I’ll wear whatever the hell I want

I thought we weren’t doing that anymore; telling women over a certain age what they can and cannot wear. I thought we had already stipulated that people can and should wear whatever they please. But apparently I was wrong.

Last week I didn’t see just one but two posts (suggested to me by Facebook’s generous and thoughtful algorithms – I think someone thinks I’m getting old…) in my Facebook newsfeed on fashion mistakes women must avoid as they age. One was for women over the age of fifty and the other I don’t remember exactly but it was for women older than that. According to these posts’ expert advice, the fashion mistakes you might make will either make you look old or frumpy or both. But at the same time you must look your age and avoid garments made for much younger women, because that will just make you look ridiculous.

This isn’t the first time I see advice like this. Last time I got fashion advice in my newsfeed it was things women over 30 should wear, and I’ve also seen fashion warnings for women over 40. At the time, it was followed by an outpouring of articles, columns, and blog posts protesting this preposterous advice, assuring anyone who cared that not only should women wear “whatever the f*** they want”, they also do. Countless pictures of fabulous old ladies breaking so-called fashion rules and wearing whatever they wanted were shared on social media, and I somehow naïvely thought that was the end of that. We had proven that advice on what you can or cannot wear is not just uninteresting and from an era long past, it is also simply not wanted. But apparently I was wrong.

The thing is – and I can’t believe that I have to spell this out – everyone is different. People look different and different things are flattering on different people. But not everyone even cares about that. For some people other things go before fashion, like comfort or practicality, and besides, what is flattering and fashionable is a very subjective thing, as well as varying, depending on time and place. But either way, when people wear what makes them comfortable and what they like, it makes them feel good about themselves and confident in their skin. That is much more becoming that wearing something you don’t like and ending up spending all day feeling uncomfortable and inadequate just because it falls into the category must wear for someone your age.

And consider this, do you ever see intricate lists for men of what not to wear after certain ages?

Enough said. Stop with the ageist fashion dos and don’ts already. Besides, I’m going to wear whatever the hell I want.

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The shocking truth

I’ve experienced something important lately; something I am convinced will finally make a difference.

I belong to a minority; I am a Swedish speaking Finn. That means I am a Finnish citizen, but my mother tongue is Swedish. Of a total population of about 5.5 million Finns, there are about 300 000 people with Swedish as their native language. That is about 6%.

A couple of weeks ago five women from this minority started something big. They felt frustrated by the silence in our community after the #metoo campaign. Although countless women had participated in #metoo and shared experiences of sexual harassment and assault on social media, it didn’t really lead anywhere in our community. It kind of died out and these five women decided something had to be done. In such a small community, where a lot of people know or know of each other, it’s hard to speak out. So they decided to start a private Facebook group and invite as many women as possible to share their experiences of sexual assault and harassment within this Swedish speaking community.

I was added to the group quite early on and just within a couple of days the group grew to over 20 000 members from around the country. That is about 13% of all Swedish-speaking women (and girls) in Finland. Let that sink in for a second, 13% of the women felt this was so important they wanted to be involved. That’s a lot.

People started sharing their stories, many of which they had never breathed a word of to anyone before. For seven days my news feed was filled with almost nothing but these women’s accounts of sexual harassment and assault. It was heart warming to see how members of the group showed nothing but love and support for each other as they shared unspeakable memories and experiences for the first time. But it was also shocking and gut wrenching to read. During seven days over 800 stories were shared and so many of them were horrifying and violent accounts of sexual assault.

During this week it was difficult to even think about anything else. My head was filled with stories of little girls and women of all ages being violently raped, sometimes by complete strangers, but more often than not, by men they knew: relatives, colleagues, so-called friends… I felt sick to my stomach and my heart ached for them. I cried with them and for them when I read about the fear, the pain, and the shame, and although it was incredibly difficult to read, I couldn’t stop. I felt I needed to bear witness to what they had been through out of respect for them. We all need to. We need to acknowledge what they have gone through. We need to understand what goes on in our community and we need to make it stop.

One thing became painfully clear though. It was the fact that whether or not you become the victim of assault really just boils down to luck. Although I have had my share of sexual harassment and been in some deeply disturbing and sometimes scary situations, I have been incredibly lucky because I have never been assaulted the way many of these women and girls had. I realized when reading these stories, that I have been in so many similar situations, but luckily no one ever harmed me the way they had been harmed. What cannot be stressed enough, is that these women and girls did nothing wrong. More often than not it happened in a place they thought they were safe with a person they thought they could trust. The truth is that nothing they did – or could possibly have done – warranted the assault. The only thing that could have stopped it from happening was the assailant himself. The only thing that can stop a rape is if the rapist decides not to rape.

These stories of sexual assault still echo in my mind. Like the story of the woman who was assaulted by a man while his friends cheered him on. Or the countless little girls who were molested by grown-ups they knew and trusted. Or stories of hands and fingers painfully stuffed into underwear and inside bodies completely without warning by strange men. Or the young woman who was pinned down and violently raped by a guy she thought was her friend. Or the woman who woke up with blood all over her bottom…

Gruesome as it is, it’s important that you hear this because if you don’t, you can never appreciate what exactly it is we are dealing with, what it is that so many women go through, and the fear that is a reality for such a large part of the population.

Now imagine that you actually know the people who shared these stories. As I mentioned before, the Swedish speaking community in Finland is quite small, and many of the stories shared were by friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. When it turns out someone you know has gone through something like that, it just makes it so incredibly real.

So look around you. Look at the women and girls in your vicinity. Chances are some of them carry the burden of violent assault, which they are too ashamed to speak about, because this phenomenon is by no means just a Swedish-speaking thing. This is global. Chances are they have never told anyone because they might fear that they won’t be believed or that they will be stigmatized or lose their job. So look around you. How many of the women and girls you know might have experienced such unspeakable things?

Well, after seven days of sharing, empathizing and crying over each other’s pain, many of us – over 6000, more than 4% of all Swedish speaking females – signed a petition and the campaign was made public. Many of the stories have been anonymized and published here: http://www.astra.fi/dammenbrister/

It’s gruesome reading but go and read them anyway if you can (they are in Swedish). These women’s experiences need to be acknowledged and understood. Only if all of us – men and women – really understand what is going on, and the extent to which it is going on, will we manage to create change. Because that is one thing that is for sure, it can simply not go on this way. It has to stop.

#metoo #dammenbrister

Give yourself a break

I’ve been very busy during the past couple of weeks. I’ve been preoccupied on several different fronts; some things work related, some things not, some things positive and fun, some things not so much, and some things just plain exhausting. And, to tell you the truth, I was shocked to notice that it’s been two weeks since I last posted on my blog. These two weeks have gone so fast!

Last night when I noticed how long it’s been, I thought I should quickly put a post together to publish first thing in the morning. After all, I don’t think I’ve ever gone more than two weeks between posts. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I was tired, I wanted to spend my Sunday evening with my family, and to be honest, my mind was completely blank anyway. Despite all the things I have experienced lately, all the eye-opening events, and all the meaningful discussions I’ve had with people, I couldn’t think of anything to write about. I didn’t have a single idea, and had I had one, I don’t think I would have had the energy to write about it anyway.

So I didn’t. I did nothing even remotely work related last night and it felt great.

The thing is though, I like writing blog posts. I like engaging in discussions and I’ve really had some interesting ones since I started blogging. It feels meaningful and it gives me energy. At the same time, since I have readers, I don’t want to let them – you – down. I want to keep my end of the deal and post regularly just as I’ve promised. I tend to be hard on myself though; I tend to push myself, regarding anything that I have promised myself or others that I will do. Sometimes it becomes too much, but a promise is a promise, right?

You will be happy to hear that I have actually gotten better at being kind to myself. As the years go by I’ve realized if I can’t count on myself to be forgiving then who can I count on? I think this is especially important today in our hectic work cultures but also in society at large where even free time has become so streamlined and professionalized. And I think this is especially important for women. Women are taught from a very young age to be good girls and that they have to do their very best, or rather even better than that, to succeed.

But as I said, the older I get the more forgiving of myself I get, and strange as it may sound, I have started to realize that I am only human. I still do my best to keep my promises. Sometimes, however, things happen and that’s just life, and if that is the case, I ironically find that others are usually more forgiving and understanding of my situation than I am.

So with these thoughts, triggered by my need to live up to my own sometimes unrealistic standards, what I’m trying to say is be kind to yourselves. If you aren’t nobody will be, and you can probably really use a break.

Better meetings please

The other day I came home from work feeling completely inadequate. I had been at a meeting, which had been fine. The problem was that I had to leave early because while I had allocated an hour and a half for the meeting, which was plenty based on previous experiences of similar meetings, when I got there, the chairperson announced that we would reserve a total of two hours for the meeting. Argh… I didn’t know that. Had I known I would have allocated two hours, but now I had another appointment two hours later and would have to leave 30 minutes early. I mentioned this to the chair and he took it well enough, although I have to say, he didn’t look terribly pleased. I, on the other hand, having a slightly unhealthy guilt complex, felt bad that I was letting them down and I was kicking myself for not being able to foresee that the meeting would in fact be longer this time.

I was feeling pretty bummed when I got home, until it dawned on me: I couldn’t possibly have known the meeting was going to be that long and had I known, of course I would have reserved the right amount of time. And do you want to know why I didn’t know? Well, because although I was sent an email with the starting time, I was never sent an agenda nor any information about how long the meeting was going to be. And that, my friends, is just bad meeting manners.

Seriously though. I generally don’t like meetings. I remember my first job out of business school; I was working with the marketing team at a company and they had the longest meetings. They would go on and on and on and most of the time we would talk about things not on the agenda, which would have been fine except that as I was sitting there, bored to oblivion, work would pile up on my desk in my absence and I would have to work late to get everything done. It was just a total waste of time.

Later I found that bad meeting habits are really quite ubiquitous. In all my different jobs, I would go to countless meetings and much of the time I would wonder if we really all needed to be there for all of it. As a result I have developed a strong dislike for meetings over the years, but recently I’ve realized that it’s not meetings as such that I don’t like, but rather bad meeting culture.

Meetings serve an important function. They allow people to meet and discuss issues or get updated on important information. Often, however, people call meetings and invite all too many people to discuss all too many things that aren’t even relevant to everyone. Sometimes a meeting isn’t needed. Sometimes a one-on-one conversation is much more efficient. Or a ten-minute huddle in the hallway where team members can effectively update each other on what they are doing, how it is going, and what they need help with. Everyone doesn’t need to be involved in every discussion.

Also, if there is no agenda, I tend to avoid going altogether (although in the aforementioned meeting that wasn’t an option unfortunately). Meetings without agendas are more like social gatherings. Don’t get me wrong, I like social gatherings, but not at work when there is business to attend to.

In order to avoid bad meeting behavior and seriously frustrated colleagues, I’ve taken the liberty to write down a short checklist to help you create a better and more productive meeting culture where you work. It really is quite simple.

  1. What is the purpose of the meeting? Plan the agenda and participants accordingly. People who just need to be informed do not need to be involved in a lengthy discussion. If it is a matter of FYI for some people on your invitation list then maybe you need to plan a separate meeting or just use another medium to spread the information.
  2. The invitation should always include: starting and ending times, place, and an agenda. See my comment above regarding social gatherings. Also people need to know what is going to be discussed. Is the meeting even relevant for them to attend?
  3. Stick to the agenda and the schedule. Preferably have someone chair the meeting, but if no one is chairing, see to it that someone is responsible for making sure you stick to the agenda and the schedule. People need to be allowed to leave when the meeting is supposed to end. They have other things they need to do and running overtime is just disrespectful of their time. If you have more to discuss, plan a follow-up discussion with the relevant people.

That was it, not very complicated. So here’s to productive meeting behavior. Trust me, it will make all the difference.

 

Two things you need to do to change your life

The one question I get asked most often is, how does one do it? If you want to opt out, how do you figure out what it is you want to do instead and how do you take the step?

Unfortunately there is no easy answer, no recipe or magic formula to follow. However the good news is that there are things you can do.

First of all, you have to be prepared to step out of your comfort zone. If you continue the way you have within the safe realm of what you know, things will most likely not change. The other day I stumbled across an article that really hit the nail on its head. It argued that you have to do things that make you uncomfortable to find happiness and success (and it also listed what these uncomfortable things are).

Those of you who know me, and are familiar with my writing, know that I find this constant search for happiness problematic to say the least. Happiness and success are a result of something else, of doing something meaningful and something you love. We tend to love what we are good at and become good at what we love, simply because being good at something tends to be fun and if you really like doing it you generally throw yourself into it with gusto, which tends to lead to success. And research has shown that the constant search for happiness, which seems to have become a societal obsession of sorts, actually makes people less happy and less fulfilled. So they continue searching and end up in a vicious circle.

So how to we know what we love if we haven’t found it yet? To find out, here are two things you should do:

  1. You have to put yourself out there and explore. That means talking to people. Tell people that you’re looking, ask them what they do, find out more about what kinds of things, activities, and jobs there are. It’s hard to imagine anything other than what we know. That was certainly true for me before I opted out; I couldn’t really imagine working in any other way than I always had. Without talking to people and exploring you don’t even know what you don’t know. But if you reach out to find out more, worlds you didn’t even know existed will open up and you will find new activities, lifestyles, and forms of work to try.
  2. Don’t wait until you have it all figured out. I’m a very private person and this was a mistake I used to make a lot. I used to never talk about my thoughts and dreams until I had it figured out. I guess I was worried I would seem stupid or something if things didn’t turn out the way I had planned. However, I think it’s safe to say that everyone understands that plans are only plans and that they can change. The risk of waiting to tell people, or to take steps before you have everything figured out and ready, is that you may never figure it out unless you talk to people. This is related to the previous point on putting yourself out there.

What this means is, you don’t have to leap right away. You can start small while you’re still figuring it out. You might want to try something on the side, and then if that doesn’t work or you realize you don’t like it as much as you thought you would you can stop doing that and try something else. And remember: don’t stop exploring just because you don’t find your thing right away. Contrary to popular belief, when it comes to life, there is no such thing as a quick fix. You’ll get there; you just need to give it time.

And one more thing, don’t forget what Brené Brown says: you don’t need to negotiate your right to be anywhere with anyone. You are the one who decides that.

Me too: on sexual harassment and assault

I was going to write a blog post about capitalism, social systems, and truths, but that will have to wait. I realized there is another blog post that needs to be written first, one that needs to be written now.

Yesterday morning when I checked my Facebook newsfeed, a couple of my friends had posted this:

“Me too.
If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too.” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem. Please copy/paste.”

It’s a social media campaign that has come about after the Harvey Weinstein allegations hit the news to raise awareness about how common sexual harassment and assault really are.

I looked at the post in my newsfeed and thought, yes, this is important. I should post that too, because I have also, after all, been sexually harassed on numerous occasions in different situations since I hit my teens. Then I continued scrolling, and stopped, scrolled back up again to the post and then back down again and then back up and then I thought I really need to be involved in this campaign. This is such an important topic to raise awareness about, especially since we don’t usually talk about it.

Yet I found myself scrolling up and down, back and forth, wanting to and not wanting to at the same time and I couldn’t really put my finger on what it was. Finally I just did it; I copy-pasted the text and created a status update.

During the next couple of hours I started to notice my newsfeed filling up with the same text. Female friends, relatives, and colleagues were sharing it too – countless friends, relatives, and colleagues. And it is an incredibly important issue, but that’s not really why I felt compelled to write a blog post about it. No, the sense of urgency I suddenly felt actually came from the way sharing this post made me feel. I felt a bit uncomfortable about it all day. I had this uneasy feeling inside, and after exploring that for a bit I realized that part of what I was feeling was shame.

I am a researcher and a social scientist. I research gender issues, among other things. I write and talk about inequalities, gender discrimination, identity, and sexuality. I am acutely aware of these issues. I study fears and reactions, and analyze reasons behind actions. I know that being the victim of sexual harassment or assault is not shameful and I know that the victim has done nothing wrong. Still, sharing the fact that I too have experienced sexual harassment or assault feels a bit shameful. It feels too personal; like it is something I should keep to myself.

I am willing to bet that every single woman I know has experienced some sort of sexual harassment or abuse during their lifetimes. I know that I am not alone and still it is difficult to talk about.

But many people don’t understand just how hard it really is. I was reading the comments section under an article about Harvey Weinstein the other day, and there was one comment in particular that caught my eye. It was a person who was genuinely wondering why the women haven’t spoken up before. Why did they put up with it? The answer is that it is really hard to speak up. These women were worried about their careers. They were scared of what Weinstein would do to them. They didn’t want to get stigmatized… I could go on, but the point is that the climate in our society is such that sexual harassment and assault are incredibly difficult to talk about.

I grew up acutely aware that I was at risk and needed to be cautious simply because I was girl. I remember when I was pre-teen, my friends and I heard rumors of girls we knew who had been raped, and we knew it could happen to us too because we were girls and that’s the way it was. And I tell you, walking around with the knowledge that you might get abused is scary and it affects your very fabric of being. To this day, I don’t feel completely at ease walking around after dark, even in my own safe neighborhood. I think this is something that is hard to comprehend for someone who hasn’t experienced that fear.

So this is my way of saying, yes, this is important, and yes, we need to talk about it. If you have ever been sexually harassed or assaulted, speak out if you can because we need to know that we are not alone, and all of us need to understand what a huge issue this really is.

#MeToo

You’re not a fraud

I remember when I enrolled as a PhD student and I was in the middle of my own opting out and in process. I had left a career in business where I felt like I knew what I was doing and what was expected of me, and had stepped into the academic world where I hadn’t set foot for years, not since I was a young, inexperienced Master’s student. I went from feeling competent and knowing what was expected of me, to having zero knowledge of what the so-called rules of the game were. Other academics were very welcoming and everyone seemed to take me seriously enough, but still, clichéd as it may sound, I felt like a fraud and that I was going to be found out any minute.

A few months after I enrolled, I was at a gathering at the department at my university and a distinguished professor emeritus wanted to say a few words. She spoke specifically to the new students and verbalized exactly what I had been thinking. She talked about how when she started out, she, like me, felt like a complete fraud, worried that she was going to be found out. She never was found out though, and the reason was of course that she wasn’t any more a fraud that anyone else. With this story she explained to us that this is the way everyone feels. Everyone worries about belonging, about being accepted, and about being taken seriously no matter who they are or how far they have come in their careers. She assured us that we weren’t alone and no matter what we think or feel, we aren’t frauds, that we belong there as much as anyone else, and that we need to remember that always.

I felt so relieved. My worries were acknowledged and I could relax a bit. What a wonderful, thoughtful woman.

A couple of months after that, when I was taking a doctoral course that was taught by a world-renowned scholar, I saw evidence of how this phenomenon that we also know of as imposter syndrome, really does affect everyone. My teacher was not only globally recognized for his research, he was also just a very good teacher. We always had the most interesting discussions in class and he was pedagogical in his methods. He never made me feel like a fraud or that I didn’t belong.

One day during class the energy level had been low among the students. I myself had a severe case of low blood sugar, which just makes it hard to concentrate. By the end of that class, my teacher, the professor, really looked like he was feeling down. It turned out that he felt the class had gone so badly (which it really hadn’t), that he had failed to engage his students, and he started questioning his role in the course (which was central, believe me). I felt bad for him, but it also comforted me to know that even someone, who so obviously has proven that he is good at what he does, can feel that way. It made me see that when I feel that way, it doesn’t mean that I don’t belong or that I’m not good at what I’m doing, but that I’m just human. It’s human to feel that way from time to time.

I was watching an interview with Brené Brown on her new book Braving the Wilderness the other day and she really summed it up quite nicely. She said, “Don’t walk through the world looking for evidence that you don’t belong because you’ll always find it. Don’t walk through the world looking for evidence that you’re not enough because you’ll always find it. Our worth and our belonging are not negotiated with other people.”

So on that note, don’t doubt yourself. Know that you belong anywhere you want to belong, and most importantly, you’re not a fraud.