Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Woman Studied, Danielle P Valiquette

In my first year of university, I had the same shoulder-length, razor-cut, and layered hairstyle as every girl I graduated high school with. On most days, after spending 45 minutes blow-drying my natural waves straight, I wore a simple ponytail. I spent another 45 minutes applying make-up—so that I looked like I wasn’t wearing any. As I preformed my beauty rituals, I peered through photos of camping trips, high school graduation, a trip to Miami over last year’s March Break, taped to my dresser mirror’s outer edge. Ex-boyfriends meticulously ripped from the photos, a mutated arm around my shoulder the only evidence of their existence. An assortment of curling irons, crimpers, blow dryers, hair gels, and make-up littered my childhood bureau. Stuck on the deep pink wall above the mirror was a bumper sticker that read:

“I have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that
people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me
from a doormat.” Rebecca West.
For the final act in my style sacrament, I choose the cleanest clothing from the assortment of designer jeans and name brand t-shirts scattered across my bedroom floor.

List:
Required Bedroom Updates
Replace white eyelet duvet.
Find
keys for childhood diaries.
Organize back issues of Ms. and
Cosmopolitan.
Dust and store dolls being used as bookends

I rode the bus—the 95 West—each morning, from my parent’s home to Carleton University, where I had yet to declare a major. The Mountain Equipment Co-Op knapsack my mother purchased for me as a high school graduation present, overstuffed with the assigned texts, rested weightily on my back, reminding me of my active pursuit of enlightenment. In those books, I discovered Susanna Moodie, Margaret Atwood, and Emma Goldman.

List:
MEC Backpack Contents
An Anthology of Canadian Literature in English Oxford
by Russell Brown
Canadian Woman Studies: An Introductory Reader by Nuzhat
Amin
M·A·C Viva Glam lipstick
Toothbrush and toothpaste
1 pair of
clean bikini briefs

Unlike my high school classrooms, the university lecture halls were filled with the unfamiliar. Without even leaving the city I had been raised in, I discovered an underground annex of difference. Yet, in Introduction to Women’s Studies, as in my suburban high school English class, each group sat segregated from one another. A small number of boys in baseball caps arrived noisily, like a buzzing swarm of bees, to sit at the far left of the hall. Presumably, from this vantage point, they surveyed the hall for good-looking girls. They must have felt their odds were good. Women dressed in baggy sweatshirts and loose-fitting jeans sat at the front, directly behind the teaching assistants. They wore their uniform wool work socks and Birkenstock sandals even in Ottawa’s cold winter months. They arrived to class either in singles or in silent couples, stopping only to smile at their mirror images. Out of their thrift store knapsacks, they liberated an arsenal of notepads, pens, and books. They wore no make up or jewellery and I envied their freedom.

On one Wednesday evening, in February, I had spent even longer than usual getting ready. Madonna played on my CD player as I fussed with my waves, primping for the pub Hillary and I were going to after tonight’s class. As I walked into the lecture hall, I became mortally aware of my obvious extensive efforts as compared to the majority of the women in the class. It took great will power to resist the urge to put a paper bag over my head, and I might have done, had my hands not been full with the two No-Fat Vanilla Lattes I carried.

“Over here, Nat.” Hillary called from the last row. I made my way to the seat next to her, and before I put down my knapsack, I handed her the lattes to hold while I got settled. Hil looked cute, as always. Iridescent pink shadow—MAC’s Sweet Lust, strategically placed under meticulously plucked eyebrow arches—accented her eyes.

“To keep you awake.” I smiled.

“I don’t know why this class has to be at night. We’ll have to wait in line now to get into the bar.” She handed me back my latte as I sat down. “Hey, you do the readings?”

The preceding week Professor Whitney-Knowles had assigned two chapters—Chapter Three Culture and Chapter Four Religion—in Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth. I read the entire text.

“Yeah.” I whispered as the Professor Whitney-Knowles walked in and immediately began discussing the results of the last assignment.

In her hands was a small sampling of essays that were, in her words, “excellent examples” of what she expected from her students.

“Will your hottie be at the bar?” Hil asked. She referred to a guy in my Canadian Literature class I had been eyeing for weeks.

“Not sure. He wasn’t in class yesterday.” I said. “Quiet for a second, I think the Prof is reading my essay.” The assignment had been on the history of the women’s movement, through an exploration of the first and second waves of feminism. I had handed my paper into the teaching assistant for feedback two weeks before the actual due date, and had spent over a week incorporating her comments. “Oh my God. It really is my paper. Who knew?”

*

Over the course of our second year, Hillary declared first English, then Philosophy, and then finally landed on Psychology. I decided to declare Women’s Studies. The class population shrivelled to a fraction of the introductory courses. We sat at desks in smaller classrooms instead of in soulless auditoriums. The professors learned our names and smiled when they passed us in the halls. There were more Birkenstocks than kitten heels. The Ball Caps were all gone.

The former Women of the Front Row dominated the discussion groups. Liberal feminist values were questioned and lowered in the hierocracy of feminist thought. Radical, Socialist, and Marxist Feminism rose above the rest to become the chosen methodology. In 1996, all the cool kids were doing socialism.

From the back of the class, I listened to these women discuss the plight of lesbians and the double-whammy oppression of the black female. My heroines discredited, such as Susan B. Anthony, who was exposed as a supporter of the forced sterilization of black women, instead of celebrating her for her role in the enfranchisement of women. The professors lectured, and the students echoed, that this white woman fought only for the plight of her own.

The white, liberal feminist, only one peg lower than the white male, marginalized all others. “White” insinuated more adjectives than simply ethnicity: It implied middle-class, heterosexual, and privileged. To relieve the weight of my labels, I read and reread my assigned readings. I wrote papers on Canada’s aboriginals and actively pursued gay friends. I questioned how I could ever, as a white, middle-class heterosexual, know what it was like to be black, gay, or poor.
After class, the Women of the Front Row gathered in a cave of a café, as dark and murky as coffee itself. The air was heavy with the smells of hazelnut, and vanilla. They sat in groups of five or six, occasionally accompanied by Professor Whitney-Knowles. Their conversations alternated between hushed seriousness and boisterous debate. Despite not being able to hear clearly from my table on the other side of the small café, I imagined their academic talk. Conversations about sustainable development, the role of women in the church, or possible tax breaks for working mothers. This was desperately important talk.

Mid-semester, while attempting to eavesdrop, I was invited to join the Women of the Front Row. Excited by the possibility of enlightened discourse, I expressed my concerns about the latest essay topic on the significance of the feminist slogan, “The personal is political,” and its relevance considering the diversity of third wave feminists, who found little sisterhood amongst the middle-class, white feminists of the first and second wave.

“I mean, academically, I can state the facts, but who am I to tell anyone what it’s like to be black, gay, disabled? How can I understand that?” Thinking my words profound, I directed them to Louisa or, Lou, as she preferred, the only black women amongst the group. An astonished face greeted me. “Does that make sense?” I asked.

“But it is your responsibility,” she said.

“My responsibility? Why?”

“As someone who is taking Women’s Studies. As someone who knows better.”

“Better than a black woman? Better than a Lesbian?”

My shoulders sunk into a disappointed hunch. The disbelief was more than my body could take. These women were supposed to be in profound awe of my words. I had played this conversation repeatedly in my head. In my daydreams, the Fronts Rows nodded with overwhelming approval. Perhaps one member of the group continued to disagree, but the persuasiveness of my arguments had won over the remainder of the group, and collectively we convinced any stragglers. It ended with smiles and accolades for me. “You know, Nat, I think you’re right. There are too many people out their claiming to understand an experience that is not their own.”

Instead, it went like this:

“I told you she doesn’t get it,” said a woman in an oversized, blue hoodie. “It is because of people like you—with your suburban middle class lives, too frightened to break out of what you know—that we will continue to be plagued by sexism, racism, by prejudice.

“You don’t know anything about me.” I squinted at my offender.

“I know everything about you. Daddy is paying for your education: He is not happy that you are majoring in Women’s Studies. You still live at home because, well why wouldn’t you? Mom, who never went back to work after having the kids, still does your laundry for you, makes your favourite meal on Sundays, and feels as strongly about shopping as you do.”

“Jules, I think that might be a little harsh,” Lou said.

“Harsh?” Jules turns to face her friend. “Harsh? People like her keep racism alive. It is people like her who are afraid to leave their comfy cocoon, afraid to push society’s pressure points, afraid to be anything but an airbrushed image from a fashion magazine.”

I took Jules’ linguistic change to the third person, and the fact that all backs were now turned to me and engaged in fierce debate (interestingly enough about me), as my cue to leave. I found Hillary in the library, researching a paper on the outer symbols of inner beauty in the works of Jane Austen. I tossed my knapsack on the large oak table causing Hillary, and the entire fifth floor of the library, to look up.

“You look like shit.” Hillary did not bother to whisper.

“Who me? The racist? You mean me, the person single handily responsible for the further oppression of the exploited?” I slumped into the seat across from her.

“You OK?” Hillary said.

“No. No, I am not OK. You know those girls from first year Women’s Studies? The ones who always sat in the front row? Well, I was having coffee with them. . .”

“They invited you for coffee? I didn’t think there was an opening in the club.” Hillary closed her copy of Pride and Prejudice. “Cute jeans, by-the-way.”

“Thanks, these are the ones I was telling you about. They were way too expensive, but I couldn’t resist.” I jumped up and turned around to show Hillary my butt. “But seriously, Hil, do you think that I am racist?” I said over my shoulder.

“You’re the most accepting, politically correct person I know. You, the president and founder of the Georgetown High School Peace and Unity club? The girl who, whenever I call something ‘gay’, like for example this essay I am writing, you ask me why I think it is homosexual? Besides aren’t you in the middle of writing some profound paper on being a black feminist?”

“See that’s the issue, I questioned if I should. If I can comment on an experience that is not my own.”

“Seems logical to me.”

“Me too. But trust me, I was the only one at that table who thought so.”

*

In second year, my school bag was heavier.

List:
Second Year MEC Carrier Bag Contents
Feminist Theory - from Margin to Center
by bell hooks
Gender, Sex and Sexuality by Gerda Siann
MAC Studio Fix
Powder Plus Foundation
2 Trojan Brand Ultra Thin Condoms

“I don’t know if this is such a good idea, Nat.” Hillary said.
It was an unusually quiet Friday night; Hillary and I had been experimenting with our hair in the dormitory bathroom she shared with a roommate. Despite this, Hillary’s hair and beauty products overwhelmed the small room and provided little evidence of another occupant. On the back of the toilet, stacks of wicker baskets held her hair ties, bandanas, and headbands in a rainbow of colours. The air was a weighty mixture of face powder combined with the green apple smell of Salon Selectives hairspray.
“Pass me that bottle.” I motioned for the lemon flavoured Smirnoff, which stood amidst the tangled cords of blow dryers and curling irons, on Hillary’s turquoise tiled bathroom counter.
“Have you met some guy who is into Sharon Stone’s hair or something?” She passed me the bottle before picking up the scissors.
“I want it shorter than that. Almost shaved.”
“You want me to shave your head?” She drew out the words shave and head.
The next day, I used part of my student loan to purchase half-carat diamond studs, which I wore out with the girls to a trendy martini bar, where the lambent lights cast everything a cool, steel blue. The four of us perched in the window on brushed nickel bar stools. The entire time, conscious of my unrobed facial features, I talked through the Molson Canadian I held in front of my face. It seemed to me my nose had grown overnight, that the imperfections of my skin were on display for everyone to critique. I had nothing to hide behind.
My final paper explored how women in university sports were undervalued, largely because of the fallacy that men’s university sports, in particular football, made money for their schools. I called my paper The Football Myth and thanked my new hair for the “A.”

*

List. Possible Career Option After Graduation:
Barista at Starbucks
Continue working at Chapters and perhaps pursue fulltime
position
Volunteer at women’s shelter
Breakdown, return to school, and
effectively prove to my father that my Women Studies degree would get me
nowhere

My mother, my usual victim, and father were away for the weekend celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary, so I invited Hillary over to practice for my final cosmetology exam. I cleared the breakfast bar of the usual fruit bowl and napkin holder so the natural light filtered through the patio doors to the right of the kitchen.
Hillary didn’t have her coat off before she broke the news to me. “Guess what.”
“You got that job at the phone centre?”
“Yes, actually but that isn’t my news.” She threw her red ski jacket over a stool. “Jake asked me to marry him last night!”
“Oh my God!”
After an hour of reciting every detail of the proposal from the romantic dinner to Hillary phoning her mother, my assignment of make-up for black and white photography was a mere memory.
“So, do you want to be the blushing bride, the princess, or the sex kitten on your big day?” I said, as I unpacked my silver tackle-box of a make-up kit.
“Something romantic for the wedding, maybe I’ll go a little vampy for the rehearsal
party. I am thinking a full skirt of tulle for the dress.” Hillary rummaged through the pots of shadow, blush, and finally, choosing a salmon-coloured lip shine, tested it on the back of her hand.
“How very Vera Wang of you. We should go down to that little boutique downtown. I have been dying for an excuse to go in.”
“That place on York? My dad would have a heart attack. Anyway, I’m sure my mom will make my dress.” She shrugged. “I know your parents aren’t thrilled about this whole cosmetic artist thing, but I have to tell you Nat, I think it’s great. Now, if I can find a friend who is a hairdresser before August, I’ll be all set.” Lines of peach, coral, ruby, plum, and fuchsia streaked her hand.
“At least I am making a little bit of money. I mean, it isn’t what I plan on doing for the rest of my life, but I enjoy it. And the discount on all the make-up is great. Here try this orchid lipstick, very princess bride.”
“I was thinking that the bride’s maids could be in canary yellow. And you, of course, will be my maid of honour.”
“Thanks, but are you sure about this? He’s a great guy and all, but he still wears tapered jeans.”
“I know. I know. But I am OK with that. I guess it must be love.” Hillary said, and I made a mental note to include this moment in my wedding speech.

List. Post-Secondary Education:
Bachelor in Arts Women Studies / English
Cosmetology Certification
Masters
of Business Administration
By 2003, I no longer wore the least malodorous t-shirt plucked from the bedroom floor. Tailored black suits and silk blouses hung in my closet, which I paired with shoes purchased on sale at Holt Renfrew. I wore the basic homogeneous uniform worn by every other software consultant on weekly flights to Wayne, Pennsylvania, Dearborn, Michigan, or Fort Worth, Texas. My black Samsonite carry-on luggage filled each Sunday evening with designer cosmetics, high-end hair products, and a copy of Macleans magazine. My employer, a firm specializing in retail price optimization, did not know that the tortoiseshell glasses I wore—which matched my chocolate brown hair with toffee highlights—were non-prescription. I pulled my hair back each day in a casual up-do. When entertaining clients, I strayed from my once signature Molson Canadian and instead went for the more sophisticated and acceptable Apple Martini. I learned the value of talking in sports analogies and acquired a taste for Cuban cigars.

List. Acceptable Drinks while Entertaining Clients:
Crème de Menthe
Dry Martini
Mojito
Manhattan
Gin and Tonic

At first, I loved the rich feel of the bars where we gathered in the evenings, collecting after lavish, expensed dinners of steak and a well-aged, dry red wine. No matter the American city, the hotel bar carried a faint yet comforting musky smell of alcohol and smoke. Forever, for me, the smell of men at work, of business being done. The wood accents warm and inviting, juxtaposed the strategically placed television sets, each showing a different sport. Each attendee, claiming he would only stay for one drink, he needed to call home, catch the kids before they went to bed. The clients displayed the same uniformity that our meeting places did. Eerily unwrinkled button-down shirts tucked into crisp chinos.
Tonight’s hotel bar was more than most: More smoky, more pungent, darker. The gleam of the black leather couches contrasted with the bar’s crimson red walls. A senior associate and I entertained three senior VP’s.
“So, Tom, we still need to discuss securing resources for this project. Has the leadership team discussed who you can dedicate for the next six months?” I said, after getting the attention of the VP of Technology, who had been speaking loudly with his colleague about Sunday’s football game.
“You a football fan, Natalie?” He said.
“Can’t say I am. Though I enjoy the odd hockey game.”
“Canadians.” He smiles.
“Yes, we Canadians are certainly fanatical about our sport.”
Looking for a way to smoothly transition back to discussing the project requirements, I try to link my preferred resource with the topic at hand. “I hear Steve is a big football fan.”
“Steve? Hell no. Not much of a sports fan that one. Good guy, just a bit different.”
“I think he’d be perfect for this project, can you free him up?”
“I have someone in mind. Don’t think it will be Steve.” He said.
As the night progresses, and the alcohol flows, one by one the VPs slink to the quieter lobby to take in-coming cell calls from their wives. Their conversations all begin with “I was just about to call you...” “Yeah, we were just grabbing a quick drink in the bar...” “No. No. We aren’t planning on being late...” “Yes, I am flying home tomorrow.”
“Natalie, maybe you can help us with a little debate we have been having,” said the VP of Technology.
Finally, I think, we are going to discuss the fact that the software’s delivery timeline must now be extended, or how the product will differentiate between two identical SKUs distributed in two separate geographical regions.
“How old are you? John and I have been debating this since you came on board last month.”
“Old enough to understand the complexity of your supply chain,” I said, with little hope of diverting them. I had lived this scenario before. After the initial “getting to know you” phase, the client bombards me with questions about my age, about when I graduated, and about the length of my career. These questions, always peppered with compliments about the quality of my work, are then followed by explanations regarding motivations. That, and don’t get them wrong, I was doing a fabulous job running the engagement, and they were asking only out of curiosity. They commented that perhaps I just looked young. However, they and I knew the truth, I didn’t look young: I was young.
I considered it part of my job, unavoidable, something to endure because I had achieved success so young, and therefore I allowed what I considered an acceptable amount of teasing before I gave in and answered all of their questions. I graciously accepted their exaggerated praise about being in my position so young and contemplated a less trendy, a less youthful, wardrobe for my next client.

List. Phrases not to use while Entertaining Clients:
“like”
“Do you know what I mean?”
“Where do you get your nails
done?”
“Sporty Spice was always my favourite Spice Girl. I wonder what
happened to her.”

Later, sitting up in my hotel bed, with my laptop on a pillow on my thighs, I called Hil.
“So, what’s San Francisco like?” Hillary asked.
“Well, the Marriott is exactly like the Marriott in Fort Worth, which is exactly like the Marriott in Wayne, Pennsylvania. Seriously, Hil, it isn’t as glam as it sounds. I spend half my energy trying to convince these guys that I am not just some dumb broad.”
“Maybe you could fake a British accent. The British always sound smarter.”
“Maybe I need better shoes.”
“You kidding me? I’d kill for your shoes. Truth be told, I’d kill for a reason to wears heels,” Hillary said. “Maybe you should get a new look. I saw the cutest hairstyle on one of the girls from that Survivor show. Short, but not too short. All spiky and crazy, but pulled together. Like organized chaos.” I heard the baby crying in the background. “I gotta go, Nat. Make an appointment this weekend, and I’ll get Jake to watch the boys for a few hours, so I can go with you.”

*

Even though the hairdresser said the style looked better messy, I stopped at every mirror in the airport to pat down rebel strands that had ventured too far outside my hair’s comfort zone. I wondered if I looked too radical, if it made me look too young, if it somehow gave away the fact that I purchased my shoes on sale. Eventually, after a few days of experimenting with different hair pastes, I began to feel more comfortable and, six months later, I was promoted to Senior Consultant. When my boss, who had been with the company since its conception, took me out for a congratulatory lunch, he fussed about me being the youngest senior consultant in the company’s history. Through lunch, I daydreamed about where my new colourist at Tony & Guy would take my career.

List. Items to Purchase to Further Career:
The One-Minute Manager by Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson
First course
for Project Management Professional (PMP®) certification
MAC eye shadow in
Hoax and Girlie
French Manicure

Now my hair hangs below my shoulders. It is dyed chestnut brown with caramel highlights. Hillary and I are in the bathroom of my downtown condominium. I sit on the closed toilet seat, turned towards a mirror placed on the marble countertop.
“You’re sure? Sure, sure?” Hillary says.
“Sure.” I nod. I do not take my gaze away from the mirror.
“You know, it could be worse. It could be a breast or your uterus you are losing.”
“Some days I would be OK with losing my uterus.” I smile as I look up at her. “I wish I could have a drink.”
With the scissors in my right hand, and a chunk of hair in my left, I cut the first strand. I have no plan or style in mind. I cut so that there is only an inch of hair left, my grey roots more noticeable as the coloured lengths fall. I throw each piece into the wastebasket and when I finish, I stand up, lift the lid of the toilet, and flush the hair down. There is no ceremony. I pick the mirror up and hold it so that I can see the back of my hair, my naked neck.

List. Lost Options:
Numerous hair accessories
Grey Goose Vodka
Cohiba Cigarillos
Negros
California Rolls (keeping them down, anyway)

I am waiting in my apartment lobby, slick in a new pair of Anne Klein wool trousers and my favourite knee high leather boots, when Hillary picks me up in her sea green Caravan for my oncologist appointment. As I enter the van, I toss an empty sippy cup into the backseat and brush off, what appears to be Oreo cookie crumbs from the passenger seat. There are two Tim Horton coffees in the cup holders, and the smell of the coffee and stale arrowroots fills the van.
Hillary looks up from scrubbing at a stain on her sweatshirt, her hair casually tied in a messy knot at the back of her head. “Your make-up looks really nice,” she says, and then notices my ear lobes. “Nice earrings. Did you go out and get those last night?”
“Yeah, just something to look pretty. You know?” I remove a toy truck from the dash to make room for my Burberry clutch and my copy of the September issue of British Vogue.
“Honestly Nat, I think you look great,” she says as her eyes return to my earrings. “How many carats are those?”
A Sharon, Lois, and Bram CD falls from the sun visor, as I open it to look at myself in the mirror and admire my latest purchase. “They are just under two actually.”
“Nice. I’d settle for enough time for a hair cut.” She smiles and I think that even without a stitch of make-up she is beautiful.
“You don’t think my nose looks big, do you? I’m considering having it done. There is a new clinic in Florida. More of a resort really, where you get some work done, you know, anything from your boobs to Botox, and then you recover on the beach.”
“I think your nose is fine, Nat.” Hillary says as she turns off the radio. “Listen, I have been doing some research on this therapy. It sounds pretty heavy-duty.”
“Yeah, we’ll have to go wig shopping.” I smile. “I can change my hair colour every day if I wish.”
“There is more than that.” She says.
“Like what?’
“Like what?! Natalie, there are serious side effects to this shit. You are going to be really ill.” More softly, she says, “It may leave you sterile, Honey.”
“That doesn’t matter. I’m 32.”
“You’re not 50.”
Wedged between the seatbelt and the van console is a copy of The Classics of Hans Christian Anderson. It is old and tattered, and smeared across the cover is a substance that could just as easily be glue, as it could be an affirmation that Hil’s kids will wipe their nose just about anywhere. From under my feet, I retrieve an orphaned mitten and begin to wipe the disgusting substance, first from my hands, and then from the book. On the book’s cover is the ugly duckling. A group of perplexed, fluffy yellow chicks surrounds him. Some of them even look like they are laughing. The ugly duckling cowers in the middle, his black, dishevelled feathers in stark contrast to the mob. What the cover does not show is that in the end, the ugly duckling transforms into a beautiful swan. By the end of the story, all of the children will want to be that swan. Without looking behind me, I throw the book and the mitten in the backseat. “Maybe I don’t want kids. I’m not you.” I say, as I search in my purse for a bottle of Purell.
The rest of the way we ride in silence. Hillary silently brooding as she drives and I flip through my magazine. The Fall issue, the largest of the year, mostly riddled with advertisements, full of beautiful people -- people admired by millions around the world.

Dani Valiquette lives with her two kids, twodogs, two cats, and one husband and leads a mostly sleep-deprived life. She runs her own photography studio called Life Equals Art and dreams of one day having spare time. She gave a reading of "A Woman Studied" at CJ'S Cafe on June 10. Many thanks to Dani for the photos of that event.
Note: For information about Brian Henry’s upcoming writing workshops and classes see here.

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