Flash Nonfiction: At The Millburn Library

chick lit books

At the Millburn Free Public Library, while the woman gives a slideshow presentation about her romance novel, her kids run wild down the hallway, threatening to send the geriatric woman clutching her walker down a flight of stairs. Her husband sits in a folding chair, a Danish in one hand and a blackberry in the other, occupied. A round of applause. The crowd of twelve files out. She’s on the tail end.

“I asked him to do one thing,” she says, lips smiling, pearls ornamenting her noticeable collarbone. “Do you want me to sign some of these?”

Even though we won’t be able to send the signed copies back to the publisher, I hand her a pen.

She seems like the kind of woman to chime I have everything! I have it all! The kind to hum to herself while vacuuming the living room, fixing coq au vin for him and macaroni for the kids, putting the last touches on a memo for the board meeting, plowing through the next thousand words of her novel about a PR girl looking for love, dreaming of sticking a knife in whoever dares to leave their socks in the entryway.

I don’t envy her. I want to befriend her, get inside her head a little bit, maybe find the place where she knew what she wanted, if ever, and crack a leak in it. I wonder what she makes of me, the girl from the small town bookstore, sitting at the booth trying to peddle the books no one will buy—not willingly.

Working Girls, Beauty Myths, and Mullets

If you’ve ever seen Working Girl, then you know how horrific fashion was in the 80s. If you’re a feminist, then I bet you also feel like the premise is kind of messed up. When savvy receptionist, Tess (played by Melanie Griffith), finds out her boss (Sigourney Weaver) stole her business idea, she exacts revenge by pretending to have her job. A whole lot of cat fighting, demeaning old white guys, shoulder pads, and perms ensue and it ends on a triumphant note when Tess secures an office with a window. A window! It’s hard not to feel triumphant when you’ve got Carly Simon singing her heart out, but something feels off when the camera zooms out and you see Tess is only one of a thousand little worker bees in a sad, grey monstrosity of a building. My editor and love-ah, being the genius he is, put together an ending* with a different tune (thanks to Trent Reznor) that I think is better pant-suited for the reality of working girls everywhere:

I still love this movie because it’s so goofy, and it feels like a prequel to Alien—if Alien represents motherhood for Sigourney Weaver’s character. Beauty plays an important role, which is clearly symbolized by the contrast between Joan Cusack’s ghoulish makeup and Melanie Griffith’s toned down make-under. In the movie, the few women who make it to the top physically distance themselves from the sea of secretaries dressed up like buffoons. Women are expected to be beautiful if they want to succeed, but they also need to play down their femininity if they want to be taken seriously. No line encapsulates that better than when Tess cuts off her mullet and says, “If you want to be taken seriously, you need serious hair.” So much for a party in the back.

Joan, always the sidekick.

Joan, always the sidekick.

Which brings me to The Beauty Myth. Since its initial publication in 1991, right around the time Working Girl came out, much has changed and yet so very little has changed. While still burdened by the oppressive weight of an unachievable beauty ideal, women are now allowed to protest it—to a degree. We aren’t immediately dismissed when we argue for change, as long as we look pretty while doing it. The Internet has enabled us to spread our opinions widely, but not without the unrelenting backlash of cruel, hate-mongering trolls. We all feel like we’ve achieved progress when reading insightful feminist essays online, as long as we don’t read the comments below them.

If you still don’t think the struggle is real, read this little gem from 1991: “Photographs of the bodies of models are often trimmed with scissors. ‘Computer imaging’—the controversial new technology that tampers with photographic reality—has been used for years in women’s magazines’ beauty advertising” (83). Oh, Naomi, if only you knew then.

In 2015, there are approximately 1.3 bajillion different products on the market, all promising to make you acceptable by an impossibly narrow social standard. While the 80s and 90s expected us to be thin, blonde, big-chested and big-haired, modern beauty ideals target everything from thigh gaps to armpit hair. There is no end to the variety of beauty articles that announce a new problem we never knew we had. Granted, in the same order I bought The Beauty Myth, I also picked up some purple goo hoping it’ll take the brassiness out of my bleached blonde hair. One step forward, two steps nowhere, because the goo just left me with random streaks of blue.

Here’s my favorite quote from Tina Fey on body image:

tina-fey-body-image-quote_thumb1

Beauty, by definition, is an illusive, temporary quality. By reinforcing beauty as a woman’s only true value, we will constantly disparage ourselves and question our worth.

Beauty, like fear, acts as a means of control. I’m not suggesting one entity singlehandedly oppresses us (like the patriarchy, god forbid), or that women are purely victims, because we do have a part in doing it to ourselves. We read the magazines, watch the commercials, and buy the products the beauty industry tells us to buy. We agonize over our appearance when these products don’t perform the miracles they promised they would. We hate ourselves. We then turn the blame back on ourselves when we realize our self-hatred is futile, feeling even worse for being weak-minded. Then the cycle repeats. I know because I’ve been through it countless times, and it’s exhausting.

Let me attempt to address this in a way that satisfies everyone because the cisgender woman in me always looks to please:

There’s the concern that this argument doesn’t include women of color, poor women, and disabled women because only women of privilege can take on a problem like body image. And it’s true. They haven’t been included, at least not until very recently. In a review of The Beauty Myth, Rebecca Reilly-Cooper from NewStatesman acknowledges that with so many other problems to tackle, modern feminists might “dismiss beauty as a trivial matter” or regard it “with annoyance, even faint embarrassment.” She then raises the important question, though, “How much more painful must the beauty myth be for those women for whom it is even more out of reach, and requires even more alienation from their bodies and identities, than for the white middle-class women Wolf has in mind?”

If I feel like shit all the time and I’m the one the beauty industry caters to—young, white, privileged—then I can’t imagine how someone unlike me—not young, not white, not privileged—would feel. The most marginalized women in our culture are left out entirely, deemed unworthy for their sheer inability to participate. Feeling inadequate is not a trivial problem when it drains our emotional, physical, and psychological resources—not to mention our bank accounts. The average woman spends $15,000 on beauty products in her lifetime. Let’s face it. It’s more expensive to be a woman, and if we continue to get paid less than our male counterparts, that’s really not going to fly.

Oh, and men are affected by the beauty myth, too.

Like this guy.

Like this guy.

So yes, of course there will always be bigger problems than feeling inadequate, like simply surviving. Surviving is pretty important. But how much better could we be at surviving if the message wasn’t constantly reinforced that without beauty, we have no value? I’m curious about how much time I would save by not putting on stitch of makeup, or the brainpower I’d have if my insecurities had a weaker gravitational pull. I wonder what would happen if, for just one week, women exercised their buying power by not buying a single beauty product. No lip-gloss, moisturizer, eyeliner, liquid eyeliner, concealer, eye shadow, blush, BB cream, bronzer, or foundation. Nothing. I feel like cosmetic companies would collectively poop their pants. I don’t know about you, but that’s something I’d like to see.

As Naomi Wolf writes, “Women work hard—twice as hard as men. All over the world, and for longer than records have been kept, that has been true” (22). She goes on to cite multiple studies that show how women, from prehistoric times to the Industrial Revolution to today, have been expected to do the majority of the work for little or no pay. In the last twenty years, I doubt that statistic has changed much. As in Working Girl, we’re expected to bend over backwards, working twice as hard as anyone, all while maintaining an attractive, sexy-but-not-too-sexy, feminine-but-not-too-girly, perfectly composed, and seemingly effortless appearance. There’s a lot more to be done in order to dismantle the modern beauty myth, and I have no doubt this generation of women will be the ones to do it. But I’m also in favor of doing less. Don’t micromanage your roots. Don’t obsess over a pimple. Don’t wear any makeup if you want, or do. Don’t for one second think your value depends on what you see in the mirror.

 

blonde girl

*Disclaimer: I do not claim to own any part of this video. Under Section 107 of the Copyright Act 1976, “Allowance is made for fair use for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Fair use is a use permitted by copyright statute that might otherwise be infringing. Non-profit, educational or personal use tips the balance in favor of fair use.” I DO NOT intend to make money off of this video, nor is there a snowball’s chance in hell that I could. Please don’t sue me!

What is this blog about?

Good question. Truth is, I don’t know. It’s now been a full year since I started this blog and I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with it ever since. By testing out different styles, mimicking other online magazines, and posting whatever seemed interesting, I’ve experimented to find what feels most natural. In the process, I’ve learned a few things.

pink rose

Keepers:

Anything and everything women’s issues related. I meant for this blog to be “for women, by woman,” but it kind of turned into a smorgasbord of lists and opinions relating to my life as a female person and feminist. And, you know, it feels pretty good. 2015 seems like a good year to bring feminism into the forefront of political and social discourse. Until women feel safe walking around their neighborhoods, have the right to make decisions about their own bodies, and aren’t treated like sexual objects without minds or feelings, I think I’ll keep talking about it.

Book reviews, obviously, because I’m the authority on all things literary. I kid. I’ll keep reading and writing about what I read because I feel like it, goddamnit.

Crafting disasters. I like to get crafty, but my projects rarely go as planned. Painted furniture and homemade candles look deceptively simple on Pinterest, so I’ll take the burden upon myself to fail miserably and share that with you all.

Losers:

Recipes and cocktail posts because it’s difficult to hide what they really are—fillers. Also, there are thousands of other blogs devoted to those things and doing a much better job of it. If you really need my recipe for chia pudding, read the back of the chia container. That’s where I found it.

Outfit posts. I’m not a fashion expert, and I’ve never claimed to be. I am a narcissist, though, so don’t hold me to this. If I find a way to bring back shoulder pads or construct a nature goddess gown out of pressed hydrangea leaves, I’ll have to share that with the world.

New Additions!

This past year, I started writing flash fiction for Ravishly, and I LOVE it. Condensing full stories to 300 words or less started as an exercise in honing in on the details and getting to the truth of a story quickly. It’s a genre I’ve grown to love, so I think I’ll post some flash nonfiction here.

I’m thinking fewer headline-grabbing confessionals, and more heart-to-hearts. There’s nothing more interesting to me than honest, personal stories that relate to some bigger theme. What I often see female-oriented magazines do, though, is reduce thoughtful essays to their most provocative caption. I’m willing to open up, reveal the unsightly sides if it might help one person, promote discussion, or allow me to gain insight. What I’m not willing to do is exaggerate my own experiences for the sake of likes and shares.

Videos! For all the sketches that can’t be performed live with my sketch group, #Blessed, I’d like to film them and post them here. Like this gem…

What do you think, dear reader? What would you like to see more of? I’m craving all shades of feedback—good and bad—so if you’ve got it, give it to me! Leave a comment below or on The Revolutionelle’s Facebook page, and I will adore you forever.

New Year’s Anti-Resolutions

The U.S. government has a handy list of common New Year’s resolutions. Some of them include “lose weight,” “manage stress,” and “quit smoking.” I, however, resolve to do none of those things, and not because I don’t need to. I could always manage my stress better and smoke less, although a hit of Alaskan Thunder Fuck tends to alleviate anxiety—so scratch that. I reject this bogus impulse to implement drastic change at a completely random time of the year, because we should strive to improve ourselves year-round. July’s a nice time to set goals, as are March and October.

christmas cocktail

It makes sense why these are the most common resolutions, though—in America, anyway. Reeling from the holidays, which focus on eating until you’re numb, drinking yourself stupid, and buying mountains of shit nobody really needs, it’s not hard to see why most people are burnt out and feeling generally crummy come January. We set unachievable goals hoping to turn that all around, only to feel the motivation fizzle out by February. Something about seeing a pudgy groundhog paraded on a stage, exposed to the cold really drives it home, I think.

This year, I said to hell with all that before the holidays even started. I didn’t stuff myself with cookies or over pour the Chardonnay, though both were readily available. My family seemed perfectly happy receiving the bare minimum of gifts. I did spend an inordinate amount of time crafting these polaroid-style coaster things out of tiles and 4×6 photos, but now I know the wonder that is Mod Podge. Ultimately, I kept the stress turned down and still had a spontaneous weeping fit while washing dishes. Because that’s what managing stress is sometimes—just letting it out.

For me, my biggest challenge would be to set no goals, screw improving myself, to really just let it all hang out and see what happens. But because that’s no fun and everyone loves a good list, here’s a sampling of my Anti New Year’s Resolutions.

  1. Be kind to myself. This is a hard one. Whenever I set out to do something, like write a novel or sew some makeshift curtains, I focus on the imperfections. I zoom in on the problem areas so that all I see are what’s wrong with what I’m doing instead of what’s right—or fun, or funny, or whatever. I imagine many women feel this way. On top of pursuing (or rather figuring out) a career, maintaining a clean apartment, taking care of my dog child, being a good girlfriend, daughter, and sister, updating this blog, baking the perfect banana bread, and writing the next great American novel, I must also have perfect skin and a bangin’ bod. Because nothing you do matters if you’re not bangable. How about this year we fuck that noise. Beating yourself up with impossible expectations is so 2014.
  2. Make more mistakes. Has anyone else noticed that when everything goes according to plan, nothing really interesting happens? I’ve found that to be the case about 99% of the time (when things actually go according to plan, that is). Still, I worry about making the wrong decision, whether it’s my lunch order or where I’m going to live. It’s as though I’m walking through life afraid one misstep will be the fatal blow that ruins everything. In retrospect, choices that seemed like big, irreparable mistakes in the moment proved to be door-openers, blasting open room for new opportunities. I’ll try not to beat myself up, though, if I don’t make enough mistakes.
  3. Write an apocalyptic eco-feminist sci-fi novel. That’s the book I want to write, so literary mores be damned! If that initial idea warps into something else entirely, that’s okay, too. I promise myself to write what I want, when I want without giving two shits what anyone might think of it. You never know what good things will happen when you write to please yourself. Think Toni Morrison.
  4. Give up on the idea of running a marathon in my lifetime. Because the first guy who did it died.

That’s the general idea, but I refuse to hold myself to any of the resolutions stated above because that’s what New Year’s anti-resolutions are all about. For 2015, let’s do something truly revolutionary by letting go, living it up, and not even entertaining the idea of a juice cleanse.

The Pros and Cons of Hell, I Mean, NaNoWriMo

With 9,000 words to go, the end is in sight. I’ve been busting my butt since November 1st to get a novel out of my head and onto the page, and I’m afraid to look back. Though every word may be shit, they’re still words, which is good enough for most novels. I’ve learned that when you sign up for NaNoWriMo you sign a little bit of your life away, but it’s largely the bit you don’t want. I had to evict the perfectionist demons in my head if I wanted to get anything done, and for that I’m thankful.

I’ll admit, not everything about this past month has been a dream. In fact, it’s been a lot like hell! But what makes you agonize over third person vs. first person perspective makes you stronger. Here are some of the pros and cons of participating in National Novel Writing Month:

Cons

I’d really like to know who nominated the month of November. Next to December, it’s probably the worst month to attempt doing anything. Most people have family to see, beards to grow, football to watch, and piles of stuffing to regret eating. Writing a novel could not have come at a worse time, but when the going gets tough, your novel gets going…?

So hard to write when there are so many cookies to eat...

So hard to write when there are so many cookies to eat…

It feels a little like a scam when the website constantly prompts you to donate. Donate to what? The hope that I might get a “free” T-shirt at the end of this thing? Thanks, but no thanks.

Every word I write for anything else—an email, a grocery list, this blog post—feels like words I’m taking away from my novel. My inner monologue: I shouldn’t be wasting words on anything else! I might run out of them before I get to the finish line! (Side note: I don’t think anyone has ever run out of words, just like no one overdoses on pot, you just get paranoid about it.)

If you cut me open, I might bleed brown. Given the amount of coffee I’ve been drinking the past month, that’s a real possibility.

cozy

Pros

NaNoWriMo has given me the kick in the pants to follow something through from start to finish. Most projects I attempt start with enthusiasm and energy, only to veer off a cliff about twenty pages in. This way, no matter how bad the writing gets, I’ve just got to plow through. Because when you write 50,000 words, they aren’t all going to be winners.

There’s a bit of accountability when you’re logging in your word count every day. It calculates for you what date you’ll finish if you go at the rate you’re going, which can be depressing/sobering if you got off to a slow start. The bar graph doesn’t factor in magic or writing fairies showing up at the last minute to save you.

I’m building up the endurance to write through not feeling like it. In a lot of ways, it resembles training for a marathon. You have to build a tolerance and put in the hours. It’s also an excuse to eat high-carb goo in lieu of real meals.

I had to cut out Bravo to find the time to write. I don’t need real housewives after all.

Shame says, "You can do it, asshole."

Shamu says, “You can do it, asshole.”

Of course, there are a number of obstacles that could set me back this last week. I might go into a turkey-induced coma tomorrow. I could get trapped on NJ Transit in the middle of a snowstorm and have to finish my novel on the backs of ticket stubs. Or worse, I could be trapped in Brooklyn and have to finish my novel in a trendy café surrounded by hipsters. But if I’m this creative coming up with obstacles that might slow me down, I’m certainly creative enough to come up with an ending for this beast.