This piece was as cathartic for me to write as I felt it was necessary. It feels good on a personal level to air my grievances. However, in a more important sense, in a time when our news is saturated with stories of questionable validity, the personal words of our citizens are the truest testament to the American experience. Of course, they are skewed by subjective memory, biased by our own societal categorizations, privileges and status. Still, they make up the fabric of this country, and if my small story can speak truth in a time of fear for many, then to me it is worth writing. I am also eager to read more of people’s experiences that are similar and different from mine, and maybe, if we share, we can better understand each other.
Raised in a lower-middle-class household that struggled to make ends meet in a suburban part of America, I was subject to many of the societal messages that most women in my general age-range experienced. I expected to grow up pretty, have big tits, be blonde, and marry my very own Prince Charming or a Backstreet Boy (it was the 90s).
I remember the first time I was ever cat-called. I was 8. I didn’t understand the intent behind it, but it drove both a wave of fear and excitement up the back of my spine. I was wearing a shiny rainbow bikini and walking to the pool in my neighborhood. It was a short block from my house, and I had draped a towel loosely around my waist, thinking nothing of it. I lived in Florida and this was a usual occurrence. I remember the sound of whistling, honking, and yelling from a group of men in a truck. I don’t know what they said, but I remember feeling like their attention validated me in a way, while also feeling terror that they would do something to me, though I hadn’t the slightest idea as to what.
As a teen, my stepfather touched me. I don’t remember the details, but I only know that it has taken years of therapy to be certain that it happened. After my mother divorced him, I spent a lot of time in high school thinking I was too fat and too ugly to be valuable, so I began to starve myself. From 2003 to 2005 I ate two bowls of Special K and a bag of steamed spinach every day in an attempt to be what society told me was beautiful. I weighed 98 pounds and stood at almost 5 feet 6 inches. Like most teenagers, I was wracked with a deep-seated anxiety that the beautiful woman I thought I would grow to become when I was a child was a dream, impossible to attain.
I dated a woman briefly in college and studied inter-sectional issues facing marginalized populations as a Women’s Studies major. I read Simone de Beauvoir, belle hooks, Betty Friedan. I studied the spectrum of feminism, from its roots to its most radical forms. I had never been so painfully aware of my own privilege while also terrified of being recognized for being in a gay relationship just a few years before gay marriage was legally recognized under the Obama administration.
I graduated Magna Cum Laude, having been a research aid in a doctoral program which studied racial and sexual minorities. I conducted my own research regarding LGBT and female body issues. I gained 40 pounds. I fell in love with and made love to a man.
None of these decisions ever felt conscious, but more like things that fell into my lap. And I felt thankful for all of them because they allowed me to know myself better and to appreciate, in a sincere sense, that to be a woman is everything about who I am, good and bad.
Maybe this seems an obvious or naive conclusion to draw, but life seems like this process of constantly getting to know yourself better. Sort of like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Those of us who are not narcissistic sociopaths (not to point fingers, but our current president) consistently work toward self-actualization.
You reach certain milestones and think you have finally learned yourself, and then wake up three months later surprised again. Though I am not even 30, my impression is that this continues as long as one strives for their own self-betterment; a sentiment echoed by my strong, powerful and admirable mother, who did not receive her college degree until she was 46.
After graduating, I moved to New York City. Its skyline reflected in the pupils of my eyes like every dream I had ever willed ready to happen. Coming here was the only conscious decision I had really ever made. I allowed myself to fall in love with New York the way one falls in love with a new partner. I wanted New York to like me, so I changed my hair and my clothes and went about integrating myself into this world of pseudo-celebrity full of hashtags and $1,000 handbags, the polar opposite of everything I had studied in college.
It felt authentic for a time, as I had never been so validated for my appearance or so socially celebrated by people who would never know l that I had grown up hovering over the poverty line, molested, anorexic and queer. That my family was wracked with mental illness and that my mother had been married to a drug dealer who was deported for selling cocaine to an undercover cop. (The way I see it, I was privileged. I had never been hungry. I always knew I was going to college. I was cis-gender; I was white.)
Participating in this universe felt less and less authentic when I realized that I had never really been part of it anyway. And it wasn’t because of any of the things that made me marginalized, in fact, in that circle, often those types of things are fetishized and celebrated (“Oh, my, God, you sleep with women? That’s sexy!”). It was more the fact that there is an utter disregard or even awareness of how privilege seeped into that culture and it was never addressed or even relevant.
When your head becomes so inflated and cluttered with how many followers you have on Instagram you forget to care about what is important: authenticity, honesty and the broader experiences of people outside of your bubble. Somehow New York had become a shiny bubble full of glitter and I was someone who had forgotten where she came from.
Realizing my extreme distaste for these kinds of people has come as quite a shock, as I built my early career around being accepted by and catering to them. And in the current political climate it seems irresponsible to continue to allow my career and life to be tied to these types of mentalities.
I am a woman, with a complex history, a unique story, and the weight of my own privilege on my back. It is for this reason that I urge all women to evaluate from where they experience their value. Is it in the eyes of social media and society? The eyes of men? The eyes of one? Perhaps we can find value in forging a feeling of compassion within ourselves toward others. It is so hard to escape the trap of the types of messages we get about our own self-worth, as limiting and oppressive as a pillow over the face; particularly when current political leaders want to threaten our access to affordable and safe medical care.
As a woman, and furthermore a human living in Trump’s America, it is our most sincere responsibility, to now, unlike ever before, work toward the betterment of marginalized populations. The Women’s March was step one. Sharing your story is step two. For further ways to effect change in a time when change is desperately needed please see the following links for ways you can be educated and involved:
This series will provide a platform for strong 20somethings to share their stories. If you would like to be featured, please email me at [email protected].