Tuesday, 27 September 2016

"Porter Asks - Are Heels a Feminist Issue?"

(An Essay Response)

No, is the resounding answer to that question given by Vassi Chamberlain in Issue 16 of Porter Magazine. Chamberlain argues that categorising the question of heel-wearing as a feminist concern exaggerates its importance and conflates the driving forces behind the shoe-wearing habits of women.

I agree - I don't think it's a feminist issue. But, in the context that this particular spat arose, I do think it's an issue. I think it's a diversity issue: a blinkered statement that there is only one way to embody a particular status or aspiration.

I'm not in favour of the total abolition of enforced dress codes. Rules and codes; norms and social definitions - they all have their place in creating coherence and a sense of belonging; it was one of things that fascinated me the most during my jurisprudence studies at Oxford. And by profession, I'm a lawyer (albeit not in practice anymore) - so disdain for the regulation of behaviour is not in my DNA. But sometimes these things overstep the mark. Or more accurately, they define the mark so narrowly that they leave people on the outside looking in and questioning their place, when it should be obvious to the world that something so trivial or irrelevant should not be grounds for exclusion.

Mostly, these exclusions are not deliberate. Mostly, it's just a default assumption in subtle operation. Sometimes, it's framed within a policy. Sometimes, it's just "the way things are".

Like when I write an article and can barely find any stock photos that don't have white people's arms, hands or feet doing whatever activity it is that I want to illustrate. Or when I said to a particular school teacher that I want to go to a particular college and was told not to bother because "it's full of Etonians" i.e. I wouldn't fit in. Or if I am implicitly told by a dress code that professionalism requires heels, even though my height makes them redundant and wearing them would actually undermine my ability to present myself confidently to others.

Let's face it: we all know that whether heels constitute an instrument of oppression is not the most important issue in the world. I am currently in the drawn out yet still relatively painful stages of early labour as I write this, which lends a heightened sense of perspective (read: indifference) to my attitude to all this. I thought the furore around the PwC dress code debacle was over; I didn't think we were still talking about it. Maybe the fact that I am is just evidence of how badly I want any kind of distraction right now.

But maybe distraction is part of the problem with this whole discussion - the fact that it's so easy to preoccupy ourselves with dissecting the narrowest interpretations of complicated issues, rather than face up to the wider whole: the broader inequalities that have real and lasting impact, but no easy answers. Things likes ingrained and unhelpful stereotypes, unconscious bias and institutionalised race/sex/age-isms; escalating on through to denials of a voice and social representation, of legal rights and even acts of intimidation and violence.

I love the concluding lines at the end of Chamberlain's article: "... let's stop pretending this is a feminist issue, let's stop being so judgmental and get on with the business of enjoying ourselves, and feeling comfortable..." But to that I would add "and let's make it possible for others to do the same".

I'm addressing those of us who hold some sway over the definition of what's acceptable in our spheres of influence - whether that's drafting the dress code of a corporation, influencing the aspirations of school children; or curating the range of photos available for adverts and editorials. Whether that's just choosing the words we use to talk about what is or isn't a normal and valued way of being in the world. So I guess I'm addressing all of us - including and especially myself.

Let's all leave a little more room for the people who don't fit within our assumptions, but still deserve a place in the conversation.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

This is 4:00 AM

This is what 4:00 AM can look like.

When you can't sleep and it's impossible to be comfortable and the walls are closing in and it's not socially appropriate to call anyone or wake anyone - there is no emergency here. You may be restless, but nothing is wrong. So stop fretting and self-pitying and raging against the peaceful sleeper next to you. Just stop. Do something else with that energy. It might be 4:00 AM, but so what?

Rediscover how therapeutic it is to sit down and play the piano (with headphones!) - to let a random bunch of notes fall under your fingers and sound so pretty that you contemplate writing them down (but you don't because, let's face it, it's 4:00 AM and you haven't composed anything since you were seventeen).

Rediscover that you can shape your experiences, and just because everyone else says / does / expects / thinks doesn't mean you can't have it be another way. Just because everyone else says 4:00 AM is for sleeping, and you can't, doesn't make this bad. 4:00 AM is for living. So choose life.

"Rejoice in the Lord always. 
I will say it again: rejoice. 
Let your gentleness be evident to all. 
The Lord is near.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation [pray]...

Whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - 
if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - 
think about such things...
And the God of peace will be with you."

Philippians 4v4-8

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Love & Filters

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Love is the ultimate filter.

This is a thought that came to me as something of a epiphany, although I'm not sure it's quite as profound as that suggests. But it's been enough to challenge me - to shake me up a little and make me realise there's so much more to the life I'm called to live than I'm sometimes willing to acknowledge.

It all came from a really basic observation of a routine act, a few weeks ago, in the middle of wedding season. We were waiting for the bride to come into the church - friends reunited, catching up in between those intermittent hushes that happen when someone wrongly senses the arrival is imminent. A friend took a quick picture with her husband on her phone. From the pew behind her, I watched her review it, adjusting it with lightning efficiency - a slight crop, the addition of a particular filter - before uploading it to social media. The whole process took seconds, a few gentle tweaks making it possible to present their best-self to the world.

Listening to the sermon about half an hour later, I realised that's what love does. It shelters us, saving us from having our worst exposed and instead drawing out the good in us - promoting that worthier version of who we are and have the potential to be. Love is aware of all that is unfavourable in us, but  chooses to emphasise the good instead. That's a wonderful thing to experience, to receive.

But it's a costly, demanding thing to give. 

"Love covers over a multitude of sins." It requires a certain tactfulness, a kindly reticence and a giving up of vindication. "Love keeps no record of wrongs." It feels them, but it internalises the cost of those wrongs - it doesn't make the offender pay. "Love believes the best", reaching past irritation and personal perspective to embrace and bear with those little weakness and idiosyncrasies that point to brokenness and imperfection and come from God-only knows where; love tries to understand. 

To be seen through the eyes of love is possibly the most liberating thing we can offer each other. And to see through the eyes of love is an art - the highest, eternal craft. Maybe the hardest thing we can attempt. That's why we celebrate weddings with the fan-fare that we do. But as right as that surely is, as momentous as the choice to get married is, it's only one dimension of the call to love. And, in my experience, probably the easiest. A loving marriage is, in some ways, self-sustaining: assisted by emotion, helped along by reciprocity, mutual self-interest, common giving and receiving; I love and am loved.

Much harder to love in fleeting interactions, or difficult acquaintances, or fringe friendships. It's much harder to try and make the effort to see everyone in their best light, always. Much harder to treat people according to who they can be, not just who they are, to feel your efforts disappear into the ether of a harsh world and not know how or if they will find their way back to you. 

Harder but truer. A little closer to the love God loves us with. A little something of the way of the cross.

It's also hard to see the reality of your small attempts to imitate the heights and depths of real love, and know how far they fall short. 

But that's okay. Because Love sees past that. 

Love is the ultimate filter.
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