Why I’m Vegan: Ecofeminism

I’ve been holding myself up, preventing myself from writing about why I’m vegan and how central food is to my understanding of justice. I’ve been holding myself up because this writing feels especially important, like it needs to be good, and, therefore, is triggering my need to counter perfectionism.

I’ve also been holding myself up because it’s so damn hard to write about being vegan without re-inscribing notions of whiteness and privilege. Especially from my positionality as a privileged white woman. For example, check out the commentary “Here’s Why Black People Don’t Go Vegan” or the edited collection Sistah Vegan.

I’ve been holding myself up, too, because I want to amplify vegan voices of color and question how to put my voice in the mix. Vegans of color are explaining how meat is linked to white supremacy and an intersectional web of oppression. I’ve mentioned before the blogs Black Vegans Rock and The Sistah Vegan Project. If I could accomplish nothing else, I’d hope to send readers to these and other great resources.

Against this backdrop, I still want/need to explain why I’m vegan, and a sense of urgency is becoming clear. In just one week, I’ve had three different people ask me the familiar question: “Why are you vegan?” I’ve been invited to a vegan potluck, asked to provide vegan snacks for a campus event, and asked to support a student’s vegan activism. It’s clear I need to claim and explain why veganism means so much to me.

My first two answers to why I’m vegan—cookie dough and doing something small and sustained—are pieces of the larger puzzle. For this post, I’ll attempt to share a more philosophical piece: ecofeminism.

So, Why Am I Vegan?

Short answers include the following:

  • Veganism presents daily reminders for me to acknowledge and to counter violence in all its manifestations. It asks me to look at myself, my positioning, and how I’m relating (or not) with others.
  • Structures of oppression build on each other, and so I want to break down speciesism alongside and as part of racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, ableism, ageism, sizeism, etc.
  • I want to affirm rights, including human rights, civil rights, linguistic and epistemic rights, and—yes, animal rights.
  • I value “all my relations,” including with animals and the earth, and I continue to learn the wisdom of interconnectedness through Malea Powell’s and others’ scholarship on indigenous epistemologies and relational worldviews.

These and other answers have emerged over decades of thinking about and reframing many relationships, including with what I eat and why. I’ve been vegan for more than three years, since December 2013. Before that, I’d been vegetarian since 2000. Though the transition from vegetarian to vegan was surprisingly smooth, I still end up at restaurants and in gatherings where options are scarce and where people look at me with tilted heads in total disbelief.

I’m frequently asked the question at the center of this series: “Why are you vegan?”

Related questions include:

  • Was is hard to give up ______ (fill in a popular food)?
  • How do you get enough ______ (fill in any vitamin, mineral, or protein)?
  • Aren’t you still doing harm by eating ______ (e.g., quinoa, grapes, almond milk)?
  • Aren’t you still killing plants?

As a recovering perfectionist, I recognize in these questions all-or-nothing thinking—or the idea that only a perfect/complete solution is a solution worth seeking.

In contrast, I believe we must invest in small and sustained actions—in whatever form they might take and however they might look.

Clearly, I was vegetarian long before vegan, and my reasons for being vegetarian are largely the same for being vegan. This is why I start with my “origin story” of learning about and wanting to strive toward ecofeminism.

Ecofeminism

Perhaps the trickiest and yet most true answer to why I’m vegan is that I believe in ecofeminism, which is a feminist belief in the equity and rights of all beings. I believe in countering all instances of exploitation, oppression, and injustice. And in affirming all forms of justice, including social, racial, gender, and economic justice. Relatedly, I see instances of injustice/justice as intimately woven together. To begin unweaving the tapestry, I take a thread that’s possible to pull. This thread is my relationship with food.

In one of my first women’s studies courses, I remember studying a pyramid like this one:

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This hierarchical structure places god over men, men over women, women over children, children over animals, and animals over the earth. It represents domination and helps with visualizing the interconnected nature of –isms. The closer to the god, the more godly, good, worthy, and worthwhile. The further from god, the more exploited, demeaned, undermined, and devalued.

The goal of ecofeminism, then, is flattening hierarchies. This means seeing all beings—god, men, women, children, animals, and the earth—as worthy and worthwhile, as all having innate value and rights. This means not prioritizing men over women or humans over animals, but asking tough and sticky ethical questions that imagine relations of equity and justice.

It was studying this pyramid and imagining flattened, interconnected relations that led me to become vegetarian while still in college. From this starting point, I have continued to learn, and the more I learn, the more I see the need for everyday practices—like eating vegan—that lead to more questioning, more learning, and more desire to make change.

Dismantling systems of oppression involves, I believe, dismantling the hierarchies that are both internalized and normalized. And dismantling this pyramid is about not only countering sexism, ageism, and speciesism, but also countering white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, capitalism, and other forms of oppression. This is similarly what intersectional veganism seeks to address.

Ecofeminism is why I embrace animal rights, while emphasizing and affirming human rights. People have historically been dehumanized by being associated with animals (e.g., “dogs” or “monkeys”). As a strategy to deny human, civil, linguistic, and other rights, the association of humans with animals assumes that animals are lesser-than and unworthy of having rights. If we affirm animals as beings who also have rights, then we can disrupt dehumanization and the related stripping of human rights. Black vegan feminist theorist Aph Ko has an AWESOME video about how animal oppression relates to human oppression.

There’s a LOT more I want to write about why I’m vegan, which is why this is just one post in an ongoing series. What I can say simply is that my commitments to feminism and racial justice relate to environmental justice and veganism. So, one answer—and the one that defines my origin story and shares my philosophy—is ecofeminism. I’m certainly on a path to live and learn more, and I look forward to following where this philosophy might lead.

Three Chocolate Smoothies for Fueling the Road Ahead

This week’s post picks up on threads about changing my relationship with sugar, rethinking self-care, engaging in everyday resistance, and refueling for continued action.

Over the past few months, as I dealt with energy loss and the mind-body split, I also found myself eating so much sugar—more sugar than even is typical for me. Now, as I move into summer and invest in resting, recovering, and restoring for what’s ahead, I’m also practicing a deeper self-love through a diet with lots of greens. (Green brings heart-centered energy that my body seems to be craving to detox, to feel, and to follow my heart.)

For me, summer is typically a time for fresh fruits and vegetables, for salads and raw foods, and for smoothies. The warm weather allows my body to be happy with uncooked foods. (In contrast, I seek everything HOT during the cold Wisconsin winter.)

we make the roadSummer is also a time when I think-while-walking—walking that allows me to imagine the world significantly changed, to tread on different paths, and to make the road by walking. All this walking needs fuel.

So, I share here three recipes for chocolate smoothies (all vegan + gluten-free).

These are three of my favorite smoothies, three I come back to again and again because they can be easily adapted with what’s on hand, resulting in many variations on the theme. These smoothies also provide sweetness without sugar, deliver greens with every sip, and help me achieve a nutritionally whole meal. (For more on smoothie variations, check out Carly Graftaas’s “Smoothie Formula.”)

For each, I’ll list the basic ingredients. I use a Vitamix (thanks, Mom, for this high-powered blender!) that will liquefy most anything, including nuts and seeds. For less powerful blenders, some ingredients may need to be ground before blending.

Smoothie #1: Chocolate Shake

  • Frozen banana. I peel bananas and break them into 3 pieces when freezing. I typically add a full banana (or 3 pieces) to most smoothies, though I add more when craving a sweeter smoothie.
  • Almonds. The more almonds, the nuttier the smoothie. I add between 10 and 25.
  • Spinach. A handful (or about a cup of spinach) doesn’t impact the flavor, but does add good stuff. My dad couldn’t believe there was spinach in this smoothie; he was sure it was just a chocolate shake.
  • Plant-based milk. 2 cups or more, depending on how chunky or smooth you’d like the smoothie. I often add 3-4 cups of unsweetened almond milk to make a larger amount that I then drink throughout the day.
  • Cacao. 1 heaping tablespoon. I like raw cacao, but also use unsweetened cocoa.
  • Dates. Optional! In this photo, I’m adding 2 dates because I want sweetness, but it’s fine to add 1 date, half a date, or no dates at all. Many possibilities.
  • Vanilla. Optional! ~ 1 teaspoon to sweeten.
  • Stevia. Optional! Up to 30 drops—again, to sweeten … A note about stevia: I like liquid stevia because it’s just stevia extract and alcohol. Many of the powders have artificial preservatives.
  • Other Protein Add-ins. I sometimes add hemp hearts, pumpkin seeds, or more spinach to this smoothie. You could also try adding protein powders (I’ve just found that processed powders upset my stomach, which is why I stick with nuts and seeds).

Smoothie #2: Chocolate Cherry

This smoothie is the same idea as above, combining:

  • Banana. ~ 1 fresh or frozen banana.
  • Frozen cherries. ~ 1 cup.
  • Cacao. ~ 1 tablespoon.
  • Plant-Based Milk. ~ 3 cups or more of unsweetened almond or other “milk.”
  • Optional Add-ins. Spinach, kale, hemp hearts, nuts, seeds, etc.

Because the cherries add so much sweetness, I don’t add any dates, vanilla, or stevia.

Smoothie #3: Chocolate Orange and Other Twists of the Theme

Continuing with the theme, add banana and cacao with other fruits or veggies:

  • Banana. ~ 1 fresh or frozen banana.
  • Orange. ~ 1 medium or large orange.
  • Cacao. ~ 1 tablespoon.
  • Plant-Based Milk. ~ 3 cups or more of unsweetened coconut or other “milk.”
  • Optional Add-ins. Though it sounds strange, I love adding fresh mint for an orange-mint-chocolate combination. Alternatively, I sometimes add spinach or hemp hearts.

Instead of oranges, I also use berries, peaches, or even carrots (whatever the summer brings).

Why Smoothies?

  • I love smoothies because they are so adaptable and forgiving. Rarely are precise measurements ever needed.
  • The combination of ingredients helps me satisfy sweet cravings, while giving me sustenance to carry me throughout the day.
  • There’s little mental energy or time involved in their creation, freeing up head-space and hands-space for other meaningful work (e.g., self-care, writing, and activism).
  • Like cookie dough, smoothies represent what can be gained by eating vegan—delicious and life-giving foods that aren’t about limiting but expanding options.

Choosing to Tread Another Path

I’ve been spending a lot of time recently on paths. Established hiking trails and sidewalks, escalators and even rock crawls marked by arrows.

And I’ve been especially appreciative for the healing that comes from this time walking—not only hiking, but standing, marching, experiencing the mobility associated with movement, strengthening and using my body, contemplating my embodied existence, and examining the various privileges and positionings associated with this embodiment.

While walking these varied paths, I’ve also been thinking about how much needs to change about our current world. Making change isn’t as simple as swapping out elected officials or taking part in the political process. Rather, I think we’re at a critical point of needing to re-rethink everyday and taken-for-granted ways of being. To de-routinize the routine. To let go of what’s become normalized.

Because oppression is everyday. Marginalization is routine. Violence is normalized.

Choosing Alternate Paths

Thinking about paths—and the ways that we’re conditioned to follow established ones—I’m wondering, as Sara Ahmed does, whether we might need to stop treading on familiar paths and instead create some new ones. Ahmed observes the possibility that when we abandon well-trodden paths, their lines fade:

“We can see the path as a trace of past journeys. The path is made out of footprints—traces of feet that ‘tread’ and that in ‘treading’ create a line on the ground. When people stop treading the path may disappear. And when we see the line of the path before us, we tend to walk upon it, as a path ‘clears’ the way. So we walk on the path as it is before us, but it is only before us as an effect of being walked upon … Lines are both created by being followed and are followed by being created.” (Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology, p. 16)

There are important functions to paths, such as making the world easier to navigate. Yet, “going along with” the established path is the sort of “going along with” that prevents questioning, much less interruption, of the everyday route and routine. And questioning seems important to noticing, imagining, rethinking, and healing. When I walk down a different sidewalk, I certainly see different bits of the world. How might I see the world differently—and change it—just by choosing alternate paths?

Walking Backward on Moving Walkways

Paths offer a useful way to imagine resistance. Beverly Tatum describes systemic racism as the airport’s moving walkway, using the metaphor to help us see the different consequences of actively pursuing/doing harm, remaining still/complacent within an existing system, and intentionally taking action (like turning around and walking backward) to resist:

“I sometimes visualize the ongoing cycle of racism as a moving walkway at the airport. Active racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt. The person engaged in active racist behavior has identified with the ideology of White supremacy and is moving with it. Passive racist behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway. No overt effort is being made, but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking. Some of the bystanders may feel the motion of the conveyor belt, see the active racists ahead of them, and choose to turn around, unwilling to go in the same destination as the White supremacists. But unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt—unless they are actively antiracist—they will find themselves carried along with the others.” (Beverly Daniel Tatum, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? and Other Conversations About Race, p. 11-12)

Like following the established path, standing still on the moving walkway perpetuates systemic oppression that is already part of everyday life. Such metaphors help us think about how everyday and familiar actions—like walking—can do harm, even when the intention isn’t to harm. And this distinction between intention and outcome is important for understanding how we all do harm. Microaggressions happen many times throughout the day, often without the intention to harm, but are harmful nonetheless.

From my recent experiences hiking, I think about how trails cause erosion. When the land becomes too hurt, signs are put up asking hikers to stay off fragile areas and to use bypass routes toward helping with restoration. Like recognizing that erosion comes from simply walking on established trails, I hope to explain that harm can be done by simply “going along with” what’s familiar, what’s already established, what’s already moving forward.

Certainly, walking off trail or turning around to walk against the moving walkway requires many kinds of strength. And I believe the emotional strength for de-routinization and de-normalization requires courage, self-love, and willingness to see one’s self doing harm. Rather than denying that my hiking causes damage to the earth, I recognize that I contribute to erosion, and I try to figure out how to hike with lower impact. Similarly, in recognizing my own contribution to systemic –isms (racism, sexism, classism, etc.), I commit to ongoing and necessary steps.

Together, may we let go of the established paths and work to build new, more equitable, more just walkways. In other words, may we choose to tread another path.

 

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.

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.