women’s bodies, women’s power

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I’ve watched Beyonce’s Formation video several times. It’s amazing. I’ve read the lyrics. I’ve followed along with the lyrics while watching the video, just to make sure I really heard what she was saying. I recommend watching it more than once to make sure you didn’t miss anything the first time(s). It’s challenging. It blows me away every time. It also makes me a little uncomfortable, which I experience as a good thing. I like getting out of my comfort zone, especially my white girl comfort zone.

I saw Beyonce own the Super Bowl halftime show, preaching black empowerment – on television – in front of millions of Americans. And was that a stadium full of rainbows at the end, in support of the freedom to love whoever you want? At the Super Bowl in the San Francisco Bay Area? Perfect.

I read discussions in my social media universe and in the larger media among women who were disturbed by how revealing Beyonce’s outfit was in the halftime show. These are intelligent, sensitive and feminist women, and they were understandably troubled that their children had to see a woman dressed in so little – showing so much skin, so much leg, so much ass, so much cleavage – while expressing her power. They wished out loud that we lived in a society where it was okay for women to be powerful while also fully clothed. I get that, I really do. And I agree – women should be able to be powerful and regarded and HEARD however they want to dress. I will never deny that our collective culture dishes out some messed up and contradictory messages to women and girls about our bodies and our voices.

But I wasn’t outraged because my 12 year old daughter was watching with me, seeing all that skin Beyonce was showing. To be honest, what actually came out of my mouth was, “Wow! Check out her strong-ass legs!” Followed by, “That woman is a total BAD ASS.” Followed by our own discussions in the week that followed about what the messages were in her performance, and why it’s a big deal that she is daring to and able to share those messages.

How often are women told it is beautiful to have real legs, thick legs, muscular legs, even short squat legs? When does it feel safe to show off those legs to the whole world – knowing the whole time that you will either be critiqued for your flaws, dismissed as the victim of a system that controls you and tells you what to wear and how to look, or condemned for being a slut?

Apparently it’s not that safe for a woman to be sexy and proud and loud and powerful. A Google search for “Beyonce post-Super Bowl backlash/commentary” shows that. Thankfully I’m not the only woman defending a woman’s right to be powerful and to make a statement in public – in whatever she wants to wear; the same Google search leads to some great commentary against the backlash. Commentary that also acknowledges and honors Beyonce’s blackness, rather than fears it.

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The Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue came in the mail this week, one out of 52 issues that is not about sports. Well, sort of not. They actually had real athletes in this issue – female athletes with strong bodies. No lengthy stories about them, but photos of athletic women in the same skimpy bathing suits worn by the issue’s other models, along with short blurbs and quotes. And they had “plus size” model Ashley Graham, who in her little blurb spoke about cellulite; even if said cellulite was airbrushed away in her photos. She may be proud of her body exactly as it is (as she should be), but clearly we’re not quite ready to communicate a larger message to the public that cellulite is actually okay. I would love to see us get there.

The SI swimsuit issue made it to the bottom of the recycling bin before my daughter could see it. And I thought to myself as I buried it underneath flattened cereal boxes, “Why am I hiding this from her? Is there a difference here between the messages conveyed in the magazine and what Beyonce was saying in her halftime show when she bared her skin? If so, what is the difference?”

There’s a lot of sex in the SI swinsuit issue. The message is sexual, tiny bikinis cover large breasts, women posing in a way that makes their boobs and booties stick out the most. Waists are Photoshopped to be extra narrow so that everything else looks extra wide. There is desire in their faces, girlish innocence mixed with come-hither looks. They are sweaty, their hair is wet. It’s sexual. It’s confusing. And it contributes to the ways in which boys and girls grow up confused about how to relate to each other and to their own and each other’s bodies. I don’t want my daughter to grow up afraid of sexuality; at the same time I want her sexuality to develop in its own right time, in a healthy way.

She is 12 years old, almost an adolescent. Do you remember adolescence? Am I the only one with such deep imprints from that time, still, 30 years later? That time when girls and boys start to notice each other – girls noticing boys noticing boys noticing girls noticing girls. Girls competing with other girls, boys competing with other boys. Insecurities. Bodies starting to change, many girls finding themselves suddenly a head taller than many of the boys around them. Flirting starts, shyness grows and is overcome, first crushes happen and happen hard. Young hearts break for the first time. Sexual identity starts to form, in all its complex layers.

I don’t envy my daughter that she has to go through adolescence with social media everywhere – and I’m postponing letting her have her own phone for as long as possible because I’m not ready to navigate that yet. But for some reason I’m still trying to understand completely in myself, I don’t worry about her sense of herself and her body and her self-confidence. Maybe I’m mistakenly not preparing myself enough – or her – for the years ahead, maybe there are things she thinks about herself that she doesn’t share with me. I doubt I’m missing the important things, though. She and I talk about things, these conversations began many years ago.

And my daughter is different than I was at her age.

She is confident – in her skin, in her sense of herself, at school, in the world. She is outgoing, friendly, and not remotely shy. She is loud and funny and full of energy. She is athletic and active. Basically, she’s totally cool. Cool to her core, from the inside out. She is unique, she has always had her own style. And she is whip smart, strong willed, opinionated. She questions what she sees.

She has understood since she was little that women don’t look like Barbie or Bratz dolls. She knows that models in magazines are airbrushed, that their bodies have been manipulated by Photoshop. She knows what eating disorders are, and calories for her are units of strength and energy, not things that need to be counted or measured or controlled.

I don’t speak around her about the parts of my body I don’t love – and being her mother makes me question why I feel that way about those parts in the first place. I am very aware that I was even younger than her when I started hating my thighs.

My daughter once asked me why I never wear shorts. My answer is always the same: I prefer skirts. Maybe when she’s older, or maybe soon, I will tell her the truth and we can talk about bodies and women and all the complexities of being a woman in a body. I will tell her honestly that I am constantly remembering to love and cherish my body exactly as it is. That I care for my body because of that self-love. I will tell her that if I had Beyonce’s legs, I probably would wear shorts.

It’s so confusing being a woman and a girl. The messages are constant contradictions:

Be feminine. Be sexy. Be smart and unafraid, speak out. Don’t be too loud or people will think you’re bossy or whiny.

You are flawed. You are imperfect. There is always something you could improve about yourself. Get fit. Get strong. Get thin. Get toned. Watch what you eat. Dress in a way that flatters your body type.

Love your body as it is. Accept yourself as you are. Natural is beautiful. And if you try to fix something about your body so that you feel better about yourself, you will be judged for being shallow, insecure, vain.

I’ve done it, I’ve judged. I confess. Women and girls are each other’s finest critics. And we are hardest on ourselves.

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So I’m watching the Super Bowl with my family and out comes Beyonce and her shorts are shorter than her backup dancers’, and no one can deny that she is a beautiful woman who looks completely hot. She dances and she sings while the whole world watches – and her music has a message, a powerful message. Her costumes even have a message. And all I notice is her POWER. That this bad ass BLACK woman (with real, strong legs) has all eyes on her in that moment, and she is communicating something powerful, something that challenges the status quo. At the Super Bowl.

It’s been 25 years since I took Women’s Studies in college, even longer since I woke up to the concept of feminism. I was a photographer for the women’s newspaper in college, met female students who were putting themselves through school doing phone sex in the evenings. I learned about the first wave of feminism, the second, the third (my generation). I’m not sure what wave we’re in now. But feminism has changed, it has evolved, it is constantly evolving, and it cannot be just a movement of and for and directed by white women.

This is the thing I know now that I didn’t know in college: Nothing is black and white. You can’t say that women are always objectified if they are showing skin. I’d bet money that Beyonce felt amazing in that stadium a few weeks ago, or when she saw the final cut of her Formation video.

And then there is the race and color piece: White women or men – or the dominant white culture – don’t get to tell black women or men – or black culture – what they should or shouldn’t wear. Period. Bootie shorts or black hoodies. Skin or no skin. I don’t care how much of a feminist I have always considered myself to be: It will never be up to me as a white person to have an opinion about how Beyonce should dress or what’s appropriate for her. And I don’t want to dismiss or ignore her power because it is delivered in clothing that might make me blush or might feel inappropriate. The only female I’m in charge of besides myself is my daughter (until she is 18), who doesn’t wear short shorts because she is 12 years old.

I don’t see Beyonce as a victim of the messages she has been taking in all her life, thrown at her by our mysoginistic society. I see in her a powerful, successful, intelligent, iconic superstar who actually gets to decide – herself, for once – what she wants to wear when she shares her message of substance on the national stage. Maybe we can spend less time debating her clothing choices, and give more attention to HEARING what this empowered black woman is trying to tell us. Recognizing that her message is one we need to hear, even if it makes us uncomfortable.

In the very last line of Formation, Beyonce says, “You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation.”

Think for a minute about the power and feminism in that statement…

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let’s talk about trauma

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trauma: 1. an emotional wound or shock often having long-lasting effects. 2. any physical damage to the body caused by violence or accident or fracture etc.

Big, powerful word. It summons up thoughts of war, genocide, violence. Veterans who come home with the invisible wounds of PTSD after having fought in wars. It makes me think about my grandparents who were Holocaust survivors and what they carried deep inside them from what they had lived, from all they had lost. It makes me think about friends who have battled cancer, friends who have lost spouses, friends who – like me – have lost babies. It makes me think about all of the ways life can turn on its head in an instant, when we least expect it, and change us forever – change us down to our very cells.

Did you know that our cells carry our traumas?

I’ve been thinking about trauma lately, naming it, recognizing it inside myself. I’ve been looking at the trauma I still carry – even now, when I am feeling so much better – from the years I felt like such crap because of the auto-immune illness I live with. From the years I was so sick and struggling so completely to feel just a little bit better.

I have spent years – literally years – guided by my primitive/ancient/reptilian brain, living in fight-or-flight mode. I have spent years being cautious, fearful, and so completely careful about every bite of food I took, worried about how each bite would affect my body, frustrated to the point of rebellion that I couldn’t just fucking eat. I developed a superpower during these years: It’s an internal radar that allows me to find a bathroom – anywhere, anytime – within minutes if not seconds. I learned how to manage my condition in often obsessive ways that allowed me to trust my body just a little bit while taking away my ability to ever completely relax.

I developed other superpowers living as a sick person with a hidden illness: I got really, really good at managing my medical care, managing medical paperwork, getting reimbursements. I am the master of customer service calls, especially to health insurance companies. I got really good at researching EVERYTHING and taking what I had learned and the many resulting questions to my doctors. I got really good at developing supportive relationships with those doctors.

Do you see the theme, here, though? I am a fighter, a survivor. If shit hits the fan, I’m exactly the kind of person you want on your team. I fight. I’m persistent. I’m smart. I think 10 steps ahead at all times. I consider all possibilities in advance and I’m always prepared for anything.

But this is a crazy exhausting way to live. Especially when I was already feeling physically unwell. And especially now when I am feeling better.

(Do I even dare write “now that I am feeling better?” Am I really truly feeling better, for real? Can I trust that to be true?)

It’s a difficult lifestyle to unlearn because the trauma is still there – all the way down into my cells.

I was first diagnosed with this condition 19 years ago, after several years of other body challenges. I’ve had years of terrible illness and years with no symptoms at all and no need for meds. I’ve been surprised repeatedly when the symptoms returned, until eventually I came to expect they always would at some point – at least that’s what doctors tell you when you have a chronic condition. I’ve wrestled with whether or not to go on medication, felt frustrated when medication didn’t work or stopped working, and felt tremendous fear at how the medication might be hurting more than it helps.

I am so accustomed to living in a constant state of alert!-caution!-prevention!-attention! that it’s really difficult to turn off. To relax.

To trust my body. To trust that I am well.

The irony: Stress worsens my symptoms. That has always felt like a cruel joke. Just relax and you’ll feel better, I’ve been told, usually by people who are not living with an illness. I ate paleo – gluten free – grain free – vegan – raw – macrobiotic – (whatever) and healed! Try it, it will heal you too! This never helps me, just makes me feel like I’m chasing rainbows. Like I am never doing enough. And it makes me even more terrified of food. And I really enjoy food, a lot. And it’s not like I can just stop eating. Another cruel joke.

So how do we do it – how do we unlearn the fight-or-flight response once it is so familiar, so deeply ingrained in us? Is it possible to release, to heal some of the trauma, to lighten our load?

This is how I start: By writing these words. By naming it. Calling it by its name.

I think we all hold trauma in some form – big or small. I think when we keep it to ourselves, inside ourselves, we allow it to grow bigger, big enough to overwhelm us and drag us down. We are all fractured in some way, aren’t we? We are all imperfect and vulnerable. There is no shame in that. No need to hide our cracks, our scars, our wounds. Our traumas.

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And you? Is there a wound you hold that you’d like to name, to diffuse a little, even to release? How do you do it?