In Pursuit of Happiness, #1: Fitness, Aunties, and Podcasts

One of my current favourite podcasts, NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, finishes with a segment called “What’s making us happy this week.” The presenters go around the table to share the little things in today’s culture and society that, as the segment title suggests, make them happy.

Inspired yet again by NPR and in another attempt to keep my writing somewhat on track, I’m getting a bit of a jumpstart on my blog resolutions (‘tis the season!) by adding a new ongoing series: In Pursuit of Happiness. I’m aiming to have it be a Monday post, just to add a little bit of love and cheer to the day of the week that inarguably has the worst rep ever.

So, here’s what’s making me happy this week:

Early-morning workouts:  Every Monday morning since September, I’ve been getting up at 5:00AM to make it to the gym in time for a one-hour circuit training course that starts at 6:15. It’s a combination of strength and cardio training, usually done in two half-hour segments of a Tabata-style warmup followed by a CrossFit-style workout. I actually do this twice a week, the second round being on Wednesdays, but there are a few reasons why I’ve learned to love my (brutal and ridiculously) early morning workout.

Those of you who know me are well-aware that I’m so not a morning person, but my crazy work schedule means that 6:15AM at the very beginning of the work week is the only time I’m going to get in an hour of gym time on Mondays. However, nobody else seems to be driven by this particular circumstance, so I’m the only one who shows up. I essentially get an extra hour per week with my personal trainer, which means the Monday session is usually tailored to complement my regular training program (and she even works out with me sometimes to help keep my motivation up).  This blast of intense physical activity right at the beginning of my work week energizes me and gets me into the right mindset to keep up my fitness journey through the rest of the week.

And, oh my goodness, all the “body gains” that I’m starting to see from this are all so freakin’ worth it. I’ll be making a separate post about this entirely, but for now all I’ll say is that until last week I had never in my entire life experienced the utter joy of trying on a fitted dress and having it zip all the way up the back.

My “aunties” in Montreal:  It’s easier to refer to my brother-in-law’s mother, my brother-in-law’s aunt, and the neighbor lady in my mom’s building as my “aunties.” They’re all women of respectable age who have lived fascinating lives, and I’ve found that one of the simplest but most fulfilling little pleasures of my life is spending some time with them. Two Sundays ago, Auntie S (my mother’s neighbor) and I spent an afternoon looking around the arts centre where I do pottery, followed by exploring a new gourmet grocery in Griffintown called Le Richmond and then a quick coffee-and-croissant at Mamie Clafoutis on Notre-Dame. This weekend, my oldest sister and I had lunch with Auntie N and Auntie K at our family’s favourite Greek restaurant, Nostos (where they serve best fried calamari ever).

Most Millennials I know find it weird that I would willingly spend some of my few precious free hours with “old people,” but if you spent even just an hour with any one of these three women I think you’d see why I do it. Their lives are rich and full to bursting with stories – stories of another time and another world, and of women born between the World Wars who defied convention to establish successful careers, live independently, and see the world.  Having lived and grown in the midst of social upheavals and cultural revolutions, and in spite of gender-based barriers, these women are living examples of the advice found in one of my favourite TED quotes:

“Forge meaning, build identity, and then invite the world to share your joy.”
– Andrew Solomon

Welcome to Night ValeIt’s a known fact by now that I don’t listen to music at my desk job – audiobooks and podcasts are my aural entertainment of choice when I’m working for The Man. I thoroughly enjoy soaking up knowledge and culture through NPR’s many projects (TED Radio Hour, TED Talks, Pop Culture Happy Hour, Ask Me Another) and I always discover something new when I listen to any given episode of any given podcast. In fact, Ask Me Another led me to Welcome to Night Vale a couple of weeks ago, and I simply cannot get enough of it.

It’s difficult to explain Welcome to Night Vale in so many words. The premise of the show is that it’s the community news bulletin for a desert-bound town – but it’s a town where the outrageous, paranormal, and unconventional are, in fact, completely normal. When something out of Night Vale’s version of ordinary happens, however, listeners will discover that the weird, odd, and quirky people of Night Vale are strangely just like us in many ways. They live, laugh, love, and learn; they come together as a community in the face of threats and adversity; they adopt cats and go on dates and deal with family dramas and live in barely-masked fear and wariness of all levels of governmental authority.

You kind of have to experience it for yourself to understand the extent of its awesomeness.

As a plus, the “Weather” segment of each podcast episode is a song from an indie or underground musician, and I’ve discovered some pretty cool tunes as a result. And, as an even bigger plus, there’s also a Welcome to Night Vale novel out now.

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So, there you have it – the things making me happy this week! I hope you all have a lovely one ahead, and I’ll see you back here next Monday to share more small steps taken in the pursuit of happiness.

Don’t stick up your heels, girls

((or, a young urban professional’s rant on the world’s oldest profession))

According to Reuters, the hottest headline from Wall Street is all about an intern who gave up her position in the world of finance to assume many new ones in that of porn.

Before you follow suit and trade your office pumps for stripper heels, you can read all about it.

Quite frankly, there’s nothing wrong with quitting a soul-sucking job to pursue something more fulfilling and meaningful — something that you love and can truly define you. I don’t have a problem with that.

What I do have a problem with is the fact that this young woman — who is described as being “promising” in her field, clearly has some kind of ambition, and comes from a background privileged enough to afford higher education — feels that pornography is where she will find that kind of life-changing gratification.

Why does this incite today’s post?

It means we live in a world world where a young woman who has social and professional advantages feels that her true calling is to give herself away to an industry fuelled by people who don’t care. They don’t care about who she is or where she’s coming from: they care about her body and the fact that in her search for her own gratification, it’s ended up available on the Internet for them to use for their own gratification.

It means we live in a world where women who have never had to fight for women’s civil rights believe that they’re in the moral and social right to act promiscuously, either on a personal level through recreational sex or on a more public level such as through pornography. They think this because society places the wrong kind of importance on sex, because popular culture has made women’s liberation all about morally and socially legitimising the exploitation of women.

It means that despite being able to share in all the advantages and privileges that were once exclusive to our male counterparts at all stages of life, some women today still feel that their sexuality and their bodies are the things that will make them truly successful. That’s because the adult entertainment industry is worth billions, and makes those billions by twisting the ambition of bright young women to perpetuate business.

It means we live in a world where a line exists between a hooker on the street and an adult entertainer on the screen. In other words, ours is a society that looks down its nose at some forms of prostitution while simultaneously praising others. Because in the end, trading one’s body and sexuality for money is prostitution, and therefore porn is probably the highest rung on the career ladder of the world’s oldest profession. Young women who work in pornography think it’s alright simply because the porn industry has taken sexual exploitation off the streets, prettied it up, and marketed it as entertainment.

Before I step off the soap box, I’ll leave you with this: would any of you who support this young woman’s decision be so keen to do the same if the person in question was your sister, daughter, girlfriend, or cousin? Because that’s who every girl in the pornography industry really is, once the clothes are put back on.

Reflecting on my Reflection

I am five-foot-none, with pale skin, big brown eyes, and hair that’s naturally dark brown (but hasn’t been “natural” for a few years now) and has a mind of its own most days.  My feet are small enough to fit in kids’ shoes, and my hands are equally tiny.  I’m a visible ethnic minority but don’t like being labelled as “exotic.”  My measurements are proportionate:  my hips and bust are the same, and my waist is 8 inches smaller than that.  Mathematically, then, I have a full-figured hourglass, and supposedly this is enviable.

Yet, as is the case with many other young women out there, I haven’t had an easy relationship with my body.

In every phase of life that I can actually remember, I’ve had one issue or another with my body.  I’d like to say that all my issues with self-perception and body image began during adolescence, because for most people adolescence lines up with puberty and all of one’s body drama (trauma?) happens at the same time everyone else’s.  For me, however this is not the case.  I was an alarmingly early bloomer:  Mother Nature dropped by for the first time when I was only seven, and by the time I was ten years old I had a cup size that most grown women I know would kill (or, at least, pay out the nose) to have.  Sure, when you’re a twentysomething neck-deep in the dating game, big boobs could be seen as an asset.  However, when you’re a ten-year-old, they’re anything but, and I suffered through puberty without any girl friends with whom I could compare concurrent notes about the whole thing.

By the time you add in the problems that arise with weight (or excess thereof) and height (or lack thereof), as well as other minor details (I don’t like my nose; I have one crooked tooth; my skin is pale but my limb-fuzz is dark; my bottom, while ample, is not perky; I am pigeon-toed…), it’s no small wonder that I had some pretty big issues with body image as a teenager.  These issues were so pervasive that makeup and clothing became things behind which I could hide.  I was obsessed with how my outward appearance fell considerably short of what I thought it should be.

We’ve all heard before that current standards of beauty are humanly impossible to achieve.  The viral mockvertisement for “Photoshop by Adobe” pokes fun at these standards, while Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign challenges us to look at ourselves honestly and lovingly.   And I am certainly not the first blogger to tell their personal “body story” or address the overall issue of body image.

This countercultural perspective is not new; it has been developing over a few years now and has even gained some footholds in popular or mainstream areas.

But the overwhelming majority of today’s media still tells us that we – as we are in our natural skins – are not enough.  Perhaps miracles will happen and in a generation or two humanity will be able to accept its inherent diversity in shape, size, weight, and colour.  But I am of a generation whose popular opinion of what “beauty” looks like or ought to look like is the direct result of a multimedia blitzkrieg that made us all buy into a world of impossible perfection.  Old-school print and television media have joined forces with the almighty Internet, and through our favourite social media we are kept in place.

Yet – even as the aforementioned countercultural movement fights for ground and even gains some here and there – emotionally, mentally, and physically, we are stuck in a culture wherein we are conditioned and conned into believing in standards of beauty that would give the ancient Greek gods a self-esteem crisis.  I mean, through my childhood and adolescence, I definitely saw myself the way pop culture made me see myself.

“Out of place” comes to mind when I reflect on the way my younger self reacted to her reflection.

So does, “Too different/short/heavy/curvy.”

Or even, “Not good enough.”

And yes, even, “Ugly.”

Then, I joined the Armed Forces.  And while I am no longer a member of the Forces, the brief time I spent as one of its Officer Cadets completely changed the way I saw the world and people around me…and the way I saw myself. Instead of being obsessed with what my body looked like, I found myself amazed at what this body – this so-called “imperfect” and “flawed” body – could actually do and accomplish.

Having this perspective means that I can look in the mirror now and see beyond not only the physical reflection, but also beyond what’s right or wrong with what makes up that reflection.

The cup size that needs its own postal code? Not only does it look pretty good in just about any T-shirt, dress, or sweater I try own, but according to my nephew and my boyfriend’s youngest siblings it also makes me “comfy-cosy” and “huggable.”

The nose that just never looked right on my face? Its shape makes it the perfect target for the cute little kisses my boyfriend likes dropping on me.

Those tiny hands can play guitar, type at 100 WPM, and write in cursive – not to mention cook, bake, and craft personalised greeting cards.  Those freakishly small feet will always be clad in super-cute shoes bought at insanely cheap sale prices.  The legs that give me a 27″ inseam might not have thigh gaps but they do not end in cankles, and in proportion to the rest of my body they are, surprisingly, on the long side.  The lack of height means I can wear impossibly tall heels and still fit into my boyfriend’s hugs.  The unruly hair that graces my head is thick and healthy without needing expensive products.  The crooked tooth goes unnoticed in the bigger picture of my smile.

It is by no means perfect, but this body can get out of bed in the morning.  It can walk, and it can run and bend and stretch and lift its way to a healthier version of itself.  One day, it will walk down a church aisle in a wedding dress.  One day, it will bear children.  One day, it will lie confined in a bed as the lines and wrinkles on my face tell my story.  And one day, it will be laid to rest.

The bottom line is, the body in the mirror might not be seen by society as beautiful in its appearance, but it is beautiful nonetheless in its abilities and potential.

And it is mine.