The Armchair Feminist

It’s now the start of summer though given the amount of rain and a scorching daytime high of 17 degrees, I question the season. Still, it’s time for another blog. This one has nothing to do with singing and music but it has quite a bit to do with swim suits and the beach weather that will come eventually – it has to. Jump in.

Back in October, I decided that I needed to replace my favourite old bathing suit. I love to swim. I take my boys to the pool nearly every week and I swim lengths when I can. I am not a fast swimmer but I can do a steady front crawl for 30 minutes non stop. When it comes to swim suits and bras, I know from experience that it is best to choose quality over thrift so I don’t bother to look at the price tag. I walked into Swimco, ensnared a sales associate and made her bring me a few suits. I found a utility but strong one piece swim suit that didn’t show any cleavage – perfect for length swimming, not made for the runway but certainly made for the lanes. Then I made the decision to buy a bikini as well.

I do not have a typical “bikini body”. I am a forty-one year old overweight mother of two. I have not had a thigh gap since I was a preteen. My legs are genetically suited to herding sheep over the highlands of Scotland, not to walking down the street in high heels. My breasts are larger now than they were before I had children but due to gravity and middle age, I no longer go out in public without wearing a good, strong bra. Thanks to a lack of regular exercise, a love of sweets and to the aforementioned children who, in the last ten years, have used my body as a temporary apartment for 18 months altogether, my belly has a rotund roll of fat. I have not owned a bikini since I was thirteen but I’m not so ashamed of my body that I wear a T-shirt over my bathing suit and I often wear shorts in the summer. Every time I’ve worn a bathing suit though, especially on a beach, I’ve been self conscious about my large, chubby legs and my ample posterior, even before I had kids.

When I was in the fitting room, trying on utility one pieces, I realized something: why should I be ashamed of my body? It’s not a perfect body but it’s strong, sturdy and gets me places. It’s a body that has grown, birthed and nourished two beautiful, healthy little boys. It’s a body that can easily tow these two little boys in a bike trailer across town to Hillcrest Aquatic Centre, swim with them for the afternoon and then haul them back – that’s 14 km return, hauling 90 lbs, uphill part of the way. It’s a body that can carry a 45 lb child on its back on a hike up and down Quarry Rock. It’s a body that has and continues to serve me well. It’s healthy, strong and I’m so terribly lucky to have it in all its imperfections. With the help of the very supportive sales associate, I chose a nice bikini and went on my way.

The next step was to wear the bikini in public. A few weeks later, I took it with me to Hillcrest for a swim with the boys. When I put it on, my then five year old said, “Mommy, you forgot to take off your bra!” He wouldn’t know the difference as he had never seen his mom in a bikini. Then, as I stepped out onto the pool deck, I wanted to bolt with two screaming kids, go home and forget the swim altogether. Instead, I took a deep breath and waded into the kiddie pool with the boys. It wasn’t too bad and I even saw another mom or two with similar bodies also sporting fabulous bikinis.

Then a truly wonderful thing started to happen: I began to really see women as the beautiful creatures that we are. Young, old, fat, thin – women’s bodies with all their soft, lovely curves are delightful to look upon. I was born female and I identify as a female heterosexual. But I think that my true acceptance of my own imperfect body led me to my acceptance of other women’s bodies, especially older women whose bodies have experienced life with all its joy and sorrow. Now, if I steal a glance at another woman’s body at the beach or at the pool, rest assured that I am not judging her rolls of fat or lack thereof; I find her beautiful. With my acceptance of the physical, I’m slowly starting to accept other people’s emotional flaws with greater readiness. I will brave Second Beach in Stanley Park this summer in a bikini.

Now, here’s sound of the brakes as my self congratulatory rant on body acceptance comes to a screeching halt. How far does my feminism really go? Not as far as I’d like when I examine my actions and I find that they are as much a reflection of our society and of my generation – labeled Generation X as they are my own brand of complacent armchair feminism.

I have kept silent in the face of domestic abuse that I’ve observed even when the abuse practically in front of me. Back in 1999, I worked at a printing press. One of the women in my department called in sick one day and said that she would be off work for a few days because “she had fainted and smashed her glasses”. She came back a few days later with bruises on her face, wearing same intact glasses. Everyone, including me, chose to believe her story despite the fact that we all knew about her unhappy marriage. I continued to believe her story until I told my husband about it a few months later after my contract had ended. He knew right away that her husband had beaten her.

At this same company, I experienced sexual harassment on a nearly daily basis and I did and said nothing. Part of my job was to visit the plant regularly in order to get invoices approved for accounts payable. A dirt bag manager in the shipping department often made suggestive comments about my appearance – and I always dressed appropriately for an office environment. I never reported him because he was a manager and I was a temp. One phone call from him to the temp agency and I would probably lose my job, and lose future employment from the agency. Maybe I was right, maybe I was wrong but given the recent reports that came out after another dirt bag named Jian Ghomeshi was charged with sexual harassment at the CBC, it appears that I was not alone in my silence. Women will put up with a toxic, humiliating workplace because we seldom have much choice. Rent will not pay itself, kids need to be fed, loans have to paid, etc. Still, maybe we need to speak out more, or better yet, maybe we should be treated respectfully in the first place.

Both of those events occurred seventeen years ago and my feminism has evolved since then but still, I sometimes, when I do speak, I say the wrong thing which does a disservice to myself and to women. Recently, I was at a volunteer tea at my sons’ school. During a student’s performance, some women at the next table were talking. I glared at them and loudly whispered “Shush!” After the performance, I was talking quietly to two other women at my table and I said jokingly, “I can be such a bitch when I want to be”. Why did I even feel the need to launch into a half baked, self deprecating comedy routine over something that I had every right to address? The women at the next table were being rude and I called them on it. That’s not being “bitchy”, it’s reminding people to not be rude and sometimes, we all need those reminders. If I were a man, I wouldn’t have had any need to justify my actions.

I believe that things are improving for women to some extent, at least in Canada (hello, gender parity in the federal cabinet). When I got married seventeen years ago (1999 was an interesting year), a fellow musician, who in his early twenties, asked me what my new last name was. I told him that I had kept my name. His response was, “Oh, you’re one of those” and that was not an uncommon reaction.  I don’t remember my response but I know that I thought, “What a jerk”. My husband’s response to my decision to keep my name was, “You’re not my property”. My children have their dad’s last name and I still have mine. My six year old has never been confused by it. He knows that his mommy and daddy are married and that we all love each other. Now, I don’t know any man under the age of fifty who would dare question my right to keep my name. Maybe it’s because I chose my social circle much more carefully though.

We all need to support women. We do that and the world will change for the better. We hear the arguments that we need to focus on the environment and income inequality first. Yes, but gender equality is directly tied those things. With gender equality comes quality education for women who are and will be the scientists, the environmental activists, the civil engineers. Educated women have fewer children which will slow population growth. Educated women have the ability to earn more. If we educate, support and encourage women to take over the leadership the political landscape, society will change for the better. It’s not a coincidence that the people at the forefront of policy change are Leap Manifesto proponent and journalist Naomi Klein, German Chancellor Angela Merckel (also a scientist) and Green Party leader and environmental lawyer Elizabeth May. Female heads of state are less likely to engage in armed conflict, possibly because we have a nine month connection to creating life that men simply don’t have. With gender equality, we will be a more human society that can take stewardship for an empathetic social fabric.

Overall, I believe that things have certainly changed for the better and the Millennials are at the forefront of that change. I have a great deal of hope for Millennials; they are politically engaged, they have a tremendous amount of energy and they are not afraid to challenge the notions of identity. True that the boomers and later, the Gen Xers laid the ground work for things like maternity leave, safe and legal access to abortion, equal pay and same sex marriage. I’m confident though, that the Millennials will take things much further, partly they have more at stake than do people of my generation. I will be a senior citizen by the time the ramifications of climate change really mess things up for the planet. The Millennials will be living in the new world and they are galvanized more than ever to try and turn this around. The Gen Xers might be starting to run the governments (Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and much of his cabinet are in their forties) but the Millennials are close behind and we need their drive, their energy and their activism more than ever. I am excited to see what brand of feminism emerges from the Millennial generation.

Is this armchair Generation X feminist willing to post pictures online of herself in a bikini? Not going to happen so perhaps I still have some body shame. Perhaps it’s because I’m a middle aged lady who really should cover up. Perhaps it’s because I am in a fairly conservative profession and I don’t want to lose business. Or perhaps it’s because I live in a predominately South Asian neighbourhood and that by posting a picture of myself in a bikini, I might as well be posing nude even thought I am held to different set of rules on account of my cultural background of Caucasian privilege. In terms of physical modesty, can you say that Malala Yousefzai is not a feminist? She is one of the most courageous, outspoken feminists in recent history and she is covered head to toe. I know that I would not have her courage if I were in her place.

Feminism is fluid and everybody must decide how they want to express their feminism. I choose to express it with a blog and a bikini. I also know that I have some work to do – as do we all.