Posts by smoconnor34

I am an MFA trained freelance writer with a passion for education, equality, literature, fitness, and creativity. It is not enough for me to experience my passions, I also need to write about them.

And for My Next Trick, I Will Attempt to Defy Diet Culture

Dear Body, I Hate You

giphy

I was nine the first time I felt disgusted with my body. I remember pulling on a pair of shorts and suddenly being acutely aware that my thighs jiggled too much.

That moment was the beginning of a difficult, lifetime long battle against my own body. It has always felt to me that my body is like a rebellious teenager. It is hell-bent on doing whatever it wants regardless of the ways I try to control it. I’ve been on some type of diet for at least the last twenty years. Some have been obsessive, focusing on deprivation (no sugar, no eating after 6, no carbs, nothing over 1100 calories a day) and some have been hidden under the guise of health (juice cleanse, only raw foods, weight watchers) but at their centers, they have all been about punishment, control,  and self-hatred.

About three months ago, on the edge of summer, I had one of my worst and hopefully last attacks of intense body hatred. I was trying on summer clothes in a dressing room and the only thing I could see was the size. I had let myself go up a size. Which meant that I was disgusting. I was out of control. I was gluttonous. I had too much thigh, too much stomach, too much arm jiggle, too much cellulite. Not enough self-control. I didn’t work hard enough. I was lazy. I wasn’t worthy of love. I didn’t deserve to go to the beach. How could I force people to look at me in a bikini? I called myself names in the mirror. Pig! Fat! Heifer! I pinched myself hard in my flabbiest parts. Disgusting! Look at you! Shame! Shame! Shame! I told myself that I would never eat again! I did not deserve it. I went home and cried in bed.

I’m Onto You, Diet Culture!

giphy1

And then, I decided to start paying attention to how diet culture has negatively influenced me and how it burrows deep into the subconscious of our cultural ideals and norms. The thing is that diet culture pushes the importance of weight and appearance over the importance of health. Diet culture tells us that our bodies need to be altered, not to make them stronger, fitter, or healthier, but because they are not the right shape or size. It’s like smog in the air. We don’t notice it or think about it because it is a part of our day to day lives, but it is highly dangerous none the less. I started doing research and paying attention to the advertisements and images of ideal female beauty that I saw promoted. I started to question what the purpose of this diet culture was, and I learned that at the root of diet culture’s ideology is the desire to control women.

If we track the origins of diets and diet culture, we can see that the desire to alter, control, and dominate the female form came into popularity as America entered the 20th century. The Industrial Revolution brought with it a conflicting shift in the roles of women. On the one hand, women entered the workforce as power looms and new textile technology developed in New England. Many of these women came from agrarian lives that centered around family and farm work, and now for the first time, they were able to earn and save their own money. On the other hand, this movement away from the home lead to a push for traditional family values, with the women as the “light of the home” and the “guardian of moral purity in the household”. Historian Barbara Welter coined the term “the cult of domesticity” to describe the ideology in American history between the 1820s and 1860s that fought to keep women at home and in submissive roles to their husbands.  In a very short window of time, women entered the workforce, began the women’s suffrage fight, and helped sustain the country through a civil war. As America changed, so too did the roles of women, and undoubtedly, this change made men very nervous.

Divide and Conquer

William Banting developed one of the first popular diets in 1863. The diet spread across the ocean and became wildly popular in America. Suddenly, it seemed that there was a new way to control women: Dieting.

If you are a smart member of the dominant group and the subservient group begins to pose a threat to that status, what do you do? One way to keep a subservient group in line is to create a culture where they regulate one another. Consider the role of the house slaves. Since the offspring of slaves and slave owners tended to have lighter skin, the lighter skin slaves were often moved to the plantation house. There they received better living conditions, food rations, and less physically demanding work while their darker skinned counterparts were left to toil in the fields. This created an arbitrary hierarchy among the slaves and helped slave owners regulate the behavior of their subservient population. This divide can still be seen today in the way light and dark skin black Americans are treated by those inside and outside of their race.

Similarly, diet culture enables the dominant members of the population to maintain their power by dividing the subservient members of the population into arbitrary categories. Men create body ideals for women and women are left to race blindly toward these ideals while cutting down and judging other women in the process. If women are too busy judging one another for a body ideal that men created for them, if they are too preoccupied with grouping one another into their created hierarchy, if they are quick to cut one another down in order to  build themselves up, then men can keep their position of power and leave the dirty work to women. Have you ever said to yourself, well at least I’m not that fat? Have you have rolled your eyes at a woman who shows too much skin? Have you ever walked into a room and tried to figure out where you stand in terms of looks? If you have, as I have, then you’ve been working to keep your fellow women in a less powerful position for men.

Diets Have Never Been About Health

giphy3

You cannot find a moment in the fight for women’s equality in this country that doesn’t have a dietary counterpart. The 19th Amendment is passed in 1920, granting women the right to vote and Lucky Strike champions the “cigarette diet”, urging women to “reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet”. WWII ends in 1945 and women are practically pushed out of their jobs and back into the home full time and the cabbage soup diet comes into vogue, urging women to limit their food intake and sustain themselves off of cabbage soup. Betty Friedan publishes the controversial Feminine Mystique in 1963 while meal replacement shakes like Sego and Carnation Slender act as poor substitutes for real food for women. The groundbreaking Supreme Court ruling on Roe V. Wade grants women the right to elect to have an abortion in 1973 just in time for Slim Fast to hit the scene in 1977.

The list goes on and on, but the bottom line is that diets are not about health. They are control tactics used to categorize, and manipulate women into believing that their worth is connected to an arbitrary size, an arbitrary number, and an arbitrary shape all of which change from one decade to the next based on male predilections of the moment.

It’s Time for a Change 

giphy4

I’ve gained and lost the same 20ish pound over the last two decades of my life, and never has the focus been on health. Once, I lit up a cigarette on the way out of the gym. When a bystander commented, “Doesn’t that defeat the purpose?” I assuredly responded, “The purpose is to be skinny!” I have a few pictures from 2006, that I cherish because I slimmed down to a glorious size 4. I was smoking nearly two packs of cigarettes a day, drinking far too much vodka, spending hours and hours on the elliptical trainer at the gym, and rarely eating anything that wasn’t processed. I had just broken up with my college boyfriend, my brother was in an out of rehabs, my mother had just lost her house, I was dropping in and out of long depressive episodes, and yet, when I pulled on those size 4s I have a vivid memory of the pure joy I felt jumping around the dressing room. When I look at the collection of pictures from that time period, I am proud.

Conversely, there are pictures of me earning my first and then my second master’s degree, pictures of me teaching room-fulls of focused high school students, pictures holding my baby nephews, pictures of the love drunk first trips with my now husband, pictures of weddings celebrating the love of friends and family, exotic international trips, and moments with best friends that I have avoided because I look too fat.

So for my next trick, I will attempt to defy the dangerous and pervasive diet culture that exists in our society. I will do this for myself and I will do this for other women. When I look in the mirror, I will celebrate the sexy jiggle of my thighs and the strong girth of my muscles. I will talk to myself the way I would talk to my best friend, reminding myself that I am trying the best I can and I am doing a pretty damn good job. I will stop thinking I need to “earn” food with exercise. I will stop calling food bad or good based on its calorie content. I will nourish my body with healthy, whole foods that will keep it running well. I will participate in workouts that are a celebration of my strengths and my abilities, like CrossFit, that keep the focus away from what my body looks like and moves it to what my body can do. I will stop believing that worth is a pant size and happiness is just a few pounds away. Above all, I will stop this decades-long war with my body.

Adventures in Air Travel

This piece is brought to you by the hellscape that is air travel. Enjoy.

giphy9

It took some decoding, but I was able to conclude that the update was that there was no update. Airplane pilots, I was pretty sure, needed to complete a basic level of higher education that would have, in the least, including some type of public speaking class. Some moment in a degree where they would have to debate or at least speak, with their open mouth, to a professor or another classmate or any other human being, about a topic, in a voice that could communicate some message, and yet, here he was again, coming over the intercom:

“Laaaaaaaavies er genhelmens. (long wet breath) We’ve just received words from the er fliz derckkkkkkk. Looks like we’ll be taxing er on this shlaberpavement er (stroke). Thank you for flying American Airlines.”

The passengers exchanged confused glances and eye rolls with each other. We had been inside of the airplane for near two hours. The apps on our phones were still telling us that the flight was on time. The situation was rapidly deteriorating. Someone was farting, had potentially been releasing one long noxious fart for the entire 2 hours. The three babies on the flight had banned together to ensure that there would be a continuous howl, and the flight attendants caked with foundation and blush, thick stockings and definitively 80’s pumps in navy blue (where did one acquire shoes like this?) nodded in agreement with the captain, further proving that the airport and all who dwell within its meandering boundaries is a lawless land. A Sci-Fi universe where rules are fluid and no one fully understands them, but God (if there is a God in this place) help you if you break them.

Take, for example, the middle seat. The middle seat gets both of the armrests. Everyone knows this. It is basic manners like saying Bless You when someone sneezes or wearing a bra to a business meeting, but the two men straddling me didn’t get that memo. They were fully stretched out. On the right, Dad Cargo Short Mustache had his swollen pink hands, fingers laced, resting up on his bloated belly, elbows pointing across the armrest. On the other side, Super Bro Beats Headphones had his legs spread out as far as humanly possible, letting us all know that his massive junk couldn’t possibly be contained, and if need be, its power could rocket us off the ground, into the air.

giphy2

The best people to sit next to on planes are women. We try so hard to make ourselves small and take up as little room as possible. We try to control our gassiness, we don’t take our shoes off, we’ll pee our pants before we wake you up to get to the bathroom, and we keep our music in our headphones at a reasonable volume, knowing that not everyone on the plane needs to listen to Taylor Swift. We’re considerate and think about our fellow passengers. Women are the best to sit next to. Unless they have a baby. Then forget everything I just said. Even the most courteous of us morph into Disney villains in the airport. An airport is a savage place. I’ve been known to vocally huff my disapproval of elderly people taking too long to place their carry-ons in the overhead bins.

giphy3

My jeans were digging into my stomach and I wanted desperately to unbutton the top button. Actually, I wanted desperately to take my pants off. I was angry at myself for not wearing yoga pants, or better, sweatpants. I always saw these stunning, carefully casual women with slouchy bags and their messy buns perfectly bouncing on their heads leggily strutting through the airport. Simple jeans and white tee shirts. A latte in their hands, reading something smart. This is the outfit of the professional female flyer. This is the outfit to emulate. There are a group of women at the airport who wear heels and form filling dresses or worse, pencil skirts, but those women are psychopaths and are clearly flying somewhere to collect someone’s fingernails or something. Those are the people that should be getting extra pat downs in the security lines.

My jeans were too tight and my white tee shirt was stained. My flight had been delayed and after napping on the floor of the terminal, gracefully, of course, I decided to get a ten piece chicken nugget with extra sweet and sour sauce at 10:30 AM. After the second delay, I got a beer at 11:30, then I wandered to Newport News and got some chocolate covered pretzels and a Runner’s World Magazine. It’s called balance.

giphy4

The airport is like church. No one seems to understand the rules, but there are serious penalties for breaking them. giphy5There is certainly a hidden entity that is watching to ensure that everyone is behaving. There is a ritual of sitting and kneeling and standing. Cross yourself like this. Line up like this for communion. Repeat now. Shake hands now. Now you sing, now you are silent. These rituals exist at the airport too.  Fasten seat belts when there is no reason to do so. Drink your small cup of ginger ale and no you can’t have the full can. Take your shoes off, unless you paid for pre-check. There is no point in questioning these rituals. The best we can hope for is to follow them and one day fly with the angels on our way to Minnesota or Jamaica or Florida or Heaven.

The airport is like one of those post-apocalyptic movies where the hero has to make it through miles of dangerous, deranged gang territory to get to safety. giphy6If you can survive the flesh-eating experience of finding and paying for parking at the airport and checking in, then you can test your strength of body and mind at the security check. Earlier today at the security check, a tall TSA guard, amorphous in shapes, his body sliding around in his too tight uniform like a slug, leaned against the machine that was ex-raying our carry-ons. I noticed that he was wearing those sneakers that promise to tone you up.  He stuck his fat tush out, provocatively and while I waited in line, shoes off, chugging my water, I half expected him to start singing Celine Dione or Cher. Instead, he wailed to the people in line, prodded them like cattle with his demands,

“People! Do you want your items to make it to your final destination? Then push them through to the belt. Come on people.”

We mooed through, smelling the fear and panic of the other cows in front of us. Step up. Not there! Not now. Now. No, you don’t have to take your watch off. Yes, you do have to take your belt off.  Into the churning wind tunnel. Ok, step forward. Here. Ma’am. Wait here. Here. Arms up. I’m going to open your carefully stuffed bag and dig around. Oh never mind, it’s just your vibrator. Ok, hurry up, get your shoes, your belt, your wallet, Jesus don’t forget your wallet, the one earing that you took off in a panic, the two pennies and six dimes and receipt that you frantically flung out of your pockets into the plastic rubber maid container. Get it all. Balance it all carefully while putting your shoes back on. Quickly!

Back on the plane, the flight attendants are now monitoring the passengers, giphy7making sure no one has dared stand up while the fasten seat belts sign is illuminated. One waits with a blow dart at the front of the plane, while the other hands out thimbles of water to the surviving passengers. I take my thimble, apologizing as I reach across Dad Cargo Short Mustache.

             “Excuse me miss, I’m sorry, but do you know how long it might be before we’re in the air or back in the terminal?”

            “Ma’am, the Captain has told us in the crystal clear voice of an aviation angel, that we may never leave this plane. You better get used to that button burrowing a hole into your fat gut and just accept that Super Bro Beats Headphones over there, with his impressive package, is the last man you’ll ever lay eyes on. Now take your greedy portion of water and stay in your goddammned seat.”

I blink my eyes. I must have started hallucinating from the lack of fresh oxygen.

“Ma’am? I said we will be in the air as soon as we possibly can.”

She passed water and a napkin to my seat companion, pursed her lips and forced a smile in my direction before taking a quarter step down the aisle, daring the passengers behind me to ask her any questions.

To my right, Dad Cargo Short Mustache blows his nose, wet and loud, into a moist handkerchief. He turns to me with snot smashed into his copper mustache, and stretches his arms above his head then down along the armrest so his chubby fingers dangle against my knees, “Some people are so rude, huh?”

I take my thimble of water like a shot and unbutton my pants.

giphy8

MENTALLY ILL AF

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, I’ve decided to write this piece:

I don’t like to say I suffer from a mental illness because suffer is such a serious word, and the truth is that sometimes it is, but sometimes it is not the right word to describe my mental illness. Sometimes I suffer. Sometimes I’m annoyed by my mental illness. Sometimes I deal with it. Sometimes I have to actively remember my mental illness. Sometimes I have to battle that son of a bitch relentlessness. Of all of the ways I can describe my mental illness ‘live with’  is the most important and accurate.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and for me, the awareness and acceptance of what mental illness is and is not have been lifesaving. The NRA and the Right would like us to believe that the poster child of mental illness is a deranged and angry young man who is so sick in his own head that he has to shoot innocent people. This is problematic for a number of reasons, but in terms of mental health awareness and acceptance, this image makes it extremely hard for those struggling with a mental illness to come forward and seek help without the fear of stigma or even retribution. As a country, we’ve gone from seeing the mentally ill as institutionalized crazies, to over medicated crybabies, to mass murderers. No wonder it is still extremely difficult for those with mental illness to openly acknowledge their illness and seek help. We are so ashamed of our disease that we won’t even admit to ourselves that we have it, never mind reaching out to professionals who can help.

For me, the acknowledgment of my mental illness saved my life. Mental illness runs, neigh, gallops across my family tree, and I was first diagnosed as a young teenager. Bi-polar, depression, and anxiety are all part of my official diagnosis, but it wasn’t until the last 3 years that I have been able to fully accept what it means to have a mental illness.

My most recent and serious depressive episode was a few years ago. Although mental illness is different for each person, for me, a depressive episode manifests itself in a combination of self-harm, self-hatred, paralyzing depression and fierce anxiety. And always, at the base of these episodes is the belief that I was too weak to fix myself.  I was convinced that if I was stronger, I would be able to manage these emotions. If I was stronger, I could get out of bed. I could just be happy. I could be more appreciative. I could be less obsessive and anxious. I could wake up, like a normal person, without the onslaught of negative self-talk and the impending, continuous failure that was certain to face me throughout the day. And at the base of this, the insistence that I was too weak to do anything about it lead to a continuous downward cycle, where every day became harder and harder.

I convinced myself that if I was too weak to save myself, then I deserved all the failure that was surely coming my way. I didn’t deserve my friends, or my husband, or anything positive in my life, and I was convinced that anyone who thought highly of me, or any success that I had achieved was a mistake and I was fooling everyone into thinking that I was something I wasn’t. It wasn’t that I thought about suicide, it was more this yearning to not exist. I would lay in bed and pull so far into myself, just trying not to feel anything, and I would pray that I wouldn’t wake up. That I would just disappear. That I could erase my presence from this earth because I was so useless. I couldn’t be touched. I couldn’t talk to anyone. I couldn’t tell anyone how I felt. And I couldn’t do any of these things because I was so weak and stupid and useless and the cycle would begin all over again.

I wasn’t taking my medication because I was positive that I could get over this on my own, but really, I wasn’t taking my medication because I still couldn’t fully embrace what it meant to have a mental illness.

I’ve learned that my mental illness is one smooth talking dude. He’ll tell me anything to keep me sick. He’ll convince me that I am weak and useless and worthless and it’s my job to tell him to back off, shut up, quiet down, and usually, I need a lot of help to do that. I’ve come to realize that I was not struggling because I was weak, I was struggling because I was sick and I wasn’t taking the medication that I needed to get better. If I needed medication to make me feel better, my mental illness would tell me, I was weak. My therapist, bless his patient heart, never pushed me into medication. He helped me understand that mental illness isn’t a weakness, rather a disease, but I was in denial, serious denial, about my illness. And no wonder. Even with years of great therapists, I still believed what our culture told me about the mentally ill. Either I was a deviant, or I was weak, or I was being overly dramatic, or I was seriously deranged.

I thought about writing this article all month, but there is still a fear that I will be stigmatized by coming forward. I worry about what people in my life will think, what potential or current clients of mine will think, how my friends might think of me differently, and how they might treat me differently. But this illness is a part of my life, and speaking out about having a mental illness doesn’t change a single thing about who I am.  I see a therapist regularly. I take my medication. I can usually feel oncoming depressive episode. I can gauge my anxiety levels, and instead of suffering silently, I can say to the people I trust, I’m feeling anxious or I’m feeling depressed. I have a list of coping mechanisms I use. I face this illness, head on, but I wouldn’t say I fight my illness. A fight means that someone will win and someone will lose, and the truth is that I’m no longer trying to win against my mental illness. My mental illness isn’t my enemy. It isn’t a flaw. It isn’t something that is wrong with me, or something I have to “get over”. It is a part of me, and to live happily with it for my entire life, I have to name it, own it and the only fight I have to win is the fight against feeling shame.

I have a mental illness. I’m still worthy of love. I’m still funny. I’m still strong. I’m still smart. I’m a pretty normal person, as are most people with mental illness, and I think it’s time that we proudly name it.

A Reformed Ed-reformer

Once upon a time, I was that young, white, teacher that really believed that the problem with my local urban school and our mismanaged district was the teachers’ union and the teachers that just didn’t work or care hard enough.

giphy1

I remember going to see Waiting for Superman and crying in the theater. Yes, I pumped my naïve fists at the screen, it is the teachers’ union. Randi Weingarten and Diane Ravich were evil and brave groundbreakers like Michelle Rhee and Wendy Kopp where champions of our youth. I used to think that a teachers’ strike was selfish and irresponsible. I thought they were putting their needs first, and not thinking about the children they were charged with teaching. The term education reform made me giddy with excitement. Did I mention I was 22? And while I haven’t completely changed my mind about all things education reform, I watch the brave teachers striking in Oklahoma, West Virginia, Arizona, and Colorado, and I applaud their efforts because I know it’s not just about them, but also their schools, their students, and the future of public education in this country.

What We Blame Teachers For

giphy2

Lately, it seems like no matter what is happening, teachers are easy targets. Movies like Waiting for Superman and anti-public school talking heads like Michelle Rhee (who only taught for 3 years BTW) have painted this picture of the curmudgeon public school teacher who doesn’t care about students and simply comes in for the paycheck. The average income for teachers in America is currently around 39,000 dollars a year. For context, that is the same salary as tree pruners, dental assistants, healthcare workers (secretaries and assistants), and constructions works. And this year, just for a sampling, these are things that my teacher friends have had said to them

  • “You’re removing me? Well, this class is an ass wipe anyway.” (from a student)
  • “I better not find out where you live.” (by a parent)
  • “If you don’t fix my sons attendance you’re not getting paid.” (by a parent)
  • “You’re a petty bitch.” (by a student).
  • “Parenting comes 90% from teachers and 10% from parents.” (by a parent)

It takes real money to fix a school system, but it’s completely free to blame teachers for not performing. So that’s what we’ve decided to do as a country: Blame teachers because it’s free. And if teachers were really in it for just the paycheck, they could probably just go and become one of these many other jobs (not that those jobs are easy!) and probably avoid being called a Wild Cunt (true story, it’s happened to me).

Teachers Matter, but I’m Going to Say it, They Don’t Matter that Much.

Study after study shows us that a good teacher is a wonderful thing for a classroom of kids. A good teacher can help students raise reading scores and provide a lifelong positive association with school and learning. Saying teachers are important is a no-brainer, but when did teachers become the only important factor, the all-powerful, the Oz behind the curtain? We all want the best doctor, but imagine, if while being prepped for surgery the doctor told us that his surgical instruments are 45 years old, and because of budget reasons, they actually had to let the anesthesiologist go this morning, but don’t worry, they’re just gonna get the x-ray tech to step in. Also, because the hospital is overcrowded, he is actually going to be performing your surgery and another surgery simultaneously. It doesn’t matter how good the doctor is if he’s set up for failure like that.

Similarly, what if you’ve been stuffing your face with Big Macs and Häagen-Dazs for your whole life and the best doctor in the world tells you that you need to lose some weight and change your lifestyle or else your obese ass is going to have a heart attack.

giphy3

If you keep pushing those burgers down your gullet, even though your trained and qualified and caring doctor prepared a great plan for you, is it the doctor’s fault when your heart explodes? Here’s the thing, we can’t simultaneously say that teachers single-handedly hold the key to turning around a failing system and then get mad when they asked to be paid like they are turning around a failing system.

The White Knight Reformer

giphy4

We have created an image in this country of the teacher as a Mother Teresa figure, and this is problematic in so many ways. For one, this savior is generally a white, privileged person who is really taking a risk and really putting themselves out to help the underprivileged inner-city community. i.e. Michelle Pfeiffer and her leather jacket, Hilary Swank and her pearls, Matthew Perry and his one million rules.  Don’t worry, Stephanie is here, and she’s 22 and got a degree in bio and despite what her parents said, she’s going to help poor black kids.

Teach for America has been extremely harmful to the professionalism of teachers. Teaching is a craft that takes years to develop. It requires training and practice and dedication, and to say that well-intentioned kids can learn that craft in one summer belittles the entire profession. I have met wonderful teachers who are Teach for America and they continue to dedicate their lives to the craft to teaching, but more often than not, they come in for a year or two, save all the black and brown kids they can get their hands on,  move back to the suburbs and apply for grad school. Can I just say this? Black and Hispanic people don’t need White people to save them. We all need help from one another at times, but if you go into a situation thinking you are going to save people, chances are your motivation isn’t coming from the right place.

The Only Thing I Know Now

  1. It’s complicated.

So what if teachers want better pay. It doesn’t make them monsters. They deserve it. And paying teachers more only translates to better workers and better outcomes for our children. These teachers across the country aren’t striking so they can afford a new BMW or a vacation to Bali, they are fighting for their students, supplies for their classrooms, adequate staffing, and dare I say it, a living wage that they have worked hard for. Recently, Chris Taylor, a Bridgeport Board of Education Member, the district I used to teach in, had this gem to say about the teachers in his district when discussing budget cuts. “News flash — we already have Bridgeport teachers that are underpaid. They are here because they love their job. They love their students … They should be paid $100,000. Unfortunately, we don’t have it. And if they are going to leave over 6 percent, we don’t want them here anyway. Good riddance to bad rubbish.” So first of all, this guy sucks, and second of all, it’s not just a 6% pay cut. Bridgeport, like many other inner cities across the country, has a serious qualified teacher shortage to the point where it isn’t uncommon to have a rotating door of substitutes for an entire year. Since when does knowing your worth and asking for it make you “bad rubbish”?

  1. Not all Ed Reform is bad.

I used to work for an education non-profit called Educators4Excellence. They were fighting to see policy change that was designed and written by teachers for teachers and their students. They believed in getting teachers more involved in their unions to strengthen their unified voice. We have gotten ourselves into a real pickle when it comes to American public education in this country. We are going to need all hands on deck to help turn this sinking ship around, but the voices at the forefront must belong to those in the classroom. Not politicians, not philanthropists, not non-profit leaders, but teachers. The first step is learning to trust our educators. Trust their professionalism, trust their good intentions, trust their expertise and stop seeing them as the enemy.

Just as a good rule of thumb before you try to tell a teacher how to do her job or assume that she isn’t working hard enough I want you to engage in this little activity: Think back to the time that a teacher came into your office, decided she was an expert at your job because she read a few articles about your job or saw a few movies, gave you new initiatives to follow, tried to change your pay based on how you performed at those initiatives, and then decided that you where lazy and heartless because according to her, you weren’t working hard enough. Oh, that never happened? That’s what I thought.

giphy

Why the Parkland shooting cannot be about mental illness

It is not that America doesn’t desperately need mental health reform. We do.  But if we make the pervasive instances of school shootings solely about mental illness, we are doing mental health care reform a serious injustice. Avoiding gun reform by focusing on mental health reform cheapens our need for revisions to our mental health care system and deflects from the real issue. It demonizes the mentally ill and associates them with mass shooters, further stigmatizing mental illness and making it even more difficult to speak up and attain help.

We need to increase access to mental health services for Americans.  We need to acknowledge the trauma that is caused by living in poverty, and what the ramifications of that trauma are on the individual. We need mental health counseling in our schools. Why, on average, are we seeing only 1 school counselor for every 491 students when the American School Counselor Association recommends a 1:250 ratio, in the least. We need to make medications to treat mental illness more affordable. And connected to all of these initiatives, we need to eliminate the stigma of mental illness. These are truths that are separate from the gun debate that is currently taking place in America.

Trump tweeted on Thursday,

“So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed, even expelled from school for bad and erratic behavior. Neighbors and classmates knew he was a big problem. Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again!”

Are we moving closer to the criminalization of the mentally ill in order to avoid a conversation about gun reform?

To say that school shootings are an issue of mental illness may not be wrong, but what is wrong is to hide the need for gun reform inside the mental illness argument. Politicians have been blaming mental illness since Columbine, and yet, where are the reforms? If we’re going to avoid the conversation about gun reform and instead, insist that this is an issue of mental illness, then we should at least be seeing improvements to our mental health care system.

I can’t help but feel that this concern over the state of the nation’s mental health seems forced and insincere. It feels like we’re talking about mental illness as a way to avoid the conversation that we need to be having about gun control. The terrorists in these mass shootings are all men and overwhelmingly white. If we look at Columbine, Newtown, and Parkland, all three communities are overwhelmingly white and wealthy. White men get the luxury of being mentally ill as opposed to being labeled terrorist, which further stigmatizes mental illness. The face of mental illness is becoming the younger, white, angry man who is struggling with violent tendencies, impulse control, isolation, a proclivity for harming animals and an inability to manage his temper. This is not the vast majority of people who have a mental illness, and by making this the face of mental illness, as a country, we are making it harder and harder for people to seek help and still feel “normal.”

Despite calling for improvements to the state of mental health care in our country, Trump’s tax bill would actually slash important mental health departments. All evidence points to the fact that Trump and the Republicans don’t really care about mental health care reform, and they are just using it to keep us from talking about the issue of gun reform. If Republicans aren’t just protecting their NRA connection and are actually concerned about the state of American’s mental health, why hasn’t the issue of mental health been brought up sooner? Where was the call to improved mental health after the 1992 riots? Why weren’t Republicans talking then about the trauma caused by poverty and the subsequent PTSD that may have come from witnessing or being party to the riots or the beating of Rodney King? Where was the call to improved mental health care during the AIDS epidemic of the 80’s? An entire population of Americans, shoved into the shadows to die and watch each other die, without the legal or medical health care of the country that was supposed to protect them. Where was the call to improved mental health care during the crack epidemic of the 80’s and 90’s? No one was addressing the mental toll of watching a family member suffer from addiction. Where was the increased school counseling for children whose parents were incarcerated? Where is the call for mental health access for Puerto Ricans who have been displaced or who have witnessed their homes and communities swept away?

Where is the evidence that our political leaders really care about mental health care reform? It seems like we only care about improving mental health care in our country when it means protecting the NRA and our antiquated 2nd amendment rights.

It is not that we don’t need mental health reform in this country. We desperately do, but the last thing we need is the poster boy for mental illness to be a deranged murder. The fight for mental health reform is needed and important, but Americans should not be deterred from insisting on gun control reform for the consolation prize of empty promises to improve our mental health care system.

 

These Two Douche Bags

Yesterday I stumbled upon two serious douche bags. I was getting work done at the Starbucks on the Post Road in Fairfield Connecticut, and these douche bags introduced themselves to the room by stomping up the stairs (it’s a two-floor establishment) while one of them boomed to the other, “Yeah my divorce lawyer is a real bitch.”

They were salt and peppered, attractive, white, older men in their late forties or early fifty. After they finished berating their ex-wives and their bitchy divorce lawyers, they got to work, taking up four seats and one table, making sure to really spread out and get comfortable in the packed Starbucks. They yelled into their phones, conducting their business on speaker phone, disrupting the peace and quiet for the other patrons. They swore loudly, and people got up and left. Even from across the room with headphones on, I could hear them easily.

Honestly, I didn’t mind the distraction too much, because I love a good distraction while I’m trying to write, but then they started talking about the women they were currently and had in the past, been “fucking.” I muted my headphones and wrote down parts of their conversation because it was just too good not to.

giphy3

“Here’s the thing. She was hot, like a Playmate hot, but I’m not gonna commit because I’ll tell you, I’ve got four more years of alimony to pay, and I’ve got all these women in rotation. And it’s like my dad used to say, if it drives, flies, or fucks, rent it. Don’t buy it.” 

The women around me looked over at them, and we exchanged looks with each other. giphy4But we didn’t say anything to the men. I thought about it. I thought about walking over and politely asking them if they could keep it down. I imagined yelling from across the room, you guys are rude douche bags! I thought about sauntering over and giving them a good feminist rant. I thought about a lot of different scenarios, because, like I said, I was trying to do anything to keep from actually writing. But in the end, I didn’t say anything. I put my music louder and I finished the piece I had been working on.

I thought about those Douche Bags all night last night, and I woke up thinking about them this morning. Should I have said something to them? Why didn’t I say something to them?

Part of the reason why I didn’t say anything to them is that I didn’t want to come off as a delicate snowflake. I mean, I like a good racy joke. I swear like a sailor. I’m no prude and I like to think that I save my “that’s offensives” for really really offensive stuff. If I had gone over to them and said, “I’m sorry, but your language is really offensive to me,” I’m sure they would have quieted down, but it wouldn’t have changed their mindset. I didnt’ want them to quiet down, I wanted them to think differently. It wouldn’t have altered their perception of women and it wouldn’t have gotten to the core issue of why they think it’s acceptable to not just talk about women that way, but think about women that way. And honestly, I wasn’t offended. I posted this picture of the Douche Bags on my Instagram, laughably explaining the situation and a friend kindly responded, “I’m sorry you had to hear that. It’s very offensive.” But this word, offend, has taken on such a bullshit connotation.

giphy5

Technically, an offense is an annoyance or resentment caused by a perceived insult. To use the word offensive suggests that the person doing the offending could be right. The offense has to do with your individual beliefs. It has to do with you personally and your individual ideals, and that is where the problem lies. As long as we are looking at the way women are treated, viewed, exploited, stigmatized, threatened, and so on, as a personal issue, and not a societal and cultural issue, we’re not going to get anywhere. I wasn’t offended. They were just wrong. If these guys had been jerking off at Starbucks, I wouldn’t have gone over to them and quietly said, “I’m sorry but that is offensive to me.” It’s not offensive. It’s wrong. And talking and thinking and treating women like that should be as socially unlawful as jerking off in public. We’re not going to do it because it’s the wrong the thing to do.

Another reason why I didn’t say anything is because I honestly didn’t think it would change anything. I succumbed to apathy. I resorted to the “these guys are douche bags and I’m not going to change their minds and being confronted by a woman while they’re talking about women is only going to solidify their ideas about women, so fuck it, I’ll just check Facebook again, I mean, finish this project.” But maybe the point shouldn’t have been to change the minds of these men, but to publically let them know that what they’re saying is wrong. I’m a firm believer that everyone has a right to their opinion and should be able to freely express their ideas, even if I don’t agree with those ideas. The problem here is that, as a society, we are still very gray on issues of right or wrong in terms of human equality and treatment. Mistreating a person based on their gender/ gender identity, sexual orientation, race, religion, or ethnicity is wrong. It is not an issue of personal belief systems or ideas. It was cowardly of me to say to myself, “well even those Douche Bags have a right to their opinion and ideas,” because when a person’s opinions and ideas lead to inequality and potential violence, then those “opinions” are wrong. The more we stand up to these ideas, the more unacceptable they become.

Even still, with all of this contemplation and reflection, I don’t know how I’d treat the situation if I had a do-over. The truth is, I’m still scared to be a woman sometimes. I’m scared to be “that girl” or to be too vocal or “make a scene” or get too emotional. I’m worried about coming off as too bitchy or like a “know it all.” I was scared of confronting those men because there was a part of me that questioned whether I would have been right or wrong to call them out. Hell, there is still a part of me that feels weird about buying tampons from a male cashier.

giphy7

 

How am I going to confront two grown, white men and tell them that their views on women are wrong? I was scared that I would have been ostracized in that Starbucks, and if things got intense, no one would have had my back.

I blew it this time, but something tells me I’ll have another chance because there are a lot of Douche Bags out there.

giphy6

Remember When We Used to Have “Going Out” Clothes?

A few weeks ago, I was getting on a train in New York City. It was 1am, and I was feeling pretty good about myself. I went into the city. I wore an outfit. I drank cocktails that were way too much money, and then I even went to a second location that involved walking down a dark flight of stairs into a tiny sweaty room full of people dancing and nowhere to put my coat where I danced and drank more cocktails.

giphy

My old ass trying to rage

At one, I was getting on the train, and gaggles of young women were just arriving. They were wearing valor jumpsuits, high-waisted shorts with platform sandals, sunglasses in the shape of hearts and black lace chokers. They were laughing with each other and taking long swigs from cute little flasks that they pulled out of their tiny purses. They took pictures of the ceiling of Grand Central Station and selfies with one another.

For a second, I rolled my 35-year-old eyes at these groups of girls. Little girls. Girls who, in the moment, might be feeling grown, but I knew, I knew so much better. They were babies, and they should be in bed, or heading home on the 1am train to their beds, not gallivanting all over the…and then I stopped myself.

giphy1

Once upon a time, I was one of those girls. I would put on ridiculously cute outfits that didn’t match the weather at all and gallivant across cities with too little clothing on, laughing too loudly, full of too much alcohol and confidence, surrounded by my girls feeling unstoppable. I had one particularly infamous outfit.

butterfly

This isn’t the shirt exactly, but you get the idea. (I had to google “slutty butterfly shirt” to find this image)

It consisted of stretch jeans that somehow had glitter built into their fabric, high black platform sandals, and the most amazing “shirt” ever created. It was a butterfly made out of sparkly sequence. The wings flapped out to (barely) cover my boobs, and stretched down to not even come close to covering my belly button. To get into it, I had to hold the butterfly against my chest, while at least two girlfriends weaved the lace up back in place and tied me into it, tightly. Once in this shirt, I would slather glitter lotion all over my body and have more best friends slather it on my back so it would sparkle under the lights of the club. I would wear this outfit out, proudly, into the New England winter with no coat, because who could afford the 5 dollar coat check? I tear up now, thinking about the sheer class of this scene.

Those late teens to early twenties, although filled with unreasonable outfits and questionable moral choices were a vital part of my development, and were no less important than my exploration of womanhood in my 30s. This turbulent and often confusing part of my life taught me about friendship and love. It taught me about what I would and wouldn’t accept from men: as sexual partners, as dance partners, as boyfriends, as study partners, and as friends.  The late teens and early twenties were a time to practice being an adult. They were full of mistakes that felt cripplingly permeant. There was such a limited point of reference and all of a sudden we were doing such adult things that we had no way to evaluate. There was this intense pressure to figure it all out.

If I could go back to that 21-year-old, I would tell her that she’s doing great. I would encourage her to rage hard and I would promise her that even though it doesn’t feel like it, she really is figuring it all out. I would high five her and tell her that she’s going to grow and change in ways that she can’t even imagine and when she feels like it’s all coming to end, it is actually the start of something that she can’t really understand yet. I would tell her to trust herself.

I wonder what my 40 something-year-old self would tell the 35-year-old me. As women, we have so much to learn from one another, at every stage of our lives. It often feels like we’ve been so trained to compete with one another and see one another as adversaries that we don’t open ourselves to the lessons of our sisters. And since we are trained to ruthlessly doubt and criticize ourselves, we end up turning that on one another too.

Before I wrote this, I walked into a coffee shop to work for the day. At two tables pushed together, there was a group of “older” woman. They were probably in their 40s or 50s. They looked good, and they laughed openly with one another. One of them was wearing a “birthday queen” pin. The only thing I can do is hope that when I am their age, I will be an even better woman than I am right now. On my journey to that woman, I’ll look for female role models, of all ages, to help guide me. And when I see women rocking their womanhood, at every age, I’ll celebrate them.

giphy2