Appreciating Rahawa Haile’s “Going It Alone” for the Hiking-Justice Connection

As someone interested in and impacted by the outdoors, hiking, human connection, harmful historical legacies, and ever-present white supremacy, I absolutely love and highly recommend Rahawa Haile’s article “Going It Alone”:

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Haile shares her experience through-hiking the Appalachian Trail as a queer black woman. Here are a few of my favorite lines:

  • “By the time I made it through Maryland, it was hard not to think of the Appalachian Trail as a 2,190-mile trek through Trump lawn signs.”
  • “Harriet Tubman is rarely celebrated as one of the most important outdoor figures in American ­history, despite traversing thousands of miles over the same mountains I walked this year.”
  • “There were days when the only thing that kept me going was knowing that each step was one toward progress, a boot to the granite face of white supremacy.”

In trying to figure out why this piece so deeply speaks to me, I realize how much I crave stories of hiking (like Amanda “Zuul” Jameson’s Brown Girl on the (P)CT and Garnette Cadogan’s “Walking While Black”) that challenge the assumptions of whiteness, walking as white activity, and the outdoors as white space.

I crave so deeply ways of re-seeing and relating differently with my childhood home in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Haile names places where I’ve spent much time and where I’ll be visiting again this summer: the Smokies and Shenandoah, Roan Mountain and Gatlinburg. These are places I feel within my body, both in the sense of heart expansion and heart ache. These are places I’ve fled and yet still seek again. These are places with deep legacies of racial, colonial, and other traumas that underwrite contemporary white nationalism.

Haile gives voice to the struggle of craving the expansive mountains, the blue ridges, and the relationship with birds and bears, while confronting Confederate flags, Trump signs, and stores selling blackface soap.

Haile gives voice to the differential risks, to the differently embodied realities, and to the significantly different threats that she (a queer black woman) and I (a straight white woman) face when walking in the woods.

Haile also gives voice to the need to keep going, to keep walking, and to keep writing. To put one’s “boot to the granite face of white supremacy.” Haile reminds me to commit yet again my body, my words, and my actions toward justice.

So, how do I “make actionable” a commitment to racial justice, especially as a hiker?

I certainly don’t have a full answer, but the work includes:

  • Intrapersonal work: ongoing reflexivity and introspection, especially toward noticing more, disrupting biases, and changing my own limiting self-talk;
  • Interpersonal work: writing, teaching, and interacting—with others and often in relationship—to raise awareness and to make change; and
  • Institutional work: channeling time, talents, and financial resources into organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center, Rethinking Schools, the YWCA, and America’s Black Holocaust Museum, which work for larger institutional change.

When I’m out on the trail, I’m engaged mostly in intrapersonal and interpersonal work—talking with myself, with hiking partners, and sometimes with others I meet along the trail. Part of why I love hiking is that it allows for long timespans that become more meditative, more contemplative as the body and the brain tire. I find that the more removed I am from my everyday habits and habitat, the more I can de-normalize damaging scripts that have become internalized. Like the meaning I find on my yoga mat, time on the trail is essential for healing, reorienting with gratitude, confronting my shadow self, and refueling my commitment to justice.

As I reflect on these components of making my commitment actionable, I’m thinking also about the ways my privileged positioning (e.g., as white, U.S.-born, cis-gender, able-bodied, economically secure) makes the trail a space of such possibility for me and for people who look, talk, and move like me. And this a reality—that outdoors spaces are made inaccessible and inhospitable for many people—makes the need for justice all-the-more urgent.

A case in point:

Last summer I had too little water at the trailhead for Big Schloss, a trail running a ridgeline between Virginia and West Virginia with outstanding views on clear days. My partner Jonathan and I thought there’d be water at the trailhead; yet, the well was dry. We asked others for water, and two white hikers returning to their cars emptied their bottles for us. I felt a sense of comradery with these other hikers, and I felt courage (surely from white privilege) in asking for help.

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I also was sure that if we couldn’t get water from fellow hikers, we couldn’t do this day hike (the closest gas station was miles away, so we’d spend our time driving instead of hiking). On the drive into Big Schloss, we’d passed many confederate flags (easily more than 10), and I couldn’t see myself knocking on any doors to ask for water. I remember feeling fairly vulnerable in this rural area.

And here’s what I want to remember and communicate more widely: my feeling of vulnerability arose from a trauma that’s shared, that’s part of the U.S. collective, yet is experienced so differently and with such potentially different consequences. As a white woman—especially when hiking in partnership with a white man—my concerns are primarily about emotional hurt. In contrast, hikers of color face the U.S. legacy of lynching (the hate crime of murder) that is part of America’s Black Holocaust that continues today through both microaggressions and macro-structures like unchecked police violence, the school-to-prison pipeline, the cycle of poverty, voter disenfranchisement, and many other institutional issues. Haile addresses how such legacies impact not only human interactions but also basic choices like how to protect one’s body from cold and wind and not be perceived as a threat/target of hate crimes.

My pain of traveling in the Appalachian Mountains, which are so in my blood, involves being re-traumatized with each confederate flag, each Trump sign, each park or trail name that celebrates “founding fathers” and other prominent figures who took part in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, forced Indian removal, colonization, genocide, and other atrocities. I think it’s important, though ever-painful, to take notice of such physical manifestations of ongoing dehumanization, especially as they show up in “the outdoors” or “the wilderness.”

Truly, all spaces are social constructed, so it’s important to keep asking: Whose stories do these spaces tell? Whose stories aren’t told? And why? What can be done toward recovery, retelling, and rewriting?

It’s important, too, to inquire into and take notice of the racialization of space and spatialization of race. As a white woman, this means asking about how my body works within spaces, especially along trails and the roadways that connect and supply trails.

Thank you Rahawa Haile for “Going It Alone”! This is an article I’m sure to come back to again and again. I so appreciate how it’s shaking up and shedding light on the connection between hiking and pursuing justice.

Disrupting the Mind-Body Split

This past week I dreamed that I was standing before a group of students, guest-lecturing in a colleague’s class. In the dream, I was slurring and stumbling over words—making little to no sense. The colleague asked if I was confused, and I realized that I had a concussion. Not from any physical injury, but from the semester. The semester had given me a concussion!

I woke with a strong sense that the dream was symbolically true, metaphorically speaking to me. Because, yes: I’m not only experiencing exhaustion and emotional uprooting, but also the serious warnings about self-care that come with concussions.

Growing up, I had two competing understandings of concussions: (1) they were minor and something to be “played through” and (2) they were major and something that could result in serious injury or even death. Within the school year, I’m too often acting from this first understanding: that mental taxation and cognitive overload are things to be “played through” until summer. By the time I get to May, I’m drained—arguably experiencing burnout. So, my dream of having a concussion gets me wondering:

  • What would it mean to operate from the second understanding?
  • What would it mean to recognize the serious risks of “playing through the pain”?
  • What might be differently required of me as an educator, as someone involved in learning-and-teaching?

This dream reminds me that we need education to be about more than the mind.

Screen Shot 2017-05-20 at 10.30.01 AMCertainly, there’s a LOT of writing about the mind/body split and the need for embodied education. I’ve written about this with my colleagues Jasmine Kar Tang and Moira Ozias in the article “Body + Power + Justice: Movement-Based Workshops for Critical Tutor Education.”

To take a cue from our article, it feels especially important to center the body—daily, in and out of school, throughout the academic year, and not just in the summer:

Our bodies and the spaces we inhabit shape our identities and carry legacies of social structuring, power, oppression, marginalization, injustice—deep inequities that are very much a part of our everyday lives in writing centers and in the teaching of writing. And yet through the production of whiteness and other dominant frameworks that render the body invisible, we can become so distanced from our bodies that we fail to recognize these links. We need to reckon with this disconnect across three spheres: (1) the personal sphere (how we relate within our own bodies); (2) the relational sphere (how our bodies relate with other bodies); and (3) the systemic sphere (how our bodies together represent and relate with/in institutional structures and larger body stories). Drawing attention to the body across these three spheres helps us counter the damage done when the intellect or institution is divorced from the body or when certain bodies are made invisible in our educational spaces. (“Body + Power + Justice” 62)

I’m thinking about how we divorce the mind from the body in school, as I am gifted this metaphorical/symbolic “concussion.” Concussions are so concerning because they cause cognitive and emotional impairments in addition to physical ones. A concussion can cause not only nausea, dizziness, and other physical complaints, but also irritability, depression, and difficulty with concentration and memory. A concussion can cause confusion, amnesia, and changes to one’s personality. It can literally disrupt the ability to learn, the ability to be in school. Yet, we continue acting like the body’s sole purpose is to be a head that holds, transports, and communicates learning. This disembodiment is deeply dehumanizing.

If a concussion (or at least my dream of having a concussion) serves as a warning, then it’s asking me to attend to my body, embodied knowledge, and the dangers of disembodiment.

If staying in one’s head can “cause a concussion” (which feels symbolically true), then I must attend to the whole body, the heart, head, and hands.

If I am to listen to my body’s wisdom (as gifted through the dream), then I must commit again to the healing process I’m journeying through with this blog. Doing so asks me to look at my own complicity, for it’s telling that the teacher is concussed. Doing so asks me to notice the relationship between wearing down the mind-and-body and wearing down one’s soul. Doing so asks me to become more aligned with commitments than conditioning. Doing so asks for a serious disruption of the mind/body split.

Why I’m Vegan: Doing Something Small and Sustained

Being vegan, for me, is about imperfectly striving for justice.

Rather than all-or-nothing thinking, it’s small-but-sustained action.

It’s not a finished state, but about always being in the middle (and mess and muck) of it all.

It’s constant, everyday, and enduring—something that keeps me focused daily on the long haul toward justice.

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Of the many reasons why I’m vegan, an important one is the ritual of doing something every day (actually many times throughout the day—whenever I eat) that keeps me re-articulating my commitments and re-committing to justice.

As an always/ever-recovering perfectionist, I understand the thinking that critiques this imperfect action, for it will always inevitably fall short. I also understand the experience of being overwhelmed by the weight of so much to do when there’s so much hurt in the world. When feeling overwhelmed, anything more than critique can feel like too much.

Yet, I also know that all-or-nothing thinking leads to weariness (from shouldering such weight). And weightier projects (whether writing books, changing relations, or working to redress wrongs) are done bit by bit. Shifts are made through doing something small that’s sustained over time.

Important thinking about social change emphasizes the significance of small actions over time. Take these few examples (from different activist traditions and with different sorts of misattribution):

  • “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”—Margaret Mead
  • “You don’t have to see the whole staircase; just take the first step.”— Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • “The people are the only ones capable of transforming society.”—Rigoberta Menchu
  • “We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.”—Mahatma Gandhi
  • “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”—Mother Teresa

These memorable quotes promote a sense that doing something (however imperfectly, however small) is better than waiting for change, a sentiment that educator Paulo Freire similarly expressed in dialogue with Myles Horton:

“I am convinced that in order for us to create something, we need to start creating. We cannot wait to create tomorrow, but we have to start creating today.”—We Make the Road by Walking (56)

we make the road

Truly, we make the road by walking. And as a hiker, I know that walking involves stumbles, falls, cuts, and scrapes—and also some of the most amazing experiences, views, interactions, and learning along the way. Walking builds strength and endurance, so the simple act of walking makes what was previously unimaginable (like climbing mountains or going long distances) possible.

This metaphor of walking guides me as I practice being vegan. And I do see it as a practice with everyday actions, reminders, rituals, questions, and curiosity.

So, why am I vegan? It’s not only for the cookie dough, but also for the constant striving and small-but-sustained action. It’s for doing something to enact a more just world, even if that something is imperfect.


This post is written by
Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. Feel free to check out other posts in the series “why I’m vegan” or vegan + gluten-free recipes. Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Exploring Exhaustion and Energy Loss

I’ve been particularly exhausted, as is so often the case at the end of each school year. I often feel that the further I get into spring semester, the more I become tired, grumpy, and on edge. It’s as though my brain becomes over-worked, my body under-utilized, and my balance thrown totally off.

This year I’ve also been experiencing exhaustion as more than regular semester stress, and I feel certain it’s due to the routinization of daily assaults on personhood. It’s now routine to open social media and see violence, hate speech, and seemingly benign but still-hurtful comments indicating that the world isn’t burning up. Yet, my internal compass (and external thermostat) indicate that the world is on fire.

 Just a few examples: This week I confront anew campus shootings and stabbings across the United States—direct, physical violence resulting in serious injury and death. These occur within campus rape culture in which students are writing to process sexual assault. Even as I hold final class sessions, I’m aware that others aren’t able to—blocked by the threats of physical harm and literal fear of assembling as a group. And my final classes take place against the backdrop of fifteen-year-old Jordan Edward killed by police this week and Congress now acting to further restrict access to healthcare. Assaults on personhood feel more immediate than ever.

I feel very much like I did in November when about all I could write for my first blog post was “Arrrrrggggghhhhh!!!!!”

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Today, alongside this clear embodied anger, I feel a new weariness, an exhaustion that’s clouding my head. So, I want to listen more carefully and kindly to my heart, knowing it can help me figure out how to use my hands.

As a way to listen to my heart, body, and soul, I’ve been tracking this week where I’m losing energy. Whenever I notice a new heaviness or tiredness, I’m asking with curiosity:

What might be the source of this energy loss?

Using the RAIN meditation practice I learned through mindfulness-based stress reduction classes, I’m working to recognize and allow feelings of exhaustion in order to investigate them through a gentle non-judging stance.

As a contemplative practice, RAIN suggests four actions or steps that help with exploring, questioning, and (un)learning the conditions of everyday life. These four steps are:

  • R—recognizing experiences, thoughts, feelings, conditions, etc.
  • A—allowing the states of being, no matter how bad, embarrassing, or privileged.
  • I—investigating deeply to gain new or additional understanding.
  • N—non-judging or non-identifying to avoid attachment with the experience, emotion, and even understandings (toward embracing impermanence).

While there is an implied sequence or order, RAIN can be practiced again and again, so that later steps like investigating and non-judging create space for new recognizing and allowing.

Tracking energy loss this week, I’ve come to some new awareness and, more importantly, new lovingkindness toward myself. Rather than being down or disappointed that I’m exhausted, I’m working to let this experience be. Exhaustion can characterize this time in my life, and it can lead to new discoveries, possibilities, and even activism.

Here’s a view into my current work with RAIN:

  • Recognition: I am frequently, daily experiencing a sense of tiredness, depleted energy, and even exhaustion. Though I’m also noticing occasions of energetic gain, excitement, and joy, my overall energy reserves are running low.
  • Allowing: Rather than ignoring, silencing, or pushing down these tired feelings, I honor them. I allow myself to name that I’m running on fumes. Through allowing this experience, I also receive what information it delivers—like reminders to take care of myself lovingly and to dedicate even more time to rest and refuel.
  • Investigation: As I investigate energy loss, I’m also noticing how much my emotions and overall energy are linked to interactions. I’m losing energy, for example, (1) when focusing on others’ reactions instead of my own actions, (2) when holding back or perceiving that others are holding back in conversation, and (3) when not knowing what’s mine versus what’s someone else’s. I’m working to name these and other sorts of energy loss. In doing so, I hope to find patterns and themes as I record each instance. Like the qualitative research I conduct and teach in school, this process invites me into the role of investigator. And as an investigator, I assume a more active and action-oriented stance toward understanding my exhaustion.
  • Non-judgement: With curiosity instead of judgement, I notice guilt and shame as they arise around exhaustion, noting underlying expectations that I should be able to catch and prevent burnout before it occurs. The more that I shift gently toward non-judgement and non-identification, the more I feel and experience exhaustion without being exhausted.  I can recognize, allow, and investigate this state without defining myself according to it. It simply is part of my life right now.

Exhaustion and energy loss are friends right now, friends who are helping me pay better attention to my emotions, to my heart. And my heart is heavy with grief, anger, and frustration. It’s no wonder that I’m feeling tired when carrying this extra weight.

Still, I believe in both/and: I can be both getting depleted from energy loss and learning to better shore up my energy reserves. I can be both disheartened by the assaults on personhood and wholeheartedly encouraged by people articulating and acting on commitments to justice. I can both launch a sharp critique of current injustices and soften into the introspective practice of RAIN. I can track both energy loss and energy gain.

To this last both/and—exploring energy loss alongside gain—I’ll share Neil Gaiman’s 2012 commencement address, “Make Good Art” (an address I love sharing at this time of year, a time of exhaustion and also euphoria on college campuses):

Whenever I’m down, whenever I’m experiencing energy loss, I like to re-watch Gaiman’s address and his reminder to make good art:

Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do.

Make good art.

I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Somebody on the Internet thinks what you do is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before? Make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, and eventually time will take the sting away, but that doesn’t matter. Do what only you do best. Make good art.

So, here I am attempting to “make good art,” identifying as an artist, and following Toni Morrison’s call to “go to work.”

I am tired. I am experiencing energy loss. I am also learning and unlearning what’s causing this loss. And I’m hopeful that more contemplative, introspective practices like RAIN can bring us all home to ourselves and to more humanizing and harmonizing orientations.

Why I’m Vegan: Cookie Dough!

To start a series of posts on why I’m vegan—answering this question that I’m so frequently asked—I’ll begin with perhaps the silliest answer: cookie dough!

Since I was little, I’ve loved cookie dough. I’ve also been cautioned not to eat it: “Beth, stop! You could get sick.” The risk of salmonella from uncooked eggs loomed in the air as I stole spoonfuls of raw dough. Though I never got sick, the fear certainly hampered my enjoyment.

Since I’ve been vegan, however, I’ve realized that I can eat cookie dough. As much as I like. And without fear of illness. (Well, except for self-inflicted illness from sugar overload, as sugar is an ongoing issue for me and likely why I think of “cookie dough” as an immediate BONUS for being vegan.)

I keep handy this explanatory equation: vegan = cookie dough!

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I start with this simple and silly answer because it helps me respond to another frequent question I’m asked: “How do you eat only plants? I could never give up cheese or _____ (fill in the blank).” What if we could focus on what we get or gain instead of what we give up when going vegan?

There’s a LOT to unpack about being vegan, including how the vegan movement has deeply entrenched racism, colonialism, and other forms of oppression, even while working to address speciesism and environmental justice. There’s a LOT to unpack about how food factors into our everyday lives and is, therefore, central to the everyday-ness of attempting to live for justice. There’s a LOT to unpack about how food choices bring me back to myself and my commitments. There’s a LOT motivating a series of posts titled “Why I’m Vegan,” each unpacking a little more.

For now, let me begin here—with the joyful answer of cookie dough. An answer that my inner child enjoys. An answer that my exhausted, end-of-the-semester, sugar-craving self finds delicious. An answer that asks us all to imagine what can be gained (and not given up) through aligning with justice.


This post is written by
Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. Feel free to check out other posts in the series “why I’m vegan” or vegan + gluten-free recipes. Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Gratitude for/on Earth Day

Earth Day snuck up on me this year.

Though I wasn’t thinking about this annual event, I was in the midst of writing blog posts about why I’m vegan, how hiking supports my commitment to justice, and why there’s cause to be alarmed with the world right now. All of these posts communicate the importance of environmental justice and connections between how we treat the earth and how we treat each other. In other words, environmental justice is also about racial justice, indigenous rights, the poor people’s campaign, and related movements for justice.

So, I’d like to honor Earth Day, its efforts to make visible a larger grassroots environmental movement, its too-often unacknowledged roots in indigenous epistemology, and its call for a different relationship with “the earth”—with land, water, animals, and more.

Truly, there’s so much work to do, and I appreciate the people who marched for science today. Today I needed to take a break, to spend time recharging outdoors, and to experience the healing power of nature (or ecotherapy).

As a way to honor this day—Earth Day—I’ll share a few statements of gratitude:

For national and state parks that need public support, funding, and protection to guard against escalating attacks (like Kohler-Andrae in Wisconsin), I am grateful.

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For the love of being vegan and for more readily-available vegan options (like this avocado reuben sandwich from Urban Beets in Milwaukee), I am grateful.

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For the privilege to experience healing through play, I am grateful.

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For seeing two muskrats, who give me courage to swim in emotionally murky waters (to dive deeper into introspective self-work), I am grateful.

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For befriending a cat who reminded me of my childhood companion Fuzzy Fat (and being guided by this cat to remember formative emotional experiences), I am grateful.2017-04-22 20.15.12

For the ability to write, reflect, and share this gratitude, I am grateful.

I’d love to hear how YOU are honoring the earth, your earthly self, and Earth Day. Stories to share? Calls to action? Photos from marches? Hope from the light of spring?

Wrestling with Whether to Wear Pantyhose

I’m attending a friend’s wedding this weekend, and I wish I could say that I’m experiencing the joy, gratitude, and love associated with celebration. Instead, I’ve been experiencing worry, shame, anger, and grief—so many unresolved emotions and resurfacing memories associated with the trauma of sexism.

I’m wrestling with a very real and raw question: Do I wear pantyhose to my friend’s wedding?

I’m wrestling with the pit in my stomach that relates not just to clothing, but to weddings as rituals of heteronormativity and codified expectations related to gender, race, class, religion, ability, and other intersectional identities. I’m wrestling with “beauty within and without,” as bell hooks names this issue in Feminism Is for Everybody. I’m wrestling with the question of what it means to live for justice when wanting to support my friend, yet finding my stomach churning.

What Should I Wear to the Wedding?

2017-04-15 10.57.27For the past week—since my mom asked simply, “What are you wearing to the wedding?”—I’ve had an embodied meltdown-into-outburst. At first I thought I’d wear a suit. Then I realized that I like hiding inside suits because they feel protective—like shields. I had to ask myself if I want to act as though I’m under attack, as though I’m in need of protection.

These questions led me to the Goodwill, where I found a green dress, and I loved the green color because it represents the fourth chakra and heart opening. Love: perfect for a wedding and perfect for protection with shielding.

2017-04-15 10.53.51But when I shared the dress with my mom and best friend, they both asked about accessories. What?!? I was willing to wear a dress, and I thought I was making an effort to be vulnerable, to embrace the feminine. But they were right: I would need to have shoes, a wrap, and … pantyhose?

So, I departed from my usual walk home from school and stopped into a department store, where I bought a pair of pantyhose. And here’s where I’m stuck in the stickiness, in the mess of seemingly simple, benign questions:

  • What do I wear to my friend’s wedding (weddings being particularly tough for me)?
  • Do I wear a suit, which feels protective and, for a woman, more subversive (ironic because suits mark status and the status quo)?
  • Or do I wear a dress (more aligned with the request for “cocktail attire,” which is tripping me up because I don’t want to play into feminine norms and norming)?
  • If I wear a dress, do I wear pantyhose (an object that I trace to my earliest memories of feeling constrained within a gendered and female body)?
  • Is there a way to wear pantyhose and still feel free (to redefine what’s for me an object of patriarchal containment and control of my body)?
  • Is this the occasion for shaking up/off my history with pantyhose?

Looking Back to Look Forward: Early Associations of Pantyhose with Constraint

I’ve written before about the lies of internalized sexism, and I’m aware that my earliest memories involve me learning what it means to be socialized into and gendered as a girl/woman. And a particular sort of girl/woman—within the United States, within white supremacy, within Protestant Christianity, within class and other privileges, and within the “mythical norm.”

These early memories include two distinct occasions of getting dressed up for “big events”: a wedding and an easter morning. This weekend now brings these events together—literally, a wedding on Saturday and easter on Sunday—helping me to re-read their meaning side-by-side.

I can’t say which occasion happened first in childhood, but I remember being at a big wedding and feeling both thrilled and overwhelmed by the many people around me. I was not only dressed up, but “dolled up,” and wanted nothing more than to be free of both the uncomfortable clothing and articulations of how “cute” I was. I remember taking off shoes, then hair ribbons, and then tights (childhood equivalent of “hose” or “pantyhose”). And I remember that the potential joy of running freely within a large party space was mitigated and matched only by the constraint of those tights. They seemed the physical embodiment of being “lady-like.” And I wanted nothing to do with that constraint.

Also in childhood (when I was only 3 or 4 years old), I went tumbling down hallway stairs on an easter morning. I had a new dress with new hair bows, new tights, and new shoes. I was excited and moving quickly, which didn’t match the slick underside of new shoes. When I fell down the stairs, I caught the hose, tearing holes in both knees. What I held onto from this early-and-still-vague memory was a sense that dressing up is dangerous, uncomfortable, and likely to result in scraped knees.

Both memories resurfaced this week when talking with a friend who said (or more likely didn’t say, but I heard): “Beth, it’s only pantyhose.”

I could feel heat rush through my body, because pantyhose aren’t ONLY pantyhose for me. They represent “the interest of a white supremacist capitalist patriarchal fashion and cosmetic industry to re-glamorize sexist-defined notions of beauty” (hooks 34). And attending a wedding, I’m positioned to embody this industry whether or not I wear pantyhose. Wearing them means identifying with the industry’s notion of beauty. Not wearing them means identifying against it and as a feminist who’s “big, hypermasculine, and just plain old ugly” (hooks 32). Nothing about this double-bind is new; it’s just showing up newly for me through this decision and around this event. How do I respect my values without making myself an issue or distraction for the friend who’s getting married?

“I’m Never Wearing Pantyhose Again”

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As soon as I was old enough to make clothing decisions, I let go of hose and other things I found uncomfortable—all of which linked physical discomfort and femininity. Objects like barrettes, headbands, and ponytail holders were gone. Tights, leggings, and pantyhose: gone.

I made these decisions young enough that I resisted make-up before I had time to learn about it. In high school, I had a few pairs of shoes with slight heels, but those were gone by college. Only cloth (no clasp) bras would do (and bras are still itchy and dis-preferred). I stopped shaving years ago. I buy pants with pockets large enough for my phone and don’t own a purse. All of these decisions are connected to an assertion I made as a young adult: “I’m never wearing pantyhose again.”

Nevers are dangerous, as I’ve now purchased a pair, whether I wear them or not. And this decision—like all of these detailed here—feels incredibly personal and political. Writing about these decisions feels important and yet far-too-intimate. I imagine that each can easily lead to judgment because, truly, we all (are taught to) judge a women’s worth—and virtue and respectability—based on such embodied decisions, performances, and actions.

To illustrate, when I google “cocktail attire” (the instructions on my wedding invitation), here’s what I find:

DRESS CODE: COCKTAIL
For guys, this dress code calls for a dark suit with a tie. For women, short dresses that are party-ready. When in doubt, wear a little black dress and dress it up with fun jewelry—or, if you’d rather wear color, opt for something bright and feminine.
Read more: http://stylecaster.com/dress-code/#ixzz4eFnznDU8

I’m so upset with the gender binary. I’m so upset with the short, less-than-one-line instruction for “guys,” alongside several lines on how to be “party-ready,” “fun,” “bright,” and “feminine” for women. And googling “pantyhose,” I’m literally blown back remembering that they are still required in some workplaces and praised for “covering blemishes.” It hurts to think how much time goes into both uncovering and covering up women’s bodies. Why not rewrite-rethink-reclaim the body and its blemishes as beautiful?

Judgments follow codes, and I think it’s having a clear code—“cocktail attire”—that’s kicked up this trouble for me. For as much as we might credit second and third wave feminism with fostering “greater care, ease, and respect for women’s bodies” (hooks 33), the care, ease, and respect are still far from enough. The rhetoric of “options” falls short. And even within the double-bind I face, I still have the privilege of making choices. For many, many, many women, marginalization, oppression, and dehumanization prevent even that.

So, Will I Wear Pantyhose?

hooksIf this question were purely procedural, the answer might be simple. Yet, the question is deeply symbolic and embodied for me. As a girl, I learned to associate sexism with pantyhose, and the symbol today makes me feel both anger (at the injustice) and shame (at my imperfect body and at having internalized the messages I am so adamantly against). In Feminism Is for Everybody, hooks explains, “Girls today are just as self-hating when it comes to their bodies as their pre-feminist counterparts were” (35). It’s clear to me, therefore, that I need to make the decision with both the awareness of self-hate and the practice of self-love.

My plan is to see how I’m feeling just before the wedding. I’ll hold my hands over my heart and belly and imagine each clothing option. I’ll wear the option with the deepest, fullest breath, using the breath to honor my body’s wisdom and to find agency within constraint. If I choose to wear a dress, I can take off or put on pantyhose during the event. Instead of straight-up following the dress code, I’ll follow my body’s requests, desires, and communication.

Perhaps in looking for freedom and flexibility, I find a feminist orientation. For my body’s wisdom, I am grateful. For bell hooks (as a guide and companion), I am grateful. For the divine timing of re-reading Feminism Is for Everybody, I am grateful. For friends who consider these questions with me, I am grateful. For remembering and rethinking the past, I am grateful. For the possibilities of healing personal and political hurt, I am grateful. For processing the wedding through writing, I am grateful. For the reorientation toward gratitude, yes: I am grateful.