and more recently at great expense having lasered is now diminishing. I’m flat out finding a hairy bit to laser. And the young beautician says, “We’ll just get these ones, shall we?” as she moves to attack my pubis to increase the view of the ‘bikini line’. “You know why she said that, don’t you, why she wants to do them now?” says my workmate. “It’s because laser doesn’t work on grey hairs”. That’s TMI from a workmate! I’ve been hating my lush outgrowths of hairy bodily protection for years and attacking them with gusto and now I have trouble finding them.

Conversely I’ve discovered the pleasures of nail colour. Did I wake up one day as a young women and discard all prettiness as artifice when I decided to trade in lace for sensible underwear? I still remember that decision, that fateful day. Now I have daughters and they look at me and wonder about the implications of being female. Certainly there are mixed messages: be yourself (but not too fat) (and not too hairy). You don’t need all that stuff, you’re naturally beautiful (but eye-shadow, lipstick, lip liner, mascara, blemish coverup and perfume are OK). And there’s more of course. But that’s it for me. You get to an age and natural just doesn’t swing it anymore. I’ve appreciated the large row of crow’s feet under my eyes as a feature of my personality. My children, when they were younger just adored them, counting the rows as evidence of my smiling and laughing a lot. They call them my crinkly eyes. I hope my husband sees them that way too.

As a teenager I watched my younger sister control the family through what she refused to put in her mouth at the dinner table. I watched her discretely leave the table and head for the bathroom right in the middle of meals. One day I followed her in, caught her throwing up in the toilet bowl and said, “If I ever catch you doing that again I’m going to tell everyone”. I guess she had body issues too. And that was code for coping. But I have daughters, and daughters are like mirrors reflecting back not only your mirror image but your memory of everything that mirrors have ever reflected back at you. You catch a fleeting image of how you once were, at how you used to take a particular aspect of your image for granted – your hair, that flick, that sideways glance, the set of your shoulders, your smiling face looking out at the world, the way your tummy used to look, the ease of your body as it moved through life, how your jeans sat on your hip bones.

Sometimes you might be lucky enough to catch a video of yourself at a much, much younger age – a rarity for someone middle aged, you young folks do forget – and you catch the way you walked, the way you held yourself and the way you looked. This leads you to remembering how you thought back then, to what was normal and taken for granted in your thinking, your being, your relationships with people and the hope and promise that the world held for you. At a young enough age, early movies showed your natural, unadorned self before the western women’s universal worries set in about all your flesh being in the right proportion and in the right place. I’ve had whole relationships with other women that relied on our body shapes, size and what went into our mouths. It’s only when you get older that you start to focus on what comes out. I’ve wasted so much time worrying.

As a child, I was quiet, I had no voice and I was a great observer. I was seen but not heard. I used to sit and watch as much as listen to adults animatedly conversing at tables. I got used to the perception of the angle of their faces when they were excited in conversation, or angry. I watched their mannerisms and movements and learned what angry looked like, or upset, or deliriously happy and laughing so much that cake crumbs fell out of their mouths and they spat while they spoke. I had the artist’s eye as I saw their profiles and faces change as emotion lit their faces. It was an emotional state accompanied by a bodily state. They never seemed to carry on about their weight though, these women who were related or brought together by friendship. These women who boarded boats to come to this country on trips that lasted for months. These family and friends who suffered during the privations and hardships of war in Europe. If they spoke about their weight, it was a health concern more than a vanity. But that too was a bit of ruse as I later found out.

Obsessions with weight, diet, looks and how much space we take up in the world are a modern issue. Around the table over coffee and cake at someone’s home these women brought the village and all its concerns into the home. It was all about propriety. The intentions, appearance, behaviour and fall out of someone’s predicament was the issue, but it struck me even when I was young that it was something ‘out there’, somewhere in the social realm that this existed. As I grew up I realised that the predominant concerns of a generation were increasingly becoming internalised, with less that ‘could be done’ about them. What could be done involved self-loathing, denial, imbibing substances, expending energy on exercise or succumbing to surgery? Or perhaps it was just a matter of timing: what I was witnessing were the concerns of an older generation, not the predicaments of young girls growing into womanhood.

The attitudes of a generation are hard to shift. My mother had concerns about her body too, but dealt with them in her own way. She used to obsess about things, much in the way that I too obsessed. And sometimes about the very same issues. And when I was pregnant, I was eternally lectured about “not getting too fat”. My mother went on and on about this, even over the phone, telling me that it would lead to problems in childbirth if I got too big. It was not a concern about health, but a concern about appearance. She was of the generation that still believed that smoking cigarettes was good for your health because it stopped you eating. The health policy of dealing directly with your bodily issues clearly didn’t resonate here.

Scales are a great metaphor, as they provide never ending information of whether we’re under or over, or in reality, how much over we are compared to a norm that we’ve set ourselves. If you weigh yourself daily – and many of us do – it sets the stage for a whole set of internal rationalisations that go unsaid out loud. But we know what we mean. But we’re not machines and weight and body shape are not merely a matter of a formulaic energy in – energy out = current weight. I think the poets have a much better handle on expressing the truths of life, truths that we still attempt to shape and report on through measurements with scales when we should be using tropes, metaphors and similes to express ourselves. Wouldn’t talk around the water cooler be so much improved if we didn’t start with, “I put on 2kgs last week. I feel like shit now”, but instead resorted to the poetic world of expression instead: “As fruit ripens so too did my body fill with the sum total effects of the meals enjoyed this week with my beloved. As our favourite wine bar beckoned, we succumbed to the effects of burgundy, the scent of our late night intermingling love still on our fingers as we savoured the lusty chunks of golden dairy from the cheese platter”

And my obsession is now about what comes out of my body. This is the counterpoint that I missed in my youth. The other part of the formula.

But it’s not what you think, it’s not just the Metamucil, but that helps lots of things. It’s about my voice, my view, my opinion and my perspective. It’s about honouring and sharing the knowledge and expertise that I’ve developed through life, work, experience, study and research. Outputs matter. And while I sit writing on this blog, I’m not writing for the academy. And this will be my undoing. Outputs are all about exposure to the right kinds of audience and the audience participating and creating too in the making of you. And you need to be acknowledged in the right way for your efforts, because that’s part of our social contract.

I caught myself dieting once. I was a great dieter. I was in the car and I had the seatbelt on. I realised that I had a flat tummy and that I could grasp my hip bones. Not much of a revelation to anyone else but I didn’t feel all overly fleshy with the association of out of control that fleshiness in all its loveliness always brings. I worked with a woman once. She lost 30 kilograms and went down to a size 8. Then she took her time and put it all back on again. I can understand that because everyone focuses on how great you feel and how great you look when you lose weight. But no one tells you how much you miss it when it’s gone. That’s why she put it all back on. Because it was a part of her and she missed it, missed herself.

I’ve moved into a new period of bodily self-loathing now. It’s a generational illness I’m sure. I hope my kids don’t comment on my ‘fast days’ when I sneak in wine (and count the calories). Or on my total lack of exercise for lack of time. My obsession revolves around not looking aged in the workplace, because that brings with it a new set of discriminations and I’m not ready for that yet. I’m not the respected elder stateswoman and I fear that my ‘out there’ attitude may eventually work against me as I increasingly become a caricature of all the things I feared. “You can’t be too thin or too rich” was the cry of an earlier generation, but for me it may well be, “You can’t be too thin or too smart”.

Yearning for and a sense of community

We all need a group of people to belong to, a group with which we share common understandings, common experiences hopefully even a shared history. Once upon a time these groups were clear cut, we belonged to families, extended families, and communities whether geographically bound, or virtual due to our common links. But try as I might, I never feel that I really belong anywhere, and I suspect that I’m not so alone in my plight.

While my work offers me a sense of professional identity, do I want to hang out with work mates after hours? Not usually. I did the other night though because someone was getting married and we all participated in a hen’s night. That’s for another post. And while we have a body of knowledge and practices that bind us, challenge us, inspire us, give us cause to write, speak, teach and help, not everyone’s necessarily on the same page at work and disciplinary differences often rear their heads preventing companionship outside of work obligations.

My family of origin? I have no sense of connection with them anymore, indeed while I often wonder how they’re all doing and am happy to vicariously participate in their lives through what they choose to publicly share on Facebook, I have no desire to socialise with them at all. In fact, I actively seek to avoid them because of a history that I don’t wish to detail here. So my natal family may offer a sense of connectedness through blood, and name and kinship but community? No one was around when I had my children, and if there is a time in your life when you desperately need a community of support, this is that time. And they lived across the city and aside from coming around to see me once or twice, they left me to my own devices.

Except for my sister. As an adult I have found a sense of continuity through my relationship with my sister and her family. There is always someone. And she is this someone who provides my connection with my natal family. She’s good for news, good for gossip and makes good family.

I’ve mentioned children, so how about mother’s group? These women, younger and older were my lifeblood for the first five years of my first child’s life. They offered companionship, a weekly destination and a sense of belonging to a shared cause, that of brand new parenthood. We all stumbled as we learned and loved our weekly get-together as our babies played and we grew into parenthood accompanied by never-ending play dates, coffee and the occasional w(h)ine. But as with all groups, there is a period of coming together before differences force people apart, and now three out of ten of us meet up once every six months or so as our children approach their 15th birthdays.

My neighbourhood? Neighbourhood are funny places. You spend countless hours checking out properties, but not nearly as much time checking out your neighbourhood. We have a great neighbourhood, but neighbourhoods too are built on commonalities, and most of the people on the street either have grown up children who’ve moved out and married, or have toddlers of the opposite sex to my children. We move in parallel universes as the rhythms of life propel us in particular directions, in different time planes.

The school? Schoolyards are funny places too. I desperately wanted to meet parents when my eldest child started school. I was breaking my neck to chat, organise get-togethers, have coffee and meet up with people. I really tried to put on my best face. But some bonds are stronger than others and there was another mother’s group who had bonded strongly and their kids were just starting school… I eventually tired of being looked over, looked past and not included in activities. Or perhaps they just didn’t like me. But now that the children have finished primary school I hear that this mother’s group are still going away with all the family groups that belong to their group. That’s wonderful. That’s the sort of sense of community that I yearn for too, one that stretches across time through all the changes and challenges that living brings. I used to leave the school fighting back tears in the afternoons sometimes. People don’t intend to exclude you, but that’s just how it happens sometimes.

I did meet people from that school, and have made an effort to be close to the parents of my kids’ friends, especially where a connection is created. The unhappy part of this is now witnessing some of these families falling apart as partners grow, change and seek to move away from their partners and children as they recreate themselves anew, or seek to live in and acknowledge the truth of themselves, something that they were unable to do within the confines of marriage. This turbulence makes these friendships turbulent. I’m there for them but they seek me out less and less as they don’t want to intrude.

I joined a community health group recently. I feel like we’re all on the same page, even though there are differences based on age. I share a common bond with this group and we don’t have to gild the lily when we speak. I get that sense of openness that you sometimes experience when you’re on a bus talking to a stranger. You’re not judged, you’re not criticised and you feel accepted. For the part of my life that relates to our health concerns, this group of people are wonderful. Yet even they are a little reticent and I suspect that this comes about because of cultural factors that relate to saving face within their broader community.

High school friends? The maintenance of friendships is a difficult task. This is especially true across time, and while one of my closest school friends and I found each other about ten years ago and realised that we’d both had similarities in how we’d spent our time and that we only lived about ten blocks from each other, we had changed because of the passage of time. We were no longer as close, even though we had spent time growing into ourselves in each other’s company over those fervent years through all our schooling and a little beyond. Joe Cocker helped too.  We both married late and had children about the same age who now attended the same school. Now we move into new paths of shared history making as we move into middle age together.

But everything looks different from the other side. I imagine that everyone else’s life is full, fuller than my own. I imagine you you’re all connected to work, families, mother’s groups, neighbourhoods, schools and groups that hold special interest for you. I’m forever standing in the backyard looking over the fence and imagining that your lives are better, more fun, more active, more social, full of less angst, happier, more fulfilling, more meaningful, full of trips away and fabulous get-together’s and greater opportunities than mine. I’m sure that you all drink less, exercise more, have less fat and sugar in your diet, eat 40gms of fibre daily and don’t need to take Vitamin D supplements. I bet your calendars are full and that weeknight dinners with friends are a common thing and that you have fabulous Christmas’s and holiday abroad annually.

I have to work hard at being sociable these days, even though by nature I’m absolutely not anti-social. I love to talk, and to listen. I love a shared history. I love to grizzle too, and complain and not take any good fortune for granted either. But it’s hard to find a sense of community, a sense of belonging. I think that my inner grumpy self has taken hold and puts people off. I’m going to have my own TV show: grumpy old women – the early years.

But perhaps it’s more to do with my own psychology, my own personal limitations and my own inability to respond, to participate and to give of myself that prevents my full membership in any of the groups I yearn to belong to. Because in truth, in order to be part of something bigger than yourself, you have to be, well, bigger than yourself. Like everything in life, there is reciprocity involved here, both the giving and the getting.

In anthropology we talk a lot about communities. Groups and groupings are the mainstay of our work. We have theories that allow us to conceptualise, discuss, deconstruct and construct the social and cultural factors that allow us to create, sustain and live within communities. We look too at the destruction of communities and theorise about this, along with the factors that lead to successful reconstructions following crises. The way people come together and form, and re-form groups is endlessly fascinating and ever changing. It’s important because after all, groups and groupings constitute our very basis of identity and belonging. As part of this, anthropologists examine all the beliefs and rituals that accompany and dictate life in various communities. In this way we can see how our very identities are tied up with these same communities to which we belong or seek to connect with.

So, after having described some of the worlds in which I circulate, why do I feel so disengaged? Are the reasons social? Or are they personal? Are there structural barriers to my participation and belonging? Or is it merely my sense, my perception? Is Facebook and the creation of its virtual, eternal present community of ‘Friends’ in part to blame? Is it the fact that ‘likes’ are only momentary and not deep enough to be long lasting? Or is it an issue that pertains more to my perception of myself as having less in common with those around me and focusing too much on the differences between us and not the similarities? I imagine that family, church and village used to take care of a good deal of one’s identity in the past, but these structures have changed and we are sometimes left wondering about the replacements, and the void.

Did everyone get an invite to the party except me?  If you want to go to parties then you have to throw them too.