The Feast of Fools

It’s hard to switch sides, isn’t it? Hard to cross the tracks. And even if you do, does welcome await, or merely sidelong glances and mistrust -or as Macbeth feared, curses not loud but deep, mouth honour, breath which the poor heart would fain deny and dare not…?

It’s a brave person who crosses over –who dares to live the other life. But can one ever feel what one has only watched from afar? Would the experience be real, or only a tawdry simulacrum? A Halloween costume? True, only we know for sure how we perceive something, but we can intuit how someone else might feel –and realize that they might also have a different understanding of what happened. A different reality. So, are we unalterably barred from that room?

I ask this as a man peering over the fence and wondering about what I see. It always seems so… so like my side –so like the cover of the book I’m reading. I suppose that’s where it gets confusing. I know the story is different, and yet I don’t really understand why. But then again, perhaps I’m as naïve a reader as I am a contributor –or is that merely a pretence of innocence? An expected social conceit?

And if I were to attempt a disguise in a situation that even I could see might be demeaning for a woman, would that help me understand? Or would it merely seem weird, and elicit the confused and embarrassed reactions that cross-dressing usually does? Would it take me closer to the lived experience? Or would it be yet another variation of the male Weltanschauung?

An article in the CBC news on sexual discrimination in the workplace made me wonder: ‘The male staff decided to dress up after a CBC Marketplace story  […] on restaurant dress codes and found that many women felt compelled to wear sexy outfits —including high heels, tight skirts and heavy makeup — to keep their jobs.’

I have to say that at first glance, I was reminded of the Medieval Feast of Fools. This, as you may recall, was a festival usually held at the beginning of the new year (especially in France) in which a mock bishop or pope was elected, ecclesiastical ritual was parodied, and low and high officials changed places. And, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, by the 13th century these feasts had become a burlesque of Christian morality and worship. But nobody was fooled; everybody realized it was just a charade…

In the case of the restaurant, ‘The men lasted only an hour or two in the heels, which ran the gamut from red stilettos to cheap, black, strappy numbers. But aside from the physical pain, they also described feeling vulnerable and uncomfortable as they worked.’ And understandably so –they were pretending to be something they most decidedly were not. Everybody –customers and staff- knew it and no doubt played along. ‘”Guys were making comments, jokingly of course, because that’s what we were going for — to show light to it — but even those jokes that they were making were, after a while, still very uncomfortable to be faced with,”’ said one of the servers.

A few of the customers were women who also worked as servers at other restaurants with similar dress codes where they were told to look like they were going to a party, not coming home from it. One of them, who had recently quit one of those places after being sent home for not wearing enough jewellery on her shift, said: ‘”I came here tonight because I love the idea of reversing sexist dress codes required in some restaurants to male colleagues. Seeing them wearing heels and short skirts is really something. I wanted to come down and be a part of it,” she said.

‘”It reinforces how ridiculous it is. Seeing men walk by in tight miniskirts and heels really just hits it home how crazy it is to ask women to do that.”’

The consensus among the women servers watching was that within limits, dress should be about choice. If they felt comfortable with dressing like what they were seeing, that was fine. But many of them didn’t. The doctrine of contra proferentem might apply, perhaps, but I doubt that many of them would go so far as to hire a lawyer to press their cases.

So, apart from some interesting publicity and a bit of teasing, what did the cross-dressing actually accomplish? For guys, dressing like women and trying to balance on high heels they’d never been acculturated to wear -and never had the opportunity to practice on- can only give them the barest whiff of what many women have to endure on an ongoing basis. They weren’t women that night, just actors rehearsing a drama they would never get to play.

Clearly, what the article was pointing out was the tip of a very large iceberg. Highlighting this form of sexual exploitation was merely a way of hinting at the way women in general are regarded in our society –and maybe not just ours… You can legislate fair hiring practices, but it is far more difficult –impossible, actually- to legislate attitude.

It is true, however, that unless the issue is publicized in a manner that shocks people into seeing it, there is unlikely to be any change. Some are hoping the protest might go national, with similar events taking place in various cities across the country. But I worry that, although the cause is worthwhile, too frequent repetition of the burlesque, is also a way of making it seem just confrontational -turning a good idea into a parody, and losing the point it was originally intended to make.

As long as shareholders and owners of companies see profit in sexualizing young women –and men, for that matter- the battle for change will be an uphill one. We are already seeing a backlash against ‘political correctness’, to the extent that many of the gains made in the past few decades are being sidetracked, or even eroded. I suppose it was inevitable that direct confrontation with the status quo would be resisted as would any threat.

But the solution, it seems to me, lies not in confrontation, but in changing what we accept as normal –as proper. And it is already being done with some success nowadays through both social media and advertising strategies. Just look at the change in attitudes about, say, smoking in restaurants, or driving home after a night at the pub. There are already recent, albeit tentative steps in various TV and internet-streamed programs –sitcoms and the like- to portray women less as sexual objects, and more as equal partners in their dealings with men. Some episodes have even attempted, as did those male servers in that Ottawa restaurant, to depict the humiliation that men would experience were the roles reversed. And people are watching and getting used to the idea because the characters on the screen are making it seem, well, normal. Accepted, not contentious. And certainly not antagonistic.

Nothing happens overnight, of course, and although we are understandably impatient for more progress, change that is too rapid often leads to rebellion -especially if that change is precipitate. Unexpected -or worse, abnormal!

“How poor are they that have not patience!” says Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello. “What wound did ever heal but by degrees?”


Barbie in the Mirror

As an Ob/Gyn specialist I have been, I suppose, more than a passive observer of women over the years. But society has not been passive, either. Depending on where you live and in what cultural milieu, issues such as our sizes and shapes have become sources of real anxiety. Unrealistic expectations of morphology no doubt arise from multiple origins, but the end result is often the same -many of us don’t even come close to meeting them.

And as if that worry wasn’t enough, there has now been added the perhaps more troublesome issue of health. Despite the euphemism ‘plus-sized’ there is no disguising the stigma of the special term for many women –particularly when it comes wrapped with innuendoes of obesity and diminished well-being… not to mention beauty. Shakespeare would have us believe that ‘Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind.’ But does it? Once again, morphology rears its stilted head.

But we are a curious lot, we humans, influenced as we are by fashion and culture. Fickle in our choices, mercurial in our attitudes to those who fall outside the norms, we deride those who fail to satisfy the arbitrary boundaries –temporal though they may be.

Some have argued that one of the barometers of expectation is the shape of dolls –Barbie dolls in particular. They become, after all, the matrix of imaginary play and serve as proxies for the roles the children are trying to understand.

A fuss seems to have been engendered by the release of three new types of Barbies: curvy, petite and tall. There are also skin colour differences, presumably to reflect the diversity in modern societies. But also, one could argue, to deflect the criticism of pandering to the thin, blond phenotype so prevalent in their models up to now. ‘Mattel [the makers of the doll] argues Barbie shouldn’t be expected to represent average proportions in the first place. “Barbie is a doll. She is not meant to reflect a real woman’s body,” says Sarah Allen from Mattel UK. “The purpose of introducing three new bodies into the range is variety and differentiation. When you look at the dolls collectively you can see the range in relationship between the dolls. “’ It’s a start, I suppose.

Therein lies the problem, of course, and it seems to me that it is hydra-headed. On the one hand to portray a doll that is truly representative of the reality that the child sees around her, would be to normalize –legitimize, really- the scourge of the 21st century: obesity and all of the health risks that entails: ‘[…]were Mattel required to accurately reflect the average British and American woman across all ages, the dolls would be overweight or obese.’ And yet, from a more modulated perspective, ‘Lenore Wright, from Baylor University, Texas, conducted a study in 2003 that explored the role of Barbie. She found Barbie’s shape didn’t really matter to children – her function was more important.’ Dolls, in other words, are just pretend –they’re substitutes that are merely assigned the role the child is exploring. The child knows they are not real.

But ‘Wright adds that Mattel’s new line has been criticized by some feminist scholars for reinforcing an old stereotype – that women are defined by their bodies.’ As I suggested, there are many divergent perspectives but remember that a Minotaur waits at the center of the labyrinth. We must be careful not to wander too far in our approach; we must not let our zeal mislead us.

It seems to me that children have always played with dolls and represented them according to their needs. To criticize a stick-doll, for example, or to confuse it with the reality the child apprehends is to stray dangerously far into revisionism. We are not children and we do not think as children. In a world where dolls are doctors, and dogs are patients, we are now strangers. Adults. Other… Forgive me for referencing Corinthians, but I think its advice was prescient: ‘When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.’

Amen to that.







Violence Against Women

According to a recent meta-analysis by the World Health Organization, one in three women worldwide are subject to intimate partner violence (IPV) . And it’s not just a third world problem either, as we Canadians with our often parochial outlook would no doubt like to believe. True, some countries seem to be over-represented: ‘East Asia having the lowest incidence, at 16.30% (range, 8.9% – 23.7%), and Central Sub-Saharan Africa having the highest incidence, at 65.64% (range, 53.6% – 77.71)’, but we in Canada are certainly not immune.

Recognizing this, there has been a move to screen women for IPV in hopes of decreasing the violence or improving the outcomes for the victims. However, in a review published in the May 13 edition of the British Medical Journal, the lead author, Dr. Lorna O’Doherty from the University of Melbourne ‘Did not detect a decrease in rates of violence in women’s lives as a result of screening nor did it find improved mental and physical health outcomes for women.’

I have to admit that I had hoped that screening would have had more of an effect than is reported, but maybe on closer examination there are readily identifiable reasons for this. The whole issue seems to involve a complex algorithm with a lot of contextual conditions that have to be considered. First of all, the woman may not yet be ready to admit abuse is taking place; she may not actually see it as ‘abuse’ and so is unlikely to report it as such, even if asked. Or, perhaps she has thought about it, but isn’t yet ready to address or admit the issue –especially to others because of the stigma. There are phases through which she needs to progress in accepting and addressing the abuse. And yet, even if she is ready, her ability to admit it to someone else is going to be predicated on several factors -the WHO report again (and I quote an article in Medscape for the summary):

The report points out that certain healthcare settings (eg, antenatal clinics and HIV screening clinics) offer good opportunities to spot problems and intervene.

However, to be effective in such situations, the recommendations say, certain minimum standards need to be in place. Those include that:

  • providers need to be trained on how to ask about violence,
  • standard operating procedures need to be in place,
  • consultations need to take place in private settings,
  • confidentiality needs to be guaranteed,
  • referral arrangements need to established and maintained, and
  • providers need to be properly equipped to handle the physical and mental consequences of sexual assault.

This sounds reasonable; our obstetrical delivery unit provides universal IPV screening, but I am disappointed with the finding in that study published in the British Medical Journal that even so, the mental and physical outcomes for those women were not improved. And although we are probably missing the vast majority of women who suffer from abuse (and in some cases men as well -but more likely detected in a different venue), one would still like to hope that for those we have found, discovering the problem would be a step towards its solution.

But I think that public recognition of the problem is an equally important, if preliminary step. I sometimes wonder if we inadvertently stigmatize IPV because we, as a society, simply do not acknowledge it. It is something we’d rather not think about, or if we do, we do so judgementally. So, despite various professionals attempting to detect it and thereby (it was hoped) ameliorate the consequences, the victims remain reluctant to admit it is even happening. They, like the rest of us, see it as shameful and perhaps reflecting on their own choices, their own self-worth…

I’m reminded of our Canadian disgrace: the seeming indifference to the disappearance and violence against our Aboriginal women. There is, of course, lip service acknowledgement by the government that there might be a problem, but a rather indignant assurance that they are taking steps to resolve the issue seems to be all they have to offer. One could be forgiven for wondering whether they simply didn’t want any more public attention drawn to the problem.

I see the problem of violence against women differently. I think that the more it is publicized, the more it will be recognized, and the more will be society’s demand that the hitherto secret norm of violence will be seen to be inappropriate –no, not inappropriate, wrong. Think of the changing (I’d like to say changed but I suspect it would be premature) attitude to drinking and driving. As a society, we are realizing it is something to be condemned, not tolerated. Something that can be, and should be, discussed in the open. Something that is no longer acceptable…

It is possible to alter behaviour we have always viewed as undesirable, yet secretly condoned by our unwillingness to confront it. We need to acknowledge and tackle it as a society –and we need confront it often, publically, rationally, doggedly. I am reminded of something Lucretius wrote: The drops of rain make a hole in the stone, not by violence, but by oft falling.