THE RULES DON’T APPLY TO US

I have quite literally lost count of the number of NRL players who are currently accused of assaulting women over the years.

Until October this year, my husband Ryan (Hoffman) was an NRL player, and had been for 16 seasons. So as part of this community, it is particularly heartbreaking.

To be clear, from this point on, I refer to these incidents in general. No one specific. I have no interest in muddying the issue by quibbling over the facts of individual cases. The fact is, violence happens.

It is frightening, appalling, and as violence always is, utterly unacceptable.

And it needs to be said, this is not a football issue. Torn up contracts, missed training sessions and stalled careers all pale in comparison to the actual, human cost paid by victims of violence and abuse.

Unfortunately, allegations of violence against women by football players are nothing new and over time there has been much conjecture as to the root of the issue.

Some argue that rugby league is simply a microcosm of society, and that violence against women is present in society, therefore, it is present in rugby league. Add to this, the fact that rugby league is lousy with males of a certain age, and some even make the argument that if there is an over-representation of violence, it’s down to some skewed demographics.

But, whilst rugby league is one of the few industries laden with men between the ages of 18 and 35, it is also one of the few industries that address the issue of violence against women head-on.

In recent times, players have actually be made to attend training (during their paid working hours) where in a variety of creative and engaging ways, they are taught in no uncertain terms, that violence against women is never okay.

Sure, many professional workplaces have anti-discrimination and bullying training, but these are a bunch of blokes who are annually reminded specifically that violence, or any kind of abuse against women, is not acceptable.

Let me just say that again: it is someone’s job to sit down with groups of fully functioning adult human beings, and make sure they understand that it is wrong to hurt women.

It’s a sad state of affairs, but if it goes any way to helping protect at-risk women then I’m glad that this type of training exists.

That said, the existence of this training is the reason I don’t buy the whole, ‘it happens in the world so it happens in rugby league’ argument. This is a group of men who are privileged by education, when others are not. There is never any excuse, but it is particularly true here.

So why does it continue to happen?

There may never be an answer to that question, but I have some thoughts.

If there is one resounding frustration I have with rugby league, and professional sport in general, it’s that footballers and football clubs seem to abide by a different set of rules to the rest of us.

There are examples everywhere, some advantageous, some detrimental, some innocuous and some really, bloody serious.

Footballers don’t line up to get into nightclubs. Footballers don’t get sick leave, parental leave or public holidays. Footballers get to jump medical queues. Footballers are customarily encouraged (or not discouraged) to go out and drink to excess in a celebration of a job well done. In some cases, footballers don’t have to pay for their education. Or their shoes. Or their clothes. Or their cars. Footballers are subject to physical and mental working conditions that in any other workplace would be considered unsafe at best. Footballers play ‘pranks’ on one another in the workplace that are the textbook definition of harassment, whereas others in the real world have been disciplined for much, much less.

“Yeah, but that’s just footy, it’s different,” they say. For the forty-five-thousandth time.

The point is, in a variety of ways, rugby league – and particularly the playing group – has long been a space that only teeters on the cusp of professionalism and as a result, the normal rules – workplace, societal and otherwise – don’t always apply.

I am constantly comparing what I know of the footy club environment to the experience I’ve had in non-football workplaces and time and time again I get the same argument: “it’s apples and oranges.”

But should it be? For me, this constant, underlying message that professional sport is an island is highly problematic. Hey you with the professional rugby league career – you are not like everyone else, you are special, you are above the rules.

And perhaps, over time, this relentless elevation of footballers above others, this constant operation within a space that proudly compares to no other, communicates a subconscious message about obedience that in some outposts then becomes dangerously twisted: I know the rules, but they don’t apply to me. If I break the rules, there’ll be no real consequences.

It might be a long bow to draw. But to be fair, nothing else is working. Not education. Not punishment. Not that thing where you simply rely on people to do the right thing and then get on with your life. Something has to change.

Because when you consider this culture of nonconformity, within an industry that is fundamentally built on aggression, filled with young men whose needs are daily elevated above everyone around them, and where women are never – ever – seen as peers, then perhaps we start to get a sense of some of the factors that contribute to a much larger issue.

There is no easy fix here. This idolisation of sportspeople and pedestalling of their achievements is deeply ingrained not only in the industry itself but also in society’s obsession with it. This is not going to change any time soon.

But given the diabolical consequences that are being faced by women everywhere, both involved in the industry and beyond, it would be great to see NRL clubs backing up their anti-violence training with some changes to approach and therefore to the powerful subconscious messaging. Step up the professionalism. Stamp out the larrikin culture. Put women in positions of real power. Align your behavioural policies with those of the rest of professional Australia. Simply put, send the message – the rules absolutely apply to you too.

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AGEING IS A THING

It’s my birthday today. I’m 36.

I love my birthday. I tend to impose a lot of rules on myself in my day-to-day life and I lift all of them at once on my birthday. It’s the best. So regardless of anything else that happens – dinners, parties, presents – I know that at the very least, I can have carbs for all three meals if I want. Or I can have a wine or two, even if it’s a Tuesday. Or I can watch television during the day. Somebody stop me.

Recently I’ve been trying to be more open about my age. I’ve never been hugely coy about it, but I’ve definitely been going out of my way to say it out loud more and more.

I have two motivations for this:

  • It’s a bit like Dumbledore encouraging people to use Voldemort’s real name – saying it out loud takes the fear away. (Which admittedly, is a reference that probably dates me quite accurately with my having to say my actual age at all); and
  • I’m increasingly aware that it is apparently not okay that I am ageing, and facing up to this reality at every incidental opportunity helps me keep my sanity in a world that seems to insist that I remain youthful at all costs.

Let me give you an example.

At the beginning of 2015, my family and I moved to Auckland and we lived there for three years. One of the most striking things I noticed when we moved back to Melbourne, was how many of my local shops and businesses had been replaced by pseudo-medical skin care clinics.

I say pseudo-medical because in my research I looked at a few websites and one of them had a picture of a staff member wearing a lab coat (the definition of science and medicine), paired with some super cute open-toe high heels (not at all science-y – or hygienic – as it happens).

You know the ones I mean, they have white sterile walls, impossibly beautiful front-of-house staff and passive aggressive shop window advertising that makes you feel inadequate and like shit, basically.

For me, this is a terrifying trend.

When I was younger there were already so many expectations on me with regards to the minimum-level of effort I had to put into my appearance: wear clothes (legal requirement, no actual objections here), said clothes should be nice and preferably gender normative (murkier), cleanse, exfoliate, tone, moisturise and make up face, cut, file and polish nails, wash, cut, dye and style hair, remove other offensive hair (where offence is caused solely by natural growth location), tan said hairless skin… the list seemed endless. It was then, and continues to be now, completely overwhelming and takes a financial toll that I have never really been comfortable enduring.

And just when I felt mildly comfortable with my tenuous grasp on meeting all of these requirements, I find I can’t swing a cat without hitting one of these skin care clinics and feeling like I’ve fallen behind, yet again.

I know these places have always existed, my concern is the terrifying normalisation of them. They are in your local Westfield – in multiple quantities. They’re in your neighbourhood strip of shops, in between the dentist and the milk bar. And it is this very relocation of them from the high streets of Toorak and South Yarra, into the mainstream that sends the message that this is what everyone is doing now. It’s not enough to pull the hairs out of your legs with boiling hot strips of wax. You’re meant to be blasting them out from the roots with lasers. It’s not enough to fill your enlarged pores with Spakfilla/make up, you’re meant to be shrinking them away with a patented combination of skin needling and chemical peels.

The presence in our actual lives of these and other services is then underscored by the relentless touting of them in the media (social and otherwise), as well as the very limited representation of women that seem to embrace the natural ageing process. All put together, it’s a powerful subconscious message and a toxic cocktail for anyone trying to live their life with any semblance of self-esteem.

Because all these things that we do, from the simple, to the pseudo-medical, to the actual-medical are aimed at the same objective: stop/slow/disguise/deny the process of ageing. Some of them are actually even marketed in those exact words. Which seems ridiculous to me because WE ALL AGE. It is possibly one of the only truly universal human conditions. Ageing is an actual thing that happens, and it’s nobody’s fault. Can we just say that again? Ageing is not your fault. It’s the way we are designed. I can’t work out at what point we let it become a thing for which we felt the need to apologise.

It got me to thinking about what life would be like for my three-year-old daughter when she grows up and what her list of self-maintenance expectations might look like.

And then I thought, screw her: this is actually a problem for me, right now. In the present.

Because the thing is, although I am aware of the collective effect of all these sub-conscious messages, I’m not immune.

I try to imagine how ridiculous it would be if I saw monkeys in the wild daily disguising their grey patches of fur with sticky leaves or some other such garbage, I use this approach to contextualise the unnecessary complication of it, but to be honest, I’m only partly successful. Some of these ‘beauty’ requirements are so deeply ingrained in me that I’ve given up any hope of ever getting them out of my system so I just carry on with them, to save myself the heartache not only of doing the required beauty maintenance, but of having to berate myself in the process.

So what I do hope for my daughter, is that she grows up to either be better at managing (read: ignoring) these expectations than me, or that she grows up to be one of these people who genuinely enjoy these processes. And I know that these people exist. I know plenty of people personally who get a lot of joy out of the process of self-care and out of finding a way to feel comfortable in their skin. Literally. It just took me until very recently to realise that I am not one of them and that’s okay.

Which brings me back to my birthday. I’ve always loved my birthday but it’s really only this year that I’ve worked out why. I love my birthday because it’s the one opportunity I get to celebrate the ageing process. It’s the one day in 365 when the world congratulates me for ageing, rather than tut-tut-tutting at me for it. My birthday is a day when I call a ceasefire on the warfare between my human-ness (who absolutely ages) and my brain (who is conditioned to be in denial). It is a celebration of an alternative view: that it’s okay to embrace your age. It’s my birthday, I’m 36, and I’m not sorry.

(Also I really like the presents.)

PS In the words of Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich, although more-widely publicized by Baz Luhrmann: wear sunscreen. Obviously, I am not railing against those things we do that stop us from dying prematurely. K?