Voluntary Foot Binding: The Millennial Edition

Image via Solitice Retouch

After saying I needed another account like I need exposure to Ecoli, I signed up for Pinterest. Call it peer pressure, or my mind’s need to indulge in the very visual after hours of wrestling with words, I’ve been pinning my heart away. My boards (the groupings of images I select) reflect my interests or intended projects: a Yum-o! list of recipes I’d love to try for my well deserving family, a Family Wedding collage of ideas for an upcoming celebration, and a Writing Projects smatter of snapshots of dresses,and  faces (including Robert Downy Jr.) who remind me of my characters. Getting slightly into it, I created a few more: one for research about Laos for an upcoming novel, another with Books Worth Reading in my heaps of free time, and Word! (Sayings I Love) for those times I need to dwell on the positive.

Revealing my Type-A personality, there’s this other board, Random, where I capture things that are interesting but don’t fit any of the others. “Random” for things that don’t On this board, I put a fairly innocuous image but one that stood out to me nonetheless (left).

For Babies and Puppies — not Grown Ups

In an age where diversity is defined as relations between the races and women’s struggles are thought of being long over, I raise a hand in dispute. I constantly have to draw my own boundaries and define myself – not allowing others the permission to apply other words, particularly a word so ineffective as cuteness. The fact of the matter is, cute is not an innocent word.  Hold on, you’re saying. Hold on. I like cute things. Okay – let’s play this game, then. Describe the cute things you like.

Kittens you say. Kittens are cute. And puppies. I just adore puppies. Yes, I agree. Kittens, as well as puppies and babies are cute – adorable even.

But women are not. At least not those who want to be taken seriously.

Language, it is a powerful force; it is the ability to name and describe someone. Words are as central to our ability to communicate as humans and distinguish us from all other types of animals. When words like cute are applied to grown women or even little girls, they cease to be innocent. Name the last time a tall broad shoulder man, dressed in an Armani suit, silk tie, and was described as cute. A red carpet fashionistas would never describe Daniel Craig as adorable. We don’t use cute to describe serious male actors, or anything masculine because, rationale sputters, they aren’t cute. Right. Men aren’t cute – that’s reserved for small animals, children, and women.

It’s troubling that an adult human can fall into the same category as two other beings with little agency or self-sufficiency and in constant need of attention.  The essence of cuteness is that it defines our understanding of gender roles and how they function in our perceptions of ourselves and others. Cuteness will never allow a female student to achieve her full potential in a classroom or any other arena. After all, she has her achievement. She’s cute.

As a working woman from the age of twenty one, and holding a full time position while finishing a Ph.D. in Postcolonial Literature, cute was perhaps one of the most dismissive words to reduce my work and me, to rubble. Being young often added to this dimension of being a non-adult; the entire first year of my doctoral program I constantly found older students asking me if I was starting my Masters or even worse, a first year student. Celebrate your youth, you say: you may wish you looked this young.

Cuteness doesn’t only function as a limiting gendered term. Cuteness also covers ethnocentrism and a failure to understand products and people of other cultures.  The politics of cuteness negotiates our reaction to things, people, and places that are outside our normal frame of reference.  Since the normal frame of reference is usually a Eurocentric model, this means cuteness defines those things that are non-western by infusing them with an inability to be taken seriously.

Being a woman of a stature that in most cultures is considered small, (I stand at 5” 1’) little often directly translates into belittle. During the course of office repartee, my forays are noted by other staff members as coming from, “the smallest person in the department,” changed my conception of cuteness. It was a category that continuously defined me, constantly changing to shadow my scholarly work, my professional profile. This was a not-so-subtle form of discrimination dodging my steps.

Maybe my sensitivity is derived from a lifetime of being near a 4’ 11” woman: my mother. I laughingly describe myself as the fat giant of the family – I tower over my mother and sister, neither weighing over 100 pounds. People’s reactions to my mother illustrate the inherent problems with this language.

“Mohana,” they say. There’s a glimmer in the eye. “Mohana, you’re mother is so little.”

This is often said in an almost whisper as if it’s a secret. I nod and try to smile, a plastic tightening of my lips. Then a triumphant, “I’m taller than her!” as if this is a considerable achievement rather than an accident of nature. Then, almost without fail, as if on cue from some invisible script: men, women, even teenagers.

“She’s so cute!”

It often bursts out, head shaking in amazement, as if it never occurred to people that a body that small could birth three children.

It was no secret my mother has felt the pressure of cuteness her whole life; it would boil over in every family fight we had.

“You’re not listening to me because I’m small!”

There the accusation would hang and at about eight, I sighed and gave up trying to explain that it in fact was not because she was small. It was because she was our mother. But for her, the cuteness that pervaded her life diminished her in the world’s eyes. It wasn’t until I got to graduate school and learned expressive words such as performativity and subjectivity that I understood what was happening to my mother – and why I resisted the word cute when it applied to me. As a result of her height, people ascribed cuteness to my mother, which resulted in a one dimensional construction of her identity both as a person and as a woman.  My mother’s understanding of herself and her status as person, her subjectivity, was informed by this primary idea that she was different from other people, and that her cuteness led to not being taken as seriously as others.

Yet while resenting it, she performs this identity of cuteness in her interactions with other people. She answers the phone in a shy girlish voice, whenever she laughs it’s really a tiny giggle but she covers her mouth, she lets my father dominate social situations even though she loves meeting new people.  Cuteness constructs and defines my mother’s understanding of who she is and who other people expect her to be.

We undermine the meaning of women, and strip the meaning from beings when we place non-descriptive and unempowering adjectives like ‘cute’ onto them. Other words that fit into this category include ‘sweet’, ‘nice’ and I think we covered ‘adorable.’ To battle against this insidious form of discrimination, awareness, time and introspection are the keys to reprogramming these often visceral responses.

Now I pause when describing people and consider the adjectives used and think on them. Perhaps a question to ask yourself: would I feel empowered if this were used to describe me? And a follow up: the next time you do use one of those adjectives, ask yourself, what was it about that person/thing/place that I was glossing over? What didn’t I want to understand/appreciate/think about? Rather than label something in an effort to give it value, however well intentioned, ask a question instead. “Wow, that’s beautiful. Does that pattern have significance?” goes a lot further toward building bridges than, “I just love that fabric! It’s so nice.”

I am now in my thirties, a young mother, and happily married woman who refuses to let anyone dismiss me because of my age or appearance. In order to be taken seriously, I take others seriously and also work really hard. It doesn’t take long before people find out that I am someone they can rely on, trust, and confide in. Any one of those qualities they would take over someone who is known for being aesthetically cute.


Clash of Organizational Cultures

Not to be confused with the often quoted ‘clash of civilizations’ between the East and West, lately I’ve observed an equally significant disconnect between assumed expectations and the ensuing chaos when those around us behave otherwise. The physic disruption this kind of gap has caused in my own life over the past ten months is related to the way other people’s nonsensical choices contradict the symbolic order of my life as I’d like to live it. And the result has been irritation, rage, frustration: the desire to not stand and fight but to flee.

And I’m noticing the effect it has on others….

Little things, for example, such as the position of a desk in an office, to big things, such as who has access to what information and when, color how we feel about ourselves and our place in the order of the institutions we belong to.

Young people in Qatar are being educated in a different professional value system from those of their managers. Instead of basing respect on title or age, they are taught in their educational settings to give credit to those who contribute to the overall mission. They are encouraged to be treated with the same consideration as the higher members of the company, in accordance with a system that is more egalitarian than hierarchical.

This sometimes in direct conflict with a system that rewards age and also gives people with titles lots of privileges.
As someone who entered the workforce at the age of 20 in a professional capacity, I fought hard to distinguish my work persona from my student persona (it didn’t help that I stayed to work at my undergraduate institution after graduation).  And perhaps this is why I see the potential in so many of the younger people around me – despite the fact that I am now a 32 year old manager. I know that people like to have tasks that are meaningful rather than clerical and to feel a part of the greater purpose of an organization rather than just ordering paper clips.

Of course I’m a perfectionist and expect that things that are requested get done – as soon as possible or with an explanation as to why otherwise. Nothing irritates me like staff meetings where planning ahead or warnings fall on deaf ears (or students who have to have things repeated to them). But I am a relational leader and I’ve noticed that while others may not choose this particular style, it’s worth too much to me to give up just to strike fear into the hearts of others.

If only more managers knew how to cultivate the young people around them so that they would bring to work a sense of pleasure rather than duty or obligation. I have been trying to let go of tension and worry in general in preparation for the last two months of pregnancy.

I swing between feeling that this is such an ordinary experience, because women around the world do it all the time and wanting to treasure it and nurture the child at the same time. Generally I just collapse into a nap on the days that I can to get away from it all: work, home, the baby growing inside me. And generally, I feel more energized when I wake up, like I can hold on for another ten hours or so.

A friend was visiting and gave me a copy of the Shambhala Sun, a magazine that includes thoughts on “Buddhism, culture, meditation, and life.” The theme for the March issue was Mindful Living. Given all that is happening in my personal and professional life to get ready for this baby and the longest break from work I’ve ever had, it couldn’t have been better timed.

The entire issue was related to how to just be still. Be still and focus on the now. On simple things like your breath or even the sense of what you are about at the present moment. Life isn’t the past or the future – it’s the now, one of the contributors said.

And that’s the profound truth I’m taking into this next phase of my life as a mother and also a professional. I am trying to chip away at that idealist core in me that is always reaching for excellence and what could be possible – the logical order of the world as it should be – and accepting what it is. Flaws and all. Hopefully this is an important lesson the young people around me will also be able to put into their repertoire.

Are there valuable lessons you were taught or are being taught in the workplace or life?