2021 Blog Posts

Do I Have Any Right to Say I’m Black?

At the beginning of the semester, Professor Kersh received a very convoluted and emotional email from me all because of this line in Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself: “the quadroon girl is sold at the auction-stand” (Whitman stanza 15, line 16). I had never heard or read the word “quadroon” before, but from the context of the quote, I figured it was some sort of label for one’s right to blackness – a label I’ve been searching for my whole life.

According to Google, the definition of “quadroon” is, “a person who is one-quarter black by descent,” and right next to its classification as a noun, it says, “offensive / dated.” In the moments before it hit me that this was just another way for white people in the era of slavery to reduce a human being’s worth by literally reducing their status as a person to only a percentage, I was ecstatic because I finally thought I had found a word that described me – a girl whose father is fully white, whose mother is half black, half white, and whose skin tone and hair texture provide no clues to curious strangers as to what race I actually am. My entire extended family is white because my mom didn’t know her dad too well, my education is white, taught to me by white, Catholic women in the context of white-washed American textbooks, my speech is white, my name is white, and even my little brother (who has the same parents as me) came out with blonde hair, blue eyes, and nearly translucent white skin. And yet my skin is just brown enough not to be white; it’s more of a beige color, like that of certain cardboards or toothpicks. Ultimately, what this means is that everything in my life is white… except my skin color, my mom’s skin color, and my mom’s kinky black hair that she still despises. My mother never taught me how to be black, she taught me how to explain to people, when I am asked because I’m always asked, that I’m not fully so.

“When I was a child I lived wrapped in secret words, words that no one spoke in ordinary conversation. These words terrified and thrilled me; I pulled them close to imagination… Whenever I found clues that others used these words I hid the clues under my bed, between my books. Those words must not escape, no one should know I even knew them, much less that I felt them, held them in my hands, cupped my hands over my ears until the forbidden words were all I could hear, pressed the words to my eyes until the images the words made were the only ones I could see” (Dykewomon, “Introduction to Belly Songs”).

If I were born only a few centuries before, I would not have had the privilege to explain away my blackness. I would’ve been labeled a quadroon, placed on that auction stand while Walt Whitman, who considers himself beyond human, observes from afar and makes me part of himself as if it’s an honor, to be sold away to some white man who is considered wholly human, while I am literally and metaphorically deemed less than. In a way, the word “quadroon” is what “fat” and “lesbian” are to Elana Dykewomon in the passage above.  But I’m not sure I want to reclaim this word just yet; I’m not convinced I have any real right to. For now, I am simply adding this forbidden word to the expanding mirage of images I have to understand my identity in the confines of my imagination.

Family, Religion, and Sexuality

Trigger warning: mentions homophobic threat against a child. Marked with: *

“These are the questions I am most often asked by Chicanos, especially students. It’s as if they are hungry to know if it’s possible to have both – your own life and the life of the familia.” (Moraga 3)

My earliest encounter with the word “gay” had been at seven years old. A television network covered a story of a young boy, 15 years old, who was kicked out of his home – beaten by his father and disowned by his mother. The news continued, the boy was gay and his family could not accept that. That day, I learned that being queer meant abandonment. Coming out meant you would be thrown out into the streets and beaten by your family.

I cannot recall my age in the next memory. My uncle had come home and he had not seen his three sons in months because of work. That day, my cousins and I played dress-up. His youngest son loved to wear my dresses, he loved how it looked when he twirled. When his Papa got home, he was told to change. I remember sitting in the balcony, with my uncle speaking to my aunts.  *At one point, they talked about my cousins and he said: if any of my boys turn out to be gay, I will hang him from a flagpole until he turns straight.*  That day, I learned that the abandonment and violence that was associated with being queer extends to my own family.

Similar to Moraga, my family is largely Catholic. In fact, a large majority of the population in the Philippines practice Catholicism. Stories about the young boy are unfortunately common among queer youth in the Philippines. Often, a parent’s reaction toward their queer sons and daughters are because the religion associates queerness with sin. They are told that it is not right to love someone of the same gender. I was very young when I was placed in these situations so I never questioned their implications, sin was sin and committing any sin meant punishment from God.

Looking back, these experiences revealed the hypocrisy behind most Catholic families. We are taught to love our neighbors as if they were our family, we are taught that family is most important, and we are taught that love and forgiveness conquers all. Yet, these teachings are forgotten when it comes to queer children. Families hurt their own child, threaten their safety, and abandon them – all for what? For committing a sin? Was it not considered a sin to abandon one’s child?

Unfortunately, because of instances like these, it is easy to understand the students’ questions and their implications. Often, I just assume that to have my own life meant that I could not have the family. That choosing to have the family meant giving something up. While I understand that there are exceptions, these situations happen enough that most of us just assume the outcome. It should not be this way, we should be allowed to have both.

Society is Shameful.

Nowadays, anything and everything about you is constantly criticized. Whether that be the way in which you dress, the people you love, or the gender in which you seemingly present, there are always others who have something to say. Sometimes, one has the willpower to overcome these other voices, and can appreciate themselves and deter from what others think. Others simply cannot.

In Susan Stinson’s “Belly Song” piece, the narrator is seen as noticing various pieces of her body, that when together, are seen by society as ‘fat’. Specifically, Stinson describes the girl as doing daily activities such as eating, drinking, and even picking up miscellaneous items, whilst seeing “her sides, thighs, knees, calves, and soles of her feet” (4). Unfortunately, because of society’s norms, she feels the need to restrict her eating habits, when she states, “Most of the other half of the donut is left on the table. I consider my belly. It’s pale. I fasted. It’s loose. I never ate dinner. It’s under hairs. I went to the hospital every week. It swells out, then folds. They said my body was made out of cubes of butter. It shakes, it moves, it jiggles. They said each quarter pound I lost was like cutting a cube of butter off a big block” (4-5). In this excerpt, the narrator is seen as being directly affected by not only society as an entirety, but also professionals within the hospital. While reading this excerpt, I felt for the narrator, as the norms within society and the expectations for a woman’s body, forces her to engage in restricting her eating habits. Also, for those within the hospital to make the analogy of her losing weight, ‘cutting off cubes of butter’ only will further perpetuate the negative feelings she has towards her body, ultimately due to society. Unfortunately, society has the power to have people feel a certain way towards themselves, for the good or bad. In this case, Stinson sets up the scene of a young girl, restricting herself solely because of societal pressures and feminine beauty standards.

The Crushing Blow of Compulsory Heterosexuality

Our society centers around the heteropatriarchy, as Gill Valentine explained in her piece “Making Space: Lesbian separatist communities in the United States.” The overwhelming influence of perceived male dominance and heteronormative ideals affects all non-male people negatively. toValentine ventures to say that “heterosexuality is the root of all women’s oppression” (110). This appears to be an extreme statement at first glance, which is why it requires deeper analysis. Heterosexuality, attraction to the “opposite” gender, generally follows patriarchal norms such as the woman being the homemaker and the man being the breadwinner. While the aforementioned theme is not always negative, the dangerous power dynamic between men and women is enforced in heterosexuality.

Compulsory heterosexuality, an experience defined by Adrienne Rich as heterosexuality being imposed upon women by society, exemplifies Valentine’s view. I have experienced the pain that assuming heterosexuality in myself causes. For most of my life, I believed that I was interested in men because of what I was shown and taught by my family, religion, and media. I had “crushes” on any boy that was nice to me, popular, or had some part of his personality that I wanted to have. For example, I had a crush on a boy who played basketball and skateboarded, solely because I wanted to take part in those activities. I was never taught what true attraction I assumed I was heterosexual. Boys are a common topic among teenage girls, so I dated boys in order to gain more friends and have something to talk about with them. The list of compulsory heterosexuality experiences goes on and on.

I felt unfulfilled, numb, and lonely under the male-centered gaze that our society pushes. When I finally broke free from the expectations of my religion and peers, I realized my attraction to women. I labeled myself as bisexual because I was in a relationship with a boy and did not want to hurt him or confuse anyone. However, after removing myself from seeing men as partners rather than simply friends, I was able to understand my true desires. Men and heterosexuality are not evil, but they are innately oppressive because of their position in society. I now identify as a lesbian because the way I feel towards women as opposed to men is completely different. Men have the potential to be great friends, but outside of upholding the expectations of other women in my life, they possess no good for me as partners. I cannot be truly happy if I allow myself to be swayed by society’s pension for heterosexuality.

Can you see health physically?

S. Bear Bergman’s “Part-Time Fatso” really emphasizes the extreme standards society holds for gendered bodies. The drastic differences felt when strangers would react differently to seeing this person as a man versus a woman reveal the disgusting nature of our culture’s need to fat shame women. But can you really see someone’s health? How do you identify that a person is unhealthy solely based off of their weight? Bodies are meant to support us and carry us, not identify us.

So many people are unhappy with how they look because it does not fit society’s standards. Furthermore, these comparisons to “standards” are photoshopped pictures on social media or of women who are also unhappy and comparing themselves to others, while you compare yourself to them. Women go on diets not because they want to live a better, healthier life but because they feel the need to constrict in order to fit in. In addition, the external pressure, as proven in the reading, shows how distinct and upheld the standard is. How comfortable other people are with dictating or “suggesting” what a woman who does not fit into the mold should eat or not eat or wear or not wear.

From an early age women learn that their looks impact and matter. To be exact, other people’s assessments of their appearance influence the way they are treated on a day to day basis and how these interactions generate their opportunities personally and professionally. Bergman shows how while dressing like a man they run into little to no issues with their appearance, however, as a woman they are slandered and judged persistently. Placing such value on a woman’s physical appearance over their physical and mental health is extremely problematic and takes a toll on all women throughout their life. A woman’s identity should not be valued solely based on physical appearance because they have so much more to offer than that.

Stinson’s “Belly Songs” and examining a self-deprecating stream of consciousness

While the title of this post suggests an exploration of a “self-deprecating stream of consciousness,” the poem I wanted to discuss isn’t necessarily an example of that. “Pretty Fat,” one of the poems I came across within Stinson’s collection of poems, is unique in that it reads like a stream of consciousness with an incessant repetition of words like “so fat,” “ass” and “lard.” The reason that I say this isn’t really self-deprecating is because Stinson is trying to reclaim these words, as we can see at the end where she calls it “gracious flab/gracious bone.” I find the poem quite interesting, and wanted to talk about how it both validates as well as counters the self-deprecating narratives we build for ourselves in our heads.

As someone who has dealt with anxiety/depression, I’m no stranger to relentless streams of negative thoughts like Stinson portrays here. At it’s core, it comes from a lack of self-worth that, in the case of this poem, would appear to stem from an internalized hatred of your own body. Personally, I’ve never had issues with body dysmorphia, but there are many who are transgender or perhaps even suffer from anorexia/bulimia who have those kinds of thoughts daily, and could likely see themselves in this poem. That being said, I feel I can relate to the relentless stream of internal negativity that comes with that kind of conflict since I’ve dealt with that to some degree in my experience with mental illness. This is exactly why I think the resolution to the poem’s central conundrum is so satisfying.

To counteract the negative thoughts, Stinson’s poem re-frames the meaning of these words. She suggests we think of “so fat so fat” not as a negative reminder of something society sees as a deficiency, but as “gracious flab.” It’s a matter of re-framing a “deficiency” into something that you can love and accept about yourself. The reason I like this resolution so much is that it is exactly the same tactic I learned from my therapist to deal with my anxiety disorder. Often times, my relentless stream of internal negativity can become overwhelming and my anxieties come to the forefront in a way that makes their prevalence unavoidable. Re-framing my anxieties is the best way forward because these thoughts can sometimes seem so unavoidable. I think being able to see your own self-perceived flaws as something you can come to love and accept in yourself is a very good message for Stinson to impart upon her readers, which is why I found this poem so personally interesting.

Coming to Terms with Who I Am: Walt Whitman and My Sexuality

Coming out is such a complicated process. Once you’ve figured out that what you are feeling is valid, you have to muster up the courage to tell someone, who you have already decided you can trust, all the while worrying they will not accept you and you will be left alone. But it should not be that scary, because you are who you are and that should be enough.

In my senior year of high school, I came out as bi. For so long I could not figure out why I felt the way I did. But I decided on a cold March day that I was going to be proud of who I am and tell people that I am bi. However, since I was afraid that my family would find out, I chose to only tell two of my close friends (A and B). First one and then the other, I brought them into our high school theater and before I could say anything, burst into tears. My sobs echoed in the empty space as I dropped the act I had been playing for so long. They both comforted me, telling me that I was valid and that they would respect my wish to keep this on the down-low. And they did, or I thought they did until several weeks later. As I was leaving rehearsal, I received a text notification from another friend (for the sake of this story we will call them C).

C: Hey, random question are you bi?
Me: Um why do you ask?
C: Oh B was talking about it with our group, and I thought ‘There’s no way that’s true.’
Me (now slightly panicked): Um yeah I am.

Immediately, I was blocked. I felt as though my world was caving in. I called A, who began to help me calm down and reassured me. They told me that I am who I am, that being bi is just a part of who I am, and if people cannot respect that, then it is better that they are not in my life.

A’s pep talk after that night came to mind when reading Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” when he states:

“I exist as I am, that is enough,
If no other in the world be aware I sit content,
And if each and all be aware I sit content” (Section 20)

He reminds us that we exist as we are and that, regardless of what others may think, we should be content with that. And with how society is moving and changing, this is becoming the norm. Of course, not everyone is necessarily on board and changing their thinking with the times. It is hard when someone you valued invalidates you, especially as someone who constantly worries about what people think of them all the time. But at the end of the day, there is a choice to make. Do I let this one person drag me down and invalidate everything I am and feel? Or do I choose to live my life happy and open, with one less toxic person in it? While I still have a long way to go, I know that by living by the latter, the future is bright.

Susan Stinson refuses to be malleable

Susan Stinson’s poem “A Practical Guide to Successful Living” is very brief: “Fat girls let your shorts ride up / Lie down on the cold spring dirt / and get mud on your fat backs” (Stinson 1). Although Stinson’s poem is quite short, it is incredibly meaningful. 

I am taking a Fat Studies course with Prof. Farrell, and recently we read an essay written by Joyce L. Huff about how fat bodies fit into space. In her essay, Huff unpacks and analyzes Southwest’s fatphobic decision to make fat travelers purchase two airplane seats, therefore paying double the amount their slender peers have to. Huff argues that “… this body has come increasingly to be seen as capable of adapting itself to spaces constructed to meet the needs of corporations rather than those of individuals”. I agree wholeheartedly. Our society pushes limited, standardized items, such as clothing sizes, and people are expected to figure out ways to squeeze in. When Stinson commands girls to let their shorts ride up and their bodies spill out, she is rejecting society’s want for malleable bodies that fit in. Women should not need to lose enough weight to fit into provided clothes, nor should they have to shroud their bodies in clothes that cover up what society deems unsightly. 

I also think that Stinson is equating rejecting clothes that don’t fit to embracing queer identities. Much like the way fat girls spill out of restrictive clothes, queer women ‘come out’ of restrictive spaces that value heteronormativity. Moreover, Stinson also writes to “Lie down on the cold spring dirt / and get mud on your fat backs” (Stinson 1). By directly connecting naked skin and earth, Stinson is writing about retreating to nature to live a truer identity. This implies that queer, fat women will be happiest when living as outlaws from society’s heteronormative, slender values. Stinson’s beleif of finding refuge in nature reminds me of queer poems such as Song of Myself, and queer communities such as the Radical Faeries, as both urge queer individuals to grow comfortable with their identities in natural environments. 

Ultimately, Stinson’s message is important: she encourages women to find happiness through embracing unique identities and refuting society’s hopes to jam everyone into a uniform space. Additionally, instead of expanding standardization, Stinson healthily encourages queer, fat women to start with identities that are closest to nature- and to accept true identities through escaping societal norms.

Can the word “fat” be reclaimed?

Belly Songs was made “in celebration of fat women” (Stinson 0). The term “fat” has a negative connotation attached to it when it is simply another adjective, a way to describe a person. Why is it seen as a derogatory term? Reclaiming that word into a positive context is difficult today that pushes for the Western ideal of beauty. However, that does not mean we should stop urging for change from society’s values which Stinson helps to alter. This specific poem’s title, “The Good Servant,” hints at how society views fat people. The first stanza has our narrator call out to a rich man who walks by and tells him “I drink oceans. / I eat mountains of bread” (Stinson, 31). This is all to make her presence known, she will not shy away from being honest about her eating habits and appearance. The rich man then says “be my servant,” which hints at the fetishization of bigger women. This degrading language shows how society views fat people as beneath others, to belittle them solely based on appearance. This is important because for so long fat people were treated differently from skinnier people and this degradation from a wealthy man shows his effort to assert his dominance and superiority. She then goes on to say, “He has read enough / to show cordiality to oddities,” which explains a lesson many children are taught at an early age which is if you do not have anything nice to say it is better to not say anything at all (Stinson, 31). Also, to be polite to people who look “different” from the norm and be extra cordial. Does this stem from a place of concern, guilt, or both?

Many features that are down upon in society that may be described as “unflattering” or “unwanted” include: fat rolls, sweat, or stretch marks the list is infinite. Stinson writes of how she “glisten[s] in [her] tight clothes,” to show how proud she is of her appearance despite the “the stains over [her] breasts” (Stinson 31). She has her hem of her pant legs dragging along the dirt on the floor as she walks which may allude to her height, meaning falling on the shorter side. The western ideals of beauty typically include being tall, skinny, blue-eyed, hairless, and blonde. Being a fat, short person is not seen as the ideal when these attributes are all normal and what makes us human. Stinson beautifully describes her stretch marks as “colored marks [that] web [her] upper arms, / breasts, belly and thighs” (Stinson 31). Imagining a graceful web of strings that a spider creates is unique to think of when describing a beauty mark that is seen as unfeminine or unattractive. She describes herself as a wonder, which can mean as hard to interpret, understand, a confusing yet fascinating idea. She is admired, beautiful, captivating despite these supposed flaws she possesses in the eyes of society. Eating disorders and body dysmorphia is heavily prevalent today and Stinson admits to starving herself “to unmarbled red meat” (Stinson 31). Searching up the term “marbled meat” which means to have streaks or layers of lean and fat and so she admits starving herself to make herself skinny. She “bleached [her] heart” meaning she damaged her heart and health both physically and mentally all to reach a false conclusion of happiness. Why should we aim to follow a false reality of happiness when we are enduring more harm than good to gain this ideal of beauty? This poem matters because it serves as a reminder that we should learn to love and embrace our insecurities and supposed “flaws.” The reclaiming of the term fat is a continuous process, one that is lengthy and against difficult odds, but it begins with the individual. The individual holds the power to fight at society’s toxic values and begin to care for themselves both mentally and physically, heal from a society seemingly against them.

https://www.biblio.com/book/belly-songs-susan-stinson/d/1206757243

“Thank you, Sir”

In a typical workday, I interact with eighty to one hundred and twenty people. When I ring up their total, most will say nothing, about forty of them will call me “sir,” four call my by name, and one calls me “faggot.” They will say, “Thank you.” When I had them their change, I will tell them, “Have a nice day!” I am paid to do this. It’s all part of the job.

One summer day, a man came in while I was stocking the shelves, and I recognized him. He had white, stringy hair to pair with his pale, old skin, and a dark green jacket to contrast his blue eyes. I thought him something of a rebel-character. The first time I saw him, it was three years ago. He wore black, fingerless gloves and bought seventy-two pairs of women’s pantyhose for a grand total of $74.88. He talked relentlessly of the eighties, saying, “We needed another decade like the eighties,” and how, “People needed to learn how to love again, there’s too much hate right now.” Years later, he wore the same outfit, the same jacket, the same hair, and the same gloves. The difference being the pandemic.

He had burst into the store. Immediately I saw his face. My co-worker did too, and she quickly told him about the store mask policy. He remained unfixed and began telling her off. I noticed this and rejoined my co-worker in reiterating the mask policy. He turned from her and responded to me in a shout, finishing with “I’ll see you in court! But that’s only if I don’t rip your head off and shove it up your faggot ass first!” At this, a crowd began to gather. The man probably didn’t enjoy the attention, because he looked around and ran out of the store. As I checked out the remaining customers, they started saying, “Thank you, Sir” and “Nobody should have to deal with that.”

But I’m not a “Sir,” and so I’d reply, “It’s all part of the job.”

This memory brings me to Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” where he states, ““Do I contradict myself? / Very well then…. I contradict myself; / I am large…. I contain multitudes” (53). Yet, while Whitman makes this statement in celebration, I contend that the ways in which we “contain multitudes” is more nuanced. Imbedded within these multitudes are forces of both privilege and oppression.

In the rural town where I work, heteronormativity is heavily enforced. As a lower-income, queer individual, this means being called “Sir” as compensation for being called “faggot.” “Sir” is supposedly a sign of high-status, nobility, and class, whereas my preferred labels and pronouns are viewed with contempt. This paradoxically positions “Sir” and my preferred labels both as a form of special treatment. The customers use “Sir” to indicate respect yet insisting that they use anything else would come off as disrespectful to them. I endanger their sense of heteronormativity, and so at work, I bite my tongue. For eight hours, I am their “Sir.” And it’s all part of the job.

Doubtless, the silencing of identity constitutes a form of oppression. Getting yelled at about ripping heads off and shoving them wherever certainly constitutes violence. Yet, being able to pass as heteronormative, and maintain a job which demands I act as such, is a privilege which not every queer person has. Thus, I’m able to contain both hostility and opportunity. And as I’m called “Sir,” I’m able to sneer behind my mask and think how I’m able to be their Sir and my Queer.