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”
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 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
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.
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.
“Last year I abstained
this year I devour
which is also an art”
-Margaret Atwood, You are Happy
It was difficult to watch the news in the two months after I graduated from college, during the summer of 2014. News of the Isla Vista shootings came 4 days after my commencement, a month later the Hobby Lobby verdict rolled in, announcing that a corporation can deny contraceptive care based on their religious affiliation, the rape of a 16 year old teen went viral, and simultaneously the “I don’t need feminism” campaign began plaguing the internet.
Individually each of these events were heartbreaking, but when you put them together, the message being directed at women was impossible to ignore: women are not in charge of their own bodies, women should be punished for not having sex, women should be punished for having sex, and women who object to this somehow hate men.
It is incredible to me how quickly conversations that are specifically about women are derailed by someone who says “but are you thinking about men?” especially when what is being discussed is women’s health and safety. Or that, when we react with rage, we are told we are over-reacting or being “too emotional” a catch-all phrase which means “your emotions are inconvenient for me.” Similarly popular are “crazy woman” or “angry feminists.”
Actress Zooey Deschanel has been quoted as saying “As a woman, I feel continually shhh’ed. Too sensitive. Too mushy. Too wishy washy.” I think this experience resonates with a lot of women. When I was picked on as a little girl for being too chubby, too loud, too unfeminine; if I reacted with rage, I was told to suppress that. “That is the reaction they want.” What an interesting game, provoke a girl into having an emotional reaction, then tease her for her rage. It was often the women in my life who told me that I needed to react calmly, because they had gone through it before and learned to make themselves smaller, so that they would seem more rational.
Well I’m pretty over rationality. The concept is that rational people don’t make decisions with their emotions, but logic, as if logic is ever not tempered by our experiences or emotions. What I learned during my 4 years at a women’s college is that if I can trace my feelings to their roots, then I can often find the solutions to my own problems. If I can trace the emotions of others to their roots I can understand their motivations, and work with them in compromise and collaboration. My emotional reactions have become my strongest asset, and I will not hide them to make someone else more comfortable. Embracing the emotional parts of myself that I used to feel ashamed of has led me to stronger relationships and a braver self.
When Margaret Atwood wrote “this year I devour/without guilt/which is also an art” she wrote about the need of women to be able to take up space, to emote, to consume sex and food and love with as much skill as they had previously been taught to deny them.
Being femme is about allowing yourself to devour without guilt, to take up space, to cry like the world is going to end, and to laugh a little too loud in public spaces. It’s about yelling your rage and fighting for justice.
It’s about learning the art of speaking, even if your voice shakes.
Before I moved to New York City, I spent a good deal of time and money trying to find the perfect pair of shoes. They couldn’t be brown. All of my shoes were brown. They couldn’t be flat either. Cool urban femmes didn’t wear flats, right? They would probably be made of leather, even though this complicated my position as an animal rights activist and sometimes vegan.
When I finally found my dream shoes, I didn’t buy them. Naturally. When something is going right in my life, I tend to run away. There must be something better out there, I think to myself. And I end up barefoot in the cold, dreaming of what could have been…
Maybe it isn’t so surprising that I also happened to find these shoes in the first place I looked. Another pattern in my life. I met my first girlfriend the first day of college, but I didn’t have the guts to kiss her until three years later. Here’s hoping that my shoes, unlike my relationship, will last the year.
When I first saw the shoes, I almost walked away. They were so… sophisticated. I couldn’t possibly wear shoes like that. I wasn’t sophisticated. Was I?
I took a picture, knowing that this was a decision I couldn’t make alone. I sent the snapshot to all of my stylish femme friends, soliciting advice from coast to coast. Some raised concerns about the color (somewhere between beige and gray). Most, however, were quick to show their enthusiastic support.
There was the question of money, of course. As a grad student and a long-time thrift store/back-room-of-the-Gap shopper I felt a surge of guilt at the thought of dropping $60 on a pair of shoes that were not, for all intents and purposes, highly practical – i.e., they did not contain orthopedic arch support, nor did they boast a sensible tread.
But… when my feet slipped into those beautiful heels, it seemed that I was never meant to wear anything else – not even Danskos.
After two weeks spent comparing prices, visiting other stores and studying the picture before I went to bed at night, I finally returned to the store. What if they weren’t even there? What if I had missed my chance?
I could describe it as a mystical experience when I saw them for the second time, perched jauntily on top of the shoe box at the end of the aisle in DSW. They were just as beautiful as I had remembered them. I had strategically worn a dress this time instead of jeans, to ensure their versatility. I put them on one last time, and it felt like coming home. It seemed that we were meant to be.
I walked around my room at home, dreaming of all the adventures we would have together. Long walks in Central Parks, languid afternoons reading in dimly lit cafés, late nights dancing at the Cubby Hole…
It was my first day of grad school, and I slipped on my new heels defiantly, giving myself extra brownie points for the fact that my bag matched them perfectly.
My Dad, who had helped me move into my new apartment, needed to run an errand in midtown. No big deal, I thought. We’ll be in and out in five minutes, and then we’ll catch the subway downtown and I will dance my way into a glittery new life.
That’s all fine and good, but this is my Dad we’re talking about. Nothing with my Dad is ever quick.
We must have walked twenty blocks looking for this place. I quickened my pace angrily, thinking how embarrassed I would be to arrive late to my first event. My shoes clacked on the cement, my nails driving into the hard shell of those beautifully rounded toes. My heels rubbed against the unforgiving leather, and began to bleed.
By the time I got home that night, I could barely walk.
My love had betrayed me.
Fast forward to October. I’ve been in the city for one month, and I haven’t worn the shoes once. I’ve been invited to a housewarming party in Astoria – a housewarming party swarming with attractive young queers. This is no time for orthopedic arch support and sensible tread. It is time to pull out the big guns.
Listen, I tell my shoes before we head out, I don’t want any bullshit this time, okay? No blisters, no bruises, no sore toes. Behave. I mean it.
On the way there, I feel like a million bucks. I walk to the beat of Laura Marling, in defiance of the painful memories of our last outing together – in defiance, too, of all the ladies in my life who, like these shoes, had betrayed me.
I would show them.
Several hours, and many glasses of apple cider mimosa later, I am dancing at the Stonewall Inn. I’ve been wearing my heels for hours now, and there isn’t a blister to be had.
“You look fierce,” says one of my friends as we dance. “I’m intimidated.”
At last, I’ve made it.
So my story has a happy ending. I may not have found anybody to go home with that night, or really proved anything to my ex, who has never seen my awesome new shoes and probably couldn’t care less.
But at the very least, I finally learned how to walk in heels. And that is a victory worth celebrating.