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#ReadWomen2014: Janet Mock’s “Redefining Realness”

by Lux Cuellar

Redefining Realness by Janet Mock was released February 2nd 2014, two weeks before I began asserting my gender as a young woman. Essentially, the book came out right before I did. I was aching for shared experience, and Janet offered up her voice to be heard. This was the first narrative I read by a transgender woman written in the first person. It is a revolutionary voice for all the girls like us who are systematically denied a girlhood and humanity.

Redefining Realness provides an insight into trans womanhood free of the cis gaze. Unapologetic about the medical transition that she is often reduced to, Janet Mock reveals an honest portrayal of the harsh and beautiful reality about the womanhood of trans women of color. Though transition is a major part of the book and Janet’s life, there was not the sensationalization of hormones and surgeries that you may find in media where other people are telling the stories of trans women. She discusses her navigation of the medical side of transition, and the hoops she had to jump through.

For her, Mock says, “the number one thing is to liberate the girls.” Janet’s unwavering courage in telling her own story has encouraged many others to tell their own personal narratives that would otherwise be silenced. She writes in her book, “I believe that telling our stories, first to ourselves and then to one another and the world, is a revolutionary act. It is an act that can be met with hostility, exclusion, and violence. It can also lead to love, understanding, transcendence, and community. I hope that my being real with you will help empower you to step into who you are and encourage you to share yourself with those around you.” Ayesha A. Siddiqi’s words come to mind when I think of Redefining Realness: “be the person you needed when you were younger.” Janet is being that person that she needed, and in the process of doing that, she’s become the person that I and so many other young women need.

References are a major part of the book. She refers to Their Eyes Were Watching God throughout Redefining Realness. Both books are about a path to womanhood, identity, love, and so much more. Pop culture references are also used. Mock compares herself to Britney Spears in one chapter, stating that she was “not a girl, and not yet a woman”. She also discusses how Beyonce empowered her as a young black woman growing up in Honolulu, Hawaii. The broad range of references the book contains, from Toni Morrison’s Sula to MTV’s The Hills, is all used effectively.

Janet Mock discusses issues that affect trans youth such as social transition in high school. Social transition is when a person begins to assert themselves as the gender that they identify with. This can include a change of name and gender presentation. Social transition can be treacherous waters to navigate as a youth. You often have to deal with not only opposition from students, but also faculty. When reading about what Janet went through, I saw a glimpse of my own high school experience.

Redefining Realness is a beautifully written memoir. I only brought two books with me to college, and this was one of them. In the fashion of a truly great book, you can read it over and over again and gain something new from it each time. It is a revelatory piece of work. I discovered things about myself and my identity after reading this. She helped me discover that my femininity was powerful. Mock states in her book, “[My vice principal] viewed my femininity as extra, as something that was forced and unnatural. Femininity in general is seen as frivolous. People often say feminine people are doing “the most,” meaning that to don a dress, heels, lipstick, and big hair is artifice, fake, and a distraction. But I knew even as a teenager that my femininity was more than just adornments; they were extensions of me, enabling me to express myself and my identity. My body, my clothes, and my makeup are on purpose, just as I am on purpose.”

Taylor Swift can’t shake off white privilege

by Celeste Montaño

The increasingly-familiar sight of a white woman twerking and objectifying black women is back on your screens, this time brought to you by Taylor Swift. On August 18, Swift released a new music video for the single “Shake It Off” to coincide with the announcement of her “first official pop album.” As a result of this initiative to explore new frontiers, Taylor finally took the plunge and allowed people of color a prominent role in her music video—a first in her eight-year career.

The new song is all about shaking off criticism and being yourself, so the video goes to great lengths to remind us that Taylor’s self is the dorky girl-next-door that doesn’t fit in. As she appropriates tries out different styles of dance and fashion, Taylor proves too rambunctious for ballet and too clumsy for interpretative dance. Things start getting weird when she suddenly attempts a B-boy look and has men of color striking tough-guy poses behind her, but it gets way worse a minute later. Taylor’s second attempt at an “edgy” and “urban” persona arrives in the form of cutoff shorts, fuchsia lipstick, and chunky gold jewelry. And animal print!

Of course there has to be animal print because this is when women of color enter the video. They dance in the background as Taylor tries to imitate them, except not really because she needs to make it obvious that she sucks at this twerking thing. You see, twerking isn’t as easy for Taylor as it is for the other dancers. Because twerking is sexual, and being sexual is easier for a black woman than it is for Taylor Swift.

It should be noted that not all the women in the scene are black. But by some funny coincidence, it’s a black woman who’s front and center in the video’s most recognizable scene: the bridge of twerking bodies. At this point, the camera gets so close that the women become nothing but legs and butts as a wide-eyed Taylor that crawls beneath them. It’s a black woman’s body that the camera features most prominently at this moment; it’s a black woman that Taylor gapes at unapologetically.

Unlike the white artists that surround themselves with black friends (in music videos, at least) and markers of black culture to prove they’re cool and a little bit dangerous, Taylor does the opposite. She surrounds herself with hip hop and breakdancing, but the point is to reject those things with a self-deprecating attitude. When we see Taylor goofily failing to twerk, she seems to be saying, “haha I’m such a white girl, this is so embarrassing,” which is actually code for “haha I fail at being sexual or dirty or threatening, I’m just innocent and endearing.”

Yet Taylor manages to act both innocent and sexy, particularly when she sings about “the fella over there with the hella good hair” who should “come on over, baby, we could shake, shake, shake.” Embodying both sides of the coin is a feat rarely achieved, though if anyone could do it, it would definitely be a white woman. But it’s only one of Taylor’s several balancing acts with in the video—like how she’s bad at ballet because she shakes her hips too much, but she’s bad at twerking because she doesn’t shake her hips enough. Like how she uses hip hop elements and the presence of people of color to prove her newfound edginess while also reassuring (white) America that she’s still sweet as apple pie.

It’s ironic that this video is supposed to set Taylor apart from pop stars like, say, Miley Cyrus. Taylor can’t twerk like Miley (supposedly) can. Taylor gets scared when black women twerk! It’s true, both Taylor and Miley dress up in stereotypically “street” clothing. And yes, both Taylor and Miley reduce their black dancers to a single body part. But it’s different! It’s not like both women are totally blinded by white privilege, not at all.

Just like Miley, Taylor waited for a very specific moment in her career to create a video that prominently features people of color and their art. This video never would’ve happened while Taylor was a teenage girl with teardrops on her guitar. To her, black art is inherently mature and rebellious. It only comes in handy when she needs to announce that she’s too tough to let criticism get to her; after all, the creators of black art are themselves strong, incapable of vulnerability, and impervious to pain, right?

It’s not surprising that Taylor Swift decided to go for a tough (but also fun and non-threatening!) attitude this time around, since she gets so much crap for being “too sensitive.” And yet there’s still a lot of people—namely studio executives and fans—who are willing to pay tons of money to hear about her feels. Meanwhile, a black or brown woman in Taylor’s quirky Keds would have a hard time making it in the industry. She wouldn’t be marketable because she wouldn’t be believable: women of color aren’t allowed to be sensitive or silly, and they certainly can’t be victims.

It’s the privilege to embody those characteristics that launched Taylor Swift’s multi-million dollar career. It’s the same privilege that will no doubt allow her to dismiss critiques of racism as just more “haters” while she keeps pretend-twerking and telling her listeners to shake it off. But what happens when you’re a black or brown girl being told to shake off the haters by the person perpetuating the hate?

Black Women Create: Tchaiko Omawale wants girls to find Solace

by Joneka Percentie

I began my research simply. I rephrased the key search words several times: Black women and eating disorders, eating disorders and Black women, disordered eating among Black women.

Each search yielded few results.

Very little research has been done on Black women and eating disorders. With hardly any statistics specifically about Black women and the way many deal with disordered eating, a lot of people are lead to believe that Black women cannot have eating disorders at all–people assume there isn’t a problem if no one is talking about it. The idea that an entire group of people cannot suffer from an eating disorder is harmful for many reasons, a big one being that girls will believe that they are alone in their struggles. When Black girls are excluded from conversations about eating disorders, skewed perceptions leave them without the resources and tools to receive the treatment and help that they need. Empowered by her own battle with an eating disorder and self-harm, Tchaiko Omawale has set out to create a feature length film of her short, Solace.

The difficult transformation from short to feature length film has already begun. Solace began as a short film after a feature piece Tchaiko wrote for the GAEA Artist for Change residency. The feature script was later submitted to Sundance, where it was a Sundance Writers Labs Finalist in 2012.

Now, Tchaiko needs help in the final step of the journey journey to transform Solace into a feature film. The Solace Kickstarter campaign needs $30,000 in donations in order to be funded, and the campaign has already raised over half of its goal. Support in whatever ways you can, whether it’s a personal donation or sharing the campaign with family and friends!

“For the feature film I’m very clear that the tone is going to be different. I want it to be fun, I want it to be silly because that is a part of my personality,” said Tchaiko. The film will look at the joys of being a teenager as well as its painful shadows.

I had the joy of talking with Tchaiko in 2013 about Solace and the important task it takes on: portraying the complexities of dealing with an eating disorder as a young Black woman. Solace follows the personal journey of Sole, a teenage girl who searches for a way to express her pain and finds inspiration through her neighbor, a mysterious dancer named Jasmine.

“It’s really important for me to share [stigmas of eating disorders] through film and to make this feature film so that other black girls don’t think that they’re the only girls dealing with stuff like that. When I was younger, I didn’t realize that bingeing or compulsive eating were eating disorders, I just thought I had no control.”

In hopes of fighting the idea that Black women cannot have eating disorders and breaking the silence, Solace brings a young Black woman’s struggle with an eating disorder to light–hopefully with more research and studies of eating disorders among Black women to follow its lead.

Tchaiko describes the process of creating Solace as “an incredibly painful journey.”

“Most [of the time] I felt very alone, but I soon came to learn that there were a lot of other people that shared the same experiences with me. It became really important for me to make a film for all those other people that feel that they’re also alone.”

Personal storytelling is painful and difficult, whether it’s through film, poetry, or any other artistic medium.  “I like the idea of feminism being the things that empower women can also allow them to embrace their vulnerability and how we can support each other and find strength within the things that make us feel vulnerable,” said Hope Olaidé Wilson, who portrays Sole in the short film.

“I feel a strong sense that this is much much bigger than my own experience or my first feature film,” said Tchaiko. “This is something that I absolutely have to do and I’m going to do it no matter what it takes.”

If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237. 

If you’re struggling with self-harm, call the Self-Injury Foundation hotline at 1-800-334-4357

The world says women can’t work together, but I know that’s wrong

by Sam Holmes

“I’d hate to work in a place that’s like entirely women. It sounds like it would be so shallow and catty” Allie said to me. I’d just told a group of friends about my upcoming internship at Keep America Beautiful, an organization where I’d be working mostly with other women. I was familiar with the organization, and I knew that I would be mostly working with other women—but my friends’ reactions made more a bit nervous about my upcoming experience. Because of SPARK Movement, I have worked with a group that is all women and girls. SPARK has shown me that working alongside women means collaboration, support, and encouragement. But still, I wondered and worried about whether or not this kind of camaraderie would exist in an office environment.

As I rode on the train for my first day, I still had these doubts. A conglomerate of women-in-the-workplace stereotypes invaded my thoughts. Would my experience mirror that of a Hollywood film that teemed with stereotypes? Would I have a brilliant and glamorous co-worker who would be entirely interested in my failure? Could I potentially land in a situation where, like my friends suggested, superficiality reigned supreme? Those outcomes weren’t impossible. There was a definite chance that my internship would be tainted by some of these aspects. But brighter possibilities existed as well. I realized that I could just as easily be paired with a very supportive and open-minded boss. Working with someone like Leslie Knope or Liz Lemon or SPARK’s Dana and Melissa would be another possibility.

I was at the office building within an hour. Being an over-eager and slightly anxious newbie, I arrived a bit too early my first day, so my mentor, A, was still in a meeting. When the conference room finally opened, A came out, shouted my name, and hugged me. Any remaining fears of working in one of those “shallow and catty” places dissolved immediately. This supportive atmosphere became increasingly clear within every aspect of my internship. On my first day, A took me to lunch. She asked me about my summer and my plans for next year. Her interest was clearly genuine. I could tell that, much like my mentors at SPARK, A wanted me to be successful in my work and beyond. When we were walking back to the office, a group of men from across the street shouted something at us. Ignoring their cat-calling, I continued walking on my side of the street. A, on the other hand, removed her sunglasses and gave the group a glare that I could only dream of emulating. She then turned to me and said, “I want you to feel safe here.”

I did feel safe there. I also felt appreciated, understood, productive, and confident whenever I walked through the hallways or sat down at my desk. I was given actual assignments about causes that meant a lot to me. I spent hours researching and writing about environmentally conscious companies and practices. I was able to engage people through the organization’s media profiles. Rotating around different departments within the organization, I was able to witness the various moving pieces that comprise a non-profit. Across these divisions, my contributions were valued. I was encouraged to step outside of my comfort zone and do everything from filling out spreadsheets to picking out colors for pamphlets. I felt that my efforts furthered the company’s mission. The feedback that I received, both positive and negative, helped me to recognize my strengths and weaknesses. I had a wonderful experience.

At the end of my internship, saying goodbye to everyone was more difficult than I was expected. There was A, who offered me constant support and guidance. But there were other women who defined my experience. The woman who worked at the desk next to me walked with me to the train station in the evening. The people who worked at the front of the office forwarded inspirational quotes to my inbox. I even had the chance to eat a slice of pizza with the CEO. She, and the other people that I worked with were so smart, caring, driven, and hilarious. Because of them, the idea of waking up to catch a 6:00 train actually became appealing. My experience is definitely not unusual. I know that there are groups across the world like that organization and SPARK. These are places where girls can openly contribute without fear of being called bossy, shallow, aggressive, or any other euphemism that is used to belittle women. Television and movie companies should illustrate teams. People should know about the people that I work with and continue to work with. Their stories are much more entertaining and relatable than the needlessly cutthroat environment that media love to portray.

My Grandmother is my feminist inspiration

by Julia Bluhm

The suggestion for this blog came from Michael Dobson, also one of Virginia Bluhm’s grandchildren.

On August 26, 1971, New York City’s fifth avenue was flooded with over 50,000 woman participants in a nationwide strike for equality in politics, employment, and education. It was organized by Betty Friedan and the National Organization for Women, and consisted of many separate strikes in different parts of the country. While New York City’s event was certainly the biggest, including two 40-foot banners that were hung from the Statue of Liberty to advertise, the national event as a whole was “the largest protest for gender equality in U.S. History.” Somewhere in the massive crowd on fifth avenue was my grandmother, Virginia Bluhm, and her friend Arlene marching toward Bryant Park to hear speeches from Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Bella Abzung.

My grandmother grew up in New York City, graduated from high school, got married and had two children without ever having gone to college, as was common for women during the 1950s and 60s. As my dad and aunt grew older, she enrolled in Hunter college and got a degree in sociology. She was in graduate school during the time of the 1971 protest, and earned her PhD in sociology soon after. This was an extremely impressive feat, since in 1970 only 11 percent of students who received doctorates were women. Women were discouraged from pursuing advanced degrees, because it was assumed that many would drop out to have children and start families. Ginny, my grandmother, completed hers while married and raising my dad and my aunt. Is she a superhero? Maybe. But mostly she is a smart, dedicated, hardworking woman who proved that you do not have to chose between being a mother or being educated and having a successful job, as many people thought at the time.

Not only did my grandmother graduate under such rare conditions, she had one of the coolest dissertations ever. She wrote several hundred pages on the role of women in minorities and television news broadcasting. There were very few female news anchors at the time, but she managed to interview a few of them for her paper. She had to keep their names anonymous in case it put their jobs in danger, and she still won’t tell anyone if she ever interviewed Barbara Walters.

After earning her degree and PhD, she worked as an adjunct professor of sociology in the Manhattan area. Later, she taught herself how to use computers and worked for the American Cancer society. The more I learn about my grandmother, the more I am amazed and, honestly, surprised. I always knew she was a great person, but I didn’t realize until recently how much she has done that relates to feminism.

As August 26th (Women’s Equality Day) approaches, let’s celebrate all the wonderful people, like my grandmother, who overcame odds and carried the feminist movement to where it is today. I love you, Grandma Ginny, for your warm hugs and thoughtful gifts, but also for the inspiration you have given me by being the dedicated, successful woman that you are.

 


We love Mindy Kaling, but not because of her body

by Ajaita Saini

Mindy Kaling is an Emmy nominated actress, comedian, producer, and writer. She’s most famous for her work as Kelly Kapoor on The

Mindy Kaling in Vogue

Office and Mindy Lahiri on The Mindy Project. However, she is also known for looking a lot different than most comedians and actors out there.

In an appearance on Jimmey Kimmel Live, she discussed the remarks she received after an interview with Vogue, where she said she’s “always trying to lose fifteen pounds. But I never need to be skinny. I don’t want to be skinny. I’m constantly in a state of self-improvement.” People cheered her on afterward with bizarre compliments, calling her courageous for not subscribing to the ideals of beauty.

Out of all things to call her a hero for–taking the role of a feminist protagonist on her show, best-selling books, being a role model to teenage girls everywhere, not to mention her work with Google’s Made with Code–she’s considered a hero for wearing a dress with her midriff showing. But honestly, revealing an inch of midriff doesn’t make Mindy Kaling a hero, it just makes her a normal woman who enjoys clothes like the rest of us. Why don’t other celebrities receive the same “praise”?

“It’s interesting to me that it’s considered revolutionary to not be a model and to be in love on a TV show” – Mindy Kaling

I personally adore Mindy Kaling. Not just because of the flood of relief I feel to see a South Indian actress on American television, but because of the fact that she’s accepting of who she is as a person and doesn’t hide the “imperfections” that make her a human.

I’m quite a chubby person myself. Cheeks that could belong to chipmunks, an obvious belly, and thighs that jiggle. Many times when I call myself chubby, my friends feel obliged to say “You’re perfectly thin! Stop undermining yourself!” Hold on–since when was I undermining myself? And since when was calling myself chubby equate to me being ugly?

It’s interesting to see how size has always set the standards for beauty. For the longest time, having a fuller, heavier body was preferred (because it was a sign of wealth), and not until recently have thinner, slim bodies been favored and encouraged. How did the social norm go from one notion to the complete opposite? I think that in the 21st century, the media has instilled the message that- hey if you’re a size 0, only then are you worthy to look good in that dress. Meanwhile, us sizes 10 and up should only be left with baggy, lackluster clothing until we’ve applied countless diets and pills to achieve some self- worth.

I always get asked, “Where do you get your confidence?” I think people are well meaning, but it’s pretty insulting. Because what it means to me is, “You, Mindy Kaling, have all the trappings of a very marginalized person. You’re not skinny, you’re not white, you’re a woman. Why on earth would you feel like you’re worth anything?” – Mindy Kaling

So where does that leave each of us in the eyes of everyone else? On one hand, we find ourselves trying to instill the idea that personality and capability are what matter, and that we shouldn’t be so quick to judge people based on appearance. On the other hand, we can’t help but  cheer when we see an “average” woman on screen. We find ourselves acknowledging the disparity of the situation and appreciative of the fact that we finally get to see a more realistic view of reality in our models and actors.

Rather than focusing entirely on the  difference of  women like Mindy—rather than calling them “body image heroes–we should celebrate the overall growing diversity of young women in the media. We’re in a time when in the media, practically all women look perfect- and were altered to look that way. We rejoice at seeing people on screen who look more “normal” than model-like because we’re tired of seeing people that have been recreated to look like something they’re not. The reason people like Mindy Kaling deserve to be seen as pioneers isn’t because they succeeded despite being “imperfect,” but they continue to increase diversity. She isn’t breaking barriers because she’s chubby, but simply because she doesn’t take anyone’s shit and is amazing at what she does.

Mindy Kaling is NOT a “body image hero,” because the label shouldn’t exist in the first place- all it does is praise a woman for getting out of bed and looking like herself. Mindy is a hero for being a successful actor, comedian, writer nonpareil. Above all, her tenacity, audacious drive, and unique flair makes her a role model to girls and a champion for aspiring women everywhere.

For THAT, Mindy Kaling, we salute you.