Faking Orgasms and Apple Pizza: Dolly Alderton’s Everything I Know About Love

By Polly Hember

Dolly Alderton’s debut novel Everything I Know About Love is the book everyone seems to be talking about – and with good reason, too. It’s a beautifully rich autobiographical wander down Alderton’s memory lane, astutely exploring notions about love. Strikingly honest and intimate, Alderton’s reflections on disordered eating, the way she acts in relationships, the jealousy of a best friend’s new boyfriend, her alcohol abuse, anxiety and personal experiences of therapy all feel like secret thoughts that she might be telling a best friend in confidence. These are postulations about intimacy that are astoundingly relatable; in their unbounded honesty, they leap off the page and act as comforting lifelines to the reader’s own experiences that they might be too embarrassed or afraid to confront themselves. This novel is a handbook, an inspiring tale, a hilarious read, a comforting friend, a mirror the reader can hold up to oneself, and more.

Starting from ‘Everything I Knew About Love as a Teenager’, Alderton presents little snapshots of how she interacted with love throughout her life. As a teen, she states “Romantic love is the most important and exciting thing in the entire world. If you don’t have it when you’re a proper grown-up then you’ve failed, just like so many of my art teachers who I have noted are ‘Miss’ instead of ‘Mrs’”. Exploring the psychological and emotional effects of MSN on modern day life; that faceless line of clumsy communication where song lyrics squeezed into your screen-name and logging yourself in and out again until your crush would strike up a conversation was a perfectly acceptable tactic – all of this taught us how to first interact with members of the opposite sex. Flashing forward to 21, “Orgasms are easy to fake and make both parties feel better”, and “When you’re thin enough, you’ll be happy with who you are and then you’ll be worthy of love”, recounting wild university days and a continuing abusive relationship with alcohol. At 25, “Always bring a man back to your house, then you can trick him into staying for breakfast and trick him into falling in love with you”. Then, sound and cathartic advice arrives at 28: “It is no person’s job to be the sole provider of your happiness”. The book is structured around these key phases and punctuated with recipes (‘Apple Pizza’ has been tried and tested and I can’t wait to sample the rest; especially the Hangover ‘Mac n’ Cheese’) and side-splitting made-up group emails arranging dinner parties and hen do’s.

It does what it says on the tin. It is a book about Alderton’s musings on love. However, the magical epiphany comes when Alderton realises self-love and platonic love are the key pillars to a happy and fulfilled life. It’s as if Alderton answers her teenage self that thinks the entire world revolves around men and sex, and tells her softly that happiness has to come from within and not from external validation or playing along to the heteronormative ideal of marriage and maternity that Western culture reinforces is the only direct way of achieving happiness.

The most touching moments in the entire novel are those that describe Alderton’s best friend, Farly. This book is an ode to female friendships, singing their praises, their healing powers as well as the immense fun and fulfilment they bring. I read this book after a particularly difficult breakup and I can’t emphasise the amount of joy and hope it provided in its first reading. Whether you’re in a relationship or single, this book will speak to you in ways a novel so rarely manages to do. It’s warm, it’s heart-breaking, it’s confrontational and asks us (in Alderton’s perfectly witty vernacular) to really examine and reflect on the way we act and the way we think about love and intimacy.

About the Author

20732865_10213552443383664_236371032_nPolly Hember

Polly is a Freelance Writer, Editor-in-Chief of On the Beat, Art Editor at the The Rational Online, a coffee-drinker and country-music listener. She holds an MA in English Literature from the University of Bristol where she focused on feminism and early twentieth-century women’s writing.

The Female Contortionist

By Ruth Ankers

Women all over the world have experienced it. Heart break. The kind that takes you off the map. The kind that distorts your vision for years after. That takes the air out of your lungs and leaves you gasping for breath.

You take time to recover, you build yourself up again and you feel stronger. Like you “can” for the first time in what feels like forever. Like you “are” again.

So, what do you do when someone new comes along?

I’m suddenly in very dangerous territory.

I know I am, because I’m holding back, wary, which is unlike me. I’m checking myself constantly, measuring out the perfect amount of “me” to give to him. I think about what I say, twice, three times.

I have to make sure, this time, I don’t do anything wrong.

I hand pick the best bits of me and I carefully lay them out to him, like i would at a Saturday garden sale.

If he buys this, we should be fine.

And he does, he likes it. We’re onto date two and now I’m trying really hard not to mess it up.

If I let him see the real me and all the bits that aren’t perfect he will end it, and I will feel rejected, again.

I don’t know if I can take that.

Convincing somebody that you’re perfect is exhausting. Trying to be positive all the time is exhausting. Evading your narly spots requires you to bend and stretch yourself in ways you haven’t before, and I’m telling you now, you will end up tangled. You will find yourself a contortionist and him watching you from the side stage as you manifest yourself into someone you’re not. Ta-da!

Why can’t I just be myself?

Why, when he is opening up to me, telling me things about his family, do I withhold all my secrets. Why do I nod along, a paper cut out of myself. Why can’t I give him anything of myself?

Why is it so much easier to not let him in? I know I can’t sustain this forever. But if I break, I only have myself to blame.

It’s a month in and it’s not changing. If anything it’s getting worse.

The closer I get to him, the higher I build the wall. Although I think I’m doing a pretty good job of making it invisible to him. I’m constantly waiting for him to notice, to say those dreaded words “we need to talk”. And he does.

But here comes the crux.

Despite the fact we worked it out, he told me something which woke me up. He said he felt that “something was missing”.

And he was right, wasn’t he.

The bit that was missing was me.

The real me. The human, fallible me. With a whole lot of history which has made me who I am. The substance, the wholeness, the grit and the bits that have worn away. The backlog of life experience, the grazes and bumps and the skeletons in the wardrobe. The wholeness that comes with being completely human.

So, if your reading this, please take my advice.

BE YOURSELF.

All of you.

Know that it is okay to be vunrable. To be human, to come with bruises and bits that hurt.

It’s okay to open up and tell the truth, it’s okay to not be the version of yourself which came in the original packaging.

You have had a LIFE and that has shaped you. Something you should never apologise for.

Don’t hide yourself, contort yourself or withhold yourself from someone. They too are human, they too have a history and a whole lot of baggage that comes with that. They have been rebuffed as they have moved across the world.

If you can accept someone for who they are why don’t you feel you deserve to be accepted for being you?

In the words of Will Durant:

“We must steel ourselves against utopias and be content with a slightly better state”.

We don’t have to be perfect. We just have to be ourselves.

About The Author

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Ruth Ankers is a Drama and Applied Theatre Practitioner and Teacher. She favours writing poetry and short plays. Ruth is a firm believer in equality of gender and is really exited to be writing for Gender + the City!

Illustration by Anna Wanda

@annawandagogusey

http://www.wandalovesyou.com

The Pill and Me ♥

A note from the Editor

Dear Friends,

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Gender + the City would like to send you a Valentine’s Day card this year…

It’s an amalgamation of our stories and perspectives, pains and pleasures, experiences and insights on the subject of the contraceptive pill. I’d like to thank all our lovely contributors for sharing so candidly.

To start off our hot V-day date with the pill, here’s my own contribution to our contraception collective:

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Katie Staal

I was on the pill for seven years; from the age I started having sex with my first boyfriend up until last year. I went on it because that’s what every girl did when they started having sex. For seven years I went to the doctors alone and picked up my prescription alone. I was weighed and questioned, the blood pressure armband squeezed tightly around my upper arm. My contraceptive world ticked along, invisible to eyes of my boyfriends who in total peace and serenity, came inside me.

I loved my little sugar-coated dose of Microgynon every day, it made me feel safe and protected. I trusted it. I never missed a day. Taking it became so much a part of my sense of self, that it seemed abnormal when I stopped consuming them (for one week of the month to have my period.)

It was only last year that confusion and concern began to invade my contraceptive bubble. In reality, I knew very little about the long term effects of my daily dose. What happens to your body when you stop taking it? What about if you want to come off, and then go back on again? Was I still too young to think about quitting? All of these questions simmered as I eyed my pill with suspicion. 

There are over one million pill takers. And yes, the pill can have a damaging effect on the long term health of women and girls[1] The pill is a Feminist issue, and men (the very men that fuck women on the pill all the time) are often ignorant of the emotional, mental and physical labour that we go through to avoid unplanned pregnancy. To be truly equal, shouldn’t both sexes share the load? What the hell happened to the infamous male pill?! We’ve been ‘five years’ away from male contraception for fifty years! 

Then I began to get really pissed off. Do all these questions fall on deaf ears because contraception is still deemed a ‘women’s issue’, and therefore irrelevant, unimportant and underrepresented in scientific and medical research?

The pill just didn’t cut it for me anymore. I needed to go cold turkey.

As it turns out, the most useful advice on how to quit the pill came from sharing stories with my girlfriends. In a bar in Soho one night, a friend looked me straight in the eye and said ‘come off it, trust me, The Pill fucks you up, and then you can’t go back’. She continued gravely: ‘The side effects makes it feel like we still don’t really have a choice, it’s a lose/lose situation.’

The Pill was introduced in 1961 and yet in 2017, my friend echoed the same sentiment expressed by the first wave of Feminism. Their fight has become ours, and it’s clearly not over yet. Even worse, there’s a superpower cheeto out there who at the flick of a pen, seeks to reinforce the oppression female bodily autonomy.

I’ll admit, I’ve been off the pill for over a year now and I’m still a little confused about what’s going on in my body. Many of my original suspicions have continued to simmer, taking on new shapes and forms. Alarmingly, I lost a lot of weight in a pretty short amount of time and experienced painful period cramps and other weird PMS symptoms that I’d never had before. The worst was something I affectionately named ‘fart brain’, where for the first couple of days of my period, I basically feel like I’m on another planet! I can’t think straight and struggle to concentrate.

Through all of my frustrations and anxieties, my friends provided a listening ear. Talking to them helped me check in with myself, and eventually, realise how I really felt about the changes I was going through. I hope the stories to follow in this article are equally valuable, and can help you to find comfort in solidarity with our pill taking sisters.

[1] Side effects of the pill include: heart disease and stroke, depression, DVT, blood clots, migraines and an increased risk of cervical cancer to name a few.

Please like GATC on Facebook and Follow us on Twitter. You can also follow Katie on InstagramSpotify and Goodreads.

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Anonymous 

The Contraceptive Saga: A Series of Limericks

There once was a young girl at school
with pills as her protective tool.
She didn’t know others,
but came to discover
an IUD was not as cruel.

Once she missed the pill and got stressed.
Plus side effects made her depressed.
A nurse gave advice:
“This copper device
will have all your problems addressed!”

Though she met the change with intrigue,
the coil gave her cramps and fatigue.
She squirted much blood,
proclaimed “It’s a dud!
A method for men is in need.”

But she hadn’t quite lost her will:
protection without getting ill.
She spoke to her doctor.
His answer did shock her:
“Not condoms nor coil? Try the pill!”

Tried condoms, an NFP app,
but these were refused by her chap.
Why should she feel sick
for the sake of his dick?!
She gave up and told him to fap.

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Angelique Jones

My experience with the pill is by no means unique: the doctor told me so.

When I was 15 I went to the GP with my mum, because I had a few pimples on my chin, and (something called) period pains; but, I didn’t really have a period: I had an extremely long one once for a week when I was 13, I had to sit on towels, couldn’t go to school. What I hadn’t mentioned was that I heard at school, that it makes your boobs bigger, too, but that so-and-so got fat. It was a risk; but I was 15, and so foresight – what’s that?

The doctor said Microgynon would clear up my skin and give me regular, painless, bleeds. Sweet, whatever that means. So, I took the tiny pill for 3 weeks, stopped and had a bleed. But, most of the time I chose when I would have a period, sometimes I took it every day; periods are annoying, especially when you have to wear shorts for P.E, and you have to buy tampons because it’s “ew, gross” to wear pads.

After two and a half years of playing around with the pill, I was getting pretty depressed, and a bit fat – but I was also binging on sugar, and skipping meals because I didn’t know how to express myself: girl, age 17-18 years. I would just cry, and then eat a loaf of bread and 5 KitKat Chunkies.

The doctor’s told me to take Citalopram 20 (anti-depressants) and keep taking the pill to regulate my hormones. I didn’t feel good.

I stopped taking the pill after 3 years, and the anti-depressants after 5 days. I bled for 10 days. I haven’t bled since. I’m now 26.

The doctors keep telling me to take the pill, so that I can have a “normal” period.

Angelique is Film Editor for both The Rational, and On the Beat. You can follow her on Instagram @Angeliquejones_

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Ariane Laurent-Smith

I am 22 years old, I’ve tried four different types of contraception, and fingers crossed, I think I found my perfect match. I was put on Loestrin 20 at the age of fifteen because my periods hurt so badly that I was near to fainting. When I became sexually active, it made sense for me to go on Loestrin 30, deemed a ‘proper’ contraceptive pill. I took it for two years, but never trusted it enough not to use condoms at the same time. Really, it was more of a back-up. It’s funny that I took something with awful side-effects as a ‘back-up’.

I didn’t connect the dots until much later, but every time I stopped taking my pill, whether it was to have my period or I forgot (we’ve all been there!) I would feel extremely emotionally fragile for following week or so. I felt like I could cry at the drop of a hat. After this, I tried the contraceptive injection. Also, a no! The emotional side-effects were even worse than the pill, and I refused to accept the idea that I should stick with it for another three months because the side-effects ‘should’ tail off. It’s just not worth the risk.

Enter my knight in shining armour. I’m not talking about a man. In fact, men don’t even have an option for hormonal contraception, since development of the male injection was cut short. No, my knight is the IUS. Otherwise known as intra-uterine system, the hormonal coil, the Mirena, heaven in a contraceptive. That is, unless you’re unlucky to be on the receiving end of one of the major side-effects. Although these are rare, in some cases it can pierce your womb (I love being a woman!) Even my dream contraception hurts to get inserted – the cramps and contractions I experienced, I can only compare to what I imagine the pain of labour is (oh the irony).

My boyfriend at the time rubbed circles on my back with one hand and called a taxi to go home with the other. The pain lasted a few hours but since then, I’ve felt like I’m floating, with a peace of mind I never knew was possible.

Hear more from Ariane on Oxide News Radio.

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Ellis Taylor

After 8 years, I made the decision. My life was good; I’d overcome some really tough experiences and gone through plenty of counselling. But I still didn’t feel right.

I was 18 when I went on the combined pill and 24 when I came off it. I was 18 when I started to feel anxious and low. When I was 21 I was prescribed antidepressants. Was this a coincidence? I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think it was.

Before making my decision, I spoke to friends and researched the effects of the combined pill on mental health. Finally, I decided that it was time to stop taking it. I thought it would fix my mood swings – hell, I thought it might even ‘cure’ my depression.

When I first came off the pill it was wonderful. I felt like I was meeting my body and my natural rhythm for the first time! My body was doing what it was meant to be doing – not what it had been instructed to do by a little pill. My antidepressants reduced, I was getting closer and closer to being totally medication free for the first time in years.

It’s now been a year. My natural monthly rhythm lasted a couple of months, but now that my body has had time to adjust, problems that I never knew existed have revealed themselves.

When I came off the pill it was because thought it would ‘fix’ my mental health issues. It has helped, but coming off has also revealed a new knowledge of my body, an awareness that uncovered potential problems, problems otherwise discovered.

Follow Ellis on Instagram.

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Freya Turner

Drug in Greek is Pharmakon. This word refuses to define whether it means to cure or to poison. ‘Kon’, as if to cheat us of meaning.

Granting me my last resort for acne treatment in a little windowless office, some doctor put me on Yasmin. It was a flippant decision for him, and a hesitant one for me. I was living in Amsterdam at the time; my first time living abroad. Just outside the clinic, one of the beautiful and unsure canal rings was winding away and away, coiling together a paper cut-out city. It made me lose my way home.

Washed down somewhere, into my blood, silently. It’s an intoxicating idea. It is tiny and slight and light, barely detected by the tongue. Is this dangerous slightness the feeling of a womanhood?

I took it for the time it takes to grow a baby. At least that’s what I remember. Having ‘moderate’ acne, it felt as if I had a clinical diagnosis warning me of my constant uncertainty and wavering.

Is this a numbness? // Maybe it is hyper awareness. // How am I to ever know when I am feeling drug mood or my mood? // Then what is mine? // Is medically constructed good skin a contract; all moods suddenly mine? // What is more possible: absence or unusual movement of emotion? // And who is to say which out of frequency or size of spot, is the most destructive?

I couldn’t answer the questions. This medical exchange became a project, I realised, in a woman’s capability of tolerating what she thought and her own and others’ politics of health and superficiality.

Like many projects, this one ended. I now let the acne thrive, and I use nothing for it.

Freya is a regular contributor to GATC, you can read more of her recent writing here and here

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Polly Hember

Discussions on birth control are deeply political, revolving around reproductive rights, female autonomy, body politics and so on. Second-wave feminists in the 1960’s and 70’s argued that control over a woman’s own fertility was, in no uncertain terms, power. This was a power that gave women access to more control over if and when they wanted to have children. Margaret Sanger (founder of Planned Parenthood) stated in 1920 that a woman who relies on men for birth control, is a woman ‘exploited, driven and enslaved to his desires.’

However, a trend I have noticed with young women in their twenties now is a deep sense of resentment about their pill. Why should women have to risk blood clots, weight gain, mood swings, acne, loss of libido and more in order to enjoy sex and avoid pregnancy, when men get all the benefits without the side effects?

At 19, I experienced inconsolable mood swings due to the brand of my contraceptive pill. At 23, I was nearly hospitalised because of an infection caused by the copper coil. At these times I have to admit that I have felt it unfair that women shoulder the burden, the risk and the sole accountability of pregnancy-free sex.

Contraception is always going to be a multifaceted, emotive and complex discussion. President Trump is attempting to enable US employers to deny women insurance coverage that pays for their birth control. Whether you feel empowered or resentful, the issue is freedom of choice. The support, education and the availability of birth control one decides on more critical than ever before.

Polly Hember is Art Editor for The Rational and found of On the Beat.

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Izabella Karasinska-Stanley

When I got a boyfriend, I knew it was time for me to get the pill. Oddly, I never considered any other option. At the time, I didn’t know anyone who was using the coil, or the implant. For me, it was this, or condoms, and condoms break, or we might run out. The pill was entirely up to me. That’s what I wanted.

I was slightly nervous when I waited in the Sexual Health clinic, but mostly I wasn’t. It seemed so easy. You just ask the doctor to prescribe you a contraceptive, as if ordering a pizza in a restaurant. You say what you want, they ask follow-up questions, like if you want added parmesan, or if you have multiple sexual partners, and then you wait a bit, and then they give it you. It’s very easy.

It’s been just as easy ever since. I know I’m lucky. I have plenty of friends who reacted badly to it, or who keep forgetting to take it. But for me, it works fine. I don’t forget it. And most importantly, it hasn’t completely fucked me up. I’m really lucky. I can have sex all the time, whenever I want. I’m never scared. I’m always protected.

And yet, I think I might stop taking it soon. Switch to something else.

That’s the thing about the contraceptive pill. It’s like social media stealing your data, or your GPS tracking your every move. Those sites are convenient, but something about them seems wrong. It’s the same feeling. You don’t get real periods. Your hormones aren’t working right. So many things about the running of your female body line up with your menstrual cycle. What about all of that?

It’s the same feeling Miss Clavel has in Madeline, you know?

“Something is not right”.

Follow Izabela’s film photography Tumblr and find her on Instagram @izabela_ks.


Illustrations by Anna Sudit
@annasudit
http://www.annasudit.com

Mother May I?

By Kaisha Langton

“You are selfish.”

“You are going to regret this.”

“Who will care for you when you’re old?”

“You will live an unfulfilled life.”

“You are not a real woman.”

This is what you get when you tell someone you don’t want to be a mother. Aggressive and shaming language of this kind haunts childless women and attempts to bully them into conforming to the status quo.

Childlessness has two main subsets: childless by chance or childless by choice. With 18% of British women aged 45 in 2016 without children, compared to just 11% in 1971, childlessness is clearly increasing in the UK. There are a multitude of reasons why women cannot or do not have children. However, all women without children are positioned as ‘other’ in normative society.

In media and films, single women without children are usually cast as the villain or an evil jealous witch. This typecasting reoccurs in traditional fairy tales such as ‘Hansel and Gretel’, as the innocent children escape being cooked for dinner by the vicious, old, childless crone. Another type of ‘predatory’ woman is found in Sex and the City’s Samantha Jones, who’s sexually powerful, man-obsessed and career driven.

Furthermore, there’s the trope of the ‘crazy cat lady’, who sits around knitting misshapen hats for her many kittens, the furry creatures who have taken the place of the children that she was supposed to have, but never quite managed to.

And of course, our single days are not much better, we are Bridget Jones, desperately dreaming of our Mr Darcy so we can ‘properly’ settle down, get married and pop out little sweetums.

But what happens if you just aren’t built with the desire to have children?

Since I was fifteen, I’ve known that I will not have children. Now aged 26, I’ve visited the doctor to ask to help my body reflect this decision medically. I was turned away. Doctors refused to give help, with a pitying look in their eyes, and assurances that it is the right thing to do because. Obviously, I am too young (and perhaps, too female) to know my own mind.

But I am not too young. I am old enough to drink. To drive. To smoke. To have sex. To gamble. To receive the highest rate for minimum wage. To watch all films with any certification. To fight and die for my country in the army.

And yet I, and the many others that come to this decision at a young age, are told that we are too young to know what we want. We are ‘too young’ to have authority over our own bodies.

The doctor’s comment was just one of the many marks against my decision. My friends and family express the same, but with a softer approach. Sometimes, it feels as if they’re acting out a scene or reading a script. Trust me, I have eleven years of experience in hearing this script over and over – which is usually:

  1. A pitying look
  2. A tilted head
  3. A sympathetic smile
  4. The words: ‘You’ll change your mind one day.’

My close friends also challenge my choice. They ask ‘what if you fall in love with someone that wants children?’ ‘What if your partner threatens to leave you if you don’t have a child?’

Needless to say in this case, they would not be the person for me.

The decision to remain childless is personal, and that does not mean it is any less valid. It is as simple as deciding to get a piercing or a tattoo: a choice concerning my own body and prerogative. This is my life to live as I see fit.

I am resolute in my decisions once I put my mind to them. The fact that even my closest of family and friends believe I will “grow up” and change my mind is irksome. But I can understand why they feel the need to react like this.

After all, biologically, humans are built with a complex set of mechanics. We are intricate machines with complicated methodologies. To ensure the human race survives, we are born with biological impulses. To perpetuate our existence and thrive, we logically possess these imperatives for survival, territorialism, competition, reproduction and group-forming.

Simply put: we are born with a biological clock which counts down to the (supposedly happy) moment when we can produce our very own mini-me. These biological impulses are so deeply instilled in our social systems that we grow up playing pretend families, cuddling dolls, and thinking about baby names.

Like many others, I was raised in a heteronormative family structure and assumed that my future would mimic this. But for me, this picture seems stifling, and at odds with the future I see for myself. I have different drives – to attain all of my career goals and travel to places in every corner of the world. And I believe that children that are not wanted or cherished are a waste.

And yet, I’m still met with a stream of distrust, denial and disagreement.

It is time for those who judge women like me to check their attitude at the door. I have known that this will be my path for over a decade. That does not mean that you should avoid asking questions, or shy away your curiosity. But my departure from the norm it does not give you permission to preach, or the platform to define the parameters for which my life will be deemed fulfilled and accomplished.

You have made your choice, I respect that.

Is it really too much to ask for you to do the same?


About the Author

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Kaisha is a recently qualified journalist with a BA and MA in English Literature. She enjoys working her way through the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die List, writing about important issues plaguing our society and drinking prosecco in the sunshine.

 

 

 

 

 

Image by Emma Plunket

Taking up Space: How a Year of Roller Derby Changed My Experience of being a Woman

By Carolyn Farnsworth

For my sixth birthday, my mom rented out the local roller rink in our hometown of Santa Cruz, California. I was an inline skater at the time, and I loved to skate because it made me feel like I was flying. I spent the day playing tag with my friends and racing my dad, who let me win because it was my birthday. At the time, I didn’t know that there were actual sports that involved roller skating, let alone a sport dominated by powerful women who wore quad skates and hit each other. (I suspect I would have been a huge fan.)

Fast forward about two decades to the summer of 2016, when I went with a group of friends to watch the Gotham Girls Roller Derby annual double header in Coney Island. I had never actually seen a derby bout before, and it was nothing like what I’d expected. In derby, you have two teams with five players each on the track at one time. Two of the players are called “jammers”—their job is to get past all the girls in the pack. When a jammer passes a player from the opposing team, she gets a point. The girls who are not jammers are called “blockers”—they try to “block” the jammers from getting past them and scoring points.

It is an incredibly physical sport; you have to learn to manipulate your body weight to slam an opponent out of the way, how to stand so firmly on your skates that you can stay upright when a jammer throws her entire body weight into you. From that first day in Coney Island, I was hooked. Who wouldn’t want to be repeatedly slammed to the ground on roller skates, right?

Less than a week after the Coney Island bout, I joined Basic Training Level 1 with Gotham Girls Roller Derby in Brooklyn. There I was—a tall, clutzy, newly minted New Yorker—skating (read: falling) with derby legends like Suzy Hotrod, Bonnie Thunders, Bonita Applebomb, Shortstop, and Miss Tea Maven. I cannot express in words the sheer volume of bad assery I have witnessed. Holy shit. Many of these women can spin in the air and land on a toe stop, all while avoiding being knocked off the track by their opponents.

At first I was mega-intimidated. My inner monologue at practice went something like, “Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.” I could barely skate around the track, and here were all these women skating sideways, backwards, backwards on one foot, backwards on no feet (OK, not really). But then I started getting better. I spent hours and hours on my own, practicing transitions, stops, crossovers—I would skate until my legs were shaking so much I physically couldn’t skate anymore. I went through three months of physical therapy after a bout of tendonitis in my right ankle, and I started lifting weights and doing conditioning on the side. Gradually, I moved up to the intermediate class, then (finally!) advanced.

As the months went by, my entire thought world began to transform. I used to have all these self-conscious thoughts at the gym: Do I look stupid doing this exercise? Why is my sports bra giving me armpit fat? How many mansplainers does it take to keep a woman out of the weight room? As I kept getting more skilled at derby, getting stronger became a matter of necessity. Gone were the days of working out to “look good.” I strengthened my core because I needed to get better at taking hits. I did plyometrics to amp up my cardio and agility. I didn’t have the time for self-conscious nincompoopery; I was on a mission to one day become a fully-fledged Gotham Girl.

The crazy thing is, it wasn’t just at the gym that I started feeling differently about myself; it was everywhere. I started to walk differently. I stood taller, I didn’t automatically move out of the way for people, I stopped saying “I’m sorry” every two minutes. I stood up for myself at work. I ended a toxic relationship. I started to see my body as an instrument of speed and power, a tool that was given to me to accomplish my goals. My newfound respect for my body translated into a newfound respect for myself as an individual. This relationship between physical fitness and self-confidence was nothing new to me, though, since I had a similar experience (with an opposite effect) years before.

In my second semester at college, I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. At 5’11, I weighed only 120 pounds and had a BMI of around 16.7 (a normal BMI is from about 18.5 to 24.9). I was cold all the time. Little lines formed on either side of my mouth, my hair thinned, my eyes were dull in pictures, and I didn’t have my period for almost two years. I struggled with this demon all through college—counting calories down to every last piece of broccoli, exercising five or more hours a day, substituting meals with coffee and red apples.

As I got thinner and thinner, I noticed how differently people treated me. Men opened doors for me all the time, women I didn’t even know would come up to me and ask about my diet—my own mom openly made comments about “hating me” when I was a size four. People were in awe of me in this totally bizarre way—I say it was bizarre because I was essentially committing protracted suicide, and all these people were jealous of me.

I dug deep into myself, and I eventually regained a normal weight, but the whole experience left me disillusioned. I realized that, as women, we are encouraged to diminish ourselves, and we are fed this insidious lie that self-restraint is the key to earning respect. This notion had been hammered into me my whole life—from being told it was better to be called “pretty” than “adventurous,” to having to dress in a particular way so I didn’t overtax a man’s apparently negligible power over his own sexual behavior, to being told by a professor in grad school that someone who looked like me didn’t need an advanced degree.

It’s hard to have a normal relationship with food when you grow up with a mom who drinks Diet Coke and a dad who eats Oreos, and your family worships a god who condemned all women to suffer in childbirth because the first woman alive ate something she wasn’t supposed to. It’s hard to love your body when you commute on a train plastered with advertisements for breast augmentation and slimming underwear. It’s hard to feel powerful when you can’t even go on a simple lunchtime run in New York City without being catcalled.

So it was a sickening moment for me when, a few months into my roller derby training, I realized how many of these messages I had internalized. I realized I was living my life in the same self-conscious way I had been going to the gym. It was like I was standing two feet outside myself, watching, imagining how I appeared to others, and adjusting my actions accordingly.

On the derby track, every play requires absolute focus. The game moves so fast that the only way to be successful is to be completely present. You are your body, and your body is an instrument of power. You are encouraged to move, to get in the way—to take up space. On the track, you hear messages like: “Don’t apologize!” “Get in front of her!” “Hips together, be strong!” Every second of the game, you are a thing of action. When you get off the track, you’re covered in sweat, your teammates are patting you on the back, you all show off your bruises and say stuff like: “Man! That was a fall! Is your ass OK?” or “Way to fight!”

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Riikka Hyvönen

When you hear something enough times, it becomes real. When you feel something over and over, that feeling gets ingrained inside you. When you hang out with people who are supportive and empowering, you take on those same qualities. Before I started playing roller derby last year, I had never been around so many mentally and physically strong women in my whole life. And I had never been praised for aggressively taking up space.

It seems like such a subtle thing but, as a woman, demanding space often feels like a foreign concept. I used to feel like, if I put myself out there, then I deserved any pushback or criticism I got—if I chose to make myself vulnerable, then it was my fault if I was disliked or belittled. And I think this is really pronounced in eating disorders.

As women and girls, we often feel like we don’t have control, and so we internalize all the messages designed to control our bodies—the photoshopped magazines, the sexualization of female athletes and superheroes, all the skin-tight pants without any fucking pockets, the appalling state of birth control, the unending barrage of catcalling and other forms of sexual harassment. It seems obvious to me that a woman who wanted to feel a shred of control over her life might wind up with an eating disorder, because she is constantly told that being thin will solve all her problems.

But if that woman can move past it, if she can turn all the diminutive rhetoric around, then she will see those messages for what they really are: fear. People hurt people who threaten them. The reason that there are a seemingly endless number of messages that put women down is because women do not go down easy. We are smart, we are strong, and we make bad ass skaters.

***

About the author

Carolyn Farnsworth is a copy editor, writer, and amateur roller derby player based in New York City. Her previous work has appeared on the Tin House Open Bar and Nature Microbiology Community blog. Her current plans involve dipping her toe stops into the world of skate dancing, and continuing to engage in feminist dialogue through her writing.

Editor

Lucy Wheeler

Image

Riikka Hyvönen