Monthly Archives: May 2014

The Normal Heart: My Heartache for Humanity

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Last night I watched The Normal Heart. If you can get your hands on someone’s HBO GO password, I highly recommend watching it. Everyone’s performance was stellar. I kept thinking I knew who’d delivered the most heartbreaking monologue, and I kept being wrong. There might be spoilers ahead, but there aren’t any real twists in the movie. Just a steady flow of death, and the search for answers.

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The story of AIDS in the early 80’s, before the disease had a name, before they knew it was a virus that attacked one’s immune system, is a story of panic and indifference. Because the initial outbreak occurred in the gay community, the culture at large remained unconcerned at best, and hostile at worst, to the first patients. When the outbreak continued to spread, the now familiar signs of hate (literal picket signs) began to appear. It wasn’t until 4 years after the first reported case that President Reagan said the word AIDS out loud, acknowledging the disease as a public health risk and pledging research dollars to find a cure. By that time, thousands were already dead or infected.

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Watching a person you love, possibly more than any other person on earth, get sick and whither away, is an experience that I have been up close and personal with. The fear you carry around, a deep and murky river just below the surface, it never goes away. And most of us have never plunged down into it, and so we do not know how deep it goes. If one has cause to care for a loved one who is ill, it will likely be a defining experience of their life. It is the defining experience of my life. And as I watched this movie, I felt deeply connected to the characters who wanted to save the ones they loved. Who needed answers, and hope, and had none. I am decades removed from this particular crisis and do not personally know anyone with this disease, but the experience resonated with my own none the less.

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And so why, I wonder, why was the world so callous and uncaring? How can you see young men in the prime years of their life withering away and possibly think ‘they got what they deserve.’ I don’t understand how it is possible that, all too often, people look at others and see difference where there is mostly commonality. I don’t understand how we so easily accept that some of us are good and others not, when it’s so obvious that all of us contain both dark and light within us. I don’t understand why, when given the choice, people seem to believe that hate is the safer choice, over love.

Seeing the humanity is every face you encounter, treating everyone with respect and love, this to me is the most important and urgent message of feminism. All of the specific political issues are, of course, important, because they affect people’s lives in very real and tangible ways. But at the heart of the issues, the real question is: do you care about other people? Do you value their life, their lived experiences, as much as your own? That is the real question of those first political activists fighting for AIDS research and community support. Obviously they needed to know what the virus was and how to treat it. But asking for money and support, it was really a plea for empathy. A plea for compassion. It was one community, reaching out to their larger community, asking if anyone recognized their humanity enough to help save those that were dying.

In the wake of recent incredibly violent and well publicized rampages, I have nothing but disdain for anyone who treats other people as inferior, as other, as less than human. Frankly, if you have a gun and shoot girls because you feel entitled to their bodies and attention, or if you are just a person who quietly thinks mysoginistic thoughts that you never express, I see no difference. You are part of the problem, you are a blockade on the road to a better world. We are all so alike, deeply alike on a fucking atomic level. I want to see love, and unity, and togetherness. I want to see compassion. Without those, full equality will never be realized.

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Maya Angelou: A Thank You Letter

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Maya Angelou died today. She lived an incredibly full life, which you should read about here. She was an accomplished writer, a Tony nominated actress, a singer and dancer, a mother, and much much more. She influenced me greatly in my formative education. Something about her voice resonated with me, miles away from and decades after she grew up in the segregated South. That’s the power of poetry, of literature and memoir. The power to speak across the barriers of time and space.

caged bird                         maya-angelou-barack-obama

There has been and will continue to be much written about Ms Angelou. I don’t claim to be an expert, I’m just a fan. All I can say is that hearing voices such as hers, when you are young an eager to explore, is truly the best way to learn about the world. We must make space, on pages and in our hearts, for ever more diverse voices. Women, folks of color, people from different countries and different neighborhoods. People with different experiences than our own. This is how we learn compassion. It’s how we broaden our horizons. It’s how we learn the lessons of history, and how we figure out what we want the shape of our futures to become.

maya         angelou_free

I studied this poem in high school, I think my junior or senior year, and it has stuck with me ever since. The confidence, the pride, the unapologetic joy in her own body. It’s such a powerful message, and one that I think many young girls could seriously benefit from today. I present it now, with the utmost gratitude. For the beautiful collections of words she created, and for putting pen to paper and using her voice despite an overwhelming consensus that her’s wasn’t a voice worth hearing. I’m inspired by her words, and by her life. She remains a national treasure, a favorite poet, a phenomenal woman.

 

Phenomenal Woman

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman

Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need of my care,
‘Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me. 

#YesAllWomen

I wasn’t sure I wanted to share a story to add to the conversation started by yet another terrible act of gun violence. I don’t really want to talk about the tragedy, except to send out my deepest condolences and love to those who lost someone last week. You can read about what happened here, here, here, and my personal favorite, here.

But I do want to talk about the hash tag, and why I think this is one of the most important conversations needed between feminism and the culture at large. I think this issue, the issue of violence against women in our culture, is an issue that every single person should care about. It’s something each of us should try to understand, and fix. Because the fear that women walk around with everyday (and yes, it is indeed all women) is a burden that our culture creates. Out of thin air. And not only do we expect women to carry around this fear, we also expect them to mitigate the violence by dressing appropriately, and watching their drinks, and traveling in groups. We put the onus on them to protect themselves, instead of teaching our boys and men to lead compassionate and non violent lives.

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Before you start in with the ‘but wait! not all men are like that’, read that paragraph again. I did not claim that all men were violent, or that all men are rapists. I said that women are afraid, and I said that we don’t teach men and boys to have enough compassion. We stunt their emotional growth. This affects everyone differently, the same way that women deal with their internalized fear and shame differently. Not all men are violent, and not all women are victims. But each and everyone one of us is affected by the saturation of gendered violence that the culture perpetuates. (Here are some enlightening stats, facts, and numbers.)

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My #YesAllWomen story is not unique. It’s not, in fact, the only personal story I could tell about experiencing gendered aggression or violence. I’m not going to tell it to you because I think it’s particularly special. The reason to tell it is because it is all too typical, because we need to add as many drops as possible to the bucket of our voices, so that people start to understand. I was out one night with friends, mostly guys, at a crappy bar on Bleeker street to which I will never go back. We were all playing beer pong, and when my game was over I went to the bar to get myself a drink. On the way through the crowd and back I was groped a couple of times, but since this is something that happens frequently I pushed my way through the crowd only mildly irritated. Back at the beer pong tables I was approached by a man who began chatting me up. No big deal. The conversation escalated quickly, and he started saying really nasty things to me. Things like ‘Have you ever been with a black guy before?’ (none of your business) and ‘I bet I know just how you’d like it.’ (nope, not true, also not relevant) and ‘I’d like to…’ (not worth repeating.) Not polite conversation for a complete stranger. He asked to dance with me and I tried to demurely deny but he pulled me towards him and began to grind against me. He put his hands all over me, even on my thighs under my dress. I tried to make eye contact with my friends, but I wasn’t able to non-verbally convey that I was completely uncomfortable and intimidated. Finally I stepped back and excused myself to the bathroom. He’d been asking for my number, saying he wanted to take me and my friends out to clubs he promoted, bottle service, blah blah ew. He asked for my number again, and when I said ‘I don’t think so, not tonight.’ he spit one final word at me as I turned away. ‘Bitch.’

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So then I went to the bathroom and cried. I was angry, and ashamed. I knew that he was a jerk, but I also felt that I should have stopped him. I should have been more aggressive, and talked back. I should have known better. I mean, I’ve done the reading! I’ve done the writing! I’m a bona-fide self proclaimed feminist! How could I let him treat me this way? Why did I get this drunk? Why did I wear this dress? Why did I let him say those things, and touch me like that? Why was I letting him make me feel so worthless?

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I tried in vain to get my friends to leave with me. They were also pretty drunk, and still playing beer pong and having fun, and again they couldn’t understand what had happened. I left the bar and walked home alone (dangerous) and crying (pathetic.) To their credit, the next morning my friends asked what had happened. In the light of day we had a conversation about men and masculinity, about hitting on girls in bars, about crossing the line, about why I’d needed them to come with me. I’ll always be grateful that they cared enough to ask, even if they hadn’t been able to understand in the moment.

THANKYOU

So that’s it. My story happens hundreds of times a night. That guy, whoever he was, he is a scum bag, but he’s not importantly or uncommonly scummy. Every woman I know has a story about being cat called, hit on, or groped, only to be insulted once they rebuffed the man’s advances. It’s a particularly hateful and breath-taking bait and switch, and it reveals the person for what they truly were all along: a person who doesn’t respect you or deserve your body or your attention for a single second longer. Wanting control over your own body, or simply not being attracted to someone, does not make any of us worthless. It doesn’t make us bitches or sluts. You don’t owe anyone gratitude or sex. But sometimes, the voice inside me that knows that this is true is drowned out by the overwhelming messages of misogyny and violence that I absorb on the streets everyday.

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The thing about this conversation is that it isn’t about this kid who had guns. His viewpoints really aren’t that extreme, and you can see that if you care to explore the heinous online communities he was apart of. The important thing to remember is that every woman you know walks around wondering if the next guy they don’t smile at when prompted, the next guy at a bar they ask not to touch them, the next stranger on the street or the next date they decide they don’t want to sleep with, will hurt them. Will take what they feel entitled to. And so we don’t always speak up, we don’t fight back. We try to protect ourselves and avoid the violence all around us, and no one suggests that maybe we should try to heal some wounds and take steps to teach empathy and respect so that violence isn’t an option.

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And one last thing. If you’re first reaction to these stories and tweets is to go on the defensive, to quickly mention that some guys are great and innocent and respectful, then I’d ask you to stop for one moment, take a breath, and listen. It’s not about the fact that not all men rape or hit. It’s about allowing women the space to express themselves regarding a phenomenon that affects us, it’s about remembering that even if you are not violent or if you’ve never had this type of experience, it doesn’t negate the overwhelmingly universal experiences of others. Sadly, I think that the issue of violence against women is a thread that connects womankind, across race and class and sexuality and nations, in a way that other feminist issues do not. If you already know how to treat the people around you with respect and consideration, then this conversation isn’t about you. And the best way you can help is to listen, and to speak up when you see or hear people expressing misogyny in any way. Use your knowledge, use your voice, to enlighten others. The more voices, the more drops in that bucket, then the more folks will be able to see that the bucket is really an ocean, and that ocean is an ocean of tears, and that we are all affected by and responsible for it’s depth and breadth.

Turning my Back on Duane Reade: My Homemade Beauty Experiment

That title is really not quite accurate. Because this journey I’ve decided to go on (and share with all you lovely people) isn’t so much about beauty as it is about consumerism.

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Everyday, we see ads everything that convince us that we need something. That we just won’t be complete until we make that next purchase. Advertisers are trying to attract everyone’s money, and indeed there is a product and accompanying ad for each and every demographic combination that exists. But women, in particular, face a lot of ad pressure, particularly from the beauty industry. We must have the right shampoo for our hair type, the right cleanser and moisturizer, the right foundation and of course the right shade of lipstick (which also must be moisturizing but not too glossy, and no smudging!) And of course our teeth must be super duper white from using that whitening toothpaste and mouth wash. And deodorant, because lord knows we mustn’t stink or have stubbly pits, and then there is lotion because our pores must be invisible and our skin smooth and hairless on every freakin’ inch of our bodies.

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But Alex, you are thinking, some of that is just hygienic. Everyone should be clean, right? And you’re right, I am not anti shower. I am anti stuff.

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100 years ago, there wasn’t volumizing conditioner or scented face wash. Women weren’t worrying that their pores were too big, or how even their skin tone was across their entire body. This stuff they are selling, it all comes with one very clear message: You need this to be beautiful enough. You are not beautiful enough as you are.

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And I have news guys! The history of how this shit came into existence isn’t hard to find. In the beginning of the 20th century, American life changed drastically and all of the sudden women were living in cities, and working. From his very informative and entertaining book Flapper, Joshua Zeitz:

As late as the 1890’s, there had scarcely been such a thing as urban nightlife. Young romance had been captive to the sun, and once it set, towns and cities could rely only on gas lamps, which cast a short and dim glow… By 1900, all of that changed.

He’s talking about electricity. The advent of electric street lamps created a new public space: the night. And women were moving to the city, and working, and taking part in this space.

When young women moved to the city alone, they were able to elude the familiar scrutiny of their parents and neighbors. Even when young women still lived at home, towns and cities afforded them a greater measure of anonymity and social freedom…

Add that to fewer hours at work and increasing wages, and suddenly women were more independent, and had money and time to spare.

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Advertisers took note. Suddenly, one’s life wasn’t wrapped up in their family reputation and forced introductions. Suddenly, how you looked walking to work could have a real impact on your life. And so a slew of new consumer products was born.

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Listerine was one of many products re-branded for a new fake problem: halitosis. A completely made up disease, halitosis, or bad breath, could be cured by swishing with Listerine, which had previously been used to clean out cuts and scrapes. Before long other problems were created: dandruff, body odor, wrinkles and acne, dry or oily hair. And all of these problems had a solution: buy a product. Advertisements made grand promises of turning ugly ducklings into beautiful brides and the like, and

[t]he accompanying pictures… gave the subtle impression that everywhere one turned there was always a keen eye trained on the most infinitesimal aspects of one’s appearance.

Wow. Sounds familiar, huh? Reminds me of an old feminist favorite: the male gaze. If you are always being watched, then even when stepping out to run a quick errand or do laundry, you must look your best. In case you bump into Mr Right, who obviously won’t recognize you without dynamite lashes and perfect skin (duh.) The idea that women should look perfect at all times is ubiquitous in our culture, in some ways it’s the price we pay for admission. Now that we can have the jobs we want and fuck who we want and have ever greater control in our life choices, doesn’t it seem odd that almost every single woman you know gets up everyday and takes great pains to tame, alter, or outright change her appearance? Why is Beyonce’s ***Flawless such an anthem? Because it’s an inside joke. She may not have woken up with that fierce eye make up on, wearing those ass less shorts, but she sure as shit woke up flawless. And the message, if you’re listening, is that we all did. Each of us is flawless just the way we are, before we put on our armor of deodorant and lipstick and hairspray and high heels and venture out into a world where we are implicitly and explicitly judged by our appearance, valuable only if we are flawless in the eyes of men, the designated beholders.

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be(y) your own beholder!

Alright, enough already! On to the real life component of this rant. It started innocently: I stumbled across some homemade lotion recipes. They seemed easy enough, and I thought it’d be a fun girls night in. So I went to a friends house, and we drank wine and ordered take out and watched SMASH and made lotion. Easy breezy, fun, and the lotion was lovely. And so I started doing some more research into homemade body care. The oil cleansing method, oil pulling, homemade toothpaste and deodorant, and even the No [sham]Poo movement! And I thought: man, all of that sounds amazing. No more buying all this crap, in these bad for the environment non-resuable containers. And honestly, do we as consumers even know what is in all this crap? Is it good for our bodies to come in contact with all these formulas daily? I have no idea, not really, no real knowledge of the science. But something deep within me intuits that it’s be smart to limit how many of these potions come into contact with my body. I already limit what I ingest as food (go veg!), so this is totes in line with my overall vibe. I’m doing it all, starting with oil cleansing and ending with a drastic hair cut and no ‘poo. And I’m gonna let you know how it all goes. How it affects my body, how it makes me feel, how easy it is, and how it compares to the stuff they sell in the shiny and well lit aisles of Duane Reade.

wish me luck!
wish me luck!

Here are my two favorite lotion recipes, if you’d like to start with the easy stuff:

Whipped Body Butter

Homemade Lotion, 3 Ingredients