teeth. time. zooming out. POWER.
welcome to The Sunday Love Letter! Here’s what I published recently on www.kellydev.wpengine.com:
I’m trying to raise awareness about how privilege shows up and gets leveraged in our everyday social media feeds — in pictures of our hair, our kids, our counter-tops, our vacations, our dinners.
“Mom, guess what my teacher said about you?” she asked as she bounced into my office after school. “She said maybe you’re the next step in human evolution.”
Well. I did not see that one coming, but TELL ME EVERYTHING, CHILD.
Long story short: they were talking about wisdom teeth in class, and Sophie piped up to tell the class that her mother (that’s me) never had wisdom teeth. It’s not that they failed to come up; x-rays showed they simply didn’t exist.
Sophie’s teacher was really excited about this because as a species, apparently we don’t *need* wisdom teeth. She explained that they end up causing people lots of pain and problems; most dentists in Canada advise young adults get their wisdom teeth removed. And the fact that I simply don’t have wisdom teeth? EVOLUTION, BABY.
It’s silly, right?
But holy wow, it reframed my entire dental history. Decades of shame dissolved.
To me, my mouth has been my problem child and a source of intense private embarrassment. I had baby teeth well into my teens; they were eventually pulled out because the damn things wouldn’t fall out. My 14-year molars didn’t even come in until I was an adult at University. I had my unusually pointy canine teeth filed down because no joke, I looked like a vampire. And I’m just plain missing the wisdom teeth that everyone else has.
I spent a lot of time at dentists during my teens and 20s, hearing all these deviations listed off, and the thing I internalized was that I am a weirdo and my teeth are all wrong.
So hearing that my non-existent wisdom teeth were an asset, not a problem…it’s like the sun came out after years of rain.
I’m not a mutation, after all; I’m EVOLUTION.
I will take it, I will take it, I will take it.
My point in telling you all of this is to point out that internalized messages about personal defects often are simply NOT TRUE.
We internalize messages about individual defects but often, when we zoom out and look at the bigger picture — the system, our social structures, and, apparently EVOLUTION — we see things entirely differently.
And, importantly: unnecessary shame dissolves on contact with the bigger picture.
I knew that already about other cultural messages and contexts (gender, race, money, weight, etc). I regularly tell clients that once we zoom out and see the oppressive systemic forces shaping our lives and distorting our “choices”, we realize that we are not the problem or wrong. Instead, everything we’ve been made to feel ashamed of as personal defects is usually evidence that our social structures and norms are what’s wrong and need to change.
It’s even something I teach in my Copywriting for Culture Makers Framework. In order to write web copy & sales copy that doesn’t trigger shame or leverage pain, we zoom out to name the external Villain creating the problem…and the Villain is NOT the client.
So I knew this. But I hadn’t applied it to my teeth. 🙂
Another story, to help land the plane.
I had a baby in the summer of 2015. That summer I also had a teenage houseguest who was in crisis; my partner was out of town; I had my other four children between the ages of four and 18 to feed and love; and I was also trying to write a book. Despite being on maternity leave, and having a year of “free time” (ha!) in front of me, I was failing, over and over again, to get sentences onto a screen.
That’s what I was telling myself each day that went by without a completed paragraph or page. I was getting more and more spun out and angry with myself. I was frantically time-tracking with an app on my phone and reading productivity hacks while breast-feeding and listening to time-management podcasts while doing the laundry or in the car chauffeuring my kids everywhere.
My anxiety and negative self-talk was sky-rocketing as I desperately tried to figure out what was wrong with me. Why couldn’t I be more productive and get this book written?
And I exhaled…and immediately downloaded her book to read during those 4am feedings.
In Overwhelmed, Schulte maps out the historical context for labour, productivity, leisure, uncompensated labour, and our cultural canon. So many culturally significant ‘great works’ were created because male authors, scientists and inventors had two things:
- All of their domestic responsibilities and survival needs taken care of by the women in their life and servants (who were often people of colour)
- Because their survival needs were taken care of, they had leisure time in which to think about things and have their ideas cohere.(Related: as I learned from Lianne Raymond, we need unstructured “wild idling” time when your mind can wander so that those connections can be made.)
In other words: leisure time underwrites culture-making and authorship; and the uncompensated labour and time of women underwrites the leisure and productivity of men (especially “great” men) – historically AND presently.
Most women, across history, have never had leisure time.
Who is entitled to leisure time is structurally defined.
I didn’t have the leisure time needed to do the thinking necessary to write a book for a reason – because I belong to the category of people (women) whose time and labour gets conscripted into the careers and creations of another category of people (men).
Reading Overwhelmed by Brigid Schulte reordered my internal cosmos. I saw that I wasn’t failing to balance or manage my time; in fact I was AMAZINGLY productive and good at making my time stretch and bend. I was already a goddamned time gymnast.
The problem was that I WAS OVERLOADED. No one could write a book in those circumstances…and these circumstances were being shaped up for me by a culture that downloads domestic responsibilities and caregiving onto women. I’d inadvertently consented to a pattern that had been going on for centuries: my domestic and caregiving labour was underwriting my male partner’s career. He could go away on projects because I was home. He could advance his ambition BECAUSE my time was owed first to our family and only after that, to myself. That’s why I couldn’t get sentences on a page. Not because he wanted to thwart me; not because I wanted to be thwarted. Instead, our “choices” were being shaped by a wider sexist culture – specifically, the gender wage gap. The gender wage gap meant that he earned more than me, which made it obvious and practical for the domestic and caregiving sacrifices to come out of *my* career rather than his.
Once I saw this – that my choices were being shaped for me by a sexist culture and history –I stopped beating myself up. I stopped blaming myself. I realized this was not my fault but yes, I could change it.
I thought about what I wanted my tombstone to read. Did I want it to say “She Kept a Clean House”? Or did I want it to say “She Wrote Books”? And then I organized everything in our life to make the latter legacy possible.
I got relentless about making that happen. I consciously decided to interrupt the pattern AND I CHANGED EVERYTHING about our life.
Obviously, that changed everything for me. I started writing and publishing prolifically, in my weekly newsletter, blog posts, and on social media. I grew a serious list and audience. My income tripled. I even recently got signed by a literary agent…and the book is almost finished.
And all of that happened because Brigid Schulte named the villain (“time confetti” and our sexist history and culture) and the villain was NOT ME.
She helped me realize that I was not the problem but that our culture IS the problem; and so my shame EVAPORATED and I swung into action.
When we zoom out and see the bigger picture, we realize we’re not defective and nothing to be ashamed of; and when our shame dissolves, we then have the internal space freed up to take radical action.
Shaming people causes stuckness; dissolving shame creates power.
There’s this narrative out there that says people who possess a social justice analysis are “whining” and destined to be unsuccessful because they are in “victim mode”.
It’s my personal experience, and my experience working with hundreds of culture-makers, that grasping the bigger picture is a source of power. The experience of realizing that you are NOT the problem, and having those decades of shame dissolve, is POWER.
And then we are unstoppable — personally, and collectively.
When we’re not devoting precious internal resources to managing shame and feeling like imposters, we can devote that energy to rising and thriving.
The more I free myself from bullshit social expectations, the more I create and share — and the more I create and share, the more influential and conventionally “successful” I get.
So…that narrative that “social justice warriors” are whiners who can’t get anything done?
It’s just as untrue as the narrative that says women aren’t “productive” or good at managing time.
And both of those narratives exist to keep us advancing other people’s agendas, careers, creations and freedom instead of our own.
Because we are not mutations, we are the future. We are the culture makers.
And it’s time for us to rise and thrive…
…and in that project, wisdom teeth are always optional, never required 🙂
love + justice,
PS when I say ‘zoom out’, I mean keep building your systemic, political analysis so you can see the bigger picture shaping your life. ‘Cuz that’s where freedom and self-direction starts. Unnecessary shame dissolves on contact with the bigger picture.