Share Your Truth Without Shame

I became a feminist activist because I developed anorexia and nearly died. When I got better, I swore to do whatever I could to make it less likely others would have to go through the hell I did. I believe that eating disorders are just one awful and predictable outcome of a gender-mean society that tells women they must take up less space — and not just in physical shape and size.

I don’t think about this stuff every day, but it grounds the work I do. This is the moral center I bring to my work. When I get frustrated, or demotivated, or sick of being trolled, I remember why I’m doing what I’m doing, and my love pours back in. Oppression hurts.

Today I work primarily on increasing access to abortion and advancing reproductive justice — the right to not be pregnant, the right to be pregnant with dignity and access to quality health care, and the right to raise families in safe and healthy communities.

To me this work is a continuation of what propelled me into feminist activism in the first place: reproductive oppression, like shitty beauty standards, is predicated on the same core issues that stem from treating women like objects instead of human beings who deserve dignity, equality and respect. It’s about impossible demands on the body (food and sex are primal, yo), using internalized shame as a mechanism of control and subjugation, and a sense that women’s bodies are open for public comment and need to be controlled and tamed. And yes, men are both directly and indirectly oppressed on these lines, too, so fixing these problems benefits everyone.

So I’ve shared some version of that in more conversations and speeches I can count. It is, after all, my story and why I’m here. Today I shared this at William and Mary Law School in a talk on attacks on Planned Parenthood and how we can protect reproductive freedom.

After it was over, multiple students came up and thanked me for sharing my story. One, in particular, told me it was the first time she’d heard anyone — student or professor — share in a classroom that they’d experienced an eating disorder. Mind you this was only like a hot second of my presentation in the context of an hour, but it made a difference to her. How sad that so much of life is people pretending they’ve got it all figured out and always have. That is like the literal antithesis of power. It is overcoming that makes us strong.

We all have a reason why we work toward the causes we do, and it’s effective organizing to share it. But more important, when we share our authentic stories and make ourselves vulnerable, we are shouting the shame that’s supposed to hold us back and flipping it the bird. I believe it is radical act each time a woman tells the truth about her life. To other people. To herself.

Change really does start with you.


Loving My First Gray Hair Is Political

Yesterday I got my first gray hair. It’s beautiful and light, hugging the soft space to the side of my forehead. I love it.

I have been waiting for this day. I am 35. Gray hair was going to happen. Years ago I made a conscious decision to continue loving myself as I grow older. This is an act of self-preservation, and defiance.

This is about my feminism — hatred of women is intimately tied in with dangerous, racist, and unrealistic expectations of beauty that we are expected to internalize. We must reject that as much as we can (real talk: this can be a day-by-day thing, and feeling like crap about your looks doesn’t mean you don’t get to be a feminist).

This is personal — I almost died of anorexia. Gray hair is a victory! I am fortunate I made it to my 18th, 19th, and 20th birthdays. I am both grateful and proud I did, because damn that was a lot of work. My personal interest extends beyond having overcome nearly lethal negative self-talk related to my appearance; I’ve reached an age where too many peers have died for no good reason. I’m lucky to get old.

This is about parenting, too — my daughter deserves the example of a woman who dares to look like herself and love herself.

As a social justice activist and organizer, I struggle with the decision to write posts like this sometimes. Today yet another video has surfaced of a Black person losing their life to police violence; his name was Sam DuBose. Racism is one of the most pressing issues of our time.

And so, I ask myself:

Is it indulgent to be introspective about the first freaking gray hair on my head at a time when people are dying, when politicians fail to acknowledge that Black lives matter, when terrorists are targeting abortion providers because they dare to help women?

I struggle with this question, and yet this post speaks for itself: Here I am, writing. My firm belief is that self-love is radical. You cannot fight effectively for equality, dignity, or justice when you are unable to treat yourself with respect. You cannot find the courage to accept difference in others if you’re unwilling to accommodate difference for yourself. Loving yourself is not ego or dominance (those are rooted in insecurity, after all); loving yourself is about compassion. Best part? Inner compassion is compassion, and both are contagious.

So, when I embrace my gray hair, what I am also saying is that we should embrace ourselves and one another as we are. We must treat our fragile lives with respect and love, and break every convention necessary.


When Someone Asks If You’re Pregnant … And You’re Not

Yesterday, I was checking out at the vet when the receptionist smiled. “I shouldn’t ask this,” she said, looking at what I thought was my wallet. “Is that a baby bump?”

“No,” I said.

Where is my dog? Bring back my dog. It’s time to get out of here. 

The dog came back. I played it cool, smiled at the receptionist even. The dog wagged her tail as we walked to the car.

And then I cried for thirty minutes in stop-and-go traffic, on my way to pick up my daughter.

Apparently I’m fat, I thought. And then my thoughts got very, very ugly. I used to have an eating disorder — anorexia nearly killed me. Since yesterday afternoon I have encountered the ugliest body-image thoughts I’ve had in more than a decade.

On this blog I have written extensively about my experience with pregnancy after an eating disorder and related concerns. Less than a month ago I served as a keynote speaker and did a workshop on pregnancy and postpartum concerns at an eating disorder recovery event hosted by the Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt. I spoke honestly, as a person in recovery who has been doing damn well for a long time.

It is because of this, in part, that I want to be honest. Recovery is not always easy, and things can come up and bite you in the ass out of nowhere. Living in recovery means confronting those inconveniences at inconvenient times.

What happened yesterday hurts me so much.

I cried another round telling my husband later last night. I was ashamed to tell him, for fear he would see me differently.

Shame is the dominant emotion I feel, which raises a flag. Shame is what is causing me to write about this incident openly and honestly now. I have long felt that unmasking shame is at the heart of the feminist project, that when we talk about shame it loses its power to keep us down.

It is shame telling me my body is not acceptable, when I know perfectly well that my body is healthy and a gift and powers this amazing life that is mine. It is shame telling me to feel bad personally, when in reality we should all feel bad about a culture that deems it acceptable to comment on women’s bodies and make pregnancy (actual or presumed) a spectator sport. It is shame telling me that you will look at me differently after reading this post, staring at my stomach and judging me, when in reality if that is true I should grab my dog and get away from you as quickly as I can.

A good piece of what has made me cry so hard is being forced to have the ghosts of my eating disorder engage in open combat with my political beliefs of today. I know better, and I also want better; being forced to contend with a reality I very much don’t like — being the weight my body wants to be, getting assessed and confronted by others on the basis of how I look, considering the civil rights implications of presumed pregnancies — is unpleasant.

Another piece revolves around my daughter. She watches everything I do, even when I think she’s not, and mimics my behaviors to hilarious precision. If I hate my body, I am teaching her to hate her own. If I let an idiot comment stop me from moving forward, I am teaching her to do the same thing.

I refuse to do that. Not just for her. For me. And frankly, for all of us.

My Pregnancy, My Eating Disorder

Among other things, recovering from my eating disorder meant I could get pregnant. Me. Pregnant. It’s a stretch for many of us to imagine getting excited about growing a big belly, but add a history of eating disorders into the mix and it’s downright weird.

Eating disorder culture is an unhealthy, relentless focus on unrealistic standards of beauty and physical fitness, along with the presentation of hunger and food as pathologies, or demons, to be conquered. This culture of body hatred is inescapable, whether you have struggled with an eating disorder or not.

We are supposed to feel bad about our bodies, no matter what they look like.

We are supposed to judge our food and exercise choices as “good” or “bad.” It is considered totally normal to say “I was good today” in reference to starving, or to say “I’ve been so bad” to refer to the act of not exercising. This happens so much it is considered commonplace; but it’s shocking when you think about the fact that food and exercise are used as shorthand to convey our entire worth as persons.

Body hatred, negative self-image, and eating disorder culture are so relatable because they are everywhere. They are not the exclusive provinces of women, but it’s true that women are disproportionately impacted. The pressure to be less is profound; it is not just about bodies. It is about the devaluing of an entire gender. It is a pressure, placed strongly upon women, to take up less space in the world. To be seen and not heard. To be airbrushed into something that is non-human. These unattainable standards are labeled “perfect.”

And yet, how to explain the endless fetishization of pregnant women? The pressure to turn pregnancy into a spectator sport, complete with photographs that everyone you’ve ever met can comment upon online? The relentless messages about “getting your body back” after pregnancy is complete? The magazines, the stars, and the stories about how they lost (or didn’t lose) the baby weight?

Through the process of my pregnancy, and through my lens as an eating disorder survivor, I came to see pregnancy voyeur culture as an important component of eating disorder culture. The specifics may be different, but many of the pressures and root behaviors are the same.

Whether a woman is pregnant or not, her body and physical appearance is seen as appropriate for comment by strangers.

Whether a woman is pregnant or not, it is considered appropriate to discuss how much weight she has gained or lost, and these numbers are taken to signify something more than simply what she weighs. They are taken as a way for others to assess not just whether she is acceptable, but whether other women are acceptable.

Whether a woman is pregnant or not, the shape of her body is taken as an immediate assessment and announcement of her sexuality.

Whether a woman is pregnant or not, strangers feel they can touch her, from rubbing a belly to rubbing an arm.

Whether a woman is pregnant or not, her body is treated as a piece of public property. That body may be commented upon, or have laws placed upon it.

Pregnancy can be a profoundly alienating and centering experience. My pregnancy was both. It was shocking to me that my body could create my baby, and also that during the process of pregnancy I could feel totally new things. That foods I had loved no longer tasted good. That foods I hadn’t desired in years were sudden, urgent cravings. That aches could develop in areas of my body I had never considered.

It was also centering, in that I had to surrender to what my body would do. When it came time to give birth, I had no choice. I was operating on my body’s timetable. Not my mind’s.

When I realized I was going to have a girl, I thought hard about the body image struggles I had gone through in the past. I thought about the hospitalizations of my youth, and the days when, at rock bottom, I accepted that anorexia meant I was probably going to die. I thought about not wanting to pass that along to my daughter, and more specifically taking active steps to not model any body destructive behavior in front of her.

And so, as with my recovery, I ate. I ate and ate and ate. I grew. And this time, so did she.

This original essay first appeared in DISORDERED a zine on eating disorders feminism and anti-oppression…

Feeding My Dog

My husband kept his last name when we married; only our eldest dog, Auggie, chose to hyphenate. Augusta Matson-Johnson does what she wants.

“It’s a good sign when the dog who knows you best connects with your new wife,” I explained to my husband. He agreed. He and Auggie are the best package deal. Like Auggie, I have imagined so many ways to get through the banalities and indignities of daily life. Until a few years ago, I never could have dreamed of sharing it with a man as good as her owner, and her.

Mornings are exciting. After feeding the baby, I walk the dogs, then feed the dogs, then take a shower, then feed the cat. No one waits patiently for me to do this on my own timetable. Two labrador chins rest on my side of the mattress while I nurse, Auggie wanting her walk and Joon wanting her food. If it’s early, I will walk beneath the stars with the dogs, Auggie leading the way with her wagging tail while Joon searches for scraps of anything to put in her mouth. This time is a religion for me.

When we get home, breakfast time in the kitchen is Joon’s purpose in life. Auggie, not so much. Auggie often waits before eating. “She’s reminding us she’s not a dog,” my husband says. This was funny until she stopped eating.

Eventually, I fed her slowly on the floor, pellet by pellet, between my fingers. I did this two times a day around the time our baby was two months old. She took some of the food, so it was worth it. Then she stopped taking the pellets, even from my hands, even one by one. We came up with a series of elaborate rituals designed to stop the cat from eating her food, in case she might want it later. We started using wet food. She took it for a time, and then she stopped.

As a former anorexic, I can relate to the emotional tinnitus Auggie must feel: The stupid, hollow ring of someone’s well-intentioned and totally fucking clueless “Why don’t you just eat?” in response to obvious emaciation and declining health. I suspect there are many reasons why Auggie doesn’t just eat, many of them going beyond her arthritis and being almost 14 years old. But she is weak and we had to do something.

Saturday, we took her to the vet. He expressed surprise that she wasn’t falling over given her dramatic weight loss, and told us to start feeding her whatever people food she would take. He used the word “hospice.” And so, though my husband and I are both vegetarians since childhood and frankly find cold cuts to be disgusting, we now have a refrigerator full of meat.

I pick up some smoked turkey and it’s slimy. I roll it. I smile. I call for Auggie. And she eats piece after piece after piece. This is a time when I could start to get really sad, because I love this dog. But I love this dog. This is a dream come true for her. I am making her sandwiches, feeding her cookies, and giving her exactly what she wants. When she gets up, I hear her, and call for her to come my way, cheering, “Yay, Auggie!” She comes in a little less wobbly now, beaming. We are not sorry and we are not sad. Life is a present moment. It should be so fun.


What Do I Say To Someone With An Eating Disorder?

What do I say to my friend or family member with an eating disorder? How can I help? Is it possible for me to fix it?

As a survivor of anorexia and an advocate for body acceptance, I get asked these questions all the time. This makes me sick, since it reminds me that if I had a magic wand to make eating disorders go away forever I would wave until my arm fell off, but it also reminds me that my arm is still here and I keep getting asked for more people.

First things first: I am neither a medical professional nor a licensed therapist. I am merely someone who nearly died because of anorexia, spent even more time suffering a whole bunch, and fought her way through to the other side.

Please engage with professionals who can truly help your loved one. The National Eating Disorders Association has a helpline and a host of resources I urge you to check out.

What I have said to many others is based on my experience as a survivor who lost some friends along the way. I have less to suggest in terms of what to do or say, and more in terms of things to not do or say.

Do offer your unconditional love and support. What I most needed were people to love me, not fix me. Leave the treatment to the professionals and don’t try to be “the enforcer” of healthier habits. The “I’ll save you” path isn’t likely to go far, and it can also make it harder for the person to come to you later if they need help. They may not want to let you down when they are slipping. At least, this is the way I was.

Knowing that you will always be there and love them — no matter what — is a powerful weapon that may ultimately support a recovery process led by the person with the eating disorder and the professional team supporting them.

Don’t engage in “fat talk” — about them, or yourself. Your loved one doesn’t need to hear you tell them that you feel fat, or that you ate something “good” or “bad.” And while you don’t want to be dismissive if they bring up their body or eating or exercise with you (after all, it’s probably dominating their thoughts), you certainly don’t need to play the eating disorder-affirming game of good foods and bad foods, fat clothes and skinny clothes, hot bodies and ugly bodies.

Don’t comment on their appearance. “You look good,” or “you look healthy” were horrible swords thrown at me by well-meaning people. Sometimes I used these comments as reasons to be proud of horrible things I had done to myself. Other times I would use them as proof that I needed to punish myself further. You simply don’t need to comment on their appearance. Stay out of it. Comment on and compliment them for who they are, not what they look like or what they are eating.

Don’t participate in trigger activities. Your loved one may most want to suggest activities that serve their eating disorder, such as exercising, going for a long walk, trying on clothes at the mall, baking a batch of cookies (maybe only for others to eat, a common eating disorder behavior), or going to a buffet to eat. Not lecturing them about these activities would be good, but that doesn’t mean that you need to participate. Find other healthy things to do together.

Do support them getting professional help. If your loved one has an eating disorder, support them in getting professional help. No, you don’t have to be the enforcer, but you can support them by scheduling fun group activities at times when they are not going to therapy, not disparaging therapists or anti-depressants and similar drugs, and the like. Further, if they haven’t taken that first step yet, you can share with them names and telephone numbers of places where they can get help and assure them it’s strong, not weak, to reach out for support.

Good luck and I am so sorry for the experiences that have led you to read this.

A Body (Image) Changed: On Pregnancy, Breastfeeding And Eating Disorders

From a self-image standpoint, taking my maternity clothes out of my chest of drawers and putting my old clothes back in has been the hardest part of my pregnancy, childbirth and new mothering journey. This might have been the same if I hadn’t had anorexia, but I don’t know.

My body has changed. My old clothes don’t fit the way they used to. I am larger, rounder and my softer spots gather in different places. Do I have a pouf above a flat spot because I had a cesarean section, or is that the way my body processes any manner of birth? I don’t know.

To put away the maternity clothes ends the imprimatur of “a wild time” when my body was doing something rather than simply being something (me). I was mostly okay before. In response to overwhelming pressures pregnant women and mothers get to engage in body image negativity, I could clutch an ancillary detail and say: Fuck you, I’m pregnant. Or: Fuck you, I’m having a girl. Or: Fuck you, I had a baby. Or: Fuck you, I’m feeding a baby. But now it’s simply time to survive as a mother, a woman, a human being. In this paradigm my best choice is to look at that belly fat, those lines around my eyes, this body I’ve never had, not in this way, and say: Fuck yeah.

It’s fun.

Putting away the maternity clothes forced me to face the facts. My body doesn’t look different today because I’m pregnant, or because I just had a baby. My body looks different today because it is different. Accepting this, the difference of a new day with a body, versus a comparison to an ideal of what a person thinks her body once was or someday should be, is both difficult and joyous. For me, having this baby forced this issue.

What I wouldn’t have predicted is this: Breastfeeding is the second-best thing that has happened to my body image, just behind recovering from my eating disorders years ago. Yes, breastfeeding. Not getting through pregnancy. Not getting through childbirth. Breastfeeding.

To watch my daughter cry when she’s hungry and eat only until she is full. To think about how I treat my body directly impacting how well she will be able to feed. To, unlike pregnancy, see the results every day.

She is growing. She is healthy. She is happy. She is thriving. She is strong.

And, fuck yeah, so am I.

Update: Response To Open Letter About Eating Disorder Culture To CEO Of Abercrombie & Fitch

Late last night, I received the following response to my open letter to the CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch about his comments that larger women aren’t part of the “cool kids”, and that’s why his stores sell larger sizes for men and not for women:

(bolding mine)
Thanks for emailing into Abercrombie & Fitch.
While I am unable to escalate this letter straight to our CEO, we understand that what our CEO said has offended many of our customers and we are taking all feedback for review. I will make sure your feedback is reviewed by the appropriate business department.
Customer Service
Abercrombie & Fitch
Check us out!
This means comments are being heard, and change could be in the offing soon. The more pressure, the more likely we are to see a change. Please take a few minutes right away to write your own letter to Abercrombie & Fitch. It matters. The link to write your comment is here. Thank you!

Please Don’t Promote Eating Disorder Culture: An Open Letter To The CEO Of Abercrombie & Fitch

Abercrombie & Fitch
Mike Jeffries, CEO
6200 Fitch Path
New Albany, OH 43054

May 8, 2013

Dear Mike,

As an anorexia survivor and a soon-to-be mother of a little girl, I am writing to request you recant your statements explaining why Abercrombie & Fitch offers sizes XL and XXL for men, but won’t carry larger size clothing for women:

“In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

As you know, your market is primarily “kids,” or young adults who are at an age most specially prone to eating disorders. As many as 10 million women and girls in the United States alone suffer from anorexia or bulimia — and 95 percent of those with eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 26, the core of your target market. These facts make your statements particularly heartbreaking.

I’m writing because I believe your statements hold dangerous power, more than you may realize. For many but not all young people the Abercrombie & Fitch brand is an arbiter of cool. I’ve been a babysitter before, and seen how important it is to many tweens to have your labels showing. How devastating for a young woman who hates her body, as too many do, to realize that your store doesn’t sell larger size clothing because you say she’s not cool, she can’t belong, she’s a loser.

In high school and early college I fought tooth and nail for my life. During one hospitalization, a fellow patient went out on a day pass and won a modeling contest while she was still wearing her hospital bracelet. That’s not “cool,” that’s cruel. To send her a message to keep up the good work killing yourself! To send others a message that the most beautiful woman in the world is a corpse. While it’s impossible to expect the entire fashion and modeling industries will change tomorrow, it is quite possible for you to make some positive clarifying statements about the humanity and inherent worth possessed by people of all shapes, sizes and bodies.

It would mean a lot. Thinking about your comments nearly brought tears to my eyes. During one of my rougher periods with anorexia, I was not eligible to participate in my physical education class but still had to show up in order to graduate. There was a gymnastics routine that everyone else needed to complete in front of the entire class. A larger girl was forced to do somersaults across a room in front of 30 classmates, several of whom audibly laughed and called her a “fatty” and “loser” and “whale.” I remember going home that night and sobbing to my mother, my decrepit body shaking with fury. “How could they do that to her? Don’t they know what they are doing? And why didn’t I speak up?”

I wasn’t ready to speak up then. I am now, and I welcome you to join me. Not creating larger size clothing for women, while creating it for men, is discriminatory. Making negative statements about larger people, especially larger women, and most especially larger women who fit in your target market of teens and young adults, is part of an eating disorder culture that kills.

I know you can do better than this, and look forward to your response.


Erin Matson

Reflections On A Makeover

Today The New York Times ran a debate: Does Makeup Hurt Self-Esteem? As I see it,  the real question is not whether individual women are dupes, idiots or traitors for wearing makeup, or heroes, homelies or underpaid for not wearing makeup (although underpaid is, statistically, probably true) – the question we must ask is, Is The Beauty Industry Hurting Self-Esteem? Is there a relationship between the pressure on women to be ornate in appearance and the pressure on women to be subordinate in substance? Why do people make such large judgements on the basis of physical appearance about women, and to a lesser but still pernicious extent men? What are we getting in return for these assumptions?

Three years ago, I had a makeover that wasn’t my idea. At the time I never would have said the following out loud, so I wrote it to myself. While my views have expanded somewhat, these are those thoughts as they were:

Let’s get this out of the way: I’m beautiful. I know I’m beautiful. I resent the unearned advantages beauty gives me, and frankly find the whole thing to be a pain in the ass. As commonly understood, beauty is a form of racial profiling that excludes many from being taken seriously and awards a smaller number with unearned expectations of sex, compassion and feebleness. To the extent that beauty is not meritocratic it should be abolished, and to the extent that it is, it should be undermined.

Like most women in this country, I have an incredibly complicated relationship with my appearance. I grant my story is extreme. I’ve been hospitalized three times for anorexia. I have never been treated better than when dying. Everyone officious; the world was my hospice. Twice I was recruited for modeling. I can’t remember how many times I was stopped by strangers with you are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. Fucked up. The experience of scraping a heartbeat back together has made me prone to taking a compliment about my physique, appearance or even hairstyle as a thinly veiled death sentence.

It took a lot of therapy, threatened feeding tubes and observed toilet breaks to get to the point where I could acknowledge that my eating disorder developed as a response to feeling dangerously unfeminine for being a smart person in a high school classroom. In going to prom with the grim reaper, I lost my self-hatred and began to transfer my energy to doing everything I could to stop other women and girls from blaming themselves for living in a sexist world. Mainly, these days, I focus on exposing and correcting the latter.

I have a beef with manufactured beauty that reaches far beyond issues of body image and the routine use of Photoshop as a weapon of mass destruction. For example, the $50 billion cosmetics industry. It steals women from additional time that could be spent sleeping to literally self-embalm in unlimited concentrations of virtually any chemical. Cosmetics are the least regulated products under the purview of the Food and Drug Administration. Whereas the European Union bans 1,100 carcinogenic ingredients, the United States bans ten. As a friend explained to me today, men like it when women wear makeup. It signals that we ‘take care of ourselves.’

People write books about these issues in ways far better than I could. Needless to say, I don’t particularly enjoy wearing makeup. Before my feminism became a part of my paycheck, I slapped on the stuff maybe six times a year. I guess the makeover began during a dress rehearsal of a speech about the future of feminism with the advisers to a slate campaigning to lead a large women’s organization; I was running for a role. I am good at public speaking, and writing speeches, which I had hoped to mean we could skip past the basics and talk about some of the approaches I was suggesting for the million-dollar question. In the room were a handful of the smarter feminist activists alive, legends with names omitted for the sake of privacy.

Instead, I got a lecture. “Erin, your hair is driving me CRAZY! I can’t listen to what you are saying — the only thing I can do is look at your bangs.” Before I opened my mouth the campaign manager was sent to buy bobby pins. I was instructed to wear makeup and get rid of the bracelets. It seemed important, so I did. During the vote nobody thought we could win, myself included, I changed into board shorts and flip-flops. That’s how I came to be heavily photographed a few hours later as a little bobby-pinned punk standing between three women in suits who would also become the next talking heads for the group.

One member of the staff was a smart, stylish woman who knew a lot about presence on-camera. She’d worked in television before deciding to help others with what she’d learned. She took a shine to me pretty quickly, realizing I had an imperfect but promising skill for speaking. “You’re really likable,” she said. “That’s important. But we’ve got to do something about your appearance.”

She vowed to take me shopping to look at clothes. “You don’t have to buy anything,” she would say. “I just want you to start getting comfortable with styles.” She wanted me to wear things fitted, in bright colors, and always keep a jacket in the office. I got that resistance was a waste of time, so I began to step up my game for her, the movement really.

Less comfortable was her instruction to wear makeup; bring a brush, blow-dryer and hair goo to the office; and tweeze my eyebrows (my eyebrows?). She desperately wanted me to get a haircut. It was bigger than that. She wanted to give me a makeover. She spoke of it for months, warming me to the idea slowly, at least enough so that I would agree we could do it “sometime” the way you say you’ll call someone you don’t like but can stand, if the occasion calls for it.

I wish it were not true that living in a post-makeover body changes my day-to-day. Doors are opened more often, and people treat me like a small child during rush-hour duck, duck gray duck on the subway. Mainly the issue is men. I get asked out a hell of a lot more than I used to. Friends with girlfriends flirt and inquire about my sexual availability behind my back. I used to be a bawdy liberal feminist for men to challenge and now, it seems, I’m more often the subject of romantic speculation. I am aware this is unlikely to quench any of the poignant loneliness I feel some nights; I have learned it’s lonelier still to be saying something cool and interrupted by a lover with: “Sweetie, shouldn’t you start wearing makeup?” In any event I did not take on a public feminist role intending to grapple with these issues.

More haunting is the feeling that I’ve sold out myself, and embraced the very toxicity that led me into this fight so more people will listen to me. If that works, maybe it’s worth it. I have already silenced my personal freedom of speech, pulling down my essays, poems and short stories from the web, so that my thoughts aren’t held as definitive commentary or doctrine of my organization today. A close friend remarked about a year ago that I had changed: “You don’t say what you’re thinking anymore.”

I understand that my job is not to be a perfect expression of myself, and that, for the moment, my name doesn’t belong to me but the women I want to help. To give up my body is another matter entirely. It is so very strange to take on a burden so that others might not, to be taken as generally more shallow, to no longer hide behind words and arguments in plain sight. Today a friend took me for my first pedicure, and I was struck by how every woman in the place seemed to be grieving.

If I were not me, I might criticize me harshly.

Post-script from 2013: Knowing what I know now, I don’t think I would criticize me so harshly. Looking professional removes barriers to some of the amazing things a person is able to do, which for me includes saying to large groups and people who make decisions that sexism is not acceptable. These days I am no longer speaking for anyone but myself, and I choose to wear makeup and do my hair more often than I used to before this makeover took place. And, I believe this choice has nothing to do with my self-worth. Further, I believe that beauty is loving action and that whether, and in what color, you wear lipstick is one of the less interesting things I could know about you.


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