Trigger Warning: This post contains discussion of suicidal ideation, major depression, and self-harm. I appreciate the vulnerability of our readership; and encourage you to practice self care when reading this type of post. Continue reading “The Leftovers”
Let me preface this by saying: I am not someone who enjoys the summer. Sure, having a break from school is great. Ice cream is tasty. Sangria is to-die-for. But of all the seasons, summer has to be my least favorite. This has been true ever since I can remember. For example, I distinctly remember the last day of third grade, packing up my desk in Mrs. White’s classroom and weeping because the school year was over and I just didn’t know what to do with myself. Two years later, I had a mini-existential crisis as fifth grade came to a close and I convinced myself that this meant “saying goodbye to my childhood.” In high school, things were looking up. I busied myself with dance classes and camping trips with my best friends, learned how to bake bread and sew, and became a thoroughly skilled domesticated feminist. But even that couldn’t save me.
There was just something about the sun that I couldn’t handle. I felt stuck in my house, like the world was against me. When I went outside, I felt like my whole body was under siege. I felt how weak it was, how susceptible to the elements, how fragile.
In France, they call this kind of heat la canicule. I remember the first time I ever came across this word. I was in a translation class my sophomore year of college, and I needed to find a poem to translate for my final project. Late one night I sat in the empty common room of my dorm, flipping through an anthology of Algerian poetry. I came upon a short poem by Malek Alloula, a native Algerian poet who had been living in exile in France for most of his life. Something about the poem struck me, and I tried my hand at a translation.
The translation was clumsy and inaccurate, especially my rendition of la canicule. What I loved about this word was that it sounded to me like “canopy”. I could picture the heat hanging over the city like a large piece of suffocating cloth. A force that lorded over you, drying you up like a relic of petrified wood. Of course, the speaker’s primary concern in this poem is not the literal heat of summer. Instead, he uses the heat (and the “sarcasms of winter”) as a metaphor for the intensity of war—the way it cuts off the past, breaks lineage, destroys families.
And then there’s Albert Camus, probably the most well-known French author to write about la canicule. You could say that Meursault, the main character in The Stranger, is more than a little bit obsessed with the heat of the sun. As he follows his mother’s funeral procession, a nurse gives him some sage advice: “She said, ‘If you go slowly, you risk getting sunstroke. But if you go too fast, you work up a sweat and then catch a chill inside the church.’ She was right. There was no way out.”
If we look more closely at la canicule, we begin to see that it really does bring out the worst in people. For Camus’ Meursault, it’s cold-blooded murder. For the speaker in Alloula’s poem, it’s colonial violence and civil war. Outside of the realms of fiction and poetry, the effects of the heat are no less severe. In August of 2003, over 15,000 people died in the span of one month during a deadly heat wave in metropolitan France.
So what do these three incidents have in common, besides being related to France? In all three cases, the fatal effects of the heat (whether direct or circumstantial) disproportionately targeted marginalized populations. In The Stranger, Meursault (a white man of French origin) shoots an an unnamed “Arab” to death on an Algerian beach. In Alloula’s poem, he alludes to the Algerian War, fought between 1954 and 1962, which scholars estimate to have resulted in the deaths of nearly 1 million native Algerians. During the heat wave of 2003, the vast majority of heat-related deaths affected France’s most vulnerable citizens: the elderly, the homeless, and those living in poverty.
This summer, the heat has intensified. Violent act after violent act, senseless death after senseless death. And not surprisingly, this violence takes a disproportionate toll on marginalized populations: people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, trans women, people living at the intersections of these and other identities. As news broke of the shooting in Orlando, and of the murders of Philandro Castile and Alton Sterling, I felt as though as though mass shootings and police brutality were increasing at a dizzying rate, rushing towards some kind of horrific climax.
Crime rates have evolved and changed over the past fifty years in complicated ways, just like the weather. Hot summers, cold winters, unexpected floods. One hot day in the middle of April is probably not going to hurt anyone. Three hot days in May might be a bit of a bother. It’s when the hottest days pile one on top of the other, day after day, that you enter la canicule.
What’s different about this summer is not that the heat is any hotter, it’s that we’ve had to live through so much of it in such a short span of time. We’ve reached a threshold, a tipping point between passively waiting for the heat to pass, and actively working to alleviate its deadly effects. Many of us reached this threshold long ago. As a white American, the seemingly sudden horror I felt this summer after the deaths of Philandro Castile and Alton Sterling showed me just how passive I had been about the deaths that have been happening for years, for decades, for centuries. It was as though I had been sitting in an air-conditioned penthouse, and somebody broke the window to let in the ferocious heat that had always been outside.
The violence of this summer, like the heat of the sun, cannot be solved by short-term solutions alone. Refusing to leave the house, to walk around in public places, to drive your car—in the long run, these changes are not sustainable. They fix nothing. Just look at climate change: inventing better sunscreen won’t fix a hole in the ozone layer. So why do we think that carrying more guns will fix the epidemic of violence that is taking over our country?
As we work towards long-term systemic solutions to this epidemic, we must also deal with the fact that we are still in the heat of the fire. We are still in la canicule.
But here’s the thing about a heat wave: it doesn’t have to kill. One of the primary reasons why so many elderly, impoverished, and homeless French citizens died in the 2003 heat wave was because they did not receive the care they needed. Many died alone in their apartments, when all that was needed was for a neighbor to walk up the stairs with a cold washcloth and a bottle of water, and make sure their neighbor was okay.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that the long-term solutions to the problems we face are… well, long-term. In the short-term, we need to take care of ourselves and of each other. Allies need to step up and start carrying water, providing support, checking in on the ones they love. The heat does not affect everyone in an equal manner. The death of yet another person of color in our country at the hands of police will break some, and pass over the heads of others. It doesn’t matter who you are, or how immediately you feel affected by this violence. It is your job, it is my job, it is our job, to support and care for anyone who is. It is our job to go into the heat that some of us can’t escape, and do what we can to keep each other safe.
Camus, Albert. The Stranger. 1946.
Kaouah, Abdelmadjid, ed. Poésie Algérienne Francophone Contemporaine. Autre Temps: 2004.
Keller, Richard C. Fatal Isolation: The Devastating Paris Heat Wave of 2003. University of Chicago Press: 2015.
Gladwell, Malcolm. “Why mass shootings, like Orlando’s club attack, keep happening.” CNBC: June 14, 2016.
There are no words for what happened in Orlando last night; or rather there are too many and none of them are quite right.
There is the fact that I have already seen people asking not to politicize this tragedy, saying we can not blame the hateful ideology of a presidential candidate, or gun laws for what happened. It’s true there is no one thing that convinces someone to take a gun and use it to kill people he perceives to be “different” and “wrong.” But this didn’t happen without context. There are many ifs. If he hadn’t been able to access a weapon that can kill many people in a short period of time. If he hadn’t been exposed to political agendas that say that LGBTQ folks don’t deserve basic rights and heard the underlying message that queer folks, trans folks, and people of color don’t matter and don’t deserve to be alive. If if if.
There is the grief for the queer folks who died while celebrating their identities. It’s pride month. It was latin night at Pulse. It is a time of joy and community and conversation about how to make our communities stronger. There is grief for the families and loved ones of these queer folks, and the knowledge that family often looks different in the queer community. There is imagining the fear of not knowing if someone you love was hurt because you’re not “next of kin” on government forms.
There is anger that this could happen. Why did this fucking happen? Why did this have to happen? Why has this been happening in smaller, less publicized ways for years and why hasn’t it been stopped? Why is my queerness perceived as such a threat that people debate if me and my community deserve basic rights and safety? Why are trans women considered threats when they want to pee, when they are part of a community that constantly has to worry for it’s own safety?
There is fear for those I love, for copycat attacks that will follow, for losing more queer people, who are just trying to live.
There is a sense of impotence for what I can not change, and for the privilege I have that means I am less at risk for these kinds of attacks because I am white and middle class and cisgender.
And there is love. Love for my queer community. Love for the people who are already organizing vigils and donating blood and writing their representatives. Love for the others afraid for their own safety. Love for the grieving and the bereft. Love for Muslim folks in the U.S. (especially LGBTQ+ Muslim folk) who already are the scapegoats for so many tragedies.
It can feel trite to quote Martin Luther King Jr but since reading about the shooting, what has circled in my brain is this:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
We have to continue to love each other as hard as we possibly can. The root of justice is love. The root of our community has always been love. In heartbreaking times like this, love is all we have.
The summer before my senior year of college I decided to live in a dorm at my school, and do a little bit of project work for my boss. It had been a rough year for me, but tempered with a lot of therapy and self-discovery. Therapy is great for self-discovery, but only if you don’t mind feeling like you’ve been ripped open at least once a week. It’s like losing the top layer of your skin; everything feels red and raw and it hurts if anything touches it, but it heals pretty cleanly.
One day I was working with my boss, when I made a joke to the effect of “lol I’m the worst.” You know, the kind of casual, self-deprecating humor that people use a thousand times a day. But my boss stopped me, and looked me in the eye and said “now say something nice about yourself.”
I was taken aback. Didn’t she know it was a joke? I didn’t actually think I was the worst. But I still couldn’t come up with one good thing to respond with.
I had never realized how those jokes could add up, until they became the lens in which I viewed myself. Someone who was annoying or loud, or generally the worst. The things I said in public became the thoughts that circled my mind, like vultures zeroing in on a kill. I’mtheworstI’mtheworstI’mtheworst.
I’m sure you’ve heard the idiom “no one can love you until you love yourself.” It’s been pointed out many times how harmful that line of thinking can be to someone with a mental health issues who doesn’t love themselves, to believe that then nobody can love them. But I think there is still some wisdom there. Until you learn how to appreciate the fact that you are worthy of love, it is hard to believe that anybody would truly love you.
I decided I would stop saying negative things about myself, or at the very least, I would counter it always with one good thing. I needed to break up the pattern of self-abuse, and start believing that I could be good enough.
A few months ago I was out with some of my old friends, when one of them started apologizing for being indecisive. I told her it was fine, we are all just people, and we have quirks that make us who we are. I suggested we all list one thing that we think of as a flaw about ourselves. Everyone could think of one easily. Then I said “now let’s do an exercise where we all say one nice thing about ourselves.”
Everyone got immediately uncomfortable. They fidgeted and made fun of me for being corny. Answers were tempered with “I guess I’m not that bad at….” and “maybe I’m okay at this.” Some refused to answer at first. One friend said in jest “I’m really good at tricking people into being friends with me.” This dragged out over many uncomfortable minutes because I didn’t want to let it go. I wanted everyone to find the thing in themselves that they were proud of.
These were smart, accomplished, funny, hard-working, beautiful women, some of whom I’d known and admired for most of my life. If they couldn’t think of one thing that they felt proud of, who could?
Their experiences and mine don’t exist in a void. When you spend your whole life hearing you’re not skinny enough, not pretty enough, not smart or straight or white enough, not gender conforming enough or able-bodied enough, it becomes entrenched deep within your mind, until it feels impossible to untangle. Some days it always lurks at the top of your mind, and all you can think is “I suck I suck I suck.” Other days it comes as a surprise. “I thought I was past that, I thought that was healed.”
I don’t know if it ever quite heals. But as an exercise, I try to be actively being kind to myself. I try to not compare my accomplishments to others, because there was a time when my depression was so debilitating that I couldn’t focus on much beyond “get out of bed” and “ask for help.” I do my best to feel proud of how far I have come and what I have accomplished. I try to reach out to friends who get it, so we can mutually complain or laugh or just feel understood. Community, I am learning, is an essential part of healing, and of living.
What if instead of downplaying our accomplishments, we let ourselves be proud of them? What if when we felt good about ourselves, we said it out loud? What if we told others that we are proud of them, or that they are brilliant, interesting, and beautiful?
I think love is an exercise. It’s something we have to practice, until we get it right. It’s something that takes energy and time. And it’s something we have to do for ourselves, in addition to doing it for others.
Last week I put on my favorite blue dress and went for a walk with my wonderful girlfriend. I told her “I feel so pretty today.” She said “it’s nice that you like yourself so much.” It made me smile. Maybe it’s unusual to hear people compliment themselves, but I think it’s an exercise we should do more often.
I think every person at some point in their life will be depressed.
You go through a hard break up, lose your job, experience the death of a loved one, or just go through a challenging transitional period that makes you feel scared and listless. Regardless of the reason, I don’t think having a depressed period of your life is that unusual. Life is scary and sad and then wonderful and brilliant by turns, and sometimes all that contradiction is hard to process, and I think a lot of people can relate when they read an article or watch a movie about depression, because everyone has felt a little hopeless and unhappy at one point or another.
Feeling depressed, however, is different than having depression.
When someone asks me when is the first time I felt depressed, I tend to think of the 7th grade. I had always been a good student, but for no reason I could understand, I just couldn’t find the energy to do my homework for my Social Studies class anymore. It wasn’t as if I didn’t have the time. I would just not do it, or forget. My teacher brought it up to my parents, but it wasn’t like I was trying to be a rebel or I didn’t understand it. I was a bright kid who just didn’t or couldn’t do her assignments. That pattern continued, and for just about every year after that there would always be one class I would drop the ball on. I always managed to not fail, and the rest of my grades were good, so it wasn’t something that could really be explained to other people by anything other than laziness. But I wasn’t purposefully being lazy. My senior year of high school I would stay up until 2 am with my textbook in my lap, not letting myself sleep unless I did something, but inevitably I would end up going to bed with nothing to turn in the next day. After graduating with the first failing grade of my life, I had to write a letter to my dream college explaining why I had received an “F” in the math class I had taken online (so I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone). I was lucky, and Mount Holyoke decided to take me on anyway.
Sometimes I still wake up from nightmares where I am about to graduate high school when I realize there is a class I somehow forgot to go to all year. The scariest thing is, it’s not that hard to believe.
I’ve spent most of my life with depression, sometimes so minor it was hard to notice, and sometimes so major that I would wish I could stop existing, without all the drama of dying. I would lie in the grass and wish I could just sink into the earth and become part of something else, so I wouldn’t have to be myself anymore. It never worked out though, and eventually I had to stand up.
And what better metaphor for recovery is there? Just the anti-climactic moment of getting up. Sometimes you feel a little wobbly and sit back down. Or flop back down and try again later. It feels like it should be the easiest thing in the world but actually it took all the strength you had, and you can only hope that someone will meet you where you are, and help you go the rest of the way.
At some point in college I got up. I went to my school counselor who recommended me to a psychiatrist and a psychotherapist. After a few months I ditched the psychiatrist but stuck with the psychotherapist, and she helped me do the work that would allow me to get to a place of recovery. Thanks to my school’s no copay health insurance, I went to her twice a week. Sometimes I would drag myself to her office after two days, worn out and broken down, and try to use that hour to become buoyant again. Some days I would go in thinking I had nothing to say, and I would end up sobbing on the couch. My therapist would refer to that time as my “fifth class” and to be honest, it was a lot more work than any other course I took at Mount Holyoke.
Depression took up so much of my time and energy, that I feel like I am still trying to figure out what vital information I missed while I was under it’s spell. I’ve had to be taught how to clean effectively, as opposed to letting my clothes build piles on the floor, and allowing dust to cover my nightstand and the corners of my room. It took months to be able to promptly reply to emails, because they made me feel anxious and exposed. Even though I’ve been able to cook for myself since I was 9 or 10, it’s just last week that I learned to make pasta, because I’ve always relied on a couple of comfort foods. Sometimes I wish more than anything that I could do college while in recovery, so I could have gotten better grades and gotten more out of my education, but I also know it wouldn’t have been possible before. I doubt I could have done all that work anywhere other than Mount Holyoke.
I’ve had depression for so long, and unfortunately I can’t say I’m rid of it. In the dark months of January (even a mild one like this), I find myself falling back into old habits: lying in bed for hours willing myself to get up, eating even when I’m not hungry, feeling relieved when plans fall through so I can go back to bed. I sleep more and get annoyed easily. It’s terrifying to feel like I am falling back down that hole of despair. However, because of the work I did in therapy, I find it easier to reach out, and sometimes I am lucky, and people talk me through where I am.
Other times, however, what I hear are the platitudes we’ve learned to associate with mental health. “Self care!” “Take a shower!” “Write in a journal!”
Self care is a great thing, and I’ve done a lot to make sure my lifestyle is more conducive to positive mental health than it used to be. I do my best to walk outside, take vitamins, and eat a little bit healthier. I write more and don’t let anxiety stop me from pursuing things I enjoy. I make plans with my friends and do my best to follow through on them. I have a wonderful partner who reminds me to follow through on these steps, and who supports me when I make choices that I believe will make me happier.
But while things like taking a shower can be enough to get you out of bed and improve your day, in my experience, they don’t keep depression at bay for very long. Without talking about what it feels like, and where it’s coming from, depression can’t be worked through. It makes me uncomfortable when I go to someone else to talk about my feelings and instead I am brushed off with advice. It makes me feel like someone who has been depressed is trying to condescend to me about how to treat my long history of depression.
Self care is more than a mug of tea and a night of netflix. It’s challenging yourself to face your anxieties, and having someone to hold your hand when the fear makes it feel impossible. It’s working every day to combat your self destructive behaviors, like insisting on getting out of bed when you’re sick, or constant negative self-talk. It’s forgiving yourself for the things you had to do to survive, and not blaming yourself for not being as successful as your friend with the great job because you had depression and you couldn’t work towards your aspirations. It’s allowing yourself to reach out to your friends when you need someone to listen.
It’s allowing yourself to be angry when you’ve been hurt, instead of turning all that anger inwards at yourself.
Those who are depressed can benefit from a lot of the same treatments as those who have depression. Many of the feelings are similar. Both are hard to admit to and scary to talk about. Counselling is beneficial to pretty much everyone, in my biased opinion. The difference for me is that feeling depressed is a short term condition, and having depression isn’t. Maybe journaling and moisturizing is more effective if your depression is short term. I wouldn’t know. In my experience, however, most people benefit more if someone who is authentically listening to them, rather than repeating some memorized advice.
I’m grateful to my friends with depression, for their ability to say “that sucks,” “I understand,” and reminding me that there are things that I can’t heal with the power of positive thinking. It is incredibly validating, and keeps me in a place where I can do the good work towards taking care of my mental health. I am a better person because of it.
If you’re struggling with depression and reading this, I want you to know that it is hard, but you are a valuable person, and your depression does not have to control your life. I am not a mental health expert, so if you have questions or are looking for resources, check out the links below.
It may sound strange, but sometimes I forget I have a body.
Sure, I use it everyday. It’s part of everything I do. Without it I could not walk or type or even think. But often I forget about it.
(This is a privilege. You better believe I remember my body when it stops working the way I want it to, or when I’m suddenly faced with a world not designed for me. During the two weeks I spent on crutches after spraining my ankle in college, I was constantly aware of my body. And hills. And the insurmountable distance between my bed and the dining hall).
When I imagine myself, the details are blurred. Often I am a bit thinner and taller. When I look in the mirror, sometimes I feel jolted. I am surprised by the face that looks back at me. Who is that?
There are a lot of reasons I imagine. I’m a cerebral person, I tell myself. Having anxiety means that sometimes my brain can’t stop thinking, there is a whole universe of worst case scenarios and alternate endings in my head. I imagine it to be like a a highway of flying cars, like in The Jetsons. The thoughts swirl around in empty space, and sometimes collide without clear street signs. I can feel them in the space right beneath the spot where my forehead meets the bridge of my nose, a knot of twisted metal.
Thinking of myself in those terms rests the blame squarely on my own shoulders. It was inevitable. My brain is hardwired this way. Maybe if I just thought less.
But there is something else. As far back as I can remember my body has been under observation. Being called fat as a second grader. My older brother’s friend telling me he “liked a curvy girl” when I was in the fifth grade. Finishing my lunch in my seventh grade math class and a boy mocking me for “always eating.” My mom once asking me why I always wore my dad’s hoodies. They weren’t flattering. She didn’t understand that I had to cover my body up, hide it. It was too big. I was too big.
And this: I can only eat certain foods. It’s not an allergy or OCD, as has been suggested. Since I was a toddler I simply have not been able eat certain things without throwing them back up. There have been doctors and nutritionists, and half-baked theories picked up from Yahoo News and TLC’s “Freaky Eaters.” (Flattering title TLC, good going). The only thing that has stuck with me is something a school counselor told me in college. “Most eating issues that originate in early childhood are based in a lack of control over one’s own body.”
Sometimes I wonder what could make a toddler feel their lack of agency so acutely that they would take it out in such a drastic way. I don’t know if it started as a preference or if I always had a physical reaction to new foods. I am missing some of my own narrative. I don’t know how to tell this story without it’s beginning, but I don’t know if it matters that much.
The truth is that no matter how unique my reaction might feel, I’m not the only little girl who ever felt like she didn’t have control over her body. I’m not the only person to feel disassociated from their own body. I’m not the only person who has taken drastic measures to get that control back.
Which brings me to the selfie. Omnipresent on social media, derided by many think pieces mocking millenials, the selfie is one of those things that “teen girls like.” Other things include boy bands and fanfiction (both of which I think are invaluable to young people trying to safely explore their sexuality and identity, but more on that another time).
Given the ubiquitous presence of technology in the U.S, I think it’s easy to forget that smartphones/webcams/ipads are relatively new, and have given most people an unprecedented access to cameras. Before the millennial generation getting your picture taken was a process that either involved expensive digital cameras, or developing film (not being able to see a picture before it printed!), and if you wanted a picture of yourself, someone else usually had to take it. It’s only in past decade or so that the subject of a picture could really be the photographer. No more “say cheese,” the selfie is not beholden to the gaze of someone else. A person can look at themselves and decide how they want to be seen.
I have been known to spend 10 minutes setting up the perfect selfie, then filtering it appropriately for social media. (Not photoshopping you’ll notice. The subject here is my own face, not an imaginary face). It may seem silly, but it allows me to have some control over this body of mine, and reminds me that it exists. It takes the time I need to be deliberate with my body. I test the shapes my face can make. I see how I look in motion through the mirror-like front-facing lens of my phone’s camera.
(To me selfie taking is an art form. A good selfie is one that takes time. There is staging and lighting to choose. This may seem artificial, but I think a bad picture is like pausing Netflix while a character is in the middle of moving. They don’t actually look like that you guys).
Through the art of taking a selfie I make something beautiful where once I only saw something ugly. The image in my head becomes that picture I took.
I’d like to be able to say I love my body all the time, but the fact is, I need help a lot of the time. I don’t always remember that my body is a part of myself. We’re more like awkward roommates. When I can use a selfie to show how I feel it feels like we’ve successfully merged, even for a moment.
I think selfies have the opportunity to be helpful in this kind of personal healing. They encourage us to be a little sillier, to find the beauty in ourselves, and to share this moment in a world constantly telling women, queer people, people of color, people with disabilities, and every intersection therein to take up less space. It can be brave to put yourself into the world and say “I am beautiful and I deserve to be here.”
There is a downside to selfies of course. They are fighting against the pressure to appear “perfect” on social media, showcasing only our best attributes. So much of our social life takes place online, another place we are disembodied, shrunk down to a profile picture or an avatar, where we can curate our own lives. It’s easy to start defining our value in terms of number of likes.
I don’t have any easy solution to that. I do think it’s easy to forget that the people we interact with online are real people. I think there is value in placing parts of our vulnerable selves online, and recognizing that as being a strong and hard thing to do. On more than one occasion I have been moved to tears by the kind notes I have received from friends on my Facebook wall or in my Instagram comments. I know firsthand the power that social media has for meaningful connection. I think there is also space for intentionally positive online communities that encourage us to support one another as well as ourselves, like #BlackoutDay and College Compliments Pages.
I do think the pros out-weigh the cons. Speaking for myself, as a queer femme woman I often feel like the expectations of how my body should be are completely unrealistic, or catering to someone else’s gaze. I spent years being afraid of being feminine because I didn’t want to be sexualized and then because I didn’t think I could be feminine and queer. Taking selfies gives me my agency back over this body which sometimes rebels against me, and which I often neglect. It reminds me to look at myself through my own eyes. I am not the subject of anyone else’s gaze but my own. My selfie, myself.
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.”
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?
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!
No Shame November started for me a few years ago as a joke.
You’ve probably heard about No Shave November, which encourages men not to shave for the month of November and donate the money they usually spend on razors to charities that support cancer research. (I say men because while women do participate there is usually some pushback from people who think women with body hair are icky. Personally I think as long as you are actually donating to the American Cancer Society, do what you want with your body hair all year long, amirite?).
I think as a woman, as a queer person, and as a femme we are surrounded by seemingly endless shaming for our bodies, our sexual orientation, our style, our emotions, how we speak, if and how we choose to have sex, and much more. Honestly it can be exhausting, and so hard not to internalize.
Before I had found treatment for my anxiety I would regularly be stopped in my tracks on the way to work, remembering something silly I had said, or an awkward interaction I had months previously. I would stay in bed instead of going to classes because I couldn’t stand the idea of being looked at or spoken to. I was haunted by my shame.
I’m very fortunate that I had access to a kind and brilliant therapist, and it took years of hard work to get to a place where I can say I am proud of myself and my accomplishments. But still. November creeps around and with it daylight savings and family obligations, and I can feel the pull of seasonal depression, making me vulnerable to guilt and shame.
No Shame November is my little reminder to love myself. That I deserve to be treated with kindness and understanding. That I can choose to grow instead of hide. That I am allowed to feel deeply and I shouldn’t be shamed for my joy or my grief.
It’s also a reminder to not shame others, and instead choose compassion and generosity. It’s easy to be apathetic, judgmental or cruel when we fall into the trap of believing that we are the protagonist in the movie of our lives, and everyone else is an extra. It’s much harder when you believe in the humanity of every person you meet.
This November I want to embrace my humanity and the humanity of others. I want to dress boldly and speak honestly and love myself radically. I want to forgive myself and others for our past mistakes and go forward feeling absolved of our shame. These are optimistic goals, and I know they will not be achieved all at once, or even in my lifetime. But I also know it is worthwhile to try. I’m going to start with November, and use it as a reminder of how I want to be all year long.
Happy No Shame November y’all! Try not to eat any glowsticks. That shit is toxic.