13 September 2015

The power of narrative

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the power of narrative.

First, I found this Ted Talk by Heather “Anish” Anderson, who completed, self-supported, the Pacific Crest Trail faster than anyone else on the planet thus far and is currently working on the Appalachian Trail record (see her progress!). She talks about how the fairytale narrative of girl-meets-boy, settles-and-is-happy-forever did not suit her and ultimately led her to unhappiness. Hiking was what really fired her up, and it took her time to come to peace with that.

Then I came across this wonderful piece from The Atlantic about how the narratives we tell ourselves shape and inform our reality: 
This narrative becomes a form of identity, in which the things someone chooses to include in the story, and the way she tells it, can both reflect and shape who she is.  A life story doesn’t just say what happened, it says why it was important, what it means for who the person is, for who they’ll become, and for what happens next... 
Once certain stories get embedded into the culture, they become master narratives—blueprints for people to follow when structuring their own stories, for better or worse...the downsides of standard narratives have been well-documented—they stigmatize anyone who doesn't follow them to a T, and provide unrealistic expectations of happiness for those who do.
I got to thinking about my own life and how my personal narrative does not fit the societal narrative arc, and the subtle ways that others, even well-meaning others, reinforce the arc. I have known since I was a teenager that I do not want to have children and that getting married is something I might do one day, but not the greatest priority or aspiration of my life. Many wise, wonderful people who I respect and love dearly told me, “You’ll change your mind about that some day.” It’s been almost two decades, and I haven’t changed it yet.

I think, too, about my so-typically-childless-millennial friends, and the pressure many of them feel to have children.  Some of their parents say, “When are you going to give me grandbabies?”  Though well-meaning in nature, this subtle pressure to fall in line with the societal narrative can be stressful.  I have felt lucky that my own parents never pushed me in this way.

What narratives do we tell ourselves? What narratives do we tell each other? Why did my well-meaning friends and mentors have trouble understanding my truth? Why do well-intentioned parents push their children toward a story that might not fit for everyone?

I greatly suspect that one of the reasons there aren’t more women getting outdoors has a lot to do with the narratives we are told and the narratives we tell ourselves. Stories about men who are leaders and athletes, and about women who are actresses and entertainers.  The subtle ways that a parent will come to the rescue when a girl cries on a playground (“Are you okay, baby?”), but not when a boy does (“You’re okay!  Shake it off.”) A small compliment to a girl for looking pretty, to a boy for being strong. The many pictures and stories of men going off on daring solo adventures, while the pictures of athletic women are still mostly stuck focusing on her sex appeal or how to get better buns in 30 days.  

Same ad, two different months of Ultrarunning Magazine.  

Notice the difference?

I'm not against women or men looking or being sexy or beautiful; I just want our dominant narrative to value women in other ways. Major kudos to the media sources making conscious efforts at showing real women doing real adventures, such as Outdoor Women's Alliance and Amy Poehler's Smart Girls. When exposed to new narratives like these, we can see and understand our own stories in new ways.

I've experienced this myself living in the community of Yosemite National Park. My first week of living here, I got to watch my new co-workers come back together after being apart for the summer. I listened to tale after tale of incredible adventures, by both men and women. Epic canoe trips through remote wilderness in Canada, climbing El Capitan, catching salmon in Alaska, even one woman who described her job delivering babies (!) as a doula. 

It was intimidating, but also inspiring, and it helped me re-write my personal narrative arc. I wanted to adventure more boldly, to experience wilder places, to better understand my own limits and potential. I wanted to be a bigger badass. One day I expressed this to my buddy, and she said, "I hate to break it to you Katie, but you're kind of a badass." I hesitate to share that quote here, as it belies a level of ego that doesn't feel consistent with my general modus operandi, but the sentiment has stuck with me. Why not me?  Why not be the biggest badasses we all can be? What narratives do we tell ourselves that hold us back?

Luckily, as The Atlantic article points out,
A life story is written in chalk, not ink, and it can be changed. "You’re both the narrator and the main character of your story," [Jonathan] Adler says. "That can sometimes be a revelation—‘Oh, I’m not just living out this story, I am actually in charge of this story.'”
What story do you want to write about your life?

"About Outdoor Women's Alliance." Outdoor Women's Alliance. Outdoor Women's Alliance, 2015. Web. 9 Sept. 2015. 
"Amy Poehler's Smart Girls." Amy Poehler's Smart Girls. 2015. Web. 7 Sept. 2015. <http://amysmartgirls.com/>.
Anderson, Heather "Anish" "Facebook: Anish Hikes." Facebook. Facebook, 2015. Web. 7 Sept. 2015. <https://www.facebook.com/AnishHikes>.
Anderson, Heather. "Redefining Happily Ever After." TEDx Napa Valley. Lincoln Theater, Yountville. 12 Apr. 2015. Lecture. YouTube. TEDx, 20 May 2015.        Web. 14 Sept. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pgDeh2XDNY4>.
Astone, Nan Marie, Steven Martin, and H. Elizabeth Peters. "Millennial Childbearing and the Recession." Urban Institute: Research. Urban Institute, 
Beck, Julie. "Life's Stories." The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 10 Aug. 2015. Web. 7 Sept. 2015. 
De Melker, Saskia. "Researchers Measure Increasing Sexualization of Images in Magazines." PBS Newshour. NewsHour Productions LLC, 21 Dec. 2015. Web. 
       9 Sept. 2015. <http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/social_issues-july-dec13-sexualization_12-21/>.
"Most Frequently Mentioned: Most Famous Men." Google Web Search. Google, 9 Sept. 2015. Web. 9 Sept. 2015. 
"Most Frequently Mentioned: Most Famous Women." Google Web Search. Google, 9 Sept. 2015. Web. 9 Sept. 2015. 
"Pacific Crest Trail (CA, OR, WA)." Fastest Known Time. Ed. Peter Bakwin. ProBoards, 19 Aug. 2015. Web. 7 Sept. 2015. 
"Research Informs & Empowers." See Jane. Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media, 2015. Web. 9 Sept. 2015. 
"Udo's Oil Advertisement." Ultrarunning Magazine. July 2015: 1. Print.
"Udo's Oil Advertisement." Ultrarunning Magazine. September 2015: 1. Print.

1 comment:

  1. Nicely put. I'll preach to the choir here: I think a lot about independence in outdoor adventuring, or maybe just adventuring in general. A kept woman does not venture out on her own. Independence gained in outdoor pursuits directly contradicts the famine narrative paints woman as dependent on their keepers which society assigns women and women internalize. Even within these pursuits with others, women are not running the technical side of the show. It is more than just unfortunate that femininity and independence are put at odds. So proud of your journey and excited to see where it takes you. Thanks for blogging!


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