Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Letter to My Younger Self

write me a letter... 
Photo by Linda Cronin 
Image via Creative Commons

Although this probably breaks some sort of woman rule, I'm not really a huge Oprah fan. But I did recently purchase the May issue of O magazine, as the Internet was abuzz about a letter to her younger self that Winfrey penned for the issue. 

I've been wanting to write something similar for months, but have struggled to find the right focus and the right words. So I hoped reading Oprah's letter would serve as some inspiration. And guess what, it did. So I present a letter to my younger self. 

Dear Jai, 

It's October 2001 and in San Juan, Puerto Rico. When you find yourself sitting on a bed of rocks near the foot of a waterfall you think to yourself, "Who would have thought that a little black girl from the wrong side of the tracks in Birmingham, Alabama would ever have the chance to do such a thing?" But you have this chance because you are lucky enough to be part of a graduate school preparation program that allowed you to travel all over the country attending conferences and presenting your research on women’s health magazines. Wait. I take that back. Luck has nothing to do with it. You have these opportunities because you’re smart, you work hard and you pray harder. And you deserve them.

Even though you’re only 20, these blessings aren’t lost on you. You take nothing for granted. You are grateful for every moment. But you are still a bit distracted during this trip. Things have been rocky with the boyfriend for months and you’re at your wits end about how to salvage the relationship. I wish I could be there to whisper in your ear “Let him go.” I wish I could tell you that the next summer you’re going to meet the love of your life, that you’ll meet someone who loves your big hair and your big dreams.

I also wish I could tell you to listen to Katie, the women’s studies major in your grad school prep program. She’s a staunch feminist always seeking to expose the evils of sexism and preaching equal rights for women. You roll your eyes when she talks, unaware that you’ll be in a pro-woman pulpit of your own in a couple of years. You say things like, “I’m all about girl power, but I won’t start calling myself a feminist until they stop hating men.” Guess what babe, you’re a feminist; you just don’t know it yet. And feminism has nothing to do with hating men. But you’ll learn all this soon enough.

None of the graduate schools you’re applying to are in New York and you’re wondering if this is a mistake. Since you were 15 your plan has been to get to the Big Apple as soon as possible so that you can one day work for Essence magazine. But even at 20 you’ve already learned that things don’t always turn out how we plan. But you’ve also learned how to bloom where you’re planted and it is this knowledge, this wisdom that will allow you to create a beautiful and fulfilling life no matter where you are.


If you could write a letter to your younger self, what would you tell her?

Monday, April 23, 2012

Kiss the Girls Goodbye

image via

Last Sunday, after weeks and weeks of anticipation, the pilot of the new HBO original series Girls left me utterly disappointed. While I appreciated that the main character Hannah was interesting and complex I found her annoying and not relatable. She’s a spoiled brat with a sense of entitlement that makes me want to vomit and the articles I read about the show prior to the premiere had not prepared me for this. But I gave myself a week to process this. If I accept this about Hannah, I told myself, I will be able to enjoy the next episode more.

Ironically, something that didn’t bother me about the show is the primary thing that has most of its critics abuzz – the lack of diversity. While I agree that it’s pretty ridiculous for a show set in modern-day New York to have no people of color as major characters, I went into the show knowing Hannah and her pals were white, so I’d long gotten over that.

This week I also read an interview with the show’s writer and star Lena Dunham in the April/May 2012 issue of Bust. Dunham’s quotes on feminism made me want to add her to my girl crush list and thoroughly convinced me to give Girls one more chance.

When asked if she is a feminist, Dunham replied: “Of course I’m a feminist; I wouldn’t even know another thing to be.”  She went on to say, “As everyone knows, a little gender-role stuff is fun in the way that Halloween is fun, but too much of it is not a pleasure.”

This woman gets me! So why don’t I get her show?

So yesterday was Girls, take two – my second attempt to fall in love with a show that, since I’m a feminist, I somehow feel obligated to support.

My attitude of acceptance actually helped. Sort of. I found Hannah much more likable this time around and even found characters like Shoshanna interesting and funny. Moreover, I applaud Dunham for tackling issues like abortion and STDs which are hardly ever addressed on television.

Still despite all this I was still constantly checking the clock, eager for the episode to end. But why?

Near the end of the show after Hannah babbles and rambles to the doctor performing her STD test and she recklessly says perhaps she wants to have AIDS, the doctor looks at her and says, “You could not pay me enough to be 24 again.” And then it hit me. I’m too old for this show.

Thanks to good genes and the fact that I’ve never smoked a day in my life I still look like I’m in my early 20s. Thanks to frequent exercise and my obsession with pop culture I still feel like I’m in my early 20s, most of the time. I think the fact that I don’t have children adds to my feelings of youthfulness, too. But regardless of how I look and feel, I’m not in my early 20s. I’m 31. And this show is not for me. As much as I want to deny it, it's time for me to accept I’m not a girl anymore. 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Is Feminism In My blood?

My Feminist Parents

I once told my little brother that feminism is in my blood. At the time I’d declared this because of our parents. Our father defies gender roles, in part, by doing all the cooking in the family and, interestingly enough, he learned to cook from his father, who even in 60s and 70s recognized it wasn’t fair to expect women to take care of all household duties. And then there’s our tough-as-nails mother who gave birth to me before she married my father. When others urged her to get hitched ASAP so her child would “have a name” she retorted, “She has a name – mine!”

But recently I learned a few things that make me believe the fight for equality of the sexes really is in my DNA.  

A few of my close relatives recently had their DNA analyzed in an effort to learn more about our heritage (you know, since that whole slavery thing makes this pretty difficult for black people). Being the conspiracy theorist that I can be, I refused to participate convinced it was a scam to collect DNA for the production of clones and other trippy experiments. I told my cousin who spearheaded the project that I’m sure there’s a goat somewhere with her face.

Nonetheless, when the results were in I was eager to know the African region the tests claimed we were from.

According to the findings there's a great chance that we descend from the Pygmy people of central Africa. This wasn’t shocking considering how tiny we are. At a mere 5 feet 4 inches I am the tallest woman on my mom’s side of the family and I’m the same height or taller than most of the men. My cousin with the goat clone is only 4’ 10’’. 

So what does this have to do with feminism? Well, in her new book How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm: Child-Raising Discoveries from Around the World, Mei-Ling Hopgood reveals that the Aka Pygmies of the Central African Republic have one of the most perfect examples of egalitarian parenting. As Johanna Gohmann reports in an article in the April/May 2012 issue of Bust magazine, the book explains that in the Aka world fathers spend almost as much time caring for their babies as the mothers do. Furthermore, labors such as hunting, setting up camp, and cooking are evenly divided and there’s no stigma attached to any of the duties.  If the mother is off hunting, the father might spend the day cradling the baby.  

See! Feminism is in my blood. Maybe.

I guess you can’t really argue that a person inherits political beliefs, but I do believe that perhaps we are all born with a heart for equality and that things like sexism, racism, are homophobia are taught.  So maybe I do have feminism in my blood, and maybe you do too.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Feminist Writers: Why You Need to Freelance

magazine shrink ray?
Image Via Creative Commons

I was in the 5th grade when I announced to my parents, teachers, and friends that "when I grow up I'm going to be an author." I remember thinking that title sounded so important, so regal. 

Once I was in my 20s and started to proudly don the label of "feminist" my vision for this book became clearer -- a collection of informative, inspiring, yet down-to-earth essays on being a Southern feminist. 

Two decades after that elementary school declaration I have yet to publish or even write a book. Sometimes I get a bit disheartened by this but I'm encouraged when I remember that I am still a writer nonetheless. I've written for magazines, webzines, and newspapers and I blog like crazy. I know that all the smaller projects and assignments I'm doing are good practice. And practice makes perfect, right? 

In fact, writer and blogging superstar Jeff Goins says that the best way to start a writing career is to write for magazines. Goins writes:
"It doesn’t matter if you’re a future novelist, nonfiction author, or journalist. Writing short-form pieces prepares you for long-form. This is a great alternative to endlessly working on multiple drafts of your book and letting it sit in a drawer for years."

He goes on to say that writing features for magazines, websites, and other publications teaches you to be humble about your work (yes, even you need an editor) and teaches you how to meet deadlines. And on top of all that, writing for magazines usually pays.

If you're wondering how to get started, Goins recommends writing reviews, doing interviews on your blog, and working to gigs with online publications. Read more of Goins' suggestions here

For those of you who live in Birmingham, Ala., you have the opportunity to learn even more on breaking into the world of freelancing. On Tuesday, May 15, See Jane Write, an organization I started last year for local women writers, will present Freelancing 101. This event is a panel discussion featuring successful freelance writers and editors of local publications. Click here for more information and to register for this free event.

For those of you who don't live here in my Sweet Home Alabama, don't fret. I'll be sharing plenty of freelancing tips in the coming weeks and after the panel discussion. 

Happy writing!  

Monday, April 16, 2012

"Get a job and start a blog": My Thoughts on the HBO Series Girls

I really, really wanted to like the new HBO original series Girls.
For weeks I’d been anticipating the premiere with the same eagerness I feel before a new episode of The Misadventuresof Awkward Black Girl. Last night at 9:30 p.m. CST the Girls premiere finally arrived. And 30 minutes I was left utterly disappointed.
Let me say that the show was not bad. At all. In fact, in a way, it’s great, with well-developed characters and clever, quotable dialog. So why was I so disenchanted?  
Girls had been touted as the show young women like me would love, that we would watch this show and see ourselves on the screen. But last night I was nowhere to be found. And no, I’m not saying I was sad because all the characters were white. I knew that going in and color has nothing to do with this except perhaps the color green.

The show seems as if it is going to focus primarily on Hannah (played by Lena Dunham, who also writes and directs the show). Hannah is a character with which I thought I’d instantly connect because she’s a writer and dreams of penning a memoir. But the big dilemma she’s currently facing is the fact that her parents have decided to stop supporting her financially. Did I mention she’s 24?

At one point in the episode Hannah’s mother finally says exactly what I was thinking, “Get a job and start a blog!”
There’s much more to the show such as Hannah’s interesting friends, her relationship with a guy who is clearly all wrong for her (something to which I certainly can relate), and her hilarious parents. It seems that body image is an issue that will also be examined. So I tried to focus on these things, but to no avail.

Perhaps the financial hardship I’ve faced in the past has left me jaded. My parents had a tough time making ends meet when I was growing up so I didn’t look to them to provide anything for me beyond essentials like food, shelter, and clothing and once I turned 18 I decided to even let them off the hook for that. I bought my own car and paid my way through college and graduate school with scholarships, loans, and part-time jobs.
Am I judging able-bodied, mentally stable folks who still depend on their parents even after they’re well into their 20s? Maybe. Am I bitter that I’ve had to work so hard all my life? Probably.  

In her review of the show for CNN.com, Porochista Khakpour writes, "The pilot will of course draw sighs and groans, something for some to file under 'first-world problems' and dismiss." I guess she was talking about me.  

Still my bitterness never kept me from enjoying the over-the-top posh lifestyle of Carrie Bradshaw and her pals on Sex and the City. Shows and movies like those have this aspirational element that I appreciate. It’s like window shopping or thumbing through magazines (or browsing Pinterest) to look at beautiful things you know you will never be able to afford but that you like to gawk at nonetheless.
But Girls isn’t that nor is it supposed to be. What sets Girls apart from shows like Sex and the City is that it’s so realistic. There’s no good girl or bad girl. The girls are just complicated as we girls actually are in the real world. Their friendships are just as complex as the girls themselves and the sex scenes are awkward and clumsy, not romanticized. This is why I say it’s a good show even though I couldn’t get into it.

Girls is realistic, but it isn’t my reality. My 20s looked nothing like Hannah's even though we have similar aspirations. I know I’m in the minority here or at least I was in Twitterverse last night, as I kept seeing tweet after tweet from young women declaring that “@girlsHBO is my life!”
I’m jealous! I want a show I can say that about.

I am going to give the show another chance. I’m holding on to hope that it will grow on me because of its gritty yet hilarious portrayal of post-college life. Plus, I’m intrigued by the more worldly character Jessa and Hannah’s roommate Marnie. (I actually did find some common ground with Marnie as I was usually the responsible one telling my friends that, yes, it would be a bad idea to drink opium tea.)
If after watching a few more episodes I still can’t get into Girls I’ll accept that and move on, knowing that not everything pro-girl will necessarily be for me. After all, I still have Awkward Black Girl.   

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Learning How to Be a Feminist Fashionista

Is it sad for a 31-year-old to admire a 15-year-old? Probably. But I still think Tavi Gevinson is awesome.
Gevinson started the fashion blog The Style Rookie at the ripe old age of 11 and quickly became a star. Within two years her blog was being closely watched by fashion’s elite and was helping her snag invites to runway shows and parties. Last year in September she launched Rookie, an online teen magazine with a feminist point of view for which she serves as editor-in-chief.

If that wasn’t reason enough to love her, Gevinson recently shared remarkably wise words about feminism at TEDxTeen:

I wanted to start a website for teenaged girls that was not this kind of one-dimensional strong character empowerment thing, because I think one thing that can be very alienating about a misconception of feminism is that girls then think that to be a feminist they have to live up to being perfectly consistent in your beliefs, never being insecure, never having doubts, having all of the answers and this is not true and actually recognizing all the contradictions I was feeling became easier once I understood that feminism was not a rulebook but a discussion, a conversation, a process.

I am so glad that this girl has figured out at age 15 something I didn’t realize until I was about 30.

I was in my early 20s when I began to embrace the title of “feminist.” Initially identifying myself with the feminist movement felt quite empowering. Then it became paralyzing. I was constantly second guessing my choices and preferences, particularly with regard to fashion. I inundated myself with questions about my clothing choices: If I choose modesty am I succumbing to the Puritanical notion that women’s bodies are somehow evil or sinful and need to be covered up? If I dress provocatively am I participating in and perpetuating my own objectification? Is it wrong to wear heels? Is it OK to wear makeup? Is the fact that I love the color pink somehow anti-feminist?

And then I’d beat myself up for putting so much thought into how I looked since a true feminist would be more focused on the beauty of her mind. It’s a miracle I managed to get dressed and out of the house back then.

Later I went the opposite direction: I decided that my fashion and my feminism should exist in separate universes, that one should not inform or be a reflection of the other. This was stupid. This method may work for some feminist fashionistas, but not me. I am a person who strongly believes the personal is political. So trying to separate my fashion choices from my feminist convictions would be a hideous example of not practicing what I preach.

Eventually I learned to relax. Today when it comes to my beauty and fashion choices I ask myself one simple question: “Why are you wearing this?” If the answer is “Because I like the way I look and feel in it,” I leave it at that. I could, perhaps even should, ask myself follow-up questions such as “Well, why do you like the way you look in this? Is it because it’s slimming and magazines have convinced you that you’re fat? Is it because you think men will find you desirable in this outfit?” But I don’t ask follow-up questions because if I did I’d never get anywhere on time.

Sometimes, the answer is not “Because I like the way I look and feel in it.” Sometimes the answer is “Because I might run into my ex and I want to show him what he’s missing” or “All my friends will be wearing stilettos and hip-hugging dresses so I should too so I won’t look like a little boy standing next to them in pictures. The images, after all, will be immortalized on Facebook.”

In these cases I then ask myself, “OK, what do you really want to wear?” The answer is always clear. Then I take a deep breath, change into the right outfit, and head out the door knowing I am being true to myself and to my style.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

This Woman's Work: Thoughts on Motherhood, Money and Men

Last week Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen caused an uproar when she commented on CNN that Ann Romney was not qualified to advise her husband and presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney on women's economic concerns because she's "never worked a day in a her life." 

Ann Romney, a stay-at-home mom and mother of five, was so offended she took it to the tweets. She set up a Twitter account so she could tweet this response:

"I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work."

Meanwhile, outrage ensued as the "War on Women" took a new turn with conservatives claiming that Democrats don't respect the hard work that being a good mother requires.

There are so many problems with this faux girl fight I'm not sure where to begin. First of all, while Rosen's comment certainly lacked tact, her point was clearly not that SAHMs just sit around the house all day watching Lifetime. Let's face it, being a SAHM or dad is, for the most part, a privilege. Most families can't afford to have one spouse not work outside the home. And Ann Romney is certainly not a mom struggling to make ends meet since she's married to a gazillionaire. As Rosen said in the interview, "She's never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing." 

So, no, she should not be Mitt Romney's go-to person on the economic concerns of women raising families. Here's an idea: how about Romney actually ask financially struggling mothers what they need.

Secondly, I find it interesting that conservatives are using this as an opportunity to assure women voters that they believe motherhood is the most important job in the world yet few of them support federally-mandated maternity or paternity leave and other measures that would make the hard job of parenting a bit easier. And while they argue that a woman's choice to be a SAHM should be respected, women who are single or poor or women of color who want to stay home and parent are called "Welfare Queens." 

Third, I find it disturbing that this conversation about parenting centers on motherhood. What about fatherhood? Still in 2012 our society views the nurturing of children and the managing of household duties such a cooking and cleaning as woman's work. And the man's worth as a parent is directly tied to his paycheck. If you're bringing home the bacon you're a good father. If you're not, you're a dead beat dad. 

This attitude, I believe, is hurtful to both men and women. In a world where a man’s worth is determined by his income what happens in times of economic downturn? When Daddy loses his job does he also lose his manhood? And what about men who choose to be stay-at-home dads, are they not real men?

Furthermore, viewing household duties and caregiving as “woman’s work” is a burden for women, especially those who are mothers working outside the home. While many more men nowadays share in duties like cooking, cleaning, etc., in most households women are still expected to handle these duties alone even if they’re working 40+ hours a week outside the home.

All in all, let’s not let this spat between Rosen and Ann Romney revive the so-called Mommy Wars as this would just be a distraction from the real issues at hand such as making changes in our country’s policies (and our society’s attitudes) that will make it easier for women and men to provide healthy, happy lives for their children and for themselves. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

On Being a Woman Writer

Young Woman Blogging, after Marie-Denise Villers

image courtesy of Mike Licht, NotionsCapitol.com

I believe in the power of the written word, and I believe in the power of women. This is why I blog, this is why I write essays, this is why I teach English, and this is why in March of 2011 I started See Jane Write, a networking group for women writers in my town of Birmingham, Alabama.

On Monday a few of the women from the group and I got together for lunch at a local Thai restaurant. The food was good, but the conversation was even better. After a brief talk about politics (there’s always plenty to discuss in that arena here in Birmingham) we got down to business – discussing the writing life.

Being a writer is hard. Being an artist of any kind is difficult in part because there’s such little respect for these professions. In fact, they aren’t even seen as professions by some, but simply considered hobbies. For many of the women at the table when we told our families we wanted to be writers we were told, “OK, but you need to get a real job too.”

Being a woman writer can be even harder. The byline gender gap has been well documented by groups like VIDA. Women's voices are still underrepresented in the media and literary arts. And this is another reason I  founded See Jane Write. I believe that women who dare to express themselves, to tell their stories, and to share the stories of others through the written word need a strong support system.  They need someone to encourage them and to hold them accountable.

Because the writing life can be so difficult it can be easy to get off track, to go weeks, months, or even years without writing. Lately, I have really been struggling with feeling like a real writer because now that I’m an English teacher and no longer a full-time journalist I’m not being paid for my written words.  But one published author at the table said something that really stuck with me. She said something that reminded me not to put a price on my art in that way.  

The true measure of whether or not you’re a writer is simple: Are you writing more than you’re not? In other words, you may not write every single day, but you need to write most days. All relationships, even your relationship with writing, need quality time. Are you truly showing your love for writing or just offering lip service? I, for one, am ready to give it my all.  

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

How Natural Hair Made Me a Better Feminist

Even in 2012 the word "feminist" is still considered a dirty word by some. Quick vocabulary lesson: Merriam-Webster defines feminism as “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” That’s it; there’s nothing there about emasculating men, for those who equate feminist with man-hater.

There’s also an assumption that feminists scoff at women who take pride in their appearance. I can’t speak for all feminists, obviously, but I am a girl who wants to look good. As a feminist, however, I try to always be thoughtful about the fashion and beauty choices that I make. Am I wearing these clothes and putting on this makeup because I truly want to or because I feel like I have to in order to be accepted or loved? Those are the kinds of questions I ask myself to keep my motives in check, but those are questions I didn’t start asking until I went natural. Let me explain.

One of the points of contention in the natural hair community is whether or not you can still call yourself natural if you occasionally flat iron your hair straight. Some say no. I understand the sentiment. It's like being one of the X-Men but hiding your powers and the things that made you different from the rest of the world. (Sorry for that analogy; I’m a super hero nerd.) But I define being natural as not using caustic chemicals to permanently alter your hair texture. And when I straighten my hair a few times a year I use heat, not a relaxer, and my curls usually come peeking out in a few days because they love to be the center of attention.

But this debate did make me ask myself: “Why do you occasionally straighten your curls?”

When I was younger I got relaxers very infrequently so I've never had an addiction to the so-called creamy crack. Still I was obsessed with straight hair because I was taught that beautiful hair was straight hair. Period. So I constantly wrestled my curls into submission with the strongest hair appliances I could afford. 

Then one summer day when I was 21 while on what was probably my third hour of doing my hair, my roommate at the time turned to me and said, “Maybe your hair doesn’t want to be straight. Why don’t you just wear it curly?” And something just clicked. Never before had anyone suggested that just letting my hair exist in its naturally curly state was an option. And with that I was free. I started wearing my hair curly and an amazing journey began.

Because applying heat to my hair had been something that I did because I thought it was the only way to be beautiful, after going natural I didn’t use any heat, not even a blow dryer, on my hair for about three years. I needed time to heal.

So nowadays when I get my hair straightened, which I do about three times a year, I am sure to check myself. Why am I doing this? Is this coming from a dark place of self-hate as it did when I was younger? After some soul searching I was sure that it was not. When I straighten my hair these days it’s usually because I’m bored and want a different look for a couple of weeks or because I want to wear a cute hat that won’t fit over my curly coif.

Putting thought into why I wear my hair a certain way pushed me to be thoughtful about all my fashion and beauty choices, which is why I always say going natural made me a better feminist.

I think all women should be conscious of the motives behind their hair choices, even the choice to go natural. Are you doing it because you find it empowering and the best fit for your lifestyle or simply because going natural has become the “in” thing to do? 

Monday, April 9, 2012

My Southern Fried Feminist Manifesto

Image by Kate Mereand-Sinha via Flickr Creative Commons

I often describe myself as a Southern fried feminist and not simply because that phrase is cute and catchy. I was born and bred in Birmingham, Alabama and now that I've returned to my hometown I find myself  constantly striving to reconcile my feminist ideals with Southern values. 
At the risk of perpetuating stereotypes about the South, there are a few themes that are highly important in Southern culture. Those things include faith, family, food, and fashion, as well as issues of race. With that in mind, here is my Southern Fried Feminist Manifesto...
I am a Southern fried feminist and this means I have faith. I am a Jesus-loving, church-going gal, but I refuse to buy into the lie that I am somehow a second class citizen in God's kingdom simply because Eve was made from Adam's rib and took the first bite from that forbidden fruit.
I am a Southern fried feminist and this means I value family. I cherish my relationship with my husband and I strive to honor him in all I do, but I did not trade in my voice or my dreams for a wedding ring. My husband and I are partners. We believe the Bible teaches mutual submission, not the idea that "virtuous woman" is a synonym for doormat. 
I am a Southern fried feminist and this means I love to eat. But I love food because it brings people together. Because I love to eat, "I be up in the gym just working on my fitness," as Fergie says. A feminist girl can't save the world if she's unhealthy and out of shape. 
I am a Southern fried feminist and this means I love fashion. Yes, fashion. Sure, the South isn’t home to any fashion capitals of the world, but down here below the Mason-Dixon line taking care of your appearance isn’t about pride, but good manners. In the South, dressing inappropriately for any occasion is considered just plain rude. 
I am a Southern fried feminist and I am black. With regard to what race and feminism mean to me, I believe poet June Jordan said it best: 
"I am a feminist, and what that means to me is much the same as the meaning of the fact that I am Black: it means that I must undertake to love myself and to respect myself as though my very life depends upon self-love and self-respect."
What's your manifesto?