My cousin started a blog recently. It's a really cool blog (check it out at fishingdogfarm.com), about her journey building a tiny mobile house and moving with her boyfriend back to Washington state from Boston, with the hopes of someday owning a farm in the Pacific Northwest.
Now, I hate to be a copycat (especially after my childish- but maybe justified?- annoyance when she decided at Christmas to take up embroidery, which has always been my special skill within a family of avid crafters), but while I read her blog, I couldn't help but feel inspired to start my own. Lately, I've been feeling a distinct lack of agency over my life, and a feeling that I am consistently silencing myself out of sheer exhaustion. In short, I needed an outlet. Any sort of outlet. And maybe a way to actually use my creative non-fiction degree.
I've been having trouble sleeping recently, which for me is unusual. So for the past few nights, when I haven't been crying into my boyfriend's shirt about the lack of meaning in my life, as I sit on a heating pad, face slathered in coconut oil and body slathered in cortisone cream, staring at the bedroom I've decided I'm willing to spend hundreds of dollars redecorating in an attempt to find some sort of inner peace through material objects, waiting for the Xanax to kick in and put me to sleep, I pass the time reading The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf.
It's the perfect combination of dated empowerment (feminism circa 1991, which also happens to be the year in which I was born), blind validation of what I already believe to be true, and boredom-inducing academic dryness. As I read, I dog-ear pages which contain quotes I want to remember later, but I never actually mark the quotes themselves. I doubt I will be able to locate whatever specific quote I was so drawn to when I finally do go back through all those dog-ears.
Last night, the quote that pulled me in at one in the morning was this one:
"When they discuss this subject, women lean forward, their voices lower. They tell their terrible secret. It's my breasts, they say. My hips. It's my thighs. I hate my stomach. This is not aesthetic taste, but deep sexual shame. The parts of the body vary....but that is what the pornography of beauty most fetishizes. Breasts, thighs, buttocks, bellies; the most sexually central parts of women, whose 'ugliness' therefore becomes an obsession...A misogynist culture has succeeded in making women hate what misogynists hate" (150).
It only took me five minutes to find that quote on the page I had folded over.
I do not make a secret of the fact that most of the time, I hate my body. I have struggled with an eating disorder in the past, and although I am recovered from the worst of it, I have not yet conquered the voices inside (and outside) that insist I am not enough, I am disgusting, I am unlovable and un-hire-able and most of all unworthy because my stomach is not flat.
We've just passed the start of the new year, the time when everyone, especially young female actors, decide it's time to get serious, get disciplined, and start really "eating healthy" and working out in order to get that super-sexy (imaginary) lingerie-model body.
I've always struggled when the people around me engage in negative body talk, and exercise talk, and eating talk. It causes my brain to spiral into bad though-patterns: comparing my body to other bodies, calorie counting, berating myself for not exercising hard enough, obsessing over how tight my costumes feel that day, etc, etc. Once I even called the Dr. Jenn Burman radio show about it- I probably could find a link to my on-air conversation with Dr. Jenn, but at 9:15 PM and after two glasses of wine (two glasses I drank only after worrying about how their calorie content might affect the aforementioned fit of my costumes), I'm way too lazy to try.
I called Dr. Jenn for advice on how I could make myself stronger, more immune to these conversations. I never felt it was fair to ask other people to stop talking about things simply because it triggered my own personal neuroses. She gave me useful advice on this front, suggesting I remove myself from the situation (useful advice until removing yourself becomes impossible, such as when you are in a dressing room twenty minutes before places getting ready for a show with your fellow female performers), and reading inspiring literature about body positivity (hence the purchase of The Beauty Myth).
But she also advised that I talk to my female friends about our patterns of negative body talk.
I can't do that, I thought. This is my problem. Not theirs.
I subscribe to emails from the author of the book Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat, a book about mindful eating which I HIGHLY recommend to anyone trying to repair their relationship with food.
On the first of the year, I got an email with the subject line: Mindful Eating in a Diet-Obsessed Culture. In the email, the author tells an anecdote about when her yoga class was interrupted by a man doing a boxing workout to loud music in the back of the yoga studio, and then makes the following parallel: "During all the recent New Year’s diet-hype, it occurred to me that mindful eating in a diet-obsessed culture is very much like practicing yoga while someone boxes in the back of the room. Whether we are simply aware of the constant murmur of diet-talk all around us, or frequently distracted by it, we can choose to ignore it and settle back into our practice. However, since restrictive eating messages are particularly heightened this time of year, it becomes increasingly difficult to cultivate your attention and maintain your intention to make healing your relationship with food the priority over temporarily losing a few pounds."
And it occurred to me (perhaps, I'll admit, out of youthful idealism, or maybe misplaced anger) that while taking the high road and finding inner strength in the face of this lack of sensitivity might be the more enlightened route, do we not also have a social responsibility to speak up for ourselves?
So, fed up with the thought spirals I found myself tumbling down every day in the face of more and more diet and negative body talk, I decided to speak up for myself in the most respectful and general way I knew how.
I posted a status on Facebook.
It concluded with this statement:
Just try and think about the fact that what should be harmless talk can often do harm to the people around you who have or who are currently suffering from disordered eating or body dysmorphia or simply bad body image. I love you all, and I hope we can all learn to love ourselves and our bodies for what they are, and learn to listen to our bodies to determine when and what we need to eat so we can maintain a healthy lifestyle for our entire lives.
(for the full post, go to my Facebook and scroll down a little bit. I haven't figured out yet how to link to a specific post)
This post mostly met with positive responses, including a comment from a dear friend which read, "I love you. I support you. You are an incredible woman with a strong, inspiring voice," which meant the world to me, and another comment from a high school acquaintance whose politics I usually disagree with (she voted for Trump, y'all), which said, "I love this Anna! I agree with you! Mental health is something people need to remember when 'dieting.' Nothing is worth giving up a health mental state of mind." This last post in particular reminded me that even when our values and politics differ drastically, women are still united in our most fundamental concerns.
But then came this one, from a co-worker, who has felt the need to "call me out" like this several times before:
Soo. You can talk about pap smears in the dressing room and the size of your vagina and everyone is just suppose to be comfortable with that conversation. And girls talking about fitness and nutrition are making YOU feel uncomfortable...#imconfused
And the woman who commented with the above text is a woman I usually agree with politically.
As I told her via Facebook reply and in person, no one told me that they were uncomfortable with the particular conversation while it was happening (which, by the way, the coworker in question had not been present for). Indeed, I have a hard time guessing who my coworker had actually overheard was so offended by this feminine health conversation, as everyone who was present in the room at the time was actively engaging in said conversation, and I can't think of a single one of them who would have felt uncomfortable voicing their disagreement with the subject matter.
For the record, this was a group conversation, in which many women, not just myself, were engaging. I think we all felt relieved that we could talk about the pain and discomfort we had all felt during a pap smear and/or pelvic exam, and that these subjects didn't have to be taboo. Not to mention the fact that we started the conversation because one woman had recently lost a friend to cervical cancer.
And when my coworker refers to me talking about the size of my vagina, she is referring to when I used the words (and I quote myself verbatim): "I always have a hard time at the gyno and I bleed a lot because I have an abnormally small vaginal canal and a curved cervix."
Now, if I had said "my pussy is so tiny it's hard to stuff a dick up there," I would have understood why someone might be offended. I still would have thought it was stupid, but I would have understood. But I didn't say "my pussy is so tiny it's hard to stuff a dick up there." I used medical, anatomical terms to describe my experience with a procedure that exists to keep me healthy as a sexually active young woman.
Also, this parallel my coworker attempted to draw is fundamentally flawed. Her argument was that the Christians in our company felt offended by a conversation I led about cancer screenings, and since I had led such a "controversial" conversation in our chorus women's dressing room, I was not allowed to feel uncomfortable because of anyone else's conversations.
But the more accurate parallel is this: the Christians my coworker speaks of often talk to one another about their faith very loudly in the dressing room. They quote bible verses and discuss their methods of worship and pray together. They even, on occasion, try to convert other people. As a non-Christian individual, I feel very uncomfortable listening to this kind of talk, and I'm also pretty sure it is inappropriate to discuss in a work environment. But I am an adult, who is confident in her own beliefs. I will move on from the discomfort I feel in a fleeting moment. And I will tolerate their speech about their religious beliefs, because it gives them comfort. I only ask the same tolerance in return: to talk about what gives me comfort, which is inclusive feminism and body positivity.
On the other hand, the discomfort I feel when women talk about the calories they've eaten in a day, or how many calories they burned at the gym, or how toned their abs are getting, is rooted in real pain, and real trauma. It is not simply discomfort at having to confront the fact that other people have different beliefs than I do. If someone was experiencing turmoil while listening to me discuss pap smears and vaginal canals because it triggered memories of sexual assault or trauma, that would be an accurate parallel to the torment I feel every day when I hear other women equating their worth as human beings to the success with which they conform to an arbitrary beauty standard invented to manipulate and subjugate women. And if a past trauma had been the reason someone felt uncomfortable hearing about my smaller-than-average vagina, I would have stopped the conversation immediately, and never spoken of it again.
I meant it when I told my coworker that I would have stopped if someone had told me they were uncomfortable, even if for religious reasons, because I believe there is value in making the people around you feel heard, validated, and safe. But the more I think about the situation, the more I realize that my true answer to her question is "yes." Yes, I can "just talk about pap smears" and the size of my vagina in the dressing room. And yes, everyone is supposed to be comfortable with it- because ultimately that is my goal as a feminist. To take the taboo and the fear out of female anatomy and feminine sexual health. To empower women to have agency over their own bodies. To embrace female sexual and reproductive organs as beautiful and natural.
Yes, I am allowed to talk about pap smears and the size of my vagina, not least of all because I am an independent adult woman allowed to fight for what she believes in and talk about her own body freely, but also because we feel uncomfortable talking about pap smears for the same reasons we feel the need to diet and exercise and punish ourselves for every cookie we eat. We have been taught since birth that the female body is shameful, particularly the parts associated with sexuality. Religion teaches women to be "modest," to cover up their shameful parts in order to achieve moral goodness. It teaches us to feel shame that our bodies are what they are. Pop culture teaches the same thing by convincing us that men will never love us or want to sleep with us unless we look like Victoria's Secret models. Both teach us that menstruation is gross and should be hidden from men at all costs. A misogynist culture has taught us to hate the same things misogynists hate: namely, the female body. When we hate ourselves, we are demonstrating the deepest roots of internalized misogyny. By stopping the negative body talk in its tracks, by challenging ourselves to utter the word "vagina" with pride, we are fighting the patriarchy. We are fighting back against the oppressive forces that try to suppress our power every second of every day.
And so ends my first blog post, which has successfully served its purpose to help me work through my own thoughts and feelings about my daily life as a feminist surrounded by demure Disney princesses and not-so-demure Disney princesses who, in a misplaced attempt to locate their own feminine power, attempt to steal that power from other women who try to assert themselves in ways that threaten the sassy-princess's delicate understanding of the world. It is not nearly as concise as my cousin's- she has always been more palatable and poised than I have. But it is honest. And it is maybe important. And maybe someone will make it through this whole post (I know I wouldn't have- I have the attention span of a flea) and will find my voice strong and inspiring, as my friend Kim so kindly described it.
I will leave you with this image, of a tiny kitten on a scale. This kitten (this abnormally small pussy) is currently in the care of my mom's friend Melanie, who works with the Sacramento SPCA fostering animals and facilitating pet adoptions. Melanie often takes in sick, underweight kittens and nurses them back to health- not unlike the way I and many other eating disorder survivors have been nursed back to physical and mental health by dedicated teams of psychologists and physicians. Next time you step on a scale and feel despair when you see the number emblazoned in the cold metal, remember this little kitten, fighting for her little life, and remember that your life is worth more than the achievement of whatever this concept we call "beauty" may be.