The way we talk about women’s bodies

This weekend I was on the way to meet my mother for lunch, then an afternoon ballet. I was reading Americanah on the subway platform and kind of chuckled to myself at a great part. I noticed a guy coming toward me out of the corner of my eye, and I assumed the neutral please-don’t-talk-to-me invisibility cloak posture of a New Yorker completely immersed in my book and not looking to start a conversation.

“You’re a little thicker than the girls I usually date,” he said without preamble or introduction, “but you have such a pretty smile I had to say hi.”

I looked up for a moment while a blizzard of angry things raged in my mind, trying to decide what to say, but settled on an expression of clear disgust and offense, shook my head, then returned to my book. I hoped he got the message that he was out of line and not worth my time to talk to, but I doubt that nuance got through. A train pulled in at that moment, so I didn’t get to hear if he called me a bitch, but I pointedly walked to a different car from him and experienced the usual fuming of mistreatment coupled with weird thoughts like, “I shouldn’t have smiled though.”

I posted what he said on Twitter, and I was relieved when a very dear friend of mine responded, “Why do people think that is at all OK to say to another?” His incredulity reassured me, that it wasn’t just a fat girl taking something too personally, but I kept asking myself really, how else are you supposed to take that kind of thing?

Later this weekend and in subsequent conversations about Beyoncé’s amazing Super Bowl half-time performance and the powerful messages in “Formation,” I saw a constant barrage of dismissive comments about her body and appearance. Some said she’s too old or too heavy to be dancing the way she was, others said her style of dance was too sexual to convey the message (that powerful ownership of sexuality is a very part of what a radical and bold message it is), others said if she was trying to engage people in the Black Lives Matter movement, she should have worn a less provocative costume so they’d take her seriously, and on and on. It was so much surface, so much missing the point, so much of the same type of sentiment that asks why she can’t “do something” with her daughter’s natural hair, and in addition to being totally exasperated with the state of race relations in America, I was stunned that even Queen Bey can’t escape this crap.

It may be the age or weight I am at, but I’ve noticed a dramatic uptick in guys saying weirdly specific and unflattering things about my body as if they were making observations about the weather. Sometimes they even try to volunteer it as a compliment like, “Your weight doesn’t bother me” and smile like they expect to be congratulated for their open-mindedness. When confronted with my hurt feelings or the fact that it’s not something I was looking for an opinion on, they become even more self-assured, “Well if it bothers you so much, you should do something about it,” never recognizing that it was their unsolicited objectification that was the problem, not my body or my feelings about it.

Here is a sampling (really a drop in the bucket) of comments and topics about my body and appearance that have stuck out over the years:

  • “You have a nice big ass for a white girl, I like it.” – 7:30am on the sidewalk by a guy in a suit
  • From an overweight boyfriend while we were eating pizza: “You are curvy enough, you don’t need to eat the cheese and get fatter.”
  • “You’re not fat, you’re just like big.”
  • From another overweight boyfriend, when I was 20 pounds lighter than I am now: “You’ve gotten so fat I can’t even see you as a woman anymore, let alone find you attractive.”
  • Taking photos of me in unflattering positions or outfits, “so you can see what I mean” when he criticizes my appearance.
  • “I am actually okay with your weight, except your arms.”
  • Repeatedly asking me why I groomed a certain way and not another (this fixation is part of why we never went further).
  • On a first date, asking if it was my natural hair color, if I whitened my teeth, and asking how regularly I got my nails done (never – I do them myself).
  • “Have you ever been so attracted to someone’s personality and you wish so much that you could love them, but you just like can’t because you’re just not attracted to them?”
  • Guys who I was not attracted to interpreting every invitation as a date and trying to politely reject me by asking if I could bring my best friend too.
  • Online, sending messages that were a detailed appraisal of my appearance, followed by, “So what would you do if we were together right now?”
  • Well-meaning guy friend, “I think if you lost maybe 30 pounds, he wouldn’t be embarrassed to be seen with you, and then he’d be less weird about dating you.”
  • Former shitty friend, “You should see if your insurance covers gastric bypass surgery, I think you’d be surprised.”
  • Same former friend, “It must be hard for you, for guys to see you like you’re just a ditzy, bubbly blonde with big boobs and no brain.”
  • Former friend yet again*, “Well maybe if you lost weight and had some more confidence in yourself, you could date guys more like us. You know, even like… white guys.”
  • From a different friend, “It must be nice not caring about guys finding you attractive, you can just enjoy yourself.”
  • “I like your dress. Did you lose weight? You look better somehow.”

* Seriously, she was kind of an awful person and said a ridiculous amount of unkind things, but this was the moment I decided I didn’t want to be her friend anymore.

When I lamented that I couldn’t find interesting, intelligent guys who could hold a conversation, that same awful friend said, “There are some guys who are into your body type, there are online communities and stuff for them,” referring transparently to chubby chasers. I clarified that I didn’t mean men didn’t find me attractive, but that I struggled to find guys with a point of view. “Well I’m sure they’re out there,” she said snidely, “but maybe they’re busy talking to someone else.”

Frida Kahlo, The Wounded Deer, 1946, oil on masonite

What’s especially frustrating is that I don’t judge people by their appearance. I recognize that physical attraction plays a part in forming a romantic connection, but (with no offense intended to anyone I’ve dated in the past who might read this) that’s never the thing that sets stars in my eyes for someone. One of my dearest friends from college said once that he didn’t put much stock in women’s appearances because, “everyone gets busted up when they’re older anyway, so I’m trying to find someone I like talking to.” He made me realize how incredibly shallow it was to desire someone for the symmetry of his features or the conformity of his stature to the male ideal, instead of really listening to his words and finding the beauty in his mind. My friend said he preferred women who spent their time reading books and pursuing interests to those working out every day or obsessing over their appearance, and he sent me a quick calculation he’d done of how many books a woman could read in four years instead of the 90-minute dolling-up routine most of the girls in my dorm did before going out. I can’t remember the exact number now, but at the time I was stunned, and I wished so earnestly that the world had more people like him in it.

But women’s bodies and appearance seem up for critique and because it’s generally accepted that people can’t necessarily control how talented, intelligent, funny, kind, or interesting they are (I’d argue that they definitely can) the discussion seems to focus on what they can buy or do to improve themselves at a surface level. I think it may be a product of the combined effects of the diet and weight-loss industry, the constant stream of articles about juice cleansing or purifying to lose fat, the media tropes about women constantly dieting or getting a revenge body to get over a break-up, the cultural expectation that women must spend hours aggressively working out in a gym to be healthy, the assumptions guys make about women’s bodies and what’s normal based on watching too much porn, some baffling success in response to negging, constant media critiques of women that include their appearance, or any of the plethora of other messages that guys pick up in a day telling them that it’s okay to openly criticize a woman’s body and treat her like an object whose value is based primarily on her appearance, still, in 2016.

I used to believe that all the comments I got must be because I invited them by calling myself fat or sharing too much about my diet or exercise, so I’ve tried to stop talking about my appearance except to occasionally accept compliments that aren’t also back-handed and insulting. I’ve realized how many of my friendships relied on the dynamic of me being someone’s fat or nonthreatening friend, and I also saw how many people in my life unequivocally equate being overweight with being inherently unattractive and in turn, a lesser person. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard men call Hillary Clinton ugly or fat or shrill or make fun of her hair or clothes or how she’s aging at length before even beginning to talk about her politics, and seriously, that’s just not okay. (If any candidate should be bashed for appearance, we all know it’s that slimeball creep Ted Cruz.)

Tamara De Lempicka, Young Lady with Gloves / Jeune fille en vert, 1930, oil on wood

In WASP etiquette, it is considered gauche to talk too much about a person’s appearance, complimentary or otherwise, because it is objectifying and belittling, not to mention boring to be so shallow. The polite way to point out someone’s weight loss is not at all, or if you feel compelled, say, “You’re looking so well” and if they want to talk about it, let them, with the understanding that only insecure and immodest people actually will. Sadly, now that we live in the age of victorious before-and-after pictures and people posting videos of themselves doing pull-ups on the internet for fitspiration, this bit of decorum has become antiquated. People seem to feel it is their duty to weigh in on others’ appearance and proportionality, and while they would never speak about other physical differences or disabilities in this way, like lamenting someone’s “great personality” being let down by how short or tall she was or what a small nose or large mouth she had, somehow fitness is still up for critique and discussion, presumably because it is something people – and especially women – are supposed to feel bad about and, most importantly, control.

As one particularly chauvinist friend put it when complaining that his hook-up was disappointing him, “A girl’s body is her currency, so yeah, if you’ve got an inferior product maybe you need to do a little more to make it worth my while.”

I don’t know how we get past this point, but it is revolting and distressing in so many ways. Even if people catch a hint and stop saying it to my face, I know they still think it. Whenever I hit it off with a guy, I wonder now if he’s trying to talk himself into settling for me, or if he’s thinking the subway guy’s first part of the sentence before coming over to say hi. I am deeply suspicious of compliments from men or mystifying statements like, “Remember, you really are beautiful.” It shouldn’t be so hard to love people for who they are, instead of what they look like, but it seems to be getting worse and worse.

For now it makes me kind of happy to be single and know that I’m the only one who gets to see myself naked.

Music literally blows the mind

I have always been elaborately, intricately, head-over-heels in love and obsessed with music. I am at my happiest when my calendar stacks up with dates at the opera, ballet, concerts, and especially the New York Philharmonic because hearing music live lights up parts of my mind and spirit that sometimes get neglected or undernourished and opens up new parts I didn’t know I had. I never realize how much I need to hear music performed until I am in the moment, a warmth spreading through my chest and flushing my cheeks, filling every cell of my being with some profound sense of right-here-and-now-ness and love.

I’ve been thinking and talking a lot about music lately with my brother, who is taking a world music class, and it’s given me the opportunity to examine what music means to me in a spiritual and philosophical sense.

This past summer in India (yep, here I go again about India) music played a massive part in the spiritual awakening I experienced. (By the way, an adorable friend from India asked super casually about my time on the Ganges in Varanasi, “And did you have a spiritual awakening?” the same way I’d ask, “Did you get to see the Colosseum?” to a friend visiting Rome, and it felt perfectly natural to say, “Yes, actually, I did,” completely unselfconsciously because that’s just what one does in India.) A lot of what I’m calling “music” isn’t structured like Western music, in that it’s often chanting in Sanskrit accompanied by drumming and percussion, but it feels incredibly musical in the way it transports the mind and carries the spirit with it.

The Ganga Aarti, the daily evening prayer performed at sunset on the Dashashwamedh Ghat on the Ganges in Varanasi is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever experienced, with seven priests making dedications, swinging around fire, and chanting gorgeous versus that I desperately want to find in translation. Candle offerings in floating cups surrounded by flowers are released into the Ganges to carry prayers or wishes (there is a lovely description and photos here). Something about the way the drums echo the gentle lapping of the water between boats and the seemingly lackadaisical current makes the moment truly magical and transformative. I felt intensely connected with a fundamentally benevolent universe, hopeful and full of a pure love for mankind, overwhelmed with what beauty and kindness we are capable of feeling and giving to the world.

In a small and very religious village called Orchha, which was one of my favorite places we visited, loudspeakers project the chanting and music from the Hindu temple throughout the town. At first I thought it must be oppressive and exhausting, as Christian hymns or a constant recitation of Bible verses in a small American town would get real old real quick, but our group leader said actually the chanting was primarily in Sanskrit and archaic language only recognizable to scholars, so it sort of washed over people in the town the same way it did for Westerners, surrounding you as you went about your day.

It felt a lot like having one’s own soundtrack, walking around town with seriously excellent drum and bass going at times. Despite the generally terrible quality of my video above, I hope you can understand how I felt I only needed Adrien Brody to show up to make my reenactment of a scene out of The Darjeeling Limited complete. Curiously, I found my body moved differently in Orchha, as I felt a rhythm and a connectedness every time I was in the street. It was occasionally surreal, like what I imagine it would be to have a music video spontaneously erupt around you, as so many people picture when wearing headphones walking through a city. This music became like an ether, enveloping and surrounding us, inflecting everything we did, and I noticed the people in Orccha also had an infectious happiness, a gentleness with each other, and a welcoming kindness that felt somehow connected to literally everyone moving on the same wavelength in harmony.

Maybe over time I would have gotten tired of it or tuned it out into background noise, but in the moment, I felt like I understood something fundamental about being human that dated back for centuries. Later I remembered a section of this wonderful BBC documentary series called The Story of India where the narrator visits Brahmins in Kerala who were chanting Vedic verses that preserve Bronze Age linguistic sounds that more closely resemble bird song than any human vocalizations we know today. This link with our super-ancient past was kept intact because Kerala has remained relatively peaceful, its traditions guarded and protected from invaders for thousands of years. The unique method of repeating syllables backwards and forwards (explored marvelously here) gives great fidelity to an oral tradition that might otherwise have been lost.

All these ideas about music and spirituality coalesced in another illuminating moment at the Rubin Museum in New York, which my mother and I visited for the excellent Steve McCurry: India photography exhibit (cannot recommend highly enough). The Rubin has some of the best exhibition pedagogy I’ve ever seen in their explanation of tantric imagery, materials, and techniques (I put some photos here). In one brief little wall text, I got one of the more perfect and concise explanations of tantric philosophy I’ve ever read:

Tantric deities are the focus of esoteric religious practices (tantras) that aim to radically transform conventional understandings of reality… Female and male deities in sexual embrace represent the unity of wisdom (understanding of reality) and method (compassionate action), two aspects of the enlightened mind.

I was genuinely taken aback by the simplicity of the concept, transforming one’s understanding of reality by uniting understanding with compassionate action in the mind. It all came home when I read another description of implements used in tantric rituals, specifically the bell symbolizing wisdom (the feminine aspect of enlightenment) and the hand drum, which when paired with the bell, “represents the male aspect of enlightenment and its drumming is the sound of the bliss of realizing the true nature of reality.” These implements (which I am inclined to think of as instruments) are used in the Tibetan practice of “cutting the ego” or Chöd, resounding with impermanence.

And there it was. Music has always been a tantric force for me, transforming my conventional understanding of reality by freeing me from the ego and time. By overwhelming and immersing me in the present, I actually am as connected with the past and future of humanity as I feel. The deep peace and love, that warmth in my cheeks and catch in my heart, are a profound bliss of realizing the true nature of reality in an ego-less state, which is, not surprisingly, a call to compassionate action and a flood of gratitude.

This may be the kind of piecing together of the universe that only I find relevant or important, but my mind was absolutely blown.

With this realization, coupled with a reluctance to listen to a lot of my Spotify playlists that are way too steeped in memories and associations, I’ve found myself getting obsessed with ragas, an Indian classical music mode derived from the word for “color” or “hue,” associated with different times of the day or season. The idea of the raga structure is to attach color, in the emotional and spiritual sense, to a moment, often stretching into long improvisational sections similar to jazz. I met a really sweet (and quite handsome) sitar player in India who taught me a few basics of how to play (permanent life philosophy: if someone offers you a sitar lesson, take it). He concluded, “The most important part is feeling. You have to use your heart to make a raga.”

I joked with him that I thought it would take a lot of practice before I made anything worth listening to, and he took my hand sincerely and said, “But your heart is good, I can see that.” (Indian guys are nothing if not charming.)

I always listen to music when I paint, and as I’ve been listening to ragas more and more, I feel my mind going to these incredibly open and expansive places, vast terrains of pure freedom. I believe this opening up or escape from the mind / ego is a positive and important part of making art, and I feel an incredible lightness of spirit, like I’m actually painting from the heart. I’m so excited to share what comes out of it soon.

Confession: I Used to Be a Republican

In the current highly polarized political climate, I frequently find myself wondering how on earth people can support someone like the racist one with the hair or the hateful Tea Party sociopath, and a little voice in the back of my mind reminds me in a whisper that in the follies of my youth, I considered myself a Republican too.

The small town where I grew up – and let me be clear, this isn’t justification, but an explanation – was like 99% Republican at the time. Everyone I knew was Republican, most of my family (including retired military members whom I respected above anyone else) was Republican, and our Republican mayor and council ran unopposed year after year. In the ’80s under a Reagan administration, it seemed at least unpatriotic and nearly un-American to say anything needed improving or that GOP politics were anything other than the right path. I thought of being Republican the same way I thought of being Episcopalian or Irish-German-Welsh-Dutch – it was just something we were, and to deviate from that was to run counter to what we stood for.

I remember a second grade teacher going through a cursory lesson on the two parties and giving some brief biographical details about George Bush Sr. and Michael Dukakis as we led up to the 1988 election. I was such a WASP I remember thinking it was terribly gauche to discuss politics, in class no less, and I nearly fell out of my chair when my teacher casually asked who we would vote for if we were of age, or, she floundered, maybe who we thought our parents would be voting for. (On hindsight, I am quite sure it was inappropriate to quiz a bunch of second-graders about their parents’ politics in a public school, but maybe things were different in the ’80s?) She asked us to raise our hands, starting with Bush supporters, and just about every hand went up. A few students raised theirs after looking around at everyone else, but I noticed my friend (let’s call her Sasha) left hers down. I figured Sasha was just spacing out, but then the teacher asked who would vote for Dukakis, and Sasha’s hand shot up.

Sasha!” I hissed, as if she’d really obviously flubbed an answer to a math problem, “she’s asking who you’d vote for and you’re saying Dukakis!”

Sasha shrugged and kept her hand up, the only one in our class. “Yeah, we’re Democrats,” she said nonchalantly, and my teacher said sweetly, “I’m a Democrat too, so two of us would be voting for Dukakis, Sasha, but it looks like Bush would win in this class.”

That evening I told my parents that Sasha’s family were Democrats, as if I’d learned they were ISIS or something, and I (embarrassingly) asked if they thought it was because she was Jewish (I was still six, so please go easy on me). My parents explained that people chose their political parties and belief systems, including what religion they wanted to follow (if any) for themselves, that all these things were independent of one another, and most importantly something that became a refrain for my entire childhood, “Don’t ever let anyone make your mind up for you, even us.

(Sometimes one of them would playfully add, “Especially us” when they disagreed in debates.)

It was the first time it occurred to me that politics wasn’t something chosen for you or embedded in your identity, that you could decide whatever you wanted and switch parties, follow your conscience wherever it led.

Throughout my youth, being a Republican still seemed like the thing honest, good people did. In New Jersey, the GOP was the party of Christie Todd Whitman, the relief from the ultra-corrupt Democrats under Florio. My experience of Democrats was that they raised taxes under the guise of helping the less fortunate, then used that money for slush funds and corrupt schemes. Our school lunches were defunded, and instead of providing lunches to a less affluent community, they paid for a limousine and driver for a superintendent in Newark (I can’t find the exact details, so forgive me if that part is somewhat inaccurate, but I remember it was super shady). After the disaster that was Jon Corzine and even though I was fiercely in support of Democrats by 2009, I still felt Chris Christie was the better choice for governor, and I remember how confusing it was explaining why I felt that way to friends who’d grown up in Democratic households in Massachusetts.

The GOP said they would put more money in people’s pockets and not raise taxes. They would keep us safe from Saddam Hussein and then brought our troops home after the Gulf War. As far as I could tell, they were trustworthy and certainly not war criminals and profiteers. My understanding of American capitalism at the time was that wealthy people earned money by working hard, and social welfare was provided mainly through philanthropy. Everything run by the government was an inefficient, poorly organized bureaucracy, and in New Jersey, hopelessly corrupt too. I took a sort of Libertarian stance that if you let people make choices with their own money and made sure they had more of it available, they would do the right things to take care of each other. Of course I felt this way because no matter how little money we had at times, my family gave to charity, volunteered, took in anyone who needed it, and supported our community any way we could. I believed all the 1%-ers in my town were doing the same thing and surely not capitalizing on the misfortunes of others while engineering the 2008 financial crisis (ahem).

It wasn’t until I was living by myself in New York that I finally changed parties for good, and I am admittedly ashamed that it took me so long to recognize that my idealism and naiveté were just that, and that the party I thought I was supporting was largely a fiction I’d created because I wanted the world to be like myself and my parents. I finally saw what actual poverty looked like, I recognized what powerful roles privilege, race, and patriarchy play in getting ahead, and in as Brooklyn a way as any starry-eyed little white girl ever has, I got woke as hell. I came to believe it was unconscionable to leave people out to dry when they fell on hard times, and I found myself increasingly able to attach real-life examples of my friends and neighbors to the hypotheticals I argued with friends from home. I’ve been a pretty seriously bleeding-heart liberal for most of my adult life, but for a while it was coupled with a sense of shame and confusion, similar to the way I felt the first time I’d learned something my parents didn’t know and I realized they were human and sometimes fallible too. My beliefs were occasionally laughed off at family gatherings, “Vicki went to college at a Bastion of Liberal Democrats, so of course she has to feel this way now,” but the more I discussed my beliefs with my immediate family, the more I realized we mostly agreed on policy – it just wasn’t called Republican anymore.

Up until the last few years, the Democratic and Republican parties didn’t generally stand too far apart, and most candidates were moderate centrists. I’m sure there are people in ISIS who feel like they weren’t always such extremists too, but honestly, the GOP of my childhood was never so openly racist, xenophobic, or outright hateful as some of the candidates today. I’m not actually sure if they are tapping into like-minded ugliness in my fellow Americans or if their supporters still believe in a purer version of their party and what it stood for before it became so warped and distorted.

I try to be respectful and understanding when I speak with people who hold opposing political views from me, but it can be challenging. I remind myself of all my reasoning when I was young, and I imagine maybe I am speaking with someone who comes from a state where the Republicans are the good guys and the Democrats are corrupt money-wasters. Maybe their lives are isolated and sheltered from reality like mine was for so long. There are people in this country who have never met a Jewish person before, let alone lived in the pluralistic utopia of diversity that NYC can be, so I realize their perception of society may be more unilateral or locally focused. When the problems of inner cities are just a hypothetical scenario from the news, I understand how it is difficult to make their issues one’s own, especially if it comes with the fear that supporting social programs may put a pinch on how much money ends up in the paycheck.

I don’t believe that individual Republicans are necessarily bad people, and I do actually understand some of where they’re coming from in the stated objectives of being fiscally conservative. But there’s no two ways around the fact that the majority of Republican candidate frontrunners in this election are incredibly corrupt and in some cases morally bankrupt spewers of hate speech that is somehow tolerated as campaigning. It seems as though the party has been hijacked and is getting twisted into an unrecognizable version of itself, and if I hadn’t jumped ship over a decade ago, I certainly would now.

When I was young a lot of people voted in a conservative way because they benefited from the status quo. It made sense not to disrupt things or seek change, especially if progressives seemed like they were leading the country in the wrong direction. I’m deeply concerned that people who feel their lives were a struggle under Obama will turn to the Republican party for improvement, believing that financial reform will in any way apply to them and not just the super-wealthy who would like a tax break. I sincerely hope a spirit of egalitarianism wins over self-interest in this year’s primaries and elections, and I will keep on pushing people to ask themselves if the policies they support truly represent their conscience and beliefs.

No matter which party we vote for, we should all be on the same side, and that is American.

Mental soap (health and hygiene)

As either a habit of grad school or the inclination that got me there, I tend to seek out primary sources whenever I read nonfiction books. It becomes a labyrinthine exercise in tracking down increasingly esoteric texts until I find myself reading 19th-century manuals with titles like (no exaggeration):

The Lady’s Guide to Perfect Gentility, in Manners, Dress, and Conversation, in the Family, in Company, at the Piano Forte, The Table, in the Street, and in Gentlemen’s Society. Also a Useful Instructor in Letter Writing, Toilet Preparations, Fancy Needlework, Millinery, Dressmaking, Care of Wardrobe, the Hair, Teeth, Hands, Lips, Complexion, etc. – Emily Thornwell, New York: Derby and Jackson, 1856.

It’s actually highly entertaining and cites knowledge about self-care and herbal preparations that goes back to Ancient Greece (and probably earlier). I came to this book by way of another on the history of bathing, which was utterly fascinating, The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History by Katherine Ashenburg.

Throughout Ms. Ashenburg’s book, I kept noticing the ways that bathing and cleanliness were used to distinguish classes in the West, as aristocratic families reluctantly started embracing bathing occasionally and then looked down on the (literal) unwashed masses. (Meanwhile in Eastern cultures, the European aversion to baths was as laughable as it was baffling.) As the book traced ideas of cleanliness from the paradisal Roman baths to the twentieth century, I couldn’t help noticing parallels with mental health care and the history of psychology as well.

The Roman bath was communal and social, included exercise outside to work up a good sweat in fresh air, and involved conversation, academic pursuits, eating fresh foods, and generally what I imagine was the most ideal possible way to interact with other people and celebrate vitality. Every day was Spa Day, until the fall of the Roman Empire replaced a love of bathing with a fear of water and a belief that baths caused disease. Daily bathing wasn’t normalized again until surprisingly late in the twentieth century (and still not everywhere) and much of our current antibacterial-soap-using, germophobic sanitizing tendencies were inculcated by advertisers to push soap and hygiene products like mouthwash, deodorant, or feminine sprays. A humorous article by Horace Miner called “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema” published in The American Anthropologist in 1956 treated the American fixation with bathing and cleanliness from a pseudo-anthropological perspective, particularly noting the reverence for the bathroom sink like a shrine to a deity. Ms. Ashenburg suggests that we couldn’t be further from the Roman celebration of the body and health, instead accepting the profitable idea that the body is inherently offensive, odorous, and needs fixing with a plethora of products to remove its daily filth and squalor.

But anyone who has tucked their face into a loved one’s embrace and felt entranced by their natural smells knows that the general condition of being human is spectacularly beautiful and appealing in every way.

(Absurdly excited to be in the Suburban Baths in the Herculaneum in 2009)

In a course on the history of psychotherapy in undergrad (see, I was coming full-circle), we read wonderful early texts on the care of the mentally ill. The methods of treatment prescribed were profoundly compassionate and humane, including helping a person eat a healthy meal and gently rubbing their stomach to aid digestion, accompanying patients on walks through gardens and safe grounds so they could spend most of their days in fresh air and sunshine, holding them closely when they were upset, combing and stroking their hair, and giving baths to calm and cleanse. Over time mental health was seen as a medical problem in need of a cure, and doctors employed more clinical strategies that culminated in drastic pharmacology without the backbone of personal, nurturing care.

As with bathing, we went from treating people lovingly to profiting from their troubles, and for many people modern psychiatry causes more problems than it cures. It’s amazingly difficult to get any doctor to even talk about treatments for anxiety or depression (or anything else) that don’t start with, “Take some Zoloft / Depakote / Wellbutrin and see if it helps.” It’s understandable that in Western medicine the doctor’s primary tool is the prescription pad, and if you go to a psychiatrist, it should be with the expectation that your mental health will probably be addressed with medication, but it’s also discouraging that we are still stuck holding a hammer and treating everything that happens in the mind like nails.

I am happy to see a renewed pop culture emphasis on the importance of self-care and non-pharmacological palliatives like eating healthy, exercise, meditation, sleep management, etc. in alleviating mental health issues. But I also keep thinking that the definitions of abnormal psychology in mental hygiene may, in some cases, be skewed in the same way we started treating our bodies as offensive instead of delightful.

Without getting into loads of uninteresting specifics, things in my particular mental health situation were getting more difficult to control in the past year. In the midst of it, I was beating myself up that I couldn’t manage better and that even really high doses of medication couldn’t “fix” my stuff as quickly as I needed. I thought it was all my problem, that there was something fundamentally wrong with me, and my mind was just flawed or broken in an irreparable way. On hindsight, I see that I wasn’t (completely) crazy, but that I actually was in a handful of very toxic and unhealthy situations that were no longer compatible with my mental health. I don’t really want to change the parts of my mind that scream out and rebel when things are wrong because I suspect they may be much saner than the ones that thought I was supposed to be doing what I was. Just as I find the idea of smelling like baby powder or chemical flowers repellant, I have come to see that the life I was trying to live was the mentally unhealthy part, not me.

But in America we have stigmatized the type of thinking and emotional responses that skew outside of normalcy, while simultaneously depriving people of access to affordable mental health care options. It feels very much like holding soap out of someone’s reach and then looking down one’s nose at them and saying they smell. This distortion of the system was understood clearly in the 19th century (Ashenburg’s example, not mine, but it’s so good), “…Dickens uses the fear of contagion to symbolize the interconnectedness of society on all levels. The smallpox that spreads from the wretched hovel of Jo the crossing-sweeper to the comfortable home of Lady Dedlock’s daughter in Bleak House (1853), for example, is a forceful reminder that the neglect of its weakest members makes society as a whole vulnerable.”

A small minority of people are quite literally invested in keeping life how it is because it is profitable to them (yes, everything I say is Marxist lately, deal with it). Instead of rebelling and sticking up for each other when people are treated indecently or outright cruelly, we defer to whoever holds the purse strings, as if it will somehow rub off on us and we will be rewarded for following our oligarchy’s warped expectations of how we should live our lives. We call people losers and slackers and ostracize them when they don’t toe the line, and distressingly, otherwise compassionate people lash out at each other over things like food stamps, welfare, or raising the minimum wage. It is not crazy to believe life should be better for all people, and the resistance to change seems to me little more than corporate greed holding soap out of reach again.

I think it is crucial to listen to dissension in our minds and pay attention to that little voice that says, “This is nuts.” It may be the healthiest, most human part of our nature speaking up.

Taking my time

As we roll into 2016, I’ve noticed a barrage of time-management suggestions and tips flooding my social media feeds alongside the usual juice cleanses, workout routines, and purported purification rituals to greet the new year. I felt the same pressure I feel every January to improve my habits and make the most of my time, but I stepped back to ask what that actually meant for me.

I have spent the better part of the past decade constantly saying I didn’t have time for things because I was always prioritizing school or work. Even if I had made the decision to do something fun, I felt a tightness in my chest and a hovering breathless sort of anxiety that as soon as I finished having fun, I was going to be even more tired or behind schedule on the other things I was “supposed” to be doing. I constantly let people waste my time, and when they weren’t actively taking it up, they were occupying way more mind space than they deserved as I was always some level of preoccupied. I became burnt out on busy-ness and exhausted with calculating how much time things would take, resenting anyone who felt they had a claim on my time.

I used to dream about what I would do if I had full days ahead of me that I could spend however I wanted, fantasizing about sitting to read a book when I was awake and alert, and not just in the drowsy time I squirreled away before bed. I was always living in the past, regretting time I had wasted, or in the future, anticipating (often dreading) what I had to do next and how I could fit it in my ever-evaporating time. At one point last year during my make-my-life-better initiative to stave off a nervous breakdown, I asked myself what I would do if I had all this time, the way people wonder about how they’d spend lottery winnings. I made lists of things I care about, like properly learning to speak French, exercising more, painting more, cooking more meals at home, reading and writing more, taking more photos, learning to play instruments better, and so on. I felt sorry for myself that simple things like cooking dinner felt like such a pipe dream, and then I realized that nothing about my life, stressful though it was at the time, was actually preventing me from doing those things except for the choices I made each day.

I once had a professor who said that if he were ever going to get a tattoo, it would be the words “This” and “That” on his forearms. He explained that it would be a reminder to himself whenever he looked at what his hands were doing that he was making a choice to do This instead of That, which was what he intended to do with his time. His “That” was painting and making art, and he explained that he weighed all other activities against studio time. When students lamented that they didn’t have time to paint as much as they wanted, he would quietly remind them that they had the same amount of time as everyone else in a day, but they chose to spend it otherwise.

He suggested a fairly brutal rephrasing, as an exercise in awareness and prioritization, to say to oneself, “I did have time to paint, but I chose to spend it doing my laundry.” Or watching a television show, working a part-time job, catching up on sleep, completing other assignments, whatever. Then he challenged us to end the sentence with, “…because I care more about [whatever] than painting” to understand how we felt about it and check if it was true. He acknowledged that there are plenty of things people have to do in a day out of necessity, like eating and drinking, taking a shower, passing classes, and so on, but if we are being really honest with ourselves, we are making choices other than painting all the time. We may feel we don’t have choices because we have to earn money, participate in society, or maintain our health and homes, but an amazing amount of people tell themselves they are obliged to do things that are actually choices all along.

Starting this fall I have been challenging myself to stop claiming I don’t have time because it’s never been true. I heard myself explain that I could read and understand French, but not speak or write it, one too many times, so I started properly studying it and practicing with duoLingo immediately. I am investing the time it takes to shop for ingredients and clean my kitchen so that I can spend time cooking, and now it feels like a luxury instead of a chore. Whenever I get the feeling that it is a beautiful day and I should be outside, I’m going, and when I want to move my body, I’m giving myself permission to do it, instead of vaguely saying I should set aside some time to exercise sometime. I am finally giving art and other projects the time they deserve, and I am refusing to rush or feel bad when they take mountains of it (seriously, how did I ever have time for an office job?).

The most remarkable discovery in this process of reclaiming time and spending it mindfully is that I am finding more and more that I feel present. I thought that was some magic trick of enlightened Zen-level meditators, but it really is as simple as being in the moment I am in and thinking only about what I’m doing or experiencing. When I’ve made my This or That decision, even if it was a bad one or an impulsive one, I’m embracing it and letting myself go all in. It’s almost embarrassing how much happier and more fulfilled I am because I’m painfully aware of how generally unhappy I was before.

The other spectacularly beautiful quality of time that I’m discovering is that when it is given unselfishly and spent with another person, it actually feels like a gift instead of thievery. I am spending time listening, thinking about other people’s thoughts and experiences when I am with them, and I am learning and loving more about them as I do. I just spent three weeks visiting my family in New Jersey, and occasionally I started getting anxious that I was wasting time and not getting “more important” things done. I found myself becoming impatient and selfish with my time, but I calmed down when I stepped back and asked myself if there was anything in the world more important than sitting by the fire petting the dachshund on my lap and explaining Spanish verb conjugation to my father over Yuenglings. Of course there wasn’t, and I’m truly grateful to have had that time.

This Saturday I went to an amazing performance of Grieg’s String Quartet in G minor (Op. 27) and Sibelius’s Symphony No. 4 in A minor at the New York Philharmonic with my mother, and I promised myself not to worry about what I had done or not done last week or what I’d do this week, but to just be in the moment experiencing every note. I heard so much more than I usually do, I felt the music swell and completely fill my body and mind, and I felt astonishingly alive and present in the world. My mother and I talked about the concert, art, and life for a long time afterwards over dinner and coconut margaritas, and honestly, I can’t say I’ve ever had a better time.