Life Lessons From A Recently 22 Ingénue

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I’m officially at that age where I have literally no fucking clue what I am doing with my life. So much so that I still use the word “literally” with complete disregard to the way it’s meant to be used. So much so that I put off doing laundry until I completely run out of underwear, and then I buy some more just so I can continue to put off doing laundry. I’m to the point where I know I should be thinking more concretely about my future: my student loans, my post-grad plans, etc. But instead I end up at the bar on a Monday night, alone, playing Stevie Nicks on the jukebox, surrounded by equally as lost souls just 10 years my senior.

I’m so lost that I chase after people who don’t treat me with the respect I deserve. Because sometimes I don’t treat myself with the respect I deserve. Because sometimes I don’t believe I deserve that respect. I still start sentences with because.

I smoke cigarettes. I drink socially, and not. I deprive myself sleep and sustenance all in the name of the “fear of missing out” because this is college and it’s the time of my life, yeah? Well the “time of my life” is quickly coming to a close and I feel the imminent collapse of my life and my decisions upon my entire being.

I have no fucking clue what I’m doing. I have a vague idea of who I am, what my purpose is, and who I want to be. But I literally have no fucking clue. And yet I am still going to condescend to you my musings on life thus far. Because what kind of 22 year old would I be if I didn’t think I already had some shit figured out? So here it is. Life lessons from a recently 22 ingénue. Read it and weep.

 

1) Tell people how you really feel.

Fuck playing the game. Fuck being coy. Fuck the rules of the hookup culture. Fuck protecting yourself. Like someone? Tell them. Did someone make your day 1/100th better today? Tell them. Do you admire someone for their strength/style/ingenuity/brilliance/heart? Tell them. I think we as people keep way too many secrets from each other. As if that is something to aspire to. As if there is power in it. Sure, you may feel some power in keeping these thoughts close to your heart. But I feel that kind of power is a delusion. Real power and strength comes from telling people exactly how you feel, from being vulnerable and honest and shameless in your conviction. Especially when those things are positive. Who are you to keep someone in the dark about their extraordinary qualities? What are you gaining from keeping this to yourself? Answer: nothing. At best it means you’re too self-absorbed to consider the impact your kind words could have on those around you. At worst it means you’re a fucking coward. So, what exactly do you have to lose by telling those around you how you really feel? I am a firm believer in giving those who deserve it praise abundantly and shamelessly. Does that make you uncomfortable? Good. That probably means you need to do it more.

 

2) Confront those who treat you poorly.

I have had my fair share of toxic friendships, relationships, and lovers. Sometimes people treat you poorly to exert their power over you. Sometimes people are so insecure that the only way they can validate their existence is by putting you down. Sometimes people are so self-involved and oblivious to the affects of their actions that they don’t understand they are hurting you. People will treat you poorly intentionally, or as some byproduct of their own insecurity, or completely unintentionally. None of these things are ok, and if someone is treating you poorly, you need to call them on their shit.

I understand that this can be incredibly difficult and nerve-wracking. Personally, I am so terrified of jeopardizing whatever relationship I have with someone that I let them get away with so much bullshit until I finally can’t handle it anymore and it manifests itself into physical representations of stress. Don’t let it get to that point. If this person is treating you poorly unintentionally, they will be receptive to your thoughts and feelings, and they will respect the bravery it takes for you to assert yourself. If this person is treating you poorly intentionally then do you really want them in your life anyway? It may sound crass or too simplistic, but cut that shit out of your life. You don’t need it and I guarantee you deserve better. Without mutual respect in your relationships, you have nothing. Sometimes people need a fucking wake up call about their bullshit. Sometimes they wake up and other times they just continue to suck. Regardless, in the end you will know where you stand, and who enjoys limbo in a shitty feeling situation? I hope your answer is no one. Because I know you don’t deserve that merely because [almost] no one deserves that. In short, respect yourself too much to let others continue to disrespect you.

 

3) Do stuff alone.

I can say absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt, that if you do not feel comfortable with your own company, you have no fucking clue who you are as a person. When I was younger I thought alone time was some sort of failure. Like, “well no one is hanging out with me, but I know such and such people are together right now, and holy fuck no one probably likes me, and I will be alone forever and my life is the complete embodiment of failure.” Sounds melodramatic, yes? It is. And it’s completely untrue. But I was also terrified at the thought of my own company.

What would I find out about myself if I was not constantly putting on a show for others? Would I like what I see? Do I even like myself enough to spend time by myself?

Eventually you come to learn that you’re not that bad. You take some baby steps in asserting your alone time. And you learn so much about yourself. There was a reason why people exhausted me so frequently, and it’s because I felt like I was constantly putting on a show, because I had absolutely no fucking clue who I was. But the moment I started taking the time to enjoy my own company and do some self-care, I started figuring out who I was, and I gradually became a more authentic version of myself. Being around people stopped being so mentally and emotionally exhausting. Most of the time anyway.

When you enjoy your own company you rarely have those moments of floundering in your own loneliness. It’s a really great form of self-care because not only do you get to take time for yourself, but you simultaneously learn about yourself. Whether its binge-watching House of Cards while knitting a scarf, taking yourself out for dinner and seeing the weird indie flick at the local theater that no one else wants to see, or walking around downtown at 4:30 in the morning listening to Courtney Barnett, you learn about yourself. Sometimes it’s good things. Sometimes it’s bad things. But it’s authentic and it’s real and it’s you and that’s fucking powerful. So do stuff alone, it’ll do you better than you might think.

 

4) When apologizing don’t bother trying to explain yourself.

This is probably one of the hardest lessons I’ve learned because it takes lots and lots of practice. Whatever it was you did, you fucked up. You hurt someone’s feelings and you need to apologize. Maybe it’s my undeniable desire to constantly be right, but every time I apologize my first instinct is to explain away my intentions: “well what I really meant was…”, “I wasn’t trying to make you feel that way…”, blah blah blah, no one gives a shit. Intentions are just that, they are left up to the perception of others.

So, regardless of what you meant, it is what you did that hurt someone’s feelings/pissed them off/whatever it may be, and you trying to explain yourself is not an apology, it is an attempt at getting validation for whatever it is you did wrong because you don’t actually want to apologize. My advice is this: bite your tongue, swallow your pride, listen to what the other person has to say, and sincerely apologize.

There are also a few key ingredients to a good apology, in my opinion. The first is naming the bad deed. No “if I hurt your feelings” or “I’m sorry you feel that way” bullshit. Take full ownership for whatever it is you did, even if you don’t necessarily think you did anything wrong, the fact that whatever you did is affecting this person negatively is enough reason to sincerely apologize, especially if you have respect for this person. The second is a sincere apology. Look the person in the eyes and apologize from the bottom of your heart. Your apology should radiate from your heart to your fingertips to your toes. I should feel your apology vibrating off of you. There is no need to wax poetic about it, but it should be sincere, and if you feel it the other person will too. And finally, the last ingredient is time. Depending on the severity of whatever it is you did it can take a long time for someone to forgive you. Sometimes the person will forgive you immediately and you can both move on. But definitely give them the time to reflect on whatever it is you did, their feelings, and your apology. Demanding immediate forgiveness really negates the authenticity of your apology; because it reads as insincere, and it gives the impression that the apology is for your own benefit and not for the benefit of the other person. These subtle changes may not seem like a big deal, but I have noticed a huge change in the dynamic of my relationships with people post-fuck up after adopting them.

 

5) Become a feminist.

This will probably be my most controversial piece of advice, which I find interesting because I find adopting a feminist identity to be a no-brainer for any mildly decent human being. There are a lot of misconceptions out there surrounding what it means to be a feminist. A lot of people think we are non-shaving, bra-burning, male tear collecting, misandrists, who spend all our time bitching about the state of the world while not actually doing anything about it. There are probably some feminists out there who are like that, and you know what, you do you. But at its core the feminist movement is so much more than that. In its most basic dictionary definition, feminism is a movement for the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. That sure sounds like a no-brainer, yeah?

However, it’s also a form of fundamental respect for people, their identities, their feelings, their opinions, etc. Sometimes people get pissed off because they feel like feminism is a movement grounded in being the most politically correct person all the time and that that infringes on their right to free speech (also known as someone’s undeniable right to be a fucking asshole), and to a certain extent that is true. But this form of political correctness stems from respect. We need to respect people and the unique hardships they face based on their sex, gender expression, sexuality, race, class, ability, religion, education, etc. We need to work together to level the playing field. To understand that a poor, queer woman of color definitely has a fundamentally different experience than I do as a middle-class white woman and because of that we experience different barriers and oppressions. I find it hard to believe that people feel so inconvenienced by feminism, because it really just means being a good human being and doing whatever you can to promote equity for everyone. If you don’t see the merit in that than you are probably an asshole and that’s really too bad.

Oh, and if you are one of those people who say that you believe in the goal of feminism but “it really should be called humanism” or “equalism” or whatever bullshit word you deem to be more relevant, you can literally fuck off, because that is 100% not the fucking point. I won’t apologize for the snark because it has to be said. So, just saying.

 

I realize that a lot of this advice comes from a place of privilege. I suffer from a very tolerable level of anxiety and depression, so that doesn’t color my world in the same way it does for a lot of others. Most of you probably already do a lot of these things. Maybe I sound like an idiot. Maybe you think I’m the asshole. Maybe you think my message would be clearer if I didn’t use the word fuck all the time, to which I say you can literally fuck off (lol just kidding, kinda). But regardless, these little tidbits are things that I have either discovered about myself or learned throughout my 22 years of existence, and I hope they are relevant in any way at all.

The majority of what I believe really boils down to two things, authenticity and vulnerability. I feel like people spend a lot of time not being an authentic version of themselves, either because it’s scary and they fear rejection, or because they don’t really know what being authentic looks like. But there is so much power, beauty and strength in authenticity. Being authentic does come from a deep place of vulnerability, but trust yourself and trust others enough to embrace that vulnerability. I’m sure a lot of us have been hurt before, and that prevents us from being vulnerable. And although that is a completely understandable defense mechanism, it also means that you are letting these incidents control who you are, and who wants to be defined by the things that have happened to them instead of embracing the vulnerable and the authentic and living your true life? Maybe that’s just my Piscean naiveté shining through, but so far, authenticity and vulnerability are my guiding principles, and maybe you would benefit from trying it out too. In any event, these are the life lessons of a recently 22 ingénue, feel free to take it or leave it.

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The Mirror

Author, Chandler Esslinger

Author, Chandler Esslinger

When is the last time you looked at yourself in the mirror? I mean really looked at yourself in the mirror? Stood butt ass naked in front of the mirror and were completely honest with your reflection? Stared at yourself for so long you didn’t even recognize your body anymore? You stare. And you stare. And you stare. Are you uncomfortable? Do you not like what you see staring back at you? Are you staring at your flaws? Or are you basking in the glory of your own perfectly imperfect perfection?

It is in these moments that I choose to love myself. I stand butt ass naked in front of my mirror every day and stare. This is a ritual I started a little over a year ago, shortly after I penned my blog post about my own struggle with body image. I realized that I needed to embody the words I wrote. I challenged myself to love myself more and more everyday. So, each morning I stand in front of the mirror and I let my emotions cascade over me. I want to understand myself, completely. I want to know every part of my body. I no longer wish to hide it, to cover it, to run from it. I choose to look at myself head on, unflinching, relentless. And I choose to love myself.

I still don’t have a perfect relationship with my body. Sometimes I feel bloated and disgusting and would rather not think about the 8 beers I had yesterday and the subsequent pepperoni, black olive, and jalapeño pizza I ordered. Sometimes nothing in my closet looks right, even though I have worn this exact same outfit half a dozen times. Today it is not right. Sometimes I feel guilty because I haven’t seen the inside of a gym for, well, a long time. And maybe if I started working out again my thighs wouldn’t jiggle, my arms would be more toned, and my stomach would lay a little flatter. Sometimes I wonder if I would look more proportionate if I got a boob job.

But most days, I look at myself in the mirror, and I am damn proud to have the body I have. I force myself to acknowledge the spots I would rather not think about, and I actively choose to love them. Even when I don’t want to. Even when I don’t think I can. I decided that people who say nasty things to me about my body can literally go fuck themselves because, how dare you? I eliminate toxic friends, lovers, and peers who do not make me feel like the best version of myself, because I respect myself too much to not be respected by others. Whenever I receive compliments about my appearance, I always say “thank you” even when that little voice in the back of my head wants to say “lol I haven’t showered in three days,” or “yeah but my eyebrows really need to be waxed,” or “nah, the shading on these jeans is just hella good.” And I consider all of these things to be little personal victories. Because I am choosing to empower myself. To love. To appreciate. To value.

In so many ways, self-love is the most radical act of all. We are all constantly bombarded by messages that reinforce our inferiority complexes. We beat ourselves up about the tiniest imperfections. But what are imperfections anyway? Would you consider those “imperfections” to be such if no one had ever told you they were “imperfections”? Who first told you that you weren’t beautiful? That your middle was a “muffin top” and not just your stomach? Who told you that your breasts/butt/penis/etc. was too big/small? Who the fuck told you that? Because, fuck that nonsense. And fuck anyone or anything that tries to convince you that bullshit is true.

I am not here to tell you that you are perfect the way you are, that is for you to figure out on your own terms. I am here to convince you that you deserve to love yourself. I am here to tell you that you can love yourself and still acknowledge things you don’t like sometimes. I am here to tell you that it is a constant struggle to love yourself, but it’s worth it. So I ask you again, what is more radical than self-love?

I’ve noticed a lot of positive changes in myself since I decided I deserved to love myself. Probably the most notable difference is the fact that I feel like an active participant in my own life, instead of the not-as-pretty quirky best friend to the main character. I feel like I can go after whatever I want, because dammit, I deserve it. I deserve to chase my goals. I owe it to myself to do so. And when I choose to love myself that is just one less battle I have to fight every second of every day. I don’t have to be my own worst enemy. Plus, it frees up a lot of brainpower that I can channel into reaching those goals of mine. And that’s pretty damn powerful if you ask me.

So, dear reader, I challenge you and your body to make up, once and for all. I know you’ve had a complex history, and maybe you don’t trust yourself just yet. But I challenge you to stand in front of your own mirror, butt ass naked in the morning, and stare. Don’t look down. Meet yourself in your own eyes and mentally trace your reflection. Head on. Unflinching. Relentless. Let your emotions cascade over you. Understand your entire canvas. And just when you think you can’t stare at yourself for a second longer, remember to love yourself unapologetically, unconditionally, and unabashedly. Because, trust me, you deserve it.

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Are you there MSUM? It’s me, Chandler.

 

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Change is brewing on Minnesota State University Moorhead’s campus. The imminent renovation of the Comstock Memorial Union is a great chance to give MSUM a much-needed update, and will also attempt to provide the student body with increased support, space, and opportunity on campus. Proposed concurrently with the CMU renovations is the creation of a “mosaic center”, a center that would serve as a combined community space for all safe spaces on campus. This center for the diverse student population would consolidate the Women’s Center and Rainbow Dragon Center (our LGBTQIA+ space) on campus as well as integrate the international student population. The center would also house director’s offices for such entities like the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, the Women’s Center, the Rainbow Dragon Center and other diversity offices on campus. On paper, providing a community space for the diverse student population sounds like a great idea, and in many ways, it is. It appears that the goal of the “mosaic center” is to champion diversity on our campus, while also fostering community, understanding, and collaboration amongst diverse students, campus organizations, faculty, and staff. However, the caveat to the creation of this “mosaic center” is that it would eliminate the few purposefully autonomous safe spaces available on our campus, notably the Women’s Center and the Rainbow Dragon Center. Let me be clear in saying that I am NOT anti-mosaic center. I believe this space is necessary to support diverse students on campus and promote inclusivity, understanding, and fellowship amongst the entire campus. However, my contention is that this space would not provide diverse students with the safe, autonomous spaces they need in order to feel secure and supported at a university that can be hostile towards diversity. The administration argues that the Women’s Center and Rainbow Dragon Center would endure because of the existence of their director’s offices within the mosaic center, however the safe autonomous spaces in and of themselves would not be present within the center. This, in effect, abolishes any kind of safe space available to students, faculty, and staff at MSUM. To quote my favorite professor, when a single, autonomous drop of water falls from the sky and lands in the ocean, it is no longer an autonomous drop of water, it has become consumed by the ocean. It can no longer be identified or separated from the ocean since it has lost all autonomy. This is evocative of the way safe spaces will be integrated into our campus; the intentional autonomy and safety of these spaces will be taken away and consumed by the ocean. I cannot and will not agree with the elimination of these spaces.

I have had patience. I have had faith. I have had dialogues, discussions, and “casual collisions”. I have spoken. I have listened. I have tried to understand every point of view. But I can no longer in good conscience idly wait for the university to recognize the deleterious effects the consequences of their actions will have on students at MSUM’s campus. But before I get to that, lets discuss what I mean when I refer to the Women’s Center and the Rainbow Dragon Center as safe spaces on campus.

“Safe space” refers to the centers available to students with marginalized identities, be it race, gender, sexuality, class, ability, religion, etc. Each space has an intentional purpose. For example, the Women’s Center provides support, resources, and community to women specifically, but also to those of all genders, sexual orientations, etc. who wish to be free from the oppression of the patriarchy, if only for a moment throughout their day. The Women’s Center is a purposefully feminist space that works to dismantle everyday sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, fat-shaming, ableism, ageism, victim-blaming, and general hatefulness that exists (yes, it exists) on our campus. It provides diverse students the opportunity to be unapologetically themselves without the fear of derision, prejudice, judgment, microaggressions, or violence. The Women’s Center provides resources, community, and support to those affected by sexual assault, domestic violence, sexual harassment, and other forms of violence against women, which occurs every single day in our community (yes it does). This kind of identity security can only be fostered in a safe, autonomous space like the Women’s Center or the Rainbow Dragon Center. These necessities cannot be recreated in a collaborative student space such as the mosaic center, and the rest of campus cannot possibly provide these same resources due to its lack of intentional focus on these issues. Trying to do so would fail our student’s needs. This denial of our specific needs in favor of a larger community space does not reaffirm our identities. It relegates us the same, it silences our voices, and it renders us invisible. It would allow individuals to slip through the cracks. To drop out of school. To tumble into depression. To sacrifice their lives.

If these claims sound melodramatic to you, then you do not understand the lived realities of the students on our campus. The strength it takes for them to get out of bed everyday and face a world hostile towards their identity. To navigate a society that may never truly appreciate them the way they are. To live to fight another day when it would be much easier not to. I hear it, I see it, I feel it every day at MSUM.

I hear it from the students who have such horrific interactions with other students and faculty who do not respect their identity that they descend into pits of anguish, despair, and self-hate.

I see it in the side-glances, the double takes, the smirks, the laughs, the crude gestures, the casual objectification, and the outright harassment of men, women, and non-binary individuals in the hallways.

I feel it in the constant reminders from administration that I don’t know what is best for my peers and myself, even though we embody their theories, their rhetoric, and their diversity goals every single day of our lives.

We are not your numbers, we are not your graduation rates, we are not your tuition fees, we are not your diversity checkboxes. We are human beings with lives that intersect with each other, that intertwine with our experiences on and off campus, and that inform our self-worth. Instead of merely acknowledging the differences that inform our identity and “celebrating” those differences in the name of championing diversity, we need support for those differences, and for the specific needs that come along with those differences. We need our autonomous spaces, our chosen families, and our safe communities.

With all of this in mind, I ask for your support. You can be our biggest ally, our fiercest support system, and we desperately crave that relationship with you. We know you want what is best for us, to support our differences, and to provide us “the opportunity to discover [our] passions, the rigor to develop intellectually and the versatility to shape a changing world.” We have the motivation, the ambition, and the fearless desire to give every student at MSUM the tools to thrive. In order to do that we need you to acknowledge our need for autonomous safe spaces and for relentless support and pride. So please, reflect and decide what is more important to you. Is it to listen to, support, and care for the lived realities of the diverse students on our campus? Or is it to relegate us as the same under the banner of diversity, to silence our voices, and to render us invisible? Until then, I will continue to have patience and faith. I will continue to relentlessly fight. And I will not be silent.

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How I Realized I Wasn’t Pretty – A Video Tribute To My Mother

Last week I posted an article called “The Day I Realized I Wasn’t Pretty” about my struggle with body image and how my mother’s struggle with her own self-worth forced me to face my own issues. I used that article as inspiration for a Final Project for my class, Media and Diverse Identities, at MSUM taught by the amazing Kandace Creel Falcon. This video is a digital story of photos, narrated by me, about those same issues brought up in my article. Adding images and my own voice allows this message to hit a little harder in my opinion. Below, I have to link to my video so please check it out and leave feedback! Under the video I have also posted my Final Paper reflection so all of you can see how this relates to my feminist views on the media as well. Enjoy!

When I first began creating my digital story I had no idea on the huge impact it would have not only on myself, but also on my mother, and for my friends that my story would reach. Since I chose the very personal topic of body image, this project became very cathartic and healing for me. Behind the scenes, this project not only took sweat and determination, but also quite a few tears because of its sensitive nature. I love the idea of a digital story as a means of combining pictures, voice, and personal narratives to create a multidimensional representation of a theme or topic. Since I focused on both my mother’s and my own struggle with body image a few of the themes that I focused on were the media’s effects and impact on one’s body image, the central ideas surrounding what it means to be feminine, and how misogyny is perpetrated through the media by contributing to women’s self-loathing around their bodies.

Telling this story was very important to me because body image issues have been something I have struggled with my whole life. I remember the day I realized I wasn’t pretty, the day it was confirmed I wasn’t pretty, and just about every day after that when I reminded myself how unattractive I was. I remember the intense depression, self-loathing, and general malaise that went hand in hand with these thoughts.  It was also important to tell this story for my mother. I don’t know anyone as amazing as my mother, and it hurts me so much to see that she often wraps her self worth up in how she feels about her appearance, when she is so much more than that (not to mention beautiful). However, probably the most important part about this project for me was catharsis.  As someone who has just recently come to terms with my body and being confident in not only how I look, but my entire being, it was important to reflect on some of the very hurtful memories and animosity I felt towards myself. This project not only allowed for so much self-reflection and healing, but it also opened up a dialogue between my mother and I about body image issues. She feels a lot of guilt over “showing me” how to hate my body, but this project is not to point blame at where I learned my self-loathing, it is to foster an environment of healing for myself and for her. My digital story is an ode to my mother’s beauty, and how my reflection on her struggle has allowed me to dismiss my own flaws and love myself for the beauty I hold both inside and out. And that has been truly powerful.

As far as addressing themes we talked about in WS 415, there are a lot of connections we can make between body image issues and topics like media’s impact on society and individuals, patriarchy, and what it means to be feminine. According to the media’s definition of “femininity,” I might as well not be a woman. I do not fit the traditional mold of femininity constructed by the media: I am tall, have broad shoulders, I take up space, I am considered “plus-size”, and the list goes on and on. All of these factors that permeate my self-perception are inherently based on medias influences of what we are told is beautiful, which is one of the many ways the media impacts women in a negative way. It constantly tells us we are not good enough as we are, and we never will be. All of these ideas are also intertwined with the agenda of the patriarchy. With male run corporations controlling media for the masses, it is not too hard to see that in one way or another, men are creating and perpetuating body shame and self loathing. The patriarchy is a multifaceted creature with roots that reach almost every realm of the media, and we are poisoned by its messages. For all of these reasons I felt the need to share my story of overcoming my body issues, and asserting myself as a confident, beautiful, feminist. I hope that my story will be able to reach an audience that has ever felt that way I do about my body, who will then use my struggle as a means of overcoming their own feelings of inadequacy in order to subvert the patriarchy in arguably its most dangerous game: instilling feelings of worthlessness in an entire sex based on their appearance. If we can all overcome these feelings, and work together to overthrow this system of oppression, we will be a forced to be reckoned with, and we will take no patriarchal prisoners.

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The Day I Realized I Wasn’t Pretty

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There are moments in every young girls life when cracks in our confidence begin to form, and the toxic foundations of self-doubt, self-consciousness, and self-loathing take root. My first crack came when I realized my mother wasn’t perfect, or at least, she didn’t feel she was. I remember watching her in the bathroom mirror sighing over barely-there wrinkles, stressing over non-existent back fat, and grumbling about her voluptuous frame. Looking at her, I couldn’t understand how someone so smart, strong, and statuesque could have so many flaws. I then came to realize that if someone I knew to be so beautiful was so inherently dreadful, then I must be as well (this is also known as Chandler’s most fucked up and problematic epiphany ever). The problem with body image issues is not only are they cultivated by the media’s constructions of beauty and acceptability, but they are also passed down from one generation of women to another. In many ways, I inherited my mother’s own body image issues because she had yet to come to terms with them herself. I saw her struggle with how she felt about her weight, she let it define her self-worth, and so I did the same. She convinced herself that she would be happier if only she were thinner, so I also equated thinness with happiness. It is for these reasons that I believe I so readily accepted the bodily critiques from my peers. I had known for a long time that I had innumerable flaws; so when they were finally pointed out to me, I was easily convinced. I do not blame my mother in any way for my body image issues, but I do find it incredibly sad that negative body images have pervaded society long enough that it is even possible for women to hand down these practices of self-hate and feelings of inadequacy. For these reasons, I find it transparent that impossible beauty standards are a systemic problem that women are not only subjected to by others, but subject themselves to as well. Furthermore, when society is able to instill a sense of worthlessness and inadequacy in an entire sex based solely around their appearance, it allows a powerful form of self-sustaining oppression to keep women from achieving all that they can.

I remember the day I realized I wasn’t pretty.  It was my eighth grade year, and as I stood in front of my mirror in the hallway I noticed it for the first time. There it was glaring back at me in the mirror, just pooching out over the top of my jeans, was a muffin top. I was in shock. Has that been there the whole time? I asked myself, all of a sudden deeply self-conscious, ashamed, and embarrassed. I became painfully aware that my light wash Gap jeans did not make me look as “long and lean” as they were intended to. I was practically bursting out of the waistband. When did I get so fat? I thought, as I searched my body for other hidden imperfections that I had been blissfully unaware of, convinced there were more flaws to be found. In some sort of bizarre masochistic treasure hunt, I began my journey into the depths of self-consciousness, a path most women know all too well. Later that same year, I was convinced again that I was definitely not pretty. In gym class (I know, how cliché) a boy in my grade told me that I needed to cover up my thunder thighs, because no one wanted to see those things. His disdain, shock, and horror that any girl could have the audacity to uncover her “thunder thighs” set the stage for an intense amount of self-loathing that I would carry for a majority of my youth. It was one thing for me to find flaws in myself, but for someone else to be so deeply offended by my body, took my insecurity and exacerbated it to a monumental extent.

From a young age I knew that I wasn’t like other girls. I was always the tallest girl in my class – actually, I was always the tallest person in my class, and being tall came with a particular amount of visibility that no one else can really understand. I also wasn’t the “right” kind of tall. Don’t pretend like you don’t know what I mean, either. There are three appropriate ways to be a tall girl: 1) the skinny model tall girl, 2) the skinny athletic basketball player, and 3) the skinny athletic volleyball player. At least, these are the only ways I had seen tall girls portrayed in a positive way. I knew right off the bat I would never be a model because not only was I not skinny enough, but I had convinced myself that I was not conventionally attractive in any way, and therefore of no use to society (because obviously, as a woman my only worthy contribution is my looks). That left me with tall skinny volleyball girl and tall skinny basketball girl. I chose tall athletic basketball girl (spandex shorts weren’t really my thing – for obvious reasons), but I had to leave off the skinny part, after all, I had thunder thighs. In my mind, at least my thunder thighs would be useful for something out on the basketball court. They would propel me across the hardwood, they would stand their ground fighting for a rebound, they would hip check my opponent guarding the hoop. But alas, even the noblest of ideas can be shattered. Case and point: In high school, a good friend of mine overheard another girl talking about me the day after one of my basketball games. She said something along the lines of “If my Dad had a daughter as big as her, she would be disowned.” My first thought upon hearing this was Chandler, don’t burst into tears, my second thought was Disowned?!, and my third thought was Wow, maybe I am a lot fatter than I think I am. Maybe I have reverse body dysmorphia?  No, my train of thought was not that this girl was very, very mean, or that she clearly has her own unresolved body issues, or even that my friend misheard her – in my twisted mind, I was convinced I was so fat and so disgusting that it had to be true.

From then on I knew I would never be good enough, and that my life would be spent with me constantly as a work in progress. Searching for the perfect diet to make me the appropriate size, the perfect haircut and color to disguise my imperfections, the perfect clothes to fool people into thinking I was beautiful.  It became a game. I foolishly turned to magazines and movies to aid me in my search for bodily perfection, not knowing that these false idols were a pivotal part of my inherent dissatisfaction. The farther I got in my research, the less happy I became. My body was betraying my spirit, and I hated it for it. I hated my height. I hated my thunder thighs. I hated my stomach. I hated my double chin. I hated every part about myself that made me, me. It wasn’t until later that I realized that I hated myself for things that weren’t even there, that I hated myself because I didn’t fit a mold that I wasn’t meant to fit in the first place, that I hated myself based on somebody else’s idea of what I should be. It wasn’t until much later that I began to question why I ever allowed myself to feel this way in the first place. Who, exactly, has the authority to tell me that I am not good enough the way I am? Why were people so offended by my height and size? Where was I getting these ideas about what it meant to be beautiful in the first place? Are these ideas even realistic? It was at this moment when I began to question the very fabric of my self-loathing. I began to lick my wounds, accept my true self, and say, “Fuck you” to everyone who tried to convince me otherwise.

The paradox of watching my mother struggle with her body image while simultaneously knowing myself that she is beautiful helped me realize the flaws in my own line of thinking, and my feelings about my body and beauty. I came to realize that even though my mother did not feel beautiful, she most definitely was. This translated into me realizing that even though I do not feel beautiful most days, I am beautiful both on the inside and out. I know this epiphany is in the realm of cliché “love your body” and “beauty is more than skin deep” tropes but it is one of the hardest concepts to wrap your brain around. It is incredibly sad that we as women have to unlearn hating our bodies and relearn how to love ourselves. Thanks to my mother, I have been able to see past my supposed “flaws” and accept my body the way it is. There is nothing inherently wrong with my body, it is capable of so many amazing things – from orgasms to jumping jacks, and whatever flaws I perceive are not really flaws, they are what make my body unique and my own. My only hope is that one-day my mother will come to this same realization. That she will be able to see the beauty she holds inside and out. That she will see that she has given me the strength, the courage, and the know-how to hold my head high above everyone else, and embrace myself as I am.

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Perceived Professionalism: How Sodium Hydroxide Oppresses One Race While “Relaxing” Another

         Image           Good hair. We all want it. We all strive for it. I for one know that having a “good” hair day versus having a “bad” hair day can influence my entire demeanor. Good hair day? Shoulders back, head held high, perhaps even some pep in my step. Bad hair day? Slouching, hair held back firmly in place with a headband in an attempt to tame the unruly (perhaps even greasy) strands, each step taken with uncertainty and self-consciousness. But what if the style of my hair did not only affect my self-confidence, but influenced people’s perceptions of my professionalism, competency, and intelligence? What if my hair influenced my job prospects, my sway in an office, or the amount of attention paid to my opinions? These questions are not merely “what-ifs” at all; these questions reflect a very real problem faced by women of color every single day. “What?” you say, “How can a hairstyle influence whether or not you get a job?” I agree that it seems like a very silly prospect, but it is not so silly when you come to understand the reality that Rhonda Lee, a meteorologist for Louisiana news station KTBS, was fired for defending her natural hairstyle on Facebook (Wilson, “Rhonda). Or that a white Glamour magazine editor told a group of women at a New York law firm that afros are a no-no and that “political” hairstyles like dreadlocks have no business in a work setting (Moe).  These instances are not only deeply offensive, but I argue that they could also be filed under “discrimination in the workplace”. Influencing women of color to style their hair in a sleek, more Eurocentric manner is just one more means of oppression, and we can add it to the long list of impossible beauty standards for women. In this essay, I will attempt to deconstruct the ideas of what people find so “offensive” about natural black hair, how these ideas construct societies perceptions of what is “professional” in the workplace and the consequences this has on employment. I will delve into the (not so) secret agenda of the media and beauty/fashion industries that aid in the vendetta against natural black hairstyles. However, before I begin my analysis, I would like to provide you with some insight into my gaze as a narrator. I, myself, am a 20 year-old middle class white woman of European descent. I have zero personal narratives surrounding oppression and discrimination based on my race, and yet these ideas repulse me to my very core. Although I have not personally experienced the plight of embracing a natural hairstyle in a Eurocentric obsessed society, I have been victim to the vitriol that comes with impossible beauty standards that women are subjected to. So even though I may not be able to empathize with these women, I can certainly sympathize with them. And although I may not be the most qualified woman to speak on this subject, it is important for me as a white woman to acknowledge my white privilege and recognize that even though these issues are not my own, it does not make them any less important. With this in mind, let us dive into this toxic pool of oppression, and emerge enlightened, angered, and demanding change.

            Let’s play a game. Open any mainstream magazine you have laying around and flip to the first page with a woman present. 5 points if the woman is white. 10 points if she is of color. 3 points if her hair is straight. 5 points if her hair is wavy (not curly). 7 points if she is donning an ethnic hairdo. Any of you with 17 points? The probability is slim to none. Lets not kid ourselves into thinking that the media and advertisements do not influence society’s perceptions of what is and is not acceptable. We are conditioned by these images to believe that smooth, sleek hair is sexy, professional, and beautiful. Thus, when one does not meet these standards they are in direct incongruence to society’s perceptions of acceptability. This makes for an interesting paradox for women of color, since they are conditioned to believe that in their natural state, they are not beautiful, professional, or sexy. So, in order to be perceived as professional/sexy/beautiful, women of color believe that they have to chemically alter their hair from its natural state to reflect the more acceptable style: long, sleek, and Eurocentric. In my mind, it seems absurd (and morally/ethically wrong) that the media would waste time convincing women they aren’t good enough the way they are born, but when there is a market to capitalize on, you can bet that corporations will do anything to exploit it. People of color make up less than 20% of the population in the United States, but they purchase 80% of the hair products sold (Good Hair). On top of that, either Whites or Asians own most of the companies in the beauty industry, neither of which have a vested interest in the quality of black hair products (Good Hair). In turn, products that focus on managing frizz, creating healthy hair, or enhancing natural qualities for black hair are usually the most expensive (Good Hair). So, it literally pays to conform and chemically straighten your hair instead of spending the money and exerting the effort to maintain a healthy head of natural hair. For those of you unfamiliar with chemical straightening process, let me give you a very brief overview of how it works. Sodium hydroxide, also known as relaxer, “creamy crack”, or chemical straightener, is the agent used to permanently straighten ethnic hair. This process breaks down the proteins present in the hair thus altering its texture, supposedly making the hair more manageable (Gonzalez). The potentially dangerous nature of sodium hydroxide leaves many women with chemical burns on their scalps (to illustrate this, please note that sodium hydroxide can disintegrate an aluminum can in a mere 4 hours – clearly this explains its popularity as a common beauty treatment), which can leave also women with permanent damage to the hair follicle resulting in bald patches (Good Hair). I do not take issue with the fact that there are some women of color who feel more beautiful/professional/sexy having relaxed hair independent of societies influence, and there is nothing wrong with these women asserting their own wants and needs.  However, I do begin to take issue when society conditions women of color to believe that their natural selves are not beautiful, professional, or sexy and pressure them to conform to the mainstream sleek, straight Eurocentric definition of beauty. When we as a society deem the trend of chemically altered hair as a more professional, beautiful, or sexy look, it is not a stretch to see how these ideas of professionalism and beauty can permeate into the workplace.

In Chris Rock’s documentary “Good Hair” black comedian Paul Mooney jokes, “If your hair is relaxed, white people are relaxed. If your hair is nappy, white people aren’t happy.” Although Mooney is obviously kidding he isn’t too far off the mark. In 2001, a leadership course at Hampton University banned natural hairstyles such as dreadlocks and cornrows, with the belief that those types of hairstyles would prevent students from receiving corporate jobs (note that most corporations are headed by white men) (Wilson, “Hampton”). Also, as I mentioned before, during a 2007 “Do’s and Don’ts of Corporate Fashion” slideshow held at a New York law firm, a white female editor of Glamour magazine stated that dreadlocks were “truly dreadful,” and expressed shock and disgust that people of color believed it was still appropriate to wear these hairstyles (Moe). Furthermore, in another segment of “Good Hair”, Chris Rock asks a group of black high school girls whether or not they believe that having a natural hairstyle will jeopardize their chances of getting a good job. The girls admit that “an afro and a suit is a contradiction,” and that “executives won’t take you seriously because you don’t look put together.” Although it is difficult to find statistical proof that says women of color are discriminated against when they sport natural hairstyles, there is no shortage of anecdotal proof. For example, Dana Harrell, an education and sociology major at Claflin University, was told during an interview for an internship that if she wanted to have a shot at a position within the company that she would have to straighten her hair (Hill). Harrell says “The lady told me that (if) I wanted to work for her company, I couldn’t wear my hair in its natural state, not even braids. She said ‘nappy isn’t happy here.’” We can also see examples of judgment being passed on women of color based on their hairstyles in pop culture influences such as the Netflix original series “Orange is the New Black.” Although this example does not directly link to the workplace, it is still a comment on women of color’s perceived professionalism. In Episode 7 of the first season, an inmate, Taystee, is appealing her conviction. Beforehand, Taystee and her fellow inmates discuss how she should style her hair, because clearly her abundance of natural black curls has got to go. The group comes up with “white-friendly” suggestions like “Michelle Obama” or “Mo’Nique from Essence magazine 2008” – to which one inmate replies “Please, ain’t enough relaxer in the world for that bullshit!” The group finally agrees that the look Taystee should strive for is “the black best friend in the white girl movie” such as “Regina King in Miss Congeniality”, “Alicia Keys in The Nanny Diaries”, “Regina King in Legally Blonde”, or “Viola Davis [in] Eat, Pray, Love” (Kohan). I admit that this scene is hilarious, but it does bring up the very problematic issue that women of color must constantly operate within the realm of what white people are most “comfortable” with. This modus operandi is inherently oppressive to people of color. Ultimately, these examples merely shed light on the tip of the iceberg that is the systematic oppression and discrimination of women of color in the workplace and their daily lives. Hopefully, by focusing on this specific type of discrimination and oppression, it will put forth actions that will culminate in the permanent eradication of all forms of discrimination based on differences in appearance and the stereotypes that accompany them.

So, what is so offensive about natural, ethnic hair in the first place? To tell the truth, I haven’t the faintest idea why people are so concerned and fascinated with ethnic hair. However, I can say arguments that natural hair is a reflection of professionalism is a viewpoint wrought with racism. Dreadlocks, cornrows, afros, braids, etc. are all historically black hairstyles, so to say that these styles display a sense of unkemptness, a lack of professionalism, or a lack of intellect, is akin to saying that being a person of color in general reflects these notions as well. In my opinion, these assertions all stem from society’s epistemic ideas surrounding people of color. To be clear, epistemology is the study of knowledge, specifically how we determine what we “know” and whether or not we can test the validity of what we believe we “know” (“Epistemology”). I put “know” in quotes to illustrate that there is almost nothing we can know for certain. Knowledge is based on our perceptions and our beliefs surrounding the validity of those perceptions. This deeply philosophical theory is hard to wrap one’s brain around, but if we can be critical of what we believe we “know”, we can begin to deconstruct stereotypes and perceptions that are false, but that are widely held up as “common knowledge” or truth. To apply this to the topic at hand, I will play devil’s advocate in the following scenario. Picture this: I am waiting for a woman to arrive for her interview at my business. I have her application sitting in front of me and I know by looking at it beforehand that she is exceptionally qualified for the position: good grades, excellent letters of recommendation, and substantial previous experience. However, upon her walking into my office, I notice that not only is she a woman of color but she also wears her hair in a natural afro. Society has conditioned me to believe that people with afros are inherently not as qualified, competent, or intelligent because people with afros subscribe to an unkempt style that oozes a sense of laziness, a lack of intellect, and an unprofessional demeanor. Even though I know that on paper she is qualified for the job, in person I know that she is not because of her appearance. Thus, I dismiss her for the job based on her lack of perceived professionalism, not her actual, quantifiable experience and qualities that make her a candidate for the job. This example also provides a framework for the idea of visibility vs. invisibility. This contradictory binary sets up people of color in a way that is both highly visible and inherently invisible. These visible aspects are what make people of color “stand out in a crowd”, essentially how they are defined and identified as a minority, i.e. the color of their skin, the style of their hair, etc., which is usually how we construct our opinions on people of color (think racial profiling). The invisible, internal aspects that construct people of color on a unique basis are obviously overshadowed by the visible aspects of how society defines the race as a whole, via stereotypes such as lazy, uneducated, unprofessional, etc. These “visible” aspects are rarely substantiated, and they are also the only aspects taken into consideration when stereotypically defining people of color. With all of these ideas in mind, we can begin to understand how society’s influence over our perceptions can twist what we know to be true into a false idea of what we perceive to be true.

With all of these points in mind, it is easy to conclude that racism, oppression, and discrimination are all currently thriving in our society. However, I do remain hopeful that one day we will be able to eliminate all of these problematic frameworks that operate in the United States. The first step in doing so is education. When I first discussed the topic of this essay with my peers who are not of color, many had never given a second thought to the idea of perceived professionalism; but once they were allowed a moment for analysis and self reflection, they agreed how problematic it is as a means of oppression and discrimination in our society. The next step is action. At first, as a white woman, I felt that I had no business placing myself into this conversation that deals almost exclusively with women of color; but upon further reflection, I saw how wrong I was in this assumption. These women are dealing with a symptom of oppression that almost all women know too well: the pressure to be something you are not, or cannot be. Like most women, I have been subjected to the media’s impossible beauty standards, self-consciousness surrounding my weight, my height, and even my femininity. Although my experiences are very different and arguably less oppressive than those that women of color face, there is no reason that I cannot channel my inner anger, frustration, and disappointment with society to help fuel their agenda for equality. There is no “rule” of feminism (or at least, there shouldn’t be) that maintains a hierarchy that determines which issues are more important to attain and in what order we should address them. So, although solidarity across racial lines can present some problems, I truly believe if we do not merely “set aside” our differences, but embrace our diverse backgrounds, experiences, and methods of oppression, we can connect with a much greater audience, unify a much greater community, and yell a much louder message. For all of these reasons, I encourage women of all backgrounds to proudly support one another regardless of skin color, hairstyle, or origin because if we do our “One day….” dreamy description of equality may not be so far into the future after all.

Works Cited

“Epistemology.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, 2013. Web. 31 Oct. 2013.

Gonzalez, Susonnah. “Hair Relaxers: The Facts.” Hair Relaxers: The Facts. NaturallyCurly.com, 15 Nov. 2010. Web. 31 Oct. 2013.

Good Hair. Dir. Jeff Stilson and Jenny Hunter. By Lance Crouther and Chris Rock. Prod. Nelson George. Perf. Chris Rock, Maya Angelou, Al Sharpton. Madman, 2009. DVD.

Hill, India. “Viewpoint: How Is Natural, African-American Hair Viewed in the Workplace? | USA TODAY College.” Web log post. USA Today Educate. Redd Lipstick Blog, 1 July 2013. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.

Kohan, Jenji. “Orange Is the New Black, Season 1 Episode 7, “Blood Donut”” Netflix. Lionsgate Television. 11 July 2013. Television.

Moe. “‘Glamour’ Editor To Lady Lawyers: Being Black Is Kinda A Corporate “Don’t”” Jezebel. Jezebel, 14 Aug. 2007. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.

Wilson, Julee. “Black Women Worry That Their Natural Hair Could Affect Job Employment Or Retention.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 05 Mar. 2013. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.

Wilson, Julee. “Hampton University’s Cornrows And Dreadlock Ban: Is It Right?” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 23 Aug. 2012. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.

Wilson, Julee. “Rhonda Lee Fired: TV Station Responds To Meteorologist’s Claim She Was Fired For Facebook Comments About Her Natural Hair.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 11 Dec. 2012. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.

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