Category Archives: gender

Shame Me Never

Once a man stopped my mother and me as we walked from a grocery store to her parking spot.  “What’s your disability?” He asked, pointing to the handicap accessible parking permit hanging from her minivan’s rearview. I don’t remember what my mother said back to him, but it was probably something like “Mind your business.” We both knew he was calling her a liar in an indirect way. His question was an attempt to shame her. This is how people who lack a sense of power exert control. They make a weapon out of shame.

She was 39 when the handicapped permit arrived in our lives, just three years older than I am now. She had no visible wrinkles, no grey hair. She never left the house without bright pink lipstick and Jackie-O sunglasses. She wore red nail polish on her toes. She did not look like a woman who was dying, at least if you think a dying person cannot be young or able bodied or capable of running an errand with her daughter.

But she was dying. Just a year before the parking lot encounter, my mother nearly died from a diabetic insulin reaction in front of me. She would have died had my sister and I not rubbed cake icing on her gums and dialed 9-1-1. We kept her alive while the paramedics made their eternally long drive to our house. We were nine at the time. This was not the first time we saved her life, but that’s another story.

***

When my mother was sick, when she was dying, I never used those words. Sick. Dying. This is not because I was afraid or in denial. It is because I was ashamed. Shame tunneled to the core of my being. Shame policed my language. Shame erased my self esteem. If I ignored shame, I thought I could make it go away. Instead of confronting my shame, I hid in my bedroom and read books about the Holocaust. I read every book about the Holocaust that our tiny library owned. I craved stories of other people’s suffering. I needed to know I was not alone. I needed to know suffering could happen to anyone.

Indiscriminate suffering became the theme of my writing. I wrote stories about girls whose mothers died or disappeared. I wrote these stories until a middle school teacher pulled me into the hallway one day and asked me if I was a masochist. She did not give me time to answer before she told me to stop writing these stories. They were freaking her out. I didn’t stop. I just stopped showing this teacher what I wrote.

Years later one of these stories won a national award that helped me get scholarships for college. My sister saved the story for me. She has always believed in my writing. A few months ago, she found the story and called me to tell me my life’s work is to write novels. But I can’t write fiction anymore. I don’t know why, or what happened to me, only that my inability to write fiction is directly connected to my mother’s death. I wrote one short story the year after she died. It was about a girl who tried to kill herself but survived.

I was the suicidal girl.

I was the girl who did not die.

***

No matter what my mother ate or how many times she tested her blood sugar, she would have an insulin reaction. She could not control her disease. Her disease would not be controlled.

She felt at fault for this dynamic, and she was made to feel this way inside a culture whose dominant narrative of illness employs words like “battle” and “fight” to erase the reality that control is usually the first thing to go when a person is sick. My mother did not battle her disease. She lived it for 35 years. She endured organ damage, organ loss, organ rejection, surgeries, hospitalizations, fractured bones, daily needle injections and blood draws, depression, and anxiety.

When she went to sleep at night, she never knew if she’d wake up in the morning. She wore an insulin pump. It did not save her.

The night after she died, I slept in the bed where she’d taken her last breaths. Her insulin pump beeped in the middle of the night. I threw it across the room. I wanted to break it open. After it hit a wall, the pump fell onto the carpet, completely intact.

­­My mother didn’t get to live in a time when women spoke openly about how shame silenced and policed us. The expression “body shame” was not part of her lexicon. She bought into the myth that her disease could be cured, and she believed her organ transplant was a cure. When her organs rejected seven years after the surgery, she gave up hope. She accepted her death. I do not know if she felt anger or if she blamed herself. During the last month of her life, she was the saddest I had ever seen her. She was sad to the core of her being.

Only a few close friends knew about my mother’s transplant or her organ rejection. Shame kept me silent. Shame kept me from reaching out. Shame kept me isolated. Shame fed my own depression.

***

I’ve had to speak up about my own illness this week. I’ve had to tell a friend and mentor –– and leader on my campus –– that I need to take breaks in order to protect my body from immune system attack. This need may mean that I miss out on opportunities. This need means I am not “leaning in.” This need means that I have to say the word “can’t” even though I’ve been taught never to say this word.

I am an overachiever. I am good at what I do. I am ashamed of myself when I say the word “can’t.”

I feel lazy. I feel like a quitter. I feel like a person who wants to squeak by doing the minimum. I am none of these things, but that’s the power of the word “can’t.” It evokes suspicion and disdain, especially when women use this word to set boundaries. You see, when a woman sets a boundary, there is often a professional cost. We are either shamed by others for setting the boundary, or we shame ourselves.

I’ve decided to stop giving a shit about shame. I’ve decided to take away shame’s power to control me. “Can’t” is not a bad word. Sometimes it’s the word I need to say, the only one that can save me.

Conditions of Power

 She died a famous woman denying

her wounds

denying

her wounds came from the same source as her power – Adrienne Rich

 

A few years ago, I posted this selfie on Twitter.

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I was annoyed by a Vidal Sassoon ad campaign that connected “styled” hair to a good selfie. My tweet went something like this: @vidalsassoon behind every good #selfie is a woman who refuses to connect selfhood to her hair.

I took the photo after I’d finished 35 uphill minutes on an elliptical machine. My hair is unbrushed, unwashed, and full of sweat. I’m not wearing any makeup.

At the time, I thought my selfie was funny and a little bit brave. It meant I could be real. It meant I could present my face the same way men do every day –– without augmentation. It meant I didn’t care if people thought I was ugly. But the truth is there’s a part of me that still cringes each time I look at this photo. There’s a part of me that feels messy and ashamed of my mess. There’s a part of me who fears being ridiculed for my bare face, or for publically presenting an unadulterated version of who I am.

My mother wore makeup until the day she died. Even without makeup, she was a truly beautiful woman. But she tied her self worth to how others perceived her beauty, and she taught me to perceive myself the same way.

When I break these rules, I feel like I’m violating a fundamental code of womanhood. I feel like a failure because of all the beauty standards I inherited from my family and culture, and also because I lost my mother just a few weeks after I turned 21. She died at the moment my life as an adult woman began.

I had no one to shop with on the eve of my college graduation, no one to call to talk “outfits” with before my first job interview, no one to ask if my hair was too short or my lipstick was too dark or too bright.

I had to figure it all out on my own.

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This week, I facilitated a dialogue on my campus. A week before the event, my friends started asking me what I was going to wear. They offered to give outfit consults or to lend me professional clothes. But I hate suits, even pantsuits. I hate the word “blazer.” I feel like a fraud in clothing that’s designed to hide my female body. I prefer dresses, especially dresses with wild and colorful patterns.

In the end, I decided to wear a safe black dress Carl picked out for me and a jade necklace I bought during our last trip to New Orleans. I wanted to focus on the substance of the dialogue. I did not want to think about my clothes or how I appeared to others. I wanted to feel comfortable.

But an hour before the dialogue, I started getting nervous. Was my lipstick too bright? Was my dress too casual? Too low cut?

I found two female colleagues and asked them my questions. They relieved me of my doubt. One gave me a hug. Another let me use her office mirror to fix my hair, then she ran a lint roller down the back of my cardigan, which was covered in dog hair.

Even though my mother has been dead for almost 15 years, I still crave her approval. I still look for her in other women. One day, I hope I will look to myself first.

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My thinking about female selfhood and beauty is motivated by the amount of time I spend at the gym –– in mixed gender exercise classes where women are encouraged to become powerful in our bodies, and where we literally exercise our power.

For me, these spaces are one place where women are affirmed in resisting narrow beauty standards. At the gym, we sweat. We have bare faces and messy hair. We run. We climb. We lift. We bike. We get strong.

My mother was once strong, too. After her transplant, she began jogging on a treadmill her cousin bought her. She competed in two U.S. Transplant Olympic Games held in Columbus, Ohio and Salt Lake City, Utah.

These competitions were a way to publically reclaim power over her body in the wake of chronic illness. But in the last months of her life, she lost that power. She suffered stress fractures in her feet after walking barefoot on a beach. She needed a wheelchair to run errands.

Other mothers expressed panic when they saw my mother confined to a wheelchair. (Their daughters shared this panic with me.) My mother’s aging and diseased body could just as well be their own. I do not fault them for these fears. I often harbor the same ones.

Like my mother, I exercise to reclaim power over my body, and this is why I felt compelled to tweet my workout selfie to Vidal Sassoon, and why I still need to be in-your-face about my post-workout face.

When I exercise, I condition my body and break down my female conditioning. I become more fully myself, more fully alive. I become a woman who is a little less self conscious, a little less approval seeking, a little less afraid, a little less worried about her clothes, her makeup, her hair.