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Toward Integration: Part II

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Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being. Focused with precision it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change.

–Audre Lorde

Every day a student tells me a story that broadens my world view.

Last week, a young woman told me about working at a bakery counter in a chain restaurant. Every single day, women come up to the counter and look through the glass with wide eyes. Alone, or in pairs, they pace back and forth, talking to each other (or themselves), as if they’re about to commit a crime. The ones who come up to purchase something look at her with pleading eyes, asking her not to judge them. They are buying for their children, they say, or an office party or their book groups, and they explain the details. If they’re buying just one or two items, they offer a rationalization,”I worked out this morning,” or “I’m just going to have this one macaroon,” or “I’m celebrating” or “It’s my cheat day.”

I asked her what men say if they ponder over a baked good. She tossed her head and laughed out loud. “Never. I have never heard a man give me a reason why he’s buying a pastry. He gets one or he doesn’t, but there’s no explanation or weird ass shame.”

The next day, a student told me she’s in cognitive therapy to cope with a persistent sadness left over from childhood trauma. Her therapist suggested maybe she’s depressed because she’s overweight. My student told the therapist she’s trying to lose weight, but when’s she’s depressed, all she wants to do is eat. Instead of encouraging her to see her emotional eating as a strategy to manage repressed anger, the therapist put her on her scale and recorded her weight. Every time she came in, she would weigh her, and if the number on the scale didn’t go down, she would scold her for not making more of an effort. My student asked me if I think it’s ok that she stopped going to therapy.

In her newest book Hunger, Roxane Gay details the way she is treated publicly for living in a fat body, “where the open hatred of fat people is vigorously tolerated and encouraged.” She tells the story of being gang raped at age 12 and how it changed forever her relationship with her body: “I was marked after that. Men could smell it on me, that I had lost my body, that they could avail themselves of my body that I wouldn’t say ‘no’ because I knew my ‘no’ did not mater. They smelled it on me and took advantage, every chance they got.”

It’s nearly impossible to feel safe in our bodies after we’ve been sexually assaulted. Most victims initially react by turning their anger inward and blaming themselves. Whether the perpetrator is known or unknown, it feels too dangerous to fling it outward, even among family or friends. There are centuries of social conditioning to keep us quiet.

Anger is difficult for many of us to recognize or name. Because it’s more socially acceptable for a woman to be sad than angry, female anger rarely looks like the “norm” of male anger. Other than the rare times women snap and “lose our shit” (coming across as a raging, crazy woman), we frequently turn our anger inward, registering as depression. And sometimes we construct a blockade of protection against whatever it is that has made us angry. This protection can be layers of extra body weight, self-medicating through various addictions, or overcompensating to make a bid for love (codependency).

Psychologist and columnist Avrum Weiss argues that “Men have always had a problem with anger in women.” He quotes studies that show how “boys are socialized to feel OK about their anger, while girls are taught to feel ashamed. Angry women make men feel uncomfortable, even threatened. Sad women make men feel gallant and protective.”

Through a yoga practice, I have worked to recognize and acknowledge my feelings, positive and negative. But even after years of dropping into my body to feel, I still struggle with anger. When it begins to surface, I panic.

After being molested repeatedly as a 7 year old child, I learned to live outside my body.  I no longer possessed the ordinary sensors healthy people do. I could withstand hunger and thirst and other sorts of deprivation by watching the girl who felt them, as if from a distance. For years, when I would get injured, I did very little to defend myself or to heal. When sick, I never took time off.  And when confronted with violence, I made myself small, burying the feeling part of me so deep, I didn’t recognize it as mine. I compartmentalized myself so completely, the girl who was being abused wasn’t me. I could feel sorry for her, and sad, but not angry. By 16, I struggled with anorexia and a suicide attempt. After two hospitalizations, I learned to perform normalcy through the more subtle self-abuse of bulimia.

I had become caught in a cycle of repressed anger and self-punishment. I had so much unresolved pain, when it began to hurt, I didn’t think about how unjust the situation was that brought me there. I just wanted it to go away. And so I ate whatever I could find that would fill the gaping hole in me. Then I would experience intense feelings of guilt and shame and vomit it up. Guilt and shame reinforced self-hate, which told me I deserved the pain. I didn’t know how to be angry at the pain in my past; instead, I was angry at myself for causing pain in the present, and that feeling of anger would send me right back to shame.

Audre Lorde says that “Anger is loaded with information and energy” and we can “tap that anger as an important source of empowerment.”

In my second semester of college, I took a course in the humanities and the assigned reading included The Bell Jar, Surfacing, The Women’s Room, and The Feminine Mystique. The professor made us write an analysis that required us to look back at the past 100 years of women’s magazines, including Ladies’ Home Journal and Good Housekeeping (circulating since 1883 and 1885, respectively). The products advertised in these publications varied over the years, but the majority of the slogans and hooks were frighteningly similar. She encouraged us to to notice how the advertising was aimed toward getting women to feel inadequate so they would to spend money. I began to see the the institutional ways we are taught to feel bad about ourselves. And I got dramatically angry.

I haven’t counted a calorie since.

When I began to acknowledge the systemic cause of my anger, something significant shifted. Recognizing the rationale, I was freed from its control. As a result, I adopted a more intuitive eating style. Since early college, I haven’t gained or lost more than 10 pounds (except during pregnancy). I eat what I want, when I want, and I never step on a scale. I’m not perfect about my choices. Sometimes I binge on sugar or forget to eat altogether, but I no longer allow my weight or anyone else’s perception of it to dictate what I put in my body.

Both genders suffer from the scripts we’ve been handed. When we perform gender, we limit access to our full humanity. Our expectations that we should narrow our field of emotions to those we’ve been told are appropriate for a good woman (or nice lady) limits our ability to combat shame and to integrate disparate pieces of ourselves into a cohesive and healthy personhood.

I asked the two students this week what they thought about their scenarios. They both declared vehemently that it was fucked up. I told them I didn’t have the answers, but the first step toward healing is recognizing there is something wrong.

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The Limits of My Pacifism

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A couple of weeks ago I was involved in a bar dispute. I wanted to tell my mom but I knew she would judge me for being at a bar in general. I was fairly proud at the way I handled it. However, there was a split second where I looked at the beer glasses in front of me and clenched my fist and thought about throwing one of those glasses against the face of the woman who was testing my patience.

I’m not the type to fight. I always say that if someone wants to hit me, let them. I’ll press charges because that would be my ultimate revenge and lesson against them. I’ll ruin their record, hindering them from getting a decent job or at least making it harder for them to do so. They’ll remember me every time they apply for some aid and are denied and I’ll faintly in a ghost like way say “Was it worth it?” That’s my ultimate revenge. But if they end up murdering me then I’ll just haunt them and that’s just as good a lesson.

So this woman drops her drink on my back. Complete accident but I’m on my third or fourth drink so I’m annoyed. She keeps apologizing to me and I accept it, still annoyed. Her friend tells her “Don’t apologize. She’s making a big deal” I’m not but I say “Uh, yeah it’s a big deal” so she looks at me and says “Don’t apologize, maybe that way she’ll lose some weight”

HOLD THE FUCK UP. WHAT.  I’m trying to internalize what she just said. “What did you say?”

“You heard me. Maybe you’ll lose some weight” Oh yeah, because getting beer spilled on my back somehow will change my eating and exercise habits. It was that moment when cheap Bud Light beer started to run down my back and onto my butt crack that I said, “Oh man, I’m going to lose some weight. If I were 20-30 pounds lighter, this would have never happened”

I stood there for a few seconds deciding to either cry or retaliate.

I was teased horribly throughout my elementary and junior high years. These are scars that are still fresh and I revert back to when I’m feeling singled out, rejected or talked about. I was teased over my weight, my skin color (even though we were all brownies. Kids always justify their dumbass logic. “Yeah but I’m not as brown as YOU,”) my hairy arms and my looks. Basically, I was teased for just being ME. For years I never knew how to defend myself. I never knew what to say back. I never learned how to stand up for myself. Then I worked in fast food, retail and at a public library and now at 27 my skin is a reinforced steel tank with grenade launchers. Kind of.

So I turn to her and say “That is a rude fucking thing to say.” It wasn’t the most earth shattering thing to say to someone who feels this pointless superiority over you. I’m a smart lady and I know that these people just want a reaction. They want to feel better about themselves by putting other people down. I won’t give them that satisfaction.

Other things were said and I can’t remember all of it due to the level of alcohol but I do remember feeling the bar around me going deaf because as she spoke non sense and pointed out her husband to me, “I don’t give a fuck who your husband is. You’re a rude bitch,” I felt this anger boil in me. This anger that has been boiling up inside of me for 20-23 years. I kept looking at the glasses feeling ready to just throw one for the satisfaction of my impulse and to shut her face up.

In those moments, my friends stood up for me. My co-worker called her a Cunt. Her husband came over, “Hey bro, this is between the ladies. You hurt my girl’s feelings you know?” WHAT ABOUT MY FEELINGS! I did manage to yell that over to him. Her husband seeing they were severely outnumbered grabbed her by her arm and left.

I still wanted to cry. I felt incredibly embarrassed in front of my friends. Someone had called me fat in front of them. It made me feel insignificant. It made me feel like I was 7 again and these two girls came up to me and kicked me in my legs for being ugly. I ended up crying on the way home. But I wasn’t crying because she made me feel fat or because I believed it. I thought of Mindy Kaling in that moment. “I’m not overweight. I fluctuate between chubby and curvy.” It’s one of my favorite quotes from her show. I was crying because I let some dumb stranger get the best of me. I wasn’t proud of calling her a bitch. I vowed not to use that kind of insult against anyone because it’s cheap and ignorant. In hindsight, calling her a bitch was probably a better decision than hurling a glass at her face. I had to choose the lesser of two evils and I daydream of working at The Huntington Library so I value my clean record for that reason.

I started crying because I was crying. It makes sense when you’re drunk.

“She’s not worth it. She is dumb. You’re beautiful”

“I know I am! I am smart. I am awesome. I am way smarter than her. Her life is over. She has saggy boobs, that other lady told me so. She hates me because I am obviously cute and awesome. But what’s the only thing wrong with me? I’m “fat.” I’m not fat. I am but I’m not. I don’t care. I like being thick but that’s the only thing ignorant people can attack me with. And I hate that and I’m crying for that”

I know I’ll never see this woman again. She has three kids and an obvious inferiority complex. She probably doesn’t have a very good life or didn’t have a good life. Someone who is secure with themselves and happy with themselves does not verbally attack strangers. Normal people do not do that. Everyone commended me at the way I handled it. The lady who originally dropped her drink on me told me “No you’re beautiful. I’m way fatter than you and she has saggy boobs and you don’t!” Bras are really awesome at making boobs look great. I told her she didn’t need to say that. She didn’t need to put herself down. It wasn’t about being fat.

When I got home, I woke up my sister and started crying to her. It wasn’t about being fat. I kept crying because I just thought, why do people need to be that way? It’s a rhetorical question. Why do women need to be that way? I know why. Millions of psychological issues. Not knowing how to control impulses and passions. Not being able to internalize the differences between people. Not knowing how to let go of petty thoughts and insecurity. I’m a fucking nice person and I really just wanted to go back and ask that woman, “Hey, chill out. Why are you so insecure? It’s ok. We can talk about it” Call me a sissy or a little bitch, because I’ve have been, but if people talked about their problems and had a healthy outlet for their thoughts, the world would be a better place. That’s some hippy utopian shit but I know a lot of people that quote John Lennon’s Imagine but would never actually practice peace, understanding or pacifism in altercations.

I almost didn’t. I don’t think I would ever actually hit someone or throw a glass at them. But it’s scary to think that I contemplated it for that second. I don’t want to be that type of person. I also don’t want to be the type of person who hurls cheap insults. It’s a reflection of your character. But it’s also hard to keep a stoic temperament when you’ve had three or four drinks.

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on (not) eating

I have always had a robust appetite. I can out-eat almost anyone, including my 6′ 4″ husband. My Mexican step-abuela used to call me Gordita, and I once overheard my aunt and uncle’s hushed and anxious conversation about how much of their food I was eating on a weekend visit. I’ve weighed over 160 pounds since the 8th grade. I never had any willowy teenage or even childhood heyday. I’ve always been thick. And I like it all–Indian, Thai, Mexican, Italian, Korean, American, sweet, savory, spicy, salty, mushy, crunchy, moldy (just cut it off. just kidding. sort of.). Even when I was pregnant and had morning sickness, I wanted to eat all of the time. Then vomit. Then eat again.

For this reason, I’ve always struggled with my weight. I have to exercise a fuck ton to compensate for my appetite. After having children and turning 30, my already slow metabolism got even slower. Sure, I could stop drinking beer and have one breakfast instead of two. But I have never been able to. Last year, I trained for 18 weeks for a marathon, and I lost a grand total of one half of one pound. I regularly have vivid dreams about eating.

Until recently. For the last two weeks, I have found myself in the curious position of not feeling hungry, of not spending the forty minute drive home daydreaming about what I should eat next. I look at food I love, like pizza or ice cream or tacos or oatmeal cookies or Mediterranean garlic sauce, and I shrug. I have no urge to snack between meals. A vague sensation of nausea looms through my day. I don’t know where it has come from or when it will go.

This is me now:

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NO, I AM NOT PREGNANT; WASH YOUR MOUTH.

I’ve lost 6 pounds in this short time, and I’m thinking maybe I should make a doctor’s appointment. I keep waiting to wake up one morning dreaming of food. Instead, I think about what I can eat that won’t make me vomit and calculate how many calories I need to keep me running without passing out. I still drink beer because beer. And I can keep my food down. Whatever this is is not extreme. But nothing is as good anymore. I used to be ashamed of my appetite, but now I miss it. When I figure out what is wrong and I start feeling better, I will once again dream of maple bars and paneer saag (typing this is making me nauseous again), but next time, I will dream proudly.

Photo credit: www.home-remedies-for-you.com

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