November 2013 will be remembered in the context of two experiences; one brought disappointment, the other inspiration. I was disappointed by what happened when I walked into my usual barber’s shop for the last time. I was inspired as I prepared for and sang my first solo. Both experiences made me think even more about my expectations and assumptions. Both illustrated how our use of power can either isolate or empower. The Living PowerLife approach to health and well-being shows how to recognize the difference between the two and why this is an important skill to have.
Not long ago, while having a conversation with an insightful adolescent, the topic of gender came up. She and I had talked about gender related topics before and shared thoughts about what it meant to be female, a girl, a woman, male, a boy, a man in the past. I was always impressed by what she had to say. I also knew that she questioned society’s expectations for both males and females and that she was not fitting neatly into the gender category of girl. On this day, however, she sounded like a young person who had taken time to consider things and come to her own conclusions.
She said, with all the confidence in the world, that she was female and most comfortable living in society’s category of boy. Then, she went on to explain what she meant and to illustrate the difference between biological facts (female, male) and society’s categories (girl, boy). The type of insight she demonstrated was the kind that most people, including myself, struggle for decades to gain.
Long after our talk, my thoughts wandered. I remembered times when as a young female I found the social category of girl stifling at best. I thought about how invisible and isolated I felt during those years. Then, I remembered the times when I was first bold enough to reject the gender specific restrictions that were forced on me. I thought about how empowered I felt at those times. All of this led me to think about my most recent encounter with this old and familiar biological/social conflict.
For about a year, I had been frequenting a particular barbershop that was owned and run by siblings who happened to be female. Supporting female owned businesses was, and is, important to me so I felt good about using their service. Through the months, one cut my hair--a simple barbershop cut--each time. The other had not. Since they both operated on a walk-in schedule, I thought that timing and place in line were the reasons why I always had the same barber. I was wrong and when I decided to get a cut on a day when my usual barber was off, I learned how wrong I had been.
This day there were not many customers which was one reason why I decided to go in. I did notice that only one barber was working but did not see that as a problem. Just as I said hello and started to remove my coat, the barber told me something that I already knew by observation--the one who usually cut my hair was off.
I said, ''That’s okay. I’ve seen your work and don’t mind if you cut my hair''.
This is when the barber said something that my brain simply could not process, ''I don’t cut women’s hair''.
For a few seconds, I stood in the middle of their little old school barbershop speechless before I could ask, ''What does that mean?''.
She responded by saying, ''I don’t do all that stuff that women want. I don’t cut women’s hair. My sister does all that stuff. I only cut men and children''. Then, as an afterword she added, ''Boys''.
At this point, I thought that maybe she did not remember me. So, I tried to jog her memory. I reminded her that I had been coming there for months and I always got a simple cut. No shampoo. No blow-dry… just a haircut.
She just shook her head while she continued her mantra, ''I don’t cut women’s hair''. She said this all while focusing on her customer at the time--a male with shoulder length hair.
Once I finally realized that this barber was not going to cut my hair for the sole reason that I was biologically female, I walked out. I left feeling disappointed with myself and the barber. I was disappointed with myself for not realizing that, while my goal was to empower female owned businesses in my small way, I was actually supporting a business that discriminated against us; against me. I felt stupid and angry.
Later, as I made more connections, I realized that there were, literally, signs all around me revealing their anti-female attitude. One glaring indication in retrospect was what they charged women for a haircut compared to men.
Every time I went there, I would sit in a chair that faced a mirror with a big sign that listed their fees for services. Women were clearly charged more for a haircut and I ignored that fact. I ignored it because my first time there, I said I wanted a barber cut and that I expected to pay the lower fee. I got what I wanted and was willing to ignore what was in plain sight. This self-revelation was disturbing.
While processing this disappointing and disturbing experience, I was also being inspired.
You may or may not know that I am a member of a chorus, Voices Rising (VR). VR is a women only chorus that uses music to build community and engender healing. VR has been in existence for 10 years and is directed by Leora Zimmer. Leora, along with the leadership team, sets the tone, gives direction and embodies the mission of the chorus.
I found VR when I first moved to Boston. My daughter, who sang with VR in the past, suggested that I audition and I took her advice. Advice well received because my involvement with the chorus helped me transition from mourning a failed (one that I now call fake) relationship to reclaiming myself and celebrating a solo life. I am currently in my second season with the chorus and in this context I made the decision to audition again.
My second audition was to participate in one of VR’s annual fundraisers, A Night of Cabaret. My audition was… Just say I was not using my public speaking presence and leave it at that. I was nervous but not because I felt judged. I was nervous because standing alone on a stage and singing in front of an audience was something that I had always wished I had the courage to do. I was nervous because singing a solo was something that I believed I would never do.
My first audition for the cabaret was not good, but I was given a second chance to take Leora’s feedback and make a better go. I was better the second time, but still rough. This is when another member of VR, Jennifer Wry, great at coaching performers, offered to work with me.
Consequently, with the feedback and patience of Leora, the insight of Jennifer and the support of the entire VR community, I was able to do something that I had only dreamed about. My performance was not perfect, but the inspiration that I experienced helped me to find my singing voice and use my power to share with others how a song touched me. What a gift!
The fact that these two extremely different experiences happened in the same time-frame serves to clarify their effects. Their close association also makes it easy to use them as examples for the fact that we constantly make choices about how to use our power.
The barber had the power to either treat everyone equally or not. She chose to discriminate. She had the power to provide a service to everyone with respect and courtesy. She chose to withhold this from females. In so doing, she supported misogyny. With her actions, the barber illustrated that she encountered the world through fear. Fear of being judged. Fear of being rejected. She is an example of what can happen when we blindly conform to what society decides is normal. Oppressive communities are the legacy of people this barber represents.
VR as a community had the power to either dismiss or inspire. They chose to inspire both as a group and as individuals. They chose to hear my auditions, to see me and to give the support that resulted in success. In doing this, VR disallowed misogyny. VR is an example of what can happen when we question and reject while interacting with one another. Question the validity of society’s gender restrictions and categories. Reject those restrictions and categories that are created through bigotry and misogyny.
Through action VR demonstrates how to engage the world fearlessly. Free from the fear of rejection and isolation. Indeed, like the young insightful female described earlier, VR illustrates how to use the power that we have to challenge. Challenge, for instance, the validity of females being forced into a one size fits all pigeon hole while our peace of mind, health and happiness suffer. Communities built on acceptance, empowerment and inclusion are the legacy of people VR represents.
We all have power in every circumstance and each interaction. We can choose to use our power to either answer the global call for equality or we can continue to support oppression. We can choose to disallow bigotry at every opportunity or to uphold the establishments that were built on, and are still sustained by, the hierarchy of dominance where a few benefit from the blood, sweat, sacrifices, tears, and talents of the many.
We can use our power to become living examples for our children. Living examples of what can happen when we build communities that respect personal freedom; communities where individuals come together in equality, empathy and empowerment. We have the power to teach our children by example how to either play nicely with one another and build beautiful castles for all to enjoy or how to kick sand in each other’s eyes in efforts to be crowned king of a hill.
May you have a healthy, peaceful, loving and powerful 2014.
From My PowerLife to Yours,