Weddings and Body Hair (it grows back)

It has happened.

I’ve been asked to be in a friend’s wedding. I’ve read so many blog posts about this exact situation, and now here it is.

I was excited for my friend and excited to be asked, but literally the first thought in my head was “I bet she’ll want me to shave” and there it was, a sick-scared feeling in my stomach. And later when I was telling another friend about it, I cried. Sobbed, really. About my leg hair.

My crying baffled me at the time (it’s just HAIR. It grows back), but after some thought, it does make sense:

– I’ve thought about hair a whole lot over the past couple of years, and made it a really big deal.
– I think I’ve been using my body hair as a sort of shield against insecurity: “look how much I don’t care about your beauty norms!”
– Related: I think I’ve sprouted a whole new set of insecurities about not looking insecure. Somehow I’m afraid with hairless legs and pits, people will look at me and think “oh, too bad she doesn’t just love her body the way it is.” Which is ridiculous, but gives me some insight as to how my subconscious is apparently percieving people who shave.
– I think I also was upset because I felt the very familiar feeling of being trapped into doing something I don’t want to do, just because “this is the way we do it.”

But heavens, it is just hair. It grows back. And whatever I do with my body hair, and for whatever reasons, and whether those reasons are selfish or feminist or patriarchal or just I-want-my-friend-to-feel-great-about-her-wedding, it’s still just hair. It grows back.

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Confronting Casual Racism: Interview Fail

“We have a no-tolerance policy for addressing racial slurs and racial jokes. You notice a colleague consistently not addressing racial jokes made in his presence. How would you respond?”

I was asked the above in a job interview yesterday. Regardless of its poor wording, I was happy to hear the question because I thought it’d be a great opportunity to show that I’m interested in and passionate about the subject. Welp.

My response was something like “I would tell them that ignoring instances of racism is what is causing racism to continue; I think the reason people think racism doesn’t exist in our society is exactly because it’s so seldom confronted and talked about. I’d give them an example of how addressing these things doesn’t have to be tense or difficult.” And if the person continued anyway? “Hmmm … [twenty second pause]… well, that’s difficult. It would be a different decision every time it arose… but I guess no tolerance means no tolerance, so I would go to someone who I thought was better at communicating to the person than I am, and ask them to have a conversation with them.”

Alas, we always tend to concoct much better answers on the way home from the interview. This is not a difficult question, and I wish I hadn’t paused for so long. I gave the impression that the only reason I brought the situation to someone else’s attention was because rules are rules, and no tolerance is no tolerance. Puke. It would not be a different decision every time it arose–the facts are simple. The colleague is working with children, and not addressing overt racial slurs or jokes should be absolutely unthinkable. I should have responded similar to how I would if the question involved a colleague revealing themselves inappropriately or something.

My revised answer (if you’re out there, Charlene, please pretend this is what I said):

“I would remind them that they are in charge of children, children who are in the process of forming their identities. Jokes and slurs like these affect the identity development of white students and non-white students alike–by ignoring them, you are sending a very clear message about what is acceptable. You are telling your students whether they are the joke-makers or those to whom jokes are aimed. What you address and don’t, who you stick up for and who you don’t, is sending a clear message.” And if the person continued anyway? “I wouldn’t stop confronting them about it. I wouldn’t give up on that person’s ability to act like a decent human being, or on the kids’ right to have a safe environment. If what I said had no effect, I would immediately go to their supervisor and advise them that the person needs to change their behavior or not work with children.”

 

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Resources for confronting casual racism

The other day I complained that Jay Smooth’s “How To Tell People They Sound Racist” video was the only online resource I knew of to help privileged folks learn to confront other privileged folks about their privilege. Since then, two others have been brought to my attention (thanks, Lizzie and Becky!).

First: An article by Jamie Utt at Everyday Feminism, providing a practical, almost step-by-step approach to making conversations about privilege less scary.

Second: The Derailing For Dummies page–which I’d only seen as a tool to help me learn how not to be an asshole–is useful if you want to learn to spot others’ derailing tendencies and explain why they’re not cool.

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God Would Want me to be an Atheist

Pretty sure I don’t believe in God. (Surprise!)

That is probably not surprising to you (lesbian feminist anti-racist bloggers aren’t usually the religious type). But after years of trying to hang on to a steadily wilting pseudo-christianity-cum-agnosticism, it was a bit of a surprise to me.

My childhood was a pretty spiritual one, but not as deeply spiritual as it could have been. I remember the night when I was 11 or 12 that I crept into my parents’ bedroom, tearily woke my mom and told her I needed to be baptised. I remember some “mountain-top” experiences at church camps, and some moments of clarity when I knew the utterly simple, beautiful purpose of my life: to do whatever brought me closer to God.

I also remember a lot of stifled aching confusion. I couldn’t get over the fact that all my really smart friends didn’t believe in God while none of my super-religious friends seemed able to think an independent thought. During one of the periods when I was committed to reading a chapter of the bible every night, I remember crying myself to sleep multiple times, trying to figure out what I was supposed to do with the chapter that described awful bloody ruthless battles as God’s will, or the chapter in which God slaughtered thousands of Egyptian babies, or the multiple chapters that told me I was unclean, shameful, unfit to speak in church, and that I should submit myself to and be ruled by men. In high school, one of my best friends came out to me and I told him how hard that was for ME, because God, instead of being there for him.

Fast-forward to last year, when I was incredibly ambivalent about Christianity, still believed in a God of sorts, but didn’t care enough to put energy into finding a church or a religion that would feel right: spiritual but still intelligent, a moral compass but not blind submission to religious authority.

My ex told me to read Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion.” I was reluctant because I knew I was so close to the edge of believing in anything that reading Richard Dawkins, of all things, would push me over… but I read it anyway. It felt weird and uncomfortable to read, even though I totally swallowed every one of his arguments. My brain agreed with what I was reading, but at the same time, it couldn’t change the fact that I could still feel God in my head just as much as I could when I was getting dunked in the river as a pre-teen.

A couple weeks after finishing the book, I was on my bike half-consciously whining to God about how everything was too messy and complicated and why couldn’t he just make things clear and easy for us? And suddenly I thought “God would want me to accept the truth.”

I think it was the kind of moment that religious people are talking about when they say they’ve “heard the voice of God.” It was as if the words had been plopped into my brain, like they came from somewhere other than myself. I knew of course that it’d just been my own brain–but for some reason, thinking it came from God made sense. At that moment, God was still an acting figure in my mind, a thing that could WANT something. But what it wanted was for me to just accept the fact that none of it is real. God wouldn’t be capital-T Truth if his will was really for me to pretend to believe in a magical guy-in-the-sky who listened to my thoughts and was impervious to the laws of the natural world.

As ridiculous as that moment was, it totally gets to what I think I’ve truly believed all along: God is there, in some kind of way, but is not Creator (at least not like out-of-clay-missing-rib creator), not Prayer-Answerer, not Judger Of Sins. God is everywhere and everything, God is truth, God is love, God is knowing, God is oneness.

Dawkins says it’s misleading and counterproductive to go on calling such a thing “God” at all– but for now I like it.

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The Verdict: Numb But Not Hopeless

“How do we create change in a country where George Zimmerman can be acquitted? We can wear hoodies. We can protest. We can sign petitions. We can write our elected leaders. We can work to elect better lawmakers in 2014 and 2016 and beyond. We can donate money to and volunteer for organizations that fight racism and gun violence like the NAACP, Southern Poverty Law Center, ACLU, Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, and many others. We can also confront the instances of casual racism in our everyday lives, whether they come from ourselves or the people around us.”

– Roxane Gay, Salon

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Confronting Casual Racism: All Indians Are Creepy

Recenty I had an opportunity to respond to casual racism while I was at the lake with three of my friends.

(Disclaimer: these posts will be about me and my responding-to-racism skills, not about shitting on the folks who make the racist comments in question. There is a place and time for shitting on racists. This post is not it.)

We were discussing one friend’s neighborhood, and sharing stories about different experiences with males in the area. Apparently a large number of people from India live there, which is something another one of my friends mentioned as an intro to her story about one particuar Indian man.

She then began her story with: “He was really pretty creepy–like all Indians are–and he…”

Now, this is a white woman who is at least a little bit feminist, has a degree in a social science, and has mentioned white privilege in conversation before, so I was surprised. I made a face and interrupted whatever came next with an incredulous “Really? Did you hear what you just said? ‘All Indians are creepy’?”

I did this in a pretty humorous way, like a “reeelly? are ya sure that was a good idea?” tone. It was only after her laughing reply of “well, they are,” a look to the woman who lived in said neighborhood for support, and a comment that “out of 10 Indian men I’ve met, 9 of them were creepy” that I said quietly, “That… doesn’t make it okay to say” and then changed the subject by saying I was hot and needed to take a dip in the water.

She didn’t say anything — or at least not in the time it took me to get out of earshot and into the lake. I’m not sure if she was just surprised by the sudden seriousness I’d brought to the conversation, or if she was put off by me making a big deal out of her comment, or if she was embarrassed and wasn’t sure how to save face, OR if she was genuinely reflecting on whether that was okay to say. I actually think the latter is pretty likely.

Nothing about this moment felt good or satisfactory at all. I had suddenly changed the mood of our get-together from girl-talk-story-time to reprimand-y, political-correctness-time. I don’t even think her story about the creepy guy was ever finished. It felt like I’d changed the dynamic of the day, even of our friendship, by acting holier-than-thou. It was an awkward 20 seconds.

But. IT WAS ONLY 20 SECONDS.

Cool. As uncomfortable as it was, for all the things she and my other friends might have said while I was in the pool or might think about me now as a result, I said something–and relationships, at least on the surface, were preserved.  At the very least, I did one small thing to establish myself as someone who doesn’t tolerate statements like this in casual conversation.

I’m glad I…
… said something, period.
… spoke clearly and directly, and with a tone that matched my meaning.
… started out conversational/humorous and only got serious when it was clear that hadn’t worked.

I wish I had…
… said the word “racism” or “racist” or even “race” (Important note for Jay Smooth fans: ‘racist’ not in relation to her identity or character, but to her comment). Maybe “that’s the most racist thing I’ve ever heard you say” but not in a scolding way?

… said anything at all that explained WHY it wasn’t okay, or why it was a big enough deal for me to interrupt her story to say something about it. Maybe “I don’t think that makes it okay to generalize about an entire race of people.”

… addressed the ‘9 out of 10’ statement (I only implied it wasn’t okay to say “all Indians are creepy”–not that it wasn’t true). Maybe “I don’t think that’s true at all, and it sounds racist to say things like that.”

… expressed my faith that she was above this kind of comment. Maybe something like “I don’t think you really think that’s true, either.”

… resisted the urge to change the subject and walk away, though I’m really not sure how I would have done this without getting into an argument. It would’ve seemed like I was waiting for a reply, and she probably would have felt pressure to argue the point about her 9 creepy men. Maybe an argument is what should’ve happened, but I’m pretty sure I would have bowed to the pressure of preserving our relationship rather than getting my point across. I wish I’d had more faith in both my and her ability to argue boldly and rationally without getting upset.

***
This was a pretty blatantly easy-to-spot, easy-to-argue case of racism in conversation, as well. I’m glad I responded to it and that doing so resulted in very few lasting social consequences, but it’s nothing to pat myself on the back about. I’m hoping the process of reflecting here will help me call out more messy, entangled instances as well.

Help me, internet! What words would you have said in this situation? Could I have been more elegant or more effective? Do you have suggestions for future encounters or similar experiences I could learn from?

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Body Hair Update

At this point, it’s been two years since I stopped altogether, and my thoughts and experiences have aged another year:

– I own more skirts now than I have ever owned before, and wear them relatively often. I rarely notice people glancing at my legs, and when I do I’m pleased to note that it’s usually just that–glancing, not staring.
– I have more affection for my armpit hair now than I do for my leg hair. I love how sexual it is, in a way. I also like the smell and feel of men’s deodorant much more than women’s–which doesn’t slip or spray on easily on hairy pits. (By the way, the most common question I get about this is whether or not it increases my B.O., which I can’t answer conclusively either way. My hunch is no, only because I haven’t particularly noticed.)
– I still get a bit self-conscious wearing swimsuits that show the pubic hair on my thighs (which is why I really enjoy going to nude beaches, where there’s nothing to adjust or poke out of anywhere!)
– Speaking of nude beaches, I just moved to a place that is much more body-appreciative than where I was living before–I’ve noticed a few other non-shaving ladies and generally get the feeling that bodies of all shapes, sizes and levels of furriness are welcome here.
– I don’t think I mentioned this in my other post, but I have boob hairs. I did start plucking these out again, but not religiously (you’d be surprised how long those babies got before I gave in, though!).
– I must say, I’m glad I’m not trying to attract males, what with all this naturalness. Girls usually “get it” (when it comes to hair and many, many other things), and somehow I just don’t think I could find many guys who wouldn’t have girl body hair hangups.

Part of what made me stop shaving was admiration for what I saw as bravery in one of my close friends who stopped shaving her legs. I’m hoping that, just as she made me realize I could do it, I inspire others to go for it as well. Not people who like shaving their legs or don’t mind it, but people like me who have always hated it but feel trapped and don’t know how to not.

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To Do: Find and Practice Responses to Casual Racism

Much of the personal growth I’ve made over the last couple of years has been related to speaking more honestly and directly. Whether it’s in conflict resolution, support for friends who are hurting, working with kids, or just having a real conversation, saying what I feel and calling what I see have been hugely important new skills for me.

It’s been all about separating what is happening from what I’m afraid might happen, getting over that internal shudder of anxiety, and trying as hard as I can to just plain say what I’m thinking.

Good job, me.

However, these confrontations I’ve learned to handle so well should include dealing with the conversational racism that pops up every once in a while when interacting with my family or my more hipster-y white friends. I’ve not held myself accountable to the same direct speech that I use interpersonally (or in many cases to speaking at all), or even when I encounter casual sexism.

Part of this is related to the types of learning I’ve done about racism–mostly I read books. I follow blogs like racialicious and angry black woman and share little antiracist youtube videos on facebook. Resources upon resources exist for learning how to conduct yourself as a person of privilege in conversations expressly about oppression — but I’ve only found Jay Smooth for advice on how to confront other white people about their racism. I’m actively trying to manipulate my patterns of activity to include more than just white people and to not shy away from conversations about race, but part of Being White means that like many others, my first acknowledgement of oppression came from intentional learning rather than from experience.

The other part is that–guess what!? I’m a white lady, both oppressed and oppressor, and turns out the oppressor part is a lot harder to disentangle from my daily life. (But I suspect it’s not only harder to confront racism than sexism because of my particular orientation to these axes, but also because current popular culture seems to be addressing sexism much more frequently and directly.)

Things I want for my birthday:

More Opportunities for Actual Conversations
I discovered meetup.com recently, and while there are heaps and heaps of meetups for feminist discussion or sustainability or community service, I found no groups for my area for people who want to talk about race (starting one). Like most white people, I have a whole lot of white friends who are really good at steering conversations away from race. I am also a little reticent to abuse the non-white friendships I do have for this: “Hey, you’re black. Speaking of which, let’s talk about racism now!”

More Specific Examples
Reading material about racism is overwhelmingly abstract and theoretical. Theory is not  a bad thing–I love to get to the truths and connections at the very bottom of things– but I would love to see more authors/bloggers/commenters working through specific experiences and considering the possible reasons, reactions, and responses to casual racism when it arises.

More Guts
It wasn’t very long ago that I was hearing little misogynist things in conversations all the time and not saying anything. I’m hoping this ends up being just like that, and that I’ll soon make the discovery that it’s not so hard after all (not that I’m a pro at patriarchy-smashing. but at least I say things sometimes) to take my Internet Activism and fold it in to my real life.

**
Stay tuned to watch the development happen in subsequent episodes of Confronting Casual Racism!

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Being White

I posted this on a different blog, so this feels a bit like cheating. Oh well:

As a white lady who has recently decided her life’s calling is racial justice work, I spend a lot of time thinking about how my knowledge of race issues, necessarily, comes second-hand. I spend a lot of time wondering whether I, as a white person, am the right sort of person to be inserting my voice on something I don’t have real experience with, whether I shouldn’t just leave all the racism talk to those who know these issues first-hand instead of from books and college courses. Some folks have told me as much, saying Critical Race Theory is just another way for white people to self-righteously act like they know what’s best for people of color.

It’s not enough to say that whites have more power and capital, and therefore the anti-racist cause needs white people working on it in order to be successful. That belittles the power people of color do have, and makes it seem like the role of white anti-racists is to speak on behalf of people of color—as if the goal is to silence their voices further by completely replacing them with our own.

So on the one hand, I don’t want to speak on anyone’s behalf, and on the other hand, I’m wary of falling into “white guilt” and just doing nothing. In the middle is this place where I can work my ass off for justice and be proud and secure in who I am and what I’m doing. That’s what I’m working to find.

I think it lies in acknowledging fully what it means to be white—something white people aren’t forced to think about, but is crucial to fully understanding exactly where my place is in this work.

Being white means never having to apologize.

It means getting to blame people of color for their own predicament.

It means believing in, and usually defining yourself by, a pretend meritocracy.

Being white means having to learn, in school usually, to see things that others feel viscerally from as early as they can remember.

That’s the thing. Being white doesn’t make me less qualified to fight racism. Isn’t racism a white problem? Taking classes on race issues doesn’t mean I know more than people of color—it means I now understand that to expect people of color to solve racism is to ask them to fix white peoples’ problem. The problems of never feeling like you have to apologize, of having to go to school to discover, in your twenties, the very basis on which our society operates, the problem of blaming people of color for their own predicament—these are white people’s problems. Something we have the responsibility to fix. When people of color devote themselves to this problem, it’s a generous, valuable choice and a crucial contribution. But for whites to expect that of every person of color, or to bow out of conversations because we don’t know first-hand the experiences of people of color, is to take advantage of the agency they do have and expect them to put it all to use to fix our own pathologies.

In short, being white means having the responsibility to redefine what being white means.

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365 Days of Body Hair

In July 2011, I decided to go one full year without removing a single hair from my body.

I was doing regular full Brazilian waxes at the time, shaving my pits almost daily, shaving my legs if I was planning on wearing shorts or a skirt, and (sort of) “keeping up” by tweezing and trimming my eyebrows.

I made the decision because I was inspired my a friend of mine who’d stopped shaving her legs, because I wanted to embark on an expectations-defying exercise of body-positivity, but overwhelmingly because I just couldn’t come up with a satisfying answer to the question “Why AM I shaving, anyway?”

(… in what my friends felt was a disgusting contradiction, I decided to celebrate my last waxing by getting vajazzled.)

The Outcome

Leg Hair: It seems funny, but I’m really fond of my leg hair. I would estimate it took about seven months before I had more positive feelings about it than negative–but now I love walking onto the bus in shorts and wondering whether I’m making anybody ask themselves the same question I couldn’t answer. I love the softness of it (it stopped being prickly after about two months), and I love that my legs look a little like a dude’s legs. I’m actually more prone to wear short shorts now than I ever was before this project. I plan on keeping my legs hairy for the rest of my life.

Pitstache: My armpits definitely get the biggest reaction from people. Somehow it looks dirty to them to see dark pits on a girl, when the same thing is attractive on a man. I did a little double-take every time I saw them in the bathroom mirror for a long time–and I still often get flinches from many of my friends when I lift my arms. Deodorant was an issue at first–can’t use waxy deodorant on hairy pits, you know. I had to start using the more slippery dude kind (I even bought the aerosol spray kind for kicks, but it burned). My armpit hair is probably close to three inches long now. I plan on keeping it as well, but trimming it to maybe half its current length.

The Nethers: I’ve always been on the tufty side of things (or maybe I’m just trained to think that, like everyone else). My favorite part about not “maintaining” my pubic hair is the confidence I’ve built up in a swimsuit. I like paying attention to whether I switch positions on the lawn chair to hide it, and I especially like the days when I’m brave enough to switch back. I’m not totally over all of the stigma that comes with having lots of hair Down There, but in the full spirit of positivity, I’m not going to beat myself up over the fact that I sometimes beat myself up. I think accepting little insecurities, acknowledging them, and letting them roll through you, rather than ignoring or denying them, is part of the full experience of having a body and loving it. Sex isn’t changed much–I met my girlfriend in February, so I was already a Wild Thing and didn’t scare her off :). She is totally affirming and wants me to do whatever I want to do. However, I do miss the smooth feeling of being waxed, and will probably go back to Brazilians come July. If I can afford it.

Eyebrows: Totally a non-issue. Took me about three days to stop worrying about whether people were staring. Maybe it was easy for me because my face happens to conform a little to what eyebrows are “supposed” to be–but I honestly just don’t think anybody notices eyebrows like we’re taught to think they do (I only notice eyebrows myself when they’re drawn on).

 

Maybe it’s the rebel in me, but I like the thought that some women may be inspired by the sight of my leg hair the way I was inspired by my friend’s. In the (surprisingly few, actually) conversations I’ve had about my body hair in the past year, women I speak to either say “you’re way more brave than I am” or “I wouldn’t go THAT far maybe, but I do wonder why I still put the time and effort into shaving.” My wonderful girlfriend has joined me (see 1st comment here) and I’m hoping it’ll bring the same feelings of truly liking her body hair that it brought me.

(And in what I’m sure is still a disgusting contradiction, you bet I’ll be celebrating July 2012 by getting vajazzled.)

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