Friday, October 22, 2010

A Wild Hair

At this moment, I'm embroiled in an intense debate...with myself. These are the worst kinds of debates to be involved in, really, because THERE'S NO WAY TO WIN! It's like arm wrestling with yourself.

This debate is about a haircut.

There was a time in my life (read: most of the time) when I would go out and get all kinds of crazy haircuts on a whim. In desperate need of a change? Get a haircut! And I've had them all. Spikey, long, bangs, no bangs, long in the front and spikey in the back, bob with bangs, bob with no bangs, red, black, red and black AT THE SAME TIME, blonde (oof--MISTAKE), buzzed completely off, and every stop on the growing out train between. I just get a thrill out of doing shit to my hair, and I'm a big fan of the big change. When I was a senior in high school, I had long hair. The dress I bought for prom was a short black fringed number--think flapper. I saw a bob-with-bangs wig while shopping, and when my mother refused to buy it for me to go with the dress, I decided to cut my hair that way instead. Not one to ruin a perfectly good reveal, I got the cut the day of prom so that the haircut and the dress were seen as a combo package. In fact, when one of my friends passed me while I was getting gas on my way to meet up for pre-prom activities, I DUCKED BEHIND MY CAR. Pumping gas into your 1982 Ford F-150 pickup truck is no way to make an entrance.

I have a hair appointment on Saturday. I've rounded up a couple of cuts I like and I'm kind of excited. I'm excited but nervous, and here's where the debate comes in. I'M AFRAID OF WHAT MY BOYFRIEND WILL THINK. I tried to come up with all kinds of lead-ins to that statement so that I could go ahead and excuse myself for being so lame right up front, but then I just took a deep breath and put it out there. I know. It's AWFUL. It's MY HAIR and I can DO WHATEVER I WANT WITH IT. I'm an INDEPENDENT LADY, DAMMIT. I am, however, reminded of the time in college when I told my then boyfriend that I was thinking about buzzing all my hair off. His response was a very strong and emphatic, "NO!" and I felt like I was facing the possibility of a breakup over a haircut. I didn't get the buzzcut. It didn't seem worth it.

Not that I think my now boyfriend would break up with me over a haircut. I think he's better than that. But he still might not like it, and this can cause a very strong reaction in men. As much as they try, they tend to still be relatively superficial creatures. They can love you and think you're great and still feel the need to be totally upset if they don't like everything about the way you look. Not that all have the same preferences. Not all men need a girl to wear makeup all the time. Not all men need a girl who dresses up. But if you do something to your appearance they don't like, they'll get all hung up on it. It's not that women don't also have preferences about the way their men look--we do! But a woman can sit right in front of her big fat husband and say, "I DON'T FIND FAT MEN ATTRACTIVE!" and he will simply think she's referencing some other fat guy. If a woman's man does something to his appearance she doesn't like, odds are really good that she'll just let it go. It won't have any long-term bearing on the relationship. She'll note all the other reasons she loves him and move on.

I kind of hate myself for all that gender stereotyping I just did.

The message is everywhere, and it's subtle. "Ladies! Change your appearance even a hair (haha!) from his preferences and suddenly he won't be quite so satisfied with you!In fact, he will still be telling his next girlfriend about that time you got a bad haircut and it made him not like you so much three years after you broke up!"

I don't want to talk about the biological imperative argument ("We're driven by the instinct to mate with the prettiest lady! Get over it!"), and I don't want to hear that tired line about how people-have-preferences-and-you-need-to-get-over-it-you're-probably-just-pissed-because-you're-ugly, either. I also am not going to defend the whole, "It's my body and I'll do what I want, so FUCK YOU, BOYFRIEND!" argument. I want to look nice for my boyfriend. This isn't something I begrudge him. But I want to look nice for my boyfriend while still being able to be myself, and this can be an extremely land-miney kind of territory when you're a girl. I got an "over my dead body!" look when I mentioned that I MIGHT want to get a mullet. A cool, Joan-Jetty kind of 80s rocker mullet. I'm not talking Billy Ray Cyrus or anything. But I didn't really want the mullet anyway, so I'm happy to let it pass.

I could run the pictures of the haircuts I'm considering past him and get his opinion, but this takes some of the fun out of it for me. Remember, I'm a big fan of the reveal. So, here I am, about to get a haircut (a haircut, not a complete facial reconstruction or a new job in another state), and I'm FREAKING OUT because it might completely destroy my relationship!

I do tend to overreact to things just a little, but I think there's a valid argument in there somewhere. Or maybe not.

Thing is, no haircut is worth completely destroying a relationship. That's the real point in all of this. All relationships walk that fine line between feeling completely free to be yourself and being concerned with the feelings of another person. And, while I might not get how one could have such strong feelings about one's love's haircut, I know that some people do have very strong feelings about this. I want to respect that (actually, I don't really want to respect that--I want to say it's ridiculous--but I'm TRYING to be UNDERSTANDING), but I also just want to go get the damn haircut! I feel at this point like I should mention that this really is about a haircut. It's not a metaphor for some other possible relationship issue.

Or maybe it is. It's representative of how even the easiest of loves can be difficult to navigate when we start pitting our individual preferences against the concerns of our lover. We tell the people that we love that we just want them to be themselves, and this is great when they're being awesome. But throw in one decision we don't like (like a bad haircut or liking Katy Perry), and we're suddenly not so sure we want to encourage such individuality. And while I believe that in most situations it's best to put the concerns of my lover on par with my own concerns (and then let them fight to the death in a cage match--just kidding!), this time I think I will simply go get the freaking haircut and stop arguing with myself (and my boyfriend's reaction in my head) about it.

It's just a haircut, after all! How upsetting could it possibly be?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Faith without works is dead.

Well, let's change gears completely!

I had what some would call a spritual experience last Friday. Fear not, dear readers--this is not going to be a call to arms for Jesus. Make no mistake, I believe I saw God, but I don't think I saw Mary in a pancake. I simply had a moment when the physical world sort of...fell away. What was left was God. Make of that what you will.

What I took away from this moment of seeing God was that the number one aim of my life is to praise and serve God. This isn't an easy answer, but it is one that makes complete sense to me somewhere in my bones, whether or not I understand what the specifics entail. However I am called back to a quote from, yes, The Bible: "Faith without works is dead."

Some believe that we do good works as a way to buy our way into heaven. Some believe that no amount of good works earn grace. Grace is offered to all, and the only way to receive it is to accept it. But if one believes in this second version of grace--and that would be me--one still believes that there is a difference between a said faith and a lived faith. I invite anyone reading this to dispose of the idea that the God of which I speak must be of a particular kind. I have so far quoted a Judeo-Christian text and spoken of grace, but these concepts need not be limited. We find versions of them outside the faith.

I could say it is a comfort to me that I have experienced the presence of God. If I believe, though, that faith without works is dead, then this is more than a simple state of grace. If I truly believe what I say I believe, then I will feel called to be a better person. Again, not going to argue here about what that means, but think of it this way: If I claim to love someone, I believe I am then called to act as if I love them. Saying, "I love you," to someone and then treating them awfully (willfully breaking promises, disregarding their feelings, wishing only for them to please me without a thought to their own desires, refusing to be of help when they need it) is an example of a said faith rather than a living one. How many times have we said these words when what we really mean is that we want to posess the other person? It does us no good to love without trying to cultivate the fruits of love.

Explaining my experience to someone, they responded that I should "soak it in." I should revel in the feeling of what I call grace. However, I walked away from it with a new desire to serve God as a due course of my faith. I love to talk about the ideas of what we should and shouldn't be doing. I, like almost everyone, prefer to keep this conversation going in such a way as to let you know what you should be doing. I fail at these things myself. I am not an awful person by any means, but I could work harder at holding myself in line with what I believe to be God's will for me--that I should be honest, trustworthy, loving, helpful, kind, conscientious, compassionate. I have a tendency to waste my employer's time. This is not in keeping with any of the things I listed above. It is in matters like these that it is easy to slip, and make no mistake--I do not believe that I should be given the lash for such transgressions. I do, however, believe that my faith in those aforementioned higher ideals can help me make better choices if I keep them in mind. It still won't be easy, but who said that the things worth doing in life were all easy?

Even I, an ardent proponent of taking time to enjoy this life, know that some things are worth working for.

Of course, here comes the argument that one need not believe in God to be a better person. I do not argue otherwise. It is much like the rectangle/square thing. A square is a kind of rectangle, but a rectangle is not necessarily a square. One can believe in all of those listed ideals and NOT believe in God. However, one who believes in God but is not actively pursuing those ideals is not bearing the fruit of his faith. This isn't to be taken as a condemnation but as a jumping off place for growing as an individual. It is a wake-up call, not a declaration of evil. We have every moment of our life available to us to make even the slightest change in how we choose to live. Sometimes we need our attention called to these matters. We don't ever need anyone to tell us what to do.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Right Now

I thought of something
I wanted to write about
but I forgot
what it was.

It seemed really important
at the time.

In fact, if I recall
correctly, it was one
of those moments
when I could see behind
everything--the people,
the trees, the air--
and it felt like I knew
something unknowable.

But now I don't know
what it was.

They say, "Never forget,"
but I think everything
I've forgotten, which is
almost everything, was
stuff I didn't need
to know.
I once saw a picture
of myself five years previous
and I couldn't remember
if I was ever her.

I can remember right now.

Settling "The Score"

On Friday, I received The Score: The Science of the Male Sex Drive in the mail from Amazon. By early Sunday morning, I'd finished reading it. Yes, it's that good--and that compelling. In fact, I'd venture to say that it's changed my entire life.

Looking at issues related to human sexuality is a hobby of mine. I've read a lot on the subject, but I've never felt much smarter for it. It's a loaded topic, so even when you read one article that provides evidence from studies to back its claim, you can find other articles quoting other studies to refute that claim and swing the argument in the opposite direction. This is true whenever you read much on any topic, but when it comes to most of what's been said about human sexuality, everyone seems to reside in one camp or another, and each camp is wildly and extremely different from the others. Either porn is contributing to the downfall of all humanity, or it's got no negative side effects and may even be saving relationships. Either women don't like sex or they're all just a bunch of wanton harlots who've been waiting for men to pull their heads out of their asses and actually turn them on for once. Monogamy is natural. Oh, wait--no, it isn't. Everyone just picks the outlook that most jibes with their own sexual preferences, but am I alone in feeling like that hasn't taught us anything?

I took two things away from this book. One, most of what we think we know about human sexuality is wrong. We tend to look for the most "natural" mating strategy to answer a good number of our sexual questions. Human beings have developed a wide range of mating strategies, so there's no natural way of being. Some people are inclined toward monogamy. That's their mating strategy. Others are inclined toward polyamory. That's their mating strategy. Some fall anywhere on the spectrum in between. These are just the ways they've developed through evolution, and each mating strategy has it's pros and cons (at least insofar as the goal of passing genes along to future generations is concerned--if you just want to get laid on a Friday night, I can't really tell you which strategy works best). We often look to our ape ancestors to tell us what's more "natural"--I keep putting that in quotations because, honestly, I think most of the time when people are looking to prove what is more "natural", they're really trying to prove that their strategy is best. Our closest ape relatives are the bonobo and the chimp. When I read about the research done on these animals mating strategies, what I found was that we're not really substantially like EITHER OF THEM. I'm officially done listening to anyone who wants to use an ape study to tell me what sexual behaviors are natural for humans. No, I'm not retarded. I can get down with evolution. But we split off from those two species of apes thousands of years ago, so in believing in evolution, I also believe that we need to stop looking at them for "proof" of "natural" human mating strategies. Especially since the bulk of the evidence from studies of actual modern-day humans show that there is such a variety in behavior as to illustrate that a norm may not, in fact, exist.

The second thing I took away from this book is that a lot of our understanding of humanity's past is grossly distorted. Think your life is soooooo much easier than that of the caveman? Think again. They probably only spent about 4 hours a day really working. Once they found their dinner and cooked it up, they had lots of free time. And women weren't just some weak animal who traded sex for protection from their big, burly mens. That's an idea that was unsurprisingly born during the extremely patriarchal Victorian era, yet persists because most of us get our understanding of such matters through popular culture instead of doing actual research. Women were often protecting themselves. The reason they liked the bigger, burlier dudes was because they thought it was sexy, not necessarily because they saw themselves in need of protection. Prehistoric relationships were probably extremely egalitarian. In fact, the description I found in this book pretty much mirrors the relationship I have now except my boyfriend doesn't make my shoes and we don't eat roadkill. Male and female humans are not nearly as different as we are similar. Most of the differences stem from the fact that women have to invest so much more in the reproductive process. Our sex cells are bigger, so it takes more energy for us to house them and expend them. We also have to manage the gestation period. That's why men have to work so hard to get the sex in the first place. It's sort of biological payback. They have to invest more on the front end because we have to invest so much more on the back end.

Ultimately I learned that it's entirely possible that my boyfriend is telling the truth when he says he's perfectly happy being monogamous.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Cat Fight!

I recently ran across this infographic explaining the so-called changes in size of Playboy models from the magazine's inception in 1953 through January of 2009. As you can guess (because we all know what everyone will say is going on already without the graphic), it supposedly illustrates that Playboy models have become much skinnier through the years--while somehow maintaining those big ole tatas. As my mother used to say, "If you want the tits, you gotta have the hips as well." Basically, Playboy models today are a bunch of anorexics who've gotten surgical breast enhancements, but they used to be bodacious babes with plenty-o junk-in-the-trunk and everywhere else besides.

Meh. As is pointed out in the comments on the infographic, it's a little weak as far as evidence of any kind of substantial change in this area over time. I think we can all agree that anecdotal evidence lead us to that conclusion before any of us even looked at the thing, but it's neither here nor there. What I really want to adress is some of the language used in the blurb surrounding the infographic. Specifically this part:

Playboy's Playmate data sheets (you know, where they claim to enjoy cupcakes and The Deer Hunter) provide height and weight, among other stats. Our analysis shows that models are shedding pounds and gaining altitude at an alarming rate. To be fair, Playmates provide their own measurements, so they could be exaggerating. Plus, we wouldn't put it past the editors to stretch the truth (i.e., Miss March 2008 may not actually want to write "comedic short stories" — or have a 21-inch waist). But who cares? What's interesting isn't the veracity of the numbers, it's what the magazine thinks its readers will find ideal.

I've been noticing this a lot lately, and it is nothing new. This specific piece was written by a woman, but it sounded so mysoginistic that I actually assumed it was by a man--until I remembered that women talk shit like this about women all the time. What's worse is that we do it in a misguided attempt to defend womanhood from all the other women who are doing it wrong (and, let's be honest, possibly stealing our menfolk in the process). What's so offensive to me about the above? It's the part where the author mocks the idea that a Playboy model might actually have aspirations that don't include taking her clothes off or being sexy for money. She might "actually want to write 'comedic short stories'", but, hey, we all know that's not possible because women come in two kinds: those who can and do (take their clothes off and otherwise exploit men for money), and those who can't so they actually learn skills and work hard at accomplishing "real" goals. Most of the people with whom I discussed my ideas about women posing for porn (see a couple of posts ago) all asked the same question: "Yeah, but would women actually do it?" My response? "Not when posing for some silly naked pictures comes with so much stigma on so many levels!"

Girl-on-girl crimes such as this one are nothing new. I suppose one could argue that I'm in no position to claim that it's a crime in the first place. If the author of this blurb is anti-porn, for instance, then her judgments about the women in porn would simply be part of her value system. Ultimately, I think it's impossible for us to demand that others make no judgments. We simply have to be prepared for the fact that whatever choice we make, there will be those who deem our choice unacceptable. I tend to have a more "live and let live" philosophy, but even within that ideal I bump up against my own prejudices. My hope is that I will notice those prejudices in the way that I choose to describe the "kinds of people" who make certain choices and work to change those prejudices. Often the way we explicitly describe our beliefs don't hold up to the ways that we discuss certain topics in more casual situations. The words that we choose tell us more about what we actually think than what we say when we explain what we actually think.

We often don't even know ourselves what we actually think.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Missing Link

According to an article I read yesterday at Psychology Today--if anyone has any suggestions on other websites I could add to my visiting repetoire, please, by all means, leave 'em in the comments--from the standpoint of evolutionary psychology (controversial, I know), a woman will never be truly happy if she doesn't have children.

I have a lot of questions for these people.

At the most basic level, evolutionary psychology provides theories that on their face make sense. The problem comes in when we start looking at specifics. When we talk about genetics, we hear a lot about the desireability of genetic variance. This is why it's better to make babies with a stranger than our own brothers and sisters--we end up with more genetic varience, and this creates healthier humans. However, when I'm reading the theories of the evolutionary psychologists, it appears that we're all motivated to want the same things and to do the same things to get those things. Case in point: I read another article about why men like big boobs. Problem? What about men who DON'T like big boobs? This theory, while plausible (that men like big boobs because they sag more with age, making it easier to spot the young ladies of best childbearing age), is based completely on the assumption that men like big boobs. But when I consider the variance in booby preference, I end up feeling like the explanation isn't really all that helpful or interesting within that larger context.

It's hard to trust a social science field whose theories use words like "always" and "never". I'm NEVER going to be truly happy if I don't have babies? Before anyone thinks this is a knee-jerk defensive move on my part because, in case you haven't heard, I do not want babies, I fully anticipate that I will probably spend at least one Saturday afternoon when I'm, oh, 45 bed ridden and crying because it's suddenly dawned on me that I HAVEN'T HAD ANY BABIES! People who do not have any children by choice often do experience some regrets around that choice at some point in later midlife. But doesn't everyone experience moments like this about some choice or another they've made at some point in later midlife? Absolutely no one is doing any and every thing they want to all the time, and we're all making choices everyday in favor of one thing at the exclusion of another. Those of us who aren't are even worse off--at later midlife, those people will be regretting having done NOTHING. But to make the oversimplified argument that because I'm a woman I will never acheive any "true" happiness if I don't have babies seems a little short-sighted, even if it does fall completely in line with evolutionary logic. It is, from an evolutionary standpoint, the only reason I exist.

But, then, what does evolutionary psychology contribute to the conversation if all it can tell me is that, yup, it's exactly as it's always been.

Actually, I think evolutionary psychology does contribute something to the conversation about meaning, making meaning, and finding actualization (assuming we believe such a thing exists and that it's possible). What evolutionary psychology can tell me is about some of my most basic impulses and motivations. A lot of people get off track when they take evolutionary psychology as an explanation of the way things should be. Even evolutionary psychologists will tell you that. People go, "See? These people are saying we're motivated by sexual impulse and mating and therefore we're built to cheat!" The truth is that understanding these impulses allows us to then outsmart them. I read about a study wherein they showed one group of men a rather small number of Playboy photographs (8) and another group of men the same number of pieces of abstract art. All the men rated their girlfriends' attractiveness before looking at the images. As you can guess, after looking at the images, the men who looked at the Playboy photos rated their girlfriends as less attractive than they had before. Our views on this are heavily influenced by comparison. A man's girlfriend may be attractive, but she may not be "as attractive" as that other lady. Her attractiveness doesn't set its own standard, and it isn't a static, objective rating. This is why porn could conceivably be damaging to a relationship. If a man doesn't understand this basic phenomenon, he might beging to have a lower opinion of her girlfriend even if nothing about her has changed. However, if he understands this phenomenon, he can do things to avoid it. He can look at images of other women less often. He can remember that if his girlfriend is suddenly seeming a little less sexy after a particularly enjoyable session with an issue of a spank mag, it's probably just a trick of the mind. And if he REALLY understands evolutionary psychology, he'll know that we live in a society where sex is based on female choice, so he's better off sticking with what he's got then taking his chances that another woman will even say yes. According to evolutionary psychologists (and evidenced in bars and marital beds all across this land), the woman decides if sex is going to happen. Just because you can see her doesn't mean you've got a shot in hell of getting her to get it on with you, hot stuff.

This is the true purpose of evolutionary psychology. Otherwise it's just so much mental masturbation. Taken as evidence that "boys will be boys and girls will be girls", it seriously short-changes us and flies in the face of the things we see played out around us every day. It doesn't even makes sense in light of the fact that most people act in opposition to the way our ancestors acted. According to statistics, for example, most men don't cheat. They may, however, be less satisfied with their partners just from looking at a few pictures. By understanding these most basic impulses, we can increase satisfaction with our choices.

And that, in and of itself, would be an evolution.