Training to Be Thin: Female Athletes Join “The Conversation”

“I wanted to be a great swimmer, but more than that, I wanted to be pretty, skinny, and perfect.”

– Amanda Beard

The world has been aTwitter with Ashley Judd and #TheConversation after Judd’s op-ed in the Daily Beast on the objectification of women. The discourse has been impressive and – as even Judd admits – the fact that it has continued beyond a 24 hour celeb news cycle seems to indicate that “The Conversation” is bigger than her. There has been an outpouring of support from women (and men) around the world – with many sharing their personal struggles with body image. One I found particularly touching was this piece from a 22-year-old Australian biomedical engineer. Worth a gander.

And then Amanda Beard joined in. Beard, for the few that may not know, is a 7-time Olympic medalist and has been put forward as the sexy face/body of female Olympians (including spreads in Playboy and Maxim). Her memoir, In The Water They Can’t See You Cry, hit bookshelves this week. And it turns out the woman who looked like she had it all (and all together) is no different from the rest of us – riddled with insecurity.

Her story struck a particular chord with me having grown up as an elite female athlete. This is sad to say and admit, but I often think about how much different or longer my soccer career could have been had I never become aware of my body as an object – and remained content with my body as an instrument.

Growing up I was a tomboy. Happily. I played every sport imaginable and loved being physically active. Never occurred to me that my hair was a knotted or that sweatpants, umbros and sambas were not appropriate school attire. I never once thought about how I looked while I was competing. I never noticed whether my uniform fit snug or loose. I just played.

Until high school. Junior year.

Suddenly “diet” entered the lexicon of my teammates. And not just any teammates – the skinnier-than-me ones. We’d have team dinners and girls who previously boasted about how many plates of spaghetti they could eat made a conscious (and vocal) effort to stick to a small portion and skip dessert.

Somehow, in that moment, the world shifted under my feet.

I became aware of what I was eating and how much. I was conscious of how my uniform fit. Whether tucking my shirt in made me look slim or bulky. Whether I wore my hair the way the pretty girls did. These voices were screaming in my head all the time. At first I could put them on mute once the whistle blew or practice began. But they became more and more difficult to ignore.

That summer I wound up at a National Camp as part of the Olympic Development Program (ODP), playing with and against a hand-picked group of girls from around the country. I was sort of the newbie. Everyone else had been “in the system” for years, but I showed up from the unlikely state of Massachusetts. The ODP program is frankly full of a lot of bullshit and politics. There are “reasons” why certain people “make it” and others don’t. They tended to be from certain states, or from certain club teams, or were trained by certain coaches. But despite the BS, it was sort of the pinnacle and meant – at least on paper – that you were legit.

When I was called on to participate, I was thrilled, excited, intimidated and plenty surprised. This was a significant step toward my childhood dream of playing for the national team.

But once I arrived? All I felt was fat.

All the girls around me were skinny, toned, fit super-athletes. Next to them I felt like a chubby scrub. I trained as much as they did. I was in great shape. I was a fitness junky! But I just didn’t look like them. Years ago, this comparison wouldn’t have even occurred to me. But now, it was all I could think, see and hear. This running loop in my head: I’m fat, they’re skinnier than me, why don’t I look like them, I need to look like them. I barely remember anything else from the experience.

And so began my confused quest to be a skinny elite athlete.

A few weeks later I traveled to Europe with the same group of girls to compete against the Italian National Team. I worked my way onto the starting squad. I felt more comfortable and confident on the field. I felt good and was playing well.

At the end of the trip, the coaches held 1:1 sessions with each player to give feedback on our performance. They praised me, said I’d played really well and that the “veteran stars” of the squad wanted me on the field.

But then they told me I should work on my fitness.

The truth is that every athlete could always work on their fitness. Being fit is essential to soccer. So yes, could I have been fitter? Sure. Did I feel like my fitness held me back from performing at my best? Not at all.

To me, this confirmed my worst fears – I wasn’t thin enough. Because in my head, the only difference between my fitness and that of the other players was my body size.

And this is where Beard’s story really hits home for me. She was/is one of the greatest swimmers in the world. She’s blessed with phenomenal talent. She could dominate the world of swimming. All she should have cared about was training to win. But no. As she said: “I wanted to be a great swimmer, but more than that, I wanted to be pretty, skinny, and perfect.”

A few years later in college, after going through various cycles and types of self-abuse in order to attain “peak physical form,” I showed up at pre-season – a much smaller version of myself. How I got there was not the stuff of champions. But the stuff of the disordered. Eating just enough to avoid fainting mid-stride. Running for calories, not distance. Training to be thin. All my coach saw was “fit.” He pointed me out in front of the whole team as an example of diligent training. He told me my legs looked completely different, stronger than they’d ever been. In reality, I was relying on caffeine, not muscle, to stand.

In her memoir, Beard describes a similar experience after starving herself for a photo-shoot. Just reading this makes my stomach turn.

“Shaky, starving and exhausted, I was desperate to know what they were thinking. I read lots of meaning into the littlest details, paranoid from too little food and too much caffeine.

“Halfway through the shoot, while we were on break, a representative, whose job it was to make sure the photo shoot stayed on message and produced the images the company wanted for the campaign approached me.

“‘You are looking really good,’ he said with a smile. ‘Really fit.’

“I represented the ideal athlete, super slim and defined. Only, this type of definition came from lack of muscle as well as lack of body fat. My look was completely unrealistic for anyone truly competing in a sport. It put me in an impossible situation: be skinny and be strong.”

What breaks my heart is that I know Beard and I are far from the exception. I fear that this struggle is the norm. Eating disorders among female athletes are incredibly common (particularly when you consider the un-reported) as we struggle to meet at least two different physical standards – being an athlete and being a woman – set by at least two different groups – men and women, not to mention coaches and peers.

I wasted so much time and energy training to be thin instead of training to be a better player. How different would my experience have been had I not been distracted by this? How much further would I have gone? How much better would I have been? Would I still be playing now? These issues plagued me for the rest of my career and I know I’m not alone.

Sport and competition are supposed to be liberating and empowering experiences for women (and men). Supposed to give the body a physical function – a purpose beyond just looking a certain way and fitting into certain clothes. Yet for many of us, it’s no longer an escape. It’s the lucky few who can stay above the fray and not be pulled down by societal expectations – not let their bodies be hijacked. The ones who can find a way to keep playing for the love of the game – bodies be damned.

How different would it be if we could compete with the lights off? How many more stars would we find?

I want to personally thank Beard for sharing her story so honestly. And Judd for facilitating such a powerful discussion. And everyone else who has opened up so bravely. By being honest about our experiences, we’re making millions of women feel a bit less alone and a bit less insane.

Looking at athletes like Beard used to make me so angry and frustrated. How could she be so strong and yet so thin? Why did I have to starve myself to get her “fit” body, yet she could eat a full, balanced, nutritionist-recommended meal? Now I know why. She didn’t. And most of them don’t.

But we should. And we can. And we will.

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Ashley Judd Bitch-Slaps Media and Women. I Say Thank You.

Dear Ashley and the Puffy Face Brigade…

Before I go a sentence further, I have to first confess that I haven’t always been the biggest fan of Ashley Judd. I actually find her fairly pretentious – championing a “holier than thou” affect commonly encountered among the “saved.” Just look at the design of her website.

Now, I would like to say Ashley is not “holier than us,” she is “just an actress” – but her (no doubt) self-written bio would prove that a lie. Just to give you a taste:

At present, Ashley serves on the Board of Directors of Population Services International, Defenders of Wildlife, and Shaker Village. She has traveled, literally, around the world, visiting grassroots programs that focus on poverty alleviation, public health, human rights, and social justice. Entrusted with the sacred stories shared with her by the vulnerable, and often exploited yet remarkably resilient populations to whom she has dedicated much of her life, Ashley then speaks truth to power, carrying the message of empowerment and equality to heads of state, donors, the private sector, and the media. A small sampling of her advocacy work includes: Giving the keynote address on the modern slave trade to the 2008 General Assembly of the United Nations, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the urgent need to prevent the spread of HIV to girls and women, speaking to the National Press Club, appearing on major news programs, and filming 3 documentaries seen by over a billion people worldwide. She has served as an expert panelist/moderator at conferences such as the Clinton Global Initiative, the Women Deliver Conference, the International AIDS conference, and the Global Business Coalition to stop HIV, TB, and Malaria, and the National Press Club.

There’s a lot more where that came from. And, lest we forget, she is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School!

Unfortunately, for all this good-doing, Ashley is the type of humanitarian/advocate that makes me want to vomit. She’s right up there with almost every happy-hour loving non-profiteer I’ve encountered in DC. They want to save the world for the same reason Manhattan bankers want to make money. For themselves.

(deep breath)

Putting my prejudices aside, I was intrigued by Ashley’s response to recent criticism of her appearance. In case you missed it/have a life, in the last few weeks, the media/internet world has lambasted Ashley for her puffy face, which she claims is a side-effect of steroids she’d been using to treat an illness (not due to plastic surgery or weight gain).

Ashley didn’t like this.

On Monday – coincidentally the day after Jesus’ own post-crucifixion resurrection – Ashley felt she’d had JLo-style “enough.” She published an op-ed in the Daily Beast in which she laddered up to the larger issue at hand (or face, as the case may be). Objectification of women.

Don’t get me started on the fact that front. and. center. of this op-ed is a larger than life portrait of Ashley’s face. But if I can ignore the messenger (despite the fact that she’s staring right at me) and focus on the (unnecessarily magniloquent – see Ashley? I can use big words too!) message, I like what she’s trying to do here.

Actually – I love it.

Like virtually every female I’ve grown up with, I’ve gone through my own bouts with physical insecurity – some casual and some far more serious. In college, it was at its peak. Owen Wilson lost a few good men out there with the Yankees. I lost so many good ladies in college.

Girls left and right were either bulimic, anorexic or both. Female athletes, supposedly beaming with self-esteem, were no exception.

I became obsessed with how/why this issue was so rampant that some ridiculous number of toilets on college campuses have to be closed every week because they are clogged with puke. I even dedicated my senior year to writing a thesis on the subject of women and eating disorders – in this case using the lens of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique and the “problem that has no name.”

Women, it seemed to me, were slaving over their bodies in the way that 50s housewives slaved over the home. The house was never clean enough, the yard was never green enough, the kids were never smart enough, the dinner was never good enough, the wife was never social enough. Now a woman’s body is never good enough. It’s always too thin, too fat, too muscular, too flabby, too blond, too butch, too athletic, too old, too young, too, too, too, too, too.

A woman’s work is never done.

Friedan’s women described a lack of feeling full. So, too, do today’s women. Literally. Not only a lack of feeling full but, in a society focused on either indulging or dieting, fear and confusion about how to even reach “full.”

Ashley’s diatribe is wonderful in many respects and has some very powerful passages. (You should actually read it). But what made me scream “thank you for saying this!” the loudest was the fact that she called out women for being participants in and catalysts for the “problem that has no name” or, in this instance, “the Conversation.” As she writes, “A case in point is that this conversation [about Ashley’s appearance] was initially promulgated largely by women; a sad and disturbing fact.”

As I alluded to in an earlier post – it’s not men. It’s women. And this is a problem.

I remember getting ready for nights out in college. I dreaded these evenings to the point of avoiding them entirely. Girls would spend hours getting ready. Primping and prepping. Trying things on and asking roommates if they looked good. Then on to the pre-gaming portion of the evening, which is really drinking while comparing yourself to the other girls in the room – trying desperately to find that one aspect of that one girl who made you feel prettier/skinnier/hotter (take your pick) and therefore good enough to be seen in public. Drinking at this point becomes a necessity. The drunker you are, the faster you feel physically superior (beer goggles aren’t just for looking at other people). Then, finally, you’d exit the building to join some party somewhere. An entourage of drunk girls all thinking “at least I look better than her” or “shit, I feel so fat.”

No men were involved in the making of this scenario.

This sort of comparison is not reserved exclusively for college. As Ashley writes, “the conversation [about her appearance] was pointedly nasty, gendered, and misogynistic and embodies what all girls and women in our culture, to a greater or lesser degree, endure every day, in ways both outrageous and subtle.”

And even better:

Patriarchy is not men. Patriarchy is a system in which both women and men participate. It privileges, inter alia*, the interests of boys and men over the bodily integrity, autonomy, and dignity of girls and women. It is subtle, insidious, and never more dangerous than when women passionately deny that they themselves are engaging in it. This abnormal obsession with women’s faces and bodies has become so normal that we (I include myself at times—I absolutely fall for it still) have internalized patriarchy almost seamlessly. We are unable at times to identify ourselves as our own denigrating abusers, or as abusing other girls and women.

*Inter alia means “among other things.” You’re welcome.

As I’ve grown up, I’ve tried – and often failed – to be “the change I wish to see in the world.” Tried to rise above the comparisons and act (notice I say “act,” not necessarily “be”) comfortable in my own body, no matter what other women are around. I can’t begin to tell you how hard this is. It’s a choice. A conscious decision not to care – which I can’t always make. Girls tend to find it threatening or confusing at first – but then appealing. Comforting. A huge relief. Guys tend to love it. They probably also find it to be a huge relief.

I have moments of real weakness. I’ve learned to avoid certain social situations that will trigger intense insecurity. (I’ve also learned to drink heavily before/during/after said situations.) I’ve carefully cultivated a group of wonderful friends who are comfortable enough in their bodies not to make me feel uncomfortable in mine. I’ve also realized that the people who make me feel this way aren’t the point. The point is my experience. And that’s something only I can control. It’s a battle, but a battle worth fighting – and winning.

So, thank you Ashley for reframing this micro-criticism as the macro issue it really is. And thank you for taking those steroids. Hopefully this issue about your face can force an about-face (wah wahhhh) among women – who really are so much better than this.

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Should You Change Your Name?

I was married on July 8, 2011. The third best day of my life. The second best day was the day I met Jason. And the very best day has been every day since.

We have a magical, other-wordly, empowering, true soulmate kind of love. Teammates. Better together than ever apart (though not too shabby apart – which I think is important).

From the moment we first crossed paths, we shared everything: life ambitions, attitudes, perspectives. Everything except a last name.

I was never the girl who fantasized about her wedding. I fantasized about falling in love and having a family, sure, but never my wedding day. I also never put much thought into changing my last name. Like the cut of my wedding dress, it wasn’t really high on my list of things that were all that important.

Turns out it is.

In the months after getting engaged, the question was always there: So, are you going to change your name?

I googled “why you should change your last name,” “should I change my last name?” “women who changed their last name” and found a great collection of impassioned stories and articles. I scanned Facebook for examples of friends who had/hadn’t changed their last name. I made note of successful public figures who had/hadn’t taken their husband’s last name. Did you know Elizabeth Cady took her husband’s name to become Elizabeth Cady Stanton? Me neither. (Though apparently not going by “Mrs. Henry B. Stanton” was a significant choice at the time.) I even dropped by the Lucy Stone League: lucystoneleague.org.

I asked my friends for their opinions and got a collection of responses:

  • My recently married friend said she didn’t feel like a family until she and her husband shared a last name.
  • That same friend told me to keep my name; she thought it was strong.
  • My Asian colleague said there was no way she was going to take her American husband’s name because “that would just be weird; I’m not a Smith.” Similarly, my American colleague decided not to take the last name of her French husband.
  • Another friend said changing your last name can signify a new chapter in life – the start of a new journey and a new family.

But I didn’t get any closer to my answer.

I was frustrated by the fact that this decision was even necessary. Why are societal conventions forcing me to make a decision about something that symbolizes so much? Why couldn’t I just keep my name as it was and not state anything by doing so?

Wrapped up in a last name are all sorts of heavy topics: family, identity, loyalty, children, marital roles. Somehow dealing with this “problem about a name” meant putting a stake in the ground on issues that I suppose Jason and I hadn’t quite figured out yet – but were also very comfortable discussing and allowing to evolve. Weighty subjects like these don’t often follow black-or-white logic.

I was very happily committed to Jason. Saying “yes” was a no-brainer. Why was committing to his last name any different?

To help me grapple with this question (and make it impossible to come to a clear answer), I seemed to have a full panel of experts in my head – each with different, completely valid, points of view. Lucky me.

You like your last name, why change it? You’re an independent thinker (or try to be), why follow convention? You really want to be connected to his family, but you don’t want to lose your own. He wouldn’t change his last name, why should you? Your last name is practically your first name, particularly around sports, why close the book on that part of your life? You want to have the same name as your children, so just make the change. Does taking his last name make you submissive somehow? You want to be a family unit. Will you lose the history of who you are? You want to create a new life. You love him!

By the time it came to signing a marriage license (and even before that, deciding on monograms — equally important, apparently), I had decided to bump my last name to my middle name and take Jason’s last name as my own. And I’ve all but legally made that change.

In this digital age, the legal side of a name-change is almost irrelevant. First step? Change Facebook name. Then gmail address. Then twitter handle. Etc. Etc. DMV can wait.

It was startling to see my brand new name in writing. Who is this Sara Brown character? So I adjusted email settings to include my maiden-turned-middle name. Whenever possible, I go by all three names. I little bit of the old mixed with a wonderful amount of new.

When you’re born, you have no choice about your name. And there’s certainly no “before” to move on from; there’s just that first moment. But when you change your name as a 20-something, there are many years of you (20-something, to be exact) to look in the eye and say: “It’s been great, but mama’s got a brand new bag.”

That can be incredibly hard to do.

It’s taken time to get used to my new name. And I think that’s something people don’t talk about enough. You don’t just wake up after your wedding and say, without hesitation, “I’m Mrs. [INSERT NEW NAME HERE]!” It’s an adjustment – a process. And that’s okay! It doesn’t mean you don’t love your spouse.

In a happy/healthy way, I’ve gone through some version of the five stages of grief.

  1. Shock & Denial: I didn’t instinctively respond to Mrs. Brown. Completing forms or signing letters as “Brown” felt like a lie. When “Sara Brown” popped up in office emails, I did not believe they were from me. Who was this mythical character sending emails from my account?
  2. Anger, Pain & Guilt: Angry that societal conventions required me to make a choice in the first place. Guilty that I didn’t run without question to my husband’s name. Guilty that I was leaving my original family name behind. Guilty that I would be dropping my mother’s maiden name (previously my middle name). And the pain of not being sure about any of it.
  3. Bargaining: I’d say adding my newly-middle name to my email signature counts. Jokingly asking if Jason would take my last name. Scouring the internet to see if there was any precedence for avoiding this decision completely.
  4. Depression, Reflection & Loneliness: Depression is a serious stretch. But there was certainly TONS of reflection. And a bit of loneliness. It was ultimately my own decision – so I had to be alone in the final choice. I also felt a little lonely as Sara Brown. I’d spent years becoming Sara Sedgwick. Now here I am, Sara Brown. Nobody. Yet.
  5. Acceptance: After months of airing my grievances, researching the history of name changes, getting used to seeing and being called by my new name, introducing myself as “Sara Brown,” moving into and decorating the walls of this wonderful marriage, I was finally comfortable assuming (and starting to build) the identity of Mrs. Sara Sedgwick Brown.

It’s important to note that changing or not changing your name is a very personal decision. There’s no right answer. But I would encourage everyone to be open about the emotions behind the process.

For a while I didn’t want Jason to know I wasn’t sure about it. I didn’t want to hurt him. Understandably, not taking his name could make him think I wasn’t committed, or that I didn’t hold his name in high regard, or that I somehow didn’t really want to be his wife. None of which was remotely true. But it would be hard to explain that it wasn’t about him – it was about me.

Eventually I let him know. “It’s hard and confusing… and just kind of weird,” I explained.

He probably went through his own five stages of grief as he came to terms with the possibility that I might not take his last name. However the fifth stage led us both to the same, larger conclusion: a marriage isn’t built on a name; a marriage is built on love and a strong, enduring relationship.

In the end, deciding to change my name was a matter of faith. Like marriage, we leap. We leap because we believe that the unknown life ahead will be better than the well-known life we’re leaving behind.

And to that I say “I do.”

Deciding to be Decisive

“Decision making is about making a choice; about taking charge of our life; about feeling in control of our own destiny; about self-empowerment.”

– Neerja Raman

Last week, my sister took me to a screening of Jodie Mack’s latest handmade films (read more about Jodie here. She’s da bomb.) It’s not hard to fall in love with Jodie. At just 29 she’s made her way onto Dartmouth’s faculty through a dogged pursuit of her unbridled passion for experimental film. The best part about her is that she wears her genuine enthusiasm for her work the way that the typical professor often wears her accolades. There’s no name-dropping. Just joy-sharing.

Without a wall of pretension, the post-screening Q&A session was authentic and rife with hearty nuggets of wisdom. One that stuck with me in particular was about decision making.

The creative process – whether pertaining to writing, art, or otherwise – is a landmine of micro and macro decisions. What material do I use? What do I want to explore? What color should I use? What story do I want to tell? What tone? What paper should I use? Thick line or thin? Etc. Etc. Etc. The possibilities and therefore decisions are endless. At a certain point, you just have to go with one – which can often result in post-decision stress syndrome. Did I make the right choice!?

Jodie is not immune to this anguish. But she did tell us about an epiphanic moment that helped bring her some peace of mind. She had the opportunity to ask an experimental film idol of hers how he managed to make decisions with his work. His response: I assume that every decision I make is the right decision.

This was a serious “aha!” moment for Jodie. And for me too.

Can I just do that? Is it that simple? Can I just decide I’m always right? Do I really have that power?

I guess so!

This philosophy is a close cousin of the bigger-picture mantra that “everything works out as it should.” But I think it’s superior because it can be applied directly in the moment of decision. It’s a little more proactive and involved – dare I say empowering.

“Everything works out as it should” is akin to throwing your hands up in the air and admitting that you ultimately have very little control over what happens in your life. On the contrary, “Assume you made the right decision” means you took control, made a choice and it’s the right one!

When the emotional and rational sides of my brain align, I can usually make a choice without losing much sleep. Thankfully this is generally the case for me when it comes to the bigger decisions in my life. But on the smaller decisions that don’t really matter (e.g., what color to paint the bedroom wall), I tend to be somewhat indecisive. The rational side of my brain runs through all the practical concerns (cost, labor, time, ease, etc.) but ultimately turns to my emotional side for a final decision. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) the emotional side of my brain isn’t all that invested in a sunshine yellow vs. a mustard room.

I’m great at narrowing down options. But I tend to leave the final choice to my husband. I don’t think this is inherently problematic. We play to our strengths. Research? That’s me. Decision making? That’s Jason. But I do wish I could be more decisive about the little things. Which seem to be the decisions that whisper my name in the middle of the night.

I’m hoping this “assume you’re right” mentality will go a long way. But here are a few more decision-making insights I’ve found that may help us all sleep a little better at night:

  • Less is more (satisfying). “Satisficers” (who look until they find an option that is good enough) tend to be more satisfied in their ultimate decision than “maximizers” (who consider every possible option). Why? “Maybe because a world of possibilities is also a world of missed opportunities. After surveying every option, a person is more acutely aware of the opportunities they had to turn down to pursue just one [option].” Source: Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice
  • Avoid over-thinking. Over-thinking a decision can lead you to make the wrong decision. Researchers at the University of Amsterdam found that thinking hard about what car to buy leads you to make a poor choice, or not the best choice. When given no time limit or distractions, people identified the best car of four ~25% of the time. When the researchers distracted the participants with puzzles before asking them to make their choices. More than half of them managed to pick the best car. According to Dr. Li Zhaoping of University College London, “The conscious or top level function of the brain, when active, vetoes our initial subconscious decision – even when it is correct – leaving us unaware or distrustful of our instincts.” Translation: think too much and you literally forget your initial instinct – which is usually the right one.
  • Your gut is usually right. In a study published in Current Biology, people were asked to pick the odd one out on a screen covered with more than 650 identical symbols, including one rotated version of the same symbol. People with less time to choose performed better than those who had endless time to analyze.
  • Know who you are. Striving to understand who you are and what you stand for can simplify future decision-making by giving you a “decision compass” of sorts. According to self-help author/speaker Steve Pavlina, “When we look at choices as being more than just paths — as being creative statements of self-expression — certain decisions become much easier to make.”
  • Wrong action can be better than no action. “Recognize that the risks of not making decisions are generally higher than the risks of making the wrong one, and then learn to move forward,” according to Liz Reyer, life coach/workplace consultant.
  • Dwell in ambiguity. As Neerja Raman writes in The Practice and Philosophy of Decision Making: A Seven Step Spiritual Guide, “Decision making is not a linear, precise, mathematical process. It is complex, ambiguous and often, a compromise of reason and emotion. Having a philosophical understanding of the universe and our role in it for the short time that we live in it, can be a way to reduce tension and conflict.”
  • There’s a loop for that.Stuck in circular thinking? Try the OODA Loop:
    1. Observe – collect current information from as many sources as practically possible.
    2. Orient – analyze this information, and use it to update your current reality.
    3. Decide – determine a course of action.
    4. Act – follow through on your decision.

And remember, in the end…

“The greatness is not what we do, but unavoidably it is always in how we do what we do.”

– Swami Chinmayananda

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Brutally Honest Tips for Being a Better Employee

In pretty much any industry, we are, at some point, in the position of working for and/or managing someone else. My anal-retentive, compulsive people-pleaser personality makes me a bit more naturally inclined to make sure all T’s are crossed and I’s are dotted – thinking seven steps ahead to avoid a client freak-out. It’s probably not all that dissimilar to the mindset the child of an alcoholic/abusive parent might have – keenly aware of what to do/not do in order to avoid a violent outburst. It’s twisted, but it is effective. Learning how to cultivate but control your ultra-paranoia and use it for good – not evil – can be a great skill in corporate America.

And so, in the spirit of eco-entrepreneur/writer Shea Gunther’s no-holds-barred email response to 900 job applicants, “42 Job Application Do’s and Don’ts,” I wanted to share my personal list of no-holds-barred, balls to the wall, brutally honest account management do’s and don’ts with the hope that it can help someone out there climb the slippery corporate ladder. Godspeed.

Brutally Honest Account Management Tips

Managing the client

  • Constantly assume the client thinks you’re not doing anything they’ve asked you to do or that you said you would: so check in regularly, follow-up regularly, close the loop – always
  • If you’re pushing out a specific initiative, make sure to give the client a recap daily and weekly (or ask what frequency they want)
  • In every communication, remind them of the strategy/why you’re doing what you’re doing or suggesting what you’re suggesting
  • Be clear, direct, and kind in your emails. Don’t use 10 words when you can use 5. And use bullets rather than paragraphs
  • Be buttoned up in meetings and on calls:
    • Always have an agenda – and send it IN ADVANCE of the meeting
    • Have copies of everything for everyone – even things you may not expect to reference
    • Reserve a conference room!
    • Arrive 15 minutes early; get on the conference line 2 minutes early
    • Decide ahead of time who will speak to what and make sure you’re on the same page in terms of recommendations
    • Always send a “next steps” email within 1 hour of the meeting/call
  • Do not deliver important documents after 5 pm before a call the next day; give the client at least 24 hours to review something before you expect them to discuss it
  • Be transparent – but only when it makes you look good; the client does not need to know  how the sausage is made
  • If you’re going to miss a deadline, let them know ahead of time and have a legitimate reason why
  • Acknowledge client emails within a reasonable period of time (15 minutes) – even if just to say you received their note and you’re working on it
  • Clients want answers; they don’t want questions
  • Be efficient and quick in your turnaround on projects, but do not over-promise. If you need more time, set a comfortable deadline at the outset – factoring in development and review time
  • When emailing clients, use “we” instead of “I” – it covers your butt but also shows a united front
  • Don’t do anything alone
  • Don’t automatically say yes to larger projects/new tasks that are a bit beyond scope – check with your team first and then respond
  • Don’t get sucked into a heated back-and-forth with a client over email; pick up the phone and talk it out
  • While the client is always right, it’s important to make them realize when they’re wrong – and why
  • Don’t be afraid to defend your team to the client when warranted; clients ultimately respect this
  • Do not deliver documents after 6 pm
  • If a client is the one sending check-in emails/asking for updates, something’s wrong. You should always be the one checking in or touching base with them first
  • Clients are people too

Managing your team

  • Be exceptionally clear on tasks and deadlines
  • When setting deadlines, suggest a deadline and ask if it’s reasonable
  • Assume your team will forget deadlines; remember to follow-up on items before they’re due, particularly those with longer lead-times (they’ll usually be forgotten) – something like “you all set with the monthly report for today?” or “need any help with the recap?” are nice ways to do so
  • Set up reminders for your team in outlook (e.g., “Reminder: Deliver draft proposal to Jane by noon”)
  • If a mistake is made, talk to the person about it and make sure he/she understands why it’s a mistake. Get them to understand where you’re coming from. Do not scold – this just makes everyone feel worthless
  • Don’t be afraid to give strong, critical feedback if the same mistake has been made on multiple occasions – but make sure it happens in real time, in private. If the error is not acceptable, say so and why. But approach it with a “you’re better than this” attitude. Ask what more you can do to help them succeed
  • Be flexible with colleagues that have proven themselves and earned your trust; be stern with those who haven’t
  • Make sure your team knows the scope of work
  • Make sure your team knows the hours they’re expected to work on the account
  • Make sure your team feels comfortable asking questions
  • Make sure your team knows to tell you ahead of time if a deadline will be missed
  • Delegate, delegate, delegate: it improves account efficiency, it’s more profitable and it helps everyone learn to do their job better. Don’t be afraid to have a more junior staffer take a first stab at a more “senior level” document; it’s great for employee growth and it’s incredibly helpful to have a draft to start with, rather than a blank document
  • Have weekly internal check-ins at the beginning of the week to make sure everyone knows what’s expected of them that week; have an agenda and assignments for that meeting
  • Build in time between meetings
  • Block off travel time for meetings
  • Ask for a draft of documents at least 24 hours before it’s due to the client – more time the better
  • Ask to review all emails to the client before they are sent
  • Make sure the full team is copied on email exchanges
  • Flag email requests to your team to make sure they know who is handling; set a deadline
  • Make sure your team understands that you don’t expect the content to be perfect in a first draft, but that there are certain errors that are not acceptable: spelling mistakes, grammar mistakes, formatting mistakes, URL mistakes, title mistakes, date mistakes, logo mistakes, etc.
  • Have a clean folder on the server – and ALWAYS SAVE DOCUMENTS TO THE SERVER; make sure folder names make sense, and include an “Old drafts” folder for old versions and avoid clutter
  • Establish a file-naming system. For example:
    • DESCRIPTOR – DRAFT 1
    • DESCRIPTOR – DRAFT 1 SB EDITS
    • DESCRIPTOR – DRAFT 2
    • DESCRIPTOR – DATE (always include the date on the version submitted to the client)
    • DESCRIPTOR – DATE FINAL (always make it clear when a doc is finalized)
  • Always be quick with praise when it’s deserved; and always look for opportunities to give positive feedback in front of senior colleagues (on email or in person) – it will matter more to the recipient
  • If you wouldn’t say it to your boss’s face, don’t put it in an email
  • Don’t be condescending; you’re not that smart and they’re not that dumb
  • Be empathetic, but don’t complain down
  • Your job is to make the team look good by making sure they have the tools to succeed; it’s the team’s job to make you look good
  • Colleagues are people too

Miscellaneous

  • Do the small things first; then the big things – otherwise you’ll forget the little things
  • Perfection is the enemy of done. Constantly strive to find a balance between perfection and efficiency
  • Set up your email to auto spellcheck when you hit send
  • Block off time on your calendar to get big projects done
  • Always include page numbers on a document
  • Set up reminders on your calendar; particularly when it comes to recurring deliverables (agendas) or items you’ll need to follow-up on weeks down the line
  • Good, smart content is obviously critical, but it means nothing if the document looks ugly or cluttered
  • Politics are an inherent part of corporate America. Don’t try to play someone else’s game. Learn what your game is and stick to it. And remember that not playing the game is still playing the game. That said, the best way to stay above it is to make sure your work speaks for yourself
  • Make sure you have something in your life that is more important to you than work

Confessions of an Ivy League Frat-Hater

I read with childlike excitement Rolling Stone’s review of Confessions of an Ivy League [Dartmouth] Frat Boy. Maybe someday I’ll read the book too. I can’t tell you how giddy it made me to see someone else tear down the atrocity that is Greek life (in my opinion).

The title of this post was initially going to be “I hate exclusivity – unless I’m included.” But I’m not sure that’s true.

As my husband can attest, I have issues with “better than you” groups – however I subjectively choose to define “better.” Usually it means cooler, prettier, smarter, stronger, wealthier, more important and successful – even if I’m not quite convinced that behind the pearly gates are cooler, prettier, smarter, stronger, smarter, wealthier, more important and successful people.

The hypocrisy of this feeling is not lost on me. I went to an elitist school. I played on a sports team, which can be exclusive. My defense has usually been that these are things that are earned through good behaviors, available to anyone and have a positive impact on society. But that’s also not really true. It’s not a level playing field. It’s not fair. And we’re not all saving the world.

I definitely have my issues with being a Harvard graduate. I felt – and still feel – uncomfortable in any position other than under dog. I don’t feel proud of my alma mater. I squirm when people ask where I went to school. I hate giving an evasive answer. I hate that, by avoiding the question, I’m assuming that saying “I went to Harvard” would be bragging. Which in turn means that I think everyone sees Harvard as “super awesome.” Which makes me an arrogant – if not conflicted – prick. Answering that question is lose-lose.

I love that I went to a public high school. I bring that up in every conversation possible – in great detail. But college? I went to school in Boston. Next question?

Anyways, what does this have to do with frat culture?

Here’s the thing. When I was in high school and looking at colleges, frat/sorority/Greek life meant nothing to me except what I saw in the movies. Which was drinking. And I was terrified of drinking. I seriously thought one sip of alcohol would ruin my life. So as far as I was concerned, sororities were something intimidating and somehow dangerous that I’d rather avoid. Something I wasn’t cool enough to even be comfortable enough to try to join. And, sure, in some way that probably made me feel like a loser. (single tear)

Once I got to college, alcohol and I became better friends. But Harvard’s frat-equivalent “Finals Clubs” and the few female versions (without real estate – no female social clubs at Harvard have a house) remained at arm’s length.

At the core of this distancing, was there an element of social anxiety and insecurity? Absolutely. Did I not feel pretty enough, social enough, outgoing enough to join? Yes. Is that where my fundamental disdain for such groups came from? Probably. But I think it’s matured from the reaction of a scorned loser to thoughts of a relatively confident, stable individual.

From this vantage point of oh-so-clear maturity, here’s what, like, bugs me about social clubs (and admittedly these apply more to frats than sororities):

  • You have to pay to be a member
  • One of the main points is to binge drink
  • As a girl, you often risk rape by entering a frat
  • They help the people who don’t really need help – whether that’s in terms of connections and future employment or answers to a final exam
  • They foster a blindness to reality, a sense of being above the law
  • They make you think things that are not okay, are okay
  • They’re exclusive for the sake of being exclusive
  • Hazing is wrong. In any way shape or form. If you want real bonding, join the military. Don’t swim in poop.
  • They can dominate the social landscape, in a negative way
  • They’re governed by an unquestioning belief in tradition: “we do it this way because it’s always been done this way.” Which leaves little room for anyone to stand up to the establishment.
  • They encourage cultish, group-think

Am I aware of the benefits of frats and sororities? I think so. Camaraderie is an incredibly important thing especially in a new environment like college. Feeling like you belong or are “part of something” is another. Friendships in general. Stress relief. The “play hard” of the “work hard/play hard” mentality. College memories. Many support charities and engage in community outreach. I’m certainly not above alcohol-induced deep “life” talks. Maybe brilliant, world-changing/saving ideas have been born over a pong table. But I guess I’d prefer that these positives came from something that had a better impact on those in and outside of it in the short and long term. Late nights at the paper, perhaps. Or road trips with your sports team (though yes, I know hazing happens in sports). Rehearsals. Drinks at a bar or in the privacy of your own dorm room.

I know it’s human nature to self-segregate – to find the people “like you” and create a group that’s “not them.” But by institutionalizing it (as Greek life does) and making it exclusive (as Greek life also does), we’re (a) saying it’s okay if not even a good thing and (b) putting too much power in the hands of kids. Who are motivated by kid things. And who are using the power to do harm rather than good.

Based on poor internet research, looks like we’ve strayed significantly from the origins of Greek life. Apparently the first frat, Phi Beta Kappa, was founded in 1776 at William & Mary. Membership was generally restricted to upperclassmen, if not seniors; and men initiated as students remained active in the society after becoming members of the faculty of the host university. They held regular meetings and emphasized “rhetoric, composition, and acting in a gentlemanly manner.”

If we could turn back time…

I guess ultimately I don’t blame the frat and sorority kids, who don’t know any better (though perhaps they should). I blame the institutions that condone it by looking the other way and largely doing nothing. It’s their job – is it not? – to provide a safe environment for learning – about academics and life. And maybe sharing a brooski or two.

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Lessons in Leadership from Margaret Thatcher

I’m chugging through The Iron Lady, John Campbell’s biography of Margaret Thatcher, after watching the biopic of the same title, starring Meryl Streep (love you, Meryl). I really enjoyed the film, but assumed it Hollywood-ized Thatcher. So I’m doing some fact-checking, I suppose, by reading Campbell’s tour de force. Apparently the British writer condensed the original two volumes down to a slim 576 pages in order to make the story more accessible (aka – so American idiots could read it). Thank you, Mr. Campbell.

But that Maggie. What. A. Woman.

More than learning about Thatcher’s politics, I wanted to know about Thatcher’s experience as a female leader – how she managed as a woman, what she did to earn respect and power in a male-dominated world and how she ultimately made her gender a non-issue.

I have to admire her tenacity and ability to set her sights on something (in this case, Prime Minister), and commit to its pursuit without compromise.

A particularly clever move she made in order to gain a male following was to consciously – I assume – tap into “female types: established role models of women in positions of authority whom men were used to obeying.” As Campbell writes:

Thus she was the Teacher, patiently but with absolute certainty explaining the answers to the nation’s problems: and the Headmistress exhorting the electorate to pull its socks up. She was Doctor Thatcher, or sometimes Nurse Thatcher, prescribing nasty medicine or a strict diet which the voters knew in their hearts would be good for them. Finally she was Britannia, the feminine embodiment of patriotism, wrapping herself unselfconsciously in the Union Jack.

I find this fascinating. And brilliant. It means, to a certain degree, that she was most effective leading as a woman, not as a man.

In my experience in corporate America, I’ve found this to be a hard lesson for women in leadership positions to learn.

Many of my female superiors have felt the need to abide by male standards in order to do their job effectively – denying feminine characteristics in order to prove their seniority. I’ve heard supporting anecdotes from friends – male and female. Risking insolence in the name of honesty, seems that older women in senior positions tend to share a few common characteristics: overly critical, demanding, confrontational and defensive.

No doubt this is a carry-over from the incredible women before me that actually had to play “man” in order to break the glass ceiling – the women who fought tooth and nail to get through the door at male-dominated institutions. I’d imagine that these women feel (because they have long felt) threatened. They have to prove their worth at every turn – which really means proving that they’re better than everyone else. Again – I get where this comes from. Women long had to outperform every man in the room in order to have a voice. But I’m hopeful the workplace is changing away from requiring this kind of behavior from women. Speaking just from my personal experience, I’d say it is – at least in certain industries. And women need to take advantage.

Thatcher is a useful example of a woman who learned to lay down her feminist arms once the battle had been won. By Campbell’s account, when it came to Thatcher’s first campaign for Prime Minister, “she no longer needed to prove that she was tough enough for the job: it was becoming a cliché, as David Wood noted in The Times, to say that she was ‘the best man among them.’ What she now had to do was to make a virtue of her femininity.”

I don’t completely love that Thatcher “had” to do anything regarding her gender – that forcing femininity was a tactic. But I do like that being a woman was acceptable – and effective.

I came across an interesting piece in the Harvard Business Review from psychologist Leslie Pratch on women in leadership, “Why Women Leaders Need Self-Confidence.” Don’t be completely fooled by the title. Self-confidence goes a bit deeper than internal cheerleading. According to Pratch, it is a key element of “active coping,” defined as “a set of behaviors central to executive success.” Read: better active coping skills means better leadership ability.

According to Pratch’s research, the qualities that make a man a great leader are not the same qualities that make a woman a great leader: “To the extent that women who are leaders exhibit a masculine style, they amplify their role conflict and increase the chances of receiving unfairly negative evaluations.”

Some key findings (in laymen’s terms) are below. These are characteristics, evaluated based on whether they hurt or help women and men establish their leadership position among colleagues:

  • Readiness to articulate sources of frustration and difficulties – good for women; bad for men
  • Defensive vagueness and ambiguity – bad for women; good for men
  • Self-confidence and self-esteem – good for women; bad for men

Ultimately, Pratch suggests that women are expected to be women at work. And their failure to do so actually hurts their leadership: “Women are expected to display high levels of social (communal) qualities, including needs for affiliation, a tendency to be self-sacrificing, concern with others, spontaneity, and emotional expressiveness.”

My favorite finding: “For women, the ability to identify and face difficulties in the external world openly and non-defensively predicted leadership beyond any chance occurrence.”

I’ll drink to that. It’s my active coping technique of choice.

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Jennifer Lawrence too fat to play Katniss? Really?

The other weekend I happily plunked myself down in the near-front row of a packed theater to watch The Hunger Games. The movie was fine. Good. Maybe even great. But I was captivated by Jennifer Lawrence. What a strong actor – strong in every sense of the word. She commanded her body, the screen, the character with confidence. If I were a tribute, I’d find some way to form an alliance with her – maybe even pull a Peeta and fall in love with her.

I left the theater feeling so proud of Lawrence and so grateful to her as a role model. Finally Hollywood decided to put a “normal sized” girl on the screen in a role that didn’t involve her being saved – but her actually doing the saving. I guarantee you that her leading presence in that film validated thousands if not millions of girls around the world. Whether we like it or not, we want stars to be just like us – and even more, for us to be just like stars. Seeing a woman with a real person’s body on screen was such a relief!

It also doesn’t hurt that Lawrence has been so vocal about her distaste for her industry’s obsession with skinny. I love hearing her matter-of-factly state that she doesn’t diet. Seemingly, issues of weight and calories are beneath her. As they should be (and I hope they really are). She’s focused on better, more important things – like actually being able to act.

Yet, much to my disappointment (though not surprise) the media has attacked Lawrence, not for her performance (which critics largely agree was excellent), but for her body. Check out The New York Times, Hollywood Reporter, Hollywood Elsewhere, to whet your palate. “Big boned,” “her seductive, womanly figure makes a bad fit,” “didn’t look hungry enough,” “lingering baby fat” – yep, they’re all in there. What makes this all even worse is that her actual ability to act is completely disregarded. The focus is on her physique.

I want to cry. What the crap, people!?

Female bloggers and journalists have come to her defense, such as these pieces from Slate and Salon. But it just deeply concerns me that the world cannot move past this – or maybe it’s a few voices that are louder than the rest. We had the “one sugar plum too many” ballerina debacle, we just watched singer Demi Lovato’s brave documentary of her career-stopping struggle with eating disorders, and there are countless other women who have been pressured to shrink in the spotlight (not to mention the millions of others outside the spotlight).

I can’t help but feel that the media is taking the legs out from under every strong woman out there. And in doing so, is setting the example/sustaining the language of weight abuse. So much attention is being paid to the bullying documentary, which I have yet to see. But this treatment is nothing short of bullying – in public.

I sincerely hope that Lawrence is able to continue to stand up against the critics — to maintain ownership of her body. How she feeds herself after all this will make a huge difference to millions. We need role models. Girls and women who are confident, strong and unapologetic about their bodies, no matter what the size.

Now that’s a role I’d love to see Lawrence volunteer for with the spirit of Katniss. There are so many Prims out there needing to be saved.

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Why I Quit Facebook

I know Mark Zuckerberg as well as I used to know most of my Facebook friends. Which is to say – not very well.

We wandered the same campus as undergrads, attending that small school just outside Boston. I had friends who shared dining-hall meals with him and bumped into him in the halls. I was actually studying abroad when the whole Facemash debacle occurred. And by the time I returned to school, everyone asked me to Facebook them. I had no idea what they were talking about.

Obviously in the years since, the world and I have changed.

Like millions of others, I created a Facebook account that I obsessively checked and maintained. When the service was opened up to high schoolers and then to the general public, I was appalled. When the user interface morphed every 1.5 years, I was annoyed. But more importantly, when Annie broke up with her boyfriend, John moved across the country for a new job, Tom and his new wife had a baby before they were married, or Mary got a bad haircut – I noticed. And I cared.

Addiction

On good days I would check Facebook once a day (and those were very good days). On bad days, I’d check it after showering; on the bus to work; waiting in line for coffee; every 10 minutes at work; while watching TV in the evenings; until the very last second before a plane took off. Let’s just say that I was like 90 percent of you. Addicted.

I’ll admit I have an addictive personality. I can spot the deep green of a Starbucks a mile away and instinctively find the fastest route to get there. I could eat hummus for days. I went through a bizarre phase of having foamed milk with every meal. Exercise routines are rarely broken.

When the rich blue of Facebook was on the screen, it welcomed me with open arms to the party I was never previously cool enough to attend. I loved dropping witty comments on friends’ walls. I loved sharing articles of interest and seeing how many likes I could rack up. I loved clicking through hundreds of photos to see the evolution of Jessica from high school kid to housewife. I loved obsessing over what someone’s status update really meant.

In the real world, driving by someone’s house three times would be considered stalking. There is no such law in Facebook land. Nope. You can creep on Deb’s profile to your heart’s content. And plenty of people do.

I defended my habits. I embraced the Australian study that claimed access to Facebook made better employees. I told everyone how nice it was to be able to stay connected and reconnect with friends from long ago. I credited Facebook with keeping many of my friendships alive as I jumped from continent to continent, state to state.

But then the tide started to shift.

More and more articles on the negative emotional impact of using Facebook started to catch my eye. I noticed that seeing the professional success of someone left me feeling inadequate. I found myself checking the newsfeed more frequently than there were updates (that’s a sad moment; you know what I’m talking about). It felt a little odd – even wrong – to know the color scheme of a wedding I wasn’t invited to and the sex of an unborn baby I would probably never meet. I would randomly bump into people and have to decide whether to play dumb and, for example, ask if they were still dating so-and-so or just go right ahead and tell them how sorry I was about the breakup. I actually thought about how many “likes” I’d get when I updated my relationship status to “engaged.”

Quitting

At the time, I was living in tech-loving San Francisco, three time zones away from “home.” Staying in touch, however superficially, still seemed worth it.

But then I moved to Manhattan. Where Facebook friends live. I could I could grab drinks with Tom, Dick and Harry; meet up with Mollie and see how a career in law is treating her; have dinner with Sally, who I hadn’t seen since freshman year.

And I did.

And it was deeply disappointing.

The amazing, successful, interesting profiles I had so diligently befriended online did not show up. Instead, their creators did. And we had nothing to talk about.

These meetings were probably the most compelling “you gotta quit” experiences until a few months later at 12:40 am on a random Tuesday. I had just finished doing some work in bed while my husband slept next to me. Instead of shutting down, curling up, and joining him in dream land – I logged onto Facebook. Just 5 minutes, I thought.

Something was so very wrong with this picture. In a moment of divine clarity, I deactivated my account on the spot.

Well, it took a few minutes. Facebook, like a good friend, doesn’t let you go easy. You have to go on a serious scavenger hunt for the “deactivate my account” link, explain why your relationship with Facebook just didn’t work out, and decide whether you ever want to speak again (yes, you could continue to receive Facebook email updates even after deactivating). Then you’re subjected to photos of your friends with Facebook telling you how much David, Jen and Ryan are going to miss you — their profile pictures staring at you like adorable puppies in a pound. How could you leave us!?

But, a heartless bitch, I persevered. I deactivated my account, dammit – which really just meant my Facebook life was on hold until I signed in again. But somehow it felt more permanent.

Withdrawal

The next few weeks were something akin to caffeine or alcohol withdrawal.

In the moment of deactivation I was exhilarated, proud, a little nervous — but alone. I went into work the next day and actually felt lonely without this “nest” of friends I had carefully curated. I felt like I was missing out on the discussions, events and news of a whole community.

As a replacement drug, I started surfing celebrity gossip sites – something I honestly never did before. Celebrities would become my new friends.

I received an email notice that @IHateFacebook decided to follow me on Twitter. Phew.

The following days and weeks were a mix of loneliness and heightened awareness:

  • I itched to log on and, without thinking, found myself typing “Facebook” into my browser.
  • I felt like I didn’t have as many friends as I used to.
  • I wanted to know what was going on in other people’s lives, but didn’t want to call them.
  • When something happened in my life, good or bad, I wanted to share it. Not in a long phone conversation, but in a short, ambiguous status update.
  • I’d come across articles that I would’ve loved to share with my Facebook friends, but couldn’t. Directly emailing them to a select few felt too invasive. And on the few occasions that I did, they rarely responded.
  • My eyes were opened to the social layer built into everything online. That insidious blue bubble ‘F’ was everywhere. I couldn’t even donate to some causes because I wasn’t on Facebook.

When I told friends and colleagues that I had quit, they were all amazed. And envious. Wow, good for you. I hate Facebook. I wish I could quit too! I’ve actually had a few friends contact me by email to ask, tentatively, if I had quit Facebook – and were so relieved when I said yes. Oh good! I thought you had de-friended me!

Clarity

After about a month, the symptoms of withdrawal seemed to finally disappear. I didn’t want to log on. I was so relieved not to have to worry about what unflattering photo was going to be tagged next, whether John got that job, Tim had a shotgun wedding or Mary got an ugly haircut. I paid more attention to conversations. I read more real news. I was more productive, more present. I felt liberated.

I could just live and be me in the only place that it truly matters: real life.

In fact, now if I glance at a stranger’s computer and see Facebook, it gives me chills. Like going back to coffee after quitting caffeine – it is way too much. It seems crazy to post huge pictures of yourself for everyone to stare at; to voluntarily update the world on your latest romantic escapades and exotic vacations; to list, carefully, your interests, favorite books, movies, and quotes.

Are we insane?

And not only that. It deeply disturbs me to know that people (not to mention corporations) are fastidiously poring over the intimate details of your life. And I know they are. Because I did. Or at least I used to.

Maybe someday I’ll go back to “the ‘book.” Maybe it will become impossible for people to exist in the world without an account. I hope not. I’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons from quitting Facebook that have made me very skeptical of the dominant social network – and concerned about the future it’s creating for us all. Lessons that will also make me a much healthier “Facebooker” should I ever reactivate my account.

I’d encourage you all to try your own experiment with Facebook abstinence to learn these lessons yourselves – because it’s the only way you’ll every really believe them. In the meantime, though, here they are – a living list.

What I’ve Learned from Quitting Facebook (so far)

  • There are reasons we lose touch with people – and that process is also an important part of growing up. We are not who we were at 13. Neither are our friends or our friendships.
  • Don’t forget to distinguish between the profile and the person. “Selective Facebooking” creates an incomplete and often carefully painted picture. Don’t be fooled. Nobody’s life is all beaches and bonuses.
  • Facebook is an excellent way to get lots of people to look at something – for better or worse.
  • For older generations, Facebook is a wonderful thing. A nice perk. Because they’ve grown up without it. For the rest of us, it’s another place in which we need to figure out who we are and who we want to be.
  • People really are paying attention to what we do on Facebook. What we do online echoes in eternity.
  • Facebook can be a great way to feel cooler than we are.
  • Facebook can be a great way to feel more incompetent than we are.
  • Imperfection is reality. Perfection is for cyberspace.
  • I’m fine without it.
Some great articles I highly recommend checking out:

The Facebook Resisters” by Jenna Wortham, The New York Times

Facebook is Using You” by Lori Andrews, The New York Times

Facebook is Making us Miserable” by Daniel Gulati, Harvard Business Review

Social Media’s Envy Effect” by Don Peppers, Fast Company

The Facebook Eye” by Nathan Jurgenson, The Atlantic

Man Who Temporarily Disables Facebook Account Deems Self ‘Off The Grid,’The Onion

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Women in a Girl’s World

“One is not born a woman, one becomes one.” – Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex

In my few years in the corporate world, I’ve learned many things – the difference between looking busy and being busy, the fact that how a PPT looks is often more important than what it says, the value of a well-written, short email, the importance of knowing where the other bathroom is.

One thing I still haven’t learned is how to be a woman in the office. And I have a sneaky suspicion it may be because I’m unclear how to be a woman in the world – particularly this American world.

At the risk of tossing out gross generalizations, I’m going to toss a few out there anyway. We live in a world where grown mothers shop at Forever 21, where a jeans company called “Not Your Daughter’s Jeansexists, where youth is embraced and age is shamed, where plastic surgery spending is considered an economic indicator, where Sandra Fluke is called a slut for using birth control, where women should be sexy but not sexual. And don’t even get me started on the prevalence of eating disorders and the quest to stop growing in any direction…

We live in a world built for girls. And yet here we are. Despite our best efforts. Women.

Growing up, we had girl power (yes it even has a website!). We had the Spice Girls. We had Britney Spears. We had Foudy, Lilly and Hamm of the front-page-news women’s national team. We had Kerri Strug. We had Buffy.

But what now? Woman power?

Of the people in my world, it’s the very rare few who are comfortable even describing themselves as a woman. Just the word itself carries some sort of stigma. Being a “woman” is dangerous. Threatening. Too commanding and forthright. Old. “I’m a woman” carries some sort of feminist statement. “I’m a girl” feels youthful and exciting. Even pretty. If I’m brutally honest about it.

This is all screwy and maybe it will pass. Maybe it’s just part of growing up. Maybe it’s a Britney “not a girl, not yet a woman” moment (Britney, you slay me with your words!) and I just need to shave my head once as some rite of passage into womanhood.

One of my heroes, Tina Fey, has a particularly poignant passage in her book Bossypants (read it! you’ll laugh). While writing Mean Girls, she attended a workshop led by Rosalind Wiseman (author of Queen Bees and Wannabes). Fey describes what happened when Wiseman asked the group to explain when they felt “like a grown woman and not a girl:”

The group of women was racially and economically diverse, but the answers had a very similar theme. Almost everyone first realized they were becoming a grown woman when some dude did something nasty to them. “I was walking home from ballet and a guy in a car yelled, ‘Lick me!’” “I was babysitting my younger cousins when a guy drove by and yelled, ‘Nice ass.’” There were pretty much zero examples like “I first knew I was a woman when my mother and father took me out to dinner to celebrate my success on the debate team.” It was mostly men yelling shit from cars. Are they a patrol sent out to let girls know they’ve crossed into puberty? If so, it’s working.

Is it really true that a woman’s sense of self – as a woman – is contingent upon the actions of a man? Do boys not feel like men until a woman says so? For whatever reason, most of the guys in my life seem quite comfortable and adjusted to being men, as opposed to boys. While the theory goes that girls mature, emotionally, earlier than boys. Seems we become women much later than boys become men.

There’s a lot more to say on this topic and there’s no clear problem, let alone solution. So we’ll need to revisit it again. But my last, leading thought is that girls becoming women has a lot more to do with women than it does with guys. It’s us being uncomfortable with ourselves, competitive and critical of each other that holds us back.

A man loves a woman. Just not so sure girls do…

The problem that has no name – which is simply the fact that American women are kept from growing to their full human capacities – is taking a far greater toll on the physical and mental health of our country than any known disease.

Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique

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