In English this semester we were required to read the book Citizen. Citizen is a lyrical essay written by American poet, Claudia Rankine, discussing her experiences with racial injustice. After reading this, we were asked to write out own lyrical essay after interviewing someone with a different perspective from us. This was challenging because we had to write an extremely personal, thoughtful essay on someone who had a very different life experience then us. An American Lyric is a 2014 book by the American poet Claudia Rankine. I could not have written this essay without the help of my interviewee who will remain anonymous. My essay is below.
Your friend from college is getting married. When she asks you to be her bridesmaid, you are honored and so excited for her. As a gift, the bride decides she will buy all her bridesmaid’s pantyhose. You open the pink sparky bag and pull out your gift. Your nude pantyhose. You look at the color of your skin and then back and the pantyhose, a frustration developing. Frustration at the creators of the color “nude” that effectively exclude an entire ocean of people with all different tones and shades of skin color. You never buy that brand of pantyhose again.
You step into your local hair salon. Instantly, the ringing of conversation and laughter fill your ears. The noise should put you at ease, but instead you feel alienated and uneducated about your surroundings. Although you blend in perfectly with the people inside you feel like an intruder. These small exchanges will never make sense to you because you were raised in a different world, a different culture.
You have three beautiful, smart, girls who mean the world to you. You get notified that your youngest daughter is being put in the special assistance reading program. You know your daughter is an excellent reader. But that’s where the black kids go. You fight for your daughter and the school instantly backs off, with no justification to put your daughter in that program except the color of her skin. The school thinks they can get away with this because they believe black parents stay quiet, won’t fuss, will be silent. But you refuse to. You will not set that example for your girls.
Everywhere you went people stared. Stared at your dark skin, and at your sister’s white skin, at your white parents. You never fit it. You didn’t belong. So you cover up, try and hide yourself away. Never embracing who you are because you are not sure who you are. Your curvy hips and small waist confuse people and confuse yourself.
You buy into the idea that you will never be worthy because you don’t look like the people around you.
In honors last semester, we were asked to read a memoir of our choosing. I decided to read The Liars Club a memoir by Mary Karr about her turbulent childhood. With a mentally ill mother and an alcoholic absent father, Karr’s childhood was far from stable. It was interesting to read this story as it felt almost like reading someones diary. After reading out memoirs, we wrote an essay looking at some of the core values in the story that help distinguish it as a memoir. My essay is below.
An alcoholic father, a mentally ill mother, a verbally abusive grandmother. Mary Karr’s family situation was far from ideal. The memoir “The Liars’ Club” by Mary Karr, takes the reader on a journey through her unstable childhood and early adulthood. Growing up in small town Texas, Karr had uniquely abhorrent experiences that shaped her into the person she is today. The entire memoir is extremely honest and vulnerable and often seems as if she is processing this information for the first time while she is writing. Karr illustrates her resilience, determination, dedication to her family, and optimism.
Throughout her memoir, Karr exemplifies many values, one of the most prominent being resilience. The struggles Karr faced as a young child were very intense and damaged her both mentally and physically. Karr explains that “Sometimes, instead of spanking us, she [her mother] would stand in the kitchen with her fists all white knuckled and scream up at the light fixture that she wasn’t whipping us, because she knew if she got started she’d kill us.” Throughout the novel, Karr refers to her Mother as “nervous”. This was her way of saying her Mother was mentally ill as well as verbally abusive. She would verbally threaten her young children with death instead of physically hurting them, which is many cases was more damaging. Karr goes on through the novel discussing the degree of pain she experienced during her childhood. “Those are only rumors of suffering. Real suffering has a face and a smell. It lasts in the most intense form no matter what you drape over it. And it knows your name.” This excerpt is demonstrates a lot of Karr’s character and identity. It helps the reader realize that the level of trauma Karr went through is not something surface level but instead deep, real, and painful. Instead of letting this pain consume her, Karr became an established author and made her childhood part of her success instead of the reason for her failure.
Karr demonstrates her profound determination and will power throughout the memoir in many ways. She does not let her experiences stop her from anything. In one powerful passage, Karr explains that either “… you snap out of it. Or are snapped out of it. Never again will you lay a hand against yourself, not as long as there are plums to eat and somebody–anybody–who gives enough of a damn to haul them to you.” She has the option to dive deep into herself and never come out. No one would blame her if she broke down and was just angry. Angry at her Mother for hurting her, angry at the world for sticking her in this place, but instead she makes this a positive thing. She is determined to live her life with a positive impact rather than full of hate and despair. Karr continues, “So long as you bear the least nibblet of love for any other creature in this dark world, though in love portions are never stingy. There are no smidgens on pinches, only rolling abundance. That’s how you acquire the resolution for survival that the upcoming years are about to demand. You don’t give it. You earn it.” This passage is purely inspiring. Karr has not let the darkness consume her and instead is looking for everything and anything to keep going. It shows that she believes you need to fight for what you earn and not give in to the things surrounding you.
Although Karr struggles with her family throughout the entire novel, it was something that defined her and helped shape her into the person she is currently. She understands that her nontraditional family is normal in the greater context of things. Although they have done horrible things to her and her sister, she respects her parents and her grandmother. She explains that she believes “A dysfunctional family is any family with more than one person in it.” She accepts her family for their craziness and dysfunctionality and still acknowledges that they are the only family she will get and respects them for that. Throughout the novel, the way she was raised is featured “In his world, only full-blown lunatics got divorced. Regular citizens in a bad marriage just hunkered down and stood it.” She has been taught that family sticks together despite the difficulties it faces. Even though many of the unfortunate parts of her childhood were caused by her family she still values and appreciates what they have given her. Throughout the memoir, Karr goes through horrible experiences and yet she remains fairly optimistic through them all. She does not sulk into herself and instead finds a way to blossom through the hardships and look at her experiences like lessons rather than challenges. An excerpt that particularly exemplifies this viewpoint is when she says, “Sure the world breeds monsters, but kindness grows just as wild…” She understands the darkness in the world, but also believes light can be found just as fast. She looks at the world positively and thinks the best of the negative situations she is in. Her optimistic attitude throughout her struggles is a key value shown throughout the memoir.
This work seems to be a process for Karr to discover her feelings. She is reliving her experience and as the reader we can feel this in the writing. It is honest and vulnerable and fresh in a way that cannot be faked. This essay encouraged me to be more positive and grateful for the relatively unchallenged childhood I have had in relation to Karr.
Another honors assignment we were given last semester was to read Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss. This book consisted of several essays in which Biss describes her experiences in different cities and places being a white women. She discusses racial inequality through her own experiences with very beautiful language and imagery. Earlier in the year, we were asked to read Citizen, a lyrical essay by Claudia Rankine discussing the discrimination she faces daily. As honors students, we were asked to analyze these two essays and find differences and similarities between the two. My analysis is below.
Passage from Notes from No Man’s Land: “Up until her death, Laura Ingalls Wilder would not allow a fence to be built around her house. She loved the land enough to know exactly what had been stolen to make her world. ‘If I had been the Indians,’ she wrote in her 1849 diary, as she looked out over a river and some bluffs in south dakota, ‘I would have scalped more white folks before I ever would have left it.” Page 147
Passage from Citizen: “ To live through the days sometimes you moan like deer. Sometimes you sigh. The world says stop that. Another sigh. Another stop that. Moaning elicits laughter, sighing upsets.Perhaps each sigh is drawn into existence to pull in, pull under, who knows; truth be told, you could no more control these sighs than that which brings the sigh about.” Page 59
Summary: Throughout section three, Biss discusses the novel “Little House on the Prairie” and all the connections that exists in Laura’s Ingalls Wilder’s story and today’s environment. One of the parts she includes is that Laura explains she would kill all the white people she could if she was Native American. In Citizen, Rankine explains that she often feels like she is holding is a sigh that needs to be let out. Something that has been built up over years of misuse.
Connection: In both passages the frustration towards white people at what they had put minorities through was evident and overwhelming. The first passage is from the view of a white person, who explains that she would not be able to contain her frustration and rage at the people who had taken away everything. The second passage comes from another perspective, of someone who has been affected by white privilege and continues to experience microaggressions. Instead of being angry and wanting to hurt people, she expresses her frustration as a sigh which is even more devastating in my opinion.
Passage from Citizen:“This friend says as you walk toward her, you are late you nappy-headed ho. What did you say? You ask, though you have heard every word. This person has never before referred to you like this in your presence, never before code switched in this manner… Maybe the content of her statement is irrelevant and she only means to signal the stereotype of ‘black people time’ by employing what she perceives to be ‘black people language.’” Page 41
Passage from Notes from No Man’s Land: “At the beginning of the six-episode series Black. White., the white family needs coaching from the black family in order to learn how to pass as black. But the black family, as they explain after an uncomfortable silence, already knows how to act white, of course, because that is the dominant culture within which they have to live their daily lives. Knowing how to act white is a survival skill for the black family. The white family, on the other hand, struggles with acting black, frequently committing tone-deaf errors and ultimately not quite pulling it off.” Page 29
Summary: In Citizen, Rankine refers to a meeting with a friend in which she is called an offensive name. She discusses the idea of code switching and how her friend may just be trying to relate. In Notes from No Man’s Land, Biss talks about a tv show in which black and white people switch identities. The black family explains that they already know how to act white while the white family can never learn to act black.
Connection: In Citizen, Rankine demonstrates how impossible it is for white people to fully understand and be part of black culture. It is never ok for white people to essentially steal black culture. You can clearly see this in Notes from No Man’s Land as well. Basically, blacks have to conform to and understand white culture in some way because it is the dominant culture, this is not true for whites and continues to create divide and separation.
In English we were required to write a social and civic responsibility paper on a topic of our choice. For my topic, I chose to write about body image. Body image is not always given the credit it deserves in hurting people’s self confidence and self worth. It was extremely interesting for me to dive into this topic and learn more about the ways it is affecting people. My essay is below.
I have yet to meet someone who has always been completely satisfied with their body. No matter how perfect they may look to another person, there is always something that they wish they could change or tweak to look better. People often believe that all they need to do in order to become healthier, happier, and have a thriving social life, is attain their perfect body. But this facade is a dreamy disguise to a darker picture. It leads to a spiral of self hatred in which a person can never be enough. Over the course of history, women have been taught that their purpose is to look good and that their worth is in how beautiful they appear to others. This toxic past has carried over into the 21st century and needs to be broken. Body image is a pressing issue in our country that needs to be addressed now, in order to teach young girls to love their bodies and look at them as instruments to be used instead of objects to be looked at. This is critical as more and more young women are falling victim to increasingly daunting beauty standards.
Let’s set out by defining something that will come up many times in this research paper, body image. Body image is an individuals view on their body and their attitude towards it. Both men and women can struggle with body image but for the purpose of this essay, I will be focusing on women. Within this definition, there are two key aspects to break down. One, the individual’s mental picture of their body, and two, one’s attitude towards their physical self. (Good Therapy). A person’s mental picture of their body can greatly affect their attitude towards it. For example if a person thinks of their body as strong and powerful, they will most likely have a positive attitude toward their physical self. But, if this same body was looked at as fat and awkward, this person might have negative body image, despite what their body looks like to other people. Our bodies are amazing tools capable of mindblowing feats, but instead of using them, our culture has established that reaching a specific body standard is essential to happiness. As said by Judith Rodin, in her article Body Mania, “We’ve become a nation of appearance junkies and fitness zealots, pioneers driven to think, talk, strategize, and worry about our bodies with the same fanatical devotion we applied to putting a man on the moon. Abroad, we strive for global peace. At home, we have declared war on our bodies.” This sad truth is slowly destroying us and crippling our ability to use our bodies to their full potential.
When people think of the “perfect body” there is often a common theme. This woman is tall, has thick healthy hair, clear skin, and is extremely thin. Where do these images come from? Why do we believe that there is only a small category that consists of what is “beautiful” that is almost impossible for people to fit into? The idea of the perfect body can come from many different places. They can come from the people in our lives such as “our peers, our coaches, our doctors, or our families.” (Teen Talk) But, they can also come from sources that are trying to sell us something such as “celebrities, models, animated TV characters, or toys — body shapes that may be unrealistic or just plain unattainable.” (Common Sense Media) These sources can lead to the most damage because they propose a picture that leads to wanting. Rachel Palmbush, a graduate with a bachelors in psychology explains that she believes that in her experience these images come from specifically from “magazines and tv” and that they appeared “pretty and desirable” to her. Rachel’s story is similar to millions of women across the globe. Currently, one of the main things associated with happiness is being thin. People have been found to believe that if they were thinner their live would be exponentially better and they would lead more happy, fulfilled lives. Even though this could be harmful, thinness is one of the beauty standards sought by women all around the world. “Thin-ideal media highlights the idea that thinness is a good and desirable thing to be, even if it is to a level that is potentially damaging to a person’s health.” (Mirror mirror) These standards established from different sources have caused negative self esteem in billions of women.
So, how does negative body image affect us? Low self esteem is one of the many side effects of beauty sickness. But alongside this, negative body image is time consuming. Just thinking alone about how your body looks can be be exhausting and take up valuable brain space. In her book, Beauty Sick, Renee Engeln explains that “the times when you most need all of your focus and attention are when body monitoring has the potential to be the most disruptive.” She continues by interviewing a young girl who says “It’s like my brain is split in two halves. Half is about my body and half is school.” This example demonstrates how body image can eat up your thoughts and time. When it is impossible to be satisfied with our bodies, people find themselves in a continuous cycle of pain and self hatred. The reality is that “a woman today looks at her reflection in mirror and finds it wanting–and then is consumed by a quest to make herself fit the reflection the media has conditioned her to expect is possible.” (Body Mania) But trying fighting for an image that is not attainable women, are taking up time and effort that could be spent on other things. Women give up hobbies, and passions that bring them happiness, to chase a dream that only leads to self harm and despair.
Generally, combating negative body image is focused on girls in their teenage years. Changing bodies can bring lots of questions about self worth and what a body means for a woman. But, when do young girls really start to notice their bodies? The reality is, girls begin thinking and comparing their bodies at a shockingly young age. The book, Beauty Sick, explains that “Thirty-four percent of five year olds engage in deliberate dietary restraint at least “sometimes.” Twenty-eight percent of these girls say they want their bodies to look like the women they see in movies and on television.” In your mind, imagine of a five year old girl. Young and carefree, she should not need to think about how her body appears to others, but instead, is already beginning a mental and physical personal battle with her body that could last a lifetime. Young girls who should not be burdened by body expectations are rationing and considering what they eat at the age of five. This five year old girl is taught to believe its normal and expect to hate your body and how it looks to others. She continues to be subject to these false rules. “Over fifty percent of 9 and 10 year-old girls feel better about themselves if they are on a diet.” (Mirror Mirror) Just knowing that they are track to a skinnier life can change someone’s idea of their bodies. These girls are already striving for their idea of a perfect body. This issue is affecting girls at young ages.
The ideal body for women is constantly changing. Cut, a media company with the mission to produce content that is “often funny and surprisingly thought provoking” (Cut) has recently released a series called “100 Years of Beauty”. They take women and men from different countries and cultures and show how beauty standards have changed in the past hundred years. In a span of a minute, they adjust their makeup, hair and clothing based on the fashion of that particular century. These videos are very interesting and unique reminders about how much beauty has changed. In the past, people were not constantly bombarded with women with the “perfect body”. Instead, they would occasionally “pass these images on billboards, watch them on TV, flip through them in magazines, but we weren’t sitting around staring at them for hours every day.” (nationaleatingdisorders.org) . This example demonstrates how the way we are consuming media and unrealistic images has changed over time. In the past, women were able to keep these images out of their head, as they did not see them everywhere they looked. Nowadays, it is near impossible to live freely of these expectations.
When people think of promoting negative body image, the media is usually the first to be blamed. It is easy to say that the people producing the images of perfection are the cause of unhappiness. In this digital age, teenagers are forced to learn how to navigate different social media platforms and technology. Most of them are already aware that they images they are looking at are photoshopped or edited in some way. An article from Women’s Health explains that young women “… displayed high media literacy, appreciation of differences, and confidence, strategies that appeared helpful in mitigating the potential negative association between social media exposure and body image.” and continued to explain that many believed “positive parental influence and a supportive school environment” were more important in nurturing positive body image then social media. In order to help lesson the blow of these photoshopped images, people have suggested that advertising companies put disclaimers on edited images in order to continue spreading the awareness that not all of the images people are seeing are natural. Researchers at Chapman University wanted to see if these disclaimers would actually have an effect on the viewer. After having different groups of women look at advertisements with disclaimers and without they found that in all groups the women “felt a negative impact on their body image regardless of whether they saw ads with a disclaimer or subvertisement.” Because the media is always going to promote unrealistic images in order to sell, people need to continue to learn how to deal with these images and realize that they are not always real. The good news is research shows that media literacy and conversations are improving which can help this issue.
Now that you are properly informed on this issue, what can we do to help it? Unfortunately there is no magic solution, instead this battle will most likely continue for many womens entire lives. But, there are ways to combat it. Judith Rodin explains her article Body Mania that “One of the most important steps toward changing you body image is to have compassion for the millions of women struggling with their own body-image problems–especially for yourself. It is time to face the person you see in the mirror with profound new insight: She hasn’t been worrying about nothing. In fact, she hasn’t been taking the real problem, body preoccupation, seriously enough. Neither has society. It’s time to understand the price she has been paying and help her shed that burden.” As in many cases, one of the most critical first steps is recognizing that there is an issue and having compassion for yourself. Women have a tendency to be cruel to themselves and are often first to take the blame for issues that might not even involve them. Loving yourself and identifying when something is wrong can be important in fighting negative body image. Another strategy to combat negative body image found by Renee Engelen was posing questions. She asked women “What kind of person do you want to be?” and “How do you want the world to be when you leave it?”. The answers to these questions have nothing to do with body image and all to do with the dreams, goals, and ambitions of women. These questions can be the first step in having more control of your body image and letting go of the mirror. Once women understand that it is the work they do with their bodies that matters, and not what it looks like to others, they can have help determine what matters most.
Body image is a determined monster that is able to wiggle into our deepest insecurities and fears. Unfortunately, there is no way to simply block out the images of perfection we face in the media everyday. Instead, we must learn to appreciate our bodies because of their own unique abilities. This is not a one day challenge, it takes women years to learn how to deal with the constant pressure to fit an idealized beauty standard. Taking small steps can lead to great progress and help combat beauty sickness. But once you recognize that what you can do with the body given to you is more amazing then anything, you will begin your journey to finding peace with your body. So as a closing to this essay, I challenge you to answer these questions for yourself; “What kind of person do you want to be?” and “How do you want the world to be when you leave it?”.