Thursday, 28 June 2012

The Feminist and the Handbag

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, but I guess what triggered me to start writing about it was a conversation between two of my friends on twitter. A female friend tweeted her delight in finding internal pockets in the (men’s) jacket she was wearing. A mutual male friend of ours replied, ‘wait women's clothing don't have them? No outer pockets on a lot of stuff too?’ He was surprised. No one who frequently wears women’s clothing was. I decided to bring him up to speed, responding with: ‘This is why women carry handbags. There is very little utility to women's clothing.’ And suddenly I felt the familiar, bitter taste of having been duped.

Why is there very little utility to women’s clothing? Why don’t we get pockets which actually open? Why do we have to put up with the ‘false pockets’ that are frequently sewn onto women’s jackets and pants to give visual interest without ruining the ‘line’ of the garment? Why, when pockets are actually present, are they so rarely large, stable, or loose enough to accommodate a phone or a wallet? And why, given this is the case, do women go on to cop so much flack for carrying handbags around with them?

Oh wait. Is this one of those double standards which we feminists are always going on about; one of those innocuous little things which everybody just accepts because it is the norm?

Women carry handbags. It is known.

But why? I have watched my male friends get ready to go out. They slip their wallet into one pocket, their keys into another, their phone into a third pocket, and some of them even still have spare pockets large enough to carry a novel for the journey. Those of my friends who wear women’s clothes, though, face an entirely different situation. If they are wearing the right jeans or jacket, they may have up to two usable pockets (not at all guaranteed). However, in most cases they won’t have any pockets at all. Utility and style rarely meet in women’s fashion, so they grab a bag.

Contrary to all the jokes, most women don’t ‘have’ to leave the house with everything they pack in their day-to-day handbag. Most of the items in a woman’s everyday handbag are in there because, if she’s going to have to carry it anyway, she might as well make it worth her while. Excuse us for making use of the one useful item we find in our wardrobes.

Choosing the right bag for other occasions is also an important decision. When going out, women usually carry the same sorts of essentials men do, with the addition of lipstick, tampons, and, perhaps, a small roll of Hollywood tape.  Not wanting to be weighed down, a woman may forego the bag with a shoulder strap for something smaller with a handle, or even a clutch. This is where the problem of a lack of utility gets pricklier. Men’s clothing would provide ample space for the few items a woman requires for a special occasion.
Unfortunately, the number of pockets in women’s clothing actual decreases as the need increases: when she’s most likely to want her hands free – like when drinking, dancing, or balancing on oddly-shaped bar stools – she’s least likely to have them free. When she’s carrying only her most valuable essential items – money, phone, cards, keys – she is more in danger of losing them. On top of this, the lack of utility in her clothing is making her vulnerable to attack. She is down to one hand to defend herself and no ready access to items like her phone which may be used to call for help. Her clothing, because it is designed to do just one thing (cover her body), is putting her at risk.

If one is in a relationship with a man, or someone who is likely to dress in men’s clothing, there is another option:  handing over the few items one wishes to carry to one’s partner, to be kept in his pockets. Convenient as this seems, a tiny, rebellious part of my brain screams that it is terribly old-fashioned and means that one must be constantly asking permission to access one’s means of communication and finance. It also means that one is tethered to their partner and still without means of calling for aid if the situation requires it and the partner is not present.

So suddenly I’m looking at my handbag with suspicion wondering if, somewhere along the way, someone should have thrown her beautifully designed bag to the ground and demanded that someone make her beautifully designed clothes do something a little more, well, useful.

But maybe she couldn’t. After all, all her stuff was in there.

In order to be concise and clear, I have used the term 'women's clothes/fashion' to refer to clothing found in the 'women's' section of, for example, a department store. It has nothing to do with the gender/sex of the person wearing the clothes. I speak of it as a 'women's/feminist's' issue as the overwhelming majority of people who face this are female or identify as such.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Not Waving, Drowning

I became unemployed a few weeks ago. When I told my friends, the most common reaction was ‘Oh, you’ll find another job. Until then, enjoy it! Buy a box set of a TV series! Sit at home on the internet all day! Take a break!’. More recently, I’ve been told by my sister that she is ‘jealous’ of my being able to get ‘in touch with [my] inner sloth’.

Is that really how those with jobs view the unemployed; As a group of people who spend their days luxuriating at home, laughing at all the poor schmucks who have to get out of bed every morning and go to work?

Let me tell right now, that is not how I feel at all.

Becoming unemployed (and my subsequent difficulty in finding employment) hasn’t set me free. It has reinforced latent fears of my own uselessness. It has set me on a long, slow slide of inertia and every day saps away at my hope of ever becoming valued or useful. It has taken away my concept of my own future. In just a few short weeks of rejection notices and days on the couch scrolling endlessly through ads on, I have been un-made.

The process of applying for jobs – in which you write out a list of your skills and experiences, provide the contact numbers of the few people you can think of who might vouch for those skills and experiences, and sit back and wait for an automated reply telling you to give up if you don’t get another automated reply in 14 days – exposes you to the most thorough form of rejection you can experience in life. Someone out there, in HR or management – someone who has been lucky enough to be found valuable – looks through your competencies and your plea for the chance to present yourself for judgement in person and decides whether you are good enough for consideration.

Because of the high level of competition for jobs, these people are not looking for reasons to hire you. They are looking for reasons not to hire you. It’s unfortunate, but it’s true. This means that they search for your vulnerabilities in a list of your strengths. They will take the smallest omission (perhaps made because of their insistence that your CV be no longer than one page) and they will disregard your application on that basis. They have to; it’s the only way they can get their job done.

Meanwhile, you are ‘living it up’ at home, every day feeling less and less worthy of the attention of these valued souls with their steady income and their purpose for living. Until, finally, it gets to the point that you no longer have the self-esteem to represent yourself positively to these people. They have jobs. Someone relies on them to be somewhere every day. Someone even pays them to do it! The only responsibility you have is maintaining the veneer of the happily unemployed. Your job is to laugh along with the jokes which lost their humour when you realised that you wake up every morning calculating how long you can do this before your superannuation is severely set back, destroying your distant future as well. Your job is to cheerfully tell family members and friends that you feel hopeful that you’ll find work soon, when really, you’re fairly sure you’re not only going to be unemployed forever, you actually believe you’re not – and never were – employable at all.

So you slog through, trying to find some meaning to your life when you are constantly rejected from the realms of the truly living. You exist in a different sphere – one where the world passes by, but you can’t reach out and touch it. You watch your friends buy new clothes and even put deposits on houses, understanding that your chance to do the same has passed and may never return.

Oh, yeah, and you manage a blog, as though, somehow, someone important will read it and honestly believe you have something worthwhile to contribute to the world.

Unfortunately, even if that happens, it’ll be a long time before you can believe such a thing of yourself again.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Can't Touch This

This week it came to light that the principal of Mount Martha Primary School had banned children from touching one another. This included hugs, handshakes (though, really, when have you ever seen two 9 year olds willingly shaking hands?), high-fives, and helping each other up after a fall. There’s been something of an uproar over this and, to be quite honest, I don’t really understand why.

I can only suppose that when people hear of such rules being put in place, they think only of what the children might ‘miss out on’ due to the new rule. As though that idea that settles in one’s head at around the age of eight (i.e., that the principal is an all-powerful tyrant put on earth solely to destroy all you fun by stopping you jumping off that thing you always liked jumping off just because some other, less coordinated kid broke both their arms doing it that one time) never really leaves once one reaches adulthood. The automatic assumption of is that the principal is making up new rules just to curtail the rights of the students.

Being the daughter of two primary school principals, I grew up largely immune to the idea of the tyrant principal. I also came to understand that the rules they placed on me, and those they placed on their students, from a mature, less reactive point of view. Because of that I can see a number of very good reasons for the ‘no contact’ rule.

One – Personal space and ownership of one’s body
Primary school-aged children often lack the language to talk about ownership of their body. Often the issue of ownership is only brought up if there is a major breach of a child’s ability to reject the touch of another person (e.g., molestation, assault). Even if the issue is addressed when there has been no such incident, it can still be difficult for children to grasp exactly what it is they ‘own’ and what their rights are.

This can become even more difficult when they are taught that they can repel or report breaches of their rights by an adult, but are taught (or they come to understand, due to lack of discussion on the issue) that they should simply accept such things if they come in the form of a hug from a friend. The confusion can become especially dangerous when you consider the percentage of assaults and molestations which are committed by people the child might consider ‘trusted’ or ‘a friend’.

Even when the situation is not as serious as criminal assault on a child, there is still the issue of permission to consider. If your child is uncomfortable with being touched, but is lead to understand that it is socially unacceptable to reject being touched by friends and is never informed of how or when they are allowed to tell someone to stop touching them, this can lead to the child feeling vulnerable and anxious in the schoolyard.

In light of these factors, perhaps banning children from touching one another until they are old enough and informed enough to understand exactly what appropriate touching is and exactly how to revoke permission to touch is a pretty solid idea.

Two – Inclusive and exclusive behaviour
A concerned parent calling in to a radio show this morning was worried that even high-fives and handshakes were to be banned. At first, this seemed a step to far to me, even though I largely agreed with the ban. Then I remembered back to the time when I was being severely bullied by my year three classmates.

I was an active member of the netball team. Despite the fact many of the other girls refused to throw the ball to me, I was a good defender and managed to acquit myself well on the court and assist in the process of getting a number of goals. When each goal was scored, or game won, there was a round of hugging, high-fiving, and back-patting between teammates. But not for me. No matter how well I played, no matter how hard I tried, I was never congratulated by my teammates. Their congratulatory rounds were withheld as a further form of out-of-school-hours bullying.

Touching is so often seen as inclusive behaviour, but from the perspective of a child who was socially blocked from participating, it is just another form of ostracising a person – one that is extremely visible and so all the more humiliating.

Three – First aid protocols
The same concerned parent mentioned that, according to his children, the school had banned the simple act of helping a friend up if they fell. He was outraged, of course, thinking that his children were being prevented from performing a simple act of charity. I nearly cheered. Having been exposed to the day-to-day working of many primary schools, I have heard some pretty horrific stories about what happens when a child attempts to help an injured child in the playground.

Children with broken or fractured limbs have been helpfully walked to the office by their peers without notifying the teachers on yard duty. Children have been helpfully picked up and dusted off by their friends after major falls which could have done damage to their spine. In the worst cases damage was done, and the helpful friends unwittingly caused further damage. Children have done themselves injuries while trying to help their injured friend. There have been cases where ambulances had to be called first for the child who was injured in a fall, then for their friend who was injured in an attempted rescue. Most schools don’t have a ‘no contact’ policy in place for this sort of situation, but they do have a very similar rule; go and get a teacher before you touch or move your friend.

Lately, there’s been heavy scrutiny of principals’ behaviour and the rules enforced in different schools. Often this scrutiny if largely comprised of the knee-jerk, ‘it wasn’t like that in my day’ kind of reaction. We need to resist that reaction and consider the eventualities the rules were designed to prevent. Yes, the wording of this particular rule is simplistic, but then it was designed to be understood by children. The ‘no touching’ rule may seem strict at first glance, but it is clearly the best way to deal with a complex issue. When the grey area is this complicated, children need black and white rules to protect them.

Even if you don’t buy into that argument, try this one: if you think about it, you probably function under a similar rule every day when you’re at work; touching without permission can be considered bullying or harassment; respect the fact that shaking hands is taboo in some cultures; if an accident occurs, contact your first aid officer or an ambulance and don’t try to help unless you have had the proper training.

Schools are preparing your children for the real world in many more ways than just providing them with thinking and learning skills. 

Welcome to the real world, Mount Martha Primary School.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Baby, You Can Drive Your Car

Today on the roads, I passed a car that was the same colour, make, and model as my very first car. It made me think of what that first car meant to me (you know, after I got over the crushing disappointment of finding that it wasn't the Shelby Cobra I'd asked for).

Getting your first car is a major landmark in the road of life, just like starting high school or being kissed for the first time, only without the awkwardness and excessive amounts of saliva. Most people will, in later years, recount fondly the times spent with the rust-heap of spare parts that their parents dared to present as some kind of means of transportation. My own first car ­– a white, slightly rusty Nissan Pintara, which seemed to have trouble with the concept of gears despite being an automatic – was just such a delight.

Once the initial thrill of receiving your first car, the symbol of emancipation, travel and suddenly having a lot less money, has worn off and you can feel the keys of your very own car weighing heavy in your pocket, you, like I, will approach your vehicle, slowly, reverently, and unlock the drivers-side door and get in. After spending a good ten minutes or so sitting there, jiggling the steering wheel backwards and forwards and making ‘vrrrrroooooooommmm!!!’ noises (just me?), you will begin to notice new things, new feelings, and, most terrifyingly of all, new smells. I know I did. I noticed new things, like the weird, yellow, scum that tinted the windows; new feelings, like the ill feeling you get when you find mouldy sandwiches in the pouch behind the driver’s seat; new smells, like the fascinating combination of nicotine, very old bananas and something that was recently excreted by a dog. You might also notice that you have involuntarily adopted a small colony of earwigs in the glove box as well as a nodding-head dog, which the previous owner has helpfully super glued to the dash.

Having taken in your expansive, if slightly mouldy surroundings and regained your senses (which seemed to have completely bailed on you at first encounter with that smell), you will once again become awash with dizzy euphoria as, at your well-intentioned but thoroughly clueless parents insistence, you slide the key into the ignition and turn it – one click, two click, three clicks – and awaken the beast. I say ‘beast’ because that is indeed what it will sound like. Not the kitty-purr of the cars in the ads, not even the warm rumble of your father’s car, but the beastly rattling and chugging of a car that sounds like that thing from Lost rather than anything you’ve ever heard on the street. And that weird metallic ‘ping’ sound? Well, you’ll never forget how Monty Python’s “Machine that goes ‘Ping!’” joke goes again. You’ll look hopefully out the car window to your parents, willing them to tell you that this is all a joke and that your real car is parked around the back and is a lot shinier. They won’t. They will only smile awkwardly and tell you that it’s not designed to be pretty but to get you from ‘A’ to ‘B’, and then they will walk back towards the house before you can voice your doubts about whether it can even do that.

Still, it’s a real car. And it does go, most of the time anyway. And there’s always Frebreeze and Windex to clean it up. And even earwigs of that size can’t hold out against fly spray forever. Plus, your friends are all chipping in to buy you a new stereo system for your birthday, and when you turn up the music loud enough, you can barely hear that ‘ping’-ing. So what if it can’t go uphill when the radio’s turned on, has trouble changing gear even though it’s supposedly an automatic, and seems to rebel against driving in a straight line. At least it’s a car. Better than that, it’s your car and it can take you anywhere. As long as you can afford the petrol. 

Concussion is apparently indistiguishable from Jubilee Fever

I cut my face open by accident the other day. These things will happen. If you’re me, which I am, and if you’re prone to forgetting you had a fork/pen/cat in your hand, which could also describe me quite fittingly. In this instance it was a fork. I had just been feeding my dogs and I had dropped the fork. Along with being pretty damned exciting to my dogs, it had also got the fork all dirty and made me have to crouch to pick it up. My ridiculous fringe flopped into my eyes and I, fork now in hand, swiped it away, cleverly skewering my forehead as I went. Wonderful. When it comes to wounds to the face, I want only the best treatment. That means whatever I can find in the cupboard that has a trace of antiseptic and doesn’t look to crusty around the lid. Amongst the empty shampoo bottles and the calamine lotion which had calamine lotioned itself to the shelf, was my saviour: Dettol. Oh! The very scent of it brings back every disgustingly messy head trauma, every scraped knee, every split lip I ever witnessed by siblings sustain throughout our childhood (as a sickly and bookish creature, I rarely found the opportunity to wound myself horribly – at least not until I grew up).

After cleaning myself up (swearing quite creatively as I did), I ran a cloth over the bottle to ensure it wouldn’t meet the same fate as the other crusty antiseptic creams and lotions. As I did this, I noticed a large Royal Warrant on the back label.

What? Does Queen Elizabeth II slice her head open with a silver fork while feeding the corgis? Or perhaps His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh often accidentally stabs himself in the knee with his fountain pen? Maybe His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales occasionally accidentally flings a cat sort of awkwardly at himself because he forgot he was carrying it?

But, as this site, tells me, it may not be the good old bottle of Dettol Her Majesty uses. Maybe she uses their hand sanitiser after being forced to shake the hands of countless commoners. The makers of Dettol can put the Royal Warrant on any product they like, once they’ve got it.

Anyway, this all got me thinking; if any product the Queen, Duke of Edinburgh, or Prince of Wales uses for over five years can earn the Warrant, what other products have it?

Oh-ho! Ever prepared, the British have a site for that!

Having access to information like this inspires my curiosity like you wouldn’t believe!

First, it was about the fancy stuff. Who makes her jewellery? What about her tableware and glassware?

Then it got a little more … esoteric? Who provides her musical instruments? Who makes flags for the Queen? Does the Queen have Christmas crackers?

Then, more mundane. Who makes her mothballs? What toilet cleaner does she like? Who paints when she wants a change of colour scheme?

Then I thought ‘Why the hell do I care?’ and I realised I’d taken a blow to the temple, with a fork and I should probably go lie down a while.