When the Personal Doesn’t Feel Political (Enough)

“[O]ne needs just a certain amount of trouble.” -Robert Rauschenberg

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Have you ever signed a petition or deleted an app as a “political” gesture, without fully understanding the reasons or implications of your actions?

Welcome to 2017 and what it means to live in an age where everything you do is mediated by social media.

Admittedly, I do this on a weekly basis (at least), and I certainly was among the 200,000+ people who deleted the Uber app after the company tweeted that it would be eliminating surge pricing during the taxi strike that resulted from Trump’s immigration ban on January 28. The #DeleteUber “movement” quickly swept over social media, and it felt like I had to oblige: it was a small way that I could politicize my personal actions and make some sort of a difference. That was my rationale.

I probably sound ignorant and solipsistic, which maybe I am, but I know that I am not alone in feeling confused about how to handle living in Trump’s America—in big and small ways alike. Do you just go along with the ebbs and flows of what your Facebook friends are telling you to do (calling representatives, deleting Uber, meeting up for peaceful protests)? Do you sit paralyzed in terror because that is all you feel capable of, and allow yourself to take the time you need to step the fuck up? Do you devote yourself to one thing, such as consistently acting as best you can as an outspoken ally for trans folks, POCs, Muslim Americans, and immigrants—and recognize that as an important contribution? What actions or lack thereof are problematic—and what is going to make you feel policed by your friends who are way more into activism than you? This is the first time in my life where I am not sure how to navigate my politics in a personal context, and feel that “the personal” is more under scrutiny for how it can be understood in a political framework.

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How I’ve been feeling these days.

Of course, here, I am decontextualizing slash butchering the idea of “the personal is political,” a second-wave feminist adage that hails from Carol Hanisch’s 1969 essay “The Personal is Political,” and later from revised theories on the subject by intersectional feminists like Audre Lorde, who wanted to bring race, class, and other markers of identity into the conversation. Hanisch wrote the essay in response to critics of “consciousness raising” groups, who asserted that women were insisting that what was effectively therapy was somehow relevant in the political arena. “We have not done much trying to solve immediate personal problems of women in the group,” Hanisch wrote. “In a small group it is possible for us to take turns bringing questions to the meeting…like, What happens to your relationship if your man makes more money than you? Less than you? Then we go around the room answering the questions from our personal experiences.”

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Photo by Peter Keegan via Getty Images. 1977

Granted, second-wave feminism had and has its very large problems, as it was a movement dominated by affluent, white women who mostly sought their own liberation according to an upper-middle class framework without recognizing their relative privilege, and the ways that class, race, gender expression, sexuality (etcetera) played into the social hierarchies. But the foundational idea was and is important: there are political implications to our personal lives. The two are inextricably linked.

So how do you make sense of those times when your personal actions (or, again, lack thereof) feel at odds with your political ideologies? Do you denounce the authenticity of your politics until you can get your shit together personally to reflect what you believe? Do you accept that paradoxes are inevitable? Do you write blog posts about it to try and develop a vocabulary for this conflict? Thus far, I have tried all three of these methods. I’ll tell you a bit about what I’ve learned. TW: the following content engages with issues of eating disorders and sexual assault. 

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Homeland strikes me as racist and jingoistic, but I still watch it for entertainment value. :|

2015 was the first year I ever felt comfortable enough uttering the sentence, “I used to have an eating disorder.” In my own interior world, and sometimes in the world of my therapist’s office, I knew and was able to articulate that I had been struggling on and off with anorexia since 2005. During those years, I was an adroit practitioner of denial and semi-fictitious storytelling about my own life: I had allegedly dealt with numerous parasites, Lyme disease and its complications on my metabolism, chronic yeast issues which rendered me unable to eat anything.

For better or for worse, talking about my chronic health issues (some real, some less real) wasn’t as embarrassing as admitting to my self-hatred—at least that’s what I thought at the time. Unsurprisingly, when I was finally ready to admit what had really been going on, I felt an acute sense of shame. 

When I joined an eating disorder therapy group in 2015, the year of my “going public” with anorexia, I couldn’t stomach the idea of being on the same level of self-abuse with the other participants. The potential for solidarity made me want to contract into myself. Every time I showed up for the group meeting, I wanted confirmation that I was more empowered than the other women in the group. Of course, that was my own vulnerability and shame talking. As it happens, I also simply don’t think the group therapy dynamic was for me, but my reactions to it—especially that of shame, which I was less willing to “own”—were worth probing.

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When I didn’t really eat, I ate a lot of baby carrots.

Where did the shame come from? For one, I felt that I was going to disappoint people. I was someone who “put myself out there” as an empowered feminist. I identified as someone who “loved food” (I did, and do—but so do lots of people with eating disorders). I talked the talk of a self-acceptance, and had been going to therapy and meditating for longer than I wanted to admit. What would people think if they knew what a fraud I was? That was the question nagging at me constantly, and that cajoled me into denial for so long.

When I think back on what exactly made me ready to finally confirm to myself, and to others, that I had an eating disorder, I think it had to do with my ability to finally understand, experientially, the notion that “the personal is political.” Namely, I realized that there was actually going to be  something empowering in naming the defensive behavior I had developed for years in response to a slew of factors—ranging from idiosyncratic family dynamics around food to patriarchal pressures to be emaciated and a perennial exemplar of the “bikini bod.” I was certainly not alone—I knew that too—and it was not as though I had “decided” to be anorexic so as to bolster fucked up value systems. Probing my mechanism of denial, I realized that I didn’t want to alienate myself from the mythical monolith of feminism I had conjured in my mind—a kind of feminism that would judge my anorexia as a  signifier of being too normative, too vulnerable to patriarchal values.

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This is an actual sign on the NYC subway. Horrifying.

My internal conflict about “the personal and the political”—whether my personal life reflects my politics, especially gender politics—emerges for me constantly. For example, when I first described a traumatic sexual experience I once had as “rape, I think” to an ex-boyfriend, I became instantly ashamed and wanted to stop talking about it. We were on a road trip when I suddenly had access to a fuzzy memory that I had blocked out, and it dawned on me then and there, for the very first time, that I had been taken advantage of. But my realization sent me deep into the pits of victim guilt, as well as a whole range of other complicated emotions both about the traumatic experience and the subsequent talking about it. My ex-boyfriend honored my discomfort, and we changed the subject.

The next day, I started hating on myself for being too cowardly to deal with the experience in a head-on way. Empowered feminists, I told myself, would scream about their rape from the rooftops. They would make performance art about it, write manifestos, raise legal cases with the involvement of their college administrations, wear their anger on their sleeve. And here I was: not wanting to talk about it. Brushing sexual assault under the rug because I was too uncomfortable to go there.

Honoring your own response to trauma is complicated and painful, and it likely won’t ever stop being this way. Today, despite my rumination, I think it’s OK that I don’t really want to engage with other people about the experience I had that may or may not have been “rape.” Of course, my intellect wants to intervene to make sure that everyone is clear that the experience was definitely rape, ambiguous as it may have been (not in the mood to share details). But the emotional part of myself wants to respond, “OK, fine. But I still don’t want to talk about it.”

For me in particular (and I cannot speak to the experience of others), naming my trauma “rape” hasn’t helped me process it. I have, however, adjusted my behaviors: I drink a lot less alcohol than I used to, and I prioritize direct communication in interpersonal relationships, and work in therapy—and in life—on asserting my needs, uncomfortable as it makes me. And yet even through this work, I have still had experiences of neglecting myself, of resisting my own politics because of personal discomfort. Weeks after teaching a workshop on self-love about a year ago, I met and started dating a guy who made me feel like shit and coerced me (repeatedly) into sleeping with him without a condom. Once, while we were dating, I had a urinary tract infection (UTI), and he manipulated me into believing that sex wouldn’t hurt or mess up my antibiotic treatment. I obliged, even though I have written two 2,000 word+ pieces on UTIs, rife with statistics, cutting-edge information about alternative therapies and prevention, personal anecdotes and medical expertise. Sex during a UTI feels HORRIBLE and, indeed, fucks up your antibiotic treatment. I almost got a kidney infection, and promptly ended things with the pseudo-abusive dude in question. Thankfully.

One of the most difficult revelations I have had in the past few years is that, for me, there is no “right” way to respond to traumatic experiences like eating disorders or sexual assault. I feel how I am going to feel, act like I am going to act, and try my best to bring intention and compassion to the table when I take action—which includes my processes of thinking and reflecting. There is a tremendous, expansive sense of freedom and reassurance in simply recognizing that, and the potential paradoxes.

No matter how much you accept, intellectually, the impossibility of always aligning your thoughts and actions, there will be an itch to try and make yourself feel more “authentic,” “cohesive,” “whole.” But unfortunately, any sense of wholeness and authenticity simply comes from how you are relating to your paradoxes, not from some magical erasure of them.

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Robert Rauschenberg, “Erased de Kooning Drawing” (1953). This is what I think of when I hear the word “erasure.”

Virginia Woolf wrote, “It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality,” which, to me, aptly describes the hamster wheel-like attitude of self-improvement. There will always be a phantom part of yourself you want to eradicate so as to reach some more “perfect” idea of who you should be, how you should identify, to what groups you should belong, and so forth. But life would be so boring if we all neatly fit into archetypal boxes. Archetypes are there for us to use as reference points, against which we can apply resistance and define ourselves independently. The word “should” tries to strip you of that resistance, a tactic we’ve all tried—probably unsuccessfully. Vague as it is, the verb “to be” works pretty well. There is immense clarity in beginning a sentence with the phrase, “I am…” Whether or not you like it, that’s the reality, and it seems easier to live with that simple truth than trying to push away the phantoms of paradox that actually define who we are.

On the Yoga Teacher who Complains for Validation & the Woke Bro Who Wants to Talk Judith Butler

Yesterday I went to a yoga class that was, hands down, the worst yoga class I’ve ever been to in my life. Cue the violins for this TRAGEDY.

But hang on, let me finish.

The teacher walked into class and immediately, in a very shrill voice, started complaining about how cold it was outside. She wasn’t wrong. It was 33ish degrees outside. I was also freezing and the studio was drafty. I had just been standing outside Stonewall for an hour with one of my best friends and their cohort from grad school—at the Pride rally against Trump. But the event was filled with energy, good vibes, tons of different folks from all walks of life—including Hari Nef and Lin-Manuel Miranda. I KNOW.

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How amazing is “Alt-fact Kelly?” This was at the Pride Rally.

Yes, we were all freezing. But we were having a great time and I know that I felt more energetic and positive than I have felt in a while. Ironically, I had actually woken up in a bad mood and was thinking of not going to the protest because it was so cold. But finding the motivation to go anyway, and to feel the jolt of solidarity, ultimately made me realize that sometimes I’m deeply wrong about what I need to make me feel better. Standing up in the 33 degree whether with a stomach ache, lower back pain and a shitty mood was exactly what I needed to push me out of a funk. I love it when my experiences push back against my neurotic tendency to equate self-isolation with restoration.

Needless to say, this yoga teacher’s complaining really didn’t #resonate with me. It’s like, 1. you live in New York, and it’s winter, and 2. you’re trying to offer people a practice that enables them to exist more peacefully amidst discomfort, and you’re coming in here and talking about how freezing it is outside before we’ve even begun practicing. Like rly?

Anyway, she proceeded to ask the rhetorical question, “You know what’s so weird?”, to which no one responded. Quickly, she answered herself: the fact that the people who work in nail salons always whisper. Before she spoke, I kind of just knew something problematic was going to come out of her mouth. But I remembered the “homework” my therapist had given me: to note “ahimsa,” the principle of non-violence, every time I was making a judgment. Ahimsa, I said to myself as I noticed how vitriolically I already felt about the culturally insensitive yoga teacher. I tried to send her compassion, and told myself that she was just insecure.

The class sucked, mostly because it involved like 543,964,789,456 “knee to nose” cues, and was basically a HIIT bootcamp class couched in the vocabulary of asana. I’m used to the genre of biddie-workout-yoga here in NYC, but was particularly struck by this teacher’s vibes. She kept emphasizing the importance of maintaining an open heart and cultivating peace throughout class, and clearly had memorized the important buzzwords of self-acceptance and openness that are all the rage “these days.” And yet her class was making me feel the opposite. My resistance to the class reached its climax when, in Navasana (boat pose), the teacher asked us to hold hands with the person next to us. My mat was adjacent to that of this “hot” finance bro, who was practicing next to his girlfriend. She immediately struck me as The Skinny, Tan, Tall girl from summer camp who had a really symmetrical face and a sparkling Limited Too wardrobe. That is, she was not a specific girl I knew from camp, but that archetype—hot summer camp girl—I think you know what I am talking about. (Her hair always smells like Herbal Essences and is unimaginably soft and not frizzy. She is probably not Jewish.) In any case, the hot camp couple clearly pitied me when the teacher asked us to partner with our neighbors for hand-holding Navasana, and they invited me to join them in a “threeway.” It was at this moment that I really wanted to be a screenwriter so I could document the Navasana-threeway with camp girl and her hot finance bro boyfriend for a TV show about the dystopian zeitgeist.

Of course, I am kind of a hypocrite as I am using the language of “vibes,” “energy,” and “resonance” to try and make a compelling argument that this person’s pedagogy was inauthentic and deserving of public disdain. Clearly I am not deploying the rigor that I am yearning to see. But what I can say is that this isn’t the first time I have noticed people use the rhetoric of an established community only to defy that rhetoric in their own lives.

As someone who is deeply familiar with “the wellness world” (I cannot even believe I am saying this), I have noticed this time and time again. Food bloggers who don’t eat enough or who eat only rabbit food (read: leaves) and clearly demonstrate an unhealthy obsession with “clean eating” talk about their lifestyle all in terms of health, balance, and moderation. And you’re like, uhhhhhh that “indulgent” chickpea brownie is actually chocolate-flavored falafel. People at your mindfulness meditation retreat who take your sister’s shoes outside the meditation room because they were too unmindful to notice. (Then, when you ask if the couple in the car can drive you to your dorm because you are shoeless in the -5 below cold and snow, they say that they have a massage booked and it would be out of their way.) Life coaches who work with clients on communication emotionally abuse you over email when you copy-edit their blog posts to be grammatically correct. Meditation retreat founders who are too obsessed with the Soho House and “who wore it best” at the last meditation talk to even know how or why meditation is a worthwhile practice.

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These brownies contain chickpeas. They actually look p. good tho.

It’s not surprising to me that wellness people can often be narcissistic. After all, what is wellness? It’s self-improvement to some; self-indulgence, self-control, self-inquiry to others. But in almost all cases of description, the self is involved. But wellness can be understood in a more nuanced, mutlifaceted way, or it can merely be seen as a part of one’s life, in addition to political engagement, creative work, relationships, etcetera. That is why I am always skeptical of people who seem, so uncritically, to self-identify as healthy, mindful, balanced, etcetera. Like, if you are so mindful, then you are probably aware of the fact of the times you are, inevitably, not mindful. Or if you have such an open-heart, you a) probably don’t need to say it and b) are resilient enough to recognize that you often judge yourself and others, and that part of having an open heart is about being able to bounce back from mistakes, judgments, assumptions, and  so forth. Staunch commitment to any singular rhetoric—REGARDLESS of context—is a red flag to me. (Caveat: This isn’t true across the board, and I also recognize the insecurity often makes people act in off-putting ways. I don’t think the yoga teacher whose class I took was a bad person at all—maybe just a bit grating; but mostly, I just wanted to use that anecdote as a jumping off point for this discussion of “speaking” a particular “language.)

This theme reminds me of a guy I dated once who was obsessed with talking about gender theory as a part of our courtship. He knew I was into radical feminism, and that my friends were too, and so he used his admittedly adroit vocabulary on continental philosophy and critical theory to flirt with me via Judith Butler references. At first, I fetishized the shit out of said references, and was like, “OMG, this dood wants to talk about gender perfomativity rn” but I slowly started to see that there was a kind of power play at work in his commitment to bringing up stuff about feminism to me in such a confident and uncritical way. He was devoted to being seen as a feminist, and to seeing himself as a feminist, and didn’t really want or need to interrogate his politics. Or at least not at the time. At least in our dynamic, rhetoric about feminism became a way for him to wield a certain power over me intellectually, and to make me feel, at times, like I couldn’t challenge him on issues related to gender. He was as woke as could be—and he knew it. There wasn’t really anything I could do to rouse him further.

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Judith Butler looking fierce AF.

There was another guy I dated later who, off the bat, was interested in talking about his pseudo-queerness constantly, and would rant often about the “construct” of monogamy, his corresponding interest in polyamory, and how much he wished it was culturally acceptable to talk about kink on first dates. He was totally A Woke Bro, though he was more interested in foregrounding his queer sexual politics and denigration of patriarchy more than intellectually one-uping me re: gender theory, a la Judith Butler BF. But still, there was a commonality here: using the rhetoric of feminism, of equality, of being ALTERNATIVE in X, Y or Z ways to hegemonic straight white cis masculinity. In a way, these guys were using their rhetorics as mechanisms of seduction (I love me a straight white cis dude with self-professed queer sexual politics, what can I say?). But more than that, they were, as my friend says, “denying their white cis male privilege rather than expressing their true identity”—and the questions that their identity brings up in relation to questions around privilege.

The relationship between the archetypal disingenuous yoga teacher and the problematic woke bro may seem tenuous, but I am interested in exploring something larger here: the fact that a steadfast commitment to a specific “vocabulary” of any kind can be a red flag that there are insecurities around the ideology of said vocabulary.

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Aristotle is famous for his definition of rhetoric. How’s that for hegemonic masculinity? :D

I think it’s for that reason that I rely on self-deprecation as a paradoxical foundation for expertise when doling out life advice on here. It is my insurance policy in trying to communicate that really, I know nothing. But I think that self-deprecation—and the fact that it introduces the destabilizing forces of self-awareness, humor, irony, and acceptance—shows a degree of questioning. In a state of questioning, there is dynamism. And there is, to me, a POSITIVE value judgment in constant, dynamic questioning of one’s ideology. AHIMSA, I know. But a positive judgment seems better than a negative one.

Do I check my privilege always? Absolutely not. Do I try? Yes. Does it mean I’m always woke? NOT AT ALL. Does it mean I will keep asking rhetorical questions like this until I am blue in the face? “Abso-fuckin-lutely,” to quote Mr. Big, a totem of hegemonic cis white straight masculinity from the early aughts. TBT to SATC. Over and out.