A whiz kid no more

Me in the first grade

Damn, I was a cute kid.

I’m writing about aging this week because I’m turning 25 tomorrow. Yikes!

That’s stupid, you’re thinking. 25 is still young, and you’re absolutely right, but then, aging happens faster than they tell us. And for some reason, I’m realizing now that so much of my identity has been wrapped up in my age.

Just a number, they say. But today, I’m still in my “early twenties,” still basically a kid. Tomorrow, I won’t be. I’ll be so unambiguously not a kid anymore.

Why does that matter? Because we all get stereotyped at a young age. Me? I was the Whiz Kid. Somewhere just outside of “prodigy,” though I did hear that word thrown around a couple of times. I learned to read and play piano (by ear) when I was three. I regularly scored in the 99th percentile of the stupid standardized tests we took every year, starting in kindergarten. In school, I was picked on for being smart and nerdy, and my teachers softened the blow of social isolation by reminding me I was of value. I love my teachers so much.

That reputation followed me throughout my life, and all through college. Professors I’d never met would pull me aside after hearing me speak to tell me how “bright” I am. My college education was funded by a full academic scholarship (thank you, taxpayers!), and I graduated with two majors and a minor, a 3.98 GPA, and the honor of giving my college’s convocation speech.

A big chunk of my identity is centered around being young and smart. The youth part somehow enhances the intelligence part, doesn’t it? Makes it shinier, more glittery.

But now, I’m just smart. I don’t have youth to fall back on when I make mistakes. I can’t pad my accomplishments with precociousness. My peers have caught up to me; I rested on my laurels, in a way, and now I’m not ahead of the pack. My friends update me on their doctoral progress while I sit blissfully on my lonely BA.

It’s scary; it’s freeing.

The thing about stereotypes is that while they sort of give you a sense of stability, something to fall back on when you forget who you are, they also confine you. I used to be a people-pleaser, as though it were required of me. After all, my knowledge and pluck opened doors that my rage and premature world-weariness could close. But I don’t care anymore. I’m a grown-ass woman; I can snarl if I need to. I don’t need to be some cute little ivory-tickling entertainer.

I have a choice.

I use my piano to make music that conveys my rage, even as my technical chops deteriorate with lack of practice. I use my words to speak frankly about issues I care about — issues that aren’t cute or pleasant. Some of those words are profane. Okay, tons of those words are profane.

When I was a kid, I really fucking resented the brainy designation, the “Little Miss Perfect”s that other kids slung at me. I wanted everyone to know that I was normal, even though I wasn’t, was I — but I was, wasn’t I?

I was doing the same things they were — learning to survive, to navigate a world of uncertainty and cruelty as best I could. Breathing and eating and toeing the line. Like them, I wanted to grow up and succeed. I wanted to be accepted. I wanted to be loved.

And I feel like when we get older, so many of the stamps they brand us with as kids fade away, and that’s what’s left. Just our normal, surviving, wanting-to-be-loved selves. Just like I don’t feel this urge to be a world-changing rock star anymore, or even a bestselling novelist — I’m happy just to be comfortable, to help as many people as I can, to have time for myself, my cat, my fiance — as my youth recedes, I don’t need to be extraordinary anymore.

I mean, I am extraordinary, in that nobody is like me, but you are too, and so is everyone else. And in that paradox there is comfort.

I’m no longer the Whiz Kid; I’m just Natty.

I like that.

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You slut shame one of us, you slut shame all of us

Feminist Ryan Gosling: Hey girl, I would love to blow up the patriarchal dialectic that traps us in a constant struggle for dominant subject-hood, but I think you should do the honors

Source: feministryangosling.tumblr.com

Yesterday, my friend posted two statuses related to Miley Cyrus and the VMAs. One shared my fiance’s post about the matter, which is  a lot like mine (we wrote it at the same time because we’re the same person) except way more thorough (read it!).

The other was an eloquently written status about how when men appropriate women’s sexuality — e.g., in a Victoria’s Secret magazine, on billboards, in a Robin Thicke video — everything’s cool, but when a woman takes her sexuality into her own hands (e.g., Miley Cyrus’s VMA performance), she’s a slut.

One of her friends — a dude, of course — called her out for posting two statuses about Miley Cyrus when there are worse problems in Syria. Because clearly, there is only ever one problem to care about at a time. Look: if you are using the atrocities in Syria as an excuse to perpetuate the misogynist status quo in your own country, you are the problem.

He later said, down the thread, that if my friend had feminist concerns, she should talk about Obama’s lack of policy movement in that area. “So,” he might as well have said, “I’ve decided (good of me, really!) that your oppression is worth talking about, but only on MY terms. I am, after all, a man.”

First, mister, don’t even pretend to care about women’s issues while simultaneously silencing a woman, and second, this Miley Cyrus thing does fucking matter, because when you slut shame one of us, you slut shame all of us.

“Slut,” “ho,” and their infinite variations are gendered insults. They were invented to audit and control the behavior and self esteem of women. When you call a woman a slut and mean it as an insult, you are saying not only, “You are not entitled to your own sexuality, but I am entitled to audit your choices,” but also, “Women are not entitled to their own sexuality, but we are entitled to audit their choices.”

That’s the same delightful mindset that leads to legislative panels about birth control policy that lack women. That leads to laws determining if and when we can access emergency contraceptions and abortions. That sympathizes for gang-rapists because their victims were wearing short skirts.

Do I really need to go on?

Are you allowed to feel uncomfortable when you watch sexually provocative material? Absolutely. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “Miley Cyrus’s performance made me feel uncomfortable, because I am not comfortable with that level of sexuality on the public stage.” But you can say that without disrespecting her, and without disrespecting women in general. Maybe even challenge yourself by asking if the same level of sexuality, when shown or appropriated by a man, would bother you as much.

Things I learned by not watching the VMAs

I didn’t watch the VMAs this year, for two reasons:

  • I mainly listen to 70s symphonic prog and Swedish metal, neither of which promised a strong showing at the VMAs
  • I thought that time would be better spent crying at old Doctor Who episodes

Judging by my Facebook, though, I have a lot of friends who inexplicably feel compelled to watch content that they know, going in, won’t appeal to them. If you’re watching the VMAs expecting the second coming of late 60s blues rock/ 70s soft rock/ 80s indie-pop/ 90s grunge/ whatever music was when “music was REAL!” in your mind, you’re gonna have a bad time.

If you’re watching the VMAs expecting ANTICS! and ENTERTAINMENT! you’re probably going to enjoy yourself. Also, you might like the VMAs if you like contemporary pop. Believe it or not, some people like this music — lots of them, actually — and the world isn’t going to end because of it.

But the real reason a lot of people seem to watch the VMAs is to do some old-fashioned hating. They come prepared to hate, and they walk away hating.

I have learned that for whatever reason, lots of people have nothing better to do than to slut-shame Miley Cyrus.

I’m not here to say that Miley Cyrus is above criticism. In fact, we all should be having a robust conversation about Miley Cyrus, cultural appropriation, and white supremacy in pop music. Maybe we should also have a conversation about her willingness to perform alongside Robin Thicke, who exploits rape culture for profit. These would be excellent conversations to have because the world is hostile to women and people of color.

But because these conversations would challenge the status quo and the kyriarchy, and because men and white people tend to get edgy when made aware of their privilege, people decide to slut shame Miley Cyrus instead.

I mean, we came to hate, and why not hate in a way that also puts women down? Instead of using our rage and our intellect to critique unchecked white privilege and the perpetuation — celebration, really — of rape culture, we shame a grown woman, and sling gendered insults at her, for showing her body and dancing provocatively.

Not that it’s a surprise, but the main thing I learned from not watching the VMAs? Misogyny is alive and well in 2013.

Aging happens sooner than they tell you

I’m 24 — about to turn 25 this week. And it amazes me how much my body has changed since I was a teenager.

Aging happens faster than anyone ever tells you. We all think of it as something that will hit us in our 30s or 40s — the new 20s and 30s, respectively, they tell us. And maybe we think about this because we think of aging as purely an aesthetic thing — something that takes the color out of our hair, the elasticity out of our skin. When we talk about aging, we’re usually talking about wrinkles, but it’s so much more than that.

I’m aging already. My stomach was the first sign I was out of Eden. It doesn’t seem so long ago I was in college, staying up until 4AM, knocking back full pots of black coffee while chatting about Heidegger and Kierkegaard with my friends in the Philosophy program. All that acid from the coffee left no physical damage, though the conversation may have left some metaphysical damage.

And Thai food — I will miss it well. That and hot sauce, that perfect complement to any meal. Even thinking of these things makes my esophagus retreat in fear. I just don’t digest the way I used to.

My sleep schedule was another sign. Staying up until 4AM is now nigh impossible for me, unless I’m having a bad PCOS night, complete with anxiety and hot flashes. I’m usually out by 11PM, latest. No more nights on the town. No more jam sessions until 3AM, pulling smoke through rolled-up Lucky Strikes shared among long-haired guitarists.

I thought invincibility would last at least until my 30s, but here I am, coming up on 25, and I’m already aging in ways no one warned me about.

And that’s ok.

And there are several white hairs interspersed with my black ones, glimmering like meteors in a night sky. There are no wrinkles yet, but when they come, I’ll think hopefully to some of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen — Maya Angelou, Dame Judi Dench — and fantasize about being a woman whose decades spell victory, who has done things that really mattered.

I’ll never stop missing Thai food. But I don’t miss those black hairs that have already turned white. And it’s okay that my life is so much quieter now, that my nights are not marked by delicious carcinogens and endless 12-bar blues. The restlessness of adolescence is well behind me, and it’s far easier to romanticize when softened by the filter of nostalgia.

No quarter life crises for this gal, I’m afraid.

Skin Problems Hurt, Part 1: Acne

Overly photoshopped acne girl

A picture from when I had bad acne. Know how you can tell? The shitty Photoshop job on my skin. Even my eyebrows are a little blurry.

Acne hurts.

I didn’t expect to well up a little typing that sentence. It’s been years since I got rid of my acne, but for a few years of my life, it was such a source of pain. Not just emotional, but physical — my inflamed skin, oozing and bleeding in parts, hurt. The harsh chemicals I put on my skin, that burned in the open parts, already dried out, a cracked, dehydrated topography of eruptions, hurt.

But my god, the emotional pain — the hit to my self esteem, the fear that it would never get better, that it would scar, that fresh pimples would bubble up atop the scars, that my skin would never look acceptable — that pain followed me everywhere for a few years.

It followed me everywhere because you cannot hide your face. You can “dress down” your weight, and even then, there are always people out there who glorify the curvy body, who will be your ally. I never hated being fat as much as I hated having acne, even through my years of disordered eating. After all, I’d never met someone who said, “I think zits are hot.”

I know now that my acne was one of the first signs that I had PCOS. It was late-onset, after all. Throughout highschool, I had your normal pimple-prone teenage skin. Nothing a little bit of salicylic acid and concealer couldn’t take care of. Manageable.

But when I turned seventeen, around the same time my symptomless, clockwork periods became erratic, painful little assholes, my skin went rogue. Nothing I did — not the salicylic acid, not the benzoyl peroxide, not the tea tree oil, not the lavender oil, not the Proactiv, nothing — could curb the spread of eruptions. It only got worse.

“Severe cystic and nodular acne,” my dermatologist would eventually write.

Everyone had a remedy for me to try. “Put toothpaste on it; it’ll dry it out.” “Sit in the sun for a while, your skin is just oily.” “Proactiv worked perfectly for me!” Everything they named, I’d tried. I scowled at every Proactiv commercial I saw. Bullshit, Jessica Simpson, I’d say, we all know that if anything were wrong with your skin, you’d have the industry’s top dermatologists at your beck and call.

My senior band banquet arrived. There was a strapless dress I adored; I’d planned on wearing it for months. The skirt was asymmetrical, with a bold tropical flower print.

It was strapless.

My shoulders were massacred by my acne. I tried switching my shampoos and conditioners, but nothing helped. I dreaded combing my hair, as merely brushing against my upper back could cause one or more of the zits to pop.

The solution? I decided not to go at all. I couldn’t show my skin in public. In my teenage mind, there was no point attempting to get dressed up and look pretty when I was a walking aggregation of infection.

My friends would silently point out to me when my face was bleeding. I appreciated this, as spontaneous popping was so common as to be unnoticeable to me, and I at least wanted the chance to wash off in the restroom.

A friend’s mother, a substitute teacher I loved dearly, ran into me at a school event. I hadn’t seen her in years. Genuinely happy to see me, she grabbed me by the face in one of those loving aunt ways.

One of my zits burst into her hand. Mortified, I pretended I didn’t notice, and she followed suit.

College arrived. I had new people to be pretty for — thousands of new people who could potentially judge me. I packed enough OTC acne treatments to last months. They filled up my dorm shower, falling on me every time I stepped in. Exfoliants. Cleansers. Moisturizers. Toners. Oils. Wipes.

I didn’t leave my dorm room without a few layers of makeup. I’ve written about the fact that I wish there were more photos from when I was fat; I started using Photoshop around the same time that my acne descended. Virtually every picture of me from that time period is so amateurly digitally altered that my skin doesn’t even look like skin, so much as a flat swatch stretched haphazardly across some facial features, blurring everything in its wake.

Finally, my dermatologist offered me the Holy Grail of acne treatment. I had tried clindamycin, all sorts of prescription-strength ointments, antibiotics, to no avail. (Had I known I had PCOS at the time, I would have asked for something anti-androgenic — but no one was the wiser, and I didn’t think that the thing that was stopping my periods was also wrecking my skin.)

She wrote me a prescription for Accutane.

She assured me it was safe. “I’d give it to my own kids,” she said. I honestly didn’t give a shit. I didn’t know about Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis at the time, and I didn’t know that those were possible side effects. I didn’t know that I would get chronic dry eye and dry mouth from the Accutane, but that wouldn’t have stopped me, either. Even the painful eczema that blistered my hands a year later wouldn’t have stopped me.

Accutane is so teratogenic that every single pill in the blister pack was accompanied by an image of a pregnant woman with an X through her; I had to pass a quiz on contraception every month just to fill the prescription.

And sure enough, my skin got better. It flaked; it peeled; it cracked. I woke up every morning with mysterious scratches all over my arm, as though a cat had clawed me in my sleep. I didn’t give a shit. My acne was going away.

And it’s stayed away for years.

I sometimes wonder if I’d do it again — risk my digestive track, my sight, my reproductive organs just to have clearer skin. Now that I’m in love with someone with Crohn’s, how could I risk inflicting that upon myself?

But knowing what I know now, I know what that answer would be. I know that if I confronted my eighteen-year-old self with this knowledge — that beautiful young woman with the long black hair, big green eyes, and broken skin — her answer would be the same.

Damn straight I’ll risk it, she’d say. Because acne fucking hurts.

I think I’m the ovary whisperer or some shit

Polycystic Ovary

What my ovaries look like. Source: women-health-info.com

I have so many “coincidental” run-ins with women with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), you’d begin to think this weren’t some exotic disorder so rare as to stump doctors when you mention it!

Shopping for underwear, for example. The other day, I was at Aerie (whose stores don’t carry bra sizes above D, the fuck is up with that?) seeking nethergarments when I realized, holy hell, I have no idea what size I should be wearing. (They were labeled small, medium, large, and x-large.)

I asked a lady who looked about college age what she thought. “I have no idea what size I am anymore, my weight has changed so much,” I said. “My pant size is like an 8, what do you think?”

I learned quickly that she was the garrulous type. “I have the same problem,” she said, squeezing five words into a nanosecond. “I just lost a bunch of weight after gaining a bunch of weight. I’m about a 6 in the waist but a 10 in the hips.”

Being similarly hourglassy, I thought this was great! “Oh, we’re totally the same size then!” I said. “What do you wear?” She replied that she wore medium thongs but large in every other cut.

“Yea,” she continued, “I have this condition that makes my weight change like crazy. It’s called PCOS.”

“No kidding, I have that too!” I said to my cyster. We then jammed for the next, like, ten minutes about cysts, pelvic pain, diabetes, therapeutic birth control, Metformin, and all sorts of gynecological goodness.

Either my ovaries have a homing device to find ovaries just as jacked up, or this issue is common enough that people are wanting to start to talk about it. Maybe a little Column A, a little Column B.

I can’t tell you how many conversations I have start with somebody saying, “I have something called PCOS.” At work. On Facebook. On random Internet forums. At the mall. At subway stops. You name it.

Doctors: pay attention. We ovary-owners are getting wise. Step up your game.

I’m the thinnest I’ve ever been… and in the worst shape of my life

Lazy cat

My cat is lazy, too, but his jumping skills are way more impressive than mine.

Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. There has been one time in my post-pubescent life that I weighed less than I do now. I was 14, and basically starving myself.

I’ve also been in worse shape. When I was in the fifth grade. I could totally go back in time and outrun my 10-year-old self.

But the point remains: I spent most of my adult life fat (clinically obese), but I was in much better shape then than I am now that I am thin.

I ate more vegetables, too. I enjoyed a low-fat vegetarian diet replete with tofu, vegetables of all sorts — and now I’m craving some grilled asparagus! — and delicious spices. Curry. Chili powder. Turmeric. Sage.

I was much more active! In college, I walked about an hour every day on hilly terrain, refusing to take the shuttle bus. I ran 5ks. I was strong as hell, and could out-plank pretty much anyone I knew. Any time somebody needed something to be lifted, I volunteered. Carting my heavy-ass 88-key full-weighted keyboard and amp from gig to gig was a breeze.

I’ve had a “healthy” BMI (whatever the hell that means) for just a few months, and now, I get winded when I run for more than a few minutes. I’m having a harder time lifting the office water cooler. I can’t do as many pushups as I could about 40 lbs ago.

Does that mean that the process of becoming thin made me unhealthy? Nope. Probably has more to do with the fact that I’m lazy as hell and thoroughly enjoy sitting on my ass.

However, it does show that thinner does not equal more healthy.