The Five Enemies of Meditation-My Vispassana Experience Part II

Part II

The author in happier times. Northwest Vipassan Center, 2015.
The author in happier times. Northwest Vipassan Center, 2015.

What happens when you are alone with the company of your thoughts?  Sure, there are other meditators around you but according to the vow of Noble Silence, you are not to communicate with them in any way to include glances and gesture.  What happens when there are no Instagram feeds to scroll through mindlessly, no faux controversies to decipher, no laundry lists to worry over? What happens in that space?

There were times during my vipassana retreat where I felt purely happy. I liked waking up at 4 am to a gong strangely enough: the clear skies were littered with billions of stars and it felt like I was a part of something grand and secretive. Sometimes during my walks around the grounds, I took off my shoes and experienced the primal pleasure of connection to the natural earth. And to my surprise, the vegetarian meals were actually very tasty! One day we were even gifted chocolate ginger cookies. Sometimes I rose from meditative sit angel-light and Julie-Andrews-spinning-in-a field-joyful. Nothing can bother me anymore! I am free! Look at the blue sky, aint life grand?

Happiness is a part of life but so are her Debbie Downer friends: anxiety, sadness, anger, boredom, etc.

Every night, we listened to a dhamma talk given by S.N. Goenka, one of the preeminent teachers of the vipassana meditation method. Goenka passed away several years ago, but the 1990’s recordings remain in all their weird close-up, pre-social media glory. I looked forward to these one-hour visions of wisdom—mainly because it meant that a full meditation day was over.

Happiness was a part of my meditation but so were her Debbie Downer friends.

I won’t lie to you, vipassana wasn’t the simple, zen experience I expected it to be. I read several blogs prior to my sit where varied people detailed their experiences, but there was still a deep well of hope in me that I would depart the vipassana retreat “high on life.”

What happens when I am alone with the company of my thoughts? Everything.

I’ll explain my experience via the five enemies of meditation! Here they are:

  • craving
  • aversion
  • anxiousness
  • lethargy
  • doubt

Reading about these five enemies before the meditation retreat in an entry Buddhism guide – $8

Attending a Brooklyn yoga studio’s meditation hour – $15

Directly experiencing craving, aversion, anxiousness, lethargy, and doubt? – Priceless.

(By the way, if you don’t remember the old Mastercard commercials the preceding three lines won’t make much sense. Sorry.)

Craving: The vipassana meditation technique teaches that both craving (wanting something that isn’t present) and aversion (wanting what is to go away) lead to misery. This fact wasn’t intuitive to me. At all. Who doesn’t like getting shit done, amirite? What could possibly be wrong with that? When you are sitting for 10-12 hours a day in silent meditation, all quiets after a while. I could viscerally feel craving: a steady and strong pull at my chest level.

During many of my sits, I was really disappointed that my body was in such pain and discomfort. I craved for release. I craved to be home hanging out with my sister in LA. I craved to be eating bacon and wearing form-fitting clothes. I craved to be watching the many sitcom episodes spinning through my brain IRL. In the quiet of vipassana, I finally could see (for a few brief moments) that these cravings were making me more miserable than if I let my pain, boredom or WTF-am-I-doing-here moments be what they are. Have you ever seen that whole PAIN x RESISTANCE = SUFFERING equation that floats around the Internets every so often? I saw it all the time. I didn’t understand it until I sat vipassana.

Aversion:  The retreat had all kinds of pillows and back supporters to make one’s sit as comfortable as possible (and I took full advantage). And yet. There were times I’d feel a searing, painful prod in my right hip so powerful that I’d start to sweat. The point of vipassana and sitting still isn’t some masochistic game. You can change position and when the pain became unbearable I did. It’s all about what you do with the pain while that pain is happening. Sometimes I would clench up, pushing it away like I so often did with the anger, sadness, disgust, (Insert “Bad” Emotion Here) I experienced day to day.

In my effort to argue against reality, I was making my experience so much worse (notice a trend here?) It always seemed like my pushing away was helping, but the anger or loneliness was always there. It just was waiting. Oftentimes, it would rebound with an even stronger force.

Eminem’s “The Way I Am” was on constant replay in my head during my vipassana retreat. Mind you—I haven’t listened to Eminem since high school (ten years ago). At first, I pushed it away. What the f- is this doing in my head, shouldn’t I have some India Arie going on here? Didn’t work. As I got more and more into accepting defeat mode, it faded away on its own.

Sometimes the pain in my hip or my back or wherever would fade too. Sometimes it would linger, stubborn and loud. I wasn’t always “successful” in surrendering to my difficult meditation moments with equanimity, but I learned more about acceptance in these ten days than I have in my whole life.

The beautiful last morning view of the living quarters.
The beautiful last morning view of the living quarters.

Doubt: Doubt is mainly looked at through the prism of self, teacher and practice.

We doubt we can sit meditation “right”. We doubt it will “work” for us.

We doubt that our teacher at the moment knows what they are doing.

And we doubt meditation works at all. We decree meditation hippie BS.

I was lucky enough to experience all three doubts during my sit, but the strongest was by far doubt of self. I approached vipassana in the manner I approach many new tasks: Trying Too Damn Hard. When I had a difficult meditative sit (more often than not my experience), I was pretty glum about it. I knew this shit wouldn’t work for me. I might as well have stayed my ass at home and had ten days extra to prepare for school. Most nights, I stared at my closet and counted my limited outfits. Okay, once I wear the black pants twice, it’ll be time to go home. I was a regular Pollyanna.

Thankfully, Mr. Goenka covered the five enemies of meditation during a dhamma talk. Thankfully, my heart hadn’t given up totally. I was able to recommit and stick with it. He encouraged patience, equanimity, and awareness and so I practiced them all. It helped (though I must admit, I counted outfits until like day 6 or 7).

 

Mr. Goenka also spoke on the doubts concerning the practice of vipassna. Vipassana is meant to be a practice that anyone, no matter their faith or lack thereof, can practice. I can’t say all aspects of Buddhism are agreeable to me at this time or that I don’t want to try other forms of meditation. Thankfully, Mr. Goenka and Gautma Buddha think that’s just swell! Take what assists you in life and leave the rest, Goenka said during several dhamma talks, don’t throw out the whole dish just because of a couple of cardamom seeds (he related this allegory much better than I).

This girl will NOT be everything out due to some cardamom seeds.

Oh, and by the way, even The Buddha struggled with self-doubt: http://www.tarabrach.com/video/2013-10-30-Healing-Self-Doubt.html

Lethargy: Dullness, falling asleep, muddle-brained, body-tired. There were times during a meditation, I’d find myself wading in and out of REM land, head nodding, eyes drooping… Most of the time this sleepiness was connected to my second helping at lunch. Sometimes the tiredness came after my sporadic insomniatic nights. Many meditation teachers advocate focusing on one’s breath and if that doesn’t work, walking for a couple of minutes.

Walking around the grounds helped a lot since vipassana meditators are encouraged not to take part in strenuous exercise during the ten days. The meditation eating facilities, walking paths, and living spaces are segregated by sex. Sometimes I’d see my roommate on a walk and part of me wanted to give a You too? smile, but I had to bury that instinct and look at the sky or the large sized ant hill. Walking became easier when I pretended I was in NYC again, avoiding eye contact on my commute home.

I can only imagine if some random person stopped by the Northwest Vipassana center to ask for directions and saw us meditators walking the paths. We walked buried deep within inner turmoil as if we were all struck by the same word-stealing malady. I’m pretty sure the person would think they had happened upon a cult/new age mental asylum.

I walked a lot during my stay. It was good for an energy lift, the surroundings were gorgeous, and sometimes I saw a baby rabbit. Oh, yeah and it helped me stay awake enough to sit.

Anxiousness: Anxiousness is something like circling thoughts, uneasiness, nervousness, an unsettled spirit.

1990s family films, people I wish I had told off in a zen-like manner, creative writing ideas, lists of songs to jog to, Magic Mike XL inspired fantasies, repressed traumatic memories are just a sample of the thoughts sprinting through my mind during vipassana. At times I was fidgety and restless, eager for lunch or a break or for the stupid flies to stop their flying near my ears.

There were several instances where I had to take a pause from vipassana to practice anapana (watching the breath with no effort to control it) for a bit to get myself calmed down. Sometimes I’d practice anapana the entire vipassana meditation depending on the level of my anxiety and what scene from Powder (1990s sci-fi/fantasy drama starring Sean Patrick Flanery) was playing in my mind. (It’s always the last scene where Jeff Goldblum and Co. are laughing at the sky.)

Anapana always did the trick for me but it will be different for anyone.

Obviously, I now have the keys to the universe. Back in Portland, OR after my  last day at the vipassana retreat.
Obviously, I now have the keys to the universe. Back in Portland, OR after my last day at the vipassana retreat.

After Vipassana:

It is now late September. I left the meditation center on August 16th. (How I longed for that day in the beginning! Especially since I was promised pancakes and bacon upon my return to civilization.)

I write this post not to scare anyone, nor do I write this to be dismissive of vipassana. Neither do I write this to convince you that you JUST HAVE to try this meditation.

BUT. I am forever changed because of this experience. I did not return to Real Life with the calmness of a Tibetan nun. But, I know have the thing I wanted most: direct experience of wisdom.

I’d heard the truisms. Read the books and pastel colored Instagram quotes. I knew life was a series of ups and downs and that it didn’t last forever: My cousin died unexpectedly five years ago. A close friend is slowly regaining her motor skills after a tour bus accident in the Caribbean.

Before vipassana, these life lessons were things I knew on paper. They were things I understood for a little while but then their wisdom would fade and I’d start being worried about stupid shit again.

There’s something about sitting with yourself and being mired in all the joy, muck, pain, sadness, anger, desperation, boredom for 10 to 12 hours in a day. There’s no running. There’s you and your breath and the stories living inside your head space.

On Day 10, we could finally speak to the other meditators. Most of us wanted to leave at some point or the entire time. Some of us did. All of us had our ups and downs, our angry tears and Julie Andrews moments. We were all in the same shit.

I don’t have the keys to the Universe that I hoped for (darn). I do have an awareness of how miserable I was making myself on a daily basis: the hearty, negative projections I placed on others, the cynical world view I was tethered to, the anger and sadness I was dragging, and the constant disavowal of what the present moment.

I’m still not a perfect meditator. I don’t know what I believe about karma.

I come back to my present breath much quicker now. I can see with my own eyes and my own heart that most of the misery in my life is of my own creation. I let my emotions be their selves more. So, thank you to the meditation center’s cooks and servers, Mr. and Mrs. Goenka, Buddha, my Coast Guard friend, the Dhamma Brothers and the friend who suggested I watch the film. You have brought me a deeper connection to Life As Is.

May all of you reading this be happy and if you want to try vipassana one day (and you think you’re ready), I highly suggest it. Just be careful not to listen to too much Eminem beforehand.

Hippie Boot Camp — My 10 Day Silent Vipassana Meditation

Part I

Screenshot_2015-09-15-13-43-18-1

A friend I was stationed with years ago was the first person who introduced vipassana to me. She had just returned from a 10 day retreat and we were talking about it in the locker room. I remained intrigued well after we were done talking. Could I do something like that? How would it change the way I saw myself and the world? About two years later, a different friend suggested I watch Dhamma Brothers, a documentary about rural Alabama maximum security prisoners who take part in a vipassana meditation retreat. (Highly recommend.) My curiosity about vipassana was reawakened.

I hate to admit it, but it’s true: I’m a typical American when it comes to inner transformation. Oprah would be proud. For years, I had been reading self-help books –some with title so corny I covered them up when reading in public. I had completed (and half-completed) numerous on-line courses, perused “inspirational” blogs, meditated off and on, casually explored different spiritual disciplines, and bought way too much rose quartz.

A scene from Dhamma Brothers Image from thunderclap.it
A scene from Dhamma Brothers
Image from thunderclap.it

It took me way too long to realize that my quest for inner peace was becoming a problem in itself. I was looking for advice and guidance everywhere but within. And while I was quickly putting Hay House out of business, nothing was truly sticking.

One of the reasons that vipassana called to me was its insistence on inner wisdom. I also liked that vipassana didn’t require changing one’s religion (or even having religion).  And I didn’t need to buy any rose quartz.

From the Vipassana Meditation Introduction to the Technique booklet (as taught by S.N. Goenka),

Vipassana is one of India’s most ancient meditation techniques. Long lost to humanity, it was rediscovered by Gotama the Buddha more than 2500 years ago. The word Vipassana means seeing things as they really are. It is the process of self- purification by self-observation. One begins by observing the natural breath to concentrate the mind. With a sharpened awareness one proceeds to observe the changing nature of body and mind and experiences the universal truths of impermanence, suffering and egolessness. This truth-realization by direct experience is the process of purification. The entire path (Dhamma) is a universal remedy for universal problems and has nothing to do with any organized religion or sectarianism. For this reason, it can be freely practiced by everyone, at any time, in any place, without conflict due to race, community or religion, and will prove equally beneficial to one and all.”

The origins of Vispassana and whether Gotama Buddha really did teach this same meditation technique are still contested, but I was eager to give it a try. A direct experience was what I needed. I seemed to forget about the impermanence of life as soon as I recalled it. Plus, signing up via dhamma.org means I only had to donate what I thought the course was worth. (The self-help business can get expensive.)I decided that completing the retreat would be one of my 2015 goals and a perfect start to my life after leaving an active duty Coast Guard career.

I signed up in February. Of course, I didn’t really think about the meditation rules in depth until after I signed up: 4 am wake up calls, complete silence, no writing, two vegetarian meals a day…and then it was, Oh shit. I love meat. I journal all the time and consider sleeping in to be one of the unvarnished joys of life. Then my anxieties turned turbo: Oh, god, it’s in Washington state….am I only going to be the only black girl there? I always used a wall during meditation, could I really sit upright unassisted? What if I had a passive aggressive room? And drum roll…What about the whole thing was a cleverly disguised cult?

Typical Vipassana Course Schedule
Typical Vipassana Course Schedule from dhamma.org

 

I tried my best to push these thoughts out of my head by thinking of my friend’s experience and the Dhamma Brothers. I had been through boot camp-like experiences before. Surely, meditating for 10 days wouldn’t be that bad. Before long, my super-strength anxious thoughts transformed into zen fantasy: I pictured myself emerging from the 10 days with a beaming face, an aversion to celebrity gossip, love for all beings, and longer hair (somehow my locs would be affected by all the love going on and would hang below my shoulders).  I saw myself handling slights and stress with the serenity of a modern day saint.

All I can say now is LOL.

Coming up: The Five Enemies of Meditation-My Vispassana Experience Part II

 

#highheelfreedom

On May 16th, 2015 the first #highheelfreedom was held at Grand Central Station in NYC.  Hosted by myself and Tall Society creator, Bree Wijnaar, it was a pretty awesome day.

For a long time, I had this weird idea in my head: host a gathering of tall women wearing heels in public.

Then, for about a year I proceeded to tell myself it was a dumb dream, that no one would come, that there were more important things to worry about, yada, yada…but the idea wouldn’t leave me alone and thankfullu #highheelfreedom came to be.

You see, for years I avoided high heels like vegans avoid steakhouse grills. Part of my reasoning for this avoidance was due to the fact  that heels are not exactly the most comfortable footwear in the world. But, most of my reasoning for not wearing heels was due to me not wanting to take up even more space than I already was. And because I didn’t want people to mistake me for a drag queen. (It’s happened more than once.)

As a 6’3″ non-lithe black woman I oftentimes felt that I should do everything in my power to minimize my stature: lose weight, wear orthopedic flats, lean against walls, etc. I was terrified of intimidating others, especially men with my Amazon-ness.

But, after some soul searching, body positivity reading, and 30 days of me wearing high heels in public last summer, I realized how stupid my fears were. People mistook me for a drag queen when I wore sneakers! The impression left on most people between me being a 6’3″ woman sans flats and a 6’6″ one with them was negligible. And there are some cute shoes out there that would look great on me.

Big Also: We live in a society that is constantly trying to downsize women. Seen any weight loss commercials lately directed at those of the feminine persuasion? Ever witnessed what happens to an opinionated female blogger? Yeeaaah. The message in far too many places towards women is stay small.

Tall women often internalize this message by slouching, wearing boring ass clothes, directing self-disparaging remarks towards their bodies, and NEVER wearing high heels. It’s the closest we can come to falling in line.

#highheelfreedom was a chance to rewrite this narrative for the tall woman. #highheelfreedom is about revising ingrained stories that dictate that the pleasing/attractive woman is the woman who does not intimidate or stand out.

#highheelfreedom is NOT about endorsing high heel wear 24/7 (let’s leave that to Jessica Rabbit). I love to walk cities not hobble in them. #highheelfreedom is also NOT about dictating the footwear a proper woman should  wear.  If you’re a tall woman who just doesn’t much like high heels, then don’t wear them. Voila! It’s magic!

But for me? I spent WAY too much time worrying about what others were thinking when I was wearing 1.5″ kitten heels. I mean, c’mon…

People will stare. Some people will say dumb things. But, people stared and said dumb things about my height BEFORE heels. There’s no reason I should eschew heels to please socially inept strangers.

And if you’re a tall woman, neither should you.

Today, I wear heels without a complex.  I even said so on TV. I know that #highheelfreedom cemented this confidence and I look forward to hosting #highheelfreedom again.

If you’re interested in learning more about #highheelfreedom or want to stay in the loop for future events, please check out the Facebook event page.

Peace,

Hannah

 

 

 

An Interview with The Body Relationship Coach, Ivy Cooper

Ivy Cooper, Body Relationship Coach
Ivy Cooper, Body Relationship Coach

The following post is an interview with Ivy Cooper, The Body Relationship Coach. It’s time to rewrite the story of how women of color talk about their bodies and I know part of that starts with what I choose to post.

I discovered Ivy via Twitter. I was so excited to see a woman of color doing this work! And she was gracious enough to agree to an interview with me. Enjoy!

Hi, Ivy! Please tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Hi, I’m Ivy, The Body Relationship Coach (Ivy Cooper).  I am a Certified Holistic Health Coach and Body Image Expert.  I help people of any size, shape, or body type to embrace and redefine wellness at any stage of life.  I do this through highly individualized, sustainable lifestyle design plans that help my clients develop wellness habits without body shame or body bullying.

What was your prevalent “body story” growing up?

I have always been in a larger body.  Even as a child I was labeled as “husky”, “chunky”, or “overweight”.  Most of the messages that I received about my body came in the form of body bullying and body shaming.  Other children made fun of me and most adults shamed me for being a “fat” child.  As a teen, a great deal of focus was put on weight loss and dieting.  There was more attention put on my weight than helping me to be confident in my body.  Unfortunately, those message were part of my “norm” growing up, so I didn’t feel sad about it very often.  I actually felt like everyone around me was right, and there was something wrong with me.  I didn’t know that what was being said to me was inappropriate or wrong. Those messages became the script of my body image and self talk. I heard them so much that they became my belief systems and I had no reason to doubt them.

Ivy Cooper
Ivy Cooper

What made you want to become a body image coach?

I chose to become a body image coach because I am passionate about helping people find freedom in their body relationship.  I love the empowerment that people get from coaching with me, once they learn how to make peace with their body and begin to design a lifestyle based on body love and self care they experience a new level of body freedom.  That is priceless!

What differences (if any) do you see with women of color as it relates to body image? Is there fat discrimination in these communities? If so, how does it show up?

I believe that there is fat discrimination within the Black community.  In my personal experience, I have witnessed Black people of all genders, ages, and body types shame others who are considered to be “fat” or “overweight”.  There is a myth that the Black community is more tolerant of people who are larger.  However, I have found that body shaming and body discrimination are as prevalent in the Black community as any other.  I feel that this myth leads to a lack of support and treatment within our community in regards to body image, fat discrimination, and eating disorders.  That is why I am proud to be a Black woman providing body image coaching, that is based on my personal experience, knowledge, and education.

What would your message to a woman struggling with body image negativity be?
“Your body relationship is a life journey, not a size destination. Embrace the journey with your body. Remember that your body has been here since the beginning.  It is not perfect, but it is yours.  It has carried you to this point in life and it deserves to be honored for that.  Understand that you have the rest of your life to live with your body and you can always evolve and improve along the way.  However, give yourself grace and gentleness to know that you will always be working towards the higher version of yourself.” – B is for Body

Thanks Ivy! To see more of Ivy’s work, be sure to check out her website here.

Eight Body Positive Women of Color Who Have Inspired My Body Love Journey

Women of Color Who Rock Women of Color Who Rock[/caption]

I discovered words like “fat acceptance” and “body politics” about six years ago when I graduated from college. It felt like a new world opened up to me. I was so impressed by the scholarship, passion, and fun that was involved in body positive movements. But, I was also a little sad/angry/annoyed when I saw how the perspectives of women of color in this movement were assigned: oftentimes they were not featured or at times they were “included” as some kind of pat on the head.

Thankfully, I found a way to women of color who were talking unapologetically about their own bodies and the self-acceptance involved in the journeys. They were business owners, activists, actresses, and more. Here are the top 8 women of color (who are in the public eye) who have inspired me in my own body acceptance journey.

1. Virgie Tovar

First off, her Instagram is so fun. I found out about Virgie when she was interviewed by Golda Poretsky a couple of years ago. I was taken aback by her charm, smarts, and her dedication to the body positive movement. Highly recommended: Hot and Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion.

2. Gabi Fresh

It’s always cool to see how women bloggers become more and more successful over time. I used to read Gabi Gregg’s blog all the time, back when she was profiling other fierce “fatshionistas” out there doing their thing. I drifted away a bit but was impressed when I returned years later and saw what a globe-trotting style maven she evolved into. I know she has inspired a legacy of women to own their curves and wear whatever they choose. Highly recommended: Gabi’s Fatkini Creations.

3. Gabourey Sidibe

I like that she sounds like a Valley Girl and has serious feminist connection. I like that she doesn’t shrink or cover herself up in black. The amount of vitriol that this woman faces for her confidence is unreal. It’s sad we live in a world where confident fat and black women face such BS, but I’m glad for her grace and humor in the face of it. Highly recommended: Her Ms. Magazine Foundation Gala speech.

4. Sonya Renee Taylor

She is a performance artist, a scholar, and an activist. The writings featured on her website have challenged my own biases around bodies that do not look like mine. She has created a whole movement (The Body Is Not an Apology) and brings a much needed face to body positivity. Go on, girl. Highly recommended: Her performance piece “The Body Is Not an Apology and her article about the exclusion of women of color in the body positivity movement.

5-8 Body Positive WOC

See it on the Endangered Bodies NYC Blog!

5. Fat Fancy Business Owners Carlee Smith and Annie Maribona

Okay, to be clear, I am writing about my friends here. If you wear clothes in the plus size range, you know how much of a drag thrift store or vintage shopping can be. Enter Fat Fancy to the rescue! I lived in Portland for almost three years and still have awesome pieces in my closet due to these ladies. Carlee and Annie gave me such hope about the possibility of having a socially conscious, viable business. They are awesome and I love playing dress up in their store. Highly recommended: Visit Fat Fancy in Downtown Portland and check out their website here.

6. Perle Noire

You know that overused-but-nonetheless-used quote from Marianne Williamson about being a light in the world? Namely the part of “…And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same…”? Well, that’s what I think of when I see the inimitable Perle Noire perform. Another world subject to similar omissions of women of color is the burlesque world. I’ve been transfixed by burlesque for some time now and am always happy when I see a women of color take the stage. Ms. Noire is simply amazing. She displays such a lavish comfort and sensuality in her body that it never fails to rub off on how I move in my own.

Highly recommended: Watching the Black Pearl in action.

7. Lauryn Hill

I often say that we cannot wait around for media representation to appear before we accept who we are. I fully understand the importance of seeing our reflection in media, but what about that reflection is slow coming? Or the actress loses weight? Or changes her hair? Should our confidence also dip? Still, I cannot leave Lauryn Hill off this list. As a teenager growing up in Orange County, I had many privileges but seeing my kind of beauty celebrated amongst my peers was not one of them. Watching Lauryn Hill pose on the cover of Rolling Stone, win Grammys, and be her wonderful dark-skinned self was a huge help to my teen years. She helped me to see the beauty in myself. Highly recommended: Binge watching Lauryn Hill 90’s era music videos on YouTube.

8. bell hooks

I kinda hate some of the more mundane slogan-y aspects of the body positive movement. “Guys love curves!” and “Just Be Confident” bely the insidious nature of the industries profiting off women’s negative body image. If negative body image based on racist ideas was a personal failing, I think we’d all have figured it out by now. bell hooks opened up my mind to the why’s of beauty politics affecting black women. She was one of the first scholars who made me feel un-crazy for the colorism I saw growing up. Thank you, Ms. hooks. Highly recommended reading: Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery.

Photo Credits: (1) bedaonline.com; (2) gabifresh.com; (3) Vmagazine.com; (4) sonyareneetaylor.com; (5) chubstr.com; (6) thisiscabaret.com; (7) stagedoorfm.com; (8) feministing.com

Questions

How do women whose existences have been racialized experience their bodies?
How do women whose existences have been racialized experience their bodies?

I am curious. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: I am curious on how women of color view their bodies and their media reflections.

I’m curious on how women of color relate to beauty. In what ways are we free from Eurocentric airbrushed ideals? In what ways do we struggle?

I recently attended an Endangered Bodies NYC meeting and got into a conversation with one of the founders. I expressed a qualm I’ve had regarding body positivity and the woman of color, namely black and Latina women for some time now: do we even need body positivity? Are we indeed more secure in our body confidence that a movement centered on our body/beauty experience and media portrayals is really a waste of time?

My gut answer to this question is no. I’ve heard too many stories from friends, seen too many woman color caught in a never ending cycle of not-enough tied to their looks.

There was my friend who in her mid-20’s was already afraid that she’d be one of those black women whose “black would crack” and she’d age noticeably. There were my skinny, dark skinned and fat friends who felt unseen whenever they went out to the club. There was my queer friend who hung out with a lot of white punks and felt her body was “too much” for the indie aesthetic because she actually had an ass.

So many stories. Of course, I can’t say there aren’t ANY places these stories are being told. Itgetsfatter.tumblr.com, @IntersectionalBodyPos, and thebodyisnotanapology are just a couple examples where people of color lay out their own brand of body positivity.

These spaces didn’t wait to be “included” in the mainstream movement of body positivity and what they are doing is pretty awesome.

But, I am greedy woman. I want to see more.

Due to the myriad of often life threatening concerns that women of color, disabled, and queer people face, it doesn’t surprise me that body positivity isn’t the initial item on the list of on-line activism.

If everyday concerns were situated on a ladder, where would body confidence and body positivity lie for women of color? Does it feel shameful to be passionate about the idea of body positivity when there are so many other (often named as more important) issues out there?

In today’s instant answer times, there is a part of me that just wants to ask Dr. Google what is out there regarding my questions. But, there is also a larger part of me content to let my questions live and reveal themselves in time. I’m sure there are more than one answer to all of them.

These are my questions regarding women of color and body positivity. What are yours?

School Dance Syndrome

SOmetimes I wonder what experiences stick with me. There are those that I know about which pervade my memory and come up time and time again in flash back fashion. Then there are those that I think are living somewhere murky and unnoticed in my subconcious. Which is why I started thinking of school dances. I’ve always been the tall girl. Not like, two inches above average male height but like in the 99% percentile for female height in the US. I also liked to dance. I remember going off to my friend Jessica’s house in Carson, CA. They had this awesome sliding door room replete with a speaker and CDs galore. We’d put on Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston and dance like we were free. Which in a sense we were, we were kids after all.

In those days, I didn’t worry about how my too tall (in my mind) limbs looked or how much back sweat was accumulating or if a basketball player dude was finally going to ask me to dance.

You would think I would hate school dances, but I didn’t. My parents were pretty strict about me and my sister going out, so much so that I didn’t bother asking them to do anything most days. I saved my courage for the Halloween Dance or Sadie Hawkins or Spring Fiesta. I loved how our quad was transformed. I loved when a really good DJ was spinning. I loved dancing in the darkness unafraid.

Of course, there would be the moment when the slow songs came on. Sometimes I would make a self-deprecating joke and move to the punch table. Or I’d sit on the bench which encircled a small tree and watch the swaying bodies move along to K-Ci and Jo-Jo.

I would have Sixteen Candle influenced fantasies about the Jack Ryan of my dreams sitting next to me, asking me to dance that sort of thing. It would be marvelous.

Of course, it never happened. Instead I overindulged in red Mickey Mouse shaped lollipops on Valentine’s Day. And once I got a cell phone at 17, I could pretend to be looking up crucial information.

I wonder where that loneliness I felt then has went. I want to be cool like the rest of them and pretend that these memories don’t matter. But, I cannot. School dances remain interesting. Yes, I refused to hide at home. But, gone was the totally carefree dancing and confidence of my childhood. The real sad thing about it all was how I always hoped it would be different each time. And how it wasn’t: I almost always sweat too much and I never danced with a guy.

Later, when I would go to clubs once in awhile, I couldn’t help but feel the shadow of this memory become more dense. Clubs became the new school dance floor, laughingly similar to my teenage years. The only added difference was the Remy Martin specials.

What memories are biting at the edge of your memory? What would it feel like to let them be?

 

Love,

Hannah

My (Often) Fruitless Google Searching for Body Positive Women of Color


See the post on Endangered Bodies as well!

My tattoo serves as my reminder
My tattoo serves as my reminder

Sometimes just for fun, I’ll do a Google search.

Black women body image. Click.

Women of color body image. Click.

Black women body positive. Click.

For about four years now, I’ve seen the same articles, the same excerpts of academic papers, the same one-off comments on blogs.

There is a silence that surrounds discussion of women of color and their bodies, especially in the body positive movement. Sometimes I start to believe the media. Perhaps black women are just happier at a larger size. Maybe black girls are less likely to experience body shame than their white counterparts and Latina adolescents experience less body insecurities when they are strong in their ethnic identity.

Maybe that’s all there is to know about it.

But these glib surveys and one-dimensional studies tell me nothing about how Latinas or Asian women feel about their bodies. They give no insight into what kind of disordered eating habits affect women of color. They fail to explain the body-centered conversations I’ve had with non-white friends all my life.

I believe women of color have a lot more to say on their body love experience than what has been written thus far. We have stories more nuanced then black-people-LOVE-fatness. In fact,  I would argue that the ideals that certain communities of color hold about attractive female bodies are just as confining as the “thin is best” idea touted in many White communities.

Body image is more than a study or focus on the tyranny of thinness. Body image pertains to hair texture, gender, skin color, the pregnant body, fitness, taking up space, age, femininity, and even the often simple act of embodiment. Body image woes and worries are not solely the stories of middle to upper class young white women. So where are these other stories?

I never suffered from an eating disorder or desired to be Kate-Moss- skinny, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have my own share of body image issues growing up. I grew up dark-skinned, extremely tall, and Amazon-esque in a place where this was not the norm.

Maybe my body image issues were due to where I grew up (middle-class, Southern California). Maybe they were due to my aspirations in my early teens (fashion model/MTV VJ…yes, I was a child of the 90’s). Maybe they were  piqued by the tendency of my extended family members to make comments on my weight (“You’re getting fat!”)

I am the statistic that is often hidden away: the black woman with body image conflict.

And yet.

I know I am not the only one with this story. I know there are women of color out there who could detail similar tales of body preoccupation. I also know there are stories out there that vary greatly from mine. I know there are actually some women of color out there who are doing great work (look out for my next blog post for some of them) around body positivity. I want to see them show up on these Google searches as well.

Do you think a woman of color perspective is missing in the body positive movement? What would you like to see if you Googled the word combinations I did?

Up next…8 Body Positive Women of Color Who Inspired My Body Love Journey

Love,

Hannah

Letter from a Blue Restorative INFP

So, I like tests. Personality tests to be exact, though tests in general never really scared me. Personality tests were always an alluring topic for me: fill out the bubbles, see how many more A’s you have than C’s, find yourself on the Likert scale of your choice… I loved the idea of the right assortment of answers unlocking who I was.

So, what did I find?

I am an INFP.

INFP

I have a blue-green brain.

My top strengths are Input, Intellection, Restorative, Empathy, and Individualization.

I am an Aries with a Gemini moon and Aquarius ascendant.

Of course, these tests would never really solve the truest desire of my soul, which was to know myself and peek at the divine within. The thing about external measures is that they are only pointers to what our souls already know. We often confuse the pointer with the answer.

Still, these tests were fun and pretty interesting to look back on. For instance, I used to test as an ENFP and then slowly came to be an INFP over time. Honestly, if you’re ever bored on The Internet, these tests can be illuminating.

I write this because I am still swimming in the waters of trying to figure out who I am. I am still tearing off identities that don’t fit, peeling off layers that only serve to make me uncomfortable, constrained, and annoyed.

Surely you can relate.

Maybe you’re addicted to personality tests like me. I can also say I am a workshop junkie and a self-help fiend at times.  Hello, my name is Hannah and I am addicted to online “challenges”.

I wandered bookstores in a myriad of cities, would look up and find myself surrounded by A Course in Miracles and Co-Dependent No More. It was like some weird sort of magic.

ACIM.org
ACIM.org

I was always hoping Someone Else would give me a clue on how to be myself. (I’m an Aries, we can’t help but study ourselves and even my personality tests say I’m likely to be a constant improver. Sigh…)

What kind of woman do I want to be and who I am now? Who I am when no one is looking and there is no chance for side-eyes, internet ridicule, or second guessing?

Today (for today and this minute is all that we have), I am an idealistic woman wanting to fully express herself in the world. I am organized chaos. I am a wounded healer. I am a goddess wrapped up in a funnel coat.

I try not to berate myself for my constant inner searching and treks to energy healers, classes, and seminars galore. I used to.  A LOT. It was another thing I added to the I Hate Myself list. Laughing about this drive in me is much better. Oh, Hannah, you test addict you!

Besides, because of these journeys, I have become a better person more attuned to my own path.That’s not a terrible thing.

But, I am ready to stop looking for the next book to speak direction. I am ready to define myself and work with what I have. Maybe it’s the New Moon in Aquarius.

Art By: Mystic Mamma
Art By: Mystic Mamma

Even as I write this, I am a little like WTF, Hannah? I have been in a military environment for more than ten years. I have a degree in Community and Economic Development. I was a Logistics major…who I am to be talking about new moons and this “woo-woo crap”?

I am who I am. That is the answer. And I don’t want my navel gazing to be in vain. I want it to serve in whatever way it can. I want other women and girls to live fully expressed and in love with Life, right here right now.

Really, I want for others what I want for myself:

To be free.

So, whoever is reading this manifesto-y self-exploration blog post, please bear with me. I am trying to let my soul know that it is now or never.

Dear Soul,

It’s time to stop hiding. It’s time to step into this next stage and live without looking for a test or model life to conform. (You can still read some self-help books but let’s try more novels, huh?)

You are not alone in this quest and all this living you have done will be of use. Your quest to live with honesty will serve others.

If it doesn’t, well, I sure as hell hope they find someone who does help them. Here’s to action. Here’s to being Yourself.

With love,

Hannah

 

 

My So-Called InstaPerfect Life

A reminder
A reminder

I wake up each morning at 6 am. I meditate for 20 minutes and complete a 20 minute cycle of yoga. I say gratitude prayers over a candle and my boyfriend lovingly smiles at me as he fixes breakfast. I drink my daily warm lemon juice and green smoothie. Yum! This is my  daily ritual. Nothing messes with these events.

I write for 20 minutes and am astounded that my words resemble the opening chapter of a Toni Morrison novel. I rest secure in my artistic gift.

I shower.  I only use organic soaps and jojoba oil once I’ve toweled off with my natural fiber towel. My locs are always supple and bouncy. My skin is clear and radiant. I look at my phone and take in my daily Deepak Chopra affirmation. I feel supremely connected.

I kiss my boyfriend goodbye as he hands me my vegan lunch. I am impeccably dressed by the way. It is near freezing outside but I look totally chic with a brilliant pop of red lipstick. My hair is perfect and my liquid eyeliner lined eyes are without mistake.

My I-Pod shuffles between walking meditations and upbeat 90’s music. Everyone smiles at me as I walk towards Atlantic Center. I hand out several dollar bills to the homeless I see. I am light, peaceful, and open.

On the train, a man walks up, “You looking fine! I love a woman in red lipstick! Do you have a boyfriend?” he says.  He sits close to me and starts talking more. I put down my Oprah’s Book Club pick and look him square in the eyes and speak in a level, assertive voice,

“Sir, I appreciate your comments but I do not want to talk right now. I am reading. Please be wary  of commenting on a stranger’s looks in public spaces. Namaste.”

“Wow, miss, you really taught me something. I’m going to read some bell hooks tonight.” He walks away with a grin.

I smile to myself, happy to insert loving feminism into the atmosphere.  The R train car smells like roses and is a nice temperature. The people in the train car have countenances full of sunshine.

Once, I arrive at work, I am greeted by my supervisor,

“You are awesome!” she says, flashing a thumbs up.

I smile but know that my true worth resides within me.  I am ego-less and free. All day I work in complete dedication at a good pace. I spend one hour in the nearby gym in a high intensity spin class. I walk past the candy laden food machines all day without stopping for a Snickers. I eat my lunch slowly and mindfully while sitting down.

Once I depart work, I conduct a series of errands easily and all in a row. Whenever I am waiting in line, I breathe deeply and feel the genuine deepness of God in my heart.

Later, I meet a friend for dinner. I expertly pick a place not too expensive and spend wisely. (No dessert!) When my friend announces she has made 100K from her blog and is touring South America next week, all I feel is a supreme joy. We hug and I feel the interconnection of our souls.

On my way home, a modeling scout hands me a card and says I should really hook up with his agency who are looking for Amazonesque dark-skinned women.

My boyfriend greets me at the door of our apartment which now smells like chocolate. He has made flourless cake! I cut a tiny piece and feel completely satisfied.

We watch an educational documentary on Netflix. I meditate for 20 minutes after the movie concludes and am in bed at 10:30. I and my boyfriend engage in loving sexual relations and both of us orgasm simultaneously. I fall asleep to lucid dreams where I find out my life’s purpose and talk with my late grandmother.

The end.

Sometimes I really wish my days looked like this. As I wrote this, I couldn’t help but chuckle out loud. While some of these practices and experiences are indeed very possible, the level of pressure I put on myself to conform to them ALL THE TIME is ludicrous.

I may not explicitly think I am doing so, but usually these experiences are what I expect my life to be.

I am a human being.  Sometimes I feel anxious. Sometimes I am crazy jealous. I often eat too fast and ignore the fact that I and milk chocolate don’t agree. Sometimes I am  bitterly disappointed by my failures. Sometimes I am eager for attention in a way that scares me.

I have moments I grow so despondent over the state of the world I don’t know what to do with myself.

Sometimes I think I am deeper or better than others.

I am a work in progress.

When I write out the lofty expectations I have for my life here, I can laugh. Who can be that perfect every single day? Instagram and whatever social media app will have us think everyone is. But, c’mon, now. Every day?

I hope this made you laugh too. We all want perfect days. But, maybe the harder work is seeing what is already perfect. What is already so very good right now? I don’t know about you, but I am tired of acting as if my present life is a prequel to the Next Better Thing.

I wish you the ease of being you in all your imperfection. And remember, I write this because I need to learn it myself.

Love,

Hannah