This is what a white feminist looks like

“What’s the difference between feminism and white feminism?” My friend asked me in a text message. She had been looking at the Women’s March website, and she didn’t fully understand the distinction. I sat there for a while, staring at my phone, trying to figure out whether it was possible to hazard an explanation the length of a text message. I decided it was too complicated, something we needed to discuss in person.

Several days later, I found myself in a sea of pink hats, in the middle of our nation’s capital, trying to find my way to Independence Ave. When I arrived at the Women’s March on Washington, I had no idea where to go. Every street in every direction was flooded with demonstrators, numbering in the hundreds of thousands. I had to stand on my tip-toes to see the mega screen projecting live videos of the rally’s speakers—at times barely audible over the noise of chatting marchers. As I stood there, I was struck by the celebratory atmosphere of the event. All around me were women laughing and hugging and screaming like they were in the audience of a live broadcast of Rachael Ray. We deserve to celebrate ourselves, I coached myself, trying not to be cynical.

I tried to focus on the dizzying display of badass intersectional feminists leading the rally. Black, brown, Latina, native, disabled, formerly incarcerated, undocumented, queer, and trans women took to the stage to proclaim their truths, representing social justice organizations and movements that have been doing the good work for a long time, and will continue to do so in the years to come. When they announced that Angela Davis was about to take the stage, I nearly lost my shit.

“At a challenging moment in our history,” Angela began, “let us remind ourselves that we the hundreds of thousands, the millions of women, trans-people, men and youth who are here at the Women’s March, we represent the powerful forces of change that are determined to prevent the dying cultures of racism and hetero-patriarchy from rising again.”

March, march, march, the white demonstrators around me began chanting, drowning out the rest of Angela Davis’s speech.

March, march, march, march, they screamed, waving their pink “Pussy Grabs Back” signs and performing various renditions of the white woman two-step.

If these women had quieted down for a moment, they might have heard Angela when she explained that “This is a country anchored in slavery and colonialism, which means for better or for worse the very history of the United States is a history of immigration and enslavement.”

They might have stopped to wonder what progress has and has not been made for women of color since that day in 1970 when Angela Davis was arrested by the FBI for crimes she did not commit.

They might have considered, for a moment, who and what deserved celebrating. Was it really their pink pussies? Their privileged white daughters decked out in North Face jackets? Their collective, and questionably phrased, “girl power”? Or was it the fact that up on that stage, women of all colors, genders, sexual orientations, and creeds were bravely sharing their stories and fighting for a world where justice and equality were not only ideals, but realities for all women?

I am a cis, white woman, a lesbian, and an intersectional feminist. As a liberal-progressive woman, I am not automatically entitled to the feminist label. It is something I fight for, challenge, question, and talk about on a daily basis. And the more I consider the weight of that label, the more I believe that feminism without a radical basis of anti-racist, anti-oppression work is not actually feminism at all.

Feminism is not just “the radical idea that women are people,” it is the radical idea that all people—especially women—deserve justice.

Or, to put it another way, white feminism is not truly feminism.

I am proud of what we accomplished this Saturday. I am proud that people showed up in the smallest towns and the biggest cities, in the snow and rain, wearing their rainbow flag capes and their purple lipstick, bringing their partners, their children, their parents, and their radical politics. I am proud that the organizers of the Women’s March espoused a truly intersectional platform. I am proud that people chanted Black Lives Matter and wore American Flag hijabs.

But for all feminists, new and old, this is only the beginning of a long fight. As a white feminist, I am humbled by all the work I haven’t been doing, and energized to begin showing up—in the streets, in meetings, in my community—to make justice a reality. I hope that all those two-stepping, pussy-hat-wearing white feminists who showed up at the Women’s March will do the same.

*Cover photo courtesy of Flyah Angelou

 

 

Intentional Communities and Why We Need Them

In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates describes Howard University, the historically black college he attended, as “The Mecca.” This sacred place, Coates tells us, was the “crossroads of the black diaspora.”

I first witnessed [its] power out on the Yard, he writes, that communal green space in the center of the campus where the students gathered and I saw everything I knew of my black self multiplied out into seemingly endless variations. There were the scions of Nigerian aristocrats in their business suits giving dap to bald-headed Qs in purple windbreakers and tan Timbs. There were high-yellow progeny of AME preachers debating the clerics of Ausar-Set… It was like listening to a hundred different renditions of “Redemption Song,” each in a different color and key.

What interests me about Coates’ description of the Mecca is not so much what it says about Howard University, in particular, but rather, what it says about the continued need for intentional communities, built around shared identities that are, and have been for centuries, under siege.

I say under siege because I don’t want anyone to confuse my argument with a general apology for narrow-mindedness, at best, and xenophobia, at worst. White Lives Matter and Men’s Rights Activists have nothing to do with what I’m saying, and everything to do with what I’m trying to say. There is nothing simple about the intentional communities of which I speak, but there is something sacred about them, and it is to this sacredness that I wish to speak.

I went to a women’s college. The usual response when I shared this news with my fellow high school students was “I’m soooo sorry!” or “But how will you meet boys?” or “Are you religious?” or just plain “Why?” At the time, my answers to their questions were evasive. Living under the false impression that I was straight, I took their concern about meeting boys as well-intentioned, answered that there were men at the other colleges in the area, told them that I was not, in fact, religious, and explained that I had chosen the school for its academic merits.

I was not lying, not exactly, but what I said to them was untrue.

I went to a women’s college because women had been at the center of my existence for as long as I could remember, because the company of women was the only place I felt like I could truly be myself, because the night I visited Mount Holyoke College for the first time, I sat around a table with women from all walks of life, with long curly hair and shaved heads, a knack for chemistry and a love of Latin, crosses around their necks and hijabs on their heads, talking about their girlfriends, boyfriends, partners, lovers, and everything in between, about their latest lacrosse game, or an interview with a corporate bank, or a new DNA pattern they had just discovered, or the way it felt to look at the stars in wintertime. I went to a women’s college because I needed women plural to understand how I, a woman singular, was actually just myself, and could choose the words to name this self with no regard for other’s projects or prejudices. I went to a women’s college to find out that there was no one way to be a woman, that it was alright not to be a “woman” at all, that this word was both the most important and most contested word I would ever use to describe myself, and that this contestation was perfectly alright—that it was, in fact, encouraged.

I am reticent to draw the connection between Coates’ description of Howard University and my own experiences at Mount Holyoke College, knowing full well that white feminists have too long appropriated the work of black activists and thinkers for their own ends, without giving credit where credit is due. I am also weary of establishing false equivalency—the need for historically black colleges is different in tenor and volume than the need for women’s colleges. The two are not mutually exclusive, nor is one a more important endeavor than the other. Rather, I believe that both spaces offer a lens for understanding the limits of mere inclusion as a catch-all solution for past (and present) oppressions.

We don’t join communities like Howard University and Mount Holyoke College to be with people who are just like us. We join these communities because under the umbrella of a shared identity, we are free to explore our differences. When I entered the gates of Mount Holyoke College, I was free to be more than just “the smart girl.” We were all “the smart girl.” Instead, I could be the eccentric translator. The friend who never forgets your birthday. The figure you see walking around the lake every evening at sunset. The girl who wears her grandmother’s ring and her grandfather’s sport coat. The lover. The joker. The dreamer. Myself.

In the past few weeks, I have been privileged enough to witness the birth of an intentional community here at my place of work. As co-facilitator of an LGBTQ meditation group, I have been deeply moved by the willingness of my peers to explore spirituality in a queer-centered space. For so many of us who identify as queer, religion and spirituality have been sites of oppression and injustice, especially in our childhoods. Though there are numerous spiritual leaders at the front lines of this battle, fighting for the inclusion and full acceptance of queer folks into spiritual communities across the country, there is something particularly sacred about a space where we can explore our spirituality and our sexuality in tandem, without being the only lesbian, or trans woman, or gender non-conforming person in the room. To be able to speak about the pains of missing my ex-girlfriend without secretly worrying that someone is thinking “but she doesn’t look like a lesbian” is more powerful than you might think. To be able to share our stories of tragedy, discovery, and triumph is not only affirming to each of us as individuals, but essential to our continued survival as a community.

We are who we choose to be. I wouldn’t have made it anywhere if I didn’t believe this to be true. And though, too often, choices are made for us in which we have no say, there is ultimately a deeper place where we have the right, and the freedom, to curate our hearts. Whether others recognize or cultivate this freedom is another story. Whether our bodies are safe enough to worry about our hearts is something else entirely. But the hope is that by carving out spaces for fellowship with those who share our identities, we can remember what it feels like to just be ourselves. 

How to Write a Manifesto

Two years ago this March, my best friend and I wrote a manifesto.

It was a brisk spring day in Paris, and we were sitting on the banks of the Seine, equipped with a bottle of cheap rosé, a box of Prince cookies, and a Moleskine notebook.

It was sunset.  Of course it was sunset.  Who writes a manifesto at any other time of day but sunset?

Yes, it was just as picturesque as you might imagine.  The light was orange and pink over the water.  The street lamps of Paris were beginning to light up, one by one, across the city.  

It was perfect, okay?  No need to wax poetic (for once).

We were half a bottle in when the writing began.  I wrote the first sentence, she the second, I the third… and we went on like this for what seemed like hours, passing the notebook silently back and forth, taking sips of wine and watching boats pass on the quiet water.

To understand why, on that particular evening, we had decided to write a manifesto, it is important for you to know a few things:

  1. I had just turned 21: a ripe, rebellious age.
  2. My best friend had been living alone in a small chambre de bonne in Paris for almost two months: plenty of time to ponder existence.
  3. I had just fallen in love with a girl for the first time: love makes you do crazy things.
  4. Wine is cheap in Paris: cheap wine makes you want to write.

So there we are, about to pen the last sentence of our manifesto (switching off every other word now, just to make it extra special), and we see a boat coming towards us on the water.  A man screams at us, waving his hands, but we have no idea what he’s saying.

WHOOSH.

In the boat’s wake, a wall of water surges towards us.  Remember, we are drunk: slow reaction time.  The wave climbs up the concrete wall, splashes over our feet and legs, soaks the notebook, and carries the empty bottle away—not the first or last to be lost in that river.

But the manifesto, that we managed to save.  We could hardly complain.  A manifesto baptized in the waters of the Seine?  The stuff of legend.

In the months to follow, I would repeat this story to my friends, adding certain details, and taking others away.  “Ah, to be young in Paris,” I would conclude, eyes looking dramatically off into the distance.

But the truth is, it wasn’t just the wine, or the sunset, or even Paris that inspired us to write the manifesto.  We wrote it because we truly believed that together, we could make the world a better place.

We weren’t the first to think so, and we certainly aren’t the last.

Feminism, in particular, has a rich history of manifestos.  Dismantling the patriarchy is no piece of cake.  It takes guts, hard work, and a lot of angry (drunken) writing.

Last year, Eileen Myles and Jill Soloway also happened to find themselves in Paris, and also happened to write a pretty badass manifesto.  Their solution to a world of male privilege and domination? For starters, film, television, books, poetry, song-writing and architecture created by men will be outlawed for the next fifty years.  Oh yeah, and “male constructed governing must cease for one hundred years (one century).”

Now that’s what I call a manifesto.

“Wait, wait,” some people might say, “is that really necessary?  Not all men are evil, you know, and they make a lot of good art.”

You better believe Eileen Myles has an answer to this question.  A manifesto, she recently explained, is not meant to be taken literally (although that would be ideal).  A manifesto is meant to be “a piece of abstract art that prods… a movement has to begin with the hyperbolic.” 

It’s been two years since my best friend and I wrote our manifesto on the Seine.  Reading it now, I feel distant from the hopeful energy of that day.  So much has changed since then, so many things have happened that I never could have imagined in that moment.

But it is for that very reason that I am glad the manifesto exists.

We will not shrink, we wrote that day, We will not minimize.  We will not apologize.  We will live as we mean to live, so brightly that our light explodes the sunlight on the river.  And we will move, covered with flowers.

Rereading those words, I am reminded that the hard work  of making the world a better place can never be accomplished alone.  That may seem like a cliché—and it is—but it also happens to be true.

The hard work begins here.  It begins with the people you know.  The people you already love.  It begins with the lives you dream up together, at sunset, in a foreign city.  It begins with the words you share with your best friend on a crinkly, water-soaked page.  It begins with the fantastical, the dramatic, the hyperbolic.

We may not be able to ban men from literature for the next fifty years, or walk around the world covered in flowers.  But we can harness the energy of these beautiful dreams, and stand our ground, even when waves of doubt come rushing towards us.  We can laugh as they splash our feet, and soak our clothes.

We can live as we mean to live: bold, and unafraid.

Fuck is a four letter word

“Say it!”

“No.”

“Say it!”

“I can’t.”

“Just say it!”

“F…..”

“C’mon Hannah, it’s not that hard. Fuck, fuck, fuck!”

This, in a nutshell, was my childhood.  

It’s funny, right?  I, the consummate lipstick lesbian.  I, co-author of Femme as in Fuck You.  I, with my lace up combat boots and sassy undercut and distressed denim jacket.  

I, Hannah Leffingwell, was unable for the better part of twenty years to say the word “fuck.”    

I was that girl, front of the class, hand in the air, long straight hair parted precisely down the middle of my head, wearing an ugly chunky sweater and ill-fitting bell-bottom jeans.  I was that girl who felt nauseous if I realized I had forgotten my homework (which never really happened).  That girl who shhhhshed you in the library.  That girl who fast-forwarded through sex scenes even when she was all by herself at home.  That girl with her nose in a book and her head in the clouds.  That girl. 

If you had asked me, at the age of fifteen, what I wanted from life, I would have given you two solid answers: To go to Mount Holyoke College, and to marry a man.

If you’re laughing right now, I understand.  

Would you laugh more if I told you I also planned on “saving myself for marriage?”

Probably.

Needless to say, “fuck” was not in my vocabulary.

I remember the first time I ever said it, by accident, alone in my car.  I was driving home from ballet class, blasting “Little Lion Man,” dreaming about a boy I had only met once and knew I would probably never talk to, and it just… slipped out.  I really fucked it up this time, I sang.  And then I blushed, my whole body filling with a tangible wave of shame.

This word was never just a word for me.  “Fuck” was an expectation, an as-yet-unexperienced but inevitable submission, a visceral fear.  “Fuck” was all the things I didn’t want to do with that boy I was singing about.  “Fuck” was the reason I never called him, or tried to set up a time to meet.  “Fuck” was the way boys laughed at me when I started talking in class.  “Fuck” was the way I hid my breasts beneath too big sweaters to avoid their attention.  “Fuck” was wait, you’ve never dated anyone?  “Fuck” was you’ll like it when it happens.  “Fuck” was you’re going to a college with no boys?  

“Fuck” was everything I wasn’t able to say about a part of myself I didn’t understand.

Fast forward to my junior year of college.  I’m sitting in the common room of Safford.  It’s Thanksgiving break, and there’s no one around.  It’s just me and two friends, eating dinner.  Well, when I say two friends, I guess I should specify.  One of them, yes, a good friend.  The other?  Someone I had known ever since my first day of college, but rarely talked to.  Someone who made me blush every time she walked into the room.  The same someone I would fall head-over-heels in love with the next summer.  The same someone who would guide me, definitively, out of the closet.  And then break my heart.

But I didn’t know any of this at the time.  All I knew was that I could barely look at her without turning bright red.  When I learned she would be joining us for dinner, I felt this unfamiliar sense of dread and excitement.  I wish I could say I was confused by these feelings, but in reality I was so deeply buried in my repressive tendencies that I couldn’t even allow myself to enter a stage of confusion.

“So,” this someone said, her eyes like two laser beams shooting into my deepest self, “P. tells me you aren’t having sex until you’re married.”

It was just as abrupt as it sounds.  No segue, no easing in.  My friend P. would later describe it as an “intervention” – something they had both, apparently, been planning for months.

We can talk about the ethics of this situation another time, but the point is, I was taken off guard.  

“I just want to wait for the right guy, you know?” I said, stumbling over my words.

“But how will you know he’s the right guy if you don’t have sex with him?”

The answer to this question seemed simple to me: sex with a man was bound to be disgusting, I reasoned, and therefore, would only be enjoyable if coupled with the sentiments of true love.  If I found a guy I truly, truly loved, then maybe one day, somehow that love would magically make it okay to touch his dick.

This someone, the one who had been asking all the questions, looked at me in disbelief.  She looked at me like she and everyone else in the world knew something I didn’t know.  And then she said:

“What would you rather have in your mouth?”

The only way I can describe my embarrassment at being asked such a question is to say that my body felt like it was being invaded by a million tiny bugs, all of whom wished to make their way through my skin and eat away at everything beneath.  Every single muscle in my body was tensed, my cheeks were the brightest shade of red, my teeth were clenched behind the conciliatory smile I kept forcing to my lips.

It went on like this for what felt like hours.  Pointed questions, flustered answers, all interspersed with this someone’s own tales of sexual discovery.

At one point, she looked at me, with that “fuck if I care” look in her eyes, and said:

“You know, there’s a big difference between fucking and making love.”

But wasn’t that what I had been saying all along?

That night, I tossed and turned in my creaky twin bed.  It was Thanksgiving Break, and the campus was empty.  No voices shouting across Skinner Green, no raucous bands of students stumbling back from Chapin.  Just the arrhythmic clanking of the radiator, the occasional flush of the toilet, and the distant sound of traffic on 116.

I remembered back to all those nights, growing up, when I had lain in my childhood bed – no bigger than the one I lay in now – and wondered what it would be like to kiss a girl.  Wondered is probably too strong a word.  I didn’t really let myself wonder.  It was more like I found myself thinking back to certain encounters with girls during the day, encounters where I felt this burning need for an undefinable closeness, and thought to myself: What if I were to kiss her?  Is that what my body is telling me to do? Usually, I wouldn’t go any further than that.  My thoughts would jam, my body would close up like an oyster, and I would force myself into a tumultuous night’s sleep.  But from time to time, surrounded by the inky fears of night, I would think to myself, What if I was a lesbian? A word filthier, scarier, more taboo than any other.  More forbidden, even, than “fuck.”

On that cold November night, as I lay in my dorm room, all of this came back to me like a deathbed epiphany.  All the girls I had ever felt indescribably, but unquestionably drawn to.  All the times I had hugged them for a just few seconds too long.

What would you rather have in your mouth? What would you rather have in your mouth?  What would you rather have in your mouth?  What would you rather…

Her words played over and over again in my head, her face floating in my half-dreams, her supple lips taunting me to choose, to choose, to choose… that feeling, my body drawn into itself as it fought the desire to hold her, to kiss her, to do all those things I had never even let myself imagine… remembering the way her small body had fit so perfectly in mine as we hugged goodnight… 

I fell asleep, and the next day I pushed every thought, every question, every desire from my mind, and continued on as I had for the past twenty-one years… I’m straight, I’m straight, I’m straight, I’m….

In love.  Or so it seems.  Three months have passed.  I’m standing in at the bottom of a spiral staircase, looking into the eyes of someone I care for deeply, someone I’ve only just met.  A different someone from the question asker, but who shares one very important characteristic: this someone is a woman.  We are holding each other, and I can’t seem to let her go.  We stand there like that, inextricable, for the longest string of minutes I have ever lived.  

It was around that time that I learned to say it. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.  Everything was changing.  I was learning the taste of wine, the smell of sweat in a crowded club, the feeling of 2:00 am on a deserted street, the meaning of the words “queer” and “femme,” the way to properly apply rose water to your wrists in a cramped French bathroom, the feeling of a woman’s body when she wraps her arms around you and lets you rest your head on her breast.

As the months passed, and I returned home to the States, I would learn other things too.  How to kiss, how to hold hands with a woman in public, how to wear my shirts buttoned all the way up, how to casually tell people I had a girlfriend, how to not-so-casually tell my parents the same thing, how to comfortably share a twin bed night after night after night with that someone and still get some sleep, how to say “I love you.”

I would learn in my body what I had never understood in words.  How to be gentle, and how to be strong.  How to ask, and how to answer.  How to give, and how to receive.

I would learn, in sum, how to fuck.  How to be a part of someone else, and let her be a part of me.  How to become, together.  How to be inextricable.

But I would also learn darker lessons. How to lie about who I was, how to disappoint the people I loved by telling the truth, how to let go of my girlfriend’s hand when we got off the bus in a new town, how to call her “my friend” without wincing, how to touch her leg secretly beneath the kitchen table when I met her family for the first time, how to lose myself when she left me, how to lose everything we had inextricably become, together…

I would learn that fuck wasn’t just a word I said in wonderment, in desire, in love.  I would learn that fuck was dirty in a way I never expected – dirty like life is dirty, in the way that dirt forms the basis of everything we love.

But in order to learn this, I would have to take a word that, for so many years, had alienated me from my own body, and make it my own again.  I would have to say it over and over and over again, in public, in private, in the least and most intimate of moments. I would have to study its vibrations in my throat, its shape in my mouth, its frequencies in each room I entered.  I would have to teach my fingers to type it, my pen to form it, my body to enact it.  I would have to estrange this word from its burden of past meanings, estrange myself from the burden of past selves, and meet it anew.  

Reappropriate, verb: to take possession of, to steal, to take for oneself.  

For twenty-one years, “fuck” was a word that did not wish to recognize me.  A word that challenged the very essence of my being.  A word that told me I was wrong.  

So I stole it.  I snuck in late at night, in the inky blackness of all my childhood fears, and I took it for myself.  

“Fuck” is a four letter word, and it is mine.

An Open Letter to Moms Who Don’t Like Their Bodies

Dear Mothers,

I want to apologize to you.

I’m sorry that you grew up internalizing  messages that told you your body wasn’t good enough. I’m sorry that in your lifetime our culture’s definition of beauty became about being skinny. I’m sorry that as you grew, so did the proliferation of diet culture, telling you that you can lose 10 pounds in a week if you just TRY. I’m sorry you were told a lot of scary things about obesity and health risks if you have a few extra pounds. I’m super sorry about the weird fixation on “losing the baby weight” even though your body just did the amazing thing of growing and pushing out a child, and it maybe just needs to rest a little.

More than anything I just want to say, if you feel badly about your body, I understand and I’m sorry. You’ve been the victim of some internalized misogyny and body shaming, and that sucks. Trust me, I know how it feels.

If you have a daughter, I want to say I know you love her more than anything in the world. I know how important her health and happiness is to you.

And I feel like I need to tell you: her health and happiness is not intrinsically tied with her weight.

There has been a lot of research that has come out in the last several years explaining why having fat is not as bad for you as once thought and why the Body Mass Index (BMI) is bogus, so I’ll let the experts do the talking on why you probably don’t have to worry about the health effects of you or your daughter carrying a few extra pounds. In fact one study suggests it might even be good for you. There are a lot of factors that go into a healthy life. Some are genetic and some are steps you have more control over. It is important to eat a balanced diet, and be active, but it is also important to take time to take care of your mental health.

And I understand: having spent so many years hearing that you are unlovable or unattractive because of your body, you don’t want your daughter to experience that. You don’t want her to have an unfulfilling personal life because of something as arbitrary as her appearance.

And she won’t. Honestly. Yes there are some people who might be rude to your kid because of how she looks, because we in the U.S. have an unrealistic beauty standard based mostly on airbrushed models. There will also be many people who will love her because of her strength of character, her knowledge of young adult fiction books, the way she cries when watching movies where the pets die. You know, all the reasons you love her. Some people will love the things you find most frustrating about her, like when she gets into fights about feminism during Thanksgiving (sorry mom) or her desire to dye her beautiful hair that you love.

What will affect her happiness is frequent negative comments about her appearance from someone she loves and trusts: you.

For a lot of young women, body shaming starts at home, and often it’s well-intentioned. “That style isn’t flattering on your body type,” “your friend looks good, did she lose weight?” or overly enthusiastic reactions to a person’s choice to exercise or diet are all responses that seem positive, but actually reinforce the idea that being skinny is an achievement that all young women should be working towards. When I was a teenager I often felt like my other accomplishments didn’t matter if I couldn’t look good while achieving them. Good grades, meaningful friendships, and an after school job didn’t mean much if I was fat while having them. As a young person experimenting with style and self-expression, hearing that I shouldn’t wear certain styles made me feel like I needed to hide my body if it wasn’t slim. I was afraid of changing in front of other girls in locker rooms, or wearing pants that exposed the shape of my stomach, because it meant others would see how “wrong” my body was.

Often I think others think they’re allowed to comment on another person’s weight, because they care about the health of that person. Parents do this frequently. But health and weight are not intrinsically connected! Fat people are not necessarily unhealthier than thin people. Something that does affect mental health is hearing frequent, repeated criticism about your appearance from your parents, especially when your appearance is linked to your value as a person. Encouraging thinness instead of general health can mean encouraging damaging ways of losing weight.

It can be equally harmful as a young person to hear a parent make negative comments about their own body. Living in a household where dieting is a constant and hearing that a body isn’t good enough, it’s difficult to not internalize that, and apply it to your own body.

Body-image is something that can affect anyone, regardless of gender, but I’m talking to you, moms, about your daughters because body shame is an epidemic amongst young girls and women. According to the NYC Girl’s Project, over 80% of 10- year old girls reported being afraid of being fat. Girls are hearing that being fat is wrong on television, in music, and in schools, and there is no reason for them to be hearing it at home.

I also think that when it comes to body image there are different standards for boys and girls. When teen boys eat a lot they are “growing boys,” whereas girls are constantly policed with phrases like “a moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips.” I’ve been told that needing to nap after getting only 6 hours of sleep is a symptom of my poor diet, but when my brother takes a midday nap he “needed his rest.” This kind of double standard needs to stop.

I believe that parents want to protect their children from the challenges they have faced. When I think about the mothers who have been told their bodies are too large, I am heartbroken. That doesn’t make me any less angry when I hear a mother tell her daughter she’d be so pretty “if only she lost a little weight.”

Let’s not pass along generations of internalized body shame to young women. Let’s end the cycle of self-deprecation, and instead tell our daughters that their actions are more valuable than their looks, teach them to have good mental health as well as physical health, and that there is more than one definition of beauty. Let’s start by learning how to treat ourselves well, and not critiquing other women based on how they look. Let’s train ourselves to believe that all bodies are valid.

Lots of love and gratitude,

A Millenial Daughter

What Billy Crystal Taught Me About Emotional Maintenance

My favorite New Year’s Eve movie of all time is “When Harry Met Sally,” or, as I like to call it “Billy Crystal Comes Up With Bad Theories About Gender, Meg Ryan Destroys Them.”

0584968_2682_mc_tx360
Did you guys remember that Carrie Fisher is in this movie because I sure didn’t!

I have a lot of love for this film. The incredible 80s style! The scene where Meg Ryan fakes an orgasm in a restaurant to prove Billy Crystal can’t tell when women are faking it! When Sally says to Harry: “Its amazing. You look like a normal person but actually you are the angel of death.” Shoutout to Wellesley Alum Nora Ephron for bringing us the dialogue to slay a thousand fuckboys.

Despite all this greatness, “When Harry Met Sally” is also one of the first movies that I can remember that described women based on the amount of maintenance they require. In one scene Harry tells Sally “There are two types of women: high maintenance and low maintenance.” (Ah dichotomies,  how you seek to explain the world and prove only your own ignorance).

Of course the idea of the high maintenance woman did not begin or end with “When Harry Met Sally.” I’ve heard of her a million times. She is Cher Horowitz of “Clueless” fame. She’s brunette Taylor Swift from the “You Belong With Me” video. She cares more about her hair than humanity, she has a closet the size of a bedroom, she is always getting mad at her partner and crying and making a scene. In “When Harry Met Sally,” Harry tells Sally she is high maintenance because she likes her food a certain way and likes to snuggle after sex. Oh vain temptress, why dost thou make us women look so bad?

fop
“Feed me and tell me I’m pretty!”

This trope is ridiculous and sexist, not just because it pits women against each other based on gender presentation, but because it asks women to act like they don’t have needs in order to appear cool.

The fact is that all people and relationships require maintenance. By gendering maintenance we are saying that what women ask for is “too much,” whereas the emotional support women provide for men is seen as doing the bare minimum, and doesn’t require gratitude or reciprocation. In “When Harry Met Sally,” Sally supports Harry through his depression after his divorce, at one point trying not to mention her dates to him so he won’t feel sad, but Harry has no problem criticizing Sally in casual conversation.

Women are frequently fighting double standards where the effort they put in is seen as the bare minimum. Putting on just enough makeup to look “natural,” without wearing enough to make people think they are “lying” about their looks. Wearing skirts that are long enough that they won’t be considered promiscuous but short enough that they won’t be considered a prude. The dynamic of being passionate without being needy or overly emotional is just another way of making women palatable to men.

I think this dynamic often replicates itself in queer relationships. While anyone can take on the role of emotional caretaker, I know too many femmes who have felt that they need to prioritize the needs of their masculine of center partner over their own. Asking for more support or attention is seen as “needy” and makes someone undesirable. It sets up a situation in which it’s impossible to stand up for oneself. I can remember explicitly telling an ex that I felt like they didn’t respect me, and being told that I was just being “too anxious.” I ended up apologizing after that conversation for expressing my feelings. My feelings were diagnosed, and blamed on my history of mental illness rather than acknowledged.

When we tell people that they are high maintenance, we are asking them to do the work themselves so that we don’t have to. Withholding affection and support can quickly devolve into emotional manipulation and gaslighting, like in the situation I mention above.  I spent months feeling guilty for bringing up my feelings, when they were perfectly valid. I was ashamed, and I couldn’t trust my own responses to uncomfortable situations.

Of course we should all work to be aware of our needs and be able to practice self-care.  Being aware of some of the ways we ask for energy from folks in our lives can help us set up healthier, more reciprocal relationships, and can also help us learn how to take care of ourselves. However we should also be able to ask for help without being afraid of being too much. Maintenance can be as simple as complaining about our day and having someone say “that sucks.” It can also mean spending time processing a complex emotional experience. It means validating and supporting the people in our lives, and being open to the fact that we might need to change our behavior to be more responsive friends and partners. It means taking the time to look at where our relationships could use some help, and putting the effort into improving them.

In the end of “When Harry Met Sally,” after much friendship and fighting Harry and Sally do finally get together. In one of the most memorable rom-com conclusions of all time, Harry lists the qualities he loves about Sally, including several of the ones that make her high maintenance. For me that moment is about Harry learning that he has to let go of the many theories he has about men and women and instead try to be with the woman he loves in an authentic way. He doesn’t always understand her, but he accepts and supports her and helps her grow. In the end all the maintenance that goes into their friendship makes their romantic relationship more meaningful. If Harry and Sally can do it, so can the rest of us!

I Don’t Know How to Talk to Men

When you announce you’re going to attend a women’s college people take that as an opportunity to say some sexist things to you.

“Oh my God, women are SO catty, I could never do what you’re doing.”

“You know everyone there is going to be a lesbian!”

“How will you meet boys?”

And my personal favorite:

“You won’t know how to talk to men after you graduate!”

Sometimes I wonder if people think a women’s college is actually a lesbian separatist community on an island thousands of miles from male contact. Spoiler alert: It isn’t (although many of us women’s college alums have discussed that concept AT LENGTH).


I think most of these generalizations are based on the assumption that women’s existence is centered around pleasing men.

Despite that, some of them are kind of accurate.

For example, after four years of living and learning in a community of pre-dominantly women, I don’t always know how to talk to men.

I complain about my period in front of men. I accuse my male friends of man-spreading when they lie across the whole couch. When men fish for compliments I shut them down. I’ve gotten into the weird habit of comparing men I meet to cartoon characters (if they laugh I usually assume they’re cool).

I don’t know how to talk to men. Which is to say, the way I communicate is not dictated by the need to make men feel comfortable.

Living in a community shaped by women with a very visible LGBTQ population has changed the way I think and speak. Feminism is at the forefront of my mind all the time. I am very aware that a large part of my social circle are survivors of sexual assault and/or are in recovery from a wide variety of mental health issues. My community is used to being emotional caretakers. We have a variety of different gender identities and sexual orientations. We know what is like to be silenced because of who we are or how we live our lives.

Because of our experience at a predominantly women’s college, we also learned to value our own experiences. We have worked hard to find our voices, and to feel confident using them. Most of us have also learned to value other voices that are being silenced. We listen and do our best to elevate voices that know better than we do.

After leaving the community I found at Mount Holyoke, I’ve become skeptical of those who have never had to question where they fit in the world, who chose to speak louder than everyone else, even though they’ve never had to fight to be heard. I can’t handle men who ask me to tell them how great they are when we’ve known each other for a few hours. I’m not interested in laughing to the bad jokes men tell at parties, when I’m just trying to chat with my women friends. More than anything in the world, I am not here for men who say that women are “too emotional” or that they “can’t handle crying women,” especially when they expect those women to be sympathetic to their feelings.

As you may imagine, I don’t have a lot of friends who are men. The ones I do have, however, are amazing. I have been asked to explain to one of my guy friends what happens when a person has a period, because no one had ever told him before and he wanted to be able to support his friends better. I have a friend who watched the Muppet Movie with me and then let me crash on his couch because I started crying while he was giving me a ride home. A boyfriend of my friend has gone out of his way to look out for women in social situations, even when it meant having to remove his male friends from the environment. These are some great dudes. I wish more men acted this way, so these guys didn’t stand out to me so much.

I’m grateful to my women’s college education for a lot of reasons. It challenged me to continue to grow and learn for my entire life.  The community I found has changed my life. It also ruined my ability to talk to men. I’m not mad about it though. My language and my actions are for the comfort and safety of women and nonbinary people. It is not perfect, and I am still learning, but it is the voice I want to nurture for the rest of my life.

EDIT: While I was writing this, Rebecca Solnit of “Men Explain Things To Me” fame was writing this hilarious piece about men explaining Lolita to her: http://lithub.com/men-explain-lolita-to-me/