The news has felt especially heavy lately. Between the ebola outbreak, the fighting in Israel and Palestine, the crisis in Iraq, the refugee children on the US border, and Robin William’s suicide, the world feels frighteningly bleak. I try to follow the news closely, but sometimes I feel so overwhelmed by all the sadness, pain, and suffering that I retreat. So when the story first broke about an unarmed teenage boy being shot and killed by police in Ferguson, my heart instantly fell–and I turned away. As the atrocities continue in Ferguson, it is clear that Michael Brown and his community deserve for us to pay attention, to hear their voices, to care. These kinds of gross abuses of power only continue and flourish when we turn our backs on those in need.
All morning, I have been riveted by the unfolding events–the death of an unarmed black teenager, the arrest of two reporters and a city alderman, tear gassing and shooting of rubber bullets into peaceful crowds, terrorizing black communities by shooting these materials directly into neighborhoods–in short a complete disregard for the lives of the community these police officers have sworn to protect. And I realized I’d heard this whole story before; Ferguson, MO mirrors familiar and tragic stories of Jim Crow south–an era that clearly does not live as neatly in our past as we’d like to believe
Earlier in the year I read The Devil in the Grove, the story of four young black men falsely accused of rape and the NAACP’s fight on their behalf. Two of the four men are murdered by the cops, an advocate and his wife are killed their house was bombed, reporters, lawyers and everyday black civilians were threatened and terrorized–and the sheriff at the heart of all this terror? The establishment closed ranks around him and he went on to serve as sheriff for many years to come. The remarkable thing about this story is how unremarkable it was; this treatment was everyday reality for black Americans–and is clearly the present day reality in Ferguson, MO.
We have such a tidy, white-washed history of race in America. Slavery was a terrible thing, but then Abraham Lincoln and the 13th Amendment happened and solved everything. Then racism was really bad in the South (always only the South) and that was bad, too, but Rosa Parks didn’t give up her seat on a bus and then MLK talked a lot about being peaceful and ended racism forever.
I distinctly remember watching a film with my parents when I was in 5th grade about a white man who learns on his mother’s death bed that he has a half brother who is black. The movie is about their relationship and the white brother dealing with his racism. I will always remember this movie because it was when I learned that racism is still a problem. I understood it so completely as something that ended with the Civil Rights Movement. MLK had a dream, and hadn’t that dream come true? I turned to my parents halfway through the film, confused, and said, “Why is the main character driving a new truck? Isn’t this supposed to be a set a long time ago?”
But this isn’t in our past. This isn’t something that was fixed. This trauma is in the very fabric of our nation. Ferguson isn’t an aberration; it exists as part of a very long history of state-sanctioned violence against black Americans. The fight for civil rights is not something that lives in history books; we need to continue to fight. These images are taken 50 years apart; the one on the left is from present day Ferguson, MO.
I certainly don’t know what to do or, really, what to say. I remember after Treyvon Martin was killed and then the George Zimmerman verdict came through I felt a profound desire to do something, but I didn’t and still don’t know what action looks like. Sometimes I think I turn away out of a sense of helplessness, but importantly also turn away because, as a white woman, I can. Ultimately, though, if we want a different image 50 years from today, to turn away is to be complicit.
Occasionally I like to look through my search terms to learn how people found their way to my little, often neglected, corner of the internet. It’s most a depressing enterprise, because 95% of the time it’s someone searching for naked pictures of women. “Nipple” is probably the number one search term driving people to this site, mostly because of this post from last year.
But then some glorious person was searching for glorious things:
the house of mirth fanfiction
I’m sorry that you didn’t find any fanfic, but I hope you enjoyed your time here. (Although I can try and dust off my attempt at, essentially turning House of Mirth into a romcom.) I cannot express how immensely happy it makes me this is a thing that exists in the world! Carry on, my good Wharton fan.
It also brings me joy that people searching for various nipple shots are most definitely finding themselves disappointed when they land here, so really–Cheers all around!
While I was writing my last post, I used the adjective “fat” a handful of times, and I distinctly remember thinking “I hope no one feels compelled to tell me I’m not fat.” (In an honest-to-god Freudian slip of writing, I initially wrote for the first two drafts, “I hope no one feels compelled to call me fat.” Yup. Let’s discuss that later.)
In the meantime, let’s discuss my desire to leave let my fat identifier stand. In large part, this is rooted in the truth is: I am, technically speaking, fat. (This is new. I’m saying this online, but I’ve yet to say it in person.) Presently, fat has come to be shorthand for lazy, stupid, and ugly. I am not any of those things, and on a good day I believe that I’m not. When a plus-size lady identifies as fat, and everyone rushes to tell her it isn’t so, it stings in a particular way because you’re efforts–despite coming from a good place–reaffirm that fattness is a really bad thing. Ironically you’re reinforcing that fat = lazy, stupid, and ugly. And we all sure as hell know that your fierce friend is none of those things! But here’s the nasty secret–when we jump up and down about how NOT FAT a plus size lady is, we’re reinforcing that fat is inherently a bad thing, when in reality it’s just a thing.
I grew up in a house with beloved fat relatives. I also grew up in house where, if someone was an asshole and fat, their weight was a legitimate target for ridicule. There were lots of “fat idiots” on the chopping block. I don’t think this experience is unique.
In this moment of my adult life, I am, technically speaking. fat. However, I am not lazy, stupid, or ugly. (Feel free, in the comments, to tell me how active, smart, and beeeeautiful I am. Okay, just kidding.) I think it is a little bit my hope that acknowledging “fat” as a reality, but not a dirty word can take the sting out of all the implications that come along with that word. I am fat. I also have brown hair, glasses, and a birthmark on my right ankle.
And now to the “omg, don’t tell me I’m fat” thing. This, in perhaps obvious ways, is harder to write. I really want this blog to be an honest and feminist space. In order to make the former true, however, I have to give a voice to the negative battles I struggle with. So here’s my confession: I have at many points in my life, looked around to see “how fat I was” in comparison to the people around me. If I could find worse offenders, I could pat myself on the back–for telling myself I was better–whatever the eff “better” meant. (And here’s where I should disclose, despite talking about this as an activity solidly in my past, there’s a 50% chance I did this within the past week.) I’m writing a blog on body positivity, but I’m in this shit deep.
The truth is, I want to be okay with being fat. I also, desperately, want to wake up being 40 pounds lighter. I want to be liberated from the expectations and pressure of our society–but I also don’t want to be engaged in constant warfare with them. In my dream world, I wake up many sizes smaller and, magically, don’t give an eff. I want to both escape and beat the system in one fell swoop. On good days, I know that not giving an eff is more valuable than playing the game, but I’d be lying if I said that was an easy thing to see as truth.
I don’t have a neat conclusion to this post. I think tidiness would actually be really dishonest. Ultimately, it’s important to realize that my complicated relationship with my body is not actually tied to my weight. I’ve been 20, 30, 50 pounds lighter, and still struggled to find peace with this body. I’ve been strong enough to commute 20 miles round-trip on a bike, to run a half marathon, to hike mountains–and I was still at war with this body. Weight gain might bring these issues more sharply into focus, but I’m not struggling to see the strength and beauty of my body because I gained weight. I’ve struggled my whole life to accept my body–whatever it looked like–because the game is rigged; we’re bombarded with reasons to feel dissatisfied and uncomfortable. And, ultimately, what I’m trying to figure out is: can I just stop playing the game?
Sometimes it is hard to create posts for this space. First of all, there’s nothing like trying to create honest and interesting content on a regular basis to make you realize that blogging is not necessarily an easy gig. Also, I think it is particularly challenging to write about something as loaded as weight and body image–because I feel different each day, sometimes each hour. (Maybe blogging about parenting feels similar?) I will write half of what feels like a great post, leave it unfinished because of other responsibilities, and by the time I return to the draft my perspective has shifted. While I can completely identify with the voice that wrote that piece, I can no longer access it. So I’m faced with two options–write a hackneyed ending and post it or leave it unfinished and unposted. (Guess which option has won out?)
I always remember this quote from Wordsworth (who I actually pretty much hate), “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” I think good writing needs a equal parts spontaneous overflow and tranquil recollection. Maybe the trick is to make sure I complete posts in the initial rush of emotion. I can return later to edit, when the honesty of the experience is less raw, but shouldn’t leave writing the ending to the cooling-off period. I think that may be easier said than done. Even though I actively miss writing when it’s not a part of my life, I have a love-hate relationship with the process itself.
But I didn’t want this post to be about writing–for two reasons. 1) Half heartedly writing a blog post once every few weeks doesn’t qualify one’s self as a writer and 2) more importantly, reading things about writing is only interesting, at best, to other people who write. But fucked up perceptions of our bodies? I’m looking to all the ladies to give me a “what, what” in recognition.
Today alone has been such a roller-coaster. I have at turns felt super happy about my cute new t-shirt and shorts, fat, bad-ass for being fat and not giving an eff, insecure that other people judge me for being fat, etc. I took the following picture, which captures an interesting moment, and I want to share some background. My hair stylist (who should win all the awards for haircutting brilliance) is out on maternity leave for another two weeks. I don’t trust any other human to cut my hair (after a decade of hairdresser commitment issues and tragically boring–or worse–haircuts), so this maternity leave has left me with, well, what eventually turned into a mullet.
I was sharing the mullet-related issues with my co-workers, and since we all work from home, I wanted them to enjoy the visual. So I took this picture. Here’s the funny thing about this–I pretty much look like a cross between this guy and this guy–yet, against all odds, I get a total thrill from the picture. In part, I know I can count on my lovely co-workers to take joy in the picture, the fact that I’m worried about my mullet, and the fact that I spent five minutes of my work-day taking back-of-the-neck selfies in my bathroom mirror. But it’s more than that. I took pictures where my not-skinny arm is very prominent, where my neck doesn’t look “skinny” (whatever that means), etc–and I feel pleased with the result. Maybe there was just something so freeing about taking a picture with the intent to make people smile that made me perfectly content about the amount of space take up in the frame. And I think that’s a big part of it–I can see the silly intent of the photo above all else.
One of my oldest, dearest friends was once working her way through a self-portrait assignment, and shared with me a brilliant observation. She said that we’re all so familiar with our perception of ourselves, with the view we carry in our head of our faces head-on, that an accurate self-portrait is next to impossible. Take a look at the greatest artists of our time, and compare what they actually looked like with their own self-portrait. It’s something twisted, familiar and wrong at the same time. To combat this, she set up a system of mirrors, so she was looking at herself from an unfamiliar angle, and drew one of the most life-like self-portraits I’ve ever seen.
And so maybe that’s why I kind of love this bizzaro picture of myself with a mullet.* This is an impossible angle to see without mirrors and cell-phones. I’ve rendered myself a stranger, and in doing so, I don’t feel compelled to bring judgement. You know how now, when you look at a picture of yourself, you look first to your area of insecurity, to see how prominent it is in the photo? In the picture, the joy, memories, and hilarity of the photo come after a thorough scrutiny of our own flaws. What would it mean to start seeing photos of ourselves as we do of strangers? To leave the scrutiny and self-hatred behind, and see the joy, memories, and hilarity we present in any given frame.
I don’t know what this means, and I certainly don’t know how to apply this perspective to the head-on-view of myself I’m familiar with. But it feels like an interesting tool to aim to have at one’s disposal–what am I seeing first–memories or faults? And, of course, how can I embrace the mullet?
*Please don’t feel compelled to comment on how I don’t really have a mullet. I kind of loved my my mini mullet. I have since received an emergency “bang trim but for my neck” and Julie-the-superhero-hairdresser is going to make me look fierce next week. Bonus: she’ll tell me all about her super cute new peanut.
I first wrote this almost two months ago but resisted finishing or posting it because, you know, feelings. And vulnerability.
I had something of a come-to-Jesus moment this week. I was in the greater DC area, on a business trip. (Before I travelled regularly for work, this sort of thing sounded, if not glamorous, at least very exciting. Now I know it mostly involves frantically trying to get to your meeting on time despite getting lost five times along the way, finally reaching your destination and having to desperately search for parking, trying to send a professional email explaining that you are running a few minutes late–all while still looking for parking–and, due to auto-correct, signing your name “Lottery”. And then later getting a little bit drunk while marathoning HGTV or Law & Order: SVU in your hotel room.)
Anyway, for this business trip I had packed my standard Professional Outfits, a handful of structured dresses that I think make me look like a responsible grown-up who also has friends that went to art school. You know–professional but in a cool way. These are some of my go-to confidence building outfits. Here’s where I tell you that I’ve been steadily gaining weight since getting married this past summer, and you all instantly know where this is going.
I found myself sweating profusely as I tried desperately to zip up my sharply tailored Ann Taylor dress, unsuccessfully sucking everything in, practically pulling a muscle in my shoulder as I flailed around for the zipper, and ultimately ripping it off with a deep sense of shame and frustration. At the last minute I’d packed a dress that I feel deeply ambivalent about: a bright clown-nose red number that looked much less bright when I saw it online, but I kept out of laziness and a sense that it wouldn’t wrinkle in a suitcase (but mostly out of laziness). When I realized that none of my other clothes even fit, I threw on this bright red dress of shame (which, true to my theory, had not wrinkled in the suitcase) and ran out the door, already late for my first meeting of the day.
That night, on the phone with my husband, I found myself crying about my ballooning weight and my rock-bottom sense of self-confidence regarding my body. I have a hard time talking about weight, body-image, exercise or my relationship with food. (So much so that this was the point in my essay where I took a break from writing: right when I have to talk about weight and body image.) On one level, I am a proud feminist; I hate the ways in which women are valued according to their body; I think that culture’s obsession with women being *small* physically is directly tied to an attempt to keep women *small* in all sorts of other ways. I have watched loved ones wage war against their bodies and stood helplessly from the sidelines.
On the other hand, I’d love to walk into any store, knowing they carry my size. I’d love to assess new outfits, not by how well they hide my belly, but how colorful or sequined or comfortable they are.
From both of these perspectives, what I’m longing for is an ability to not give any fucks about my size.
My come-to-Jesus realization was that: ignoring my rapid weight-gain was not the same thing as not giving any fucks. In fact, I care deeply, in a repressed way that only a lonely hotel room in suburban Maryland can unearth. So I’d like to spend some time in this space talking about body image, weight, exercise, food, and the tangled relationship I have with all of those things. I’m hoping that committing to writing about these things through the lens of feminism and self-acceptance and a continual effort to be a bad-ass will help me shed some negative baggage.
If I were to set a goal, perhaps it would be that when I thought of my body, it would first be from the perspective of this poem, by the ever-brilliant Mary Oliver:
“As for the body, it is solid and strong and curious
and full of detail; it wants to polish itself; it
wants to love another body; it is the only vessel in
the world that can hold, in a a mix of power and
sweetness: words, song, gesture, passion, ideas,
ingenuity, devotion, merriment, vanity, and virtue.”
January 1st rolls around, and everyone dreams of being their best-possible-selves, setting resolutions with abandon–and then of course abandoning them. There’s a lot of disdain for New Year’s Resolutions, mostly because by now, three weeks in, almost everyone has forgotten about who they promised themselves they’d become. But I’ve always loved the idea that you take time each year to assess: Am I living the way I want to be living? Am I who I want to be? What changes do I want to make, to get more out of life?
The check-in process for me this year started in late November, and the single biggest thing I knew was missing from my day-to-day life was reading. Books have always been a huge part of my life; some of my favorite memories as a kid are losing myself in a bookstore and racing to get far enough into a book that my mother would buy it for me because I was so desperate to find out what happened to the characters. But after graduate school, reading fell by the wayside; I’m still trying to figure out why that happened, but it was a noted absence. In years past I’ve had as many as eight or nine resolutions, but this year I only made one:
So I printed out a blank calendar for January, and each day I chart my progress, like my own personal summer-reading competition from when we were kids. There’s an argument to be made that keeping track like this can create a fixation on numbers and achievements rather than an embrace of reading for the sake of real pleasure, but this very attainable goal has been really important for me. Forcing myself to spend some time every day doing something this important has reminded me of why I loved reading so much to begin with. Isn’t it funny how we forget to do the things we really love?
I’ve already finished a handful of books this month, some that were great and some that were interesting but ultimately disappointing. By far the most engaging book I’m reading is in the photo above, The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, which takes place in North Korea. I don’t ever want to put it down, and when I am forced to (mainly for work and sleeping), I can’t get it out of my head. You know how sometimes, you are reading something so good that it fills you with this raw sense of joy and possibility? And it’s this incredible high but also deeply uncomfortable feeling? Maybe that doesn’t happen with everyone when they read; maybe for some people music or painting or good movies create that feeling. Or maybe you think I’m spouting nonsense.
Either way, I feel a little like I’m waking up after a long nap. It’s a good feeling.
I know this is about 800 years old in internet years, but damn if it isn’t good.
Reminding me why A Practical Wedding remains one of my favorite blogs, this entire month is devoted to feminism over there. (Infusing popular wedding narratives with active discussions of feminism? Talk about shifting our discourse.) This week the staff shared a round-up of some of their favorite feminist books. It’s brilliant list! In looking through, I was reminded of some old favorites (Undercover, lady-knight, people!) and discovered some books to add to my to-read list.
I’ve been trying to read a lot more lately, and I thought this was a good opportunity to do my own round up and hope that you share some of your favorites in return. This is not an exhaustive list, or even what I consider the “best” feminist titles. But these are books that had a the most formative influence when I was just a wee, budding feminist through graduate school, so they have a special place in my heart.
Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
I still remember the day I found this book. My family used to make regular trips to Barnes & Nobel when I was a child, and I would make a bee-line away into the YA stacks. I had discovered that if I found a book quickly and read enough of it before it was time to leave, I could almost always convince my parents to buy it for me. Ella Enchanted was one of these books, and it set the wheels in motion for something much bigger for me. It’s a re-imagining of Cinderella, in which she puts up with all that housework and drudgery because she’s cursed to always be obedient, so she runs away and has adventures and eventually breaks the curse. I think it should be mandatory reading for all pre-teen girls; personally I was so intoxicated by the idea of flipping these traditional tales so that the woman was active, was the hero and in charge of her own destiny. It opened up so much possibility for me: we didn’t necessarily need to start over to look for female heroes; we could apply a different lens to the stories we’ve always known. To some extent, this idea of applying a lens that shifts women and gender issues into a different focus is still at the heart of my brand of feminism.
House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
In high school, I went through a classic-novels-about-romance phase, which involved a lot of Jane Austen. I picked up House of Mirth, expecting it to fall into the same vein. Oops. This might be the first book that broke my heart. (My one and only foray into fanfic was a rewrite, giving House of Mirth a happy ending.) I suspect any literary-minded feminist has a book that drove home the particular struggles of being a woman, the role of femininity, and the crushing, absurd weight of societal rules and expectations for women, and it was Lily Bart who brought that message home for me.
I read this book my freshman year of college, and it was the first time I studied contemporary race issues. I spent a lot of time learning about slavery and Jim Crow laws in high school, and I had a vague sense that racism was still a problem, but I didn’t know anything about it and I definitely didn’t know how to engage with it. This is the book that taught me about institutional racism. We can all claim to be (and want to be) “not racist” but are, in fact, products of a racist society so, in truth we probably each have some ugly ideas floating around in our subconscious. We are each responsible to adjust our behavior and question our assumptions, accordingly. This is not a book about feminism, but it was an essential read in making me a better feminist.
Bodies that Matter by Judith Butler
This book is like hiking through a really dense jungle, up a mountain, following a seemingly overgrown path all the way up. Reading Judith Butler is hard and exhausting work, and you will likely find yourself profoundly uncomfortable at times (because it is complicated, because her ideas challenge fundamental assumptions you may have, because even when you think you get what she’s trying to say, you still have to wrestle with those ideas so they make sense to you). And then, after struggling through the dense jungle, you get to the top of the mountain and all the hard work has finally paid off: the view (aka whatever insight you have from reading) is so incredible that it rearranges your entire way of seeing, thinking about, and interacting with the world.
Bonus Book: On the Road by Jack Kerouac
As a young reader, I hated this book with a fiery passion. I would indignantly stomp around, complaining about the flat female characters and the ways they were being used as props in the novel to advance the male characters’ narrative. I think that kind of feminist rage was really import to experience; it felt liberating to hate a book on the grounds that the author wrote lame female characters. It was important to realize that I could demand more from my books.
How about you: What are your favorite feminist books? What titles formed your current social consciousness? What should I read next?
I’ve been wanting to say something about the government shutdown, but every time I got to write about it all that comes out is, “KFNL%#)MWQ!KKXTE##$^DMAAK!?!?!?!!!”
Thankfully, some other folks are saying much more articulate things about the situation. Unsurprisingly, outside of the U.S. there is a whole lot of confusion and justified disgust at the idiocy of the whole situation. I found Anthony Zurcher’s comment, from the UK, striking:
For most of the world, a government shutdown is very bad news –- the result of revolution, invasion or disaster. Even in the middle of its ongoing civil war, the Syrian government has continued to pay its bills and workers’ wages. That leaders of one of the most powerful nations on earth willingly provoked a crisis that suspends public services and decreases economic growth is astonishing to many.
Zurcher goes on to comment on the impact this may have on the global economy. In the era of globalization, playing these sorts of games threaten not just US, but the global economy as well. In my last post, I wrote briefly about privilege, and I think that’s an important part of the current political mess. There has been much discussion about how avoiding the immediate effects of the government shutdown is possible from a privilege position. If you don’t rely on food stamps or WIC formula, the government shutdown may feel like any other day. And that’s a convenient position, but there’s a baffling lack of empathy required in order to fail to recognize that’s not a universal position. Fox News (as filtered through The Daily Show) does a good job of demonstrating this attitude (right around 2:30):
(Side note: I love the show deeply, but I could do with at least 60% fewer penis jokes on TDS.)
But the ways that privilege plays into the House Republican stand off are deeper, even, than the failure to recognize this. Those who support (and also those who do not oppose) this shutdown and impending debt ceiling crisis are able to live in their delusional bubble because they take for granted America’s position as an international superpower, as a global economic powerhouse, as “the greatest and/or most powerful country on earth.” The comparative wealth and power of the US, and the comfort that affords us as Americans, is completely taken for granted and, dangerously, taken for a constant.
It’s like the rich kid in college, who can spend all his rent money on booze and late-night pizza delivery, because he knows his parents will always bail him out. James Fallows discusses this in a short piece in The Atlantic:
As a matter of substance, constant-shutdown, permanent-emergency governance is so destructive that no other serious country engages in or could tolerate it. The United States can afford it only because we are — still — so rich, with so much margin for waste and error.
And in this way, in addition to highlighting the danger of extremism and gerrymandering, this current manufactured crisis is a profound example of America’s sense of exceptionalism. Our national mythology is one of invincibility; we cannot imagine a world in which we do not dominate. Like that rich college kid drunk and full of pizza, we only see possibility and infinite lives. House Republicans can risk the national and international economy on a bet, because they cannot imagine a world in which we do not win. Not only do they fail to grasp the arrogance of that bet, it is precisely that attitude that weakens America’s national health as well as our global position of strength.
P.S. If you’re looking to stay up-to-date on the saga of our federal government, I’ve been really enjoying The Slate Political Gabfest’s 15 minute daily digest throughout the shutdown.