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 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.
*tw* suicide, abuse, assault, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders
I once thought that mental health safety plans were only for people who were “really suffering”, only to be used right on the verge of self harm or suicide. But recently, I realized that once someone reaches a place that urgent, it’s too late to make a plan. Asking for help should happen much sooner, immediately after symptoms and warning signs start to appear. Many of us, myself included, think our symptoms aren’t “bad enough” to get any serious help from a hospital or a helpline, but the truth is that it’s much better to ask for help too early than too late. So, based on my limited experience (DISCLAIMER: I am not a mental health professional), here are some helpful insights into creating a mental health safety plan.
- Know your triggers. Do you have something really stressful coming up at work? Are you going to have to have a difficult conversation with someone you love? Are you going to be interacting with someone who makes you feel unsafe? Have you been looking at literally anything on the news? Be able to identify the things that trigger your anxiety and depression (or whatever it is you experience) so you can make sure to have a plan ready before the triggers are present.
- Make a plan while you’re feeling helathy. By the time you find yourself in a hole of panic or depression or suicidal thoughts or substance abuse, you’re not able to make a cohesive plan. Have you been feel good lately? Now is the time to make a plan. Every office building and hotel I’ve ever been in has an emergency evacuation plan posted on each floor. They don’t wait for the building to catch on fire to make an emergency plan. They make the plan while things are still safe and functioning well. Once the emergency begins, the chaos makes logical thinking impossible. It’s important to be thinking clearly when you make a plan for yourself.
- Know your warning signs. Know what to look for within yourself so you’re aware of when you should start to reference the plan you’ve made. If you can stop yourself from spiraling deeper by implementing your plan early on, that’s a huge victory. Knowing yourself and how you respond to triggers is crucial. If you can identify what you’re feeling and understand your symptoms, that’s honestly half the battle.
- Plan for the worst case scenario. As an anxious person, this is not always something I would suggest. When I’m getting on an airplane, I should not imagine the worst case scenario because I’ll find myself in a panic spiral about my plane falling out of the sky in flames. However, when it comes to imaging what you might do at your worst, you need to be prepared. Even if you’ve never harmed yourself or attempted suicide or abused substances or developed disordered eating, mental health can be an unpredictable monster. Know which hotlines to call, even if you’ve never needed them before. Know what resources are available at hospitals near you. Know your therapist’s phone number. It’s not overkill to have the resources at hand.
- Have a support system. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. This is huge for me. I hate asking for help. I’m an #indepedentwoman and I don’t like having to depend on others. But I promise that your friends would much rather get a call at 2am or have you ask them to come sit on the couch with you in silence than know you were suffering and didn’t reach out. List a few people you can call when you’re struggling. If you’re not good at saying how you’re feeling, develop code words with your partner or best friends so you don’t have to do the emotional labor of explaining what’s going on.
This is all fairly new to me, so if you have any suggestions of your own or things that have worked for you, please share them! Also, here are a few resources I’ve found helpful:
- Check out the My 3 app (not sponsored, just a great resource). It’s available for Android and iPhone and provides a place for your safety plan that’s always in your pocket. You can choose friends to contact, list resources for yourself, keep track of your warning signs and coping skills, and make a plan to keep yourself safe all in one spot. 10/10 would recommend.
- If you’re more of a “write it down” type of person, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has a great Patient Safety Plan you can print out.
- Lastly, here is a template that I made based on personal experiences. I had trouble finding a template related to interacting with your abuser, so I made my own. Check it out here: Assault/Abuse Survivor Safety Plan Template.
Stay safe out there, friends. It’s a crazy world, and we have to take care of ourselves in order to fight the good fight!
If you are having thoughts of suicide (or if you are concerned about someone), there is help available right now. A trained counselor is ready to talk to you and provide help. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. This is a free 24-hour hotline. (Press 1 for a dedicated line for Veterans and their families. Para español, oprima 2.) If emergency medical care is needed, call 9-1-1 or go to the emergency room of the nearest hospital.
*tw*: depression, anxiety, sexual assault, abuse, self-harm
I hate the process of getting somewhere. When I’m traveling, I hate driving for long periods because I feel like I’m wasting time when I could be accomplishing something. Flying makes me anxious, and even though it’s faster, I hate the concept that I have to arrive so early before my flight just to sit in the airport and do nothing. I love traveling when I get to where I’m going. I love exploring new restaurants, seeing new sights, and doing things I haven’t done before. But it’s the process of getting there that makes me uncomfortable.
For a long time, I felt the same way about my mental health. Once I overcame an issue after a prolonged period of suffering, I thought I was done. I could check it off the list because I had overcome it. In high school, I had problems with self-harm, and once I stopped self-harming, I thought I was done with it. I was proud of myself for overcoming an obstacle and moving forward. I thought I’d never have to worry about it again. But mental health recovery doesn’t work like that. There are good days and there are bad days. Our negative patterns tend to show back up in difficult times. Recovering addicts probably know this the best, and the fact that they use the phrase “recovery” to describe their process shows a much deeper self-awareness than my own. Recovery is a process, not a checklist.
Things have been difficult lately. I’m still figuring out what the proper medications are for my anxiety, and because I also have a history of depression, it’s proving more difficult than I expected to find an anxiety medication that doesn’t also trigger my depression. I’m working with my doctor to figure out what prescription will be best for me, but it’s essentially a trial and error process. Also, our current news cycle hasn’t been any help, triggering memories and fears surrounding my own experience of sexual assault. I didn’t spend nearly enough time processing these feelings, which resulted in a breakdown during my therapy session last week, after which my therapist wouldn’t let me leave until I had a friend to meet me at home to make sure I was okay. (Overwhelmingly grateful for my therapist and my friends in that moment.) Because I’m a perfectionist, I rarely let people see me at my most vulnerable. I don’t like for people to see me cry, so asking for help in that moment was a big step.
I’m also supposed to be training for a marathon that’s happening the first weekend in November, but I’m not sure whether or not I’ll be able to run it. I sprained my ankle (for the millionth time) at the beginning of August and just started coming back from that injury a few weeks ago. I had some calf and shin issues while getting back into training because my left leg wasn’t used to the strain, so I’m incredibly behind on training. Injuries combined with mental health struggles, not to mention that I’m now battling a cold, mean I haven’t trained past 12 miles. I ran a marathon earlier this year, so I might not die if I tried to run this one, but it definitely wouldn’t be what I had hoped. I can’t stand this because I didn’t run as fast as I had hoped when I ran the Nashville Rock ‘n Roll marathon earlier this year, so I chose Savannah (a super flat and easy course) to redeem myself and try to PR (run my best time). But now, I’m facing whether or not I can even complete this marathon.
All this to say, things have been in a downward spiral lately. My depression and anxiety have caused me to spend a lot more time sitting in my room not exercising, making strange meal choices (i.e. cereal for dinner like every day), not cleaning my house, and not getting things done. Without my routine, I get even more depressed and anxious, so you can see how this spirals out of control pretty quickly. I haven’t been moving toward my goals. I haven’t been checking things off of my to-do list. Heck, I haven’t even put on make up most days to go to work. But it’s important for me to remember that these things don’t make me a failure. I’ve made it through times like this before and I can make it again. I made it through an intense bout of depression in high school. I made it through the aftermath of being sexually assaulted. I made it through breaking up with someone I had dated for 5 years only to realize he was emotionally abusive. I made it through coming out. I am strong, and sometimes strength looks a little different than we expect.
Right now, it looks like managing to eat several times per day, remembering to wash my face, going to bed at a decent time, drinking water, and taking my meds. Eventually, it might look like running a marathon again or striving toward getting more pieces published. Being mentally healthy isn’t a straight line forward, so I have to remember to celebrate the small victories along the way.
**TW: assault, abuse**
“I have friends who are women.”
It felt like Brett Kavanaugh repeated this over and over throughout his hearing. This statement is the patriarchal equivalent of “I have black friends” – a phrase often used by white people to prove that their actions couldn’t possibly be racist because they know a black person. Knowing black people does not mean you don’t say and do racist things. And knowing women does not mean you aren’t a part of the patriarchy. In fact, it’s entirely irrelevant. Not everyone has black friends (though that blows my mind because it’s 2018). But, everyone knows women. Everyone has a mother. By nature of existing you have come into being through the body of a woman. Yet, there are rapists, misogynists, and abusers everywhere. Knowing women means nothing. The recently arrested East Area Rapist/Golden State Killer was living with his daughter when he was arrested. Bill Cosby has a wife and daughters. Brett Kavanaugh has a wife and daughters. This does not exempt them from being perpetrators.
What’s more, being a “nice guy” does not mean you have never assaulted anyone. Bill Cosby was the apple of America’s eye for decades. He was viewed as a wholesome, all-American, family man. But it turns out, there was a lot of abuse happening under that facade. Throughout Kavanaugh’s hearing, he pointed to letters and statements from friends that stated he was a good person, a nice guy, a good friend. These things are not mutually exclusive to sexual assault. I know because my own story feels eerily similar.
The person who assaulted me is a “nice guy”. He cares about social justice and even claims to be a feminist. No one who knows him would point to him as being a violent or mean person. I’m sure he could get 65 people to sign a letter stating the he’s a good person, just like Kavanaugh. I myself was blinded by his good-guy persona, so much so that I continued to see him for several months after my assault because I didn’t realize what had happened to me. It seemed impossible that a guy like him could do the very thing that he spoke out against. He went to the women’s march. He fights for the marginalized. How could he have possibly done something so against what he claims to be his moral code?
I dont’ know the answer to that question, but I do that Dr. Ford’s story feels all to familiar. If I were in her position, I’m sure people would be saying things about my perpetrator that are similar to the things being said by the committee and others about Kavanaugh. He has a mother. He has a wife. He has a sister. He has a daughter. Witnesses claim they have never seen him act like this before. The reality is that these things don’t matter because they don’t prevent assault. Having women friends that you talked to on the phone in high school and never assaulted does not mean that you never assaulted anyone else. No one assaults every woman in their life. Just because there are women who have not seen this side of him does not mean that side doesn’t exist. Nice guys can be rapists too.
This is a portion of the piece Legend, which is published in full in the collection Georgia’s Emerging Writers: An Anthology of Nonfiction. The collection can be purchased here or on Amazon.
I am a child, maybe six. Alone, but not lonely. I walk without direction along the suburban street in front of my house. There are railroad ties that my dad put in our yard to prevent drivers from cutting the corner and leaving tire tracks in our grass and a wooden fence, gradually rotting. Bradford pear trees and small cacti neatly circle around the perimeter of the yard. I watch my cat climb the tree right next to the house, hoping she doesn’t get stuck.
I breathe in the magnolia air and run across the yard to a strip of woods that separates our yard from the neighbors’. Rocks the size of cantaloupes line the patch of woods, and I like to hide things under them – pieces of paper with secret messages or tiny toys. My favorite spot is a small tree that grows strangely out to the side, stretching toward the sunlight and making a chair with its trunk. I sit on it and uncover my favorite rock, grey-blue with sharp edges, under which I keep one of my mother’s old lockets.
I look out and survey the world I’ve created for myself. I am safe here with the trees and the rocks and the Southern air. I am safe from the grief that fills our house. I am safe from the stress of my father as he tries to balance raising a daughter and working in an office. I am safe from the emptiness of a house without a mother. In my imaginary world with trees and rocks and railroad ties, the truth is avoidable. In my game, I am a mother, caring for the trees and for the tiny objects under rocks.
In adulthood, learning how to cope with my lack of knowledge about my biological mother has progressed little beyond my childhood games. If anything, I’ve grown further away from being able to remember her. In my consistent efforts over the past 22 years to count my memories of my mother, I can count only five. Other images of her float around, cross-contaminating my memories to form legends of a woman I never really knew. There are the stories that relatives and friends tell decade after decade – the story of my premature birth, the story of how she pulled out a chunk of her hair during chemotherapy and made a quippy joke to her doctors, the time we all went to Disney World when I was two – but none of these are my own memories. They are stories for which I created images after multiple retellings. More importantly, they are not the entire story. They are the high points, the greatest hits, the grain separated from the chaff. No one tells me about the mundane things – how she brushed her teeth, what she ate for breakfast, how she pronounced the word pecan – much less the terrible things. When someone dies, everyone is afraid to mention the moments that they gave up or the times they were frustrated with people they loved. We conveniently forget that they were a whole person with flaws and, instead, create a legend.
These unintended heroes give us the same hope that any legend gives: the story of a martyr who was kind through her suffering, benevolent to a fault, selfless in every circumstance. However, legends are not people; they are ideas. And my mother was not an idea; she was a person, and I cannot know her unless I know all of her stories. So, I will start with the ones I remember…
To read the rest of this piece, visit the Z Publishing website to purchase the collection.