Monday, October 31, 2011

Just Quit & Just Do It

To find our way in life sometimes we have to just quit, and other times we have to just do it. In Kimberly Coats’ case, she did both.

In 2008, at 42 years old, possessed of a high paying dream job as business development manager for Sysco, schmoozing the top chefs in Vegas, and generally possessed of all else we are supposed to want to “possess” in a quintessentially successful American life, a house, a car, a husband and such like, Kimberly realized that what she had was not what she wanted. She made of list of things that were important to her: She wanted to travel. She wanted to do something that helped people, to give back to the world in a meaningful way. And she wanted to incorporate her love of cycling into that mix of travel and purpose.

Around the same time, Kimberly read Positive Spin, an article in the September 2008 issue of Outside Magazine about Project Rwanda, a non-profit “committed to furthering the economic development of Rwanda through initiatives based on the bicycle as a tool and symbol of hope. One of Project Rwanda’s main initiatives was designing and distributing at low cost special cargo bikes for the transport of coffee (one of Rwanda’s key crops). The so-called coffee bikes significantly decreased the transport time to processing plants, so that the coffee berries were that much fresher and the resulting product that much higher quality.

The article released the proverbial bee into Kimberly’s bonnet (or cycling helmet, in her case). Six months later, in April 2009, she was on a plane to Rwanda for a three-month volunteer stint with the project. Volunteering turned into paid work and Kimberly got involved not only in the coffee bike work, but also with one of Project Rwanda’s other initiatives, a national cycling team, Team Rwanda (which was the subject of a long article by Philip Gourevitch in The New Yorker). When Kimberly’s contract with Project Rwanda finished, she increased her involvement with the cyclists and eventually switched full-time to working with the team, which is now its own entity.

The team operates on a shoestring budget. Kimberly earns in a year now, what she used to earn in a month. She doesn’t have health care, and she can’t count on having water or electricity every day. Her clothing occupies half a shelf. And she and her husband are divorced. As she says, “There’s that old cliché that if you follow your heart and passion, then the money will come. Well, I’m doing that, and I guess I have a roof over my head and no debts.” Though she adds, “I’m way behind on retirement.”

I believe that what that shopworn cliché really means, is that money’s importance is diminished in the face of passion. To wake each day with a clear sense of purpose, with a drive separate and deeper than making money, changes our views of what “enough money” means. There is, after all, no absolute benchmark of what “the money will come” looks like.

When I speak with her, Kimberly sounds happy, except that word is too pale by far to describe the fullness she describes. How she sounds is in love, not with someone or something, but with everything. She is traveling. She is doing something that she believes is changing life for the better in Rwanda. And she is cycling up a storm, training with the men, and now the women, on the team, and in the best shape of her life, at 45.

Speaking with Kimberly, I was reminded of a documentary I saw recently about Bill Cunningham, a long-time fashion photographer for the New York Times, known for his candid street photos of celebrities and ordinaries alike. At 82 years old, though he marinates daily in haute couture circles, surrounded by the beautiful, the rich and the powerful, Cunningham himself lives an ascetic life. He has little money. He duct tapes his rain poncho when it starts to show wear, and he has not much use for food, except as fuel. He has never had a romantic relationship. Yet, as portrayed in the film, so steeped is he in his love for his work, that in a world of legendary bitchiness and snobbery, he maintains a DNA-deep kindness, of an authenticity rarely achieved. Cunningham made me want to try harder, to love more. So does Kimberly.

When Kimberly comes back to the US for visits, her friends and family offer her jobs and alternatives. They suggest it’s time to finish up with her “African adventure.” On the side, some ask her what her secret is, how she did “it.” Kimberly says, “The secret of how I did it is…I quit.” No secret. It’s not headline news that we are attached to the stuff and style of our lives. Nor is it news that when we find the will to voluntarily let go of our supposed needs, that many are happier for it. We make space for love.

And yet…we hang on for dear life, convinced that the next career move with a fat pay raise, the next acquisition of…some…thing…will be the one that assuages all of our desires. And then…it doesn’t.

I’m not ready to give up my nice life and run off to Africa, or start duct taping $5 rain ponchos; but it makes me think: What can I do more of? What can I do with less of? I aspire, not to stuff or style, but more love.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Is Strong Sexy?

I was asked recently what I thought about men watching women’s sports for the eye candy. Did I think it was bad, the interviewer asked? My immediate thought was, yes, of course. I don’t want men watching women athletes for the turn-on, I want men to be watching for the strength and grace and prowess of the players; because the women are just as good athletes as their male counterparts. When I thought further about the question though, my feelings about the issue got more complicated. In thinking of World Cup soccer, a sport where the women are fierce, fast, strong and covered in mud…well, if men find that sexy, how much better that is than the media-generated ideal of fragile bunny beauty, a mere willow wisp, toppling over from the weight of her surgically enhanced breasts.

ESPN seems to think that strong women are sexy, or at least their magazine’s 2011 Bodies We Want issue capitalizes on this new direction in women’s sex appeal, with its photo spread of modestly posed nude photos of top ranked athletes, women and men, showing off just how rippling a woman’s abs can be.

The bodies on display are, indeed, beautiful. And if we women are killing ourselves trying to live up to some mythical beauty ideal, wouldn’t it be nicer if the ideal were not quite so mythical, and instead something real. I feel certain that Hope Solo is not photo-enhanced for television while she is playing soccer matches. And though I will never play World Cup soccer, I can aspire to be my strongest self. The only thing stopping me from my own rippling set of abs is the sit-ups I don’t do (okay, and maybe chocolate cake). Not only is the strong, tough, active woman ideal far more attainable than anything we see in Playboy or Vogue, because it is less constricted in its definition, the strong ideal is healthier, physically and mentally.

When I say healthier, I really mean it. The beauty ideal propagated in our society is ruining girls. Beauty and sexuality have become so completely intertwined as to be indistinguishable. A Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls found that the increased sexualization in magazines, marketing, television shows, movies and song lyrics harmed girls’ interpersonal relationships, fostered greater body dissatisfaction (as if that issue needs more kindling), and its companion—eating disorders, increased depression, generally affected physical health, and even led to diminished cognitive skills (apparently they posed math problems to girls trying on sweaters and girls trying on bathing suits, and those trying on sweaters scored much higher).

The Disney princess effect is sucking the life out of girls, leaving them on the front stoop, waiting for Prince Charming, instead of outside running around in the fresh air, where they might not look pretty-in-pink every moment and their tiara might fall off. The Women’s Sports Foundation reports that girls drop out of sports at a rate of 6:1 versus boys. And a Girl Scout study showed that many girls between 11-17 years old don’t play sports because they think their bodies don’t look good.

And even if girls do think their bodies look good, there are a lot of messages out there that we shouldn’t be using our bodies for sports anyway. Passing through Times Square subway station these last weeks I’ve been struck by the new Levi’s ad, which shows boys skateboarding and doing tricks on bikes wearing their jeans, whereas the girl’s jeans are down around her ankles (she’s ostensibly pulling them on, after what, who knows, since she’s standing beside an SUV in the middle of nowhere), flashing us a good look at her lacy panties. The tagline is about creating our legacy. So…boys’ legacies lie in extreme sports and girls’ in their undergarments.

I think that’s enough bad news for now. And lest it’s not obvious, when I advocate for a new beauty or sexy ideal, I’m not advocating for sexually provocative sports uniforms. Scantily clad beach volleyball players do not advance the cause. The Lingerie Football League is not part of the healthy new ideal I’d love to see. Leveraging what Catherine Hakim calls our Erotic Capital (i.e. our sex appeal) in her book of the same name, will not, in my opinion empower us, as Julie Ruvolo suggests in Forbes blog post, “If You’ve Got It, Charge For It”: The Feminism 2.0 Manifesto. Instead it sets women up against each other, in that eternally unhealthy competition for men’s attention, and ensures that aging will continue to be seen as the end of our power and worth—Ruvolo sets that age at 35, so I’m way out of time anyway.

What we want is to redefine sexy completely. There’s hope. The ESPN body issue is a slight breeze, perhaps portending bigger winds of change. And there’s The Kicking Queen, Brianna Amat, who recently became Homecoming Queen and kicked a winning field goal for her football team (all male, except her) on the same day.

One question is whether men will still find the eye candy soccer player (or football player or runner) sexy when they have to deal with the actual strong woman behind the shin guards.

Another question—should that even matter?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Girl Changes Her World

You may have noticed, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the under-layers of that eternally provocative question—“why are we here?” Maybe there doesn’t need to be a reason for everything. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But isn’t it nice to have a reason for something as important as our existence? At a fundamental level, think of how much more reliable and motivated you are when someone else is counting on you for something. Showing up for someone else feels good, right? So is that where we might locate some of our reason for being, our purpose?

I was reminded of this in a stark way reading Leymah Gbowee’s, Mighty Be Our Powers, about coming into her womanhood and finding her strength and activist core in Liberia during the brutal civil war in that country. At one point, speaking about coming out of a long depression (brought on by an abusive relationship, not to mention the horrors of the violence in Liberia), she begins to feel the power of meaning in her life, “I wasn’t sitting home thinking endlessly about what a failure I was; I was doing something, something that actually helped people. The more I did, the more I could do, the more I wanted to do, the more I saw needed to be done.”

Leymah’s story is a we-shall-overcome tale, if ever there was one. But most of us, thankfully (!), do not face such overwhelming challenges. Our worlds are relatively peaceful and easy. Complacence is natural. Nothing in our direct field of vision seems to “need” us. Yet, that feeling Leymah had is, I think, still familiar. Most of us have days we sit at home feeling like failures, then something demands our presence, and I don’t mean just physically, but emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and there’s no space left for despondency.

I spoke to one young woman who found her opportunity to contribute in her own backyard. Paloma Wiggins is a junior in high school in Yellow Springs, Ohio (pop. 3200). She started running in the 7th grade, when one of her friends encouraged her to join the cross-country team. The distances seemed crazy long at first, but it didn’t take much time before Paloma had fallen in love with running over hill and dale, with the feeling that comes with being involved in a sport.

When the small team of five girls got to high school, they decided they at least needed t-shirts, so people would know they existed. The boys’ team had shirts, oh yes, and other PR perks, like free frosties at meets. Paloma, passing over the bake sale, suggested the team organize a 5k event in town for girls and women only, as a way of fundraising for their team. 150 women turned out the first year. “I realized, this was about more than raising money for my cross-country team,” Paloma says. “I saw how invigorating and powerful and supportive it was to have a women-only event. And hearing the women’s stories, ‘this is my first 5k’ or ‘this is my first run since my husband’s death,’ well it was amazing to feel that I was helping women through things in their lives, and helping them feel active, healthy and productive.”

Paloma founded Simply Women Ohio three years ago, after that first 5k event. Although the 5k is the main event of the year (217 women and girls showed up this year—a huge turnout for the size of the community), her organization embraces a broader mission. Simply Women has also established a leadership in athletics award, which will be presented each year to the graduating senior female athlete at the Yellow Springs high school who best demonstrates an enduring model of leadership and a lasting commitment to female athletics. In other words, not necessarily the best athlete, but the girl who is a team player, who encourages others and gives back into sports, not to mention taking her studies seriously.

Paloma’s mission, through Simply Women, is to create broader support structures in the Yellow Springs community for young women participating in sports and other healthy activities. In the short term, Paloma is already searching for her successor, because after next year, she’ll be off to university and she needs someone on the ground in Yellow Springs to carry on the day-to-day work. Any takers?

Not all of us find our purpose so early in life. And that’s perfectly fine. If we’re listening, our minds, our spirits, our bodies even will let us know what to do when the time is right. Start simple. What things get you up happy in the morning? Notice what makes you feel good. Explore those avenues and you just might find your Simply Women Ohio opportunity.

This post appeared on the Huffington Post under a different title.