The jacket

business-suit-women

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

The clothes swap: recreating the self through participation and exchange

This is what middle-aged clothes shopping looks like. You finally get to the age where you once imagined that you could walk into a store and buy whatever you liked. By this age you might have a favourite label, a favourite boutique, or even your own favourite line in Target. You might be one of those people who buys only designer gear, or anything by a favoured designer or two. You imagine that you would be self-assured, and that you could easily purchase what you need or want for a price that fits your budget. And that it would be easy.

But in reality after racing through the housework, you find yourself driving over to the next suburb early one Saturday afternoon clutching a large homewares bag stuffed full of clothes that you no longer want, but hope that someone else might just think are fabulous. The cost of the exchange is minimal – nothing really – but very public, and everyone leaves happy and full of cake. How did this come to be?

Shopping for clothes is an intimate exercise. You have so much to confront: fashion, fashionistas, boutique attendants, Chain Stores (even good ones), those bright lights, styles, colours and your own very lived-in body. Like so many things in life, when you purchase clothes you’re purchasing so much more. You have to project an image of yourself in your life from inside these clothes, such as how you will look, how you might feel, how you might see yourself wearing these to different sorts of occasions, and how you will look and feel when you interact with other people while you’re wearing this. Do you see yourself throwing back your head and laughing with gay abandon as you sip on your chardonnay hoping that you cut a fine line in your new garb while chatting effortlessly with strangers/peers, co-workers/family or whoever is important to you? It’s all in the swish of the skirt, the fit of the band around the waist, the new angle that’s carved out in silhouette, that extra little bit of fabric that shrieks ‘designer’ or even the softness of the fabric as it snuggles you.

But just like shopping in stores, clothes swaps are intimate too in their own way.
You arrive late to find a bunch of women, most of whom you know or are vaguely acquainted with who have already unloaded their bags onto racks. “Dresses and coats here, skirts folded over there, tops here, jumpers and jackets over there and accessories and shoes over there” says your hostess as she greets you and takes the cake you’ve just made for the spread for afternoon tea (this is the antidote to trying on clothes). “We haven’t started yet” she assures you.

I look around and see middle aged women like myself and wonder what I’ll find if anything at all today. I don’t believe that I’m heavily invested in taking anything much home; I’m just as much here for the company and the coffee. Who am I kidding here?

“Let’s get started” says our hostess – too late as some already have armfuls and are standing in front of mirrors. “Feel free to try things on in the lounge room, the bathroom or just where you are. I’ve set up mirrors for you” she says as we start to move around the room to see what catches our eye.

I know most of the women here. This is not your anonymous snatch and grab, take a number and head for the change rooms. Oh no. Here we do the snatch and grab, but politely offer up our gear to a friend who comments on a piece that we’ve already picked up or suggests what it might go with.

In the lounge room at the front of the house someone thoughtfully shuts the shades so the workmen outside don’t freak out. About half a dozen women claim a chair, a bit of the couch or a section of floor and start to disrobe. We are all shapes and sizes and most of us are lumpy. Off go the day clothes (careful where you put them in case someone tries them on and walks away with them…) and on go the new clothes: day wear, evening wear, casual gear, yes, but all preloved and preworn and they often come with stories.

“I bought that at a sale with a co-worker. She bought one too, so I can’t wear it to work” says one woman. “I picked that up in an Op Shop in the country and wore it all Winter, but it still looks like new” says another. “I love that jacket and I remember that I bought it in the UK nearly twenty years ago” says another. “Those shoes came from the US and they’re hardly worn; they were a little bit tight around the toe but they’re gorgeous” says yet another.

“That looks great on you” is accompanied by murmurs of approval. “I tried that on too, but the colour didn’t do much for me, but it looks great on you” you hear as you pull on a dark dress with a patterned neckline thinking that it might look OK for work this Winter with your new boots. “I’m not sure if this is my colour” says another as she valiantly fishes for compliments for an ill-fitting garment and none are forthcoming, except for “it’s a bit dark for you I think…” “Can I try that on if you don’t want it” asks another? You’re more than happy to pass something along as it saves you having to cart it back and put it on the rack. Some items are destined not to be traded today though and reappear on the rack more than three times. It’s social death to take that home with you.

We re-emerge and exchange the unwanted gear for new gear and greet late arrivals with glee as they barely get their goods onto the clothes racks before they’re whisked away by half-dressed women keen to put together a new look.

And so it goes for the next hour or so until we’re all satiated and have a big bag of gear clutched to our sides. Our eyes peruse the accessories as we wonder if we can squeeze in another scarf, or whether we really want another handbag or a pair of ear-rings. By this stage women are pushing goods on each other because no one wants to leave a whole lot of things behind. The hostess will pack up what’s left and donate it to a local charity store. And so the merry exchange continues.

But before that comes the price.

In anthropology we learn that nothing is given for no reward. Everything comes at a price. Just read Marcel Mauss’s classic essay. As you’ve noticed, I’m not much one for including a whole lot of references and these essays that I post are blogs, but am happy to include references at the end for those interested. We’re reminded that the essence of a gift is always returned to the giver, an idea that has its roots in a cultural borrowing from the Pacific. There is a rich literature on economics, trade and commodities and the idea of the gift and gift giving fits in here too.

So what’s the price? As we finish and women wander off to grab a cup of tea or coffee or champagne depending on your mood, we grab a bite to eat and sit down. As the chattering rises to a crescendo, the organiser of the clothes swap then asks each of us in turn to show everyone what they’ve found today. Each woman by turn delves into her bag, partly horrified, partly embarrassed and partly triumphant from that feeling you get when you go to a sale and you know that you’ve nailed a bargain, as she pulls garments out of her bag to show us all. The garments are held up against her body as she tells us that she found this, and this and this… The crowd of women look on, taking her into their gaze as she transforms the preloved, second hand clothing and recreates it anew as she presents us with a vision of herself wearing this – something we might have actually seen in the change room so it’s very convincing – as both she and the preloved clothing are transformed from the mundane, suburban, weekend afternoon setting in which we find ourselves.

Then, as she concludes, everyone follows the lead of the organiser and applauds. We clap her success and laud her resourcefulness in finding her treasures. We clap and appreciate the reorganisation of the unloved into the loved and newly treasured. We love the way she’s going to go home with a bagful of nice, new things that fit her and that she will feel really great wearing. We adore the fact that without financial burden or cost, but with great sociality she will both unload her old wardrobe and restock it anew. We put our hands together to show her that we love what she’s chosen, often telling her that it came from one of our own wardrobes. We love her resourcefulness in refashioning herself through her new clothes. We positively validate this exercise of dressing and adorning ourselves through our applause.

But at the time, it just feels awkward and a bit embarrassing.

Our turn comes and we take centre stage and participate in this enforced ritual sharing too. We don’t mind. We come to love it as the other women validate our choices and our selves through their acclamation. As we hold our garments up, some chime in and tell us that they remember when that garment first came through a clothes swap and put dibs on it for the next time it comes through.

This certainly is an economy, and it’s embodied within a culture of sharing and is realised through the presentation of our freshly dressed selves as we embody one of the basic observations that stem from anthropological discourse that of the inevitable variation and diversity of human life.

https://archive.org/details/giftformsfunctio00maus

Photo credit: http://brokeandchic.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/tumblr_mety8hvrbp1qf4uz0o1_1280_large.jpg

Risks and statistics


I ended up in the ED recently after an accident in the kitchen with a meat cleaver. It wasn’t too serious, but I did have to see a consultant surgeon in the end, even though I didn’t end up having any surgery. I wasn’t paying enough attention to where the meat cleaver was about to go, but once I got into the ED I paid close attention to the White Board. Inside the clinic, with the Emergency Clinical Nurse Consultant attending to my hand, I noticed the White Board. You couldn’t miss it. It contained risks and was a litany of all the things that you’re frightened of that exist in the back of your mind that you don’t want to give energy to for fear of bringing those risks closer to your own life.

What are the chances? This is a question you might ask yourself occasionally. What are the chances of having a heart attack? What are the chances of being murdered? What are the chances of being sexually assaulted? What are the chances of being hit by lightning? What are the chances of dying in a motor vehicle accident? What are the chances of dying in an aeroplane accident? What are the chances of being hit by a bus? What are the chances of having a stroke? What are the chances of developing cirrhosis of the liver? What are the chances of getting cancer? What are the chances of losing a limb? What are the chances that I’ll ignore the board, that I won’t see it when I enter the clinic? None at all.

I asked the Nurse about the board: what did it mean? Why was it there? Was this part of an inservice training session? Who had put all the information there? Why was it still there? He told me that it was there as a reference. As people often ask, “What are the chances…?” Someone had decided to write down and explicitly state exactly what those chances were. I think that he believed that it was a useful reference, a good source of facts to be delivered to people in a setting where they may have just received the news that they too were now the part of one of these categories.

I was morbidly fascinated by the White Board. I wish I’d taken a photograph of it to ponder it afterwards. I wasn’t comforted in the slightest by the statistical information that it carried. I was more horrified by the small window of comfort that I perceived that I had in not being part of the statistics. It was really only small.

As my hand was bandaged up and I was allowed to leave to go home until I could see the surgeon the day after I continued to think about the numbers that I’d seen. Life is frail and we hang on by a thread. I imagined pulling all those statistics out of a reference, getting my White Board marker and writing them all up. Like most things written on a White Board, would the staff accustomed to seeing this data day in and day out eventually become immune to its message, immune to its meanings and the reality of its potentials? Writing up this information, coming face to face with such data serves both to inform and remind people of the tenuousness of life and at the same time, much like the living of life itself, serves to create a fog whereby we live in forgetfulness every day denying the fact of our own mortality.

Everything we do contains within it a calculated risk, even if we’re not aware of this risk. We take risks in love, in partnering, in having children. We put ourselves out there and take a risk in applying for jobs, in being brave, in developing friendships. We take risks in simply putting up our hands. One of the greatest risks we take is that of self-disclosure although this is mediated in new ways with social media. We reason rightly that if we don’t extend ourselves, don’t risk something of ourselves the payoffs will not be as great as if we had risked more. And we’re probably right. At different points in our life we have to take greater risks, hurl ourselves into unknown paths with the promise of the potential of a desired future outcome.

But risk is also used to calculate the data on the White Board, and inclusion within those categories may not be the desired outcome we seek in life.

Even this behaviour, this calculation of the risk of a thing has a cultural component and has a sociality inherent within it. This behaviour is constructed, lived and expressed within our own cultural context and so there exists a cultural inflection in what we are able to and choose to risk. The calculation of a risk and the interpretation of this information and the way in which we determine its meaning in our lives resides within culture. I learn about risk, about danger, about safety and about my sense of invulnerability through the life and the relationships that I hold with the people around me.

So my response to the data on the White Board in the ED includes my learned response to the very information that the White Board presents to me. I understand that it’s telling me the risk of death and disability inherent within everyday life within my own society. And I understand naturally without anyone needing to tell me what I can do to mediate those risks. All this goes without saying because we are all acculturated to health messaging, to preventative health programs, to messages about harm minimisation in our everyday lives. This too is a part of my culture.

I didn’t get out of the ED so easily. It seems that my injury was not so clear cut; the surgeon really wanted to put me under a general anaesthetic and have a closer look at my hand. Why? Because statistically, the kind of injury that I had incurred meant that I had an increased risk of disability, of developing arthritis, of losing a part of the functional ability of my hand. Was I certain that I wanted to risk all this, just go home with a few sutures and a script for some antibiotics?

When we’re offered choices like this, they are not real choices. I had to try to imagine the reality that the surgeon was painting for me. Was it possible? Would it affect me? What were the chances really? In the end I took my chances, opted for the sutures and the antibiotics and hoped for the best. However I look at my hand every now and again and wonder, what are the chances….?

“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”.