A Letter to My Daughter on November 9, 2016

November 9, 2016

My dearest Eleanor,

It is a month before your second birthday, and you are sleeping in your crib. You don’t know this, but your dad and I have been awake pretty much all night (and for once, not because of you!). We have been awake, watching the election results come in for the 2016 Presidential Election. And it’s not good, baby. It’s really really bad. Donald Trump has been declared our next president. You’ll read all about this in your history classes, how Trump has vowed to hurt many of the people we love: our undocumented friends, our Muslim friends, our LGBT/queer family and friends, and more. He mocked people with disabilities and bragged about sexually assaulting women. And then he won.

People wanted to say that Trump represents the lowest common denominator of our country, a minority of uneducated, ignorant, and vengeful poor whites. But today we learned that wasn’t the case: Trump won among college-educated whites. In other words, people who had the education and knowledge to understand what Trump said and proposed—many of those people voted for him.

I don’t have the emotional energy to explain white privilege or systematic racism to a toddler this morning, but I need to tell you this: the majority of white women voted for Trump. That means that most white women chose to align themselves with the most powerful (and damaging) force: white supremacy. When you are older, you will have the same choice. And when that choice presents itself to you, I hope that we’ve taught you that your allegiance isn’t to whiteness but to your community. So think of mommy’s undocumented friend with the sweet baby boy, your brown cousins (one of whom is also LGBT), the two four-year-old twins next door who you adore (“hi boys!” you always shout eagerly when you see them). In fact, think of all our neighbors, almost all black and Latinx, who celebrated your first birthday with us. When you’re older, know that our community is beautifully diverse, and for progress to be truly made, we must be committed to supporting and advocating for each and every member of our community.

I also need to tell you this: white men and women voted overwhelmingly to elect a man who is a known, self-confessed sexual predator. They knew this and voted for him anyway. This shows us how many people have accepted and even embraced sexism, the idea that women are objects for men to claim. Right now, you are on the verge of two-years-old; you very loudly state your preferences for when and how to be touched. Sometimes, your stubbornness frustrates us, especially when we are crossing a busy street or trying to take your temperature. But safety issues aside, we want you to know that we respect your boundaries. Every time you say “no!” when I ask for a kiss, I applaud your confidence and self-awareness. When you’re older, people will try to chip away at your boundaries, try to convince you that you are unreasonable for knowing and expressing how you want your body to be treated. Those people are wrong. Those people are assholes. You are the sole owner of your body, and anyone who tells you differently cannot be trusted. Trust yourself, and know that your mom and dad will always support your bodily autonomy. And we will always believe you.

Lastly, I want to acknowledge that you probably see your dad’s and my fear today. You can feel our anxiety, sense our nauseous stomach, hear our shaking voices. That fear is real. That said, when I look at you, I see hope. I see a future generation that is defined by diversity. Still— I refuse to put this all on your generation’s back. I want you to grow up and see adults working fiercely and compassionately for your future, pushing so that your air and water will be clean, you and your friends will be safe and loved, and kids like you in other countries can go to school in peace. The revolution doesn’t begin or end at the ballot box: it starts in our hearts, our families, and our communities. And your dad and I vow to do everything we can to make our world a more loving place for you and your friends.

With all my tears, my love, my heartache, and my hope,

Mommy

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A Letter to My Daughter on November 9, 2016

Toward Accessible Futures: Disability and Racial Justice Coalition-Building

Here’s a draft of my CCCC 2016 talk.

I want to begin with a problem, then tell a story, and then propose a potential step toward a solution.

Here’s the problem: as recent stories in the New York Times, Alternet, and the Washington Post show, colleges are admitting more disabled students and students of color than previous decades. [1] However, those articles also reveal that while more marginalized students are entering college, few are graduating. In a 2014 article titled “Why Are Huge Numbers of Disabled Students Dropping Out of College?,” s.e. smith reports that “today, an estimated 60% of disabled young adults make it to college after high school, yet nearly two thirds are unable to complete their degrees within six years.” A 2014 analysis by the statistical publication Five Thirty Eight reminds us that race and class are also factors in retention and graduation rates: “But the fact that racial minorities have lower graduation rates than low-income students suggests that, at a minimum, income can’t fully explain the racial gap in graduation.”

While increasing and steady numbers of students of color and students with disabilities are being “allowed” into institutions of higher education, these institutions aren’t rethinking their approach to architecture, student support, and inclusion for students. Problematically, stakeholders are discussing these access issues as separate problems: in other words, the race and disability factors in graduation rates are seen as separate problems rather than intersecting. So, what would composition studies’ advocacy look like if we tackled access issues as not related to race or disability, but in fact, as overlapping biases that require an intersectional activist approach? To imagine that conversation, I offer embodied solidarity as a potential model for composition studies’ advocacy for accessible futures for all of our students. To explain what I mean by embodied solidarity, I first illustrate the concept by looking to the histories of racial justice and disability rights coalition building and then offer a definition.

In April of 1977, hundreds of disability activists entered ten federal buildings across the country to demand that the Carter administration—specifically, the Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) agency—to sign regulations and enforce Section 504, landmark federal legislation that prohibited federal agencies from discriminating against people with disabilities; Section 504 was passed four years prior. While protestors were starved out or removed from nine of ten buildings, over a hundred protestors—mostly disabled people and caretakers—occupied the HEW building in San Francisco for twenty-four days, until the regulations were indeed signed.

An important key to the success of the 504 sit-ins was the support and involvement of both disabled and nondisabled people of color. The Black Panthers covered the protest extensively in their newspaper and made and served one hot meal every single day to the occupiers and protestors at the San Francisco HEW building. White disabled protestor Corbett O’Toole reminisces, “By far the most critical gift given us by our allies was the Black Panthers’ commitment to feed each protester in the building one hot meal every day” (qtd. in Schweik). As rhetorician Shannon Walters writes, “they [protestors and allies] took care of each other’s bodies physically, emotionally, and substantially, living in relation to each other,” and these acts of care and interdependence were key to forming identifications among disabled protestors and nondisabled allies (68).

Additionally, many of the disabled protestors themselves were people of color who centered a race analysis in their disability activist ethos. At the sit-in, protestors of color described their experiences of racism and ableism on a panel titled Minority Disabilities Panel. On that panel, Margaret Irvine described how minority disabled people are the “poorest” and “lowest” in society (qtd. In D’Lil). Joan Johnston, a black mother of a black disabled child, testified that “I am now fighting for our civil rights for the second time in my life” (qtd. In D’Lil). These testimonies modeled an intersectional approach to access: rather than seeing race and disability as completely separate or completely the same, Irvine and Johnston detailed how racism and ableism overlap in complex ways to create additional and different obstacles for disabled people of color.

Susan Schweik frames the Black Power of the 504 sit-ins[2] as a model of fluidity and embodiment in political solidarity, writing that “bodies and body politics are not clearly demarcated entities in the world but instead are ‘wounded, stumped identities, open, bewildered, and political.’” Furthermore, Walter’s concept of rhetorical touch also highlights the role of the body in identification between rhetors and audiences. She describes rhetorical touch as “a potential for identification among bodies of diverse abilities that takes place in physical, proximal, and/or emotional contact.” In my definition of embodied solidarity, I echo Schweik and Walters’s emphasis of the body in political organizing and rhetorical production. Put simply, embodied solidarity, then, is an activist method of rhetorical invention and delivery that moves bodies to perform care to and advocate for different bodies, just like the Black Panthers did for the 504 protestors. Furthermore, embodied solidarity asks activists to reflect on how our bodies are at once open, separate, and enmeshed. In this way, embodied solidarity is inherently intersectional, in both its invention and delivery: it pushes us to consider how overlapping oppressions impact different bodies, and then asks us to perform care and advocacy for bodies that are both similar and different from our own.

So what would happen if composition studies applied the same model of embodied solidarity practiced in the 504 sit-ins to the modern day inaccessibility and hostility toward disabled students and students of color at the university? For the rest of my talk, I focus on how two distinct trends within composition studies both invested in embracing non-typical language use in the classroom, language diversity and disability rhetoric, can practice embodied solidarity and move the writing classroom closer to an accessible and inclusive future.

For scholars such as Geneva Smitherman, Vershawn Young, and Victor Villanueva, embracing language diversity in the classroom is a major step writing teachers can take to support the linguistic, educational, and emotional development of our students, especially students of color. To dismantle the supremacy of Standardized English (and whiteness), and the violence it enacts upon students of color, Vershawn Young and others have called for writing teachers to embrace code-meshing, the act of merging language variations. By centering students with various home languages in the writing classroom, we can create learning spaces that welcome and encourage students of color.

Similarly, disability rhetoric scholars urge teachers to reframe the writing classroom to center non-normative bodies and minds with a similar attention to language. For example, Brenda Brueggemann and Michael Salvo write about the experiences of deaf students in the writing classroom. Both describe how a phonocentric—meaning sound-centered—approach to writing, literacy, and education marginalizes deaf students and hurts their confidence. Brueggemann and Salvo, alongside disability rhetoric scholars such as Jay Dolmage and Patricia Dunn, argue that if we prioritize disability in our teaching practice, then our teaching becomes more inclusive for all students—disabled and nondisabled.

Both language diversity and disability rhetoric circles argue that we should center non-normative approaches to language in our teaching practice, and yet, these conversations rarely converge. Separately, language diversity and disability rhetoric encourage the academy to include and even celebrate students of color and disabled students. So I wonder, could these streams be even more powerful if they practiced embodied solidarity and considered how racism and ableism work together in the classroom and the academy at large?

Scholars such as Nirmala Erevelles and Andrea Minear demonstrate how race and disability are co-constitutive, building upon each other. Blackness and brownness are pathologized, and disability is racialized. So, knowing this, what if the Committee on Disability Issues, Language Policy Committee, and diversity and disability caucuses and standing groups in CCCC worked together to address how the academy marginalizes students of color and disabled students?

Currently, CCCC has two policies confronting these issues: Students’ Right to their Own Language and the Disability Policy. In Students’ Rights, disability is only mentioned in the annotated bibliography and not the statement itself. Similarly, the Disability Policy mentions race only once alongside other identity categories, gender and class. Both policies lack embodied solidarity by neglecting to address how racism and ableism intermingle and create additional barriers for disabled students of color. Scott Wible’s work demonstrates that language policies are inherently material, as they are shaped by their material and political context and lead to material effects on our lives. Therefore, our organization’s policy statements are a potential site for practicing embodied solidarity and can push our field, teachers, and policy makers to consider how literacy instruction and the academy in general marginalize students in multiple, overlapping ways.

Such policies could open dialogues about nuanced, transformative strategies of teaching and serving our students. What if, for example, language diversity scholars also called for writing teachers to embrace stuttering, American Sign Language, and neurodiverse approaches to eye contact and gesture? And what if disability rhetoric scholars recognized the ways that writing classrooms reify white supremacy through literacy instruction and pushed for code-meshing alongside closed captioning? If we in composition studies followed the example of the 504 sit-ins and practiced embodied solidarity in our teaching, our scholarship, and in our organizational policies, I believe we could build accessible futures for students of color and disabled students—and of course, disabled students of color.

Works Cited and Referenced

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands : The New Mestiza = La Frontera. San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987. Print.

Casselman, Ben. “Race Gap Narrows in College Enrollment, But Not in Graduation.” FiveThirtyEight. 30 April 2014. Web. 27 March 2016.

Cone, Kitty. “Short History of the 504 Sit In.” Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund. 1997. Web. 27 March 2016.

D’Lil, HolLynn. Becoming Real in 24 Days: One Participant’s Story of the 1977 Section 504 Demonstrations for Disability Rights. Hallevaland Productions, 2015. Print.

Dolmage, Jay. “Mapping Composition: Inviting Disability in the Front Door.” Disability and the Teaching of Writing: A Critical Sourcebook. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin, 2008. Print.

Dunn, Patricia and Kathleen Dunn De Mers. “Reversing Notions of Disability and Accommodation: Embracing Universal Design in Writing Pedagogy and Web Space.” Kairos 7.1 (2002). Web. 27 March 2016.

Erevelles, Nirmala and Andrea Minear. “Unspeakable Offenses: Untangling Race and Disability in Discourses of Intersectionality.” Davis, Lennard J., ed. The Disability Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Guo, Jeff. “Why Poor Kids Don’t Stay in College.” Washington Post. 20 Oct. 2014. Web. 27 March 2016.

Patient No More: People with Disabilities Securing Civil Rights. Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability. Web. 27 March 2016.

Perryman-Clark, Staci, et al. Students’ Right to Their Own Language: A Critical Sourcebook. Boston, Massachusetts: Bedford / St Martin’s, 2015. Print.

Schweik, Susan. “Lomax’s Matrix: Disability, Solidarity, and the Black Power of 504.” Disability Studies Quarterly 31.1 (2011). Web. 27 March 2016.

smith, s.e. “Why Are Huge Numbers of Disabled Students Dropping out of College?” Alternet. 20 June 2014. Web. 27 March 2016.

Smitherman, Geneva. “CCCC’s Role in the Struggle for Language Rights.” College Composition and Communication 50.3 (1999): 349-76. Print.

Tough, Paul. “Who Gets to Graduate?” New York Times. 15 May 2014. Web. 27 March 2016.

Villanueva, Victor. “On the Rhetoric and Precedents of Racism.” College Composition and Communication 50.4 (1999): 645-61. Print.

Walters, Shannon. Rhetorical Touch: Disability, Identification, Haptics. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2014. Print.

Wible, Scott. Shaping Language Policy in the U.S: The Role of Composition Studies. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2013. Print.

Young, Vershawn Ashanti. Other People’s English : Code-Meshing, Code-Switching, and African American Literacy. New York: Teachers College Press/Teachers College/Columbia University, 2014. Print.

 

[1] Amy Vidali’s work on students with disabilities and the admission’s process reminds us that the admissions process is still loaded with traps and barriers for students with disabilities.

[2] The 504 sit-ins were not the only time in which the rhetorics of disability and racial justice merged. More recently, we can see efforts to mobilize disability activist groups to support BlackLivesMatter by disability activists like Lydia Brown, as well as radical coalition-building at Occupy Wall Street.

Toward Accessible Futures: Disability and Racial Justice Coalition-Building

To My Daughter: The Story of You

Dear Eleanor,

You started as a faint pink line. Forty weeks later, you arrived into the world covered in every color goo imaginable.

Two days before you were born, I woke up in the middle of the night with cramps. The pain started in my back and radiated to my belly every twenty minutes or so. By the time morning hit, I felt the cramps every fifteen minutes. I called our doula, Michelle, who confirmed that it indeed sounded like I was in early labor. Your dad emailed work and started his leave. We spent the day watching How I Met Your Mother and resting between contractions. I called my mom and dad, who were excited and anxious. Within a few hours, your grandma booked a flight out to DC from California and was on a plane.

I thought we would be in the hospital by the time your grandma arrived, but my contractions never really sped up. By the time I went to bed, they were more intense but only ten minutes apart. Your dad and I tried to sleep through the night; I was so tired that I was able to fall asleep between contractions. For the second night in a row, I slept in 10-15 minute increments.

The next morning, the contractions grew in power and strength, but the timing was still off. They would speed up to every three minutes then slow down to every fifteen minutes. Michelle arrived and massaged oil on my belly, massaged my feet, and walked me around the block over and over again. I remember one neighbor eyeing us skeptically as I leaned into Ryan on a street corner, rocking and breathing through the contraction as Michelle pushed my hips. All the walking paid off, and in the early afternoon, we finally drove to George Washington University Hospital.

The rest of the day and the night is a blur. I declined an epidural, which was always the plan. I wanted to see what my body was capable of. Since the labor seemed to be progressing quickly, everyone agreed it was a good idea. Throughout the next twelve hours, I used a variety of pain management techniques: I breathed and swayed through contractions, rested my body in the hot shower, squatted lower than I ever squatted before, listened to music, and at one point rhythmically punched either your dad or the nurse in the arm.

The pain of labor is now wrapped in fog. I can’t really remember or describe the pain, but I know I felt it. As the night progressed, I started asking about epidurals and even a caesarean delivery. But really, in the back of my head, I knew that I didn’t need them. True, I had never experienced such pain before, but I also never experienced pain with a purpose. I was able to forge through the pain knowing that it heralded the promise of your arrival. I amused the room by announcing I would get an epidural next time; everyone was shocked that even as I was trembling and sweating through the pain, I was not afraid of going through this again.

Finally, the doctor announced I was ready to push. By then, I was exhausted. The exhaustion was harder to handle than the pain, so I was eager about reaching the final stage. The doctor saw my excitement and cautioned me that pushing can last up to two or three hours. I ended up pushing for over four.

Everyone in the room told me I was strong. Here I was going on forty-eight hours without good, solid sleep, pushing with all my might. But the reality is that you were born thanks to the strength of everyone in that room. I cannot stress this enough: your birth was a group effort. I needed every arm that was in the room. Nurses Becky and Courtney held me during my toughest contractions—even though I was completely naked. Your grandma literally held my head up when I had nothing left during pushing. Michelle always had the right thing to say or the right position to try. The doctors never rushed me, never forced any intervention upon me despite the slowness of my labor.

But really, you should know what a rock your dad was for me. From the first contraction to your birth, your father instinctively knew what to do. He was playful and teasing when I needed to laugh. He was protective when I was too tired to advocate for myself. He held my leg during pushing and witnessed you emerge covered in every bodily fluid (and he was kind enough to wait a few days before confessing that I did indeed pee on him and the doctor). I leaned on your father in every way that night, and he held me up physically and emotionally.

When you finally arrived, you were immediately placed on my chest. I wish I could say that I sobbed with joy, but I was too tired and too dehydrated to produce any tears. Instead, I felt relief and warmth from your body. When I spoke, you looked directly at me with your piercing grey eyes; you already knew me. You grabbed your dad’s finger; you already knew him. Instantly, we were a family.

The author in a hospital bed holding her baby immediately after birth.

I had to stay in the pushing position for another two hours as three doctors stitched me up. Leading up to the birth, tearing was my deepest fear. But really, the tearing and stitching weren’t all that bad; the fear was worse than the tearing itself. Sure, I was uncomfortable during those two hours, but I had you to hold. I inspected your face and your hands. I immediately noticed your long fingers and proudly declared that you have your mother’s hands. After an hour, you were weighed and then quickly latched onto my breast for your first feeding. Four hours after your birth, you, me, and your dad were wheeled into the postpartum room; all of us, so tired from the two days of labor, fell quickly to sleep.

And that’s the story of how I surrendered to the pain of childbirth; of how I opened my body and you squirmed out; of how a group of strangers, friends, and family paved a path for you to come into this world; and how I fell in love with you for the first time and your father for the millionth time.

With love,

Your mother

To My Daughter: The Story of You

The Optimistic Beginning: My Goals as a PhD Student

Tomorrow, I will begin my journey as a PhD student at the University of Maryland. I’ve wanted this for so long; I knew during my senior year of undergrad that I wanted to pursue a career in academia, and I have been working towards that goal ever since: earning an MA , teaching at a community college, and, finally, moving my little family across the country. Here I am, both in disbelief that I am here and completely ready to start.

The library at the University of Maryland, aka my new home for the next several years!
The library at the University of Maryland, aka my new home for the next several years!

As this is the last night of my non-student life for many years, I wanted to think about my goals for my time as a PhD student. I’m not talking about the obvious milestones grad students have to fulfill in order to compete in the job market: presenting, publishing, professionalizing. No, I’m talking about those intangible goals, the ones that are not measured by hiring committees but by the satisfaction of spirit.

I want to be the kind of scholar who finds wisdom everywhere: in books and journals, but also in late-night conversations among best friends, in the blogs of teenage women, in the advice given by a father to his daughter, in the life stories told by a mother or a grandmother, in a protest sign held by a young man. Most texts that have inspired me to write and research are not academic writing. Rather, they are the musings, stories and confessions I hear from all corners of life. I want to remember that our culture’s values and wisdom are embedded in the stories we tell everyday.

I want to be the kind of scholar who centers her work on social change. I believe so hard in the power of writing, and I hope to harness it to not only inch towards an academic job but to also advocate for justice. In order to do so, I will have to acknowledge my privilege—race, educational status, sexual orientation. I will have to seek out the perspective of people who live in the intersections of marginalization; then, speak with them, not for them. I will stumble; I know this. But I hope to learn from my missteps and grow as a scholar and activist in the process.

I want to be the kind of scholar who devotes her energy to teaching and a transformative classroom. I want to refuse the scholar/teaching dichotomy and embrace both identities simultaneously. I taught community college for three years, and I saw how accessible higher education opens minds and doors for adults of all ages. Many of my students rose above hardship and tragedy with their own strength, the support of their community, and the skills and opportunities they carved out for themselves at MPC. In the classroom, we learned, laughed, played, wrote, read, performed, and shared; my students taught me how to create a family within the walls of a classroom, and I will carry that lesson with me wherever I teach.

I want to be the kind of scholar who is committed to her work but also to her personal life. I am only here because of the support and sacrifice of my family and my partner, and their love and enthusiasm fuels me everyday. My partner gave up everything he knew to move to Washington D.C. and support me and this crazy dream of mine. Connecting with the people I love, both here and back on the West Coast, will make me a better scholar. Their encouragement gives me focus and clarity when everything is out of whack. I am committed to being a kick ass scholar, but I am also committed to being a kick ass daughter, friend, sister, and partner.

I want to be the kind of scholar who stretches her mind and challenges herself to understand new and opposing perspectives. I want to seek out seemingly contrary ideas and find the connections. A comfort zone is meant to evolve, and I have to be ready to question my own deeply held beliefs and find truth in other (but not all) mindsets. Rigidity is not good for scholarship nor for personal growth, and I will try to resist the temptation of settling for easy answers when more nuanced and truthful explanations are out there, waiting to be understood.

These are just a few of my objectives for the next five or six years. Of course, everyone starts off optimistic. My next step is to consider and write down specific steps I can take to achieve this ideal. Then, I will have to learn self-forgiveness, because there will be days when I don’t check my privilege or I blow off a student or I snap at my partner. These things will happen because life is messy and priorities battle it out for our energy. Still, I believe in my goals. On the day that I graduate, I want to not only be proud of the Doctor of Philosophy title bestowed upon me; I want to also be proud of the work I did in the field, in the community, in the classroom, and in the home.

And you know what? Right now, at this very second, I feel like I have a fighting chance.

The Optimistic Beginning: My Goals as a PhD Student

When Beauty and the Beast and the Steubenville Case Connect: A Conversation about Consent

Last year, in a rush of nostalgia, I bought a DVD of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. As a child, I fell in love with the film, excited about Belle’s obsession with reading and acceptance of her outsider status. I was also an avid reader, and I never really understood where I fit until my junior year of high school. I saw myself in the nerdy brunette princess, so as an adult, I was thrilled to revisit her story. However, about forty five minutes into the movie, I was disgusted. I already knew that most Disney princess movies were problematic in their portrayal of women and romance, and yet, Beauty and the Beast prompted a fit of righteous rage that I didn’t fully understand until recently.

So what brought on my repulsion of Belle’s story line? In order to understand that, we have to discuss the Steubenville case. Last month, two young men in Ohio were convicted of rape. A young woman was passed out at a party, and two football players violated her body, bragged about it to friends, and posted pictures on the internet. The sentencing of these young men brought out all the rape sympathizers, with TV anchors and community members attacking the rape survivor and mourning the future of the young rapists. The story is horrifying, from the rape itself to the threats the survivor has received on social media. But the thing that scares me the most is what this news story illustrates about our society at large: we, as a culture, do not seem to have a clear understanding of what consent looks like.

We have tried for decades to define rape. But the challenge with defining rape is that it is a legal term, and so rape sympathizers often use legal definitions and standards when trying to decide whether or not someone was raped. These same people are obsessed with the “grey areas,” the cases that couldn’t be proved in a court of law: what if both people were drunk? What if the victim was drunk, consented, then changed his mind? What if? So many women I know have experienced sex in this so-called “grey area,” where they are not sure if they were raped; however, they are sure that they didn’t want to have sex, and they are also sure that the partner knew they didn’t want to have sex. If we had a solid, clear, and fair definition of consent, those so-called “grey areas” wouldn’t seem so grey. Watching the footage from the Steubenville case has shown that, in rape cases, the victim is guilty until proven innocent. In the court of popular opinion, whether or not the victim gave consent is often considered secondary to the drinking habits, clothing choices, and past sexual history of the victim.

Rape is often defined as any sexual action without express consent. It should be simple, but obviously, if people are unable to label what happened to Jane Doe in the Steubenville case as rape, society is not quite sure what consent is. If we all had a clear understanding of consent, we could help communicate to young men and women what consent actually looks like.

This brings me back to Beauty and the Beast. When watching the film for the first time fifteen years, I was horrified by relationship between Belle and the Beast. Their relationship was not based on true love, but on Stockholm Syndrome. Belle was imprisoned and intimidated. Falling in love with her captor was her only path to freedom, so how can we know if she was truly consenting to a romantic relationship with him? When survival mode kicks in, a victim will do anything to secure his or her freedom. How can anyone genuinely consent to a romantic relationship in that situation?

Belle only agreed to be Beast’s prisoner to free her father. Fear and desperation are not how a loving, respectful relationship starts.

I watched that movie as a child and saw nothing wrong with the relationship between Belle and the Beast. I idolized Belle, and thus, I idolized her abusive relationship with the Beast. I also saw nothing wrong with Prince Phillip kissing Princess Aurora while she was unconscious in Sleeping Beauty. Even though both of these women did not have the capacity to consent to any sexual or romantic advance, their stories are meant to illustrate love and romance to the next generation of both men and women.

See this? This is not consent.

Frankly, it terrifies me that we have not come to understand consent. As a society, we need to sit down and learn what consent looks and sounds like. I can tell you what it doesn’t look like: it doesn’t look like a woman passed out at a stranger’s home. It doesn’t look like a woman held captive for weeks. It doesn’t look like a woman forced into a long sleep from a magical spell. We need more stories about men and women clearly and freely expressing their sexual desires and agencies. We need to see our heroes and heroines ask for consent before touching. We need to teach our youth that talking about consent with sexual partners is not only necessary: it can be steamy and hot. It can familiar and comfortable. Our cultural myths should illustrate that talking about sex, consent, and respect before initiating a sexual encounter (which includes all physical touching) leads to safe and fulfilling sex lives. Because if we can model conversations about consent, we can build a society that supports survivors, educates both men and women to be respectful partners, and empowers individuals and partners to define their sexual desires and boundaries.

When Beauty and the Beast and the Steubenville Case Connect: A Conversation about Consent

On Love, Memory, and Loss

In 1959, William Mahoney slipped an engagement ring on the finger of Geraldine O’Connor, the daughter of a successful San Francisco mortician. Because of Geraldine’s nearsightedness, William’s romantic proposal sounded something like this: “put on your glasses.” Geraldine reported that she did just that, saw the ring, and “it’s been there every since.”

Image

Geraldine and William Mahoney are my grandparents. I’ve always loved that story; my grandpa’s straight-forward, no nonsense proposal, and the way my grandma made it sound, many years after my grandpa’s passing, like it was the most romantic moment in history.  When I found out yesterday that my grandma passed away, I forced myself to remember that story, and the many others she told me and we experienced together.

For the past several years, I watched my grandma’s mind slip quietly into the oblivion of dementia. It started when I was in college, and by the time I started grad school, she did a great job of mimicking conversational norms, but it was clear to those who knew her that she was no longer truly present. After a while, we became accustomed to grandma’s condition, numbed to the sadness of her cognitive departure. Dementia is a cruel disease, one that robs loved ones away in a slow decline, and after a while, death just seems inevitable. That is, of course, until the death itself actually occurs.

Since the news hit, I have been flooded with memories of our adventures and conversations. For the first time in years, I am remembering her as the woman who signed me up for tap lessons, took me hiking throughout the summer, bought me my first computer, and taught me how to properly eat at the dinner table. The frail body that haunted my eye lids is now replaced with the image of my grandma wearing old-fashioned glasses and long shorts, heading to the tennis court. Within the same day, I feel like I lost my grandma and got her back at the same time.

I was my grandma’s only grandchild. She showered me with affection and attention, with particular devotion to my education. She fulfilled many of the mandatory responsibilities of grandparenthood: she made cookies, we picked apples, she taught me manners, and she celebrated my triumphs. Until middle school, I spent Monday nights with my grandparents every week. Her house is my childhood home, the space where I feel most connected to my past and my family. It was where I feel home.

As I grew older, I realized she was more than just my grandma. She was a world traveler, a dog-lover, a devoted Catholic, a volunteer, a flirt, an educator, a loyal friend, a tennis player, and singer. She loved her friends, her sisters, men, and chocolate. And she loved me, so completely and fully, and her love helped to power me through my childhood and young adulthood. This is the woman I remember, the woman I will carry inside of my heart for the rest of my life. The dementia already stole years away from me and my grandma; now that she is gone, I will not let it also take away my memories of her vibrance, humor, and affection.

On Love, Memory, and Loss

But Now You’re Beautiful: My Defiance of the Weight Loss Dichotomy

“You were always pretty, but now you’re beautiful!”

An older man told me this after I lost 50 pounds in 2011. I like to think that my reply sounded something like this: “Honey, I’ve always been beautiful!” But honestly, I was too stunned to respond. I don’t mind– in fact, I love–hearing that I look great, but when I hear that I look better, I am immediately frozen with a mixture of rage and shame. Did I look that bad before I lost weight? Should I feel shameful about how my body looked last year?  Should I somehow distance myself from my old, fat self?

Within that backhanded compliment lies the false dichotomy peddled by the weight loss industry: every individual is actually two separate people, a fat person and a skinny person. We see this in those god awful before and after images in weight loss commercials. You know the ones I’m talking about: the before picture always features some woman in bike shorts that are two sizes too small and a tiny sports bra, which would make almost any woman have stomach rolls; additionally, the woman never wears any makeup, her hair is flying all over the place, and she is always frowning. Always.

This image is contrasted with the after image of a dancing woman wearing a flowing red dress, pristine hairstyle, and natural makeup. She is confident, ecstatic, and skinnier. This “after” image, we are told, is the ideal to which we should aspire. The before and after pictures are lined up side-by-side, reinforcing the notion that fat self and skinny self are different people.

But I refuse to accept this false dichotomy because I don’t want to see myself as a before or an after. I don’t want to look at pictures from early 2011 and cringe at my double-chin or flabby arms. I want to look at those pictures and love myself, because despite what the weight loss narrative has led us to believe, fat me is still me, and hating myself is unacceptable. The reality is that I don’t see those bigger years as sad, pathetic, or shameful times; I had some pretty amazing life experiences when I was well over 200 pounds. And my “before” pictures tell a different story from the dominant narrative: a story of love, adventure, and strength.

At my heaviest weight, the man I love more than anything in the entire world got down on one knee and proposed to me. Despite the myth that bigger women are chronically unloved, my now-husband declared to the world that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me.

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I love this picture because the raw happiness and excitement radiates off my smile. To this day, I believe that this is one of the most beautiful pictures of me.

Another myth is that fat people are slow and sluggish, but this next picture tells a different story.

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I am 217 pounds in this picture. I had trained with my friends for a 5k, but accidentally ended up running a full 10k. My friends, who had ran somewhere between a 5 and 10k, joined me to cross the finish line. I never thought my body was capable of running 3 miles, let alone 6.2. I ran the entire track, never stopping for water or bathroom break, amazed at how my body continued to move despite my exhaustion and lack of preparation for the event. I have since finished a half-marathon, but nothing will ever compare to the sheer awe I felt that day when crossing my first finish line surrounded by friends and pumped full of endorphins.

You see, I don’t know how any weight loss company could use the above pictures for their ads. I look blissful in the first pic, and fierce as shit in the second. These pictures do not reflect the myth that all big people are deflated, lonely, and sad. Furthermore, why would I want to separate myself from these images? When I look at these pictures, I do not see a woman who is simply pretty; rather, I see a beautiful, strong woman who is surrounded by love and friendship. I see a woman capable of pushing herself physically and mentally. Honestly, I see me.

But Now You’re Beautiful: My Defiance of the Weight Loss Dichotomy