I know I’m not always in the best mood in the morning, but it was still a shock to see this on the cereal box. And to realize that this is what my (mercifully pre-literate and mercifully male) kids have been staring at. And to realize that this kind of message is everywhere. How broken is that?
I know they mean well, that it’s a weight-loss message, but still. Come ON, Cheerios. Surely you’ve noticed the whole self-actualization agenda that is at least trying to keep pace with our nation’s long-term self-hatred protocol? Maybe this is another reason why I shouldn’t eat Cheerios.
In all seriousness, though, this has started me thinking about the range of ways our culture invites us to be less than we are, and not just physically (though that encompasses not only weight issues but the whole range of gender-normative behaviors and style). Jobs are stultifying enough that most of us have to compromise most of our selves in order to earn the paycheck and the benefits we need; educational programs force us into outdated molds of specialization; even cocktail-party conversations (I think; I can barely remember that far back) expect a short answer to the standard question: What do you do?
Here’s what I’d like to say to that, today: I raise two pretty awesome little boys in ways I hope are feminist and respectful and empowering. I read whenever I can. I write (academic work, poetry, this blog, articles, children’s stories) and seek to write a lot more. I hope and plan to get paid for writing. I serve on the board of a major community action agency and chair its committee on community impact. I used to teach college and build community-partnership and community-based learning programs. I have a PhD and often wonder if and how I can put that to appropriate use again. I consider teaching options. I lead discussion groups for our state humanities council and my local public library. I crochet and I sew, and I especially like working with upcycled and repurposed materials. I work on recovering from a childhood that bizarrely merged great privilege with great difficulty. I fix things that need fixing, when I can. I talk to my neighbors and pitch in where I can. I hope to build a community of moms where I live. I discovered recently that I can kind of draw. I struggle with how to balance my type-A-ness, which I need but instinctively dislike, with my husband’s more relaxed approach to life (type L? L for Love?), which I admire but which doesn’t privilege order as much as I need. I like getting older. I like lifting weights and am kind of glad that my family’s propensity for osteoporosis makes it kind of non-optional. I chastise myself a lot for not lifting often enough, though, and I’m working on that. There’s more, but there’s always more, and that’s the POINT.
You see my resistance to the language of “less”?
Patti Digh has a great bit in her totally fabulous book “Life is a Verb,” in which she mentions a study where a guy asks kindergartners to raise their hands if they are painters. All the hands shoot up. Dancers? Ditto. Singers? Yes. Then he asks college students the same thing, and hardly any hands go up. “What happens in those years,” she asks, “between five and eighteen to our sense of joy and possibility and personal command of the universe?”
Personal command of the universe might be a bit much to ask, but the SENSE of it is glorious. It’s the sense of our largeness, our infinite capacity, our minds and hearts as generous and accepting and brilliant as they were born to be. Mindfulness practitioners often say that when we try to meditate, it’s like sitting inside a closet crammed with the detritus of our lives. And as we practice more, the disappointment is that the same crap never really goes away. But the closet gets bigger and bigger, becoming a room, a cathedral, an airplane hangar, and soon the wide blue sky. A few old pairs of cleats and some back tax files don’t bother us nearly as much under those circumstances.
I find it’s the same thing with our general sense of self. Bad hair, bad skin, an achy shoulder, a snide remark — all these things can fester if we keep ourselves small (ironically, often the same thing as keeping ourselves “secure”). But if we admit our largeness, our GREATNESS — in the sense of our participation in the grand drama of human events, not some weird ego trip — then who really cares? We are who we are, and we deserve to surround ourselves with people who love us and things that give us joy. We deserve to celebrate exactly who and where we are. More grains, Cheerios, by all means. But please don’t try to make less of us.