The Swimsuit Edition, Where Sexism Knows No Size

Originally posted on The Melissaverse:

Apparently we’re all supposed to celebrate the fact that an average-sized woman will appear in this year’s Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition.

I’m told it’s some kind of triumph that, of the many women pointlessly objectified on the pages of a magazine that’s supposed to be about sports, one will be somewhat heavier than all the others. Sexism is so deeply woven into the fabric of sports in America that this, incredibly, is meant to represent progress.

Never mind that this year’s cover model, in addition to being exactly the size you’d expect her to be, is also waxed to within an inch of her life. Never mind that only average-sized model in the magazine appears not as part of an editorial layout but in an ad. Never mind that both women appear to have been liberally airbrushed, unless you believe neither of their bodies has a single stray hair, birthmark…

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Go Down the Rabbit Hole: A Writer’s Manifesto

Originally posted on Writing for Digital Media:

1. You are the work. The work is you: both an articulation of the self and a possibility for self-reflection. Be honest in creation: allow yourself to bleed into the work, but also allow it to work on you. Your work can show you things: illuminate and clarify your own thoughts, motivations, actions. If you do it right, you will find the work changing you, too.

2. Thinking is process. Laying on the floor. Sitting on park benches. Getting lost on purpose. These are all working. Learn the difference between mindless distraction and mindful wandering.

3. Go down the rabbit hole. Sometimes the work isn’t about what you think it is. Allow yourself to get lost down alleyways, to follow a train of thought around a corner. Don’t feel you need to reign yourself in. Too much focus squeezes all the possibility for revelation out of the work.

4. Fear…

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How to be ok with being sad

The first time I didn’t feel sad about feeling sad was on Sept. 17, 2013. I was in my therapist’s office. More specifically, I was lying on a table, faceup, in my therapist’s office. Maybe it sounds simple, but it was a trick I’d spent years practicing and trying to learn.

I do not mean that I take sadness lightly. Four and a half years ago, after a work-related immersion in sexual violence, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Subsequently, I was diagnosed with comorbid major depressive disorder. Comorbid to all that, I was diagnosed as alcoholic and suicidal. More than $20,000 worth of treatment later, I am no longer those things, but, as an evaluating psychiatrist put it in a report last year, I have “chronic,” “recurring,” “residual psychiatric symptoms” serious enough that she ruled me permanently disabled. I’ve been an emotional gal since always — “She has a lot of feelings,” my best grad-school friend would chuckle by way of explanation when I got worked up about some topic or other in front of strangers — and my emotions now are enormous. Frustration over a failed attempt to buy a sold-out rug online ends in so much yelling and foot-stomping that my neighbors complain. The intensity of a pop song lands like a blunt punch to my chest and explodes any grief nestling there; the very day I’m writing this, Nicki Minaj made me cry in my car.

Sincerely: I do not take sadness lightly. But after a lot of retraining, I do take it wholly, life-alteringly differently than I was raised to, and than almost anyone else I know. Now, sometimes when I’m not sad and I think about sadness, that thought is accompanied by this startling one: I miss it.

Alice Mongkongllite / BuzzFeed
Pre-therapy, this is the only thing I was ever taught, implicitly and explicitly, about sadness: It is bad.

You do not want it. If you’ve got it, you should definitely try to get rid of it, fast as possible. Whatever you do, don’t subject other people to it, because they do not like that.

Sadness can be legitimately problematic, absolutely. If your sadness comes from seemingly no place or even an obvious place but keeps you from participating in life or enjoying anything and refuses to abate no matter how long you go on letting it express itself, you of course can’t keep living like that. But culturally, we aren’t allowed to be sad even for a little while. Even when it’s perfectly sensible. Even when, sometimes, we need it.

This is reflected in our entertainment. Watching Bridesmaids, I shake my head over how Melissa McCarthy slaps Kristen Wiig around and tells her to stop being sad, though she has recently lost her job, her savings, her home, and her best friend. (Miraculously, this solves Kristen Wiig’s attitude problem.) In the third episode of MasterChef Junior’s second season, judge Joe Bastianich tells a contestant who has ruined her shepherd’s pie and possibly her dream of winning, the biggest dream she’s had up to this point in her life, “When things are as bad as they can be, you gotta pull it together. Wipe your tears.”

The contestant has been crying for mere seconds. She is 8 years old.

What does it say about our relationship to sadness that Joan Didion — who we can all agree is a pretty smart, educated, and worldly cookie — had to write an entire book about trying to learn how to grieve? This ethos was fine for me when mostly nothing bad happened and if it did, the accompanying sadness didn’t linger for too long. But post-trauma, it turned out to be a massive impediment to my recovery.

I had a lot of symptoms. They all alarmed me, but equally so the most straightforward one: sadness. Sometimes I cried from uncontrollable, overwhelming, life-swallowing sadness. And all the time, the sadness and crying itself freaked me the fuck out. I would start crying, and then immediately hate myself. Why was I crying? Why couldn’t I get this sadness to go away? What was wrong with me?

Alice Mongkongllite / BuzzFeed
I got into therapy. I’d gone before, casually and occasionally, for support with some huge changes — a new city and new job and fresh divorce years earlier. Now, it was a therapy emergency. I considered myself decently good at self-care in general, but sure, I let it slip when I got too busy, when work was too demanding, when there were things I had to do that I knew I was getting too burned out to but did anyway. But taking care of myself was not optional anymore. As a matter of survival, I had to make as much room for it as it needed.

And so, I started intensive treatment — during which my therapist had to spend incalculable amounts of time trying to convince me that it was OK to be sad. The alarm I experienced over my sadness was another terrible feeling on top of my already terrible symptoms. The energy I spent panicking that I was sad could have been better spent on coping with the sadness. It was true that I — like many people, people with clinically depressed, never-ending, or life-threatening sadness — needed a lot more assistance than just a big philosophical hug, but if I could accept sadness, my therapist kept suggesting, I would be able to experience it (long and hard as that may go on) and then it could pass. The alternative — being sad, plus condemning yourself for being sad — only heightens the suffering. And, likely, the time it lasts.

“Sadness is a legitimate emotion,” my therapist would say. “There is an acceptance you can get to with it where it’s just a sensation, and without judgment, that sensation can be exquisite.”

“LIES,” I responded to this sometimes. Sometimes I called her a hippie. Nobody accepts sadness. Everybody knows that crying girls are silly and weak. Hysterical, and overdramatic.

But as much as I didn’t — I couldn’t! — really believe her, I still really wanted to learn how to do that.

Alice Mongkongllite / BuzzFeed
I can’t explain, in a tight little essay, how I finally did it. It would take an entire book for me to describe how I got even most of the way there. I can sum up that it took three years to the DAY after the events that started my symptoms, and that it cost a lot of money, and time, and time off, which cost more money, and was so painful that the very memory of how painful it was sometimes makes me need to go lie down in my bed. I can point out that most people are not given the opportunity to go through this process, even if they desperately want to. Unfortunately, healing is a luxury in our society, not a right; so many who could benefit from treatment simply can’t.

And I can tell you about the moment, that September. It was sunny and in the 60s. I was in my therapist’s office in San Francisco, which had fairly bare walls, industrial carpet, and windows that let the light in. I was lying on a massage therapist’s table, because that was normal in my somatic therapy; the treatment addressed the physicality of one’s symptoms, the places and ways trauma lived in one’s body (last year, a hero of my therapist’s, the very brilliant Bessel van der Kolk, released a book about this called The Body Keeps the Score), which was often explored with eyes closed, lying down. The first umpteen number of times I got on the table and was prompted to breathe, to feel into where my tensions and disconnections were, I resisted the falling apart this awareness and reconnecting could lead to. I feared starting to cry and never stopping. I feared never being able to put myself back together, ever, sometimes metaphorically but sometimes literally writhing and kicking and screaming with my resistance to just relaxing. Feeling. To be clear: Sadness was far from my only issue. But by Sept. 17, 2013 (around which point my insurance tallied it had so far given my therapist $18,000), I was taking feeling it in much better stride.

“How do you feel?” my therapist asked.

“Sad,” I said. I was extra sad that day because I was in the middle of a no-fault eviction, and it was turning out not to be practical or affordable to stay in the Bay Area, where I’d lived for a long time. “I feel sad because we have to move.” I cried as I talked about this. I loved California. “I have to grieve a state.”

I cried harder. “It’s a bummer.”

My therapist was very calm. “That is a bummer,” she agreed in soothing tones. She told me to open my eyes and when I did, asked me what sensation I noticed. Instantly, I pictured a kid lying in a yard.

That’s me right now, I thought. A kid lying in a yard, feeling sad — but not feeling sad about feeling sad. It was what it was. It was fine. It was a peace. Me, or a kid, being just what she was: alive.

Alice Mongkongllite / BuzzFeed
“I’m not bummed out about feeling bummed out,” I said.

The significance of this moment was clear to us both. My therapist was speechless for a second. Then she smiled — we were often smiling, because we joked through even the hardest and ugliest moments together — and said, “People pay a lot of money for that, Mac.”

“They should!”

They shouldn’t have to. I hadn’t panicked over being sad every time it had happened in my life, say over a breakup, but I had never had that level of acceptance of it, peace-spreading, unrushed, cell-deep, certainly not as an adult. And as a person with PTSD, I had completely lost any trust in my own emotions, fearing them constantly, sadness included — or perhaps especially, as it was the most persistent. Now, I was finally embracing it.

Which is how I could come to be in a position to miss it. The interestingness of it. The difference of it from other emotions. I remembered the sensations of it: the weight. The way it slowed things down and took the space of everything else up. It was exquisite, objectively but also as evidence that I could feel, that I was open and not shut down, capable of having a whole gamut of emotions rush in, and maybe overwhelm, but move through and move me. Not everyone can. Or does. I am occasionally jealous of people whose emotions come more softly, or quietly, or less often. I assume they have more time and energy, with those not being taken up by sensitivity that makes even the widely considered “good” emotions like joy feel like they’re making their heart explode. But for the most part, I’m not. Some people are born, and then they live, and then they die, one of my doctors told me once, in an effort to comfort. You, you die and are reborn sometimes 10 times in one day. Lucky.

The next time I felt sadness after I missed it, I was reminded why it was so hard to feel it all the time. Oh yeah, I remembered. It hurt. It was difficult to work. To cook, to eat, to play. To take care of others. Exquisite it may have been, but painful, and not invigorating, and quite tiring. Still I trusted that I needed it at that time, that it was expressing something necessary. I didn’t hate or judge it. I did not feel silly or weak. They say it takes a big man to cry, and I think — unfortunately, given our collective feelings about sadness — that’s true. But it takes a bigger woman still, to feel the strength of a sob, without apology or shame. With pride. I’m the biggest I’ve ever been, the way I let my emotions run, sadness included: the way it cleanses me, tears washing my face, resolving me to continue to feel with abandon.

***

Mac McClelland is the author of Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story (out this Tuesday, February 24th) and For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question. She has written for Reuters, Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, the New York Times Magazine, and the New York Times Book Review, among other publications, and has won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Sidney Hillman Foundation, the Online News Association, the Society of Environmental Journalists, and the Association for Women in Communications. Her work has also been nominated for two National Magazine Awards for Feature Writing and has been anthologized in the Best American Magazine Writing 2011, Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011, and Best Business Writing 2013.

When sex won’t work

Having developed a paranoia-inducing “Law & Order” obsession, I used to imagine a medical examiner describing my thirty-two-year old corpse: “No, there are no signs of a sexual assault. The victim is a virgin.” Da dum dum.
I didn’t make love to the first boy I made out with — not when I was sixteen, as we kissed on a stone high-school bench; not six years later; or when the two of us lounged in the turquoise seascape of our Turkish Riviera honeymoon; and not at any time in between.
We tried dozens of times to have sex, but I was impenetrable. Romantic, lusty, playful, slow: Neither setting nor method seemed to make a dent. He’d conquered lovers before me, but I was a fortress.
I wondered if my conservative Hindu upbringing could have made me fearful of intimacy. I devoured Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller, admired the erotic Hindu temple sculptures of Khajuraho, and earned hundreds of frequent-shopper points at Victoria’s Secret. I was curious about sex, but my own body seemed to be vehemently against it.
Couple’s therapy, to deal with our disaster in the bedroom, flopped. We began to find ways to avoid each other. In public, I played the role of a gregarious and impassioned feminist artist, just starting my art career. At home, my body rejected what my heart desired.
In therapy, I confessed I’d never consummated my four-year marriage. My therapist sent me to an experienced gynecologist, to whom I confessed that I’d never endured tampons, intercourse, or pelvic exams. Whenever I tried, it would be fine for the first centimeter, and then my body would shut down and squeeze tight. After my first exam with the new gynecologist, the doctor she sat me down and said, “Nothing is physically wrong with your anatomy.“ She asked if I’d ever heard the word vaginismus —involuntary contractions in the vaginal opening that make penetration, in my case, impossible. At last, I had a name for what was happening. As I learned about the condition, I discovered it could be the result of trauma, fear of penetration or pregnancy, or cultural taboos on female sexuality — there was no definitive cause, and it could happen at any age or any stage of a woman’s sexual life. For example, some women experience vaginismus after childbirth. Unfortunately, the diagnosis arrived too late to save our marriage.
Finalizing the end should have been straightforward: no property, no children to fight over (obviously) and no consummation. We would have qualified for an annulment, but the label terrified me. To have an annulment would be admitting I was a sexual failure. A divorce would be admitting things didn’t work out. I was oddly thrilled when the divorce papers were signed: I could keep my secret.
I emerged into the post-divorce-apocalypse of New York City a twenty-seven-year-old neophyte who had never been on a first date. Feeling branded with an invisible “V,” I worried I would never feel the confidence exuded by other New York women — on the small screen and in my life —never build a fulfilling relationship with a man, and never bear the children I desperately wanted.
Close friends and family counseled me to just “get back out there.” How was that even possible?
When I did, I met an Italian epicure. He was romantically inexperienced; I was physically inexperienced. He surprised me by baking chocolate lava cakes while I was washing my hair in the shower. Wounds from the harsh words and humiliations of my marriage were fresh, so I sought solace in kindness and those fudgy pastries. My heart and waistline grew. Yet progress on the sexual front was still slow.

The epicure had to move to California to care for his ill sister. Our relationship continued long-distance while I was waitlisted for an appointment at the Women’s Therapy Center, a specialized practice with two female doctors in Long Island. The timing seemed tragic. Just as I identified the treatment I needed and had the strength to pursue it, the Italian was far away.
Alone, I went to appointments and used “dilators” (dildos, actually) of increasing size, from the first one, which looked like a pinky finger, to the last one, which looked like a prop in an adult movie. The physical therapist helped me retrain muscles, while the psychologist advised, “Relax. Instead of thinking ‘painful,’ think ‘different’ and ‘new.’” Midway through the therapy course, I began to use muscle relaxants just before the physical therapy. Even so, I feared I wouldn’t be ready by Valentine’s Day weekend, when the Italian was coming to visit.
The day he arrived, we had a therapy session together. The doctors told him, “Now, this intercourse, it is not to be the longest. Short and sweet is perfectly sufficient.”
That sufficiency took three nights, two calls to the clinic, and medication. Focused on managing my own sensations (relax, different, new), I underestimated how much pressure he would be under. I was working so hard not to tense that I almost missed the key moment, and couldn’t remember it even immediately afterward.
The act lasted just a few minutes. His visit was a few days. Our relationship ended two weeks later — a silent decision at which we had both arrived. I wrote him a letter thanking him for his kindness and acceptance, for changing my life, but acknowledging that long-distance was too difficult.
* * *
My first “real” affair was with a married man I met at the Casablanca airport. Our flight to New York had been delayed, and I helped him use a phone card. He was planning to visit New York at the end of the summer, so we exchanged email addresses.
Six weeks of phone calls, photographs, and poetry served as a preamble to his visit. I was not his first tryst. On the first night, in perfectly flowing Senegalese-accented French, he read me a poem he’d written and then finally, fully deflowered me, twice, as if he knew to make sure it happened. Two nights later, I dropped him off at the airport. It was the last time I saw him.
I wanted to get busy, to put some notches in my belt. But in my search I found a stalker, three creeps and an assaulter, and slept with none of them. How was it that I made better dating choices when I was a virgin? After setting up an online dating profile, I decided to take a break. I lost forty pounds on a detox diet and went on a sculpture-making binge. Creating my bravest work to date, I thought a lot about love, as I strung a decade of love letters I had sent to and received from my ex-husband into birdcages. I had also transcribed text messages and emails from six years of dating into hand-written scrolls. With both the original love letters and the scrolled text messages, I used red thread that evoked Hindu rituals. What would these fragments of sentences reveal about what my life had been? Alone by choice and finally freed from obsessing about sex, my artistic energy bloomed.
“Particle Accelerator 1″ by Swati Khurana
“Particle Accelerator 1″ by Swati Khurana
Just before my Match.com membership expired, a handsome man “winked.” I winked back. We exchanged emails, mine to a private address without my real name. Two weeks later, I called him, blocking my number. We spoke on multiple phones with dying batteries for six hours that day, culminating in a sushi-and-stroll date. A second-generation Puerto Rican Bronxite, he had broad shoulders and a confident stride, while I teetered in small heels on cobblestones. Looking up at him, I hoped his self-assurance would be contagious.
One month later, he called me his girlfriend. But I was distraught, as we hadn’t done much more than kiss. He didn’t know my story. When I did confide in him about my past, I assured him, “This is a lot to deal with. No hard feelings if you decide this is not for you.” I asked if he had any questions.
“Would this affect your ability to bear children?” he wanted to know. “Not that it would matter. There are other options.”
I loved that he was thinking of me as a “normal” woman with whom he might start a family. Looking into his eyes, I strove to become the self-assured woman reflected back. Relaxed. Different. New. When he whispered that he was falling in love with me, I felt my body loosen. Finally, I experienced the full joy — not just the pain or relief — of intimacy.
Two years later, I was pregnant. At our wedding, wrapping my red sari calmly, holding my bright, casual bouquet of sunflowers over my growing belly, I was a much different bride the second time around.
I was giddy, finally feeling free of dysfunction. I imagined all my exes saw me, gliding like a Russian figure skater, in a perfect empire-waisted Grecian gown, protruding belly, cascading hair, and glowing skin. “You? Pregnant?” they would ask. “Yes!” I would say, blowing kisses.
That euphoria was a glimmer, soon replaced by a new reality. After my amniocentesis, when the genetic counselor told me I was having a daughter, the terror returned.

How would I summon the emotional capacity to parent a girl, given my own shame? What if I passed my dysfunctions on to her? Could I handle childbirth, or would that be another impossibility?
My obstetrician, who knew my history, thought that trying for a vaginal delivery would be best for my own healing. I wanted that victory desperately. After five days of inactive labor at home, forty hours of active labor at the hospital, and three hours of pushing, my daughter was born.
When I saw her face, I felt in awe of my body.
The first time I put her in her bassinet, I whispered, “I’ve always wanted you, before you were even possible.”
* * *
Swati Khurana is a writer and artist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Weeklings, Smithsonian, Brooklyn Museum of Art and elsewhere. A Kundiman fellow, she is working a novel called “No.1 Printshop of Lahore.”
Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the award-winning East Village Inky and author of seven books, including “Peanut” and “No Touch Monkey! And Other Lessons Learned Too Late.” She discovered Crazy Bet in the course of homeschooling her youngest child.

Karachi: A Sensory History

Originally posted on Tropics of Meta:

IMG_4227 A roaming band of musicians who arrive at weddings to seek donations, tips in Karachi’s Defense Phase Six

Karachi is one of the world’s largest cities—by some measures, the second largest in terms of population, and likely the world’s biggest “Muslim” city. (In this way, it is like the Indonesia of cities.) More than twenty million people live in this messy, dynamic, fractured megalopolis, the center of Pakistan’s financial and media industries and a major commercial entrepôt on the Arabian sea. Pakistan itself has a population of close to 200 million people, making it sixth in the world, just behind Brazil and ahead of Nigeria. This fact reveals a sobering reality: as Bangladesh places eighth in total population, the Indian subcontinent of the former British Raj counts some 1,611,000,000 souls—more than China (about 1.4 billion).

In other words, despite the subcontinent’s ethnoreligious and linguistic diversity, what once was “India”…

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Valentine’s Day!!

Valentine's Day!!

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Saturday Retro Night

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