Otherhood

Warning: this week’s blog post, a comedic romp into the realm of the sadly under-utilized gluteous maximus muscle, is now interrupted by thoughts of a more serious nature. If you tuned in for laughs, check back in a week or two. The bit that I’m prepared to write on the modern American rump is going to be killer.

And now for something completely different.

A couple of weeks ago, I read Zeroing in on the Female Traveler in The New York Times. On the surface, it was a breezy report of the latest trend –packages marketed to solo female travelers– but the messages lurking underneath made my hackles burst into flames. Since The New York Times decided not to publish my op-ed in reaction to that article, I thought I’d share a few thoughts here. I’d love to hear your comments and reactions as well.

To start, the article reports on Womanhood Redefined, a campaign by the Westin New York Grand Central described as a “personal journey with a rejuvenating getaway” intended for female travelers like me, a childless woman traveling alone. From $234 a night, the package includes dietary and exercise consultation, discounted yoga, a white tea candle and a copy of Melanie Notkin’s book, “Otherhood: Modern Women Finding a New Kind of Happiness,” which inspired the package. (Other packages like this are now popping up elsewhere.)

There was something about that white tea candle that sent me over the edge. Must vacations for women consist of the same relentless self-improvement and zen-seeking that litters our daily lives? And, if women like me are truly other, how will sequestering ourselves and burning candles help us discover new territory? Maureen O’Brien, director of sales and marketing for the Westin, comments that everybody knows “somebody that we love or care about that this book speaks to,” as if we others are intrinsically broken, damaged and unhappy—in need of reconditioning. She might have ended the sentence with, “Bless their hearts.”

I should note here that the first time I traveled alone was eight years ago. My friends were busy starting families, and there was no telling when I’d find a companion, so off I went. I wanted to see the world and realized that if I waited for the right guy (or any guy) I would miss out on a lot of living. This sounds brave, but this doesn’t mean that I was necessarily comfortable with traveling alone. Newly divorced, I was still getting used to eating and even grocery shopping alone; looking back, this was a good struggle. I’m glad that no one convinced me that I’d channel my inner Special Lady by staying at the Westin, because I would have missed the point of getting out there in the first place.

After reading this article, I realized that I’ve been taught to fear being alone all my life. (Hence, setting my couch aflame with the fire of a thousands suns.) From childhood to college and marriage, I had never lived alone. When I was first divorced, I felt self-conscious about embodying the stereotype of a divorced woman even though, deep down, I was having fun. Still, at the grocery store, I found myself putting thoughts into the check-out lady’s head, That poor, single gal shopping for one… when all she was thinking about was the end of her shift. And, more importantly, I had nothing to be ashamed of.

Our lives are populated by both implicit and explicit messages that suggest women should not be alone. From mothers who raised us on constant rapist alert to well-intentioned friends fixing us up with any and every single man they know to the news media and entertainment industry who bombard us with cautionary statistics that make terrorist encounters seem like a viable, and perhaps the only way, to meet guys, the message is:

Alone is failure, alone is dangerous and alone is other. Don’t let this happen to you.

For every campaign that encourages women to shelter up in a posh hotel or believe that candles, exercise and diet is the way to redefine womanhood—or that women need redefining in the first place—we’re taking a step backward. Women don’t need to be saved. We don’t need to be meditated into compliance. These messages are elusive and therefore dangerous; they’re so commonplace, we don’t think to question them — they simply are. They convince both men and women alike that women are in constant need of fixing, tending and protecting.

Why was I afraid to travel, eat and shop alone at age 32? Why was I loathe to be singled out as single in public? Because a lifetime of messages reinforced the idea that my so-called otherness made me a target.

First, we must stop relegating single and childless women into a separate caste. (I hate to even write the word ‘childless’ as if this somehow means that’s we’re lacking, but what other word is there, child-free?) Point being, when half of females of child-bearing age today are actually childless, as the article states, we are no longer other. Yet, there is more.

As women, if we cannot see when we’re pulling the wool over our own eyes, who will? The article’s veneer of empowerment (“I love that people in the industry are thinking about the idea that we’re not all families and couples,” says Bella DePaulo) ignores the suggestion that follows: women travelers should be considering “female-only floors, mother-daughter escapes, and shopping vacations.” Campaigns like this reinforce the notion that women are only safe with other women, and that our interests are limited to shopping, weight loss and pampering. They replace our curiosity and resourcefulness with terry cloth robes and calorie counters.

After many solo trips, traveling alone has become a sanctuary for me. It provides time for reflection and independence, but it also lets me listen to everything that’s happening around me. When given the opportunity to close my mouth and open my mind, I become more aware of the world. Getting lost in a new city, something the old me was once afraid of, has actually helped me find myself anew. Traveling alone has sparked my fascination with the world; my solo adventures have deeply inspired my creative process and expression, launching this blog, a book of essays and a winning travel writing submission.

At a time when young women are kidnapped and brutalized for seeking education and enlightenment, we cannot let even trite campaigns like Womanhood Redefined go unchallenged. They contribute to a landslide that we’re perpetually digging out from, one that proves that the world is too dangerous for women to roam free. We must be present in numbers. We must dare to be visible, and we must encourage others to do the same. No matter how hard-won our self-reliance is, it must be fed with constant positive vigilance.

For every women who is afraid to travel on her own, our world grows smaller; our art and culture suffer. For every woman who hesitates to live on her own terms, fearing that she will be ostracized or penalized for her choices, we lose the freedom that generations fought for. We should not apologize for having children or not, for marrying or not, for being alone—or not.

Womanhood Redefined seems like a small thing to kvetch about, and maybe it is, but it’s one tile amongst many that make a giant mosaic. All women, regardless of marital or family status, must demand more than spa packages as a means of defining and understanding themselves. More than that, we need to shout, Hell no! when shit like this comes our way; we shouldn’t let it slide. When I tweeted my indignation about the concept of otherhood, namely a protest at how the travel marketing industry was going to profit from selling women the illusion of self-discovery, the author of Otherhood immediately defended her work. At first, I wondered if I had been too hot-headed and reactionary, then a fellow Tweep pointed out how many like-spirited comments the article had received.

Every trip doesn’t need to be a episode of Survivor or The Amazing Race (hell, I like to chill by the beach as much as the next person), but I do believe that we should seek to leave our comfort zones, at least a little, whenever we travel. We should model the way for others as much as ourselves; it pays off, but this stuff takes effort. We can’t sit back and let others figure everything out for us, including the way we rediscover or refine our definitions of womanhood, self-worth and humanity.

In the end, I believe that travel is our solitary hope as a species, for only when the foreign becomes less strange can we truly develop empathy. Sequestering ourselves in hotels, fretting about body fat does nothing for our minds or our compassion, let alone our self-esteem. We must challenge and encourage each other to risk meeting people where they’re at, whether it’s Nashville or Nairobi. We can’t wait. We must do it now, even if it means going it alone for a time.

Finally, to that end, we can not afford to consider anyone as other anymore. This goes for men and women, East Texas and the Middle East, it goes for the town of Ferguson and wherever you’re reading this. We must be united as a people.

It will take each of us speaking up, loudly, no matter who boos, hisses or tweets in response. We will surely encounter rooms where giving voice to these ideas isn’t popular (especially since so many of us should be at home being domestic.) It will take time and courage. It will be frightening, even. Like traveling alone, we cannot let our apprehension hold us back from experiencing and fighting for the world and our place in it. Let’s say it together: we are not other, and when we are not other, we are also not alone.

Until this happens, I’ll light a white tea candle and hope for change. Funny, I always seem to have extras.

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4 thoughts on “Otherhood

  1. This whole “otherhood” vacation package is really patronizing and condescending. Even this single childless dude can see that. And the use of “otherhood” makes me think the author is not familiar with Edward Said, but maybe it was chosen because it rhymes with “motherhood”. You’ve written a great response.

  2. Thanks for a powerful look at how marketing and media try to “entrap” us single, child-free (liberating) women into another version of feeling ourselves incomplete–defining it as “otherhood”!! Only when more of us embody what you so brilliantly express, will we shift the needle on single woman as resilient and complete unto themselves…Coming home to oneself without stigmatizing or creating labels to signify “difference from” in a pejorative manner!
    Keep up your thoughtful writings, my dear Gabi!!

  3. I really dislike the label of Single or Childless or any of those terms that denote “Old Maid!, Spinster!” I have fought against that type of thinking my whole life. It’s like automatically some people want to feel sorry for you, even if you are happy with your life. It makes me feel defensive as if you want to shout, “I’m Fine Really, I’m fine…I’m Not a Failure!”
    ArrrrGGG
    Thanks for writing about it.

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