Angles

Started thinking again about beauty, which led me back to this essay.  It’s another de-construction piece, digging back into the experiences that I’ve carried for so many years.  There is a small burst of joy that comes with sending these stories out into the world.  It takes the sting out of them.geometry

Thinking about harassment I received from my geometry teacher, James Love, in high school.  It’s called sexual harassment now; at the time (1969) it was called teasing and considered complimentary.  (Okay, first of all, what a name, who would believe it, right?)  Mr. Love teased me steadily, day after day in class, his comments laden with sexual innuendo.  I was mortified and definitely believed that it was me who was ‘wrong’, that my reaction of embarrassment and discomfort was somehow evidence that I was ‘to blame’ and ‘asking for it’?  He was certainly blameless, I mean, he was a teacher, for heavens sake.

I heard rumors about other, (more attractive and more sexual), girls who spent time with him outside of school, maybe even were intimate with him.  I was still somewhat nerdy, but finally thin ‘enough’ and quite shy.  I blushed easily, which added to his delight in teasing/harassing me.  Naïve.  Ignorant?  I certainly knew enough to be shocked by the sexual comments he made to me in front of the class.  In fact, he made a fool of me, for the entertainment of my more sophisticated (sexualized) classmates, highlighting my inexperience as the root of my discomfort.  Somewhere there is a photograph that was taken of me, mid-blush.  I was trying to hide behind my hair; wishing I could crawl under my desk.

All the adults, faculty and staff, joked about Jim Love.  “What a tease.  What a card.  Great teacher.  Maybe he’s a bit full of himself, but the kids love him.”  (Yuck, yuck…) Not funny for me.  There I was, struggling to be thin and fit in and be acceptable, to meet the standards of female desirability and at the same time, (or as a result?) I was praying for invisibility.

I can’t really claim that I knew, in some above-it-all way, that appearances were not what mattered; that I was beautiful on the inside.   I didn’t believe that.  I’m sure I heard those words, but they were hollow, because the opposing message was pronounced LOUD & CLEAR from every rooftop. Yes, Dylan was singing and the times were a’changing, but the message had not been incorporated into the culture.  Despite the brilliant writings of second wave feminists, the residue from the socialization of my mother’s generation was still the dominant force.  You are second best.  Always.  That’s it and it is/will be the overriding factor in every aspect of your life: family, home, school, media, relationships, college and the work world.

on Beauty

Some thoughts on beauty.  Last Friday evening I saw a local production of the play, Hairspray.  I remember seeing the earlier movie version, with cross-dresser Divine as Edna Turnblad, but I didn’t really love it or get it at the time.  The more recent film with John Travolta in that role is a favorite.  The music is fabulous, the teenage take on the 1950’s becoming the 1960’s is fun – and somewhat accurate – and the treatment of the civil rights issues of prejudice and integration are moving.

And then there is ‘the fat stuff’.  From the first time I watched the movie, there were a few lines that just exploded for me; that’s not the best description, but as close as I can get right now.  When the teenage heart-throb sings to the fat girl, “Tracy, I’m in love with you, no matter what you weigh…”, there’s a little pop in my heart and brain.  Just to hear those words spoken.  And I’ve got to admit, the zing is still strong, even after hearing the line multiple times.  I wait for those words.  I do, I wait for them.  It feels rather sad and pathetic to admit it, but I do.

Earlier in the play/film, during the fat girl’s fantasy about winning the heart of the heart-throb, triumphing over the pretty girl, Tracy sings to her ‘rival’, “Amber, much to your surprise, this heavy weight champion takes the prize…”; fat girl triumphant, with a tinge of revenge?  Stirs me up a little.  When the fat mother of fat girl sings about not being seen by neighbors since she was a size 10 (?) and not having left the house in years, I feel a little sick and scared.  I guess I relate to that wish not to be seen.  The daughter’s response “Welcome to the 60’s…things are changing out there…” leaves me wishing that had really been true in the 1960’s, my years of adolescent suffering.  Things were changing in many ways, but fat acceptance was not one of them.  It was the era of Twiggy.

In the rousing, closing musical number, the fat mother shakes ‘it’ on the dance floor, singing: “… if you don’t like the way I look, well I just don’t give a damn!” and my heart rises up at the cheer leading positive declaration.  I wanna feel that way.  But I feel acutely aware that this is fiction.  An internal battle between Yes! and nope, is activated.  Generally I push it aside and enjoy the upbeat passion that wraps up the show.  Those see sawing emotions are too familiar and the battle is never resolved for more than a split second, so why bother?

An earlier scene, which is powerfully delivered by Queen Latifah in the Travolta film, carries the refrain “Big, blond and beautiful”, which led me to begin writing this reflection on beauty.  It’s a rallying cry, of sorts, toward self-acceptance and owning one’s right to take up space, to define beauty for oneself.  I don’t find this number as moving as the integration/civil rights anthem that comes later.  As I ask myself why that is, I wonder if it’s because racial integration and civil rights for people of color are so widely agreed upon.  The wrongs of slavery, segregation and racial profiling are so profound and the path toward righting those wrongs is (and will be) the work of generations.  We are clearly not a ‘post-racial’ society, but many/most of us are cognizant of the issues.

The right to feel beautiful, to believe you are beautiful, even when you are fat, seems trivial and self-absorbed in comparison.  Clearly the writer of Hairspray, John Waters, was drawing some parallels.  To what end, I wonder?  A last note about the stage production, as opposed to the more recent film… the script contains considerably more fat-bashing dialog.  There I was, 60 years old, sitting in the audience and not personally receiving the abuse, but the sneering and mocking was stinging. It wasn’t sufficiently mitigated by the positive messages embedded in the play.  Again, hard to admit, sad and dis-empowering, but I guess echoes of traumatic moments, even second (third, fifth?) hand, carry barbs.

So, it turns out what I have to share right now are these thoughts about the play, Hairspray.  My thoughts on beauty will come another time.

My ‘story’

My story.  The things I hold onto, that I repeat, to myself and to others, have created and continue to create my story.  Right now I am tired of the story I’ve been creating.  I do believe that bringing events to the surface, exposing them to the light of day and examining them is a vital step in the process of releasing the hurt and moving on.  On an intellectual level, I see the necessity and merits of this activity.  I shall continue to de-construct shame.

However, I am also remembering that the more I tell a story, to myself or others, the more solid it can become, the more it becomes my story.  My identity.  “This is who I am.”  Injured party, wronged individual.  Even if I stop short of a full pity party, “oh poor me”, I have contributed to my own pain by claiming ‘the down side’ as my story.  I have an aversion to cover-ups, born of the superficial and controlling  ‘make it look good’ & ‘as long as it looks good’ atmosphere of my childhood.  But I am wondering if a determination not to gloss over the hurts has kept me in a negative headset for far too long.

 
Can I also claim, as my identity, as my story, the fact that I wrote poems as a girl or that I loved to sing or that for almost ten years we produced real plays in my family’s garage?  Can I claim as my story that I loved the local library and reading was my greatest joy?  Can I claim as my identity the unparalleled bliss of trudging around my grandparents farm, through field and pasture, up the hillside and down by the brook?  May I claim the social and physical pleasures of Girl Scouting:  companionship, camping, hiking, orienteering, canoeing, swimming, archery and tying knots?

 
Answer: yes, of course I can.  Because those and other positive events, combined with the hurts and indignities, are what shaped me into the woman I am.  You can’t bake using just dry ingredients; you have to add the wet ingredients and stir.  Don’t over mix, there will be a few lumps.  Or perhaps the recipe calls for beating until the batter is smooth and silky.  However you blend the disparate ingredients, combining is required.  Even if you are layering elements in a casserole, it is the magic of the parts co-mingling that makes the the whole thing work.  That is the chemistry of cooking and an apt metaphor for how I wish to re-construct my life, to tell and own my story.

 

PS:  Check out this wonderful photo a friend took, when she used one of my EAW kitchen towels to cover the resting dough of her Buttermilk Bread!  Love it!

grapestowelw:dough

Tunes and TV

In June of 1964, I graduated from sixth grade and that fall I started junior high school.       That same June, Frank Sinatra recorded the song “Wives and Lovers’, which has unfortunately been playing in my head since I woke up this morning.  Why, I do not know.  Perhaps something from my dreams triggered the association.  But I do know that the recording was played a lot during the 1960’s and the lyrics have laid claim to some of my brain cells ever since.  Along with other distorting messages of that era.

curlstart“Hey, little girl, comb your hair, fix your make-up, soon he will open the door,
Don’t think because there’s a ring on your finger, you needn’t try any more.
For wives should always be lovers too,
Run to his arms the moment that he comes home to you.   I’m warning you.
Day after day, there are girls at the office and the men will always be men, Don’t stand him up, with your hair still in curlers, you may not see him again…

Still deconstructing how the shame-loading occurred.  The personal experiences in my family of origin, which I have been trying to disarm by exposing them to the light, are only part of the story.  They did not, indeed, could not have existed and ‘packed the wallop’ that they did, without the persistent support of the dominant culture of the times.

A dear friend recently sent me a copy of Appetites by Caroline Knapp.  It is a rich and painful book to read.  Here is one insight that really caught my attention:  “… the visual image [began] to supplant text as culture’s primary mode of communication.”  She goes on to note that images “are immediate, they hit you at levels way beneath intellect…”   So true, I thought.  She then highlights some wild stats:

In 1950’s, TV screen images changed every 12-15 seconds; by the 80’s, the speed increased to seven seconds.  “Today, [which was 2003 when her book was published] the image on the average TV commercial can change as quickly as once every 1.5 seconds, an assaulting speed, one that’s impossible to thoroughly process or integrate… they get wedged inside… insidious… come to feel like truth.

She goes on:  “This is the subliminal ooze of culture and misogyny, the source of its grip.  Images of beauty and directives about the body make women feel inadequate…” Tears sprang to my eyes and chills on my spine when she brought it home to my life today.  “Visuals operate like ‘heat-seeking-missiles’… honing in on a prior pang of insecurity or judgment…”   The images that bombard me/us daily reawaken hurtful memories of adolescence, the time when I came to understand about the “physical haves and have nots’…”

So, where does this excerpt take me?  Are these ideas a part of de-constructing shame?  Well, yes, anything that validates the misogyny and appearance-only-valuing of American culture in my lifetime can be liberating.  The sources of our shame are many and unmasking them is one of my goals here.  The poison has been a slow, intravenous drip for my entire life, for the lifetime of every girl & woman in this country (and elsewhere also.)

I can’t speak for men.  I know that there are stultifying, damaging messages about male appearance and behavior that must be damaging.  And, as I think most contemporary feminists would agree, the messages about what and how females should look and behave have been subcutaneously injected into boys and men also.  These inoculations inevitably limit male understanding of girls and women and undermine the possibility of developing healthy, balanced relationships, intimate or not.

So, yes, these insights are part of understanding and rejecting shame.  They give me a clearer understanding of the inadequacy that I felt.  There was no time to process or understand, much less critique this propaganda; the images just burrowed into my budding identity.  And then there was the audio component, worming its way into my emerging self with catchy tunes and rhyming lyrics.  Although, I guess I was doing some questioning of the Bacharach & David tune quoted above… curlend I never could understand why a woman would have her hair in curlers at the end of the day…

Staying up… beat

beet

Trying to stay upbeat here, folks.  Been spending a lot of time with that visitor I mentioned last Wednesday.  I did what Mr. Iyengar suggested and invited the nasty Doubt creature to join me here and go about its work while I do mine. Well, Doubt has not quit, but neither have I.  I’ve mentioned before that I’m stubborn and if I commit to posting twice a week, then that’s what I need to do.  Underlying that is the commitment to work everyday, to write and attempt to explain what I am beginning to understand about shame.

It has been distressing to relive some of the events of my youth that shaped my shame-based self-image.  I experience wild emotional swings:  anger one moment and sickening embarrassment the next.  Some of the characters in my life-dramas pop up with such clarity; it can be startling.  Names, voices and places from long ago.  They have clearly held some power all these years.  It feels like I am practicing a sort of incantation:  bring them to life and then crack them open.  I find myself grinning a bit as I write this, because when I look inside these people who inflicted such hurt, they seem very small and insignificant.

So, I gave them major roles, which they didn’t even know they were playing.  I’m fairly certain that they don’t have the slightest memory of what they said or did.  And in the case of my junior high classmates, I don’t think there was any malice.  (This is not true for the adults, who should have known better than to shame a child!)  I’ve considered contacting a friend from those days who could provide a reality check.  Maybe I will.  Risky business to open Pandora’s door, but it is a tempting thought.  I’ll let you know if I do.

DeConSha

DeConstructingShame is the name of the game.  Name of the blog, name of the job.  And you know what?  It’s hard work.  Picture a hard-hatted woman (yes, there is a hard head under the hard-hat), wearing overalls and work gloves.  Digging into a moldy, smelly, rotting foundation; taking it apart brick-by-brick. Bricks

The de-‘construction site’ metaphor may not be a perfect description, but I’m going with it for now.  Because shame has to have sources, doesn’t it?  The supplies come from lumber yards, cement mixers, plumbing, electrical and hardware supply warehouses.  The shame messages were passed along, almost slyly, unobtrusively, ubiquitously, by my grandparent’s and parent’s generations, and updated, (essentially unchanged) by Seventeen Magazine and it’s media cohort.

In my daily writing on DeConSha, I’ve been exploring the impossible task of achieving adolescence in the late 1960’s, where fitting in & looking good (the requirements haven’t changed much for the teens of today) inevitably led to sexual harassment and shame.  Gotcha comin’ and goin’, I say.  But nobody said that to me, to us, then.  We were displayed in our mini-skirts and it was open season for boys and men to evaluate us.  To follow the hunting metaphor, they took pot-shots at us.  My grandfather, my father, my Geometry teacher and every boy or man seemed to feel confidently superior in their maleness and comfortably entitled to rate, berate, mock or praise us.

Without a language to understand this phenomenon, without a sense of worthiness and pride, other than attractiveness to males, where could/did I go in my confusion?  If I failed to please, or if I received ‘unwanted attention’, either way, it was my fault, I was to blame and the shame of it all settled into my being.  Having been thoroughly primed, as a child, to accept responsibility for any short-comings, the searing moments of embarrassment that clustered in those years still sting.

So, I’m digging them out.  Threw away the work gloves.  Bare hands are the only way I know to do this.  Scraped raw knuckles, dry, cracking cuticles, fingernails that never were a proper feminine accoutrement… Every day I get up and I dig in the slime of the shame and although it seems endless, I choose, I must choose, to believe that it is not.

Two other notes:
Someone showed me the recently released Special K (Kellogg’s) youtube video called ‘Shhhhut Down Fat Talk’.  Don’t know what I think about it… special-k-Fat-Talk-1

As a large woman I truly detest fat talk and it is everywhere.  But I have some uneasy feelings about a member of the PPFIC (Packaged & Processed Food Industrial Complex) trotting out this campaign.  Of course, they have the money to do the research, set up a fake store and make the video.  Would love to hear what you think…

My second note is in the “Come on, who wrote that title?” category.  In the March 2014 issue of Journal of Experimental Social Psychology there will be an article entitled “The Ironic Effects of Weight Stigma”, based on studies done at UC Santa Barbara.  Of course I haven’t read the article, so I could be over-reacting (who me?)  Somehow ironic is not the word that seems most appropriate when talking about the effects of weight stigma.  Suppose I could be glad that research is happening at all.  Same with the Kellogg’s video.