Being a Girl in the World…

When I was a kid, being a woman seemed like some sort of secret, mystical state that one entered into when they were, say, 16 or 17. Like maybe I’d go to sleep an awkward adolescent kid and wake up graceful, beautiful, and smelling like Estee Lauder Youth Dew. Who really knew how it would happen? The whole process was shrouded in mystery. Women had secret rites round make-up and feminine hygiene products (seriously, worst phrase ever) and no one seemed willing to explain these things to me.

Maybe I was just supposed to intuit them.

I did not intuit much of anything.

The 1980s/1990s hyper-conservative world I grew up in was full of god-awful gender stereotypes and a stony silence around sex. There was only one way to be a woman in the world: pretty, made-up, and ultimately submissive (men were the head of the household. They always had to make more money and, ultimately, made all the decisions. Which was some bullshit and I knew it, even then). Oh, and I needed to be a virgin. For sure. Because why buy the cow, if you could get the milk for free? (Just typing that out makes me cringe. But it was gospel truth in my world)

Two things really crystalize who I was when I went away to college:

  1. I had no idea how to use a tampon at 18 years old. This became problematic when I got my period just as my best friend & I were about to head out to the beach. I told her I couldn’t go. She rolled her eyes so hard, she’s lucky they aren’t still stuck in the back of her head. She proceeded to stand outside the stall door and coach me through inserting a tampon, so we could go to the beach. How did that go? Well… I hemmed and hawed until she threatened to come into the stall and insert the damn thing herself. I figured it out real quick after that.
  2. When I was at Florida State, a young woman who’d been class president (or vice president or something of that sort) in high school came to me in all earnestness and asked how she was supposed to reconcile holding a leadership position with the call for women to be submissive. She’d gotten mixed up in our youth group right before she left for college. Obviously, we were a persuasive bunch. The most persuasive? The boys who had something to gain from all this submission bullshit. I don’t even remember what I said to her. But I knew, at that moment, that everything I’d been taught about women was a lie.

Three things happened around that time that further unveiled the mystery of womanhood, gender stereotypes, and my own body:

  1. I took a college class on Christianity. I thought it would be an easy A. I’d grown up in the church, after all. I knew things. Instead, that class upended everything I’d been taught in Sunday school, Vacation Bible School, youth group, in sermons, on retreats… I’d been raised on a legalistic, self-righteous brand of conservative Christianity. And, for me, this class exposed everything I’d believed as a lie hellbent on manipulating me into fear and submission. And I was pissed. For years afterward, I wouldn’t even spell out Christmas (Xmas all the way, baby. I tend to be pretty hot or cold. So, when I was done with Christianity–for that go-round at least–I was aggressively done).
  2. I took a Women’s Studies class. Mystery = unveiled. Goddess religions? Yes, please. History that included women’s contributions as something other than a footnote? Hell, yes. Women as equal and powerful? I could not get enough. Truly. I realized I could be a woman in whatever way suited me. First decision: no more make-up. I’d been one of those girls who never left the house without at least eyeliner and mascara–but usually a “natural-looking” version of the whole shebang. The first time my father saw me without makeup, he inquired as to what in the holy hell could be wrong? Upon discovering that I was currently in a makeup eschewing stage, he informed me that women wear makeup. I didn’t put on a lick of makeup again for at least 3 more years. It was my own daily protest against the tiny, proscribed life that I’d been raised to lead.
  3. I started dating women. Here’s the thing: I’d always been completely awestruck by women. I just didn’t know there was anything I could do about that (no one said I wasn’t a little slow on the uptake sometimes). But when I realized that I could be in a relationship with another woman–honest to God, it was like heaven broke open. Everything in the world made sense. Angels sang. I wasn’t broken, I was a lesbian. This truth set me free in ways I didn’t know possible.

When, at age 34, I discovered I was pregnant with a baby girl–I had to start unpacking some of the complexities of being a woman real quick-like. I remember standing in front of the mirror, naked, right after I brought home this beautiful baby that looked so much like me. And I knew, right then, that whatever negativity I leveled at myself she’d hear as judgement about her own body. That was it: that was my moment of total release. I let it all go. All the body image bullshit I’d carried around, all the times I’d been nudged to be quiet, to not take up space, to just get along–I let all that shit go. And I finally set about becoming the woman I really wanted to be.

That’s what my baby girl gave me: the gift of being totally and fully myself.

While I know that the journey is just as important as the destination and all that jazz, I’d like my daughter to grow up with actual knowledge of her own body and an understanding that there are so many ways to live into being a woman.

There’s power and beauty in it. And there’s struggle, too.

I want her to proudly wear the Feminist badge (and to understand and live out a feminism that is truly intersectional). I want her to love, cherish, and understand her body–because it’s beautiful, and powerful, and worthy just the way it is. And I want her to know that she can love whoever she chooses.

But most of all, I just want her to be a open to the big, beautiful possibilities that her life holds.

No submission necessary.

Toxic Masculinity Can Kiss My…

I try to approach life with gratitude. I think Oprah told me to do that once, and I listen to Ms. O. Also, the AAers may have mentioned it…. So, yeah, Attitude of Gratitude over here.

The gratitude portion of today’s programming goes something like this:

I am grateful that my body is healthy and strong enough to run. Also super grateful that my foot healed–and that my incredible massage guy taught me how to properly care for my body before & after a run. Running brings my mental, emotional, and spiritual life into balance. For that, I have much gratitude. And for Spring in Atlanta… it’s beauty far outweighs the threat of impending death by pollen.

See me? So grateful. Legitimately.

Gratitude gets me get out of my own head–and helps me stop creating my own problems and my own suffering–long enough to take stock of the world around me.

As I was running through my neighborhood, full of gratitude, nose running from crazy amounts of pollen, taking in the Spring morning, here’s an ugly truth I ran right up against: toxic masculinity SUCKS.

This is not news. I get that. But there’s a direct way that it’s impacting me lately–and it has to do with my ass.

You read that right. No reason to read it again. My ass is the issue here. Okay, not really my ass… the comments about my ass while I’m running are the issue.

Right now, you’re probably thinking “You’ve GOT to be kidding me.” Nope. Wish I was.

In the past two weeks, every time I’ve run some wanker finds it necessary to comment on my ass, turn around to stare at my ass, ask me if I can run back by so he can see my ass again, make his whole group of wanker friends laugh at some lewd comment about my ass, or whistle or shout at me (always after approaching me from behind–no pun intended).

Some of these guys probably genuinely think they are paying me a compliment. Fuck that. Objectifying someone is never a compliment.

Some of them like to sexualize random situations and intimidate women. Fuck that doubly hard. Because it DOES scare me when someone catcalls me out the window of his van as he drives slowly by. And what I want to do is flick him off or tell him to fuck himself. But I don’t. Because I can’t. Not without putting myself at risk for physical violence. Men have killed women for telling them no. So what does that leave me with? Impotent rage. A need to grit my teeth and fight my way through it.

Men, you have to do better.

It is absurd that I can’t run in my own damn neighborhood without fending off lewd comments. Not one but two men today found it appropriate to comment on my body. That is fucking infuriating.

Guys, my body is not yours to comment on. Not ever. It’s not yours to ogle as I walk by. My ass is none of your business. I don’t care if you like it or if you don’t. I don’t want to hear it. At all. Ever again.

If all the events of the last 4 years hadn’t shaped me into a much more indomitable spirit than I used to be, I’d probably consider just not running.

Let’s stop there: at a different point in my life, I would have considered giving up something that brings me joy and balance, that enhances my mental health, because toxic masculinity taught guys that it’s fine to make comments about a girl’s ass as she runs by.

I will spare you the litany of profanity that this inspires.

But I will say this: If you are a guy, you have a moral imperative to do something about this. And don’t even tell me that you’d never act like this. I don’t give a shit. I know not all guys catcall women. But you have a responsibility to call out your friends, your coworkers, your brother, your dad when THEY do it. Tell them to STFU. Tell them they are assholes. And, while you’re at it, go on and tell them that what women feel when they are catcalled is likely not flattery at all but an intense desire to take a baseball bat to their car.

Or maybe that’s just me.

I Wish I’d Known…

I wish I’d known, from the time I was a little girl, that my worth was not defined by my relationship to boys–not whether I liked a boy, was desired by a boy, or whether or not a boy had ever stuck his dick in me.

I wish I’d known, from the time I was a little girl, that my worth was not defined by my relationship to boys–not whether I liked a boy, was desired by a boy, or whether or not a boy had ever stuck his dick in me.

I wish I’d known that boys would be taught to view me as an object–by society and sometimes by their own parents–and I’d have to fight that objectification tooth and nail forever.

I wish I’d known that the whole virgin/whore dichotomy is a bullshit racket designed to rain shame and guilt down on any girl who wants to control her own sexuality.

I wish I’d known that I had a right to say no. Always. No matter how I was dressed. Or how far I’d let him go. Or whether or not he’d bought me dinner.

I wish I’d known that I could own my own desirability. That I didn’t have to rely on boys to tell me whether or not I was attractive, and thereby worthy.

I wish I’d known I could tell the sixth grade boy that told me I was ugly to FUCK OFF. I wish I’d known I didn’t have to believe him.

I wish I’d known that no matter how much alcohol I consumed, no one had the right to fuck me without my consent. Even if I slept around a lot. I wish I’d known that I had inherent value simply because I exist.

I wish I’d known that boys were not superior to me in any way. They were not ever better leaders, stronger, or more resilient–unless I let them be.

I wish I’d known that I could do something other that giggle when boys hurled sexual innuendo at me.

I wish I’d know it was okay to be a girl, to set my own limits, to chart my own course. I wish I’d known that I could say NO loudly–to many, many things.

But I didn’t.

So, now I gather all the knowledge that I wish I’d had, and I pass it to my daughter. Because she deserves better than I got.

How Reading Fuels the Resistance

The Temple of My Familiar is my favorite Alice Walker novel. I’ve read it several times. I’ll read it several more, as you do with the pieces that really speak to your soul. I find a bit more of myself every time I pick up that novel. The discovery is never painless, by the way. Just like it isn’t painless for her characters. But the work is worth the truth & liberation it offers.

Last night, Alice Walker and I hung out. Okay, so there were some other folks there, too–approximately 300 of them. But, unsurprisingly, Alice Walker made me feel as though she was speaking directly to me. So, like I said, Alice Walker and I hung out last night. She talked. I listened.

“The work you do in the world is your legacy.”
–Alice Walker, Agnes Scott College, April 22, 2018

I occupy a place of privilege, as a white person on the United States. That privilege is one that I didn’t understand until relatively recently. But now, navigating that privilege–and ultimately dismantling it–seems inherently tied to the work I do & the legacy I will leave.

Raised up (well, in college at least) on works by primarily white feminists, I quickly identified my own oppression at the hand of the sexism and misogyny that runs rampant in the United States. But I didn’t grasp the ways in which women of color deal with layers of oppression–sexism, yes… but also racism, sometimes classism. I didn’t understand the ways that white feminism often leaves women of color behind, failing to address their issues–sometimes failing to even include them in the conversation at all.

Enter Alice Walker.

The Temple of My Familiar is my favorite Alice Walker novel. I’ve read it several times. I’ll read it several more, as you do with the pieces that really speak to your soul. I find a bit more of myself every time I pick up that novel. The discovery is never painless, by the way. Just like it isn’t painless for her characters. But the work is worth the truth & liberation it offers.

The very first truth I took from The Temple of My Familiar was that, as a woman, I had to consider all women in the struggle for equality. In fact, that novel pushed me to see that I needed to fight for the liberation of all people (men included).

As one does with truths they aren’t quite ready to reckon with, I filed that knowledge away to be applied later.

Fast forward 20 years…

I do believe that the work that you do in the world is your legacy. 

And I am ready to work.

I didn’t just get ready on my own. I had a push. On a bright, sunny Saturday afternoon in 2016, I sat and listened as Andrew Joseph’s father shared the story of his son’s death at the hands of negligent law enforcement. A black child dead. And no one held accountable.

That afternoon, something shifted for me. Before that, my responsibility–as I understood it–was simply to raise my child to know right from wrong, to be a good and decent person. But, coming face to face with another parent’s pain introduced me to a greater responsibility: to raise my child with an awareness of the joy and pain in the world and to give her tools and a voice to fight injustice and to demand equality–for everyone.

Living in Southeast Atlanta puts me in close proximity to both the beauty and struggle of being black in America. I’ve discovered–through experience–that living in community with people who are not all just like you cultivates empathy and understanding. Creating community takes more than just saying hey as you pass each other on the street. It’s working side by side on community issues. It’s navigating hard conversations. And (if you’re white like I am) it’s knowing when to listen (instead of speak).

I have come to understand how much our liberation is bound up in each other. And that I must fight for an end to systemic racism (and homophobia, and transphobia, and anti-semitism, and islamophobia, and xenophobia, and toxic masculinity), just as I must continue to speak out against the sexism that plagues American culture.

Recently, at a friend’s house for dinner, we heard our kids chanting something from the next room. “Where do they learn to do that?” I wondered. My friend laughed: “It’s all those marches you take your kid to!” Huh. Maybe it is. But, really, it’s Alice Walker’s fault.

Alice Walker’s work, her words, her activism have changed the way I think and move through the world. She challenges me to see the world beyond my own little sphere–to fight for the humanity and dignity of all people. All while celebrating who I am.

Pretty heady stuff. But it’s also the making of a legacy.

Reckoning

All my life, I was taught to curry favor with men. That’s the honest to God truth.

All my life, I was taught to curry favor with men. That’s the honest to God truth.

What men thought of me, how they perceived me, needed to remain top of mind if I hoped to be happy (and happy always involved a man). Men were not to be offended. Or led on. They would expect things, if I behaved a certain way. So, I should be ever-mindful of signals I sent.

I got the message. Oh, I got it. And I internalized it (as one does).

But here’s what happens: the messages we internalize find a way of manifesting themselves in our daily lives. The be-ever-subservient-to-men message showed up as a giggle.

Yep. A giggle.

What the hell?

But it’s true: when faced with an uncomfortable situation involving a man (or boy, as it first began), I would simply giggle. Why? I’m not sure. Maybe I thought it seemed carefree. Or maybe I hoped it would be dismissive without being offensive. Who really knows? It wasn’t a conscious decision, the giggle. It was a coping mechanism.

You know what that giggle protected me against?

Not a damn thing.

I giggled in fifth grade when a boy told me he liked me but I didn’t like him back. What was wrong with him liking me? Nothing at all. What was wrong was my utter lack of understanding that it was okay to say “Thank you, but no,” even at 10 years old.

I giggled when, as I was standing outside my middle school sucking on a Blow Pop, some crude ass boy asked if I was “practicing.” I had no idea what he meant. But from the way his friends let loose peals of laughter, I immediately got that sexual innuendo was likely. Did I tell him to fuck off? That word was CERTAINLY in my vocabulary as a seventh grader (I had tried it out as all different parts of speech, in fact). Nope. I giggled. Because? I don’t know. Maybe I thought I should be glad he considered “cute” enough to make sex jokes with.

I liked a boy in eighth grade—a boy I believed had been having sex with his older, high school girlfriend. He and I engaged in a make-out session, during which he climbed on top of me. My thought? “Well, I guess this will be how I lose my virginity.” Casual. Detached. Like one considers the weather: “Well, I guess it is going to rain today.” I don’t remember giggling that time. Maybe I didn’t think I had the right to be dismissive. I’d let him climb on top of me, after all.

I hardly think my experience navigating interacting with boys qualifies as unique. What galls me now, as an adult—and as a mother—is the belief system that I whole-heartedly subscribed to as a child. A child with no sense of control over her own body. A child with no belief that she had the right to say no.

The past few days, the article about Aziz Ansari and the subsequent social media flurry of response made me a little spinny. Every time I tried to talk about why I wanted to push back against categorizing this truly common interaction between men and women as assault, I felt like I was grasping at air. And the I read this brilliant piece. And I found my footing again. It was this quote in particular that gave me a place to land my thoughts:

“People are quick to label sex crimes as deviant or aberrant, but the truth is that sexual violence is socialized into us. Men are socialized to fuck hard and often, and women are socialized to get fucked, look happy, and keep quiet about it. 

 Aziz Ansari has been socialized. And if we don’t like the way socialized men do sex, then we need to take a hard look at our society, friend.”

I don’t like the way socialized men do sex. But I don’t like way socialized women do sex, either. That giggling I was doing all the time as a kid? Yeah, by 10 I already knew about the looking happy and keeping quiet.

This isn’t about victim blaming. And it isn’t about silencing women. On the contrary, for me, this is about agency. A lot of really solid thought already exists about the way young girls are socialized—especially when it comes to beauty, sex, and power. But my reading of these pieces was disassociative at best. Oh, of course we don’t want girls growing up feeling powerless and  preyed upon—without ever admitting that I grew up feeling precisely that way. And it didn’t even occur to me that this worldview might be flawed. Wrong even.

I grew up accepting the basic tenet that I had to be pleasing to men in the world to have worth.

To have worth.

So, I didn’t stand up and say no. I didn’t tell Blow Pop boy to fuck off. I didn’t speak up for myself because I thought I wasn’t worth it. Because without the male gaze, what was I?

That’s a pretty painful truth to have to reckon with.