The ETSU’s Women’s Studies blog would like to spotlight the exceptional writing of students currently in Women’s Studies classes by reposting selected posts. The following is a guest post by Eva Alom.
Throughout history, religion has been notorious for promoting heavy gender stereotypes. From idolizing virginal figures such as Mary to the overwhelmingly popular choice to classify God as male, religious traditions conflict with many feminist ideals. Christian or otherwise, the presence of these heavily patriarchal systems of beliefs has a definite impact on the lives of women. One of these effects is the attitude towards sexuality in religious women. In her writing Indecent Theology, Marcella Althaus-Reid brings to question the great divide between natural human qualities such as sexuality and religion. Attending church is perceived as higher than any other activity one partakes in throughout a normal week. This apparent holiness is grasping at the idea that connecting with spiritual forces is outside of our quotidian experiences, but fails in doing so in that the result has been a separation of humanity and spirituality. This separation manifests itself most strongly in the separation of sexuality in religion. Feminists teach that women should not be made to feel ashamed of their sexualities, but religion, by excluding such a prominent part of anyone’s being, strengthens any sense of shame. When this is done, the implication is that humanity is on such a lower level than spirituality that it may never achieve pure goodness, happiness, or holiness. Even farther, the belief that one is fundamentally flawed becomes a barrier in doing all that one can to be good.
Though these negative attitudes towards sexuality are present for both male and female sexes, it is undeniable that female sexuality is scrutinized much more harshly through the lens of religion. The small number of female characters in religious texts creates an “all or nothing” dilemma, wherein the only examples of women are unnaturally pure or unnaturally impure. This phenomenon translates to an unfair expectation for women to maintain an unrealistic idea of purity in all aspects of her live. Since this is impossible, women are instead left with the expectation to keep these “impure” parts of themselves hidden.
Much can be learned by stepping back and looking at sexuality as an experience that can coexist and even enhance spirituality. In many ways, sex can be the epitome of spirituality. The act of sex has often been described as the merging of two souls. When two or more people connect with each other in such an intimate way, a loss of ego can occur, creating a powerful feeling of being one. During masturbation, accepting one’s body can become a symbol of love and appreciation of the creation that the universe, God, or any number of spiritually forces, provided as a home for the soul. When orgasm is achieved, a state of pure bliss at losing all control is experienced. It could be argued that this state is the work of a spiritual being.
Deepak Chopra provides 12 “insights” into sexuality and spirituality.
Religion was created for the soul purpose of understanding humanity on a deeper level. Since nothing has ever been achieved by suppressing truths, it follows that at least part of the path to understanding would involve the acceptance and celebration of sexuality, for both men and women.
The ETSU’s Women’s Studies blog would like to spotlight the exceptional writing of students currently in Women’s Studies classes by reposting selected posts. The following is a guest post by Casey Kendall.
Simone Weil Davis’s essay “Designer Vaginas” spoke about a popular insecurity most women have: is my vulva abnormal? In this essay, Davis discusses how media and porn tend to make women insecure about their vulvas. She mentions how porn stars are expected to alter their body to fit the “standard” desirable vulva image; inner labia tucked into outer labia, a perfectly neat and tidy image. Magazines are filled with articles that claim knowledge on how you can make your vagina and vulva perfect, as if there was something not perfect about it to begin with.
*This gets personal*
After I had hit puberty, I encountered this insecurity. I had a rash, and went to mom to see if I needed to go to the doctor. Instead of focusing on the rash, my mom was more concerned about how large my inner labia were. She took me to the doctor, who explained that every woman is different, and that mine were normal. Despite what the doctor said, I felt like something was wrong with me. Soon I began sneaking to look at porn to see if mine really were normal. Thankfully, I found a site that didn’t have the cut perfect figures, and was reassured that there really was nothing wrong with how I was formed. It still bothered me, but not as much.
That changed, however, when I found a steady boyfriend with whom I wanted to have sex. I was terrified that if he saw how my vulva looked he wouldn’t want me anymore. Eventually, my fears caved to desire, and I soon found out he didn’t find anything wrong with me. My insecurity had been for nothing. And when I talked to my girlfriends about what happened and my fears, they shared the same ones. It turns out most of them had larger labia than they thought they should. Once they had had sex they discovered the same thing I did; their guys didn’t give their large inner labia a second glance, they were just grateful they got to see it.
I found this article on the internet, and though I have never encountered a guy who openly admitted to this state of mind, I understand why the girl was so traumatized by what he said.
Something needs to change. No girl should feel this kind of shame about themselves. Parents should educate their girls on their body parts, instead of leaving them to figure it out by themselves. They need to let their daughters know that vulva [and all body parts for that matter] come in all shapes and sizes, and that they are beautiful however they are. Yeah, it may be an awkward conversation to start, but it needs to happen. Girls need that reassurance. Porn industries should allow more variety in their workers. Whether we like it or not, pornography has a large influence on youth. Plenty of guys and girls use it to interpret how they are supposed to look and act in a sexual situation. The porn industry needs to admit they play a large role in this and many other insecurities women and men have. They also need to try and change to stop these insecurities from occurring. It won’t lower their income to allow more variety in their employees.
No girl should be insecure about their vulva. It should not be encouraged by society and pushed by media. We are all beautiful just the way we are.
I am [sort of] Woman, Hear Me Roar: How I became a Feminist, from my Grandmothers to “Meeting” Andrea Dworkin
By Tyler Schrichte
“Tremble, great enemy, for you now lie under the foot of a woman.”
– St. Margaret of Antioch, included in Dworkin’s Intercourse
Believe it or not, I was not born a feminist. I did not come forth from my mother’s womb espousing tales of how men use intercourse to oppress women; I did not analyze why it was not socially acceptable for me to be enthused over dolls and beauty; and I certainly did not consider the gendered implications of Disney movies. Feminism was something that grew inside of me, like a finely-pruned bonsai; it would later burst forth from inside, making the seemingly-angry radical you may be familiar with today. The seeds were planted by women; great and powerful women who raised me: my grandmothers, my aunt, and my mother. In my childhood, I was always around women who had such great strength, I often wondered how they raised me, held down a job, and kept the house clean. I was upset when people would suggest women couldn’t do anything meaningful; I must disagree, sir (it was usually a sir). I’ve seen them do it all! What have you done? Have a beer and contribute nothing? Dictate what is appropriate for others to do? I hated this. I hated men. However, let’s be clear, feminism is not about hating men. I am just an individual feminist who happens not to be the biggest fan of men, collectively. Perpetuating stereotypes is the last thing I want to do; this is a feminist essay, for god’s sake! Please don’t miss the point.
Looking back on my childhood and my “younger” years, if you will indulge that kind of rhetoric, I suppose I was a feminist from about the age of four, maybe five. My earliest “feminist” memory is that for as long as I can remember, I always worshiped powerful women in the television shows I watched. I worshiped the pink Power Ranger when I was young; I loved that a woman who was quite literally kicking ass was finally represented on television, and it made me realize that no matter how many times it was suggested that women couldn’t do anything, I’d think “What about Kimberly, the Pink Power Ranger? She could probably kick your ass!”
That was my feminist thought in its infancy, not yet put into practice. I truly think, however, that my love of strong women characters really kicked off when I started watching Sailor Moon. It came on in the afternoons, after I’d gotten home from school for the day. It was my afternoon treat: women standing up for themselves, and showing young girls that they could be strong and fight for justice too; that strength and substance wasn’t a just a boys club, no matter how much popular culture would have you believe that it is.
These fictional characters which I loved so much were really the best form of escapism I can imagine, as my childhood was not really a normal one, nor was it all sunshine and rainbows either. My earliest memories are of my parents, before they divorced when I was three or four. My father had a very bad methamphetamine problem, and while he never was physically violent (to my mother and I anyways) he would go on insane and frightening tirades due to the drug-induced paranoia. I saw how this affected my mother, and I realized that men had the power to do this sort of thing, physically and socially. I wondered how many other mommies had to go through things like this. I won’t lie, either: after my mother left my father, things didn’t really get better. She had a string of…let’s just say not so pleasant…boyfriends, but I never really had to stay around them that much, and I have my grandmothers to thank for that. My parents’ mothers are the best people in my life; they truly are my favorite women. Whenever something bad would happen, they would always swoop in and save me from it, if at all humanly possible. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to truly repay them for all they’ve done for me, but I hope I can do something equally as significant for them someday.
Eventually, my mother settled on a man whom she would marry, and that is probably the single worst thing that has ever happened to me and to her. This man, who does not even deserve to be referred to by name, as he is not human, was the worst. He seemed innocuous enough at first, just your “typical” male. However, it wasn’t long before the true and evil nature of this man came to the surface. He was a drug pusher, user, and addict. I don’t mean just one, either. It was pretty much all of them. No joke! He coerced my mother into using intravenously, and he used this to keep her weak. This wasn’t enough: for every perceived mistake, every slight “mistake,” just…everything, it didn’t matter the reason, he would beat my already weakened mother, and this was something I had to witness, for a long time. I’m not telling you this for pity; I’m telling you this because this happens to women all over the world, all day, every day. Statistically, a woman’s own home is the most dangerous place for her. A woman is more likely to be killed in her own home than anywhere else, and I know this is true. I know this is true because I’ve lived it. I know this is true because I had to hide in the closet while it was going on. I know this is true because I had to make up some colorful tale of why my mother looked like she had just lost a pro boxing match. I know this is true because it went on for four years, and I know this is true because even calling the police never stopped it. Now, I don’t want you to think there isn’t a bright spot in all this darkness, there is, I promise, and I’ll never, ever forget the day it happened. Notice I said day, not date. This was sometime in 2003, around late fall or early winter, and I know for a fact it was a Sunday evening. I have a grandmother, my father’s mother. Her name is Anita, and she saved me from everything. Every weekend, I would go to her house to escape the turmoil in the house where I did live. Well, one weekend I’d simply had enough; I was tired of being around junkies; I was sick to death of being verbally abused by a male on a daily basis; and I was sick and tired of seeing my mother either beaten up, in an opioid-induced haze, or in some cases both of those things were true.
One night, I remember it being clear and slightly windy, my grandmother pulled up to the apartment where I lived with my mother, and I simply refused to exit the car. My mother was called out to remedy the situation, but I have her stubbornness, and refused to budge an inch. Enough was enough, and I knew I couldn’t help my mother out of this situation unless I got out of it myself. Of course, this was met with resistance: my mother didn’t want to be separated from me, and my grandmother expressed concerns regarding not being able to balance myself and her job, but I stood my ground, and I have lived with my grandmother, Anita ever since, and let me tell you what this woman has done for me, and what she still continues to do for me today:
Since she lived in a different school district than the one I was in when I left my mother, she drove me back and forth, thirty minutes each way, every weekday so I wouldn’t have to switch schools. She did this while still making it to work by eight in the morning. She selflessly agreed to essentially raise a child for the second time. She tolerated my outrageous teenaged behavior, even when it was at its very worst. She put up with me when I was at literal rock bottom: when I was sixteen and very badly addicted to OTC cold medicine and chemical inhalants, among other things. She continues to help me financially, and if it weren’t for her help, I don’t know if I would be here at this university writing this essay right now. In fact, I can almost guarantee that I would not be here today if I had stayed with my mother. She has been the only stable and consistent person in my life; she gives the best advice out of anyone I know; she is always there for me when I need to talk about something, or just simply to vent. She was insistent that I would not end up like my parents, and always pushed me to study hard and do well in school. A list of the things this wonderful woman has done for me could take up this entire essay, but I believe I’ve made my point quite well. If it weren’t for my grandmother, Anita McCawley, I would not and could not be the person I am today, and I cannot express my gratitude to her in words, as she literally gave me my life. I cringe at the thought of what would have happened to me without her, and I vow to one day be able to repay her for all the kindness and love she has shown me.
To continue with this conversation of great women who influenced me, I’d like to tell you all about my hero, Andrea Dworkin. I was introduced to Andrea Dworkin and her work when I took Philosophies of Feminism here at ETSU. The selection I read was “Occupation/Collaboration,” which is chapter seven of her book titled “Intercourse,” I cannot describe the ephemeral surge of enlightenment that coursed through my veins, as I read every word; I devoured it; it produced a great hunger within me, and I had that moment. “This is it. This is what I’ve been waiting for my entire life, and I didn’t even know it. I need this,” I thought as I put down the packet of scanned pages, crumpled from me clenching them and absolutely drenched in ink from my notations. I had to have more; I needed Andrea Dworkin to be a part of my life. I rushed to the first computer I saw and looked at her Wikipedia page. To my dismay, I saw that Andrea Dworkin had passed April 9, 2005. She passed away seven whole years before I discovered her work. To me, this is an injustice of cosmic proportions. Andrea was only fifty-eight when she passed, and I would give anything to have her still be here today. I weep because she was taken so soon. I weep because I will never meet her, and I weep because I will never see her speak. Most of all, I weep because she could still be here today. Fortunately, however, a handful of wonderful people preserved the audio recordings of her speeches, and to my surprise, there were several. For the past six or seven months, and even as I write this, I listen to those speeches. I listen to her passion; her eloquence, and the absolute sobering effect the speeches she gave had on me. I soaked up every word, and tears flowed down my face as every word, every passionate and powerful syllable struck my ear. Andrea Dworkin is most well known for her anti-pornography activism, but Andrea was a writer first and foremost, and she is a damn good writer. I cherish all of the books I have that are written by her, and in fact refer to Intercourse as “my feminist bible,” and in fact on the back of the edition of “Pornography: Men Possessing Women” that I own, there is a quote from Gloria Steinem, which makes my deeming of Dworkin’s literature a feminist bible all the more appropriate, the quote reads:
“If we were to have an Old Testament prophet for feminists, it would be Andrea. But even that is not a good comparison, because she offers not just a voice of anger and justice, but also of compassion and redemption,” –Gloria Steinem
I could not agree more with this statement. Reading Dworkin’s books of feminist theory gave me the foundation for all of my feminist stances, and Andrea Dworkin is another wonderful woman I owe a great deal of gratitude for shaping me into the person I am today. Although I’ll never be able to express this gratitude directly, I vow to crusade in Andrea Dworkin’s name in all of my feminist activism; my vow is to become this generation’s Andrea Dworkin, because I believe she was the first to name the problems of pornography and the sexual violence it produces, but discussing that is another essay entirely. In short, I am endlessly thankful to Dworkin and the work she did; she is my feminist prophet, and when I am teaching feminist theory classes myself one day, I will make sure all of my students know her, because Andrea Dworkin should be a household name. Thank you, Andrea Dworkin, I will always remember you.
So, why am I a feminist? I’m a feminist because my mother was beaten and she was told she shouldn’t make the man who beat her upset. I’m a feminist because I have seen violence against women firsthand. I’m a feminist because I watched my mother be kept prisoner. I’m a feminist because my grandmother told me she was deliberately left out at her job because she was a woman. I’m a feminist because I’ve experienced more homophobia than I can possibly list. I’m a feminist because I’ve heard too many stories of violence against women; some of those stories involving people who I am close friends with. I’m a feminist because I’ve heard of too many instances of women being coerced into sexual intercourse. I am a feminist because I want to fight for the rights of my grandmother, my mother, my aunt, my friends, and for all women to live in a world that is free from violence, objectification, and sexual coercion. I’m a feminist because I never want another woman to experience what my own mother experienced. I’m a feminist because no child should have to bear witness to their mother’s daily beatings. Most of all, I am a feminist because I have seen the oppression of women up close and personal, and I swear to you I am hell-bent on stopping it. I’m a feminist because it is the right thing to do, and I am a feminist because I believe it is the right of every human being, regardless of race, class, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity/expression, body type, national origin, or anything else, to live in a world that is free from violence and discrimination. I am a feminist because the hate needs to stop; I am feminist because I want to make the hate stop. This is what I’ve chosen to dedicate my life to, and I never have been so passionate about something before. I’m a feminist because I know women suffer, and most importantly of all, I am a feminist because I am full of love, even though I may seem cold, I am full to the brim with love, and I want to make sure every woman knows there is love, there is hope, and despite the darkness that seems to overwhelm us at times, there are those who are fighting to make it better. We can make it better, and that’s what I’m here to do.
ETSUCon was this past Saturday and I’m very pleased to say that it was a success on many levels. It was my first convention experience, and in my opinion it couldn’t have been better. I had heard convention horror stories of cranky cosplayers cramped and cornered, and of sexual harassment and inappropriate touching of women who, admirably and painstakingly, created perfect facsimiles of the iconic outfits of their favorite characters (which are often portrayed in a hypersexualized way) only to be treated with disrespect. I have to admit I was worried about this prospect myself, since I went dressed as Lara Croft, one of the most well-known and infamously objectified characters of all time, especially since Lara Croft cosplayers have notoriously been harassed at cons in the past.
My version of Lara was from the newest game in the franchise in which she is portrayed in a much more realistic way, with a bit more practical clothing choice, but it’s important to remember that convention harassment typically happens regardless of how women are dressed or how conservative the attire of the characters that they dress up as are. To place the blame for sexual harassment on a woman for the clothes she is wearing as if it were an invitation to violate her personal space and safety, is to engage in sexist slut shaming and victim blaming. This sort of thing is also sadly common as a means to justify inappropriate behavior in a society with a horrifying rape culture.
At ETSUCon, however, I am proud to say that I felt quite safe and respected by the convention goers. Those in charge of the event had a firm grasp on things and exhibited adept organizational ability. The attendees, at least in my experience, were quite respectful of personal boundaries when engaging with me or asking to have their pictures taken with me. I didn’t feel ogled or vulnerable, and I was personally not made uncomfortable by anyone at any time. I would hope that my experience is reflective of the whole, but I obviously can’t speak for every attendee. All of the feedback that I have heard thus far has been incredibly positive.
Speaking of feedback, the feedback that I received about our two feminist gaming panels at ETSUCon, “Feminerds Unite!” and “Sexism in Video Games” has also been incredible and makes me feel extremely proud of all the panelists (Caroline Locke, Women’s Studies student and panel organizer for “Feminerds Unite!”, Jon Shell, Chloe Conner), and also a sense of pride and accomplishment myself for participating in both panels. I also want to give a shout-out to my Feminerds Unite! co-panelists mentioned above, who did a remarkable job (Caroline did an amazing job in particular with the panel organization and moderation), and my Sexism in Video Game co-panelists and good friends Jennifer Culp, Cameron Kunzelman and Samantha Allen. Their insight was powerful and brilliant, and I think that it’s a safe bet that not only are our attendees now more informed about the prevalence of sexism within the “nerd” community, but they feel more empowered to confront it and shape a positive, inclusive community where no one need feel threatened for their identity.
All in all, it was one of the best weekends of my life, and on a personal note it was rather interesting to see what people unfamiliar with the ETSU campus found appealing or interesting – Cameron and Samantha were particularly enthusiastic about how awesome our spinning globes in front of Gilbreath and Burgin Dossett are. They also found endless enjoyment in the name of the company that owns the bookstore, Neebo. My good friend Frederic Poag also deserves a lot of recognition for the admirable job that he did. He ran around the entire day making sure that everything went on as planned, personally assisting myself and my panelists to get ready for our panels and to get to where we needed to be. The panels both had a wonderful turnout and the crowd provided some awesome questions for us to answer. I hope to have audio of the panel up in the next few days.
The first annual ETSUCon was an experience that I feel privileged to have been part of. I cannot express enough how happy I am to have had the conversations that we did, or to have seen the way in which our audiences reacted to our message. It gives me hope not only for the future of this convention, which has a strong foundation on which to build, but also for our society, seeing these enthusiastic young leaders in the fight against oppression right here in Johnson City. We may not be known for very much, but rest assured, these gamers are not to be taken lightly.
Other special thanks to my friends Justin Mitchell for moderating the Sexism in Gaming Panel, my friends and adopted kin Joseph Culp and Haein Lee, Ben Schaller for all of his personal support and encouragement, and everyone in attendance at ETSUCon for such a great time.
You can find photos of both panels in this album on our facebook page.
Until next year, as Lara Croft would say, “Just Keep Moving”.
“Hell no, I’m not one of THOSE girls!” On internalized sexism.
Soraya Chemaly talks about Facebook’s misogyny problem — namely, tolerance of abuse against women.
Germany resolves to increase the amount of women represented on the highest levels of management.
A judge has permanently blocked North Dakota’s medication abortion plan.
Jill Soloway’s kickstarter project, “The Empowerment Project”, aiming “to create positive role models for women everywhere”, looks really fascinating.
The creator of the Everyday Sexism project talks about her experiences, the stories, and the backlash that she’s received.
This is rape culture: an Arizona Man proudly displays a sign reading “You Deserve Rape” at a sexual assault awareness event.
Amanda Marcotte talks about how not to be an overt sexist.
Likewise, Phaedra Starling talks about how to approach women without being threatening.
Don’t forget! The sexism in video games panel is tomorrow night at 5:00PM-5:50PM in the Culp Center Meeting Room 2, and Feminerds Unite! Discussing general sexism in nerd culture, is from 11:00AM-11:50AM in the forum.
Christina Huffington debunks the myth that women are underrepresented in leadership positions due to lack of ambition.
Teach sex ed honestly, already.
Pregnant women in America are being locked up for losing their babies in miscarriage.
Michael Dyzel Smith talks about how street harassment is partially about impressing other dudes.
The importance of calling rape and rape culture out, and calling them by name.
Linda Burnham gives a critique of Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg, and “1% Feminism”.
Boys’ Clubs: A tumblr dedicated to exposing the areas in society that women have yet to tread.
Ozy Frantz put up a wonderful post critiquing “sex positivity” and our dialogue regarding sex, sexual desire, sexual goals, and expression of sexuality in general.
Brittney Griner talks about being “out” in pro sports.
David Haglund talks about the “feminist comedy” of Louis C.K.
And on a day like today it is important to remember the power of white privilege, as Tim Wise points out.
(editor’s note: I am also very proud to announce that at next week’s ETSUcon, a comic convention held right here at ETSU, there will be not one, but two incredible feminist panels which I highly recommend attending. The first, hosted by Women’s Studies student Caroline Locke, “Feminerds Unite!” is a discussion about internet misogyny in nerd culture in general, with the second, my panel, regarding Sexism in Video Games (industry, culture, the games themselves)
A final note of congratulation to all FMLA members and Women’s Studies students elected in the SGA elections, as well as a thank you to those who did not for running and trying to make the campus a more inclusive and safe space. It is appreciated.
Remembering Margaret Thatcher as she was: Anti-Feminist.
Sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior is unacceptable no matter how someone is dressed, and cosplayers are fed up of having to deal with it.
Vanessa Valenti released an update on her project looking at the future of feminism and the capacity of the internet to shape the movement.
Plan B will also now be available to all women over the counter.
Shannon Sun-Higginson started a kickstarter for a project about women in gaming that looks really promising.
Comic artist Aaron Diaz released a pitch for a gender-swapped Legend of Zelda game inspired by Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series.
A woman calling out rape jokes and misogynist content on facebook herself became the recipient of rape threats.
The backlash against even the idea of Brittney Griner trying out for an NBA team exposed some very problematic attitudes in NBA fans.
Hollaback! Philly posted this great ad speaking out against street harassment.
(originally posted on my personal blog 4/4/13). Content advisory for language and an image of blood.
“It was much pleasanter at home,’ thought poor Alice, ‘when one wasn’t always growing larger and smaller, and being ordered about by mice and rabbits. I almost wish I hadn’t gone down that rabbit-hole — and yet — and yet — it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life! I do wonder what can have happened to me! When I used to read fairy-tales, I fancied that kind of thing never happened, and now here I am in the middle of one! There ought to be a book written about me, that there ought! And when I grow up, I’ll write one.” – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
As a transgender woman I’ve thought a lot about the idea of myself being flawed. I struggled for 24 years overexamining every tiny indicator of “maleness” that I saw in the mirror. I carry the flaw of having identification, documents, and records in a name other than my own. I carry the flaw of genitals that are seen as incompatible with my gender. I still feel flawed in my fashion choices and the fit of the clothes I wear on my body despite not looking or feeling right in men’s clothes, either.
Simply put, I have felt for most of my life that I’m caught in a perpetual state of being flawed – caught in the inbetweenness of “not” and “not quite yet”. I’ve been always expected to measure up to a standard that as a deviant I can only approach, but never attain. A human asymptote.
Nevertheless, these “flaws”, due to nothing but blind luck, were something that I could hide and bury from the world, because they saw me as physically beautiful and thus somehow more worthy of owning the identity that I had fought for. I would tuck, powder, and blend away the flaws, hold my head up high, and walk with a confidence that I was very much privileged to have, simultaneously freed from my own mental prison and dragged down by the guilt of knowing that there were prisoners like me not so lucky to happen to fit into socially constructed beauty standards.
Though I would often ruminate on this and try not to, there were times when I took my identity for granted. Thinking about it, that seems like something anyone should be able to do, and cis people, no matter how conventionally attractive, do so all the time. Yet in my case, this was something I had to feel guilty for. I tried to minimize my cognitive dissonance and live for the first time proud of who I was and how I looked and how others saw me – attractive and unflawed.
Then, yesterday, it happened.
I got out of bed and wrote a little bit of an essay and decided to take a shower. I felt a little lightheaded, but I ignored it. I took for granted that I would wash my hair and my skin and then dry off and head for the store. I took for granted that I’d be able to go print off the poster I had made for a class assignment and get coffee with a friend. I took my health and lack of visible flaws for granted. I took for granted my consciousness and the wholeness of my identity, until I lost it.
I passed out when I stepped out of the shower and was in the process of putting on my bathrobe. I don’t remember the fall, only waking up covered in blood surrounded by shards of a broken full-length mirror that once stood on the floor.
“Oh, fuck,” I said.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
I looked in the mirror above the sink, which was unbroken, and it revealed to me that I had suffered hideous gashes across my forehead and nose and deep into my cheek. I would later learn that the forehead gash was 3cm deep and my nose had a trench 1.5cm deep. I was bleeding profusely, and the amount of blood already on the floor combined with the still-woozy dehydrated feeling that I had made me wonder if I would lose consciousness again as I frantically dug through the cabinet for something, anything, to stop the bleeding. I tried to apply the 1 piece of gauze we had left, but it was small and drenched in blood before it had any shot at being effective. I tried to apply bandages but they slid off my face, unable to adhere to my skin in the viscous blood flow that would not stop. I finally applied all 3 of the towels I own to my face in rotation as each of them became covered in my blood.
With my bathrobe on, I managed to amble into the kitchen and get a drink of water in preparation for what came next. Little crimson droplets left a trail behind me with each frantic footstep.
“Okay, I can’t go naked… FUCK, I can’t afford this, I don’t have insurance! Maybe I should just try to stop the bleeding myself… No, then it won’t heal right and I’ll be a scarred mess… FUCK, I’m going to be hideous…”
I was sobbing, my blood mixing with my tears as they fell to the floor and I frantically searched for a bra and my black V-neck to throw on. I pushed my still wet hair aside and called my parents, who advised me to go to the emergency room and “not to worry” about having no insurance, which was of course impossible. I then called my roommates. They were at work, so I just left a voicemail and told them that I was going to the hospital. Once I was dressed, I actually took the time to scribble a note for them so that they knew the house was not a murder scene and apologized for the mess.
I grabbed the least visibly blood-soaked towel and my purse and keys and got in my car. Somehow I was able to drive to the emergency room where I checked in. It was normally uncomfortable any time I had to take out my identification with an outdated picture of myself and a name that was now foreign to me, but with the entire room focused on my bleeding face and thrown-together appearance, I felt suffocated.
Once checked in, I took a seat and my roommate called to let me know she was on her way. She soon arrived and comforted me, holding me in her arms.
“I’m… sorry…” I said.
“Don’t you even.” She replied. “It’s going to be okay. Don’t apologize for this.”
I heard my birth name called out. Embarrassed, I got up and sat down in front of some woman who asked for basic health information.
“Now… your name is…” She said.
“Katharine.” I replied. “That’s just my birth name.”
“So are you male or female?”
“I’m a woman. I’m… I’m trans.”
Always a scary admission to make in East Tennessee.
After talking to her, they admitted me back into a room. I disrobed and put on a hospital gown as strangers laid me onto my bed, uncovering my body to examine it and determine what was wrong with me. They then wheeled me out and into a dark hallway where I waited to be thrown into the CT scanner. A woman came out and asked my name as they wheeled out an old man and prepared to wheel me in. I told her, and her reaction was accepting, but in a way that seemed as if it were more to humor me than actual acknowledgement of who I was.
They strapped me onto the stiff, phallic bed of the CT machine and slid me into the alien womb. I remember feeling totally helpless, disoriented, exposed, and alone as the machinery whirred, scanning me until finally it had finished and I was birthed back into the world. The woman from before gave me another robe to more fully cover myself where the first had been pushed aside. She seemed more concerned with my exposure than I did, but I put it on and slid back over in my bed so they could wheel me back.
Once I was back in my room, the doctor finally saw me. They said that I’d done a hell of a job injuring myself. Congratulation on my wounds, still dripping blood on my face, was not exactly the most comforting thing to hear. I asked him if I would be permanently disfigured and he told me that with the severity of my lacerations there would likely be permanent scarring. Tears again welled up in my eyes.
As they prepared to give me my stitches, I talked with my roommate and my aunt, who had just arrived, and the conversation seemed to revolve around how I would learn to accept these flaws and eventually forget about them. How there were people who were once beautiful, but then learned to live with being damaged. I did not want to hear that. I didn’t want to be formerly beautiful. I didn’t want to be damaged.
It felt like the actual process of being stitched took an eternity, but I am glad that the doctor seemed to be meticulous. I was talkative with him as the blood and anesthesia fluid dripped down my face, trying to find humor in my situation to deal with the emotional and physical pain I was feeling.
“I’m just like a little stuffed rabbit with its stuffing falling out.” I said.
I received 30 stitches, and the doctor said that I looked good. I still hadn’t seen how bad I looked, but relative to when I walked in the doors I suppose that was true. My aunt took a picture to send to my mother so that she wouldn’t be as worried. Everything still felt like a bad dream. Soon after, a strange man who fittingly had a voice that I would describe as “Mad Hatter-ish” came in to confirm that I was uninsured and unemployed, and they wrote me a prescription for antibiotics and sent me on my way.
In my friend’s car, I saw my reflection for the first time since I was stitched up. I remarked that I looked like a “last girl” from some horror film who had just fought with Jason and emerged victorious. I didn’t feel triumphant, however. I realized that I could no longer hide my flaws. That I would have a permanent marker upon my face, the defining characteristic of my identity to others, that I was to be categorized under words like “damaged”, “lacking”, “inferior”.
I was not whole, so I was not beautiful.
I never really thought much about that feeling, and the way that our society views bodies and faces which deviate from a “norm” apart from the feelings that I experienced as a transgender woman. Even then, however, I could hide my “flaws”. I could conform to the standard with relatively small effort. I could do “beautiful”. Now that isn’t an option. Defective is written on my face.
I know I shouldn’t be feeling this way and I see now that beauty is more something that is done than something that one is, and that those who cannot do beauty as well as others are marginalized for it through no fault of their own. I know now that I had a lot of internalized shit that made me value those beauty norms in myself and it very likely colored my perception of others.
I feel a lot of emotions about my face right now. I know that it will “get better” and that it will heal but my face is likely permanently changed and I can’t help but feel the tears welling in my eyes writing that. I wish I could be like Alice through the looking glass and say that I’ll come through it stronger. I wish I were in a wonderland that I’ll return from or a fairy tale with a happy ending but I don’t think that’s the case and I don’t really deserve it to be. Other people have to deal with a lot worse than this and I was privileged beforehand being seen as beautiful. If I’m honest, I don’t know if I’m strong enough to leave the house and venture out of this world beyond the looking glass. I don’t know if I’ll be stronger. I don’t know yet if I destroyed the mirror or if the mirror will end up destroying me.
If I am stronger, however, I can’t help but think about how great the metaphor of a trans woman destroying a mirror and coming out the other side to self-acceptance despite her “flaws” is. I was selfish, though, in being okay with the idea of being able to avoid that adventure to a much greater degree than some other trans women that I know. Maybe I needed to be humbled. I’m not really sure, and if my life has taught me one thing, it’s that I will be learning lessons from this fall through the looking glass for years to come.
Maybe it will make me stronger and a better person.
Maybe I should just think of it like Alice did.
“After a fall such as this, I shall think nothing of tumbling downstairs!”