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Essay

Everything for Everybody: Doing Away With Gender In Design

by Maxwell Tielman

everything_for_everybody
It will come as no surprise that, when it comes to design, I can be a bit of a junky. The bigger, the badder, the crazier, the better. One of the most fulfilling and enriching parts of working in and writing about design is that I am hardly ever at a lack for new, interesting, beautiful things to see and think about. That is not to say, though, that there aren’t some things that I could live without when it comes to design—things that I am totally and completely sick to death of seeing. If there is one single thing that consistently irks me in design, it’s over-gendered design objects—items that, for some arbitrary reason or another, have been deemed “masculine” or “feminine,” seemingly suitable for only one half of the population.

When I was a child, I’m not sure if I really knew what gender was. At least not in the way that I know it today. I knew that boys and girls were different, that women tended to wear their hair long and that men had scratchy faces, but when it came to the various ways that our culture has divided and defined these groups, I feel as though I was left in the dark for quite some time. They say that ignorance is bliss—and for the four-year-old me, it certainly was. Many boys my age might have occupied their time playing with toy cars, playing tag, and throwing baseballs. While I certainly partook in these activities, my afternoons and weekends could just as easily have found me at home, singing along to Disney movies, trying on my mother’s dresses, and smearing red lipstick haphazardly across my face. If this was any cause for alarm, my parents never let me know. My mother happily indulged my interest in her jewelry and my father barely batted an eye when I requested a mermaid Barbie for my birthday. For the first few years of my life, I traversed my little world more or less freely, enjoying whatever toys, colors, and dress-up outfits that I damned well pleased.

It wasn’t really until I began school that I started to suspect that something was up. And it didn’t happen immediately. It happened with a strange glance from a classmate, the separate boys and girls teams in gym class, my third grade teacher’s insistence that I be “Harry The Spy” for Halloween—not my personal choice, Harriet. As I grew older and began to absorb more of the world around me, I found myself being placed into a predetermined category not of my choosing, and I began to do the same to other people, both consciously and unconsciously. This is what boys do. This is what girls do. This is how they dress, this is how they act. As with many children, growing up meant learning to adjust to and accept the various roles that society had chosen for me.

Despite my more than fluid predilections, I’ve always identified as male throughout my life. This, however, never stopped me from questioning the arbitrary markers of that role, and its definition in general. Why was it that, as soon as we entered grade school, belonging to a gender meant belonging to some sort of impenetrable, exclusive club? Furthermore, why did these definitions seem to extend beyond flesh and blood, down to the very objects we carried? Why was it that girls could ornament themselves in head-to-toe pink—a color whose meaning has changed over time—without receiving a second glance? How was it that only boys were featured in the advertisements for action figures—surely girls wanted in on the fun, too? As I’ve gotten older, I’ve only felt this divide growing wider. Women have purses while men have “man bags.” Women get cast in ads for cleaning products, while men find themselves as spokesmen for beer and automobiles. Women have pink razors with names like “Venus,” while men have hard-edged, robotic looking contraptions that, despite nearly identical function, promise to be tailored exclusively to the rough-n-tumble skin on a man’s body. Hell, even our writing implements have a gender divide.

As somebody who works in design, this divide is in many ways inescapable. I can go hardly a week without reading of a space that mixes both “masculine” and “feminine” elements; an interior design firm that caters to young bachelors, crafting no-nonsense masculine, but well-designed spaces; a designer that isn’t afraid of “being a little girly”—as if that actually means anything. Indeed, in the design world, gendered terms like “masculine,” “feminine,” “boyish,” and “girly” get thrown around ad nauseam, a coded language that oftentimes has harmful, insidious connotations, ones that help to shape who we are as people and perpetuate restrictive social rules.

It’s hardly a secret at this point that when somebody uses the word “feminine,” they are likely referring to something that is delicate, frilly, or ornate. By the same token, we often find the term “masculine” arbitrarily ascribed to things that are functional, practical, simple, and long-lasting. This is because, even in the twenty-first century, we still live in a world where we divide these traits, as if they were equations to be solved, into groups of lesser and greater—things that typically fall within specific gender lines. Lace? Feminine. Leather? Masculine. Floral? Feminine. Geometric? Masculine. As easily as these analogies come, though, it’s also easy to point out the complete fallacy of these comparisons—so much so that it even seems trite to bring it up. Is there anything truly, inherently feminine about the color pink? No. Still, for some reason these terms and associations continue to thrive in our contemporary design world, so much so that I often find myself using them. “Blech!” I might exclaim after looking at an oversized leather sofa in a showroom. “It’s just so, I don’t know, manly.”

I have decided, though, that it is time to stop. As harmless as these descriptors might seem, the effects that they have can be both harmful and long-lasting. They saturate our language and our culture; they create conformity and inequity. I don’t want to live in a world where a four-year-old boy feels as if he needs to change who he is, because somebody has deemed his so-called “feminine” toys unsuitable. I don’t want to live in a world where women have to feel like they are somehow committing a disservice to their gender by wearing pink. I don’t want to live in a world where men feel like they need the words “For Men!” emblazoned on something before they feel comfortable purchasing it. The world is confusing enough as it is without the pressure of arbitrary gender roles, and I am all for making things less confusing.

Because you know what’s awesome? Pink. And blue. And pretty much every color in the entire world. So let’s stop pretending like these things mean anything hard and fast—they are masculine and feminine—they’re for everybody.

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Comments

  • My son Henry shares a lot of clothes with his sister since they are the same age. When you ask Henry what his favorite color is, he says “all the colors”. Today he wore a neon pink sleeved baseball shirt with hands wearing rings printed all over it, leather leggings and cowboy boots. I asked him in the car what he would say to other kids if they said that girls wear pink and he said “I tell them that I was a boy and I was wearing pink so today it was a boy color.” Luckily he has gotten very little criticism and I hope that it stays that way. I loved this piece, thank you for writing this. I wish all kids like you and Henry could have the support their parents give them in choosing their own path.

  • Your parents sound awesome! It seems so easy to say we should all be able to like what we like without fear, yet we are constantly barraged with images and statements that prove the opposite (women’s pens?!). I really enjoyed your article, very well spoken, and a good reminder not to perpetrate harmful gender stereotypes. Thank you!

  • Love this, thanks to Maxwell for writing this. Very well-thought out, and one of the reasons DS has been pulling ahead in the design site sphere for a long time (yay long-form writing!).

    I vote for a followup to this article with suggested alternatives for dumb genderized terminology. For instance, when I see a huge distressed leather couch with brass rivets, my thoughts are “burly”, “heavy”, “strong”, “solid”, “rustic” – all words unfortunately associated with men/masculinity, but that don’t have to be if used separate from that term for long enough!

  • Thank you for this, I totally agree!!!! My hubby likes to wear pink and wishes it was more accepted to do other typically “female” things like paint his nails, etc. He also has a great eye for design, but he tends to downplay it which is so sad, because he has great taste! I so want my son to do whatever he wants. He loves to paint his nails and read/play with his sister’s books/toys. In Kindergarten we are already running into teasing for painted nails by other boys, it really IRKS ME. I live in the burbs of Austin, which can be very liberal, but not always…

  • So true. I write about furniture styles on a daily basis and often find myself relying on masculine and feminine as descriptors without really thinking about whether or not they’re truly warranted. Very thoughtful essay!

  • Thank you for this. I think my kids live in a much more gender divided world than we did, just walk into a toy store and see the ‘pink’ and ‘blue’ divisions. And you wont find science kits in the girls section! I try and be aware every day of these things, but so much of it is subliminal. It makes parenting very hard!

  • Loved his. It’s so easy to become a bit lazy with our language. I noticed in my self recently when I decided I wanted to start reducing and removing violent imagery from my language (eg killing two birds with one stone, killing it, etc). Even when we don’t mean anything by it, the effects can be insidious. I am looking forward to seeing how you go about describing design aesthetics in a non-gendered way. Thanks for the thoughtful essay and the reminder to be careful with our language!

    • Jennifer

      Agreed. I struggle with falling back on all sorts of words that could be better chosen. This particular issue is close to my heart, but we’re working as a team to make sure we put forth our best effort to use language that makes everyone feel welcome, safe and included.

      Grace

  • Wow, this is a great piece. I really noticed this just yesterday on AT, somebody accused a space of being “too masculine”. It was a woman’s apartment. I could not figure out what the writer of the comment meant at all. I struggle with raising my children in a country where the gender roles seem too well defined, too early (and I am in Canada, of all places). Trip to the dentist for the kids means a choice of stickers “for boys” (superheroes, trucks” or “for girls” (princesses). One time my daughter was denied her choice (a truck sticker) because that was a “boy” sticker. Unbelievable.

    • I’m about to give up on AT because of this issue actually – they continue to use gendered terminology in posts regularly, and just yesterday included an offensive joke about mental illness from an interviewee. The author’s response when I confronted them about it – the resident didn’t mean any harm by it, so it is OK to include. Whaaa?

  • I find your text so useful to read as a parent ! I completely agree with you but I realize I will sometimes fall in the traps of saying ‘this is for boys/girls’ … even if it’s more a saying than something I feel for real. It’s always nice to think twice !

  • What a great article. I was shopping in a huge homeware/craft store in Auckland, NZ the other day and a tiny little boy – he can’t have been older than four – was telling his grandmother how much he liked (and wanted) the Tinkerbell duvet on display. His grandmother told him in no uncertain terms that the Tinkerbell duvet wasn’t meant for boys; it was for girls. Though I said nothing, I couldn’t help thinking, why not? What’s wrong with him wanting a Tinkerbell duvet? It is adults who impose these beliefs about what it means to be masculine or feminine on children… Maybe it’s time we listened to what children tell us they like, rather than telling them what they like.

  • Thank you thank you thank you for writing this, and for DS for publishing it. The way we use language matters, and it’s really heartening to see someone outside of academic spaces recognizing how arbitrary and unnecessary assigning gender to decor is.

  • This is something that has long bugged me about design. Thank you for addressing it. I am particularly bugged by the decoration of baby and children’s rooms—”we don’t know what we’re having so we’re going yellow, neutral!” Or else explicitly decorating based on the gender of the baby. Starting the gender ascriptions before they even make it out of the dang womb!

  • Oh, Maxwell, you made my day. My husband and I decorated our nursery with forest animals and wooden toys, wanting to avoid gender stereotypes and marketing, and allowing our children to have a chance to tell us who they are. I am the proud mother of a gender non-conforming son. As soon as he was four, he told us he loves pink, and dresses, and dancing and trains and cars. He designs his own costumes and is in love with modern dance. In our family we say- Colors are for everyone -Everyone loves rainbows -Let’s make this beautiful! and-If you have a body-DANCE! Thanks for being awesome, and having awesome parents!

  • I love this. I’ve always held a high regard for the masculine and feminine balance in design. Because I’ve always loved ‘boy’ things or masculine things just as much as I’ve loved ‘girl’ things. I painted our last place black and was worried about if it would be ok to do that! Until recently I didn’t have a strong point of view on this, until I worked in a work place where I was call ‘princess’. (I kid you not, in NYC, in 2014.) It really made me realize how much we need to disregard gender in our life, on all levels, and let people like what they like and be who they are. Bravo.

  • Great post! I am a wine buyer and encounter the same kind of issues with wine descriptions. The “feminine” wines can be described as delicate, soft, or even worse-sexy. The “masculine” wines are bold, rustic, and big. It’s always bothered me that gender has to play a role in something like wine-especially when there are plenty of other words that will accurately describe it!

  • I really enjoyed this article. As artist and designers it’s so valuable to take the time and look at the gendering of the world around us. Some of my most successful recent work has involved blending feminine and masculine elements. I’m a quilling artist, quilling is a very delicate and ornate paper craft, feminine. I am also really interested in science, a subject that widely regarded as masculine. When the two are combined the results are really lovely and unexpected.

  • There is a reason why the commercial world wants to divide us. Two genders means the same product can be presented in a way which encourages us to buy the one meant for our gender. It discourages in so many ways our sharing with others. A well considered and important issue raised. Thank you

  • I personally don’t mind the “feminine” and “masculine” words applied to design, because somehow I always hear “stereotyped feminine” and “stereotyped masculine”. But I totally get the point of the article and agree with it ! The “girly” word I hate, though.

    A few days ago, my son made a comment about “this is a girl because she has long hair”. I asked him what gender I was. You’re a woman and you have long hair, mom. Good. What about those children’s mom who has cancer and lost her hair after chemo (yes, I was ashamed to use that exemple, but she’s a woman my son knows and love, and she’s undoubtedly feminine) ? She’s a woman. But she hasn’t got any hair at all ! And what about you friend’s Raph’s mom with her hair cut like your dad’s ? She’s a woman too ! So, does the hair makes a woman ? No !

    One stereotype down, on to the next !

    Both my boy and my girl have pale blue bedrooms. And a hot pink bathroom door. I still had comments like “don’t worry about the blue in Lucie’s room, you can make it more feminine with accessories” (why would I do that ? I chose the paint color !) and comments addressed to my husband, like “did you not have a say in this ?”, to which my beloved guy answered that he did, loved the pink + grey + white palette, and was pleased with the result.

    Doing my best to teach my children that different can mean equal, but this article still felt goooood !

  • I have been a long time DS reader and have to say that this is perhaps one of my favorite articles I’ve read here. Thank you for this. It made my morning coffee and reads so good.

  • Thank you for this. I’ve been guilty of referring to design as masculine or feminine before – without realizing how unnecessary and potentially harmful that can be. Thank you for the eye opener!

  • Love! As an illustrator and a designer I find that my work is often considered “feminine” and that term maintains a negative connotation. A connotation of lack of substance, an ephemeral quality, and a delicacy or sensitivity that is perceived as purely decorative or superficial. My identity as a woman perpetuates this and prevents people from simply considering my work as form or content.

    I am in fact a woman so the word is not incorrectly applied. But its connotation and associations in todays design culture make it a tough pill to swallow.

  • From my own perspective, this hyper-gendered world is a more recent development, a puzzlement after all those years of women’s liberation.
    The purple/pink girly section of Target, compared to the neutral navy/brown dude section for kids is a prime example. Having raised a boy during the 70’s when both boys and girls wore red, blue, yellow and green in kind of a Sesame Street way, along with Oshkosh overalls and rainbow striped shirts shared by all, I am personally appalled that parents I know go along with this hyper-gendered color and themed lifestyle for their kids. We now have a 4 year old boy in the family who likes nothing more than ‘little people’ (action figures, lego figures, you name it) for imaginative play–hey, little boys need to play out social scenes too. I say, it’s time to let your retailers know that you want diversity in product design, and take down that awful themed licensed stuff out there in those dreadful genderized colors.

  • As a mother with a four year old boy who likes dolls, cars, pink, glitter, transformers, wrestling with his daddy (not me!) and firemen, I can tell you the gender language thing is already starting to grate on me. I have noticed comments from neighbors, other parents, and total strangers pointing out when he’s not acting like “a boy” or talking about “boy” things. Even toy isles are gender specific, so that other kids giggle when my son goes down a toy isle to look for a particular doll to want to take home. Thank you, Max, for pointing out your frustration with this. It’s hard to be on top of it all the time with my language, so reminders like this help me to remember there are others out there who feel a similar way.

  • I LOVE this! After my son started school we had to institute this mantra “All the colours are for all the people”. Before then he never said things like pink is for girls. I am always careful to let him choose the colour of whatever we’re buying for him instead of suggesting any particular one.

  • I’m female and I love to wear pink. I’m even painting my bathroom and my office varying shades of pink. I don’t think that makes me girly, and I object to anyone calling me that. Too many times there is a negative connotation to the so-called “feminine” design preferences that could make someone not paint rooms pink or wear pink for fear of the negative backlash from others. That’s just stupid in this day and age. If on a first date with a guy, if he wears pink, I’m likely to fall in love on the spot! it shouldn’t be about gender, but a love for the color! (It also makes your skin look better, whether wearing a pink top or working in a pink office!)

  • As a girl growing up, black was always and still is my favorite color. I hated the stereotype that I should love pink! Thanks for the well written article!!!!

  • What a great article, Max – thank you! We should recognize that our language is gendered in so many ways. I teach a course on “Gender and Science,” and in it, we look at how even “objective” scientific language can be shockingly gendered. Gender norms are social constructs, so hopefully we can change them.

  • Thank you so much for writing about this, Max. I’ve only been reading design blogs for a couple of years and have been feeling kind of out of place sometimes because of the gender specific tendencies (especially on AT) – thank you, let’s hope there will be some sort of change…

  • Thanks Max, and Designsponge, for including this dialog. I love seeing social change via design and this gives us all plenty to think about. Please keep up these types of posts!

  • This is wonderful and helpful commentary. The words we use are so important and really do structure the world in which we live. Thank you for making the choice to change this corner of the design world. Well done!

    • Jessvii

      The genesis of the Biz Ladies name goes back to 2007, when I started the series. It was inspired by a group drink I had with fellow women running businesses, where we realized we all were facing issues of sexism within our community and our professional networks and we wanted a place where we could talk to, relate to and receive support from other women who understood what that felt like. That discussion lead to a single Brooklyn meetup designed to help women build support systems and overcome different issues. I received requests for more meetups so in 2008 I funded a national 8-city Biz Ladies tour where women could come receive professional advice and feel safe among their peers to ask questions or talk about experiences they didn’t feel as comfortable discussing in front of people (for example, among men that they felt were currently treating them differently for being a woman in their field). I couldn’t afford to single-handedly fund traveling anymore, so I turned it into a free online weekly series in 2009. The name stands as a reflection of the column’s origins, but we’ve frequently covered and included all people in this column since 2010.

      Grace

  • LOVE this! It’s interesting isn’t it, the subconcious messages and conditioning of our culture that lean toward this critical and divisive thinking… It’s so sad really, but that’s why I’m so glad to see that D*S remains so forward thinking in it’s writing and community. I LOVE black – particularly black walls and I always felt like I’d be criticized for it and didn’t do it for many years, I remember back in the days of MySpace using a more predominately black theme and being told by a friend that it looked very goth (nothing wrong with that, just not discriptive of me)… but why? Can’t it just be what it is? I do love seeing a more industrial/modern bent in design lately, like I’m finally finding inspiration that applies to my taste. Anyway – I just really appreciate this post and the profoundly important message it carries. I recently read a book some may find interesting here called Gracefully Grason – Maxwell’s story about wearing dresses and playing dress up as a kid made me think of this book again as I’ve considered writing my own children’s book about how radically awesome and authentic it is to be different and ‘weird’, in spite of how many of us feel outcast for just that. I also wrote on Radical Authenticity on my blog back in October and everything about this strikes that same chord for me – let’s just be who we are and stop dividing and looking down upon what’s different (ah hem, we’re ALL different). Thank you!!! ;)

  • Not to at all down play the effect that gender bias has on everyone, I feel like I have to defend the use of “masculine” & “feminine”. When I use those words in relation to design it is because they remind me of the qualities of “women” or “men”- curvy because many women are curvy, their bodies tend to carry more fat so they appear softer, their bodies produce more estrogen and they can carry a child. Men’s bodies tend to be more angular and have more muscle mass, and produce more testosterone. Now I know these things are related to sex, not gender, but I think that it is silly to not be able to use the word feminine when describing something that has a voluptuous shape.

    I think the problem with these terms comes about because of the connotation they imply, a sort of if/ then instead of and/or statement. If Joan likes pink then she likes high heels kind of thing, instead of Joan likes pink and power tools. And that I agree it is a problem if your understanding or estimation of the qualities a man or woman or person or thing can possess is limited. Which, I agree, if you were to look in the toy store or at any commercial on TV, is 90% marketed to specific “genders” that promote a narrow understanding of the human population at large IN MANY WAYS aside from gender.

    • Dominique

      The issue many of us have with the idea that ‘curves describe women’ is because that’s a very narrow view of what women’s and men’d bodies look like. Not all women can carry children, have curvy hips or more weight on their bodies. Not all men are angular. People who do not fit those body images often feel left out when those “norms” don’t fit their image. That’s the reason we don’t think those descriptors are limited and outdated.

      You don’t need to defend anything- you’re free to use terms as you see fit. But we, as a site, won’t use those terms anymore because we’d like to be a part of the larger change of refraining from gendering things based on “norms” for genders. I’ve had too many conversations with people who identify as women and men that involve them feeling left out and offended by those terms because their bodies may not match those of a cisgendered man or woman. I don’t want to be a part of anything that makes someone feel left out or hurt because they don’t match the assumptions our terminology makes. If the cost of someone feeling welcomed and accepted is me refraining from a certain word usage, I don’t think that’s too much to ask. Why not just use the word “soft” “curvy” or “delicate”. If that’s what you’re implying by the word “feminine”, we can easily just use those words instead.

      Grace

    • Dominique

      The issue many of us have with the idea that ‘curves describe women’ is because that’s a very narrow view of what women’s and men’s bodies look like. Not all women can carry children, have curvy hips or more weight on their bodies. Not all men are angular. People who do not fit those body images often feel left out when those “norms” don’t fit their image. That’s the reason we don’t think those descriptors are limited and outdated.

      You don’t need to defend anything- you’re free to use terms as you see fit. But we, as a site, won’t use those terms anymore because we’d like to be a part of the larger change of refraining from gendering things based on “norms” for genders. I’ve had too many conversations with people who identify as women and men that involve them feeling left out and offended by those terms because their bodies may not match those of what we “assume” of a cisgendered man or woman. I don’t want to be a part of anything that makes someone feel left out or hurt because they don’t match the assumptions our terminology makes.

      The bottom line for me is: if the cost of someone feeling welcomed and accepted is me refraining from a certain word usage, I don’t think that’s too much to ask. If “soft” “curvy” and “delicate” is what you’re implying by the word “feminine”, we can easily just use those words instead.

      Grace

  • I understand and agree, partly, with this article. I see the words, gender neutral, thrown around a lot, and that is OK to a point. However, I don’t thinks its uncool to decorate a baby girls nursery in pink or a baby boy nursery in blue, if this is what someone wants to do. As these little ones grow and come into their own, yes – make changes accordingly to suit them. Just as it is wrong to force a little boy to play with “boy” toys, or a little girl to play with “girl toys”, its also wrong to label males and females as being somehow “neutral”. There is nothing in the world wrong with little girls playing with dolls or little boys playing with cars. Let your kids be kids, do their own thing, grow and evolve in their own way. But you don’t have to have a gender neutral nursery (and copy everyone else) in order to appear hip and cool. I’m older than most of your readers probably, but there seems to be such emphasis (of course its not talked about) put on being current and on trend, being hip. I see so many interiors, over and over again & again, that look almost exactly the same. I guess I’m really thinking of the “Kinfolk” thing – everyone copying this look. Oh well, that a different topic I guess.

    • Hi Cindy

      I don’t think we’re suggesting that everything be “neutral”, what we’re suggesting is that genders do not have “norms” or “givens”. You can decorate any room any color you like, but saying that “pink is only for feminine rooms” is what we take issue with.

      Grace

  • Grace, in your response to Dominique – I don’t know, but I feel that you are over thinking things a bit and being rather defensive. The the words ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’, I mean really, those are words…they do not carry the weight of the world. I am a “grandma”, and I know sometimes that word may have a stereotype, yet I am intelligent enough & confident enough to realize grandma’s come in all shapes and forms – the word does not define me. I am a grandma and I am many other things as well. I think we could all lighten up here.

    • Cindy

      Please see my earlier comments above. Our desire to use more inclusive language isn’t about defending ourselves, it’s about defending other people who feel left out and judged by language like that. I’m glad that that language doesn’t make you feel pigeon-holed or judged, but some people DO feel that way, and those are the people weren’t hoping to help feel more welcomed here.

      Grace

  • As this is my first time visiting this site, I would like to say how grateful and touched I am by this article. As a 30 year old male growing up in NYC, I also share the same experiences the writer had growing up. As a child I loved action figures as much as I loved dolls and the all the colors in my crayon box. I still am the same way and love the fact my Mother raised me without any gender bias. She told me as an adult how difficult it was at times when other members of my family and friends would try to dissuade her from letting me play with ‘girly’ things as they weren’t appropriate to put it nicely. In hindsight, I am so happy she stood by her convictions and let me grow up happy the way in the way I gravitated towards. And its also warms my heart reading so many comments from other parents who also feel the same way. I also hope manufacturers create genderless products that anyone can use without shaming any child or parent for what they truly want. Thanks everyone for sharing your thoughts and opinions.

  • Thank you Max a million times over for this! And thank you Grace for your insightful comments. I agree with you both completely. It’s great that something as big as D*S is taking a stand on this issue. It gives me hope.

  • This is such an amazing and insightful article. I agree with all the points you have made, i find it so irritating how much of a defining factor gender is within design. I am currently writing an essay for a uni project on exactly this and this article has given me some great insights, thankyou!

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