Conformity Within The Hasidic Community

     Today I was going through the files on my computer, trying to decide which documents to keep and which to include in a massive purge to free up space on my systems disk, when I found an article that I wrote two years ago in an introductory journalism course.  When I took that class, I had the honor and privilege of being taught and mentored by the writer Suzanne Glass (author of The Interpreter), who pushed and encouraged me, and truly made me a better writer.  To this day, I can’t write anything without thinking “What would Suzanne think about this?” She impacted my life more than she will ever realize.  The following is the final project that I wrote for her class: an investigative article about modesty and conformity within the Satmar Hasidic community in Brooklyn, New York.  In an email, Suzanne said “it [was] a superb piece of investigative journalism that kept [her] fascinated throughout.”  I hope you all like it, too.

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        In a city that is famous for innovation and daring fashion trends, they are hard to miss. Men dressed in long black coats and black brimmed hats. Women with their hair completely covered.  Walking against the backdrop of this sprawling metropolis, they look like relics of The Old Country that is so often referred to by the older Ashkenazi Jewish generations.  During the holiday of Chanukah, they stand in populous sidewalks and approach passersby with the same language: “Are you Jewish? Do you have a Hanukiah for the holiday? Baruch Hashem.”  They are the Hasidim of New York, an ultra-Orthodox sect of Judaism.  This past January, The New York Times ran an article that brought to light a disturbing new insight about the exclusionary Hasidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  Joseph Berger reported on a self-instated “Modesty Committee”, which allegedly threatens store owners who display ‘immodest’ mannequins, as well as families where their husbands have committed adultery, and whose children are not following the strict social guidelines of the community.  According to the article, these committees have existed for a long time in Hasidic neighborhoods, but were only being discovered by the secular world because of a sexual abuse scandal perpetrated by Nechemya Weberman.  Allegedly, the modesty committee often referred immodest and inappropriate Hasidic youths to Weberman for counseling, although Weberman has never been licensed as a therapist.  Of the Modesty Committee, Rabbi Allan Nadler, who is the director of Jewish studies program at Drew University, asserts that “they operate like the Mafia.”  When reading a story like this, one wonders: just how deeply ingrained is the sense of modesty within the Hasidic community? And how have societal factors and pressures contributed to a cult-like need for modesty, to the point where individuals bands together to use threats and intimidation to enforce it?  To investigate these questions, I abandoned my modern attire and individualistic attitude, donned a knee-length skirt, and travelled to the main Hasidic commercial and social strip in Williamsburg, Brooklyn: Lee Avenue.

        Hasidism originated in Poland in the Eighteenth Century, and was founded by Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, commonly known as Baal-Shem-Tov, Hebrew for “Master of the Good Name” (the “Good Name” meaning The Name of God).  As the lore surrounded Hasidism goes, Eliezer developed a reputation for being an exceptionally pious man in his community, as well as a miracle healer.  He gained a huge following to whom he preached worship to God in all activities and occurrences in daily life, not merely religious observance.  Hasidism spread to Western Europe and the United States during significant waves of Jewish emigration in the 1880’s.  Many Hasidic communities in Eastern Europe were dislocated, disintegrated, and destroyed first by the rise of Communism in Russia, and then by the Nazis during the Holocaust.  Those who survived the genocide moved to either Palestine, the newly created State of Israel, or the United States, where the Hasidic communities largely resembled the shtetls, or small Jewish villages, in Eastern and Central Europe.

     In the media, the Hasidim are almost always portrayed as sequestered, religious zealots, who, in between prayer sessions in the synagogues and yeshivas, display misogynist and xenophobic attitudes and discourage contact with the secular world, all while enforcing religious, spiritual, and sexual purity.  This is reflected in Chaim Potok’s novel My Name is Asher Lev, when the protagonist is exiled from his Hasidic community for the transgression of neglecting his study of Judaism in favor of painting nudes and scenes of crucifixion.  In the 2010 film “Holy Rollers,” based on the true story of Sam Gold, a twenty-year-old Hasidic man is disowned by his family when their community learns that he has been smuggling Ecstasy from Holland to the United States.

  When I went to Williamsburg, I saw flocks of men with long beards and curled peyos, or sidelocks, wearing long black coats over button-down shirts and dark trousers, white tzitzis, the knotted fringes on a tallis, or prayer shawl, hanging out from under the shirts.  I observed women with long skirts and dresses, and among the married women, hair covered by tichels (head scarves) and sheitels (wigs).  Everyone on the street seemed to know each other, either by face or by name.  I walked past a dozen groups of two or more women chatting while collectively watching their gaggle of playing children.  When three o’clock rolled around, I saw teenagers walking their younger siblings home from school. Old and young generations alike were conversing entirely in Yiddish.  I felt as if I had stepped into a Chaim Potok novel. I also couldn’t help but notice that, although I had tried my hardest to blend in, when people passed me, whether young or old, they looked at me longer than necessary.  I pretended to read a street map as women scrutinized my conservative, but not Orthodox, outfit,  completely aware that I didn’t live there, and I was not Hasidic.  As I walked down Lee Avenue, for the first time in my life, I felt like a shiksa.

  I was raised Jewish by two Jewish-born parents.  Growing up, I attended the day-care, pre-school, and kindergarten of the Conservative/ Orthodox synagogue Temple Beth Shalom, where my older brother was Bar Mitzvah’ed. We later switched over to the Upper Reform/ Lower Conservative synagogue Congregation M’kor Shalom, where I was both Bat Mitzvah’ed and confirmed.  We were never very religious, only attending Shabbat services occasionally and during the High Holy Days, and we did not keep a Kosher home.  We only really observed Shabbat at home (by saying the prayers and consuming Challah and wine) when I attended a religious kindergarten.  My parents never really taught me anything religious, except for cultural practices, such as keeping Shabbat, and the ritualistic Seder and Rosh Hashanah celebrations with my mother’s family, and fasting during Yom Kippur.  In fact, none of my family members were religiously Jewish, only culturally Jewish, which manifested itself during holidays, as well as through cultural nuances; my grandparents, mother, aunts, and uncle tend to describe things in Yiddish, especially distasteful matters and people (“A shanda fur die Goyim” “Alter kaker” “Shmatta” “Schmuck” and “meshugineh meeskait”), but also favorable things (“Shayna punim” “Mensch” and “Kvell”).  My grandmother always tells us how her parents never kept a Kosher home, even though her grandfather, my great-great-grandfather was the German Orthodox Rabbi David Ginsburgh.  Two summers ago, I spent Friday evening in a Chabad house.  Other than that, I have had no interaction with the Ultra-Orthodox or Hasidic.  I understood the basic rules though: no eye contact with members of the opposite sex, no mention of anything that would be perceived as radical, and absolutely no physical contact of any kind.

      My first interview was with an older man named Viesel Muller, who works in a store called “Judaica Books and Gifts”, on Lee Avenue.  The shop is small and crowded, not with people, but with the hundreds of books lining the walls.  Some books are leather-bound and printed entirely in the Hebrew alphabet, while others I recognized as updated, more conservative editions of the picture books that I had used when I attended Hebrew school.  When I asked Muller if I could conduct the interview, his first response, in a heavy accent, was “Do you speak Yiddish?” Being raised in a secular environment, my Yiddish vocabulary is sparse and definitely not at the level of fluency it needed to be to actually speak to someone who evidently grew up with it as their first language.  He agreed to speak to me, warning me in advance that his English was “not good.” I asked him directly about the Modesty Committee.  He claimed to be completely ignorant of anything like that.  I asked about the issue of modesty, in a general sense.

  “This [is a] Jewish store, all Jewish articles,” he said, “We [are] not abusing nobody [sic].  This [is a] Jewish store, people respect [the customs]. [Is] this about the sign?”

    I had not noticed any sign.  He pointed out the laminated notice taped to the window next to the door: “DRESS CODE FOR STORE- NO: SHORTS, SLEEVELESS, BAREFOOT, LOW CUT NECKLINE” it read, in both English and Spanish.  These signs, I noticed as my day continued, are as commonplace as the ones in eating establishments that read “No Shirts, No Shoes, No Service.”

      “We have things to cover up,” he said, motioning behind the counter and pantomiming putting on a shawl, “[There is a] sign outside. Only Jewish people come in.  We [are] not abusing nobody,” he insisted again.

       I went down the street to Lefkowitz Grocery.  There, I asked a young man who introduced himself as “Mike” about the issue of modesty in Williamsburg.  “Mike”, in the same thick accent as Muller, answered, “There [is] no modesty problem here.  [We have the] best modesty.  You want [to] see [a] problem [with modesty], go to Flatbush.” “Mike” then continued in a mix of Yiddish and English, his praise of the uniform sense of modesty in Williamsburg, among the Hasidim. He kept repeating the phrase, “Everyone [is] the same, everyone [is] modest.”

   In small, tight-knit communities, like the Hasidic community, conformity is undeniably prevalent.  The pressure to be unified in dress, behavior, and religious observance is almost impossible to escape, especially for those who have been raised in that particular community and environment.  Conformity is also heavily associated with cults.  According to Dantalion Jones’ book Cult Control, “Conformity is…maintained by mandating smaller details of daily living including sleeping and eating schedules and dietary mandates…Group rituals can only be done in unity and conformity. Rituals can be anything from elaborate ceremonies to simple rituals that each person must do as a part of their mundane activities like eating (like saying grace), sleeping, awakening or going to the bathroom.  Detail is EVERYTHING when it comes to conformity.”  This passage seems to echo certain aspects of the Hasidic and Orthodox lifestyle, such as ritual prayer before and after eating, sleeping, and waking up.  Similar to many cults, if someone does not conform with the rest of the group, or chooses to abandon the Hasidic lifestyle, they will be shunned by their friends and family who remain within the community.  In a New York Post interview about her memoir Unorthodox, ex-Hasidic author Deborah Feldman reveals being ostracized by her family and friends after leaving the Hasidic community and divorcing her husband following a serious car accident.  Feldman even said that when her family learned that she was publishing a book about her life and experiences of living within the Hasidic community, “[they] started sending [her] hate mail, really bad.  They want [her] to commit suicide. They’ve got [her] grave ready.”

    My last interview with a Hasidic person, was with Silky S., a thoughtful twenty-one year old woman who was working in a hardware store with two or three Hasidic men.  Silky was the youngest person I spoke to, the only woman, and the only one without an accent.  I asked if I could interview her.

    “Ich bin tr’chtn (I’m thinking),” she murmured.

     She agreed to be interviewed.  When asked about the modesty committee, she seemed surprised: “I don’t think so, not in Brooklyn.” I asked her if the expectation and pressure to dress modestly was completely societal.

  “I think a lot of it is social pressure to be modest,” she said, “That’s where peer pressure is very good.”

     I asked her what would happen if she were to dress immodestly.  Would her friends say something to her?

   “Oh definitely,” Silky nodded, “They would say something to me, nothing mean, but they would say something.  Friends pressure you to be modest for sure.” I asked her what her personal feelings were toward modesty.

      “I think it’s a nice thing to be modest,” she said, “I think a Jewish woman is very precious, like a diamond, you know? A diamond is precious, so it goes in the back.  So women, we should cover ourselves, you know?”  She looked over the counter at my outfit, smiled and said, “You’re very modest, I can tell.”

        Silky told me she was born and raised in Williamsburg, in this Hasidic community.  We talked for a bit about being raised Jewish.  I shared with her that my mother always made sure my arms were covered in shul.

   “Oh in shul, definitely there,” Silky nodded in agreement, “I can tell, your mother raised you right, to be modest.”

  Although my mind instantly replayed all the times that my mother had encouraged socially transgressive behavior, I nodded and said, “Oh, yes. Definitely.”

  Taking the train back to Manhattan from Williamsburg, I had an overwhelming sense of relief.  I could go home, slip into a pair of torn up jeans and a ratty tee shirt, and I would not be considered immodest or impure.  I would not be held to any sort of standard of decency, other than actually being dressed.  I thought about Silky and felt a pang of sympathy for her. As long as she remains in the Hasidic community, she will always be held to a rigid standard.  But then again, Silky grew up within the confines of that community.  Presumably, that is the only lifestyle she knows.  She seemed happy with her life, as far as I could tell from our conversation.  She did not appear to be in any distress. Then again, when people are born into a community like the Hasidim, small group dynamics play a huge role in social pressure to conform.  It could be that Silky suppresses any issues that she has with her community’s practices in order to be accepted by her family and peers.  But of course, striving to be accepted within one’s own community is a universal experience.

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Why I Pander To The Male Gaze

In every discussion about feminism in which I engage, the topic almost always seems to steer toward the Male Gaze.  Specifically, the insidious and toxic ways that the Male Gaze worms its way into our collective consciousness and (negatively) affects our day-to-day activities and interactions.  As I came to fully understand all of the different intersections and dynamics of feminism, I was able to pick apart things in my own life which may or may not have been influenced by societal pressure to conform and perform femininity, beauty, and professionalism.  I started to ask myself vital questions like “Why do I wear makeup every day?” “Why do I style my hair like this?” “Who am I trying to impress? And why?”

When I came out as a lesbian and started to explore and develop my own queer identity, I (naturally) gravitated toward other younger members of the LGBTQ community for friendship, companionship, and support.  Most of the people with whom I hung out vehemently opposed the oppressive forces of our white hetero-patriarchal society.  This manifested in not only their politics, their music, and their relationships, but also in their personal styles.  Even now, most of the queer kids (I say “kids”, but really, we’re all in our twenties now) I know loudly and proudly announce themselves and their social identities by shaving, buzzing, spiking, and cutting their neon colored hair into pseudo punk rock styles, stretching their earlobes, and piercing and tattooing every inch of their skin.  They all seem to be so obsessed with sticking it to the patriarchy and rebelling against social norms that every queer event that I go to ends up looking like a costume contest.

I think at this point, I should stress that I am in no way condemning the LGBTQ community, nor am I making fun of people who are exploring their personal styles and identities.  People have different ideas about what looks attractive, some people don’t care who finds them attractive, and some people genuinely enjoy being visibly queer and being around others who are too.  That’s entirely their prerogative, and if it makes them happy, then all the more power to them.

I, on the other hand, am not visibly queer.  Every straight man who has ever told me that I am “too pretty to be a lesbian” has drilled this into my head.  I am not visibly queer.  I do not announce my identity through clothing and wild hair styles.  Through all accounts, I look completely normative.

That’s my own rebellion.

I figured out, long ago, when I was still a kid, that if you look conventionally attractive, looked like you cared about your appearance, and your hygiene, and how people perceived you, you would be more likely to get what you wanted.  I figured out that if people thought you were pretty and if they thought you looked approachable, they would be more likely to want to engage in a conversation with you, which would in turn, allow you to solidify your worthiness in their minds by displaying your intelligence, sense of humor, and kindness.  Basically, if you looked good, people would probably be good to you.  Honestly, who hasn’t learned this by now?

As an adult,  I exploit this on a daily basis.  Every day, before I go outside, I make sure my outfit is flattering and fits properly, my makeup is on point, and my hair is flawless.  I make great efforts every day to look as conventionally attractive as I possibly can.  Yes, it’s conforming to social standards of beauty.  Yes, it is most definitely pandering to the Male Gaze.  Yes,  I understand that to be judged by one’s physical appearance before their intellect and personality is a gross flaw in our system that society just cannot seem to shake.  But no, I will not actively rebel against that.

As a woman – as a gay woman– I am already at a place of disadvantage socially, economically, and politically.  Every day, I live with the fact that I am less likely to be hired for a job, much less to be paid equally, than my straight male counterparts.  My civil and human rights constantly hang in the balance, subject to the whim of heterosexual male politicians.  I am automatically at risk of being the victim of violence.  So wouldn’t it make sense for me to use every tool I have at my disposal?

Getting hired for a job and being taken seriously is hard enough without having to justify outrageous and immature fashion choices.  Looking conventional can be boring and may be seen as succumbing to a world of heteronormativity and patriarchal beauty standards, but isn’t that better than sitting around complaining that no one will hire you because you look unprofessional?  Truth be told, I’m sickened by the sexist ideologies and constant pressure to look conventionally pretty.  But if abiding by those unwritten laws and standards helps me carve out my own place in the professional adult world, then I’m more than ready to be the most normative, most conventionally attractive person I can be.  To win the game, you have to play the game.

Game on, motherfuckers.  Game on.

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I’m Not A Therapist

I should probably make something clear right now.  I am a twenty-one year old college student.  I am neither a social worker nor a life coach.  The only semi-formal counseling training I have is with Safe Zone, which is an organization at my school aimed toward making university life safer and more comfortable for LGBTQIA students (yes, this type of thing is necessary, and I will go into more detail in another post).  I am not a licensed counsellor.  In fact, I only hold two licenses: one to drive a car, and one that was issued by the Red Cross about ten years ago that states that I am a certified babysitter.  And yet, despite my lack of licenses, credentials, and degrees, people seem to think that I am a therapist.

This has been going on since elementary school.  I remember the first incident pretty well.  One of my classmates had a fight with his friend, and for some reason decided to vent about it to me on the playground.  I advised him to make up with his friend, because one little fight shouldn’t compromise a lifelong friendship.  He did just that, and pretty soon, other kids were coming to me to talk about their problems.  I actually considered taking a page out of Lucy van Pelt’s book and knocking together a “Psychiatric Help” booth before realizing that such a project would take up too much time and lumber that I was prepared to sacrifice.

Going forward into my teen years and young adult life, a week doesn’t go by without someone coming to me and talking my ear off about the myriad issues in their life.  Apparently my mother faces the same problem; people come into her store to buy natural French soap and cooking classes, and all of a sudden, she becomes the town’s bartender.  Sometimes the problems that people tell me are relatively benign – they’re stressed about school, they got into a fight with their roommate, etc, etc.  But of course, there are the other times where I want to stop them and tell them to go see a therapist. An actual therapist.  One that has been properly trained to give advice and possibly prescribe medication.

The most I can do in these cases is to tell them that everything will be okay, it will all work out, que sera sera.  Of course, I have no idea if what I tell them is true, and I’m sure that in some cases, everything will not be okay and their lives will come completely undone.  But in all my years as a professional quasi-shrink, I have found that in most cases, the people who vent to me aren’t actually looking for any sort of viable advice; they just want to talk to someone.  Anyone.  They’re looking for some sort of human connection, no matter how fleeting.  Sometimes they want to unload all of their uncomfortable thoughts and feelings to an actual person instead of faceless strangers on the Internet.  Sometimes, they just want someone to tell them that it will be okay. 

Whatever their motivation is for treating me as their therapist is perfectly valid.  And as long as they don’t start asking me to take their insurance, I really don’t mind listening. 

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Spiral – A Fictional Triptych

Last Spring, I had the privilege of taking a creative writing workshop with the Welsh author and poet Siân Melangell Dafydd, when she was teaching at the American University of Paris.  The course was everything a writing workshop should be: honest, intimate, and intense.  I strived to meet Siân’s standards, and by the end of the term, under her guidance, I completed the piece of writing below.  Siân said that she enjoyed reading it.  I hope you do, too.

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Our Escape

We used to get into a lot of fights. Carly and me. I don’t mean those stupid slap-cat-fights; I’m talking about real, honest-to-god, knock-down drag-out fights which left us both bruised and bloodied, gasping for air through battered chests.  It wasn’t ever about anything in particular. Hell, nine times out of ten, we were never really mad at each other to begin with.  One or both of us would give the other a look, and like, mentally connect or something, and soon, we would be throwing each other against walls, savagely beating each other with our fists, yanking each other’s hair, wrestling down to the floor.  The fights would either culminate in calling a truce, or in sex.  It had all begun when we were fourteen.

We had been in Carly’s room one day after school. Her parents had still been at work, and her old sister Lauren stayed after school for cheer practice.  Carly and I had managed to get whippets from that shady junior who never went to class and hung out near the choir practice room and auditorium during school hours.  His name was Brett Propp, and he had sold the small metal canisters to us for ten bucks.  We had sat on the floor of her bedroom, each taking turns inhaling the nitrous oxide and giggling uncontrollably.  Carly had laughed about how she couldn’t feel her face.  She had laughed when she demanded that I hit her as hard as I could, and she had laughed still when I hit her so hard she fell to the floor.  When she got up, she had stared deep into my eyes.  I had braced myself for her fist, when she kissed me instead.  I had laughed because my lips had been completely numb.

We never mentioned that incident, but we never pretended it didn’t happen either.  We were both aware of it.  No need to ruin the memory.  But from that day on, Carly and I would get these random urges to fight each other.  Just sucker punch the other and wait for the reactionary blow to the cheekbone.  We never hurt each other. Oh, we beat the shit out of each other, gave each other black eyes and split lips, even cracked a few ribs.  But that was just physical.  In all of our nineteen years of friendship, all through elementary school, and those hell-holes that they call middle school and high school, Carly and I had never, not once, spread rumors or talked shit about each other.  We were, we are, best friends. We have each others’ back.

The drugs were recreational.  Always together, sometimes at a party, sometimes with the two of us, plus six more, crammed into her room, crowding around her open window so the smoke and smell of burning cannabis could waft out, undetectable, or around her bed, waiting to take the next hit, to snort the next line of powder.  We never did them enough to cause overdose or addiction.  Never let ourselves become total pill-head-crack-whores like Jessica Budzynski and Liz Sindoni, who both ended up getting pregnant with Ryan Vaus’ babies junior year.  We had more self control than that. We had more self respect than that.

The fighting thing wasn’t exactly recreational though.  It was more…our stress would vanish. Everything that was bothering us, every detail on the exam that we had totally bombed, every bitch who laughed at us for wearing clothes that came from Target instead of Abercrombie and for still fitting into the bras that they sold at Limited Too.  Every loud, angry argument Carly’s parents had, every night where my dad would  come back after staying in hotel rooms for days on end with his twenty-seven year old girlfriend.  Every let down. Every disappointment. It could all be solved by a safe, sane, consensual fight with your best friend.

It was a release. It was an escape.  It was ours.

Intoxicant

I met them two years ago in the bathroom at IHOP.  It was eleven at night.  I was there with Mel, I got up to pee while we were waiting for our pancakes, and there they were. Giggling in the handicap stall, huddled together, loudly sniffing.  When they came out, still laughing like schoolgirls, they reapplied their lipstick in front of the mirror, and caught me staring at them.  I apologized, used the toilet, and left.  They found our table ten minutes later, and sat down with Mel and me. 

It was crazy. They were crazy. Who in their right mind would just sit down with complete strangers and start talking to them like they were friends? Just skip over all the mindless, boring, smalltalk bullshit, and dive right into a conversation about that new Larry Clark movie, the one based on that guy in Florida who was murdered by his friends eight years earlier.  Between bites of pancake and talking about the movie, they introduced themselves as Carly and Mia.  Even then, Carly wore her blond hair long and wavy, except back then, she had dyed the bottom half with red-pink Kool-Aid.  Mia’s brown hair was short and had green streaks in it.  Both girls sported pale skin, heavy eye make-up, and various piercings.  They were nineteen.  Mel wasn’t happy with their sudden appearance, unimpressed with their teenage slang and carefree attitudes. Mel wanted a quiet evening, our original plan of IHOP and chick-flicks in our apartment on West 29th

I was intrigued.  I wanted to get to know them better.  Where did they live, what did they do, what were they snorting in the bathroom.  I was twenty-one.  I should have dismissed them as children, not given them a second thought, told them to go back to their own table.  I shouldn’t have engaged, shouldn’t have hung on their every word, definitely shouldn’t have gone back to their apartment on St Marks with them.  It was a shithole, their apartment.  Scuffed and cracked wooden floors, an ancient couch that looked like it was plucked out of some charity thrift shop, a week’s worth of dishes in the sink, a mattress on the floor with a bong and a half empty bottle of Zima next to it.  Empty packets of cigarettes, match boxes, and tiny plastic bags littered the floor.  Their fridge was empty, except for a few beers and questionable Chinese leftovers.  It wasn’t the dwelling of two adults.  It looked like a cautionary tale after-school special.  And yet somehow, Mia and Carly, with their strung-out appearance, their crappy apartment, and their skeletal hands winding and twisting around each other, somehow they got me to stay, and they got me to come back time and time again.  They offered me drugs that I had never even heard of.  I tried a few, never more than once, before realizing that it wasn’t the pills and powders that were my intoxicants.  It was Carly and Mia. 

The partying got old pretty fast.  I got a promotion in my job.  I didn’t want to spend all my free time in a borderline crack house with two teenagers.  It felt wrong. It was wrong.  There was a period of four months where I didn’t see them at all.  When I finally did go over, I was able to see what Mel had that first, fateful night, what I couldn’t see before.  Their skin wasn’t perfect porcelain and their bodies weren’t enviably slender; they were pallid, emaciated, sickly.  Carly’s eyes, once sparkling and alert, were now glassy and vacant.  Mia wasn’t bubbly and culturally intelligent.  She was superficially charming and used as many ten dollar words as she could.  I was sympathetic and disgusted all at once.

I would have left and never looked back, except I’m terrified that I’ll be reading the news one morning, and see a story about their bodies being found in their apartment or on the street.

Spiral

Mia was shaking again.  I kept telling her that she needed to eat before she got to this point, but she never listens.  She couldn’t even light her own cigarette; I had to do it for her.  We sat up in bed, huddled together, sharing a cigarette and body heat because our electricity was out and blankets and sweatshirts can only do so much.  Mia rested her head on my shoulder.  I could feel the tremors coursing through her body.  I doubted she was comfortable with her head where it was. Maybe my hoodie had some padding in it.

.                      .                    .

Shoplifting is like riding a bike; once you learn how, you never forget.  After high school, Mia and I swore we wouldn’t go back to it, but sometimes temptation is stronger than will.  We used to get our food exclusively from bodegas.  It was pretty easy to slip bags of Doritos and packets of ramen in our backpacks.  Now, we steal from Whole Foods, which I guess is better, since it’s way easier.  It was Mia’s idea.  She thought we should try to be healthier.  She was right, but it was kinda funny hearing about health from a girl who was in the middle of chain smoking Newports. 

.                       .                      .

It was easier to do it when I was finally able to almost completely block everything and everyone out.  Just focus on Mia and make believe we were in our own apartment, in our own bed, alone.  Not in some house in Brooklyn, with bright lights, and three cameras pointing at us.  Definitely not with that wannabe director guy giving us instructions on how he wants us to act, how to look, how to sound.  He said we had the right look for what he was going for.  He was paying pretty good, too.  This was our third movie we made for him.  After this one, we would be able to pay our rent.  Mia didn’t want to do it.  I didn’t either, but I also didn’t want to get evicted.

.                             .                        .

Allison stopped by.  We hadn’t seen her in awhile.  She brought us bags of groceries and swept our floor, which was pretty nice of her considering we didn’t have anything to give back.  She didn’t stay that long.  After she was gone, I saw that she left information for a methadone  clinic.  Mia thought it was obnoxious and I couldn’t blame her.  We stopped doing heroin months ago.  Last time we did that shit, Mia threw up so much that the capillaries around her eyes broke.  We stopped after that.  Mia was freaked out about her skin.  I was freaked out because she was this close to choking on her own puke.

.                         .                   .

The assholes at the center wouldn’t let us sleep in the same room.  They said it was against policy, whatever the fuck that meant.  We weren’t in any of the same sessions.  We barely saw each other.  My counsellor said we enabled each other.  That we would never recover if we were together.  My counsellor didn’t know that it was Mia who got me to go.  That it was Mia who flushed our stash.  That it was Mia who was able to quit everything on her own and was only there so I wouldn’t feel like a total fuck-up.  My counsellor told me Mia was a bad influence, that she was on a downward spiral, that I shouldn’t go back to her after I checked out.  My counsellor doesn’t know shit.

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Follicle-Free Feminist

Let me preface this post with the following disclaimer: I am in no way preaching, advocating for, or proposing any sort of beauty regimen, hygienic standard, or lifestyle. 

I am a feminist who hates body hair.  There, I said it.  I am a card-carrying, rally-attending, petition-signing feminist who is mildly disgusted by any hair that is not on the head.  Which is unfortunate, because at every event that I attend, and every time I log onto Tumblr, I am bombarded with images of (mostly) young women showing off their long and growing armpit and leg hair to loudly and proudly display their antipathy toward  societal norms, gender roles, and the patriarchy. 

Don’t get me wrong, I am all about challenging the aforementioned constructs and constraints of our misogynist and homophobic culture.  I am completely in favor of bodily autonomy. I of course recognize that the expectation put upon women to be hairless is sexist.  However, I cannot shake the feeling of revulsion when someone finds it necessary to post a photograph of themselves flaunting their unshaven body parts.  And I also can’t ignore the sting of contempt when a fellow feminist questions my politics and my identity, and tells me that I’m buying into a patriarchal standard of beauty just because I like to wax, shave, and tweeze.  I’m not trying to get the most out of the Male Gaze; I just happen to like the feeling of smooth skin.

Now, before you all write me off as a hypocrite or a faux feminist (faux-menist?), I should make it clear that it’s not just female body hair that bothers me.  I’m not a fan of it on men either.  From what I’ve experienced, men tend to not shave their body hair for the exact reason that women are expected to: it is perceived as masculine.  When a man has a hairy face, hairy chest, and hairy arms, I guess the image that is supposed to come to mind is the primitive hunter, full of aggressive testosterone, and ready to take on a wild animal with only a spear. 

We’ve evolved (well, some of us, anyway).  Since the vast majority of us have shelter, clothing, heat, and other essentials of living, we no longer need body hair to keep us warm.  So why do we cling to it? The women that I’ve spoken to confirmed that it was a combination of personal choice and political reasons.  The men that I’ve spoken to have said that they don’t shave because it’s natural and they don’t want to remove it.  It should be noted that most of these men said that they preferred their female sexual partners to remove their body hair, so I suppose that this makes them hypocrites. 

Most of my issues surrounding body hair isn’t really rooted in the hair itself.  It’s more to do with the consequences of not removing body hair.  Particularly armpit hair.  Most of the people who don’t shave their armpits claim that they have never had an issue with sweating and the resulting lingering stench of sweat.  Right. Hate to break it to you, but you’re wrong.  It doesn’t matter how often you shower (or say you shower), and it doesn’t matter what type of deodorizing antiperspirant you wear.  When you have unshaven armpits, when you sweat, the smell lingers.  For days.  And you should also know that it seeps into your clothes. 

Which brings me to a short, but related tangent.  You know those people who ask everyone around them not to wear perfumes, body sprays, scented oils, et cetera, because the smell bothers them and they get migraines? Why is acceptable for them to ask that we not use these products for their comfort, but it’s somehow not acceptable for us to request that they shower and apply deodorant for our comfort? I was at a performance two years ago (“The Femme Show” in case anyone was interested), and I was seated next to a woman whose body odor was so strong I almost asked my friend to switch seats with me.  Oh, I can’t ask you to take care of your B.O. because it infringes on your rights to bodily autonomy? Well, you’re infringing on my right to enjoy the show without gagging.  But I digress.

I’m certainly not condemning those who choose not to remove their body hair.  It’s a personal decision.  I get it.  For those of you who make the decision to be hairy as a political statement, stick to your guns and make some positive changes in your communities and in the world at large.  I’ll be fighting the patriarchy right there beside you.  But I’ll be doing it with smooth legs and hair-free, stench-free pits.

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The Problem With Ice-Breakers

I hate ice-breakers.

I mean, really, who doesn’t? You cannot, in all seriousness, tell me of a single person who goes into a new class, or a seminar, or a workshop, and think, “Gosh, I really hope we can go around and tell everyone our favorite Julie Andrews movie!” It just doesn’t happen.  And it doesn’t happen for the very simple reason that ice-breaker exercises are, by their very existence, loathed and dreaded.

Even the term “ice-breaker” annoys me.  First of all, why are we instantly approaching every new social environment as cold and isolating? By using phrases like “ice-breaker exercises” and “breaking the ice”, we unintentionally discredit everyone’s ability for creating a warm and welcoming environment all on their own.  Ice-breakers seem to imply that everyone in the workshop, class, or whatever, is so completely wrapped up in themselves, or their clique, and would be totally unwilling to open themselves up to new people and new friendships without some asinine go-around exercise requiring each person to say some sort of factoid about themselves, hoping against hope that someone has similar and compatible interests.

It’s not only the terminology that annoys me.  It’s also the formulaic set-up of the ice-breaker.  I’m sure you know the drill. The instructor has everyone sit in a circle, Socratic seminar style, and say the following about ourselves: name, preferred pronoun, age, what brought you to this class/ workshop/ circle of hell, and then, the worst thing of all: something interesting about yourself.

I’m involved in quite a few organizations at my university, and have had to go through this rigamarole countless times.  Thus, I have almost perfected my responses to these prompts.  I answer these verbal fill-in-the-blanks in such a way that I’m not completely avoiding the questions, but I’m not giving too much information upon first meeting a group of people.  That’s another thing I can’t stand: people who over-share when you meet them for the first time. But that’s a topic for another day.

My go-to self-introduction is usually the following: Hi everyone, my name is C. Harper Gold, she/her pronouns, I’m twenty-one years old, and I’m in this workshop because I’m facilitating one of the discussions (this line usually evokes a murmur of courteous chuckles).  My fun fact is…

And that’s about the point where everything goes to shit.  My fun fact.  My interesting tidbit about myself.  What do I say there? How can anyone think of anything to say? On the one hand, I can say something easy and banal, and come off as responsible, polite, and most importantly, sane.  Or I can pick something about myself that’s odd and kind of in-your-face, and hope that people think that I’m cool and quirky, which is obviously preferable to weird and mentally unstable.  Whenever I’m put through ice-breakers, I usually have a microsecond to gauge my audience’s sense of humor, or lack thereof, and decide whether to say that I managed to keep my carnival goldfish alive for five months or disclose that I’m in the middle of bargain shopping online for stun guns.

I usually manage to come up with something in between these two extremes, like, I am an expert at hide and seek, or in high school, my best friend and I cut the last five days of PE.  Nothing too damning, but nothing too prudish either.  If I’m comfortable enough to be snarky, I say that my fun fact is that I loathe ice-breakers.  I figure that, on the off-chance that I actually click with someone, I should slowly and gradually ease them into the craziness and questionable decision making that are ever-present in my life.

There has to be some better way to begin events besides ice-breakers.  Some painless introduction that doesn’t require the attendees to frantically wrack their brains to come up with a fun fact, a favorite animal, a guilty pleasure movie, a whatever.  Something that doesn’t make everyone stressed out because they just know that whatever they say will be scrutinized and judged by everyone else and that they will be immediately labeled as “the weird one.”  We need a better way to begin because everyone knows that ice-breakers are universally hated, and when we go through the motions of doing them, the event starts out on a sour, artificial note.

I propose that we do away with introductions all together.  Seriously.  Let’s start workshops and the like with just a brief go-around of everyone’s name and have that be it.  Or maybe even just forego that and have everyone wear name tags.  For the most part, we go to workshops, and seminars, and classes because the topic is of interest to us.  Isn’t it safe to say that everyone there has the same interest? Otherwise, why would they be there? Once we realize that, we realize that there is already some common ground between everyone present.  No need to force other similarities.  If some people there want to pursue further camaraderie, then let them do it on their own time, rather than wasting minutes listening to people list their favorite Harry Potter characters.

I realize of course that first blog posts are meant to be a sort of ice-breaker.  The irony of this post’s topic is not lost on me.  But I felt that this is a good way to begin, if for no other reason than to prepare any potential followers for the content and tone that lie ahead.  On that note, I humbly welcome you to my world of sarcasm and sincerity, sanity and neurosis, and of course, my blog.

Strap in, readers.  It’s gonna be a wild ride.

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