Inspiring Women

Happy Sunday,

I haven’t blogged in a bit. I’ve been busy-busy and a little bogged down mentally lately, and also feeling like I’m always struggling against impossible obstacles. Today, I read some inspiring stories about 5 women in the world’s largest refugee camps in Kenya. Apparently, the ‘average length of displacement’ in these camps has risen to an estimated 26 years. These 5 women have seemingly insurmountable challenges thrown at them by their situation, and still, they have managed to flourish, and instead of just waiting around for a better future, they have created their own present. There’s a self-made filmmaker, a mechanic, a stove maker, a dress maker and an aspiring software engineer.

I’m sharing the link here in case anyone else (my 5 followers :)) wants to read about it in Danai Gurira’s newsletter. I love her, so I get her newsletter. She is an amazing human.

Read it here   Learn about some bad-ass women.

This picture/logo is from the newsletter on the site. I hope I’m allowed to use it. If you like the story, you can sign up to get emails from them.

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I GOT A HANDMAID’S TALE JACKET!#BlessedBeTheFight #HandmaidsTale

So.. less than a week ago, I got this email from Hulu, saying:

“We know you’re a big fan of The Handmaid’s Tale, so we wanted to thank you for being with the show since the beginning. We partnered with Levi’s® to create an exclusive, limited-edition Handmaid’s Tale jacket to give to a select number of dedicated fans, including you.

This jacket is free (seriously!). To get yours, just use the link and code below. You’ll be able to select your size and tell us where to send it – but please hurry because we only made 2,020 of these jackets and are gifting on a first-come-first-served basis (and sizes are getting limited).”

Then there was a claim code to put in.

I almost deleted it because I thought it was spam, but it came from Hulu, and I do watch Handmaid’s Tale, so I thought ‘what the heck’ and I replied with my size and my claim code. Five days later.. I got the cutest denim jacket delivered to me with patches to put on it if I wanted. For free! Come to find out, many people covet this, and I was very lucky to be chosen!

Y’all, this never happens to me. I literally never win anything. I won a couple of medals for playing the flute in high school, and an essay contest when I was 10, but that’s about it. Chance drawings.. forget it. I do not have luck. So I feel super chosen right now.

There was a note in the box asking recipients to post selfies ‘styling the jacket’. Sounds like a small thing to do for a free jacket.

So here’s me styling the jacket! I haven’t put the patches on yet because they wouldn’t iron on like the instructions said, so I’ll sew them when I have time.

 

Photos by Steven Wolfe (my husband).

And here are the patches. Handmaid’s Tale watchers will get what they mean..

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So… that was me having luck for once! Have a nice rest of the week!

 

Childhood Trauma and PTSD- My Journey

I’m opening up about this because it has been a hard journey of self-discovery for the last few years.  It took a series of unwise and toxic relationships, a few years of self-medicating by having drinks almost every day, and finally cutting the cord on how much work and other people were allowed to dominate my life to really start focusing inward and working on this. 

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 I’m saying this out loud, partly to let people have a bit more understanding of me and people like me, but also to maybe help someone else who hasn’t yet realized these same things about themself. Yes, I’ve been to therapy. I was told by a few therapists that I don’t have an actual ‘mental illness’, I have childhood trauma that has caused a form of PTSD. Being able to know what it is has helped me help myself.  I can’t take a pill to help it. I have to deal with it in my brain pretty much daily if I don’t want it to take control of my life. 

To be honest, I don’t remember most of the details of my childhood. This is a common defense response in people who suffered abuse. I had a stepfather who was pretty terrible to me during my formative years, and I have a few specific incidents that stay in my catalogue of memories that I can relate if asked, but many of them are just woven into the fabric of my brain, and not really stories I can tell as a narrative.  I just know I spent most of my childhood feeling like I could be in a lot of serious trouble without warning for things that were just normal kid behavior (like talking too loud, leaving a light on by accident, forgetting a chore, and more than once just for reading in my room when my presence was requested elsewhere) or I could be ridiculed in a sudden and humiliating manner for something natural I was doing or reacting to. There was some physical abuse disguised as discipline, but mostly I was just emotionally and mentally under attack without warning almost all the time when he was around. If you grew up like that,  and you survived it to be a relatively successful and productive adult, you might not understand how it changed you from who you might have been to who you actually are. It’s not something you can change back, but you have to learn to manage it for your own good. 

I’ve been reading a lot about how childhood trauma, particularly when it comes from abuse,  can cause a form of PTSD. When the world is unstable and dangerous while your personality is forming, you develop a heightened awareness of anything potentially dangerous around you. It is a defense mechanism to survive your childhood as a helpless person in constant danger. For me, noise, light, crowds and even just the wrong situation at an unplanned moment can trigger it.  If a baby is crying in a restaurant, or a phone is ringing without being answered, other people show normal levels of annoyance, but I actually feel like I’m under a real and dangerous attack, and I panic. I get hot, my fear level goes up, and my anxiety is so high that I often feel like I’m shaking inside. If it happens on a TV show or a movie, I have to mute it until it’s over.  Like if it doesn’t stop soon, I will actually lose my mind and run out screaming so I won’t die. I know if I verbalize it or show my distress, other people will think I am unreasonable, so I often have to actually just shut down as much as I can until it stops so I don’t seem unreasonable to other people, including my husband who just silently tolerates me if I verbalize it too intensely, which to me often feels like judging, and that makes my reaction even worse. Strangely, it can pass as fast as it happens once the source of the issue is away from me. Then I just feel unreasonable, bad, flawed and ugly about it in the aftermath. 

This also happens in crowds where people are too close to me for too long and I feel like I am having a panic attack just trying to maintain my personal space, or when anything is too loud or light is too bright. I always just thought I was just very sensitive (which  always seemed like a weakness to me), but it is actually more like people who have been in war-zones who go into full panic mode when someone sets off firecrackers or a car backfires. 

All of this is apparently called ‘Hypervigilance’, which is extreme or excessive vigilance : the state of being highly or abnormally alert to potential danger or threat.”(merriam-webster).  It might result in a severe state of anxiety that eventually causes exhaustion, because the person experiencing it is constantly looking for danger in a particular situation. This is a fight or flight response that develops in childhood to protect you from the dangers in your home with your family.  Some people are apparently like this all the time, which I imagine is absolutely miserable for them. With me, it is triggered by certain environments and situations, and I’ve largely learned to avoid situations that might make me feel that way as much as I can. Sometimes it can’t be avoided, however, and I have what probably seems like an unreasonable meltdown to anyone who is around when it happens. 

If I get overwhelmed with too many things that I have to do, I sometimes get panicked that I will forget something. Because I am a full time college instructor and I run a theatre that doesn’t have the budget for a real staff, I am constantly working if I don’t just force myself to stop. I have gotten pretty good at managing everything, by keeping to-do lists for when I have a million balls in the air and can’t get finished with anything because other people won’t give me the information I need to cross something off, or I just run out of time that day and need to rest my head.  I answer people who need things from me as immediately as I can to avoid a pileup at an inconvenient time. I can usually just move something to another day to finish and forget about it in that moment so I don’t get so overwhelmed with unfinished things on my mind that I melt down over it. Sometimes other people control the situation, though, and too many extra things are sprung on me at once that are unexpected and I don’t have time to sort them on my lists. Or people are in my face when a lot of things come up at the same time, and it throws off all my plans and I panic, and lash out or melt down because I can’t physically remove myself from the situation. It’s not completely unreasonable, because most people would be stressed by the amount of work that piles up on a person with 2 full jobs, but people without PTSD can walk away from it more easily or control the stress reaction more manageably. I can most of the time control it enough on the surface to get through the situation. Once in a while, I can’t. Then I spend days obsessing about how I upset someone over it. 

The other thing that happens as a result of this PTSD is a hyper-awareness of other people’s reactions or feelings toward you. You develop an almost psychic sense of when someone is displeased or doesn’t like you, and it can be distressing in a way that most people would see as silly. I realized along the way that when someone didn’t like me or was upset with me, I would panic and spend an unreasonable amount of energy feeling upset about it, and trying hard to counter it by giving that person too much in an attempt to win them somehow. If I am slighted in a situation where I feel  I should have been noticed, I often suffer hard for that emotionally for days. That’s a response to a parent (in my case, a step parent) always disapproving, showing disdain and never giving praise for any accomplishment. You grow up depending on other people’s opinions and reactions to let you know how you’re doing in the world, because you never really get a sense of how to gauge it on your own. On the other hand, one little accolade or nice thing someone says can feed my soul and keep me basking in sunlight for weeks, provided I don’t decide it’s not true and try to give the credit to everyone else. I’m happy to say that I”ve gotten much better at blocking out people who don’t like or approve of me, and moving on. I really have to work hard on the other part of this, though. Every time I’m triggered. 

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I know that this is part of my personality and my brain, and I cannot remove it. I know that the only reason I did not develop something worse is that I am naturally resilient, and for that, I am thankful. Knowing what it is helps me, and I have gotten to where I can control my responses, at least on the surface, most of the time. Sometimes I feel it terribly, but I’m able to not show it, which is a huge thing for me, and honestly that is the best I can hope for. Once in a while, I don’t do such a good job. I apologize to people who suffer or feel confusion when that happens.  Trust me, when I mess up, I feel a lot worse about it for a lot longer than anyone who got caught in the crossfire. It’s a lifelong journey for anyone to work on themselves, and it’s no different for me, but I will keep working. 

(photos courtesy of Mildred’s Umbrella Theater Company,  by Anthony Rathbun, 2007).

“Can a Woman Be Elected President?” How is this Even a Question?

At the moment, everyone I happen to know is discussing the democratic candidates, in person and all over social media. This is the first time we’ve had multiple women running in the primaries,  which is exciting to many of us, but it boggles the mind if we are calling ourselves a modern country. How have women been kept out of that job for so long? “The Patriarchy” is the usual response to that question. That enemy.. “The patriarchy’” is familiar. We know we have to struggle against male power to have our voices heard, or to maintain our rights. But what about the women who join the men to oppress other women? Why do they do that, and how do we make them understand that they have the power to help us change things to benefit all of us, including them? 

From what I understand,  47% of white women voted for Donald Trump. This was after he made fun of handicapped people, talked about ‘grabbing pussies ‘and was accused of sexual assault. Not to mention all the times he was hateful, racist or downright stupid on twitter or in a comment he made about something.  Yet, multiple times this week, I have seen women saying they agree with Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren’s policies, but they won’t vote for her because she is too ‘aggressive’ or ‘brash’. I’ve heard similar statements about Kamala Harris.  

Wait.. isn’t being assertive and strong kind of a requirement for leading a country?  All of the assertive and confident men who have been president were chosen partly because they possess those qualities, but  when the same tone is coming from a woman, it is ‘brash’. Would they seem like good leaders if they came across soft spoken and submissive?  I feel like they would simply be dismissed, as we have seen happen to others before them. This discussion is not limited to my social media pages. A New York Times article just last was focused on the question, “Do you really think a woman could be elected president?” 

How is this still a question in this country? Why are we not ready for this when all across Europe, women have been leaders for decades? Even countries like India, Pakistan, Indonesia and many other parts of the world reached this milestone long ago. What is our problem with this, and why do even women join in keeping this progress from happening? 

 I don’t think the negative responses to female candidates is always a conscious one.  I think this is deeply imbedded, learned thinking, trained into us since childhood to keep women in their place as second class citizens. 

When I was seven, a boy pushed me down on the playground because I wouldn’t let him kiss me.  I got up and pushed him back and a female teacher saw the exchange and instead of asking what happened, she scolded me for fighting, because girls are not supposed to fight. I then got a number of disapproving looks from other girls, who seemed to already know this rule. I don’t remember if the teacher said anything to the boy, but I do remember feeling very ashamed and betrayed,  and learning at that moment that I had to control myself more than a boy did. This was often reinforced in my own house when it came to myself and my brother, so it wasn’t a huge surprise that it applied elsewhere, as well. 

In fifth grade, two kids in my class both acted up in the same week. One was a boy named Moses, who was always acting up, and the other was a girl named Loretta. Time and time again, the female teacher mildly scolded Moses for his constant antics, but when Loretta acted up one time, she was spanked with a paddle in front of the class. We all learned that acting out was not tolerated when a girl did it the same as when a boy did. By age 11, other women had firmly taught me that girls were held to a different standard than boys. 

There are all kinds of ways society’s expectations divide women from other women. Recently, I decided to chime in on a conversation about a Netflix show that people were talking about called ‘Insatiable’, in which an overweight girl’s life changes when an accident forces her on a liquid diet, and she ends up a skinny beauty queen. The discussion was mostly about whether it was politically correct to make it clear that the girl’s life is better after she loses weight, instead of just accepting herself as she is. I didn’t chime in until the quality of the work was being discussed, and then I said ‘I watched it, and I thought the writing was over the top and a little ridiculous.” I was immediately shut down by a woman acquaintance who said ‘your opinion isn’t really relevant.  You’ve never had a weight problem.” She was supported almost immediately by another woman.  

There were men involved in that conversation, and nobody shut them down.  They were allowed to have all kinds of opinions on women and their body acceptance, as well as on the quality of the show, but I was the enemy when I spoke, because I was perceived as a woman who didn’t understand being in that particular group of marginalized women, and therefore, I had to be shut down.  This kind of micro-aggression from women to other women happens all the time in everyday life. It is just one more division we’ve created ourselves by our society’s expectations of us. 

As I pondered of these women who shut down other women, I was reminded of Jocelyn,  who briefly dated a friend of mine when I was in my 20’s. She was new to our area and didn’t know anyone, and came into our group of friends because she was dating one of the guys that hung out with us. She wore a lot of makeup and sexy clothes all the time, even when we went for picnics in the park. She obviously spent a lot of time and money on her looks. She would literally ignore the other girls when we all hung out together. I actually saw her turn her head away and pretend she didn’t hear when another young woman asked her a question in an attempt to include her in a conversation. She only talked to the men, and hung on their every word.  We all figured out quickly what she was about, and we just stopped trying. We didn’t invite her to ‘ladies only’ events, but bashed her whenever we got together. When the guy broke up with her, she had nobody. I felt a little bad for her, because that is a time when you rely on your girlfriends for emotional support, and none of us wanted anything to do with her. One of the other men might have slept with her once, but the rest of them forgot about her the minute their friend tossed her aside, and I don’t even know what happened to her. At the next girl’s night, we all collectively decided she got what she deserved . I do wonder if she learned from it, or if she spent her life feeling like she was only valued for what men saw in her. I hope she learned. 

 Now, I see her kind everywhere I look, and I think I understand that deep down, they are just afraid of not being on the winning side. Aligning themselves with men is safe. Fighting against the patriarchy by supporting other women is risky. Dismissing them and writing them off like my friends and I did to that sexpot years ago is not going to fix anything. We have to show them how to empower and value themselves first, and then they will have the confidence to empower other women. 

We have been divided by our patriarchal society. In the NY Times article, people were worried mostly about whether a woman ‘could win’ and they didn’t want to waste their votes.  The people I see on social media seem to be afraid of voting for a woman who doesn’t follow the rules of how a woman should come across personally. That insecurity is further dividing us. Nobody is asking you to invite Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris to dinner at your house or to your girls’ night happy hour, although I totally would invite them myself. We have to think about whether those ‘aggressive’ and ‘outspoken’ qualities that we might shy away from in a friend are strong qualities for a leader. If you really disagree with their politics, then don’t vote for them. All I’m saying is, judge them as leaders with the same gauge as you would judge a man, and maybe one of them can have a chance to answer that question, ‘“Do you really think a woman could be elected president?” 

— Jennifer Decker

Dad

I made this video in a workshop. I think it came out pretty good.

This was a digital storytelling workshop, to learn to tell stories my making videos of them to share with students or allow students to use as a tool in class. I was told to have a story in mind ahead of time, with images. I had two ideas.. 1) how my dog rescued me, 2) my childhood refuge from chaos at my grandmother’s house. When I got there, I suddenly realized that, though this one was far more painful and personal, it was definitely a more important issue in my life than anything else I had thought of. So on the spot, I changed it, and the story flowed out quickly.

Anyway, this is it if anyone is actually looking at this blog that I forget about for months at a time.

VIDEO LINK— Dad

Mayfly

I’ve been super busy with a work related crisis lately, but I’m going to put a story here that I wrote a while back so I don’t forget to be active with it. And for my 2 followers. 🙂

Mayfly

“They got the wrong house again,”  you say, looking out into the front yard, over the marigolds that your wife planted long ago, to the grass that used to be green.

“I guess.” says your daughter,  without looking up.  She sits, crosslegged and barefoot, pinning insects to a piece of cardboard by porchlight.  She is surrounded by a beetle, a butterfly, a grasshopper, a cockroach, several other drab insects, and a metallic-green June bug.

She looks like her mother in this light. Here, the light reflects off her smooth hair, which is twisted into a clip at the back of her head. The ends stick out on the top like a brush. Her skin is soft in the yellow of the lamp.

You wonder if she remembers her mother, if she misses her like you do. Someday, you will ask her.

You walk to the edge of the porch steps and look out again, your back to her and her bugs.  The moon is blurry behind the mist, but you can still make out the word  burnt into the front lawn.  Last time when it was red paint, it was easily fixed with a lawnmower. This time would be trickier.

“Lets go inside,” you say.

“In a minute.”

She sticks a pin through a butterfly. Her hands are covered with orange dust from its wings. She scrubs them on her overalls and grabs another pin.

You stand between  Amy and the paint on your lawn. Someone made a mistake. There is no slut here.  You work long hours, then watch reruns of  MASH.  Nothing else happens to you. Amy is only fifteen.  She still makes valentines out of construction paper. She still sleeps with that stuffed rabbit with one missing eye.

This morning,  you asked her if she knew who might have done it. She said she did not.

It is a mistake. You will leave them a note telling them so in case they come back.  Maybe paint the note on the lawn. Maybe keep Amy inside, until the misunderstanding is cleared up, just in case.

“It’s time to go inside,” you say again, like you mean it.  She is cradling a brown insect, winged and dead, in her palm.

“Look,” she says, “A Mayfly. After they get wings, they live only one day.”  It is her little-girl voice coming from her mother’s face. You smile.

“Is that so?” you say.  It doesn’t look like much. Like a dragonfly’s tiny, brown cousin.

“Just a day,” she says again. She places it on the cardboard and stabs it carefully through the thorax.

 

Don’t call me ‘a pointless being’!

I recently read an article shared on Social media, on ‘The Invisibility of Middle Aged Women’ and I tried hard to relate completely to it.  I’m 48, so I’m apparently now firmly planted into that demographic. While there have been brief moments when I have related to parts of this article, I find that most of the time, I feel fine about my age. Am I weird? At one point, the article states,  “ If a woman has kids, she will always be a mother, but a woman who has chosen not to procreate and who now no longer is young and sexy is perceived by many as a pointless being.” Well, I don’t have kids, and I don’t feel like a pointless being.  I feel much the same as I always have, except slightly less lost, and a lot less objectified.

Remember puberty? Puberty sucked, and we got through that.  Some of us got awkward and tall, not knowing what to do with our overly long arms and legs, elbows and knees protruding everywhere.. some of us got chubby, as the hormones banged around all over the place, confused. Added to that was acne, periods and hair growing in weird places. It isn’t a fabulous time for most of us.

Middle age sometimes feels like the second coming of puberty. We have to get used to the fact that we can no longer spring out of bed with a dewy complexion after drinking the night before. We can no longer  notice a 5 pound weight gain one day and then slip back into tiny jeans just by being ‘good’ for a couple of days after. Nowadays, I can gain weight (in weird places, too) just from smelling pizza, and one night of drinking a couple too many results in a whole week of crankiness and eye bags.  Even my  hair has gone psycho, with more and more gray ones sprouting up, altering the texture enough to make it feel like a stranger. I can sometimes still pull off ‘dewy’ with the right camera filter, but I’ve learned not to expect it.

Women take  this stage of life harder than men, it seems, and why wouldn’t they? Everything we see in movies and on television tells us that 50 year old men are still sexy, but women are no longer attractive after 40. We see 25 year old leading ladies with 50 year old love interests in these stories all the time, and celebrities being shamed when someone catches a photo of them on the beach with no makeup and a little cellulite (in other words, looking like actual humans). The articles I read about this are everywhere. Time magazine claims that while male film actors peak in their careers at 46, female ones peak at 30. Seriously? Who knows anything at 30, much less reaches their full potential by then?  

Ordinary women continually see these gorgeous, famous women being put out to pasture when we still feel like we have a lot of good years left in us. We still care about romance and fun, and many of  us even feel that we haven’t hit our professional peak quite yet.  It can take a toll on anyone who doesn’t choose to dismiss it as non-reality. It’s kind of like puberty, which is when we first began to admire these celebrity women in the first place and worry we will never measure up. Now we are being told that we have to work our asses off to maintain a certain appearance,  just to compete with women half our age or we aren’t useful in the world anymore. I’m not playing that game.

Other than a short burst of interest in pop music in my mid-teens, I’ve always been a person who is blissfully unaware of most of what happens in celebrity culture. I do watch movies and TV,  but I don’t really experience it as anything grounded in reality.  I know there are these people called ‘Kardashians’, but I’m not totally sure who they are or what they do. I have a vague knowledge of Beyonce and Lady Gaga, but I wouldn’t be able to identify any of their songs, and to be honest, I haven’t known anything about new music since about the mid-90’s. I don’t know why I don’t know about these things. I guess I’m just not that interested. Perhaps it is unrelated, but I also don’t feel bad about growing old. In fact, there are parts of it I embrace. I got to be young once, and I don’t remember even appreciating what  I looked like back then. I was insecure and trying to figure out the world and my place in it, constantly dealing with sexual harassment and condescending people who didn’t take me seriously. I’m actually relieved to have grown out of that stage. I rarely get cat-called anymore or have to deal with men trying to pick me up every time I’m alone for 5 minutes in public. When I am in charge of something, people generally accept it and listen to me. That never happened in my 20’s without a ton of work. I actually like it.

Many women I know obsess constantly about aging, and I wish they would stop wasting their precious time with that.  They torture themselves  by giving up everything that gives them pleasure and paying money they could be spending on fun for cheek implants and liposuction and collagen, which isn’t fooling anyone, and often even inspires pity when it goes wrong. I feel for them, and I totally understand, but I’m not going to join that club.

I survived puberty, and then I got to be a sexy,  young woman for a while when I finally got through it. I’ll get through middle age and be a happy old person that doesn’t give a crap about any of that stuff or what anyone thinks of me. Its a transition, not an ending. I’m going to drink some wine, eat some cheese and celebrate it.

Medusa

I recently found a picture of myself and my step-sister from when we were about 6. She’s dark and taller with long, stick straight hair. I’m fair and small with honey-brown curls. The photo is innocent; two smiling girls dressed up for church, holding dolls we’d gotten for Christmas that were meant to look like us, except the boxes apparently got switched and she holds one with light brown curls, and mine sports a dark, silky mane. I was happy with that doll. I liked her hair better.

When I came across the photo 40 years later, I had a sharp moment of surprise. Is that what we looked like? Surely I was plainer, more awkward… and my hair was wild,  like the head of Medusa; out of control and  horrible. According to my mental database, she should  certainly be more beautiful; poised and airbrushed like a film star. Neither is true. We both look like cute, ordinary little girls. Why is my memory so different from this photo?

My mother married this girl’s father shortly before this photo was taken. My own parents had divorced when I was two, and I really have no memory of living with both of them. When this new ‘Dad’ arrived on the scene, I remember being curious and a little excited to have a dad that actually lived with us.  He was nice to me at the beginning. I always thought it was because he just didn’t know me yet, and after he got to know me, he realized what a bad child I was and changed his mind. Years later, I realized he was nice because he was still trying to seduce my mother, and once he had her, he didn’t have to pretend anymore. Years of self-therapy, and analyzing  him as a human person instead of the God of all that was correct has made me understand intellectually that none of his fury towards me was really about me. He was just a product of his own abusive childhood, but knowing that intellectually doesn’t completely eliminate the dark little cloud he left on my soul after living for 10 years with him.  For the most part, I’ve gotten over the most obvious damage he left in his wake, but my feelings when I look at this photo make me realize there is one thing about myself that is embedded in my psyche as a representation of all that is bad about me: my hair.

My entire life with this ‘father’  was a harsh lesson in survival. He was moody and often violent, and the threat of a swinging belt was enough to make everyone in the house walk on eggshells. For a child who was naturally creative, and had spent 5 years of her life being mostly adored by female relatives,  it was a sharp change in situation to realize that my existence seemed to be a problem. Anything I did or said was usually wrong. Any comment I contributed to a conversation might be called out as ‘stupid’. I was always too loud or in the way. Eventually, I became a bit reclusive at home, preferring to spend my time in my room alone with my records and books, but then I was often criticized for not participating.  I learned early on to adjust my behavior at the drop of a hat to avoid conflict. However, one thing I couldn’t change was my hair. It was a constant source of  conflict. My hair is fine and curly and easily windblown. My stepfather’s daughter, who would visit on holidays and in the summer, had straight, glossy hair that grew out of her head naturally that way and fell back into place after the wind had its way with it. In spite of constantly being pitted against each other with this comparison (and others that didn’t stick in my mind quite so sharply),  we were friends when left to our own devices. We would play outside in the wind together, running and jumping and climbing trees with the happy, carefree joy that comes with youth and companionship. However, when we came inside after a summer’s day of sweaty play, I was always shocked back into the reality of my life by the nasty comments I got for looking like a ‘mess’, a ‘wild animal’, an ungroomed ‘heathen’-   the very definition of what a girl should not be. She had not done anything differently than I had. It was just a fundamental flaw in my genetic makeup that made me so  terrible, and he would  pick at me about it, berate my mother for not making me be more feminine and threaten to chop it off so I could look like the boy I obviously wanted to be. A couple of times he even snatched up a brush and roughly yanked it through my tangled hair, practically pulling it out in his fury at my disobedience in letting my hair get into such a state.

In my research to adjust my thoughts about myself, I’ve read that a male role model in a girl’s life is essential. Unconditional love from a man is connected to self esteem, and the relationship is supposed to teach us what we are looking for in a partner later in life.  The entire time this messed up push and pull was going on, all I wanted was to be able to do anything to make this man approve of me, even if I couldn’t inspire actual love. I concluded that the fact that it never happened was because I was just basically unloveable, and this conclusion has colored every relationship with a man I’ve ever had.  I go in feeling optimistic and healthy, and run away the minute that messy haired little girl is resurrected by a comment or a behavior from the other person that pulls her back to the surface.  After all, I’ve spent my whole life keeping my hair under control so I can deserve being loved. I have spent countless hours flat ironing it, squandered my money on smoothing products, straightening serums and hairspray. I’ve avoided pool parties, picnics on humid days and swimming in the ocean. I can’t have that little girl ruining everything by sticking her crazy Medusa head in and showing everyone what I mess I really am.

I look back at the photo and I realize that even though my step-sister also got the wrong doll, she was perfectly happy to keep the one with the curly hair, just as I was happy to have the sleek one. Though we’ve lost touch, mostly because of my own bitter feelings about that time in my life, I wonder if she had her own unhappiness that I didn’t see because I was so wrapped up in mine. To me, it looked like she was perfect, but I’m sure the whole situation affected her too. I think she loved me, and she shouldn’t feel bad for having the right hair. I’m ok now, and it’s all under control most of the time. Sometimes it rains, and I lose my grip on it temporarily, but now I just pull it back in a ponytail, put on a hat and move on.

by Jennifer Decker, 2017.

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