Women of var­i­ous ages on what it looks like to live in their el­e­ment.

Want to thrive in your el­e­ment? You have to want it and say so. By Chan­tal Bra­ganza

Fashion (Canada) - - Contents -

T he day I got mar­ried, my fa­ther did some­thing un­for­giv­able. At least, that’s what I thought at the time. At some point dur­ing his toast, he pulled a folded-up piece of green con­struc­tion pa­per out of his pocket and started read­ing from it—a list of life goals I’d writ­ten as a poem when I was eight: “I’m go­ing to play the pi­ano like Mozart! I will speak five lan­guages and make tons of great art!”

In front of friends and fam­ily alike, I was cheer­fully re­minded of such prac­ti­cal child­hood dreams as plan­ning to be the first per­son to per­form heart surgery in space. My dad, know­ing me well enough, didn’t give me a heads-up be­fore­hand—I don’t even want to think about how many other grade-school English projects he had to dig through to find the ma­te­rial—but look­ing back on those painful cou­ple of min­utes, I’m happy he didn’t.

That mo­ment was a while ago, but be­cause I wasn’t then, nor am I now, as thick-skinned as most peo­ple, I’ve stewed about it. It wasn’t so much that I was em­bar­rassed by my dad’s at­tempt at some­thing other than a se­ries of pa­ter­nal puns; it was be­cause I’d never had an earnest de­sire ad­ver­tised so pub­licly—at least not with­out qualm or caveat. And I haven’t since.

Earnest goals seem like a hard thing to come by th­ese days. Colum­nists and cul­tural com­men­ta­tors used to blame this on some per­ceived mil­len­nial pen­chant for irony or an in­abil­ity to take things se­ri­ously. In one par­tic­u­larly mem­o­rable

col­umn a few years back, a Prince­ton pro­fes­sor ar­gued that irony was not only the “ethos of our age” but also prevent­ing us av­o­cado-toast-hoover­ing navel-gaz­ers from liv­ing our best, most pro­duc­tive lives. “Irony is the most self­de­fen­sive mode,” she wrote in 2012, “as it al­lows a per­son to dodge re­spon­si­bil­ity for his or her choices, aes­thetic and oth­er­wise.”

I don’t dis­agree with this idea in prin­ci­ple, but I’ve learned since those days of bad po­etry that stand­ing squarely on the state­ments of what you want in life doesn’t help your stand­ing in the eyes of the world.

Of­ten it’s not re­spon­si­bil­ity you’re dodg­ing but dis­ap­point­ment.

Take fi­nances. When it comes to the kind of life goals that were once givens, how many con­tinue to be op­tions? By way of sta­tis­ti­cal data and the ex­pe­ri­ence of friends, we know that peo­ple born af­ter the early ’80s are less likely to have an easy time be­com­ing a home­owner or find­ing a job in the field they stud­ied at a school they paid for. And it’s hard not to be snide about some of the rea­sons why. In the United States, mil­len­ni­als carry three times more stu­dent debt than that of their par­ents and are half as likely to own a home. Cana­di­ans aren’t far be­hind. Who could blame us for laugh­ing at those odds?

Or the knot­tier is­sues of cir­cum­stance: of race, gen­der or class. I didn’t know it at eight years old, but even though I was lucky to have grown up in an age of Buffy Sum­mers and Car­rie Brad­shaw—a pop cul­ture en­vi­ron­ment in which women were al­lowed a wider range of roles and de­sires—there were, and of­ten still are, codes to th­ese free­doms. What prime-time TV show then would have shown me the suc­cess­ful In­dian sex colum­nist or the as­s­kick­ing Latina sci-fi hero­ine with a com­plex in­te­rior life filled with con­tra­dic­tory goals and de­sires? How was I to know then that I wasn’t the real girl ev­ery YA novel, movie or teen mag­a­zine had de­scribed? I didn’t have blond hair, broody-boy love in­ter­ests or a mid­dle-class back­ground.

I don’t re­mem­ber writ­ing that poem my fa­ther re­cited, but I do re­mem­ber the cou­ple of years that fol­lowed: the fig­ureskat­ing clique in Girl Guides who wouldn’t sit next to me be­cause I was brown and there­fore smelled; the fifth-grade teacher who de­ducted points from my math tests for point­ing out that she’d marked an an­swer in­cor­rectly; in high school, switch­ing post-sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion plans from mu­sic to English to, fi­nally, jour­nal­ism be­cause that, guid­ance coun­sel­lors told me, was the most likely to re­sult in sta­ble em­ploy­ment. (Ha!) For­get per­form­ing surgery in space—ask­ing for things like ba­sic ac­knowl­edg­ment or re­spect is hard enough, and ex­pect­ing things like up­ward mo­bil­ity or hous­ing that costs less than my first-born seems naive. Why want? “Women talk our­selves into need­ing less, be­cause we’re not sup­posed to want more—or be­cause we know we won’t get more and we don’t want to feel un­sat­is­fied,” Jess Zim­mer­man wrote in a 2016 es­say on women and hunger. “We re­duce our needs for food, for space, for re­spect, for help, for love and af­fec­tion and for be­ing no­ticed ac­cord­ing to what we think we’re al­lowed to have.”

When I even­tu­ally cried at that wed­ding speech (I’m not heart­less), I think it was be­cause I missed that lit­tler ver­sion of my­self who didn’t see any­thing wrong with ask­ing for big things. I want to be more like her again.

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