The Wolf Inside the Insta-Gym

“You’ve got thighs like a rugby player… massive calves, too,” my male classmate informed me during a History lesson in ninth grade. It was a non-uniform day, and I’d opted for bare legs and a skirt.

“Is that a good thing?” I whispered back in horror. I had never played a game of rugby in my life.

“Dunno,” he shrugged nonchalantly, and turned around to continue flicking paper balls at the bin.

At five foot one and a half, with naturally well-endowed thighs and bum, I welcomed the Instagram fitness generation with open arms. Finally! Here were some mainstream representations of curvy women who diverged from the five-foot-eleven-legs-up-to-heaven-Jack-Wills-thigh-gap-Tumblr aesthetic I’d grown up with. I could finally embrace my short ‘scrum-half’ thighs, the anxiety over which had, among a complex multitude of other factors, contributed to an eating disorder from the age of fifteen to eighteen.

It was probably around 2016 when I felt the tide change.

Between Kayla Itsines at the willowy end of the fitness spectrum and the protein-powered bodybuilders at the other, came a hoard of girl-next-door hourglass influencers with their “strong not skinny” slogans and progress shots, providing us with resources and hope that we might one day achieve that level of thiccness* and see the light at the end of our own “fitness journeys.” However, what has become clear to me more recently is that as long as social media is fueling the fitness industry, our ‘journey’ will never end; new paths will form, and it will keep changing direction depending on the fickle barrage of images illuminating our phones each day.

*having a bubble butt and perfectly proportioned breasts, while still maintaining a corseted waist and washboard stomach – lumps in all the ‘right’ places, essentially (popular usage includes “Damn, she thicc”). 

On a visit to Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt last October, I was flicking through a book of essays on modern capitalism, and I chanced across one on gym culture. It didn’t focus on the obvious connections — the gym industry’s endless production line of products and extortionate monthly membership rates — but instead, it looked at how the mechanical repetitions of gym workouts satisfy an innate need for manual labor; a (somewhat Victorian) subconscious desire to be cogs in an industrial system.

Unfortunately, I forgot to jot down the name of both the author and the book and have had no luck locating it since, so I’m yet to discover if their hypothesis rings true. But the word mechanical stuck with me and made me look at gym culture in a new light. As did a resounding phrase in Jameela Jamil’s well-articulated critique of the Kardashians — “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

Before I begin my interrogation of the very structures that I myself profit from, I should probably pause for a serious privilege check: I am a healthy white western woman, my body is accepted by mainstream society, I am lucky to have the financial means to go to the gym at all. This is not a radical or brave article to write, but I think it’s worth writing anyway.

I am a religious gym-goer and regular exercise is a huge part of my life. In fact, it is vital to my mental health — I get cranky and anxious without it. Nothing boosts my endorphins like going for a run around the city at sunset or feeling increasingly strong while lifting dumbbells or falling asleep with that glorious post-gym muscle ache. Morning exercise sets up my day and objectively puts me in a better mood. For the most part, I find it empowering and therapeutic. As a recovered anorexic, exercise is also what enables me to eat huge, healthy portions and feel good about it (perhaps a problem in itself, but as anyone who’s experienced an eating disorder knows, those anxieties never disappear completely, so you just learn to adapt). It’s hardly a ground-breaking revelation that exercise is a very good thing.

But Instagram DIY gym culture can become just as toxic and obsessive as portion controlling and weight-loss regimes. And when you take a step back, it’s actually a very unnatural process — not necessarily the exercises themselves, but the intent behind them.

Unlike aerobic or functional exercise, in our current aesthetics-focused gym culture we work on remote sections of our bodies in a clinical way. We are constantly overloaded with tips, tricks and equipment for “growing that booty” or achieving that “perfect hips to waist ratio” or sharpening our abs — we don’t think of the body holistically, but break it into remote areas to work on, chipping away at ourselves like clay models.

Unsurprisingly, this can lead to dysmorphia and relentless perfectionism, and it is no healthier than watching Burberry adverts. Because you find yourself trying to enlarge your bum but not your thighs or tone your arms without making them “bulky.” Or you may exercise your chest and put weight on your boobs but not your stomach. It makes bodily satisfaction practically impossible, because there is always more work to be done. And then, it’s no longer just a case of “booty gains” but of sculpting your “side booty”, “upper booty”, “under booty” (who KNEW there were so many different parts of booty?) and suddenly your Instagram Discover page is a veritable minefield of at-home workout videos by tanned Gymshark warriors clad in beautiful pastel-colored lycra performing a hundred different variants of the same exercise. You can’t seem to take your eyes off their absurdly spherical gluteus maximus pulsing up and down like a mesmeric orb. Before you know it, you end up operating like the exercise machines you use.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t save pretty much all of the aforementioned workouts for my gym sessions, and that I don’t feel great when my bum feels perky — the overwhelming irony of this article is that I am a complete slave to what I’m critiquing — but when you’re in the gym doing 40 donkey kicks on one side and you start thinking about how ridiculous it actually is, it does break the spell a little.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to feel and look good — whatever “good” constitutes on the Kendall to Kylie Jenner sliding scale nowadays. The free routines and advice flowing out of the Insta-gym certainly give people more autonomy and more resources for getting fit. It’s much easier to tone your muscles than it is to drop three dress sizes and miraculously stretch your legs to conform to the Victoria’s Secret paragon. But it still capitalizes on insecurity while making us feel like we are entirely our own agents. We are told that we are in control of our bodies and our workout plans, but we’re still subscribing to an exhausting ideal that has just as much capacity for self-loathing, physical shame, and guilt as the other extreme. What starts as an easy and empowering method of toning up can often end in a desire to sculpt every limb to perfection.

We are also told that with the right amount of work, we can achieve the same physique as our favorite Instagram athlete; but it is still a genetic lottery, just a different kind of genetic lottery to the catwalk.

This tiring pursuit of “body goals” also participates in a much broader narrative — the upward neoliberal trajectory that instills in us an unceasing desire to progress and consume; a constant echo of more, more, more. It is the same narrative of dissatisfaction that convinces homeowners they need to redesign each bedroom and bathroom every two years in order to remain on trend.

It is ever-present in the language of these fitness influencers, who hark on about gains and “progress shots.” That their lingua franca is saturated in monetary semantics is unsurprising given how Instagram is becoming an increasingly capitalist platform where influencers can earn thousands through sponsored posts and fast-fashion adverts — where ‘selling an ideal’ is no longer just metaphorical. What begins as a healthy way of connecting to your body, getting out of your head and realizing the strength you’re capable of, ends up getting tangled in more images, more dysmorphia, more dissatisfaction and more spending.

Will I stop utilizing these Instagram workouts and attempt to switch off from this gym generation? Probably not, no.

But it’s still important to be aware of the wolf in sheepskin, and how addictive this ostensibly healthier approach to achieving body confidence can become. As with everything nowadays, it feels like we’re so focused on becoming that we forget to simply be.

 

Photos (in order of appearance) by Alida Bea, Nikki Burnett, and Camille Rose Perrett.

 

The Story of a Fling, and the Myth I Created From It

 

Out of all of Mari Andrew’s Instagram posts that I have saved on my phone, there’s one that I return to time and time again. It’s simply six pairs of lines titled, “Relationship History.” Each of the six relationships is broken down into two lines: one indicating the length of the relationship; the other, the intensity. Perhaps you can already imagine the pairs aren’t all balanced. In the caption, Andrew mentions spending seven years getting over three dates she spent with someone.

My someone was Max. 

Why have I continued to want to see him a year later? Why was I so intensely attached to our situation? How did I feel about it then? How do I feel about it now? What storylines did I create before, during, and now? What were my requirements? What patterns were showing? What meaning did I attach to the relationship? His actions? The short answer could be I actually — almost — believed he wanted me. So when he later didn’t, it proved once and for all that I was unlovable.

He was already a mythic figure to me, even before we knew Skater Boy’s name was Max. I felt as though he was smitten with me immediately — something that stuck with me for the year before I saw him again because it was such a contrast from the usual response I received when chasing guys. The intensity of the attraction I felt towards him was acute, sharp. Like getting the wind knocked out of you. If someone like that could be into me, then maybe I was desirable. Already, I was layering on the possible meanings. So when I saw him later that year, as I handed him a cup across a different counter in a different coffee shop, it only felt more miraculous that he still seemed to want me. 

The fantasy of him was so perfect.

He, unlike my exes, liked to dance. He was stylish, wore jewelry, had a nose ring. He threw artsy gallery shows and house parties where there was live painting and music. He was the first guy I spent the night with, which I didn’t even consider might connote different things for each of us. He was cuddly and generous with words of affection and admiration. He said he felt lucky to have me.

He didn’t know how loaded that could be for someone so convinced they were a disappointment. I believe that people who were abused repeatedly in the past play out the story built by their abuser(s) with different people — thinking that if we try again, try harder, try to change ourselves, we can kill the ghost of their abuse. And maybe also find peace by obtaining their love and acceptance. The darkest, most poisonous part of this narrative is the idea that we affect — even cause — their behavior. The little kid who had “you are worthless” screamed at them, thinks the actions of their abuser were their fault, that they deserved it. Broken: it’s a devastatingly normal way to see yourself if you grow up like us. 

But Max wasn’t like that. He wanted me. And because he was cool and stylish and artsy and popular and wanted me, that meant I was cool, stylish, artsy and popular enough, too.

But he was messy. I made so many excuses for him, refused to even entertain negative ideas about the relationship. On some level, I must have known the darker realities. I was preoccupied with him all the time, I would feel this visceral jolt that made me sick to my stomach every time I saw him, and I slept restlessly when we shared a bed. I thought the reason I struggled to be and want what he wanted was because there was something wrong with me. There it was again: “broken.” I was working so hard to push away anything that didn’t fit my carefully curated narrative.

The first time we went out together, he only answered and confirmed the date an hour beforehand. I paid for food because I wanted to, but he promised he would cook me dinner in return. Next time I ended up making us dinner, while he showed up without the bottle of wine he had promised to bring. Yes, I would’ve liked to hear from him while he was out of town, but that was manageable. What was not as manageable was him telling me he didn’t have cell service in Vegas the entire time he was there. The doubt and the distrust continued to creep in. 

Relatable to some of you, I’m sure, but for those who are confused, here’s an explanation: I still felt unlovable. Unlovable enough to think that him acting like this, or him making me feel this way was okay — to not think anyone could or would treat me better, that I deserved better, or that it might even be better to be alone. I still craved someone outside of myself telling me I was good enough. Max is just one someone I’ve tried. There have been a few.

I repeat the pattern… until what? Maybe I actually inch towards creating higher standards for myself every time. Maybe I just say fuck it and dump people on a whim that the reason I’m miserable is that my low standards are not being met. Maybe one day, feeling powerful on a bathroom break between dance classes, I’ll see my one-day-a-week boyfriend posting flippant jokes about falling in love and getting his heart broken on Tinder and I think, “I don’t have time for this bullshit.” Maybe it still takes me a few months, fucking a few other guys, and at 4AM one morning, I’ll briefly consider moving to New York with him, before ultimately, I call the whole thing off. Maybe that won’t be the last time. 

Maybe Max sends me a DM now, a year later, saying he’s sorry. Saying he wanted to reach out but it wasn’t possible, because he lost his phone. But he thinks my hair looks really good buzzed… what do I do?

 

 

Art by Quin Feder. Photos (in order of appearance) by Ana Salazar and Dariana Portes. Gif by Mole Hill.

 

I Stuck a Finger Up My Boyfriend’s Ass

Jacob does not talk about sex. He’s good at it, though, so I encourage him to talk about it with me. But he’s always had a much more reserved relationship with sex, although he openly loves his penis. I, unbothered by his modesty, spoke about sex — my sex, our sex, sexual health, sex in politics, sex in the news, sex on planes — freely and oftentimes loudly and at inappropriate times. Jacob would never dissuade me from screaming from the rooftops about intimacy. Rather, my boyfriend had a tendency to broach the subject in the liminal spaces of our lives. 

Brushing our teeth. Tuesday evening. 10PM. “Baby, why do you prefer having a threeway with two girls and not two guys if you consider yourself to be straight?”

Waiting at the gas pump. Sunday before family brunch. 8AM. “Angel, do you think it would feel good if I used the vibrator on the little space between my balls and my asshole?”

CTA Red Line, Jarvis stop. Heading to get Ethopian food. 5:13PM. “What were you saying about using food in sex when you were on the phone with Phoebe last night? Frozen grapes sound fun.”

Aside from these rare, random occurrences, Jacob was otherwise silent — which I mistook for vanilla. And after this particular rendezvous, I must argue his sexual appetite is much more fluid than I’d previously given him credit for. By which I mean, I was not expecting it when he asked me to stick my finger up his butt.

Now, in my defense, I hadn’t ever had anyone ask for a finger up there. And I’d been around. So when Jacob, my 6 foot 2 inches ex-football player, “manly-man” boyfriend asked me if I’d ever touched someone’s ass before, my immediate response was almost: have you?

Instead, I asked him what he wanted me to do. Partially out of curiosity but mostly out of ignorance. If he wanted me to touch him, he was going to have to show me exactly what he meant. He got nervous upon being asked to explain. After a lot of “uhs” and “umms” I finally got a rhythm down, gently pressing the tip of my pointer finger against his hole, pushing slightly further in when he motioned for me to. He would nod with what he liked, and adjust my hand when he didn’t like what my finger was doing. His dick was in my face, so I started giving him head at the same time (Something I actually know how to do!) .

The whole thing lasted about eight minutes before we got to the good stuff (can anyone say, intercourse!). Afterwards, once we had rehydrated and gotten our morning coffee, I asked Jacob what compelled him to ask for such an act. To which he responded that I should relax and be more open. Again, I was stunned. 

“You were nervous,” I told him. “The way you asked made it seem like it took effort.”

“It did take effort,” he shrugged. “You know — imma dude. That type of shit…” he trailed off. 

“Baby, I don’t know!” Jacob grabbed me by my waist and pulled me into him. Normally, I was the one who pushed for experimentation in the bedroom. 

I introduced him to the vibrator and the handcuffs. Whipped cream and frozen grapes were also all me. Our only collective effort had been roleplay, which I attributed to all the ridiculous storylines in shitty mainstream porn. So, having him tell me to broaden my horizons was an unexpected shock to the system. 

He laughed when I said nothing. “I know you always like for us to try new things with your body, I figured we could do the same with mine.”

Incrédulous, I asked if I had done a good job. 

He answered in the affirmative. But told me to be more sure of myself. “I want you to touch me,” he said. “That always feels good to me.”

Mentally taking notes, I asked if he’d ever had anyone do that before. 

Affirmative again. What? I thought. This man had been holding out on me. “Jacob!” I slapped his arm. “Why are you just now telling me?” 

“Because it’s embarrassing!”

“I literally write about sex for a living!”

“Being a man makes it hard to ask!”

“It shouldn’t.”

“But it does.”

“What made you ask if you were so nervous?”

“You literally write about sex for a living.”

I burst into a fit of giggles, “You just don’t want me to think you’re gay!”

He pinched my sides, making me laugh again. “You know I’m not gay.” He pinched me again. “And so what if I am? I still like fucking you.”

And, he was right. On several fronts. Firstly, I did know his preferences. Secondly, so what? A quick Google search will reveal how the prostate is, in many ways, the male “G” spot, rendering stimulation not only natural — but encouraged.  I laughed to myself. I should know better than to relegate male assplay solely to the sex lives of gay men, I couldn’t avoid my automatic bias towards butt-stuff. 

He paused as I re-situated myself on the bed across from him. “You’re always talking about sex,” he said slowly. “You’re explicit, but you’re precise. It’s almost clinical.”

I swatted at him. He dodged me, “Hey! It’s not a criticism. I’m just saying, you tell me what you like.”

“I do,” I agreed.

“And you’re so direct that it’s impossible for me to misunderstand you.”

“That’s why our sex is good,” I said.

“That is why our sex is good,” Jacob agreed. “But it could be better.”

“For you,” I stated.

“Exactly,” he agreed again, grabbing my feet and pulling me towards him. “But for that to happen I have to communicate.”

“I fucking love communication,” I lamented into his shoulder, biting him gently, for emphasis

“So yeah,” he said, pulling me up and pushing me towards the bathroom. “I had to tell you that I like fingers up my ass.”

“And I know you’ve lacked interest in reciprocation” he said, turning on the shower for me.  “But let me know if you change your mind. Pretty sure I have a butt plug somewhere around here.”

Still partially catatonic from the narrative switch between Jacob and myself, I hardly had time to process his first comment before he left me with more.

“Maybe once we get married I’ll let you peg me,” Jacob said, pulling closed the glass shower door, then leaving me to marinate in my shock in private.

So… yeah. That’s what happened. That’s how my finger ended up in my boyfriend’s butt. And, uh, it’s most definitely going to happen again. I hope my mom never reads this. 

 

Photo (in order of appearance) by Willow Gray and STAA Collective

Letting Go of the Shame Surrounding My Mental Illness

 

*The following many be triggering to those affected by self-harm and depression.*

 

Last month, I found a note I wrote when I was 9 years old. It was hidden deep in the bedroom closet of my childhood home. Soon after I began to read it, I realized it was a suicide letter.

Suicide itself was not specifically detailed, so it was a little cryptic. I tiptoed around the topic; I don’t think I had ever even heard the term “suicide” before. In the letter, 9-year-old Maya explained how life was too hard for her and that she needed to leave. I wrote to my family and friends that it was not their fault, and that I’d always love them,  apologizing for being selfish, but with a hint of hesitation by including the idea that I thought their lives would be easier without me.

The letter was the first of many folded up pieces of scrap paper.

After years of therapy and intensive treatment, I’ve learned to dig deeper into my memory to evaluate childhood events and dynamics that contributed to the development of the mental illnesses I have today. I was already aware of my mom’s alcoholism and of my parents’ broken relationship. But, this was the earliest, actual piece of evidence I found that tangibly initiated my mental health trials.

Seeing 2008 as the year listed atop of the old wrinkled paper shocked me. I was mortified that a child young could house the feelings, thoughts, and emotions that I still struggle to work through today, as a young adult. The letter triggered a series of events within my mind. I began to recall memories I had buried so deeply that their existence was almost erased.

I watched the new Christopher Robin movie, and emerging from the adorable story and characters I loved so much as a child was another memory — one from when I was little and comparing myself to every animated character I fell in love with, constantly changing my metaphorical identity from Belle to Jasmine. Yet, out of all of the Winnie the Pooh characters, I thought of myself as Eeyore. I didn’t want to be the severely depressed donkey living in misery. I wanted to be Roo or Piglet, the cutest ones that made people smile. But the truth was, in my heart, I knew that I was Eeyore.

Growing up, I liked to constantly change my style. I was obsessed with self expression and figuring out who the “real” me was. In 7th grade, I wore dark purple eyeshadow for a week and decided that that was my thing. This evolved into glitter eyeshadow the following week, since that’s what the popular girls started wearing, and in my mind, I was supposed to be popular. At one point, I bought a sock monkey beanie with ears attached to the top and wore it around the house and out and about with my family for a few days because I told myself that THIS is the real me: I’m the quirky girl that wears a funky hat. 

When I was 15, I decided to embrace the hippie life because my dad was a surfer and drove a 1989 Volkswagen bus. I believed that hippie genes ran through my veins… which isn’t totally untrue. Numerous parts of my personality do reflect those of my dad’s, who grew up in Southern California with a group of friends who wore homemade loincloths on the beach and wrote notes in each other’s yearbooks preaching “make love, not war” and “peace, love, granola.” Dad always smells like patchouli and sandalwood…

My free spirit identity carried on until my first suicide attempt during my second year of high school. This was consequently followed by a thirty day stay at an inpatient behavioral health facility for teens. My mental health status had remained rocky since 2008.

When my junior year of high school came around, I returned from summer break with a bang and changed my style and physical presentation to what I believed would qualify as “girly girl.” I got really good at doing makeup, straightened my hair before going out in public– no matter what. I got a lot of attention that year and went through a few boyfriends. My social status rose quite a bit, and I got the full experience of what it’s like to juggle relationships, friendships, school, drama, HORMONES, sex, and everything else that comes with being a teenager. I was doing much better and managing my mental health closely. I was consistent with my new medications and participated in outpatient therapy. My social life was entertaining, but everything was still a secret. I told no one about my mental illness or past suicide attempt. I was beginning to thrive in my environment, I thought, so the world mustn’t find out that I’m crazy.

But, the truth must come out eventually.

I was carrying a giant, invisible backpack full of shame from my depression and anxiety as I walked through the halls of my high school wearing a new outfit and smile on my face. I learned how to perfect my under eye concealer application to hide the purple and puffy bags that lingered from the night before. Eye drops were always on hand for me so I could clear the redness after a cry in the bathroom. The back stall was safe. I could let my anxiety attack run its course unbothered and return to class seemingly fine. I learned to resist my body shakes and voice quivers so that I could be that girl who’s friends with everyone.

When I turned 18, my breakdowns became daily. I didn’t know how much longer I could carry this heavy backpack full of secrets. My back was breaking from the weight. I thought I could hear the cracks spreading from my spine to my skull.

In the last four years I’ve learned a lot about myself, society, and especially mental health. I started reading about the stigma surrounding mental illnesses and about the importance of raising accurate awareness. I watched documentaries about people like me, and I reminisced on the moments I shared in inpatient treatment with my peers. They became the people that I connected with on a deeper level. I had only known them for thirty days, but they had become some of the most important people in my life. They’re the true reason I made it through that terrible month; our vulnerability with one another and the stories we shared together about our struggles bound us together. That honesty and establishment of community was a crucial healing agent in my case. We had secret powers that helped us reach our own unique lights at the end of the tunnel, and none of us even knew.

I thought about those kids every day and began to consider the possibility that people at my school may be going through the same thing we were. Maybe they were also good at putting on a disguise. They could be sitting right next to me in class or meeting with a school counselor like I do. They could be at this very party, dancing and laughing. They could be in my friend group. They could be the people I think I know everything about.

My mom tells me that I have always been an advocate. I stood up for myself and those around me. She told me that the only time she’d receive “in trouble” phone calls from my preschool and my later elementary school was when I punched an older kid in the stomach for bullying one of my classmates. I’ve always known this about myself, but I was never confident enough to intentionally tap into it. I didn’t think I was powerful. 

But then, I realized there is a lot more to me than just my mental illness. It doesn’t rule me. I don’t need to keep playing a role — I could finally navigate the intersection of my identity and mental health.

So, I stopped faking it. I started acting on my impulses rather than strategically planning out my identity as if it were a Pinterest board.

I woke up from a nap one afternoon and got my hair cut. I watched my long, healthy hair fall to the floor. I looked at the dead ends. They had been there in my crises, they had been there in my weakest moments, they had been there through everything. And now, they were idly sitting under my feet, no longer a part of me. As I shed the dead follicles, I began to shed the preoccupation I had with my identity and the shame of my suicide attempt — I got a bob. It felt amazing. I went home and deconstructed my dresser and made a pile of things I would wear but didn’t really like on myself. The suede ankle booties from Nordstrom. The god awful basic grey t-shirt dress that was so short I may have accidentally flashed the entire cafeteria when I sat down. The low-top white converse that I thought made my ankles look weird. The black ripped jeans that were so tight I could literally feel them slowly cut off my circulation while I stood in front of the “twin day” spirit week wall beside my friends who wore the same ones. Most importantly, the push up bras that did nothing but torture my A-cup boobs.

After the demolition of my room, I bagged those and dropped them off at Goodwill. Ironically, Goodwill would become my favorite store. I flourished in my new skin, I felt comfortable, and I didn’t have to convince myself that anything was my “thing” because I didn’t have or need one anymore.

My newfound confidence in my appearance gave me the strength to lay my interpersonal cards on the table. I shared my story with what felt like everyone I knew at a weekend getaway sponsored by my school. I prepared a script so I wouldn’t mess up when I stood in front of a hundred of my peers. I read about a third of it to my audience before I realized I didn’t need to follow a structured layout like I always had.

I knew my story —  the paper didn’t.

I cried publicly and felt no shame in doing so. I soaked in the love from the audience when I finished and realized that some other people were also crying. Did I really do that? Yeah, I fucking did that. And, for the rest of the night, I sat with people who asked to talk with me. I heard multiple stories about their own struggles. I gave a lot of hugs. I thanked God for the opportunity my testimony presented me with, and for the fact that others who likewise felt isolated got to share a bit of their hidden selves with me. We unloaded our backpacks together. Life went on. I finished high school with satisfaction. I graduated from all those years of secrecy and false impressions. I granted myself a little diploma of truth.

But my journey with my mental health didn’t end there. There is no end; there is only forward.

The shift to college has been the most exciting period of my life thus far. It almost feels like a second puberty, except it’s entirely mental and much more definitive. I’m a force to be reckoned with, and I’ll say that now with a prideful glimmer in my eye. 

It’s important to remember, though, that my mental illness hasn’t disappeared. It’s still with me, but it can now be recognized and confronted.

I recently impulsively cut my hair (again) at 2AM on a Wednesday, watched the new dead ends fall to the ground. I have to continue to take care of myself, and that will never change. But, I’m no longer feel embarrassed or ashamed in talking about treatment or sharing updates on my health. I can be the fiery Aries, feminist, and passionately loving person that I am in coexistence with my depression and anxiety. My traumatic experiences have fueled my work in school and in society. Now, I shamelessly use social media as a platform to speak about what I believe in, and I’m grateful for the positive influence it can have on people’s ability to reshape their perspectives, especially about sometimes difficult topics like mental health.

The people who are advocates like myself, the people who may not agree or understand but still wish to expand their knowledge by reading whatever I have to say, the people who may be silently struggling, just as I was: these are the people that need to see my honest words

Yes, I have chronic depression and crippling anxiety. Yes, I have attempted suicide and been sent to a rehabilitation clinic. These are truths of mine. 

No, I am not insane. No, I am not weak. No, I AM NOT my mental illness. I am kind, passionate, persistent, powerful, and an amazing friend and dog mama. These are truths of mine, too.

What are your truths? 

 

Photos/art (in order of appearance) by Nikki Burnett, Dariana Portes, and Emily Millar

 

Light of My Life, Fire of My Loins

I read Lolita at a young age. I found a PDF online, as I knew I would not be approved to check the book out at my local public library.

Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, originally published in 1955, is unreliably narrated by a man with the pseudonym Humbert Humbert, who is infatuated with his 12-year-old soon to be stepdaughter Dolores Haze. The novel is not circumspect of the taboo sexual relationship between Humbert and Dolores. I was practically reading erotica before I knew what exactly that was. 

I recently repurchased Nabokov’s novel with intentions of re-reading it, hopefully with a more critical lens than my 14-year-old self. Especially after an article about Dominique Swain appeared my social media feed. The story of the then child actress who played Dolores in the 97’ rendition of the film Lolita resonated with me. Swain was fifteen during the time she auditioned for the 14-year-old role. Meanwhile, the actor who played Humbert Humbert, whom she had to film sex scenes with, was forty-seven. Brooklyn writer Lacy Warner wrote about her admiration for Swain’s nymph-like semblance and the way it manifested within herself in her teen years, writing “I didn’t understand anything about seduction — and I shouldn’t have had to — but I did think the way to a man’s heart was in the costume of a nymphet.” This is something I had also internalized. 

Re-reading Lolita as a young adult this time was flagrant for me. I saw a lot of myself in Lo during the first reading, but felt more feelings of shame and sensibility during the second. Lo’s yearning for independence alongside her incumbent desire to appease a father-like figure in her life was familiar to me.

Furthermore, I too was a capricious, volatile, needy teen that was helmed in discovering my sensuality. I got my period at eleven, which is relatively early — but not obscene for a prepubescent girl. Soon after, I began to develop boobs, and then pubic hair made its debut. For my next endeavor as a tween– I begged my mom to let me shave my legs, the whole shebang. By fourteen, my boobs were bigger than those of my then 19-year-old sister.

I remember shaving my bikini area the first time around this age, too, and having the few inevitable razor bumps, but feeling cute nonetheless. Although very much a child, some would say that I had the “body of an adult.” Being told such things was always weird to me as my boobs didn’t magically grant me a later curfew or the right to vote, so what exactly about them made me an adult?

By fifteen, my body began to be maneuvered as a site to be gawked at by men — particularly older men. Their Lolita complex seemed to be more apparent than my presumed innocence as a child. I noticed the way men began to undress me with their eyes, looking at me in a way that was, at the time, new to me. I’d be lying if I said it rubbed me the wrong way then — feeling desired and sensual felt gratifying. I didn’t get all too much attention from the boys at school, and like many young girls, I succumbed to wanting that validation from men we are conditioned to believe we need.

Although the sense of rebellion, knowing that it was ‘taboo’ and most people wouldn’t ‘get it’ made me apprehensive, but I was assured that I was in my prime and thus it was normal for older men to desire me. I had received so many “you’re so mature for your age” comments from older men, both online and offline, that I had started to believe it myself. 

I only just recently realized that I was never mature for my age. Not particularly immature, however, I definitely didn’t have the emotional intelligence or rationale of someone in their early twenties, or whatever age these men implied I acted to justify their preying on me. If anything, these men were immature for their age, but certainly not oblivious to the power they held over me and how to use it to fulfill their needs — not unlike Humbert Humbert.

Looking back, I wish I could shake my younger self for being flattered by this attention. I had to grow up fast because of this paradigm of prepubescent girls being hyper sexualized —  the Lolita complex — and presumably the nymphomania surrounding child pornography. I was, and still am at nineteen, naive. I wish I could say I was one in a million in sending explicit photos of my underage self to men ten to twenty years my senior, but I know I was not. This behavior — that I can now acknowledge was unacceptable — was very much normalized by both my peers and the men in my vicinity.

The lens I began to view my body through and the ways in which I surrendered to desirability politics, infantilizing myself for the attention of older men is something I am still unlearning today.

Sometimes I feel uneasy posting risqué pictures now, despite being of the age of consent, because of the type of attention I may attract. I’ve internalized feelings of shame about the way I expressed my sexuality as a minor, and often blamed myself for such attention I garnered and having been preyed on by older men. I still get men admiring my “baby face” then proceeding to try to solicit sex from me. I only recently became comfortable with not always shaving down there, as I had grown up being taught men like hairless — men like childlike.

Admittedly, I still adhere to a sort of nymphet Lolita like style. I own a fair share of frilly socks and baby doll dresses. I still struggle to navigate relationships with the older men I find myself prone to. It’s difficult to decipher these men’s intentions —  if I consented, is it still wrong?

Read Lolita, but read it without solipsism.  

 

 Gif by Emi Li. Photos (in order of appearance) by Alyssa Llorando and Willow Gray.

 

How To Help Someone Who Has Survived Sexual Assault

 

The following content may be triggering to those affected by sexual violence. 

 

A little over five years ago I was drugged and raped at a party in an upperclassman’s apartment by someone in my college graduating class.

After phases of shock, depression, anxiety, fear, anger, guilt, denial, numbness, embarrassment, confusion, insomnia, secrecy, flash backs, and self harm I have finally arrived at this current mental state. I am now able to speak about my experience without crying, hyperventilating, disassociating, or regressing. I am hurting but I am also still healing from this experience.

I was and am lucky enough to have caring friends, devoted therapists, and sympathetic family members; however, most of my support system has not experienced sexual assault themselves. While I do appreciate all of the love and guidance I’ve received from my network, it was a little difficult to talk to them about my rape because they didn’t fully understand what I went through.

Let me be clear: I do not wish sexual assault on anyone, but mending my relationship with myself was extremely difficult becuase I felt misunderstood. 

I am writing this article in order to help those with people in their lives who have been through sexual assault of any kind, not just rape, and want to help them. Below is a step-by-step guide to how to be there for anyone who has been through this kind of violence.

 

1. Accept the idea that anyone on the gender spectrum can be sexually assaulted.

Modern society has taught us that only those who identify as women can be victims of sexual violence; however, this is not true. To be inclusive of all genders I use they/them pronouns during this piece.

 

2. Understand that every situation is  contextual. 

Everyone is fundamentally different, which means how one responds to trauma can be different from how you may respond to the same kind of trauma. While this is true there are also some hard guidelines for best aiding a friend or loved one who has experienced sexual violence.

 

3. Just listen.

Do not tell survivors what to do. Part of going through sexual assault means that your choice and will have been taken away; being attentive, aware, and emotionally intelligent is crucial. This is because giving them options about what to do next allows a sense of agency to return to your friend or loved one: doing this empowers them to move through this experience with their own authority.

 

4. Give advice only if they ask for it.

Again, you’ll want to make sure that you give that sense of agency back to them. Providing unsolicited advice can come off as controlling or bossy, which is the absolute last kind of perception that you want to deliver. 

 

5. Don’t make it about you. 

Give yourself up as an autonomous person and just be there for the person that’s opening up. This is important because such an incredibly violent, disruptive experience is so deeply personal; abandoning your personal beliefs and opinions can really help whoever has experienced sexual assault to feel understood and valued. Keep an extremely open mind. 

 

6. Comprehend the idea that their experience, and subsequently their healing, is their own.

Remember: even if you have also been assaulted that does not mean that what they need in order to heal will be the same as what you needed to heal. They may not even want to heal in the first place! Again, every person and every experience is fundamentally different, which means that every solution can also be different.

 

7. Be willing to back off. 

Recounting an experience can be traumatic in and of itself, give your friend or loved one permission to stop talking about it if they need a moment or want to end the conversation. Additionally, just because they opened up to you once does not mean that you are entitled to speaking to them about the experience whenever you want to. Their assault is their assault, and honoring that idea can be represented by giving them space when they ask for it.

 

8. Never make them feel guilty. 

Remember that there are societal barriers that keep survivors from healing in the way that they need to. Rape culture is alive and prevalent in our community, meaning that existing as a surivor of sexual assault can be an incredibly difficult living experience day by day. Many victims of sexual violence are silenced or shamed; try your hardest to prevent them from feeling guilt or humiliation because of an atrocity committed against them.

 

9. Help them to establish a sense of security.  

Do they feel safe speaking to you about their experience? Do they feel safe around you in general? Do you know the spaces, people, or situations that would make them feel uncomfortable or afraid? Make sure your answers to these questions is “yes.”

 

10. Take care of yourself.

Being there for someone who has experienced a potentially life-changing attack can really weigh on you; self care is crucial in order to best help others. Self care looks different for everyone, so do what is best for you in order to emotionally and mentally support yourself.

*  *  *

This list was compiled from pieces of my own experience and words from other survivors. The golden rule is to treat someone like a human because they are and they deserve that kind of basic respect.

Rape and sexual assault are extremely dehumanizing experiences, and giving your friend or loved one that sense of control back can really help them begin to rebuild. I write this in order to best help those who have experienced sexual assault, but also to advise those with survivors in their life.

Take care of them and remember: they are hurting but they are also healing. 

 

Photos (in order of appearance) by Delaney ShulerAlyse Mazyck, and Dariana Portes

 

Instagram, I Love You – But You’re Bringing Me Down

 

Social media is great — but also not.

Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok… there are 7.7 billion people in the world, and 3,499 billion of them are on social media — that’s 45% of the earth. And while social media has the potential to empower individuals and inspire social movements, it can also weigh down our lives with dispensable negativity. At the very least, our phone screens distract us from our daily lives.

According to one study, more than half of teenagers who use social media report that it regularly distracts them from homework and/or the people they’re surrounded by.

In late 2018, Forbes published two studies about social media’s impact on mental health. One study, conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, requested that 140 undergrads either continue their regular Facebook, Snapchat, and Insagram use regularly or limit it to 30 minutes total, daily. After three weeks, those who limited their use experienced decreased depression, feelings of loneliness, and anxiety.

The other study –was conducted at York University — discovered that upon seeing other women that they felt were more attractive than them, the female undergraduate participants felt worse about themselves. Researchers confirmed that, even though some of these young women had poor self images before the study, each woman felt even worse after they were finished.

The dissatisfaction social media can bring is inarguably evident, but as author Jia Tolentino puts it, the internet has become “a central organ” of contemporary life. It’s hard to curtail your online usage without feeling left out of a defining millennial experience. 

But don’t worry! The Killer And A Sweet Thang editorial staff has compiled some tips for you to use social media, specifically Instagram, more healthily.

 

Utilize your iPhone’s screen time limits.

Did you know that you can set time limits for how long you spend on certain apps? A notification will pop up notifying you if you’ve already hit your max for, in this case, Instagram that day — from there, you can choose whether or not to enter the app. It’s a nice way to monitor and possibly minimize your screen time.

If you have an iPhone, access Settings and scroll to “Screen Time.” Here, you’ll find how much and on which apps you spend the most time. WARNING: it can be a little shocking!

 

The unfollow and block and mute buttons exist for a reason — don’t be afraid to use them.

For a lot of folks, it’s not realistic to delete social media entirely. But considering how much time we spend on the app, you reserve the right to control who enters your digital space. Sure, people may call you “petty” if you block them, but some people deserve to be blocked. Besides, what’s petty about protecting your mental health?

Now, for the more nuanced situations we suggest the mute feature. This makes it so you never have to see so-and-so’s Instagram posts or stories. This is perfect for those people who make you feel some type of way. Intentions aside, whether they make you feel bad about yourself, self-conscious, or remind you of someone you’re trying to forget — muting is a good tool to keep them off your feed and off your mind.

 

Leave your phone on the other side of the room.

This may sound silly, but when you’re feeling particularly anxious, sometimes you need to add some physical distance between you and the rest of the world. Switch your phone to silent, flip it over, and leave it out of reach. Take deep breaths, listen to some music… IDK maybe masturbate — do your best to focus on your immediate interactions.

 

Try moving the Instagram app to the last page on your home screen.

Make Instagram harder to get to by adding some virtual distance between you and the app icon. Even seeing that purple-ly orange-y logo is super tempting, even when you’re doing something else on your phone. Resist her siren call.

 

Curate your feed.

Ever feel too tuned in? Constantly seeing what your peers are up to — whether it’s their fun night out or their shiny new job — can cause FOMO (fear of missing out) and inspire counterproductive comparisons. Try following more lighthearted content providers, like meme or travel accounts. Or sex education resources, like @killerandasweetthang.

If an account gives you a weird feeling, don’t over analyze it — just hit unfollow. Fill your feed with things that your make you smile rather than ignite stress.

 

Post less.

It’s easy to feel as though you need to keep your followers updated on your every move. Oftentimes, we’re afraid that our social audience will interpret inactivity as a sign that we’re sitting alone in bed, squandering our lives away. Odds are our followers are not terribly concerned with our online performance. After all, they have their own lives (and online performance) to fret over. So screw the self-imposed pressure!

If you’re feeling stressed or weird about social media, the remedy is not using it more. Take a step back. It may be hard to resist the urge to post a new story at least once a day, but we promise that the longer you wait between posts, the easier it becomes.

 

Turn off your Instagram notifications.

When someone likes or comments on your photo — you get a notification. Then you probably check it… but then you go to the homepage and keep scrolling, right? It’s natural, or at the very least, common. A simple way to limit your time on Instagram is to mute the notifications, to avoid temptation. 20 minutes of browsing can quickly turn into an hour.

 

Say it with us… hang up and hang out!

When you’re with other people, engage in human conversation and put your phone away. I know that we hear this all the time, but what are you really missing when you don’t check your phone for two hours?

Try to focus more on what’s physically happening, not what’s being posted. 

 

Analyze your intentions.

If you notice Instagram is bringing your mood down, but it’s difficult to change/alter your social media habits — ask yourself why. What kind of pressure or value are you projecting onto this virtual space?

 

 

Photos (in order of appearance) by Daniela Guevara, Alexa Fahlman, and Leanna Turone.   

 

Is Chivalry Good Sexism?

One night, a fateful one that is, I began lamenting over my history of dating experiences, as I do every so often when I’m in the mood for a self-inflicted emotional rollercoaster. Most were good, some were bad, and some were so unworthy of recognition I struggled to recall them. Picking away at the crusty scabs of my love life I unravelled, to my surprise, minimal-to-no chivalry. This frustrated me, evidently, as here I am aggressively puncturing my keyboard in distress. 

WHERE DID CHIVALRY GO? 

Is it doomed, six-feet under in a sealed coffin? Would it be absolutely, utterly, and undeniably incomprehensible of me to ask to be wooed in a quintessentially romantic way? You know, whisked away on a horse carriage by a man who, ever-so-smoothly, lodges a rose stem between his teeth while somehow still being able to whisper sweet nothings into my ear? I’m not asking for too much am I? (. . . don’t answer, it’s a rhetorical question.)

As I awingly replay movie scenes of knights in shining armor protecting their women at all costs, going above and beyond to ensure their utmost safety and comfort, a pestering feeling of guilt brews inside me. 

Am I — a self-proclaimed warrioress spouting chants of equality — in a position to demand such courteous, self-less, savior-like behavior from a man? I’m not, clearly, if I am an independent woman and the motive behind chivalry comes from the placement of women on a pedestal, RIGHT? 

WRONG! Ish. Wrong-ish. No… but yes. Okay, let me explain. 

Does the age-old saying of “if it’s too good to be true, it probably is” ring a bell? Well lo and behold, gentle reader, chivalry is no exception! A simple Google search reveals that chivalry is, essentially, sexism — benevolent sexism that is. 

Now, I know what this looks like. Here she goes again, a man-hating feminist in her prime, storming her way through the world ready to shred the remaining good things in life to bits — but hear me out.

I likewise initially thought feminism was going too far when it began scrutinizing men’s harmless acts, such as them opening doors for us or pulling out our chair (“UmMm I cAn Do ThAt MySeLf ThAnK yOu VeRy MuCh”). Were we so desperate to seek out faults in male behavior for the sake of feeling oppressed, handpicking instances in life to feed our victim mentality? I considered this angle, as well. But things are often far more complex and multi-faceted than they initially appear, as I will come to unpack here.

Benevolent sexism — unlike the hostile sexism we can inarguably label as being unjust — stereotypes women as affectionate, delicate, sensitive, and in need of protection and provision. 

The bewildering paradox of benevolently sexist behavior is that, instead of despising it for underhandedly promoting the idea that we’re weak and incapable of taking care of ourselves, women often seek it. Exhibit A: me.

A recent study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin revealed that women, irrespective of whether they identified themselves high or low on the feminist scale, were attracted to benevolently sexist behavior. What’s more is that, although these women understood that a chivalrous man would potentially come at the expense of their independence being dismissed, they still sought out these behaviors.

Hmm.

Perhaps I’m not the only one struggling to wrap my head around this existential crisis-inducing catch-22? You may wonder why, despite its shortcomings, chivalrous (benevolently sexist) behavior is still attractive to women. There’s a variety of reasons, the most obvious being that we perceive these actions as something a nice, decent human being would do! They’re viewed as being nothing more than acts of prosocial behavior, and most of the time, that’s precisely what they are. I highly doubt that a man offering a helping hand to a woman carrying heavy luggage does so with  malicious intent.

The other (much more thrilling) reason emerges from an evolutionary and copulatory standpoint. Let’s plunge — head first 😉 — into some Mating 101. 

One of my favorite papers on this topic is by David M. Buss, wherein he postulates the undeniable truth about sex: women bear far larger consequences for having sex than men do (think internal female fertilization, pregnancy, lactation). So, the costs of making poor sexual decisions are much graver for women than they are for men. As such, women would ideally be choosing a mate of high value. When a man displays acts of benevolent sexism, it alludes to the idea that they are willing to commit to, protect, and invest in us and our potential future offspring. Which, in prehistoric times, was crucial — given the many surrounding predators and our physical weakness during (and after) pregnancy. 

Now let’s say that you, as the strong, empowered, capable woman that you are, decide to — just like I have — submit to your primitive yearning for chivalry. “What are the consequences?” you might ask. Well, apparently “plenty” is the answer.

In the unlikely event that you think I’m full of shit, I have even more research (that’s guaranteed to spiral you into an even deeper identity crisis) to back up my claims! 

Benevolent sexism is bound to affect women’s internal thought processes as claimed by a plethora of research articles. Women holding benevolently sexist beliefs are less ambitious education and career-wise, likely to depend on their future husband for financial support, and more prone to self-objectification. Agonizingly for me, however, these women also self-report greater life satisfaction. 

To further rub salt to your (and my very own) gaping wound, Glick & Fiske’s theory on the subject states that we often rely on benevolent sexism to protect us against other men’s hostile sexism. This is especially the case in highly sexist societies, where sexism is both the threat and the solution. Although, naturally, there’s a pitfall.

It isn’t all women that benefit from benevolent sexism. According to one study, only women who abide by traditional gender roles (e.g. housewives) do so, while those going against these gender norms (e.g. sexually promiscuous women, queer women, etc.) are treated with the healthy, standard dose of hostile sexism.

All that glitters (more like faintly glimmers in this case) isn’t gold, however; by using one form of sexism as a guard against another form of sexism, we perpetuate our own disadvantage in society. Fuck me, right? We can’t seem to win. 

So ladies, given this likely uncalled for amount of information, what will it be? Are we to succumb to chivalry and seek it out for personal satisfaction, or restrain ourselves for the greater good? Savor the blue pill, or gulp down the red pill?

Pick your poison wisely. 

 

 

All photos provided by Derya Yildirim. 

 

Confessions of a Teenage Virgin

Confessions of a Teenage Virgin is a digital diary by an anonymous 19-year-old girl living in the American Midwest. 

 

Hi. I am 19 and I have never had sex.

Notice that I am not using the word “virgin”, as that very phrase connotes goodness and purity. It leaves very little space to interpret what it means to be the opposite of a “virgin.” In the eyes of society, especially in my town, the opposite of a virgin is a “slut.” In other words, someone who has sex and embraces it. The lack of fluidity and dialogue between point A and point B is stark.

Sex was never talked about in my school, at home, or even in my friend group. I grew up in a conservative household in a notch of the Bible Belt in America. I attended a Christian high school, where my increased interest in women’s rights deemed me “too aggressive.” I was never taught about sex or anything pertaining to the subject. Where I’m from, the mention of it is likely to cause shifting glances between parents, flushed cheeks, or a sudden change of topic.

I can now say, as an almost adult who grew up in such an environment, I am left with a seemingly infinite amount of questions and confusion surround physical intimacy. 

It is not that I have not been curious or inquisitive about sex, but rather, I am too ashamed to ask or talk about it. If I was in a sexual situation with a guy I would not know how to give a blowjob, handjob, or even much about condoms. I would be going in blind (metaphorically speaking, of course) and naive.

I wish I could say that this is the story of how, despite these obstacles, I have successfully managed to undergo a transformative sexual awakening and have gotten my shit together. Unfortunately, this is not that kind of story.

In reality, this is the story of a 19-year-old who is just beginning to learn what sex means emotionally, spiritually, and physically. I write this in hopes of reaching those who really have no idea what sex education is, and to relate to those who need and desire the journey. This is a journey to bring together people who are just like… well, me. 

I don’t want to think that sex is wrong. But that is certainly how it was always portrayed to me. I was never offered a class on safe sex. The closest I got was a class on abstinence.

As a young woman about to enter her twenties, I have had to educate myself through the use of websites, peer advice, and word of mouth. Premarital sex, for example, was never presented to me as an option, but rather, as a shameful and perverted deviation from the norm. As a result, I began to judge others who had premarital or casual sex. 

By simply saying “don’t do it,” our “teachers” ensure anything but safety. People will continue to have sex, whether they know how to engage in the act safely or not. Yes, others will refrain, but this certainly does not mean it is always of their own volition. The dismissive nature of abstinence education only works to build a wall between educator and student, between parent and child. We as a society need to acknowledge the naturalness of sex.

We also need to provide teeenagers with a safe environment to ask questions, be curious, and explore their sexual nature without the shame that has been tied to sex for far too many centuries. 

Talking to my parents about sex was never an option for me.

It was no coincidence that related topics, such as boys, crushes, or even attraction led me to feel equally as ashamed. Yet, perhaps even worse than the shame I have felt surrounding these crucial human experiences is the fear and loneliness I now feel, left to navigate this complex world of intimacy by myself. 

I want to research safe sex practices, the art of oral sex, and to embrace the sensuality of my own body and what pleases me. I am done being ashamed of my body, my sexual cravings, and my fear of not knowing what to do in the bedroom.

Honestly, I am scared — terrified even — to explore sex because of the possibility of disappointing a partner, having an unwanted pregnancy, or sexually transmitted diseases. But as a young woman who is struggling and fighting to feel confident with sex, I want my peers to know that they’re not the only ones who feel overwhelmed and nervous, and that the best way to feel more comfortable is by asking questions and starting the conversation. 

So, hi. I’m a 19-year-old virgin. Let’s talk.

 

Photos (in order of appearance) by Dariana Portes, Janeva Simone, Daniela Guevara

 

Cancer and Sex(ual Appeal)

I grew up in the 90s, during the peak of “heroin chic” — a look based on the emaciated bodies of heroin addicts.

However, I grew up into a primarily indoor artsy teen. I always had an appetite and just never seemed to be able to lose that darn baby weight that kept me from looking “so pretty.” Needless to say, I struggled intensely with body image issues for the next decade and a half.

Over the course of my cancer treatment, I lost and gained noticeable amounts of weight. From there I was routinely asked, “How much weight did you lose?” I was told that I “look good now” and “chemo suits you.” Since 2014, I have shifted in and out of periods of disordered eating and have now finally landed in a healthy mental place with my body. But the comments go on. People are quite quick to fetishize superficial benefits; weight loss, the social perks of an easy parking space with a disability placard. 

*  *  *

As a whole, the American general public is still stuck in the 90s when it comes to appearance standards. This antiquated obsession with skeletal women routinely invades my space and I’m expected to embrace it, graciously. But I’ve learned that impact > intent, so I no longer care if you think you’re being nice. 

What usually happens: 

Them: “Oh, you’ve lost weight!”

Me: “OMG, thank you so much!”

This kept the conversation nice and easy. But the frequency at which this type of exchange happens has made it very apparent that my overweighted-ness was my defining feature to everyone as a youth, and I’m done. If you come at me with a personal comment on my body, I will come back with a highly personal reason and we can take bets to see how comfortable that makes you. 

What happened this time:

Them: “Oh, you’ve lost weight!”

Me: “Yeah, I haven’t had an appetite for over a year. I’m talking with my doctors about it.” 

This led immediately to the assumption that I was dying. I had to explain that no, I wasn’t dying. But likewise, I wasn’t perfectly healthy. And that’s okay. 

I have since managed to move beyond basing my worth on my meat suits and I’d kindly ask that you respect that choice. Body shaming or praising comments are so beyond gross and upsetting to me now for so many reasons. I am at peace with my physical body for maybe the first time in my whole life but it takes daily effort.

What a bold assumption; silly me, thinking I could take on the Cerberus of misogyny, ableism, and fatphobia!

 *  *  *

The idea behind ‘heroin chic’ is a tale as old as time, unfortunately. In one form or another, disease and illness have been informing appearance trends for centuries, notably with tuberculosis shaping beauty and fashion.

Even today, illness and beauty and sexual appeal are so grossly entwined with one another that I don’t know where to start with it all. At the first MRI after being diagnosed, I was told by the technician, “Don’t worry, you’re too pretty for a brain tumor.” But then again, this is in line with all things within cis-hetero-patriarchy: a lady just can’t win.

While the socially desirable aspects of diseases are appealing to some, we’re deluded into thinking it’s appropriate to insist upon the beauty of illness. Yet, we also reject the notion that a beautiful person could ever become sick. Our ascription of worth, health, and decency to appearance is supremely fucked up. 

And I see it constantly in the form of people consoling those with illness or suicidal ideations or just general painful times with confirmations of their beauty. “You’re beautiful!” “She was so beautiful.” “You’re too pretty for XYZ!” etc. I’m routinely told that I’m either the best looking sick person around or that I don’t look sick. To which I respond… “Thanks?” I need to start calling people in by asking, “What exactly do you think I should look like?”

*  *  *

It’s amazing how much can change with a cancer diagnosis and how much stays the absolute fucking same. 

All I wanted was a boyfriend in college. I pined and longed and took up too much mental space thinking about it. Cancer finally forced me into an adult mentality towards relationships, among other things. I finally escaped sexual desire and it has been fucking blissful not to want. But even now, the first time and the split second intimacy becomes even the slightest possibility again I revert to teenager mode. I guess I was surprised to learn and understand that cancer hadn’t altered that.

But, I also realized that after cancer, I have no problem at all letting a person know I’m attracted to them.

The first person I was interested in after my diagnosis, my therapist said that even if it doesn’t work out, he’s already given you gifts. He’s shown you that you can still have feelings for someone, that you can experience wanting someone like this. “He’s shown you that there are experiences to be had outside of cancer.” That was essential for me to hear as someone who had been single throughout my diagnosis and treatment.

As I was starting to entertain the thought of dating again, most of my body systems had settled into relative predictability. Enough of the chemicals that had coursed through my body during chemo had readjusted, so I could have feelings again.

I began the process and immediately encountered the problem I had read about in books: when to disclose, i.e. when to “come out” as having (had) cancer. Because so much of my post-diagnosis life involves cancer it’s been challenging even to have the first few words without massive lies by omission.

Tell me about yourself!

What do you do?

What’s your writing about?

What’s your art about?

Where do you live?

As a baby cancer diagnosee reading about this issue in 2014, I didn’t get it. I honestly thought it would be simple — just tell the person ASAP.

Now in 2019, as a slightly wiser cancer patient dipping her toe back in, I was beginning to understand the unique challenges. I’d gotten my share of mixed bag responses to people finding out I have cancer and so adding the romance element just ballooned the anxiety.

Do you tell someone during your first conversation? What medium is acceptable? Does it need to be done in person? On the first date? Second? Third? When things start to get serious?

I’ll never know if that’s the reason why after I told a guy on our first in-person date and he seemed cool about it, he promptly ghosted me. 

With these forays into relationships with new people it’s just been impossible to tell how they will respond. Because cancer carries so much baggage in our society, telling a brand new person, whether you’re trying to forge a connection with them or not, is exhausting each and every time.

*  *  *

Sex post-diagnosis seemed entirely monumental.

The only intimate physical touch I’d had for over two years was from healthcare professionals in gloved hands. I was building it up as almost a second virginity to lose (even after I’d finally broken that bullshit construct down in my mind). So, when I found myself on a date that was heating up, I had to excuse myself to go to the bathroom. The choice presented itself: did I want to have sex — casual sex at that — finally, after all this time?

I did.

Honestly, the state of the planet and climate catastrophes were a factor at that  moment. I didn’t know when a long-term partner was going to come along and I didn’t want to die having never slept with someone again. This also happened to be the week after the deadly neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville. I remember feeling distinctly grateful to be experiencing a human connection closer to love than hate. Make of that what you will.

Months later with a different partner I managed to experience an orgasm. My first by a fellow human. This happened only after my diagnosis. I connect these two things and credit  my massive dive into self-discovery the last five years. It’s forced me to contemplate and connect to my feelings around self-worth in relation to relationships and pleasure. All of my sexual interactions post-cancer have been infinitely more balanced and consensual than they ever were before and for that I’m grateful. 

* * * 

I’ve been forced to make a lot of difficult decisions in recent years. Most times, in an effort to save myself. When it came to my fertility vs. my life for instance, it was easy for me. But then, I was also asked to mourn that loss and hide my rage at the fact that my fertility had ever been prioritized over my humanity. That was just my experience though and my reaction to it as the person that I am. Still, decisions made by necessity will always carry a different weight than those made by choice. 

As patients we are first and foremost people. And as whole beings we bring our unique histories, beliefs, goals, attitudes and priorities into exam rooms. I have yet to meet an illness that doesn’t in some way affect a patient’s sex life or intimate relationships. When we aren’t given the information or told how our bodies will be affected over time, it drives home the belief that we aren’t expected to exist after cancer, that sex is beyond the pale or some other dehumanizing, ableist assumption. 

I have found there to be infinite interpersonal and sexual complications unique to the young adult cancer patient, beyond the topics of fertility or pity sex. I would love for us to do better in 2019 than the rest of history in assuming basic humanity of sick and or dying people. Because I have also found that as offensive ideas of sexiness because of sickness (your consumptive looks, your heroin chics), sexiness and sickness almost always come hand in hand. 

 

 

Photos provided by Siobhan Hebron.