Reclaiming My Femininity

For the past two years, I’ve been focusing on practicality: sublime productivity, getting stuff done. As a university student living abroad, that’s what I ought to do, right? Focus on getting. stuff. done.

And so I did.

Day-in-day-out I’d sloppily slap on some concealer, press in some translucent powder, yank my hair back into a ponytail, slip on my joggers, and head out to the library. I was on a never ending mission of academic success.

In the meantime, I had lost the joy of doing my make-up and dressing up; something I used to enjoy back in high school when life was just a tad bit easier. During these last two years, the only time I’d put effort into my appearance was on weekends. That’s when the complete 180 transformation would take place; when I’d give my eyebrows a little shape, pat in my concealer rather than bludgeon my under eye with my finger, and unveil my mascara wand from the cobwebs in my make up bag. My hair would be unstuck from its usual cowlicked, slicked back ponytail. I’d give it volume – yes, you heard me right, VOLUME – and on good weekends, after an especially productive week, I’d even go as far as curling it as a reward. I’d feel really good and would hi-five myself for investing in my appearance.

As soon as the weekend shenanigans were over, Monday hit me like a bag of bricks and it was go back to the unflattering clothes and shapeless hair. I’d quench my lack of self confidence in my looks by telling myself I was going to school to get my education, NOT to be pretty and cater to the male patriarchy!!! But the truth is, I didn’t feel good about myself – and no amount of telling myself that “beauty comes from the inside” was enough to deflect me from the truth.

It wasn’t just my appearance that was suffering. My mission of living life as a goal-driven, highly efficient woman affected my enjoyment of the little pleasures of life. My appreciation for all five of my senses were diminished.

My room? Bland. Was it a jail cell? A hostel room? You couldn’t tell – it lacked any semblance of personality. “The less I have in my room, the less dusting I have to do!” was my rationale for not decorating my dorm; for not giving it a little sprinkle of me. I couldn’t even justify lighting a candle for some ambiance. 

What I ate was affected by my highly mechanized, robocop mentality as well. I ate not based on my cravings or for taste, but rather for MAXIMAL NUTRIENT INTAKE and what was considered the perfect ‘healthy’ balance. That is, carbs, proteins, fats; rice, boiled chicken, and vegetables. A bodybuilder’s diet; a doctor’s exemplary patient. I was completely numb to my body’s senses and cravings.

I had one perfume (why have more? This one does its job!), no facial or bodily creams besides my SPF-infused moisturizer (2-in-1? Count me in!), and all my scented body creams remained untouched since they were first purchased. They were the remnants of my feminine past.

My mindset had diminished me to a one-dimensional canvas. Although I excelled in academia, this way of life took its gravest toll on my ability to feel. I’d been suppressing my emotions for so long in favor of achievement that I forgot what it was like to feel without restraint. Instead of allowing myself to feel, I’d shun myself and try to get rid of those feelings as soon as possible so I could get back to the “grind.”

 I was constantly in action mode; I felt so uncomfortable when I’d just let myself be. I’d feel the urge to do something – anything –  that would benefit my future employed self. Otherwise, I’d get stuck in a mental rut of feeling everything I’d been avoiding. Living life on the premise of delayed gratification came at the expense of my current self: I was burning out.

The tipping point was when this mentality seeped into the summertime. Instead of enjoying the short time I had back home with my family, I was huddled up on a chair in the living room doing online courses to enrich my CV. That’s when I realized something was off; although it was no medical diagnosis, I arrived at the conclusion that my so called ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ energies were off-balance. I was steadily drowning in my masculine energy.

The masculine archetype, in short, “does.” Masculinity thrives on challenges, logic, achieving, and decisive action. The feminine archetype on the other hand, just “is.” Femininity is creative, intuitive, nurturing, receiving, and emotional. These two forces don’t compete with one another in an individual; they complement each other. 

Until I had discovered the importance of embodying both energies, I thought emotions were to be avoided. I viewed them as a display of weakness representing a person ‘succumbing to the irrational.’ This resulted in me finding it difficult to figure out what I liked and disliked as I was vehemently refusing to sit down and reflect.

I attribute my unhealthy drive for academic/career success to the enforced Westernized definition of achievement. It’s the hustle and bustle, the constant grind, the never ending ‘bop to the top’ that’s celebrated. Masculine endeavors are put on a pedestal while feminine ones are seen as rewards to said hard work. But I, nor you, could function solely on one type of energy. 

This year I have made it my mission to embrace the feminine. It’s been a couple of months since I have granted myself the permission to indulge in things that won’t necessarily raise my IQ or skyrocket me into corporate stardom. I now spend time creating, and daydreaming about, outfits and sophisticated make-up looks as a creative outlet. My dorm room’s adorned with countless polaroids of me and my friends, and its window sills display an assortment of scented candles. I even treated myself to my first manicure and, with the help of gel nails, finally overcame my stress-induced, lifelong nail-biting habit!

To beckon my feelings out of the cave of shame they’ve been retreating in, I also started journaling. I write about everything and anything that crosses my mind, particularly the negative emotions that surface from time to time. It’s cathartic. And overwhelming. Finally allowing yourself to feel the buildup of emotions you’ve been repressing for two years makes quite a change. The toughest emotion I’m dealing with is loneliness: the inevitable byproduct of my exhausting workaholism.

Is there a ‘productivity guilt’ that I have yet to overcome when I take time for myself? Of course. But while I may not be productive in the ‘I’m-assuring-my-one-way-ticket-to-the-capitalistic-slaughterhouse’ way, I am grasping a better understanding of myself. I am, for once, cutting myself some slack and getting to know myself outside the mold shaped by external forces.

So, allow me to (re-)introduce myself. Hi, I’m Derya. I love red lipstick; cinnamon-scented things; my morning ritual of coffee, oats, and True Crime videos; personal, non-academic writing; long, aimless walks; and fashion. Oh, also, I’m a final year Business Administration student.

 

Photo by Johanna Bommer.

Oversharing is Unhealthy…

I remember when I first got Instagram. My first post was a picture of sunglasses on the sofa in my bedroom — heavily edited with too much saturation and probably some emojis as a caption.

Back then, that was all Instagram was. Maybe a selfie captioned “~a r t s y~” with a weird copy-and-paste font, or that thing we did when we wrote on our hands “U R Beautiful” and put our hands over our eyes. (What was that?!) Snapchat was the same way. We sent each other disappearing ugly selfies and took screenshots of our friends being funny. Stories didn’t exist, and we weren’t trying to document every single moment of our lives. We were just posting, for fun.

The more popular Instagram and Snapchat became, the more pressure I felt to keep up. We now curated our accounts to look perfect. We deleted all of our old pictures and changed our usernames from @glittergirl325 to our full names. Cringey pictures appeared time to time, and we were still over-editing, but it wasn’t as carefree anymore. Instagram became a highlight reel, and Snapchat became the prime teenage communicator.

But things really took a turn when the finsta showed up.

Our beloved finstas… finally an account we didn’t have to curate. Somewhere we can actually be ourselves. Actually, I love the idea. But what I don’t love is what it has become. 

Finstas started as funny pictures we didn’t want to share with the whole world. They started as inside jokes and meme reposts and stupid videos. But now, it seems like every finsta is a mix of emotional breakdowns, gossip, and rants. Then Snapchat added the private story. Another platform that allows us to curate our audience exactly as we want it, and we used it for the same reasons — to say what we were too afraid to say in intimate conversation.

With these two platforms, we are digging ourselves deeper and deeper into a hole of invulnerability. We’ve unknowingly trained ourselves to respond to our emotions in this unhealthy and indirect way. We’re swamped with schoolwork, so we post a picture with tears running down our faces — “Finals week.” We have drama with another friend, so we get in the car and post an angry selfie — “I hate everyone.” Worst of all, we’re having a breakdown, so we post another red-faced photo — “I’m going to kill myself.” 

We’re dramatizing everything, and the more we do it, the harder it is to go back. Instead of calling a friend and letting them listen, we’re expressing ourselves in a way that no one can listen — much less reply and help.

For whatever reason, it feels safer for us to post something about how we feel that 50 people will see rather than telling one trusted friend. We’re acting like we don’t care, like everything is a joke, when really, we’re all desperately hoping for that one person to swipe up and ask the simple question — what’s wrong? 

So let me ask this: why are we depriving ourselves from sacred vulnerability just because we’re afraid of it?

The finsta/private story problem adds to the larger issue of social media. We seem to be losing the art of communication — of that intimate connection in a face-to-face interaction. Social media has brought me some of the greatest friends and connections in my life—I don’t deny it. But when I’m home alone, feeling lonely and unhappy, my social media friends aren’t the ones to nurse me back to life again. Quite frankly, there aren’t many people I actually trust enough to be vulnerable with. And I truly do think that social media has robbed that from me.

I’m not trying to be a typical 21st century mother — blaming every problem I have in my life on social media. But I do think that we rely too heavily on our phones to make us feel good. We justify our emotions with a private story post, and we shy away from real conversation by talking only on Snapchat, sending forehead pictures back and forth. 

I’m afraid that I might forget how to feel things without posting them. I’m afraid that I’ll lose the capability to be content in my social life. I’m afraid that in a few years, I won’t know myself anymore, except through the eyes of everyone following my Instagram account. 

I don’t think we should all throw social media out the window. Because, quite frankly, we all know that will never happen. But I think we need to take a step back and look at ourselves. We need to find the balance between sharing important milestones to stay in touch and oversharing ourselves to the point of no return. I never want to reach the point when my life doesn’t belong to me anymore. Some things are meant for me, and only me. 

Our lives may be long, but they move quickly. When we’re gone, for the first time in history, these apps will share our life stories from the time we were thirteen and posting cringe selfies. That’s absolutely bizarre and amazing. But there are some things I want to take with me. There are some things that I want to own the rights to. I want to keep my memories my memories. My mental breakdowns, my rants, my emotions. My nostalgic, human, childish, and beautiful mental property. I think it’s time to claim back what social media took from us and look around more. Talk to your friends, listen to your friends, listen to yourself.

Social media will no doubt play a huge part in our lives. But don’t let it take over your lead role. 

 

Notes on Appearance

When I first started getting acne as a preteen, my step-dad’s cousin was visiting and she said something to him in Spanish, which he then translated: “She’s pretty, but she has that acne.”

When I was in high school, a boy in my class said I was awfully young to have worry wrinkles in between my eyebrows.

This past October at a wedding, an extended family member said that I actually wasn’t that thin, just tall. 

*  *  *

I remember each one of these moments in my life with absolute clarity. Some of these events happened over 15 years ago, yet they remain fresh and untouched by time, unlike many other moments throughout my life which have faded into the oblivion that is my brain. When I close my eyes and think of them, I’m right back in that classroom or feeling my face flush with heat when those harmless Spanish words turned out to be not so harmless.

Maybe people think it’s okay to make comments about the way women/femme-presenting people look, because they assume their words will eventually be forgotten. Instead, these thoughtless quips have the potential to change the way we feel about ourselves for years to come. 

It was because of comments like these that led to me becoming obsessed with my appearance for a long time. I checked myself in the mirror every chance I could, sometimes going out of my way to make sure I hadn’t become shiny or frizzy or zitty in the past five minutes since I checked. I would spend hours – and I mean hours – getting ready for a mere 30 minute trip in public. I can’t even begin to calculate how much money I have spent on makeup, beauty treatments, and other services of the like, including but not limited to Botox and Fillers in between my eyebrows, lash lifts, teeth whitening, etc etc.

Now, this obsession didn’t just activate one day like the flip of a switch, rather it was like the little plastic mouse in the game of mousetrap: caught as a result of events which started way before the cage descended upon it.

Throughout my whole life, my board was set with all the elements necessary for a full-blown obsession to take place… all it needed was that marble to set everything into motion. For me, that marble started rolling right after college.

I graduated college at 20 years old after three years of accelerated study. During that time I put on a solid 15-20 pounds of depression weight. Though I always had an athletic body, erring on the thinner side through my tweens and teens, I didn’t perceive this new weight gain on myself. I think because it was so gradual over the course of three years that I didn’t notice the subtle changes, or maybe because I wasn’t used to being hyper-aware of my weight, having grown up with thin privilege my whole life. As far as I was concerned I still looked fine.

Post graduation I moved back in with my parents in Los Angeles to save money as opposed to going broke by remaining in San Francisco. However, the transition back home proved harder than expected, made more so by the fact that all of my friends were either still in SF or in school elsewhere. I was lonely and bored (a dangerous combination) so I sought out something that I had flirted with in my last year of college, but hadn’t taken the time to really get to know: cocaine. 

Within a span of a couple of weeks of railing lines every day, I lost that ‘freshmen 15’ plus an additional 5 to 10 pounds.

Just like my brain had a tough time perceiving the gradual weight gain, my brain also had a tough time perceiving my weight loss because it dropped so precipitously so fast. The grams of cocaine coursing through my bloodstream didn’t exactly help with my self-perception or cognitive functioning either, so it wasn’t until my 21st birthday in Vegas, a month or two after the weight plummet, that I realized just how different I looked to other people. 

“Hot.” Unhealthy.

“Smokin’ bod.” Emaciated.

“Goals.” Unwell.

“Sexy.” Sickly. 

Despite the multitude of negative adjectives used to describe how I looked, all I heard were the ones about my attractiveness. I hadn’t seen the distraught look plastered on my mom’s face every time she looked at me during that period of my life. What I did see were the looks of desire on every man’s face as I walked down Las Vegas Bluebeard. As someone who had been awkwardly ‘cute’ her whole life, the attention I got for being ‘hot’ was even more seductive and addictive than the cocaine.

Chasing the dragon with regard to appearance might not be as chemically toxic as chasing the dragon with regard to drugs, but it sure is emotionally, mentally, and financially toxic. Because yes, from that point on I was ‘hot,’ but it was never enough – I was never enough.

Each time I snuffed out one imperfection, there would be another one glaring back at me. The vast majority of comments made about my appearance during that time were not made from other people, but from me. All those comments became my own internal thoughts.  But I knew – I knew that if I could just manage to fix all those imperfections I would be…

……? What? I would be what? Happy? The object of everyone’s desires? Secure in myself? Confident? Successful?

If I had asked myself those questions back then, I wouldn’t have been able to give a clear answer. Because I didn’t have one. The advertisements and commercials and marketing campaigns for the endless amount of beauty treatments and services certainly seem to know the answer though. Buff away all those imperfections, and your life could be perfect too. Buff away all the aspects of yourself that show you’re an actual human being and maybe you’ll forget you ever were one. Is that not why women’s looks are prioritized over everything else from the moment we are born, because we are only meant to look pretty? To exist to please others? To be a companion as opposed to being our own person? To have an appearance, but nothing underneath?

I looked up the word ‘appearance’ when I wrote this, and I was not disappointed by its accuracy or relevance. Appearance: external show; outward aspect. Adjectives which convey otherness, separateness, lacking in completeness, lacking in genuineness. Appearance aims to create an illusion, not depict the truth. As women, we are expected and pushed to create illusions of ourselves from the moment we are born. Create the illusion that this is what you actually look like. Create the illusion that you are just fine. Create the illusion that you are happy. Create the illusion that this is what you care about. Create the illusion of yourself into what we want you to be.

I think that’s why I became obsessed with my appearance. I was collapsing in on myself emotionally, physically, and psychologically, but I wasn’t able – or willing – to see it. I could see my reflection though. I could see my reflection and better yet, I could perfect it. I could sweep all my inner trauma under the metaphorical rug of looking hot. And why would anyone care, myself included, if I had a size zero waste and long eyelashes. I was doing exactly what I had been trained to do my whole life: be attractive. I became nothing more than my appearance. I nearly killed myself trying to create the illusion that I was okay. 

I’m 26 years-old now and though I can’t say my appearance doesn’t matter to me, I can safely say that I am no longer obsessed with it. I am no longer plagued by the need to perfect my appearance.

It took me healing my inside before I realized that I didn’t need to create any illusions on my outside. Certainly not illusions that prescribe to fatphobic, white-washed, Eurocentric standards of beauty. That is an illusion that I never want to cater to again. I don’t want to cater to any illusions that womxn are expected to create ever again. But I’m not quite there yet, like I said my appearance still matters to me and probably will for awhile because unlearning shit that has been programmed into you since birth takes time. 

But I can say this: from here on out my appearance will be mine and I will own every part of it. Any illusions I might try to create with beauty treatments or botox or lash lifts will be revealed. Maybe I can’t stop creating illusions just yet, but I can make sure that every person knows it is just an illusion. My appearance will be an outward aspect with a caption, an external show with subtitles.

For now, I hope that’s enough.

 

Photo by Gabriela Velasco

Slowing Down to Make a Connection

My name is Adam Hwang. I’m a 19 year old college student and I am demisexual.

First off, let’s get something out of the way: I love sex, every inch and drop of it. Sex is a release of tension, a key to what makes us human and a  gateway into self expression. But to me, sex has become an abstract concept, despite it being the most raw and natural activity anyone could partake in.

As I’ve grown and matured, especially in my later teenage years, sex began to change for me.

For years after losing my virginity, sex was as simple as could be to me. Whether if it was with a man or a woman, I never had second thoughts about my pleasure nor did I really fathom the connection between emotions and sex. Then came college.

I saw college as an opportunity to start things from scratch. I wanted to try new things, meet new people and of course have as much sex as possible. Little did I know that these experiences would cause an awakening that I didn’t see coming.

To my surprise, hitting a “home-run” became a challenge. It felt as though a change in my body happened overnight. I cannot count how many times that an intimate experience fizzled out because I couldn’t get started. It didn’t matter how attractive I thought a person was, whenever we got to the bedroom, I just wasn’t getting excited. I lost myself in self loathing and I began to fear sex and especially commitment, despite having been in a few serious relationships and feeling as though I knew how to handle these situations mentally.

I felt like I was failing as a man because I felt I wasn’t meeting the standards of what a real man should be.

For about a year I accepted this placebo induced falsehood. Everything changed when I met a woman named Vanessa at my summer job. To make a long story short, we hit it off and went on a couple dates, it had been a long time since I felt such a connection with someone emotionally. She understood me even though I didn’t understand myself.

One night she came to my apartment and we started running singles, doubles and triples. Let me tell you, I never felt so sexually charged in a long time. This was the night I found myself. From that point on I knew what turned me on – a connection.

But what sets demisexualism apart from an individual who likes to take things slow?

Whereas most people who like to take things slow share similar qualities to a demisexual individual, their main difference comes in attraction. Sexual attraction doesn’t manifest itself until an emotional connection is strong enough. Hookups and one night stands are out of the picture. We need to completely immerse ourselves in each other’s emotions to achieve sexual interactions. This not only takes more time but also narrows down our options.

But that’s not a problem because it makes it all the more special when we find that special person. Demisexuality is a very complicated concept, but to me, it’s summarized best by the term “an eye for an eye.” If I give you my heart and you give me yours, we can fuck all night long.

Suddenly, all of the smoke had cleared. To me, great sex isn’t qualified by what I do with the person sharing my bed but rather who that person is. I always knew that there was something missing from my sex life and that was self reflection. However, even when I came to terms with my sexuality, I still couldn’t help feeling self conscious about how people would perceive my sexuality, especially my partners. I was still scared of not being the man I thought I should be rather than focusing on the man I want to be.

Since then, I’ve learned that, as a man, one of the best things you could do for yourself  is to filter out what the world thinks a man should be. The manliest thing you could do is to define your masculinity through who you are as an individual. Masculinity is everything but an objective concept.

Another one of my struggles that comes with being demisexual is sometimes you can feel very restricted in relation to other peoples sex lives, especially when you are young and free. You feel like you’re being left behind because everyone else is moving forward. It’s tough finding the “one” person to truly be able to allow themselves to be not only physically and mentally involved but also emotionally, most people are hard pressed in terms of being emotionally available.

Some people just don’t like taking things slow and those people shouldn’t be ashamed of that. Being demisexual is difficult when the world is moving past you at lightspeed – but there will always be someone who is willing to slow down for you.

 

 

Photo by Gabriela Velasco

 

The “Jezebel” and the Generational Trauma of Black Women

 

 

Though American Black enslavement is over, the effects of it are far from so. Due to societal anti-Blackness and slavery-rooted trauma, things such as imposter syndrome and a variety of mental health issues have perpetuated throughout generations of Black families. Generational trauma affects all of the Black community, but it takes a different toll on African-American women, affecting various aspects of their livelihood such as mental health and sexuality with specific roots in the historical ‘Jezebel’ stereotype and its links to modern Black fetishization.

The correlation of racism to sexism is often left out of conversations surrounding feminism.

Historically, Black American women have been subjected to a number of stereotypes that exploit them and paint them as oversexualized objects. One of the most common surrounding African-American women is the ‘Jezebel’ stereotype. The Jezebel stereotype was originally used as justification by white slave owners to rape Black women on plantations. The stereotype created an idealized version of Black women as some sort of hypersexual crazed animals who were unsatisfied and actively wanted a white man. This was used to make the rape appear consensual and not as the crime it was, due to Black women being considered property to be owned and dominated. 

Though the Jezebel stereotype might not exist to the same extent today, it has still manifested itself in our society’s constructs. According to RAINN, 67% of rapes and sexual assaults are committed by white men and according End Rape on Campus, 60% of Black women experience sexual abuse by age 18. For every woman that reports her rape, at least 15 Black women do not report. This pattern shows a trend in the normalization of the suppression of Black female voices, particularly in instances where they are in danger. 

There has been a historical double standard in how Black female culture is responded to. One aspect is the fetishization of Black physical traits, and the other is ridiculing them and deeming their features unattractive – both are intertwined. The Jezebel stereotype is one example of Black female fetishization, but there are modern displays of it as well.

The internalized racism embedded into the fabric of our society has convinced the public that Black features are unattractive except in “special cases” or in the instance in which white people can benefit from it somehow. 

There are many situations when I myself along with other Black females find themselves hearing comments such as “You are pretty for a Black girl”, perpetuating that idea that Eurocentric features are the singular standard of beauty. There are further examples shown of this in today’s media. For generations, Black women have been ridiculed for their features such as lips and figure. However, when their white counterparts and celebrities receive plastic surgery and augmentations to achieve these same features, it is suddenly praised and considered beautiful.

Celebrities such as the Kardashian family have received backlash for that, consistently being accused of fetishizing Black culture. They’ve capitalized off the appropriation of Black traits, and the influence their large platform encourages others to emulate that. 

These negative responses to Black females at the hand of society for generations manifests within Black families and can affect their image of self-worth and perception of themselves. They all serve to create extreme discomfort and lead Black women to believe they cannot exist in traditionally “white spaces.”

Growing up in a majority white community and currently attending a predominantly white institution, there have often been instances where I question whether I belong and/or deserve to be there. Many of the people in the spaces I’m in often have little experience interacting with women of color and it can leave me feeling “othered.” This type of mindset is called “imposter syndrome” and is the result of generations of white colonization enforcing the ideal that Black people are somehow inferior to their white counterparts. 

The conversation surrounding generational trauma in Black women and its effects on Black communities is not often discussed. It is not solely a problem within the Black community, but has to do with the larger problem of the perpetuation of anti-Blackness in America. Once the cycle of societal racism begins to be dismantled, conversations about these issues can be held more openly, it will be a step in the right direction toward intersectionality in the liberation of Black bodies. 

 

 

Photo by Daniela Guevara.