Make Feminism Hairy Again

When I decided to grow out my body hair, I found few role models.

Google led me to a handful of celebrity rebels who had at one time or another eschewed the razor and flaunted small tufts of light-colored armpit hair. (Here’s looking at you, Jemima Kirke and Miley Cyrus.) But there were so few of these examples that I kept coming across the same picture of Julia Roberts on red carpet with armpit hair in 1999. As academic Breanne Fahs observed in 2011, “the removal of [female] body hair is sufficiently pervasive that it retains its invisibility.” (See article)

In my nearly 27 years on earth, in fact, I can remember less than a handful of instances in which I have seen body hair on another woman. Once on a family trip when I was around 12 years old, my aunt Pam told my cousin Clara and me to avoid shaving our leg hair for “as long as possible;” showing us her own sparse, grown-out leg hair. A few years ago in Chicago, I saw a young woman with bleached armpit hair on the Halsted bus. Around the same time, I met a few adult women with leg and armpit hair at Jerusalem Farm, the Catholic Worker-esque Christian hippie community my then-boyfriend, now-husband Thom was part of in Kansas City, Missouri. But these instances are memorable because of their rarity.

Every other woman I’ve observed in these decades — young, middle-aged, or elderly — has displayed nothing but perfectly smooth, hairless calves, thighs, bikini lines, and armpits. Teachers, check-out ladies, professors, moms, older sisters, actresses… everyone. Even the grandmother figures in my life — people for whom a fall would be a medical emergency — are somehow still bending over to shave their legs in the shower.


Weirdly, many of the articles I came across when I decided to grow out my body hair made it sound like I would be in good company. They told me the revolution was already well underway. In the Guardian in 2019, Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow wrote, “Among both celebrities and the masses, female body hair is sprouting all over.” She cited a handful of celebrities who have publicly displayed body hair at least once and an Instagram awareness campaign titled “#januhairy.”

But if this were true, if body hair were indeed “sprouting all over,” I would have at least one friend growing their body hair out, right? I would have seen leg or armpit hair on a woman at the grocery store or out walking her dog? Certainly women’s magazines wouldn’t have to pull out a 1999 photo of Julia Roberts every time they needed empirical evidence of female body hair?

* * *

The more I look for body hair trail blazers, the more I realize how rare it is. Even feminists shave. Most feminists shave.

In a recent episode of the podcast Hysteria titled “Beauty In The After Times,” the host panel discussed their stay-at-home personal grooming routines during COVID-19. Recurring guest Michaela Watkins said, “There’s some hair on the legs… [but] you gotta shave the pits, that’s not up for negotiation. Erin Ryan responded, “I always find it admirable when women don’t. Because it’s like, I wish that I was that type of woman and I’m just not that type of woman.”

Thus the female shaving norm is not even under investigation by mainstream feminists, at least not here. Not shaving is for a certain “type of woman.”

This phrasing reminds me of the ideology of the relatively new women’s subscription razor service, Billie.

See orange tank top model. What is that?

Billie occupies a contradictory space. The brand claims to be taking revolutionary action by depicting “real” women in their ad campaigns – i.e. women with grown-out body hair. But the fact remains that Billie is a subscription razor service. All of that hair they photograph is about to be mown-down by their high-tech, female-form-specific razors. Billie notes that women shave ten times more surface area of their bodies than men do. Rather than ask why, they made a razor sturdy enough to get the job done.

Their website claims a feminist mission: “We noticed that women were overpaying for razors and shamed for having body hair. Kind of a double whammy, when you think about it. So, we did away with the Pink Tax and put body hair on the big screen.” They also attempt to account for the contradiction: “Why, yes we do [sell razors] . . because women who like shaving ha[ve] been overpaying for razors for far too long.”

But notice the wording: women who like shaving.

Perhaps Billie occupies a necessary middle distance. It’s possible that after seeing Billie’s hair-embracing ads for the last two years, I became subconsciously more accepting of my own body hair. Billie points out that until their ad campaign, women’s razor advertisements had universally shown women shaving already-hairless legs. Though that’s sort of hilarious, it is also what most of us do, is it not? Shave off nearly-invisible stubble? First of all, that makes a razor last longer. But second, and more importantly, the appearance of hairlessness is the primary goal. Though they may exist, I do not know women who oscillate between fully grown-out and clean-shaven pits and legs – as a man might with his facial hair (e.g. my husband).

This framing of the shaving issue — that some women “like” to shave while others do not; that some women are the “type” to grow their body hair while others are not, is dishonest. Even cowardly.

This free choice framing of the shaving question is everywhere. In an article titled “Why I Can Shave My Body Hair And Still Be A Feminist,” for Cub Magazine in 2019, Melissa Tran wrote:

“For me, shaving my legs, my armpits, or wherever I choose, is important for me to feel good about myself. . . Feminism is entirely about equality so that we can all make our own choices. If you want to be hairless from top to toe, do it! If you want to grow your body hair all over, do it! It’s none of my business what you choose to do, its your choice, and as long as it’s for yourself, that’s all that really matters.”

But it’s simply not true that shaving is a simple matter of choice. Shaving is the majority position. Speaking to Marie Claire Magazine in 2018, Fahs (of the 2011 study) said that 93-99% of women regularly remove their body hair.  Another statistic I’ve seen from 2016 (from Mintel, a UK market research company) said that 77% of women remove their underarm hair and 85% shave their legs. As Rosy Tahan wrote in The Gazelle in 2016, “Choosing to shave is not nearly as difficult as choosing not to, and as women we need to make it easier — and normal — for other women to make the latter choice.”

In my experience of the last six months, I am the only woman in any space with visible body hair – whether at a backyard barbeque with friends, out on a walk, at the pool in my apartment complex, at the grocery store, or a family gathering. And I don’t like it. I’m not a natural rebel. I would much rather have things in common with people, especially with other women.

I sometimes look to Instagram for the small community of hairy women (#leghairdontcare), just to assure myself that I’m not crazy for doing this. Because in my physical, day-to-day life, I am very much alone.

Moreover, as a cisgender, heterosexual, thin, white woman, eschewing hair removal is an elective breaking of rank. I am used to fitting in, even good at it. As my husband Thom says, the system was working for me. I am uncomfortable feeling physically different from my peers because I’m unpracticed.

So why do it?


Three summers ago, I grew out my leg and armpit hair for the first time ever. At 23, I had no idea what my armpit or leg hair even looked like. I’d been shaving off millimeters of stubble for a decade by then. I started in 7th grade, when my armpit hair was just barely beginning to sprout and my leg hair was just beginning to thicken and darken.

As might seem natural, the return of hair in places on my body I’d spent 10 years keeping hairless created all kinds of emotions: disgust, shame, self-consciousness, and body dysmorphia.

That first time I grew my hair out, I went through many episodes of crying about feeling ugly to Thom. Eventually, I shaved my leg and armpit hair again. I couldn’t deal. “Go off duty,” Thom said. But surprisingly, shaving again did not really make me feel better. The seal had been broken. I was now aware of how much work it took to adhere to the hairlessness norm. I knew of a non-prickly existence. I thought my legs looked weird bare, too. Any illusion that all had been fine; that I had been loving and accepting my body the way it was had been shattered. I couldn’t win either way.

I let my hair grow out again the next winter but shaved it again the following summer. Then, this summer of 2020, with COVID-19 keeping me mostly within the walls of my apartment, I decided I wanted to really stick it out and make peace with my naturally-occurring body hair. And I’ve realized a few things in the process.

First of all, the number one critic of my body hair is me. Almost no one has commented on it, with the exception of my best friend from childhood. I, on the other hand, have been hyperaware of its presence, particularly in social situations. In summer clothing, my leg hair is visible every time I wear shorts, a dress, or shorts; my armpit hair is visible every time I wear a tank top or something with tiny little sleeves. And because cropped pants are very “in” right now (cropped joggers, 7/8 leggings, cropped jeans, cropped everything) the hairiest part of my leg (my lower calf and ankle) shows even when I wear pants!

And yet, I have also made wonderful discoveries along the way. Leg hair feels so cool in the wind. I never knew! When I run outside, I can actually feel the air moving over my legs. My legs don’t get itchy anymore, not even in tight pants like leggings or skinny jeans. I can take a shower in 10 minutes. My armpits don’t bleed or sting when I sit out in the humid, midwestern summer air.

Thom has fielded an endless barrage of self-doubt from me, but he never stoops to my level. “What if I had armpit hair when we met?” I asked, “would you still have been attracted to me?” “I probably would have been more attracted to you,” he said.

One of Professor Rebecca M. Herzig’s most compelling observations in Plucked: A History of Hair Removal is as follows:

“Indeed, perhaps the most intriguing finding in the social-scientific literature on body hair is that while U.S. women readily recognize the normative pressures on them to remove their hair, and report those pressures as determining the behavior of other women, most do not accept adherence to social norms as determinative of their own practices. . . Put simply, Americans tend to describe other people as dupes of social pressure, while narrating their (our) own actions as self-directed and free.

Social pressure is not a good reason to do anything, and yet I realized that it was the only reason I had been shaving. The reason I used to “like” to shave was because it made me feel confident. Why? Because hairlessness is the default norm for attractiveness. And as a woman, I had internalized the message that attractiveness equals access to power, which equals safety and happiness. So sure. I “liked” shaving in the same way that I like having friends, opportunities, and being accepted. In not shaving, I’m protesting the idea that I needed to be artificially hairless to have access to these things in the first place.

Blessed Are the Untamed

Glennon Doyle’s Feminist Spirituality

I picked up Glennon Doyle’s new book Untamed at the recommendation of a friend who wrote to me in response to my Rebecca Solnit post. I was hoping, as I do when I pick up new memoirs, to escape into Doyle’s life for a few hours. I especially wanted to hear about Doyle’s marriage to soccer god Abby Wambach.

I soon found that Doyle’s purpose was not to rehash her story, but to ask me to reflect on my own. Her overarching goal — written in short, fiery bursts — is to teach women “untame” themselves, i.e. to challenge the external structure (*cough* patriarchy) that has molded women into a common, unhappy shape.

The task that follows recognition, per Doyle, is to remake oneself according only to an inner sense of the good. Doyle calls this her inner Knowing.

“So instead of asking ourselves what’s right or wrong, we must ask ourselves: What is true and beautiful? Then our imagination rises inside us, thanks us for finally consulting it after all these years, and tells us a story.”

Glennon Doyle, Untamed
Let’s get a good look at that vibrant cover art!

Based on the style of Untamed and Doyle’s corresponding social media presence, one might say that Doyle has become more preacher than memoirist. Rather than dwell on her long journey through pain and chaos, by which she finally arrived in the light, Doyle spends most of her time sharing the light she has found. Each short chapter of Untamed reads like a sermon, beginning with a personal anecdote and moving into a generally applicable metaphor about life, truth, and being human.

What makes Doyle unique, of course, is that she preaches to women, and the higher power she points them towards is found within.

No topic, question, or situation is excepted from the filter of Doyle’s inner Knowing; nothing is left to any external authority. Not even (or perhaps, especially not) the Bible. According to Doyle, the moral of the Adam and Eve story in Genesis is not “when a woman wants more, she defies God, betrays her partner, curses her family, and destroys the world.”

Instead, Eve’s is a story of creation that begins with self-trust (replacing blind obedience), by which humanity enters into continuous, refining process of regeneration that is Life itself:

“Maybe Eve was never meant to be our warning. Maybe she was meant to be our model. Own your wanting. Eat the apple. Let it burn.”

-Glennon Doyle, Untamed

Even John Milton, who would probably disagree with this take on Eve, would have to affirm Doyle’s right to filter the Bible through her inner Knowing. In 1644, in late-Reformation England, he argued against literary censorship in Parliament, saying:

“Truth is compared in scripture to a streaming fountain; if her waters flow not in a perpetual progression they sicken into a muddy pool of conformity and tradition.”

And further:

“The light which we have gained, was given us, not to be ever staring on, but by it to discover onward things more remote from our knowledge.”

John Milton, “Areopagitica”

Doyle is not the first feminist to reinterpret Eve’s act as laudable. I found an archived New York Times article from the 1972 reporting on a feminist religious service in which the attendees recited the following in unison: “We hold that Eve performed the first free act.” But Doyle may be the first to help answer the question that follows after such an assertion: What next?

* * * *

In a gender studies class during my junior year of college, we read an article that posited that Christian notions of morality are primarily helpful for men seeking to become whole. For example, in my husband’s favorite Gospel narrative “The Sermon on the Mount,” (Matt. 5-7) Jesus teaches men to recognize the beautiful, undervalued capacities they have for building the kingdom of God; qualities tamed by patriarchal norms of masculinity. Jesus enumerates them as follows:

From The New Testament by David Bentley Hart. Matt. 5:1-12. He uses the word “blissful” instead of the traditional “blessed” because he says the Greek word originally had a connotation of “divine or heavenly bliss.” (Alternatively, this blog might have been titled: “How Blissful the Untamed.”)

It’s hard to imagine, based on the way Jesus operated, that he was speaking to a crowd of destitute mourners — gentle, merciful, and fighting for righteousness, when he first taught the Beatitudes. He was not known for preaching to the choir, as it were. He was known for challenging everything people thought they knew about God and religion. Surely, when he gave the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was speaking to a group of people who were not expecting to hear this message. Perhaps his audience was men in power, out of touch with the suffering masses; out of touch with strengths within themselves that might change their society for the better.*

*(As I have been taught, the book of Matthew was written for a well-educated, monied Jewish audience.)

Clearly, the Beatitudes are not an assertion of patriarchal masculinity, but rather a call to its opposite. It’s strange, then, that the male keepers of the Christian tradition have applied the Beatitudes to women to uphold their secondary, subjugated, tamed condition within patriarchy. This message might be summarized as: “You are already virtuous, you who suffer and are subjugated, so keep doing what you’re doing.” According to a NIV bible I recently acquired (for research purposes…) called “The Woman’s Bible,” the “Beatitudes for Women” are as follows:

The “description” column is surely not advising a woman to leave her unfulfilling marriage to a man, upset her three children, and marry a woman, as Doyle did.

As I see it, there are a few approaches for untaming our understanding of God — particularly as women inheriting a patriarchal spiritual tradition. We can (1) change how we read the words of our spiritual texts; (2) keep some pieces and toss others; or (3) put aside the old texts and teachers and spend time in learning from newly untamed, female spiritual teachers.

One writer who works to challenge common interpretations of the Bible is Mary Karr. In her poem “Who the Meek are Not,” Karr redefines meekness as follows:

“Who the Meek Are Not” by Mary Karr, from Sinners Welcome. Found here.

My now-husband, Thom, borrowed Sinners Welcome from me when we were seniors in college just getting to know one another. When he returned it, he highlighted this poem as one that had really resonated with him.

I had never taken particular notice of it, but I liked his noticing of it. Four years later, I can see how Karr’s portrayal of meekness describes Thom and how he moves through the world. There is great power within him — occasionally unleashed on the dancefloor — but he spends most of his time holding it back, listening intently.

It strikes me now that in order to understand Karr’s vision of meekness, one has to know what one is capable of. A woman must learn her unique strengths in order to exercise them. She must know recognize her power in order to check it. Doyle’s goal, in Untamed, and in preaching to women who follow her on Instagram, is to teach them to find the stallion’s great power within. (Except in her metaphor, it’s the cheetah.) Without knowing wildness, one cannot practice true meekness. It is useless for a woman to listen for the call of her inner Knowing if she does not believe in her ability to respond to it.

I have tried many times to figure out how to make the Bible speak to me without the impediment of patriarchy, or even the assumed-male reader. For example, I recently tried to change all of the pronouns in Proverbs:

After reading Untamed, I’m ready to put down project of re-writing the Bible and instead to let Glennon Doyle, and others, be my teachers for a little while. Beginning in late March, Doyle began conducting “morning meetings” on her Instagram, in which she spends approximately 10 minutes talking to her followers about her current emotional and/or spiritual state and offering wisdom.

I have started tuning into these meetings. Although the material is often repeated content from the book (likely spurred by having to cancel her release tour due to COVID-19), she makes it new for the day at hand. Occasionally we get to hear from Abby Wambach, too. One can tell that Doyle feels great responsibility for the spiritual wellbeing of her readers and followers. For a writer, this daily communing and encouragement is certainly above-and-beyond. I find myself in admiration of it, of her.

Snapshot from a “Morning Meeting.” Check out her instagram here.

To close, I encourage anyone, especially women, to check out Untamed. And I offer its author, Glennon Doyle these rewritten Beatitudes:

Blessed are they who seek what is true and beautiful,

For they shall find it.

Blessed are they who listen to their inner Knowing,

For God is within them.

Blessed are they who see and challenge their taming,

For they shall be untamed.

Thanks for Nothing, Father Ted

“I didn’t need to talk to the girl. I talked to the boys.”

-Father Theodore Hesburgh

Last summer, I picked up the new Andrea Dworkin essay collection Last Days at Hot Slit (2019) and was surprised to find my alma mater featured.

In a speech Dworkin gave in New York in 1975, titled “The Rape Atrocity and the Boy Next Door,” she describes a gang-rape that happened at Notre Dame in 1974, offering it as one of many examples of how male-founded and male-controlled institutions (such as the university and the justice system) are ultimately loyal to male interests.

“The girl” Hesburgh referenced was an 18-year-old South Bend high school student who was gang raped by six Notre Dame football players in a men’s dormitory on campus.

According to a reporter, the girl had driven immediately to the hospital after this happened, and the police investigator and prosecutor believed her story. And yet, per Dworkin: “All of the male university authorities who investigated the alleged gang rape determined that the victim was a slut. This they did, all of them, by interviewing the accused rapists. . . The coach of the Notre Dame football team placed responsibility for the alleged gang rape on the worsening morals of women who watch soap operas.”

Hesburgh had given the aforementioned excuse to a reporter, Robert Sam Anson, when Anson asked why no one from the university had interviewed the victim during the internal investigation. The university’s official position, after interviewing the six “boys,” was that no rape had taken place. The perpetrators were disciplined not for rape, but for having had sex on campus, which was against the rules. (In fact, it was still against the rules when I was a student at ND from 2012-2016).

The takeaway, then, is that Hesburgh and other Notre Dame administrators believed a story that went like this: six Notre Dame football players had sex with the one 18-year-old high school girl in the same room in one night, and this activity was NOT sexual assault.

(Anson’s article was titled “The Championship Season” and recapped here.)

“Our characters are defamed, as a gender class, so that no individual woman has any credibility before the law or society at large. Our enemies — rapists and their defenders — not only go unpunished; they remain influential arbiters of morality . . . “

Andrea Dworkin

This story, comprising only 2 of the pages in Dworkin’s 400-page collection, lit me with fury. Nearly every day during my four years at Notre Dame, I walked through the student center and passed a prominently displayed picture of Fr. Hesburgh, in his priest’s collar, holding hands and singing with Dr. Martin Luther King Junior. He is revered on campus, saint-like in the eyes of many for his courageous civil rights work. Perhaps that is why this barely-reported disregard of an 18-year-old rape victim came as such a blow.

Every ND student/visitor and/or South Bend resident knows this image well. It’s even been enshrined as a statue in downtown South Bend.

At the same time, that response was not surprising to me. This attitude of male-firstness remained alive and well at Notre Dame during my time there. We lived in gender-segregated dorms, and it was well-known that behavioral rules were much stricter in women’s dorms than in men’s. Guys could get away with throwing a raging party with booze and sex and loud music “as long as the door was closed”; girls could not. We girls had to venture into male-dominated spaces to be part of the weekend social scene — either that or watch Disney movies with our rector. As a result, to participate in the campus culture, we left our comfort zones. We were often in a vulnerable position because we were not in control of the spaces or the substances that made up the social scene; and moreover, because we knew the rules would likely be more strictly applied to us than they were to the boys.

“Gender relations” was a much-discussed a structural problem during my time there, and the subject of many an Observer “Viewpoint” column. The system was something we were frustrated by, but not something anyone believed they had the power to change. Allegedly, certain big donors would pull their funding if on-campus housing were ever to be integrated.

Academically and culturally, Hesburgh shaped Notre Dame into what it is today; everyone at the school believes that. He was president of the university for 35 years: from 1952 to 1987. While I was there, Hesburgh was in his last years, but still went to his office on the 14th floor of the Hesburgh library every day. He was mostly blind by then, but still lucid. I knew students who visited him and read him the newspaper. When he died during my junior year, Notre Dame held a massive memorial, with speakers including President Barack Obama. If Notre Dame Football is the House that Rockne built, then the University of Notre Dame is the House that Hesburgh built. And he built it on a foundation where men’s words were true and women’s words were irrelevant.

* * *

During my freshman orientation weekend at Notre Dame in August 2012, all of the women in my new dorm, Ryan Hall, were given a copy of a book called Thanking Father Ted. It’s a hefty book, 400+ pages, with a photo of Hesburgh on the cover. The book’s publisher, a 501(c)(3) called the Thanking Father Ted Foundation, defines their project as follows:

In May 2006, the ND Alumni Association asked a group of us alumnae in Chicago to plan the first ever event for alumnae only. We invited Fr. Ted to be the keynoter because if it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t have our degrees.

That was also the message I picked up after reading the introduction to the book, and skimming its contents. In essence: But for this man’s legendary generosity, you wouldn’t be here.

Eighteen years old and two days into college, this was the first time I’d heard anything like that. Education for women had been a reality in America for a long time. Both of my grandmothers have undergraduate degrees, and one has a master’s. My Catholic high school in Boise, Idaho had been coed since its founding. Rightly or wrongly – at the time, I did not think that an opportunity to go to college was anything other than my right. I was surprised and confused to receive this message to the contrary right after crossing the threshold.

Father Ted first “allowed” women to enroll at Notre Dame in the fall of 1972. Two years later, when an 18-year-old woman was gang-raped by six football players in an on-campus dorm, Father Ted overrode an internal investigator’s decision to expel the perpetrators out of “compassion.” When I was an undergrad, nearly 40 years later, a one-year academic suspension (and no legal action) was standard punishment for guilty perpetrators in campus sexual assault cases. Thanks, Father Ted!

Over the years, Notre Dame has to national attention again and again for its horrible record on sexual assault cases. The most well-known case was in 2011, when a Notre Dame football player sexually assaulted a 19-year-old Saint Mary’s student named Lizzy Seeberg. She reported the assault to the campus police, but was warned by a friend of her attacker that “messing with Notre Dame Football” was “a bad idea.” Seeberg committed suicide 10 days later. (Read that story here and here.)

“Remember, rape is not committed by psychopaths or deviants from our social norms – rape is committed by exemplars of our social norms.”

Andrea Dworkin

Soon after Seeberg’s death, and during my time as a student, small groups of passionate student activists and administrators were at work to make the internal investigation process more just for women and sexual-assault survivors. Many of these women were themselves survivors of campus sexual assault. During my time at Notre Dame, I knew of many stories of rape on campus that happened while I was there, stories that did not gain national attention. In fact, we got a university-wide email every time a sexual assault was reported. These alert emails came with startling regularity.

The activists gained ground slowly, but met a lot of resistance along the way – from boys who gigglingly wrote things like “No means yes, yes means anal” on their dorm-room white boards, to administrators who still hesitated to dish out any penalty greater than a one-year suspension, even in the most heinous cases. (This meant that sexual assault victims, usually women, had to switch schools if they did not want to see their attacker on campus again a year later).

All told, reading Andrea Dworkin’s work in 2019 made me wonder whether, had Hesburgh had used his power and standing as a moral exemplar differently, gender inequality and sexual violence would not have been the prominent issues they were during my time at Notre Dame. Had Hesburgh talked to the girl back in 1974, Notre Dame — and perhaps more universities following in its stead — might have been a different, better, safer place.

Growing Up Female: On Nonexistence

Rebecca Solnit’s new memoir Recollections of My Nonexistence resembles her many essay collections that came before it: provocative yet relatively opaque. She weaves ideas together, creates surprising connections, and guides readers to see their experiences in new ways (a la “Men Explain Things to Me”) — but she does not delve into personal details. Unlike other contemporary memoirists, she writes towards commonality. Through brief vignettes that begin with her own experiences as a young woman, she reveals the conditional of all young woman. She makes us visible to ourselves.

Thanks to Subterranean Books in Saint Louis, MO for shipping books during quarantine 🙂

As a reader and 26-year-old woman, I found this book hard to read — but not for the usual reasons. Solnit pushes right up to the edge of Emily Dickinson’s advice that “the truth must dazzle gradually.” Many of her conclusions felt like looking into direct sunlight. In a way, I need to write this review to process that initial sting.

Though her memoir collection also includes essays writes about growing up in San Francisco, studying the southwestern U.S., and becoming a writer, Solnit’s most powerful chapters meditate on feminism, i.e. growing up female. She uses the titular word “nonexistence” because “in my case, it wasn’t a silencing. . . no speech was stopped; it never started, or it had been stopped so far back I don’t remember how it happened.” Her goal, she states, is encouragement: “a word that, though it carries the stigma of niceness, literally means to instill courage.” To do so, she begins by examining how courage is ripped away from young women. She then discusses how they might go about getting it back.

Solnit’s careful recounting of her past nonexistence (in “silent fury”) shed new light on my own. I’ll explore a few such instances here.

“I became an expert at fading and slipping and sneaking away, backing off, squirming out of tight situations, dodging unwanted hugs and kisses and hands, at taking up less and less space on the bus as yet another man spread into my seat, at gradually disengaging, or suddenly absenting myself.”

“Life During Wartime”

For me, passages such as these yank to the surface a decade-long pattern of suffering under patriarchy, but not understanding what was happening to me, or knowing what to call it. Solnit’s words brought up so many memories; memories that make me sweaty and nervous; memories that make me sad about the state of the world; memories that, despite my efforts to bury them, inform the way I move through the world.

“Dodging unwanted hugs and kisses,” takes me back to my first job out of college as an executive assistant to a 69-year-old lawyer, a founding partner at a Chicago law firm and real estate attorney for one of the world’s richest men. He would ask me to dinner with business partners, take me out for drinks in the afternoon (“You’ve never had mezcal? I’m ordering it for you”), put his arm around me, ask me why I wasn’t having fun, try to kiss me in greeting (he got the cheek), tell me I was attractive, and make sex jokes to his coworkers, knowing part of my job was to listen to all of his phone calls and read all of his emails.

In response to this treatment, I, to my own frustration, did nothing but comply and evade. “Okay I’ll drink that,” “yeah I’m fine,” “haha,” “okay,” just get through the day and get out. I vented to my friends, where it was safe, but never to him. As Solnit describes, evasiveness stems from a fear of escalation. Escalation leads to violence. She writes, “Men would make proposals, demands, endeavor to strike up conversations and the endeavors quickly turned to fury. I knew of no way to say No, I’m not interested, that would not be inflammatory, and so there was nothing to say. They was no work words could do for me, and so I had no words.”

Eventually, I gave my boss what it seemed he wanted: I vanished. I packed my things and called him to let him know that I was quitting. To him, it was a shock; to me, it was the natural conclusion of his year-long effort to annihilate my personhood. That was in August 2017. When the Harvey Weinstein story broke two months later, I believed for the first time that I had done the right thing. (And considered that maybe I should’ve gone to HR, or Ronan Farrow – but that’s another story.)

“I erased myself as much as possible, because to be was to be a target.”

“Life During Wartime”

Maybe it started earlier than a decade ago. As a 10-year-old in Boise, Idaho, I took a Hunter’s Safety class with my dad, my friend Austyn, and her dad. Austyn’s dad was an avid hunter who wanted to take us duck hunting with him that season. I was game for anything – I just wanted to hang out with my buddy, even if the activity did not particularly appeal to me. The rest of the class was full of other young boys and their dads. One evening, as I remember it, the teacher called on me to answer what turned out to be a trick question. My hand had not been raised. He said, “You there.” I snapped to attention, the blood rushing to my face. “What’s the difference between bending the law and breaking the law?” I quietly began to stumble through some explanation of how the two might be different, but the teacher interrupted. “Wrong, he said, “there’s no difference.” Then another kid’s dad shouted: “Women, am I right?!” and the whole room cracked up.

I took away a feeling that it was dangerous to speak; that I lacked knowledge because of my gender; and that men only listened to me insofar as it gave them an opportunity to appear superior, or to make other men laugh.

“Thinness is a literal armor against being reproached for being soft, a word that means both yielding, cushiony flesh and the moral weakness that comes from being undisciplined. And from consuming food and taking up space.”

“Disappearing Acts”

Around 16-years-old, when my body started shape-shifting, I was horrified to be losing the one thing I had long been praised for — being skinny. When I tried to regain control of my body, I tripped some internal brain wiring and fell into the obsessive hamster wheel of an eating disorder. I went from 120 ish pounds to 96, eating with rigidity and running every day. I stopped caring about boys, about friends, about what people thought of me – which in a dissociative way, felt like freedom. But as my condition deteriorated, I realized it was a dark kind of freedom. When I began to fight against it almost a year later, it was because I began to understand that life had moved on without me – sports, friends, boys, prom etc. I had wholeheartedly embraced nonexistence, only to find that nonexistence did not lead to societal acceptance, but to a lonely death.

“And so there I was where so many young woman were, trying to locate ourselves somewhere between being disdained or shut out for being unattractive and being menaced or resented for being attractive . . . trying to find some impossible balance of being desirable to those we desired and being safe from those we did not.”

“Disappearing Acts”

Most of the compliments about my thinness (and disparaging comments about other girls’ thickening, maturing bodies) came from a grade school friend who later came out as gay. I still remember him telling me that I was pretty “because you are skinny” and that other friends were losing their edge for “fat thighs,” “mom butt,” or “grandma butt.” He called my best friend a “butterface” (i.e. everything looks good but her face). I have no idea how he’d explain himself now, but I imagine that it was a way of processing his own sexuality; of coming to realize that he did not desire women’s bodies, and, taking full advantage of his power as a white male, used his voice to disparage and reject them. As Solnit says, within patriarchy “no [woman] is ever beautiful enough, and everyone is free to judge you.”

It’s a hard truth that in my own experience, the harshest judges were men who felt disempowered themselves – gay men, awkward men, short men, etc. Men whose fathers talked about women disparagingly inherited their menace. It all rained down on the teenage girls in my middle school and high school. And it shaped how we entered the adult world.

“There was a real joy in the creative and intellectual life, but also a withdrawal from all other reals of life. I was like an army that had retreated to its last citadel, which in my case was my mind.”

“Disappearing Acts”
Solnit’s writing desk, given to her by a friend who had been stabbed 15 times by a violent ex-boyfriend. She writes, “Someone tried to silence her. Then she gave me a platform for my voice. Now I wonder if everything I have ever written is a counterweight to that attempt to reduce a young woman to nothing.”

Like Solnit, one of the only places I ever felt confident was in academia. Reading, writing, twirling ideas around my mind like a strand of hair around my index finger. If I am smart, so went my thinking, at least I have somewhere from which to draw courage. And writing was a place where I could say what I was thinking and feeling without fear of upsetting men — in other words, without fear of escalation.

Solnit’s greatest gift to me, and to all women, is finding the courage to become a writer (“despite it all”), and to hold fast to her perspective. She gives young women permission to question the literary and cultural canon, to investigate the untold impacts, and to push for change. She points out how many stories – told in books, on TV, in movie theaters, on podcasts, and in music feature the abuse, torture, and death of young women. Solnit observes this reality and its impact without agreeing that any of this (Tarantino, Eminem, The Ted Bundy Tapes) are productive, revolutionary, or attention-worthy works of art despite their commercial success. For me, that is a powerful permission to stand firm in my aversion to violent “art,” and to call it what it is: mundane.

In addition, Solnit gives herself (and everyone else), permission to put down canonical literary works that subjugate women, such as On the Road by Jack Kerouac:

“I did like some things bout Kerouac’s prose style, just not the gender politics of the three men who were most often meant when people talked about the Beats. . . It seemed to me that I would never be the footloose protagonist, that I was closer to the young Latina on the California farm who gets left behind, and halfway through I put the novel down. The book was going to go on without people like me, and I would go on without it.”

“Diving into the Wreck”

I’d recommend Recollections of My Nonexistence to any and every young woman, with the caveat that it’s not easy to read. But as Solnit herself says, “Sometimes when you are devastated you want not a reprieve but a mirror of your condition or a reminder that you are not alone in it.” Solnit reminds me of this, and makes my experiences, my painful memories, less personal. It’s not my fault that I was taught to be skinny and silent, and that I then became my own oppressor. It’s not my fault that my efforts to push back against the system that annihilates women — efforts such as not wearing makeup, not shaving my body hair, or not wearing a bra – actually exacerbate my fear and self-consciousness when I enter public spaces. It’s not your fault, either.

I’d also recommend it to men. As Solnit points out, “One of the convenient afflictions of power is a lack of [] imaginative extension. For many men it begins in early childhood, with almost exclusively being given stories with male protagonists.” She continues, “Perhaps there should be another term for never looking through the eyes of others, for something less conscious that even single-consciousness would convey.” I established that I have given permission to put down Kerouac (and DFW) thanks to Solnit. Still, I believe I am the better for knowing, intimately, the male reality — and for being taught (by default) to extend my perspective beyond myself.

It’s not always useful to spend a lot of time thinking about the things that make life hard or unfair. It can lead to despair. (In my case, it has to be followed by episodes of Parks and Rec.) What’s more — as Solnit emphasizes repeatedly, categories of doubly-oppressed women, such as young women of color, young women who are gay, or young women whose growing bodies otherwise deviate from Western beauty ideals, have whole additional systems working to exclude and disregard them. That’s a lot to face down, just to exist as a person every day. I don’t know what to do other than begin trying to take up space — even though it scares me.

For more on the treatment of women in Beat literature, read my earlier blog, “Watching Boys Do Stuff.” Thank you, Rebecca Solnit, for giving me permission to quit the Beats, and all woman-erasing literature put to page before or since. Not only giving me permission to quit, but giving me something encouraging to read instead.

Solnit’s signature: a lesson in taking up space ❤

“Watching Boys Do Stuff”: Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters

I recently came across Joyce Johnson’s 1983 book Minor Characters on a Goodreads list of memoirs by women, and I was intrigued to find a female voice from the Beat Generation.

At first, it seemed too good to be true. I hadn’t heard of a female writer among the Beats, even when studying them in college courses. After all, most Beat criticism quotes the following observation from Allen Ginsberg: “The social organization which is most true of itself to the artist is the boy gang.” So who was Joyce Johnson? Would her book have literary merit, or would it be a just-okay read, piggybacking off of Kerouac’s celebrity?

Johnson’s cover features the original photo used in a 1993 Gap ad “Kerouac wore khakis.” As one can see, her figure was gently erased.

Speaking for herself, Johnson is almost unrecognizable as a Beat woman. Whereas in On the Road, et al., the women are all legs and beds – sirens of small towns, briefly featured, ultimately discarded – Johnson is a Barnard graduate and aspiring writer, living in New York City. She holds jobs at various literary agencies, gets a book deal, and rents her own apartment. Kerouac mopes through town, between stays at his mother’s house, and crashes on her living room floor.

One of the highlights of reading Johnson is precisely what she has promised in her title: a sketch of life as a minor character, a girl stuck on the sidelines of the boy gang camaraderie. Consider this image of Edie Parker in Johnson’s opening chapter:

“One night Lucien Carr found an empty barrel and rolled Jack Kerouac home in it — that’s a solemnly recorded fact. As it crashes along Broadway through the hot, empty streets with Lucien attempting to push it faster and faster, I see Edie Parker running after it a little off to the side. She’s telling herself she’s having a swell time as she looks out for cops over her shoulder.”

This scene calls to mind Claire Vaye Watkins’ 2015 essay “On Pandering,” in which Watkins introduces the concept of “watching boys do stuff”:

“As a young woman I had one and only one intense and ceaseless pastime, though that’s not the right word, though neither is hobby or passion. I have practiced this activity with religious devotion and for longer than I can remember. . . I’ve filled my days doing this, spent all my free time and a great amount of time that was not free doing it. That hobby, that interest, that passion was this: watching boys do stuff.”

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This photo was featured in Watkins’ original piece.

When I first read Watkins’ essay, part of my experience that had remained a nameless frustration suddenly presented itself clearly. Friday nights during junior high and high school spent watching football games, in makeup and tight shirts, even though I didn’t like football. Going over to boys’ houses, only to get stuck watching them play video games. Studying abroad with boys who were always saying “take a picture of me here,” “Liz, can you videotape me doing this?” Senior year of college, sitting silently with my cup of whisky (all they had), listening to them debate in ever-louder registers about a random philosophical question. Primarily interested in each other as opponents, the girls mostly watched.

Reflecting on the social conditioning that leads to hours, days, collective months of forced spectatorship can be embittering. And Johnson understands that – and understood it long before anyone had started using the hashtag #watchingboysdostuff.

Of course, the practice of spectating and the art of writing are naturally intertwined. Baudelaire’s flaneur roams the streets at the turn of the 20th century, yet lives inside his mind – David Foster Wallace writes “Fiction writers as a species tend to be oglers . . . They are born watchers,“ at the turn of the 21st. Johnson recognizes herself as a natural observer, quiet and watchful. But she moved in a community of writers, and, upon reading her eloquent prose, it seems should have had equal footing within it.

Thus Johnson explains not only what it means to be a woman in a male-dominated society, but specifically how it feels to be an emerging female writer in a literary movement that prioritized the kind of writing that only (white, privileged) maleness afforded.

For example, on the first day of a creative writing class at Barnard, a male professor asked Johnson’s class of young women, “Who among you want to be writers?” Slowly, they all raised their hands. He responded, “I’m sorry to say this . . . first of all, if you were going to be writers, you wouldn’t be enrolled in this class. You couldn’t even be enrolled in school. You’d be hopping freight [trains, riding through America.”

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The young Johnson.

Johnson writes, “The young would-be writers in this room have understood instantly that of course there is no hope. One by one their hands have all come down.”

To read Minor Characters, then, is to be part of a victory – to bring to life a tale that was ignored and stifled for a long time. Moreover, to hear the unsexy account of how Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg moved through the world is unexpectedly heartening – it gives hope to the quieter type, the more socially-boxed-in person, that he/she can live fully, and write well, too.


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