Monday, August 09, 2010

On belonging

Like most people, I have a strong need to belong. To feel accepted. Like most people, I am also picky about where it is that I am accepted and by whom.

When I originally started blogging, I stood in awe of the likes of Kathy Sierra and Stephen Downes (among others). I hovered on the sidelines of the spaces they inhabited and then grew brave enough to contribute my twopenn'orth to the conversations they were having. For different reasons, neither of these two people are particularly strong on responding to blog comments - Kathy (who no longer blogs, to my knowledge) received so many comments that she was physically unable to respond to them all; Stephen believes that his readers' comments have validity in and of themselves, without needing his affirmation or validation (or so I seem to recall from somewhere... blowed if I can find where he said it). At one point, I posted something that took an opposing stance to something Stephen had said and almost fell off my chair when he spread a little link love and referred to my post in his OLDaily the next day.

It was this kind of acceptance that made me feel as if I belonged. And social media are great for this. They are such levellers. For example, to extend the Downes story for a moment, the nature of the relationship I have with Stephen has become increasingly relaxed over the years, as we have become connected in a wider range of social media spaces, to the point where we engage on personal issues as well as shared professional interests.

Switching tack for a moment, let's look at this belonging thing from a slightly different angle:

Because of a quirk of genetics, I always found it very difficult to find clothes that fitted me. I was the woman who hated clothes shopping, because after three stores full of nothing that fitted me, I began to feel like a freak. Things that fitted here, didn't close there, and things that closed there, hung like a sack everywhere else.

Then a wonderful woman called Sarah Tremellen established Bravissimo, an outlet for... well, check it out for yourself.

I don't know who developed her marketing plan, or whether she is naturally insightful, but she has formed a community for women who - like me - had to put up with all the strife that goes with being the shape that we are: quite apart from the struggle to find decent clothing, there are the assumptions about our morals and our intelligence levels, the ribald remarks, the failed attempts to conduct professional conversations with men who later wouldn't recognise your face if their lives depended on it.

I was an early adopter of Bravissimo and am a fan of just about everything about it: the decor in the stores, the defiant quotes on the walls, the professional fitting service. But most of all, I love that I can walk out of their stores feeling like a shapely woman, rather than a freak.

Recently, I was in one of their fitting rooms, when I overheard a woman in the next cubicle make a discovery: due to significant recent weight loss, she no longer fell within Bravissimo's target audience. The store no longer catered to her. She was utterly crestfallen as she said, "It looks like I'm just not a Bravissimo girl any more."

Why do I relate this story?

Because, in spite of the fact that the woman in question had achieved goal weight and all the attendant health and aesthetic benefits, in spite of the fact that she could now buy clothing from any high street store at a significantly lower price, she had effectively ousted herself from the community, and that was causing her genuine distress. And yet, one becomes a member of the Bravissimo community in the first place as a consequence of being excluded from all manner of other communities.

The difference is that Bravissimo deliberately fosters that sense of community, that sense of belonging.

As we build our learning environments and create our communication spaces, let's look for ways to foster that same sense of being part of something that make a person feel special. Something they will be reluctant to leave.

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