My dear friend, Leslie, is featuring me on her blog this week. Take a gander for the scoop on life out of the closet, writing aspirations, family, relationships, and more! Vist her site here.
header image: Cathyrox
When I was in the seventh grade, I couldn’t wait to shave my legs for the first time. Despite the fact that my leg hair was still blonde and whispy, I knew that many of my peers had smooth legs and I wanted them too. Shaving seemed like something intensely personal that I needed to discuss only in whispers. The day I set aside to shave for the first time, I told a friend at school that I was excited to get home from school that day. When she asked why I replied, “I just am.” Shaving had the mysticism of sex combined with the taboo of menstruation, at least in my mind. It was something women did but never talked about.
It wasn’t until high school that I first began to question why it was that I was required to shave off my body hair. I went the whole winter of junior year without shaving my legs, wearing pants each day. My high school boyfriend asked me when I would start shaving my legs again, and I asked him why it mattered, since no one could see them. “Because I like your legs and I want to see them,” he said. I think he genuinely meant it as a compliment, but, thinking back, it makes me feel gross. This interaction solidified my growing suspicion that shaving was an activity that women did for men, not for themselves, and that, if I was going to be considered attractive by the opposite sex, then I better keep shaving. A few weeks later, when the weather started to warm up, I did shave my legs again, eager to reveal them to my boyfriend from their hairy, wintry prison.
Despite a short period of weird grunge in high school when I wore only boys pants, I’ve always presented as highly feminine. I like makeup, wearing skirts, and the color pink. So, I followed the script set by the women before me. Every day I would shave under my arms and several times per week I would shave my legs. Throughout years of knicks, razor burn, and Nair mishaps, it never occurred to me that I could just NOT do it anymore.
Every summer, I spend several days in Hot Springs, NC at the Wild Goose Festival. Two years ago, I met a fellow queer woman at the festival and noticed her armpit hair. I had always assumed that, if I grew out my body hair, I would look disgusting and mannish. However, this woman was beautiful and I thought her body hair only added to her ~*Earth Goddess Aesthetic*~. I doubted I was cool enough to pull it off, but I stopped shaving my armpits at Wild Goose that year, partially because I usually don’t shower during the 3 day outdoor festival, but this year I continued my no-shave experiment when I got home. Two years later, and the experiment is still going. It wasn’t as though I made a dramatic decision on a specific principle. I just stopped shaving and never started again. I found that it didn’t make me look gross like I thought it would, and, if anything, it made my armpits healthier. No razor bumps, no burning when I put on deodorant after a shower, no irritation when I run in a tank top. Essentially, my laziness turned into feminst rebellion and self-confidence.
My decision to stop shaving my legs was similarly unremarkable. During some medication changes last fall, my depression was particularly bad, and I decided to give everything in my room with which I could harm myself to my roommates as a safety measure. One of the things I gave them was my razor. After a few weeks, I was feeling better and asked for my things back. However, my leg hair had already sprouted, plus it was November, so I decided to let it grow. This week, for the first time since I was 12, I wore a skirt with fully grown leg hair, and I loved it. I could FEEL THE WIND. At first, I thought something was on my leg and I kept looking down, but I eventually realized what I was feeling was the natural little feelers sticking out of my calves.
I’m not trying to tell everyone to stop shaving. I don’t care what you do with your own body hair as long as it’s making you happy. Middle school me was pumped to have smooth legs. It made me feel glories. But adult me is tired of spending time in the shower removing hair and wasting plastic. I’m tired of men and capitalism telling me how my body should be. But if shaving is what makes you feel like an empowered super-lady, do your thing, girl. Shaving is a personal decision. Maybe my 12-year-old self was onto something. Removing body hair is intimate. It can be seasonal like cycles of the moon. It can be empowering. And it can be painful. Do what gives you power, and do it because you owe your body the best you can give Her.
I’ve never chosen a word of the year before. Honestly, it always sounded a little bit corny. I feel the same way about making New Year’s resolutions. New Year’s feels like a tired joke about how Americans are terrible about following through. I have a love-hate relationship with New Year’s – I love the concept of new beginnings and fresh starts but I hate the ways we’ve turned it into a method of being dissatisfied with who we are and how we’re living.
This year, though, I decided to try the PowerSheets goal setting planner for the first time (I promise this isn’t an ad…stay with me). I’ve seen other successful women use it and love it, and I currently have a lot of dreams but need some help making them happen. Plus, I’m a sucker for a good planner, especially one with stickers. Part of the PowerSheets process is choosing a word of the year. Ideally, it’s something that can serve as an umbrella for all your goals and plans.
I looked at all the threads I was weaving together as I dreamed up my 2019. I want to be more intentional: about money, about food, about zero waste, about minimalism. I want to continue my recovery from perfectionsim. I want to take risks even if it means things don’t work out as planned. I want to keep journeying through my trauma toward healing. I want to work towards getting published. I want to clarify my vocational goals. I have a lot to manage, but a lot of it seems to come down to progress over perfection. I can spend the next year wishing that things were different or I can take actual steps toward making things happen. (I’m using a lot of PowerSheets language here…sorry y’all.) After choosing goals and focusing my priorities, bravery seemed like the thing I would need most.
At the end of 2018, I needed a lot of bravery. Politically, autumn was full of triggers of my own experiences. I had to attend an event where my abuser would be present and had to make an emergency mental health plan. Changes in my medication had me feeling less stable than I had in nearly a decade. After Thanksgiving, I took a week off from work because of an intense relapse of depression that nearly had me checking myself into the hospital. Changes at work meant I would be starting 2019 with only 1 coworker out of the 3 I usually have (and running a whole nonprofit is hard enough with only 4 of us). I did not feel ready to take on new things. But as I reflect on what all of the turmoil that the end of last year taught me, it was nothing if not bravery.
Bravery to be honest with my boss about my mental health. Bravery to speak out with my doctor about how I was reacting to my medication. Bravery to work through my memories and flashbacks with my therapist. Bravery to ask friends to come sit with me when I couldn’t be alone. Even though I’ve largely come out of the darkness that was the past few months, I still need this bravery.
I also need bravery to give myself permission to take breaks from all this goal setting – to watch TV and relax when I’m so worn out that my insides feel like sandpaper. Sometimes, I become all consumed with my new goal setting habits and feel guilty when I spend my evenings doing anything but working toward my goals. But balance is absolutely necessary. Spontenaity is necessary. Breathing is necessary. I’m still struggling to manage my time in a way that combines both working toward my goals and resting. I have to keep reminding myself that I was doing some intense healing just a few weeks ago. Being brave is both big and small and I can’t wait to see what it brings me.
I am seven.
I help Grammi
make pancakes flavored with oranges
and cookies with Red Hots for eyes
I build wooden boats and cars
out of old wood scraps
that Gramps left behind.
I am twelve.
come to our house
I mimic the older cousins
at the kids’ table.
We buy the biggest turkey
the grocery store has to offer,
and I am proud of its size.
I am twenty-one.
Two days before Christmas,
my parents tell me
they are getting separated.
When I visit in January,
they’ve changed their mind
but never explain why.
I am twenty-five.
The table is set for three.
My cousins are in
We visit Granddaddy
who speaks only in jibberish
and doesn’t remember me.
I am twenty-eight.
I still sleep with the same pillowcase
decorated with fleece snowmen
every Christmas Eve
because I still
believe in its magic.
I was 13 when I put on my first purity ring. It was silver and read “TRUE LOVE WAITS” in small block letters. I loved that ring. It was a symbol of my faith, my loyalty, my ability to perfectly follow the rules, and my worth. I’ve always been a sucker for following the rules. As Monica from Friends would say, “The rules control the fun!” I loved the rules. The rules shaped who I was.
I looked forward each year to the “sex talk” we were privy to at youth group. All of the girls were hearded in one room and all the boys corralled into another. The boys were lectured on the dangers of porn and masturbation. The girls were told that sex would be magical if we would only wait until we found our one true soulmate, married him (always him – it was also heteronormative), and then had sex for the first time on our wedding night. I looked forward to this weird, predictable litany because it reminded me every year that I was doing what I needed to do in order to be a “good Christian.” I thought God would love me more if I followed the rules. And every year I was reminded that I could check off another box on my Heaven Checklist.
What I didn’t see was how unequipped I actually was for a relationship. We spent so much time talking about purity that I never thought to ask any questions about conflict resolution, loving communication, or how hard it is to try to understand the inside of someone else’s brain. I thought that if I waited for my soulmate, everything would be perfect. There would be no need for communication skills because I had saved my body for my one true love and that meant nothing would be able to tear us apart. Everything would be perfect.
It turns out that relationships are SUPER HARD. Even good, healthy relationships are (one more time for the people in the back) SUPER HARD. I love my partner. He’s the most kind and understanding person, and I know that we love each other deeply, but there are still times when we want to strangle each other. We’ve had to learn how to ask for what we need, how to use “I feel” statements so that we aren’t constantly accusing each other, and how to talk through a conflict to arrive at the seed that it was really about. I never learned how to do any of this in the church. I had no idea that I needed to learn it.
Even more concerning is how my purity culture upbringing did not teach us about rape culture. If anything, it perpetuated it. First, the fact that we learned about our sexualities in gender separated rooms should really say more than enough. The inherent belief that men have an unquenchable sex drive and women just want to be told they look pretty is the root of rape culture. By learning about sexuality as a whole community, we could have fostered some of the communication piece we were so desperately missing. Purity culture also taught me nothing about how to communicate what I want – whether I want to have sex or not, what to do if I don’t want to have sex, and what to do if I’m forced to have sex I don’t want to have. It was presumed that all sex within marriage would be consensual. (Hot tip: it’s not.) There will be times that your spouse or partner wants sex and you do not and if you don’t know how to navigate that, it will be damaging.
Furthermore, saving myself for marriage meant saving myself from all sexual encounters, even those that are unwelcomed. There is an element of victim blaming in purity culture that is more than disturbing. While it was never spelled out this clearly, it was only logical for me to presume that rape only happened to women who were actually asking for it – their clothes were slutty or they were drunk or they had been sexually active before. All of these things fell under the category of not saving oneself, and that essentially negated assault as a possibility. Being assaulted destroyed purity just as much as having sex with a high school boyfriend. No matter what the situation, it was all the woman’s fault.
Purity culture has damaged so many relationships. I’ve watched friends get married at 20 to avoid having sex before marriage only to get divorced a few years later. I’ve watched women endure physical therapy well into their marriages to teach their vaginas to actually enjoy sex without pain. I’ve watched people be exiled from their faith communities because of premarital pregnancy – planned or unplanned. I’ve watched members of the LGBTQ community hide for decades (myself included) because of the heteronormativatiy preached within purity culture. Purity culture hurts all of us.
I threw away my teenage purity ring long ago, but when I found out about Nadia Bolz-Weber’s plan for a vagina statue, I bought an identical ring on Amazon to throw in the fire. If I’ve learned anything in my exodus from purity culture, it’s that we need to burn it to the ground and resurrect the ways we teach our children about their bodies. Because if we want the next generations to fix this broken world, they first have to learn how to love themselves, their bodies, and their peers. Following the rules will not do this for them, just like it didn’t do it for me. Rings are easy. Love is hard.
In high school, I had no concept of self care. I woke up at 5:52am every day, like literal clockwork. I left my house at 7, got to school at 7:20, got coffee from the cafeteria, and met my friends in the back of the theater to finish homework or talk. I went to class, went to cross country practice, and got home at 6. I did homework, and went to bed by 10:00.
Why am I telling you my daily schedule from 2004-2008? To point out that there was no time for doing what felt good. I enjoyed being on the cross country team, going to school, and spending time with my friends, but I didn’t do anything just for me. I did what I had to do and what was required of me by others. No one ever asked me what it would mean to do what felt good to me. The first time I heard that question, I was 24 years old and having an emotional breakdown in graduate school. It never occurred to me before then that I could do things for no other reason but to care for myself. In high school, I was focused on what needed to be done to succeed in life after high school. Studying, taking standardized tests, being captain of the cross country team, leading worship at youth group, and applying for colleges – there was no time for rest. Rest wouldn’t help me in the future.
What I didn’t realize was that taking care of myself at the age of 16 would’ve made things much less painful 12 years later. I never dealt with my depression and harmful behaviors in high school, so I never healed properly. I went to a therapist in high school, but after a year of meeting, she concluded that there was nothing wrong with me and that there was no reason for me to feel so depressed. She branded herself as a Christian therapist and told me that if I only prayed enough and tried harder, I wouldn’t feel this way anymore. I believed her and tried to move forward. But, because I was never given any real tools to cope with what was actually a chronic mental illness, old patterns continue to resurface.
During the past five years, most of my mental illness has surfaced in the form of anxiety and panic attacks. Medication, therapy, and learning proper self care have helped me move through the hard days. But I was surprised when, this past September, I began to feel familiar symptoms I hadn’t felt in over a decade. My anxiety and depression started an exhausting tug of war of apathy vs perfection. I was paralyzed by the two extremes. I didn’t know how to deal with both of these illness at the same time.
The only thing I know to do now is to listen to my body. I recently heard poet and healer Jamie Lee Finch refer to her body as “She” in a podcast. I’ve adopted that same practice, trying to personify my body in a way that gives her more value. I try to listen to what she tells me, even when it doesn’t seem to make sense. I let her rest so she is free to cry. I take her on walks so she can breathe fresh air and absorb the sunshine. I ask her, “what would feel good to you right now?” because, for decades, no one had asked her that before.
The way all the muscles
in my jaw and back clench
when I feel the gaze of a nearby man,
it’s no wonder I have knots in my neck.
I remind my hips
to relax into the earth,
grounding back into their Mother,
who does not recoil
when we mine her for all she’s worth
and gaze hungrily at her beauty.
Instead her mountains stand brilliantly,
her seas crash violently,
her desserts burn relentlessly.
She reminds me there is power in my bones,
strength in my muscles,
and fury on my tongue.
She shows me the resistance
after a prolonged winter,
of new life interrupting the grey.