Inspiring Women, Part 3

In the first two parts of this series, I’ve discussed stories of particular inspiration and which highlight the distinctive traits which have the potential to make women into astounding leaders and game changers.

In the last part of the series, I want to write about a topic that has long been very dear to my heart, and which can be a destructive barrier to the flourishing of such potential. This topic is body image and eating disorders and it connects back to some ideas I touched briefly upon when I first started this blog. I also reblogged an article a couple of weeks ago about the impact of parenting on disordered eating.

I can’t really remember a time in my life when weight and body image issues weren’t a concern to me. I am very confident in saying that a great majority of women and young girls I’ve come across have experienced similar struggles with self-confidence as I have. For some, this results in more significant and sometimes life-threatening behaviour, including serious eating and image disorders like Anorexia and Bulimia Nervosa, Anorexia Athletica, Binge Eating Disorder and Body Dysmorphic Disorder.

I’ve known so many wonderful women in my life who haven’t seen their own potential. Looking objectively at someone else’s life or analyzing the things that they say, we question how they could think so little of themselves. Many of us turn around and treat ourselves similarly. I had a friend years ago who had symptoms of multiple disorders mentioned above and who nearly died from her condition. I so badly wanted to help her; to make her see her true value. But, when I look inwardly at myself and my past, I realize that while I’ve never had a diagnosed eating disorder, I have certainly had periods in my life of great obsession over the foods I ate, my body weight, and the way I looked. I have in the past used much self-deprecatory language, and years ago, I tried to use laxatives to lose weight. My knowledge of health and nutrition and the long-term impacts of laxative use meant I wasn’t able to persist with the habit for more than a few days, but nonetheless the desire to go to great measures to lose weight was a compelling one. Rather than starving myself or forcing myself to vomit, my past inclination has been towards extreme dieting.

Statistics show that 19% of normal weight girls in grade nine believe they are too fat and 12% of those have attempted to lose weight (Sullivan, 2002). Approximately 1% of young women have Anorexia or Bulimia (Hoek, 2007), and Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness, on average killing sufferers within 10 years of onset (Sullivan, 2002). (Men suffer from eating disorders and disorders of body image too, by the way, but my focus in this series has been on women and therefore the single gender focus here).

Reflecting upon my own experiences and those of so many women I’ve talked to about this issue, I recall countless waits in grocery store aisles, faced with fashion and fitness magazine covers, unable to avert my eyes. I would stand there, looking at the women on the cover, wishing I could look like them and criticizing all the ways I didn’t. As I grew older and realized those photos were electronically modified, I knew in my rational mind that I shouldn’t even look; but the irrational and emotional side of me still longs for a body I’ll never have. Indeed, I’m more confident than I have ever been and generally accepting of the changes to my body that have come via aging and childbearing. I love myself much more than I ever have and I feel strong and beautiful, knowing I take good care of myself in a reasonable way via well-balanced diet and exercise regime. But still, I sometimes find myself wishing for body parts different than those I have.

I know how the preoccupation with physical beauty can distract a woman from all of her other internal potential – her intelligence, both emotional and cognitive, her creativity, her leadership capacity, her ability to nurture and care, her many other unique gifts. As well, a lack of self-promotion and confidence often translates into the non-physical realm, where people undervalue their many abilities. Our culture often has its priorities misplaced and in the case of body idealism, we are even contradictory. On the one hand, our culture puts value on a “perfect” body, and yet we often criticize and misunderstand strong self-confidence as arrogance.

It is probably inevitable that our culture will always identify and impose an ideal on us. But, I content that the confidence women gain through their accomplishments is far more important and has much longer-lasting impacts on self-confidence than the achievement of physical measures such a body weight or size. Not to say that balance and healthy lifestyle habits aren’t entirely crucial to impart as well, but from the perspective of health and well-being rather than on the achievement of physical ‘beauty’.

Thus, it’s our job as women to encourage in each other and in young girls the identification of interests and gifts of emotional and cognitive intelligence, creativity and professional potential and act as mentors rather than critics. Presupposing the inspiring women I’ve written about in the first two parts of this series weren’t at the time unnaturally focused on their physical beauty, they accomplished incredible feats of bravery, survival and philanthropy, while facing great impediments.

Let us inspire one another and build each other up.

The National Eating Disorder Information Centre provides information and resources about eating disorders and treatment in Canada: www.nedic.ca

References

Hoek, H. W. (2007). Incidence, prevalence and mortality of anorexia and other eating disorders. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 19(4), 389-394

Sullivan, P. (2002). Course and outcome of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. In Fairburn, C. G. & Brownell, K. D. (Eds.). Eating Disorders and Obesity (pp. 226-232). New York, New York: Guilford

Inspiring Women Part 2

Humaira

(courtesy of Intelligent Life Magazine, 2013)

“The courage of a Pakistani hero involves facing the ultimate fact of death. But the fantasy of martyrdom, where it exists, is largely a male one. A heroine needs a more supple courage. She must negotiate: with her emotions, with her adversaries, with her family, with hypocrisies. But not, if she can help it, with her ambition.” (Rahul Bhattacharya, 2013)

With life so full, I’ve not been able to finish part two of this three-part series  as soon as I would have liked. But, the topic has persisted on my mind, because of stories that have had an enduring impact on me, and because of my irrevocable life experience and relationships.

As I alluded to in the first part of the series, there were two key pieces of literature that first prompted me to start thinking about a future blog post about women and their unique potential. The second one was an article I read in the Economist’s Intelligent Life Magazine, my favourite periodical. The article was published in an edition that also features a supplement dedicated to inspiring women entitled “16 women you ought to know about” found here.

In this September/October 2013 edition, I read a piece about a woman in Pakistan who, at the age of 13, made it her mission to offer education to children living in squatter communities – including girls. This was almost unheard of, and Humaira Bachal faced many obstacles, much opposition and physical danger. Despite the threats and with great enthusiasm and persistence, she built two schools, called the Dream Model Street Schools, which have provided an education and opportunity to thousands of children who would otherwise have no way to even become literate. So inspiring have her altruistic, leadership and entrepreneurial efforts been that in April 2013, Humaira was honoured in New York City at the Women in the World Summit.

In discovering Humaira’s courageous work, I was reminded that when women take hold of their natural gifts, among them sensitivity, empathy, intelligence, creativity, tenacity and bravery, this can result in extraordinary and profound successes.

I believe that women who strive to do something unique and powerful in order to make a difference must contend with some gender-related challenges. Aside from the very significant socio-political/cultural barriers that exist for women like Humaira, it is true that women face some great difficulties in contending with themselves and their emotions. We sometimes over-analyze and process through an emotional filter; the same filter that can make us powerfully empathetic and passionately caring. We must fight self-doubt and channel these characteristics in order to be catalysts for incredible, affirmative change. I don’t mean this to be a feminist rant at all, as I believe men and women possess innate characteristics that uniquely serve in partnership. But, from a woman’s perspective, I know how my propensity towards emotionality can serve to either inspire or inhibit innovation and accomplishment.

As I began writing this series, I was travelling back from a healthcare leadership conference. It was a very nourishing conference with much significant knowledge to take away. One thing that stood out for me significantly, in a room of over 700 delegates, was that there are so many women in Canada who are healthcare leaders (and of course in other sectors as well). Some of them are the most influential leaders in the Country and have implemented changes that impact a whole province in the way healthcare is delivered and received. Women have a very special opportunity to use their natural capacity for love, their overall emotional intelligence, their cognitive and professional intelligence and their experiences to be combined catalysts for real and lasting change in whatever area inspires them.

I reflect again on the women in my life and they all inspire me in some way. So many are confident, resilient, intelligent, talented and ambitious. And, they care. What phenomenal facilitators of meaningful work are empathy and concern for humankind.

I can encourage you to read about Humaira here.

Inspiring Women, Part 1

“Already they were conscious that the nature of women’s close friendships would shield them in the weeks to come, and that the men, on the other side of the fort, were often not bound to each other by similar ties. ‘We did not need to “make friends”’ Madeleine would say, ‘we were solidly together already. ‘We were,’ Betty said, ‘a team’.” (Moorehead, 2011)

A blog post has been slowly developing in me over the past several months; thoughts coming together gradually, inspired by both literary and real-life sources. A combination of two literary works in fact, and my own life circumstances in which I have seen friendships blossom and support come from some amazing women in my life. Not that this is an entirely new revelation, but I have recognized just how important women are in each other’s lives and how unique and special women’s relationships are. I’ve always gotten along very well with men; I can easily be ‘one of the guys’ because I have always been a bit of a tomboy, I like to joke with the boys and I’m not generally offended by crude stories. But, the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve connected with my femininity, and the more my friendships with other women have grown to become an essential and marvelous part of my life. The nature and depth of relationship that women have is unlike a mixed-gender relationship. That’s not to say there isn’t value in friendships with men; indeed I’ve had and have some very close male friends who have contributed great insights, wisdom and companionship, but it is different.

I have reflected, too, on how different a conversation between two women is versus one between men or between a man and woman. The way that my female friends and I interact is centered on open communication, understanding, compassion, emotion. Of course we have fun and joke and converse about unemotional topics, but still we really care about one another. The women I’ve had in my life will go out of their way to assist in tangible and intangible ways when another friend is going through difficult circumstances. They are thoughtful and considerate of what they might do to ease a burden, bring a smile or engage in practical or symbolic acts of kindness. They will go out of their way and even compromise their own comfort in order to comfort another. Perhaps this analysis is biased quite simply by the kind of company I keep, but nonetheless, I think the potential for such relationships is universally existent.

Arguably, being of the same gender would bring about obvious similarities that would create comraderie: analogous challenges, parallel experiences, an understanding of what it means to be a woman. I will contend that the depth of relationship that can form between women goes beyond mere chromosomal structure and the resultant biological or social consequences that follow. Most women have an inborn inclination towards nurturing. Partly a biological imperative of childrearing, this may have been altered over the years as women’s roles in society have changed. However, in my experience, there is an innate empathy that exists and develops inside a woman if she chooses to cherish it.

The excerpt above comes from a wonderful piece of historical non-fiction I’m reading, entitled A Train in Winter and written by Caroline Moorehead. It chronicles the lives and experiences of the women of the French resistance during World War II. The other day, I read the above passage, which quotes imprisoned women resistors in France living under arduous and enfeebling conditions. They endured famine, cold, loneliness, fear, and widowhood. They wondered when their next meal would arrive. And still, these women banded together and loved and cared for one another. Older women acted like mothers to the young girls who had lost theirs. Creative energies continued to flow and the women entertained themselves and the others by putting on dramatic productions. They equitably shared what little food they had, giving more to the women who were weakest. Through onerous times, they grew closer. Each knew that the relationships they developed in prison would be the only source of comfort they would receive for many months.

Thankfully, I’ve never lived through such types of grueling circumstances as this, however some of my family have, as I’ve written about before. I imagine my Granny helping to take care of others in Auschwitz; I do know she made friends there, my other grandmother being one of them. I only wish she were still alive and well so I could ask her about this facet of life in the concentration camps as a woman. Nonetheless, I have been blessed with a few extremely profound friendships with women in my life, where there was mutual understanding, trust, respect, fondness and a desire to care for one another. These trusting relationships have meant outlets for sharing life’s most precious and most troubling situations, and for giving and receiving empathy and sometimes advice of great value. These friendships have proven to be a great source of reciprocal comfort, because knowing that a person is listening without judgement and with compassion, sharing their experiences and providing insights with your best interests at heart is invaluable. Indeed, I have loved a few formidable women with whom I’ve had remarkable friendships. Now more than ever, my life’s door seems to be wide open to new and brilliant relationships, and because of that, I feel very wealthy. I only hope I provide them with the same kind of comfort, joy and companionship they bestow to me.

“But most important of all was the fact that the women, despite differences of age, background, education and wealth, were friends. They had spent the months in Romainville very close together and it was as a train full of friends, who knew each other’s strengths and frailties, who had kept each other company at moments of terrible anguish, and who had fallen into a pattern of looking after each other, that they set out for the unknown.” (Moorehead, 2011)

Moorehead, C. (2011). A train in winter. Vintage Canada: Toronto.