One of the joys of being an aspiring renaissance woman (referred to with some suspicion as multidisciplinarity within academic circles), is that the various bits and snippets of information I gather from disconnected sources in the short time before my attention span moves onward allow me to notice larger patterns arcing over seemingly unrelated phenomena. Lately, I have been struck by the appearance of a few similar but unconnected incidents in which prominent figures in industries ranging from fashion to music have been taking unexpected breaks from their work in order to deal with important personal circumstances, such as a friend’s illness or the arrival of a new baby. Perhaps unrelated but interesting nevertheless, is that all of these individuals have been women.
For example, as I was doing my (very late) overview of the most recent F/W fashion collections, I noticed on Vogue.com that Sarah Burton, Alexander McQueen’s resident creative director, decided to forgo a full length show due to her current pregnancy. Instead, she sent only ten exquisite, breathtakingly beautiful dresses down the runway, focusing all of her available creative energy into a few masterpieces that did credit to the McQueen name, while allowing Burton to focus on something even more personally important—the upcoming birth of her child. According to the same article, Phoebe Philo of the renowned Celine brand made a very similar decision in 2012.
On a less happy note, indie music phenomenon Fiona Apple recently made national news for postponing her South American tour to stay home with her aging dog, Janet, who was slowly succumbing to the effects of a growing tumor and Addison’s disease. Apple posted a four-page, handwritten letter on her Facebook page, explaining emotionally but firmly to her fans why this choice had to be made. One section reads,
“I just can’t leave her now, please understand.
If I go away again, I’m afraid she’ll die and I won’t have the honor of singing her to sleep, of escorting her out. Sometimes it takes me 20 minutes to pick which socks to wear to bed. But this decision is instant. These are the choices we make, which define us.
I will not be the woman who puts her career ahead of love and friendship. I am the woman who stays home and bakes Tilapia for my dearest, oldest friend. And helps her be comfortable, and comforted, and safe, and important.”
Likewise, musician Amanda Palmer (whose recent TED talk on "The Art of Asking" has been deeply impactful for countless creative individuals, including myself), postponed her 2013 tour dates to spend time with a close friend undergoing treatment for cancer. She cited Apple’s example in a December 2012 blog post, and made similar points about the importance of relationships and the need to be present for important moments, even difficult or tragic ones, in the lives of the ones we love.
What I am fascinated by in all of these discrete incidents, is the almost radical value that these women assigned to their relationships and personal life, whether involving a dying pet, a coming child, or a sick friend. In today’s utilitarian capitalist culture it can be hard to put one’s foot down and demand a space to take care of the resolutely personal and individual concerns of our private lives. Especially in the aformentioned examples, where the people in question stand at high levels within their highly competitive industries (the worlds of fashion and music are not known for being either patient or forgiving), these women are taking what is easily understood to be a significant risk on order to remain true to their own beliefs about what is important or necessary in their lives.
This radical grasp of relational and emotional values reminds me of my mother’s obsession with teaching me in childhood the importance of what she called integrity. As a child, I understood integrity to be what my computer’s dictionary app describes as “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness.” But looking at the examples of the women discussed above, I am able to perceive what is perhaps an even deeper, truer definition, which is listed second on the same app as “the state of being whole and undivided,” from the Latin integritas, meaning “intact.”
This definition in my mind describes perfectly the quality that Burton and Philo, Palmer and Apple display so clearly—a wholeness, a state of being undivided from oneself and one’s true purposes. In a culture that often prizes the so-called “masculine” values of functionality, punctuality, dependability, and competitiveness, it is deeply encouraging to see such competent and successful individuals hold to their own essential integrity. I for one, hope that if and when faced with a similar decision in my own life, I will choose to follow the inspiration of these strong women, by holding to what my heart knows to be true.
Image via Fashionista-At-Law.