A Kind of Decolonization I Can Feel at the Back of My Pussy

I wrote about Neelu Bhuman’s work, Section 377 and sexual decolonization for Autostraddle.

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The first time I watch Neelu Bhuman’s stop-motion short, FU377, I hide the lower part of my face in my t-shirt because I am embarrassed. This is not through any fault of the film, which is a beautifully sophisticated exploration of familial intimacy, activism and queer heartbreak — but rather because Nain’s mum (Amma) is trying to engage her in a conversation about dildos.

As the film explains, “Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, dating back to 1861, was introduced during the British rule of India, criminalizing sexual activities “against the order of nature,” including homosexual acts.” FU377 is set in 2013, when Section 377 was reinstated, after having already been deemed unconstitutional and removed back in 2009. The law, which carried a potential penalty of life in prison, was scrapped once again in September of last year, meaning that gay sex was no longer illegal — a poignant moment for Indians, the South Asian diaspora and all of the other former British colonies with sodomy laws that were modeled on section 377 still in place.

The role of sexual control and enforcement of the gender binary through colonization of Black and brown bodies and lands is referenced often among the queers of colour who are living with the consequences, and yet somehow never enough. This conspiracy of silence has attempted to strip the Desi world of desire and expression despite the fact it is pretty well documented that Indians have, historically speaking, been knowing how to fuck.

Not to be extremely basic but Indians literally wrote the Kama Sutra, one of the most comprehensive and freaky texts on human sexual behavior in the history of the world, and yet for many of us, our lived South Asian sexual experience is heavy with trauma and secrecy. What a trick of the light, to rape, displace and psychologically alienate people on an unimaginable scale and then let them carry the shame of it. Bhenchods.

Mass colonization of Asia was successful, in part, by ruling the sexualities and genders of native people as… wrong. Wrong in comparison to the shame-steeped literal nightmare that is European cis-hetero-monogamy; wrong in its multiplicity; wrong in its curiosity; wrong in its freedom. This redefinition of queerness as worthy of shame is an act of warfare so pervasive that not only do we feel it today, but we have learned to police ourselves with it, from the inside out, and to expect the same from the people we love.

Whiteness, as jealous as it is greedy, relies on South Asian shame as a method of control — not only against us, but also using us to play our part in a global structure that perpetuates anti-blackness in order to protect white supremacy. By shaming South Asians, initially for our abundant sexual expression, and then again, more recently, for not being as “””enlightened””” as the Western world in issues of gender and sexuality, we are left to toe a very fine line; Not a wanton Black girl, not yet an innocent white woman, but a respectably sexless paki, still.

FU377’s protagonist, Nain, has just been dumped by her girlfriend. She lollops around the living room in a kind of ageless queer misery, bemoaning a future in which she just finds herself a “suitable boy.” Amma, her spritely and well-informed mother, does her best to console her, “just because you’re partially gay, Nain, doesn’t mean you’re not gay.” She tries to distract Nain from her heartbreak with TV coverage of the activism against section 377, snippets of which are shown on the family television throughout the film. Amma even touches on the possibility of Nain being in love with a man and a woman at the same time — she’s comfortable with the ambiguities of intimacy and desire. The film ends with mother and daughter, hand in hand, on their way to join the protests with placards that read, “Love Always, Any Ways, Many Ways” and “FU377” — but not before Amma teases Nain about her poor stroke game.


With intolerance of gayness understood as an official marker of how backwards various previously colonized lands are in comparison to “the west” — of how vigorously white liberals should wring their hands over it all — the decriminalization of gay sex in India is sold to us as a tale of savages come good. I know we know better, but that doesn’t stop me from having to look at Tina’s insufferable face as she tells me about the petition she signed to #Abolish377 and it doesn’t stop me from feeling fucking infuriated about it all. What if the abolition of 377 doesn’t signal an end, but is like one landmark on a long, long journey of healing from a legacy of colonial sexual trauma. What if it signals communal remembrance, anger, or a kind of decolonization I can feel at the back of my pussy.

FU377 presents us with much-needed affirmation regarding the normalcy and rich history of queerness in communities of color as well as a gorgeous fantasy of brown familial acceptance. When I talk to the filmmaker about this, they are keen to point out that while the character of Amma is based on their own mother (who has represented the film at festivals internationally) the character is ultimately still a fantasy. “It’s how I wish my mum was,” says Bhuman, explaining that their own mother would never talk quite that candidly about sex.

I have yet to decide if not wanting to talk with my mum about dicks is a result of internal colonization or just my actual personality, but either way I am moved by FU377’s ability to do so much; from the energy of the agitated protestors and beeping phones, to the adolescent whines of a young heartbroken queer pretending that she wants to be alone. I watch the film, waiting for the part about shame, but it won’t come.

Watch FU377 from Neelu Bhuman on Vimeo.

Bhuman’s next film TRANSFINITE is a sci-fi omnibus feature film composed of seven standalone magical realistic short stories where supernatural trans and queer people from various cultures use their powers to protect, love, teach, fight and thrive. It is getting ready to travel the film festivals worldwide starting in the Spring of 2019. More about their films at www.filmsofneelu.com.



Astrology is precious because you can’t be gaslit out of your star sign

Wrote up this interview with Marissa for gal-dem.

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Astrology has surged in popularity recently, and it’s got everything to do with the state of global politics. From dating apps letting you filter through users by their star sign to zodiac themed club nights, it’s clear that people are looking for answers outside of the traditional systems in place that keep failing them. While it’s not uncommon to see a rise in alternative spiritualities during times of political unrest, astrology maintains a unique relationship to the experiences of qtipoc+ folx, who don’t always resonate with the teachings of more traditional religious institutions. We spoke to multi-disciplinary visual artist, DJ, performer, workshop facilitator and astrologer Marissa Malik ahead of gal-dem’s Reclaiming Astrology panel at Bush Theatre’s Babylon Festival.

At 24, Marissa is like a polymath and your grandmother’s hands and a teenager who has just bought a diamante-studded handbag from a mall and, wide-eyed, has a story to tell you about it. Knowing Marissa is like floating on a lilo on the Atlantic and looking at the sky for ages and not being scared. It’s like a free membership to an extremely high-quality app about diasporic spirituality, deconstructed club music, and skincare.

We catch up with Marissa in a tea shop in Soho ahead of the Reclaiming Astrology panel. We stop the interview a few minutes in because she seems distracted. “Yeah it’s just hard because this place is haunted”, she explains. “Maybe that’s why the staff are so aggy”. We move to a taco and cocktail bar a few doors down while she recalls the time she worked in a haunted Urban Outfitters (“that was tricky”). We order expensive drinks and try again.

gal-dem: Ok, so you were telling us how you got into astrology.

Marissa Malik: When I was 10 or 11 when I got a book called Knowing the Signs or something, because I wanted to know more about myself as a Pisces. There were a few people at my school who had the same birthday as me, but I felt that they were so different to me and I really struggled with that. So I started from a place of kind of criticising how that worked, because it felt really prescriptive. As I got older, I got more and more into it astrology fell more and more in love with it. I think I really began a serious journey into being an astrologer when I was in my early 20s because I dated three people in succession who had the same birthday; all Geminis. It really struck me as significant, and I thought: what is this?

What did your family have to say about it all?

Growing up, my dad’s mother lived with us and she was really low key about her witchcraft and mysticism, but I remember I would come home with an injury from a soccer game and my grandmother would say okay, come sit down I’ll do reiki on your leg. She would knit and sing Bible ballads. It wasn’t necessarily an overt teaching, but it was this very subtle and ancestral integration that “this is what we do”, it’s just something that we need. When I spoke to other people in the small, very white town I grew up in, I started to realise that some of the practices that were going on in my house were kind of strange. There was enough openness that I could explore those things and my parents weren’t going to get super mad at me. But past a certain level it was unacceptable because of my mum’s Catholic vibes.

I grew up in a home where gay people were vocally accepted. My family’s view was that gay people aren’t going to hell, and the notion of getting married as an obligation to God was never really put on me. Instead there was more emphasis on the immigrant notion of like, be financially stable and supporting yourself. But every Sunday without fail we’d go to church and I was really resistant. It felt really contrived to me and the church we went to was just full of white people and it was frustrating.

With astrology I kind of left the unnecessary ritual and the god-like figure who I didn’t feel connected to or didn’t have any inclination to appease, behind. Astrology gave me an avenue where there was no judgment on myself; it was just a kind of guidance and advice and acknowledgement of things to be aware of. Astrology gives you so much positive reinforcement.

“You can’t be gas-lit out of the fact that Venus was in Aries when you were born. It’s just what it is”

Is that why queer people love it so much?

Obviously it’s difficult to speak about a monolithic experience of why queer folx like astrology, but I think historically with the colonial decimation of what the West perceives and defines as queerness in ancestrally colonised people, there’s so much friction between institutions of governance and where queer people fit in. Often queer people in our ancestral communities were the spiritual leaders that everyone needed. Because of this, spirituality and a relationship to mysticism and other realms is so important to queer people, especially queer people of colour. Everyone in this life, I feel, wants to or needs to feel connected to spirit in some way, whether that’s in material things or in structured religion. I think astrology provides something, just something for queer people to have that’s about them in a non-judgmental way, in a way that is just kind of a fact, because whether you believe in astrology or not, you have a birth chart. You are a living snapshot of what the stars looked like when you were born. The fact of the matter is this planet was here when you were born and so much of how queer people, especially queer people of colour, are oppressed is by erasing and mythologising what we do or say and and kind of turning it into a subjectivity. You see that with corrective r*pe or people responding to people coming out by saying, “Oh, you’re having a phase”. You can’t be gas-lit out of the fact that Venus was in Aries when you were born. It’s just what it is.

Astrology itself is a construct though, right?

I guess you could say that, but astrology is a specific reading of astronomy, or what science calls astronomy, so even though you can say, “oh astrology is bullshit”, you can’t say that the planets don’t move in specific patterns. Astrology is an interpretation of astronomy that you can use to guide your life in a really beautiful way; on your own or with other people. It’s deeply personal, so it’s almost like astrology can be your guru, just without trying to steal your money.

Ha. How does astrology play a part in your day to day life?

Astrology influences me when I’m at the crests and troughs of different emotions. I think astrology has helped me become a more grateful person because when my life is going in a beautiful direction I think about which energy I need to thank for it and it helps me stay humble, remembering that there are outside factors contributing to what’s going on in my life.

Astrology helps me have consideration for others too. I feel like, especially in queer PoC radical circles, it’s so easy to be like, “fuck this person”, or “this person’s cancelled”. Astrology forces me to hold space for people’s fuck-ups. It’s not like I necessarily blame their wrongdoings on the stars, but I factor in that there could be external influences affecting their behaviour. Like when my Aquarius friend isn’t super honest with me I’m just like, “okay, this fixed sign is really going through it right now, and they might need to settle something in themselves before they can talk to me”.

“A lot of queer people of colour are really trying to explore ancestral healing and intergenerational trauma, and how we need to heal now in order to move forward”

Yeah, it seems reflection and communal maintenance of mental health is so much more present, accessible and mainstream now as an idea. How is astrology linked to that conversation?

I think astrology is very much a practice of care, and I think the way that queer people of colour have to create our own communities and really emphasise cultivating safety within those environments goes hand-in-hand with how astrology can work. Astrology can be used in many ways, but I think the way a lot of people use it, is through self-improvement and self-help and self-awareness and I think that all falls under the umbrella of healing.

Individual autonomy and individual healing benefits everyone and I think a lot of queer people of colour are really trying to explore ancestral healing and intergenerational trauma, how we need to heal now in order to move forward and create revolution that’s going to be effective and sustainable. Astrology is a way for people to access that in relation to spirit without the structures of organised religion. But I think the next step for that is finding platforms for more astrologers of colour to facilitate that healing.

You’ve been pretty clear that you don’t feel astrology is a religion but if it was, where would its place of worship be?

I think actually one of the beautiful things about astrology is that there isn’t one central hub that people have to like pay homage to. I think so much of organized religion promotes border state violence and the propagation of colonialism. The fact that you can do astrology from anywhere is so decolonial because it imbues the sacred back in wherever you are. Wherever you are is sacred and you carry that with you. You don’t have to go anywhere to find that.

Well that’s beautiful.

It’s the tequila.

So the panel on Saturday is called ‘Reclaiming Astrology’. Who or what are we reclaiming astrology from and what can we expect from the event?

I think we’re reclaiming astrology from the mainstream gaze of whiteness. I think of reclaiming astrology in the same way that we think about reclaiming feminism. A lot of people think of feminism as something that’s for and by white women, with liberation being very linked to whiteness like, you know, dying your already translucent armpit hair purple and believing in the gender binary. Similarly, so many astrologers that we see in mainstream media are white, which taints astrology with this notion of white occult practices or like, or Western witchcraft period. I think on this panel, we’re trying to reclaim astrology from those confines.

You can expect some beautiful personal recollections from myself, Suhaiyla Shakuwra and Daniella Valz Gen. You can expect some amazing videos from Jade Jackman. You can expect us to be making fun of men who think astrology isn’t real even though economics is just astrology for men. You can expect us to be holding space for queer people of colour, especially queer people of colour living in diaspora who have ambivalent relationships to spirituality, motherland and have anxiety about what the next life or lives hold.

Reclaiming Astrology: contemporary mysticism and its relationship to qtipoc+ communities is at the Bush Theatre as part of Babylon Festival at 5pm on Saturday 9th February 2019. Tickets are priced at £10.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

On Friends Who Want To Die

Originally published by Vice

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Content Warning: This piece contains discussion about suicide and depression.

It’s June 2018, the week that two famous Americans have killed themselves, and although I don’t really know who either of them are, it still feels like a blow. It's always a blow when older people kill themselves, because it feels like proof that in fact it does not get better. It feels like a blow when famous people kill themselves because I will still be suicidal when everyone stops talking about it. It’s June 2018, and the sun feels like a spotlight on misery. I am sinking into a deep depression that can’t seem to shift like it normally does, and I’m thinking about ending my life much more often than usual. I can feel the people I love distorting and then disappearing above the surface of it all, like angels or refracted light.

I make a post on my finsta, which doubles as a rowdy fan base and a support group depending on how depressed I am, explaining that I am scared and might need some help. My friend Cat is among the first to respond. I met Cat at a sunny BBQ in 2013 where we bonded hard and fast over our shared bipolar diagnosis, love of condiments, and quietly seething rage.

Following my post we arrange a Skype call, and after a few minutes I realize she is not at work. She explains that she is at a respite in London for suicidal people. My shock settles quickly into a smile—it makes sense that Cat would offer to support my suicidality while she is actively grappling with her own; that hers would feel like the most comfortable company I could keep right now. It’s like that, I Want a Dyke for President poem but it’s like, yeah, and I only want people who have thought about killing themselves to ever talk to me about suicide.

During our conversation, I find fragments of answers to questions about survival and love and madness and pain and life that so often become accidentally hypothetical. Better yet though, I feel more at peace with all the relentless not knowing. I am not alone in this mess. Cat and I are sharing parts of our initial conversation here as an invitation to listen in on a quiet moment between two friends who want to die, and want to help each other live.

Aisha: How’s it going in the respite?

Cat: It’s day two, and it’s a bit terrifying because I’m really shit at talking about how I feel. It’s not something I grew up doing, so in a way, it’s good, but in another way, it’s like, what do I say? I feel hopeless. There’s no image of myself in the future feeling well. Even though I know I’ve felt kind of like this before, I’m like: Well this time, what if I don’t get better?

What about you?

A: I’ve just been completely engulfed by depression, again. And it’s just the worst, again. It is taking a tremendous amount of energy to get the most simple things done, and my whole body is just rattled with this unspeakable sadness and feeling of catastrophe. I’m finding it really hard to understand why I would stay here. I didn’t think I’d revisit this place. I feel devastated. It’s the fucking weirdest thing, to drag together some kind of semblance of a routine or a rhythm; to feel like you know who you are and where you’re going, and then to have it snatched away without reason or with too many fucking reasons. And to have to completely restructure your life around it—to move into a new pace, a new way of communicating with people, a new relationship to your body, to food, to sleep, to sex, to asking for help.

I have to re-learn it each time, learn to survive over and over again, and I just wish I didn’t have to. I’m finding the whole “acceptance” part really hard. I’m very much like “fuck this shit” right now. But I’ve been thinking about the idea that there’s relief to be found in falling apart; that maybe I needed to come to terms with what was happening because I’ve been putting a brave-ish face on it for a long time.

C: It becomes automatic, the brave face. It becomes your default position. For me, it’s because I don’t think I’m worth that care. And then there’s managing everyone else’s emotions—what if they see you when you’re sad? I think you’re right, I need to feel this stuff that I’ve been trying not to feel and accept it.

A: It’s so hard to be okay with it though, isn’t it? Like, I really do feel like my life gets stripped of joy. I don’t see the point in fighting to live if this is what it feels like.

C: Yeah, I enjoy nothing. Nothing. There is nothing that I used to like that I still enjoy.

A: Ha. Yeah. How do you accept a state like that?

C: I don’t know. Maybe what you’re doing right now—it doesn’t feel like enough, right? But maybe it’s enough for now. I feel like for the past few weeks I’ve been just turning up to events, and then I’ve been there, and I’ve been doing a thing, and I’m just like [whispers] “I feel nothing.” But obviously outwardly I’m like, “Yeah, this is great! In fact this is the best!” And that’s exhausting too.

A: That, for me, is one of the worst feelings, I think. It’s just like, Does the person in front of me know how much pain I’m in? And the person in front of me is like, a cashier at the supermarket, or my best friend showing me photos of a dog they want or something. Like, I don’t feel in any way okay, but I’m doing all the things that will indicate to everyone else that I am, which at times feels like a deep betrayal to myself, but what else do you do? It’s trippy, man. It’s like watching bad TV. You’re not invested—like, you’re not sure why this show has been commissioned. You’re like, just cancel the show. It’s okay.

C: It’s also trippy how easy it is to fool people. It’s made it quite difficult for me to trust people. Not that I want anyone to notice, but also I feel like I might.

A: You do. I do. I want people to notice. Cause I need help. It’s one of the most maddening aspects of depression to me, needing help so badly to survive, and wanting no one to look at you at the same time. It’s confusing for everyone. But there’s also the logistical aspect of it, where everyone I know is just really busy. Everyone I know is doing two or more jobs and an internship; everyone I know is Black and brown and trans and struggling, and in many ways I am more privileged than a lot of the people I know, so I reprimand myself for wanting support from them.

C: But you deserve that support, and you might be more privileged than some of your friends in some ways, but I’m sure there are ways that you are less privileged, like your mental health for starters. I just think people don’t know how to believe it. They don’t know how to show up. There are ways to show up.

A: What’s a good way to show up for you?

C: Checking in, I guess. I don’t really know. I’ve got some quite supportive friends. I’m lucky. We sit, and while I deflect, we’ll talk about them, ‘cause I’m very good at that. And then at some point they’ll ask me a bit of an awkward question that I can’t wriggle my way out of, and we’ll talk a bit about my stuff. They’ll listen and give advice if I want it, and if I don’t, they’ll just chat.

When I see those resources about ‘How To Support Your Partner or Friend Who Is Depressed’ I always think there’s that imaginary “well person” it’s written for, but who doesn’t exist. There’s got to be some way to have this mutually supportive system, right?

A: It helps me to have my depression acknowledged by others when it’s happening. I think that can be hard for people though. It can be overridden by an impulse to distract me from the pain instead, or run away out of fear of not being able to fix me, or kind of go inwards and talk about themselves, or do anything except sit with me on my terms. But a simple acknowledgement can be really powerful as an intervention all by itself. And it can even be extended to an honest conversation about capacity, you know? “I see you, I see what you’re going through. Here’s where I’m at right now, and this is what I feel like I can offer you.”

C: Yeah, as long as it’s not an economics equation and it’s about where people are at, it can be so helpful.

A: But I think there can be so much fear and guilt implicit in these conversations about putting limits on care that a lot gets unsaid, and that can be even more treacherous in my experience.

C: Yeah. People in caring positions need to be frank. They need to be firm. And that doesn’t mean they’re not also being caring. They’re caring for themselves too. But it’s just another thing, isn’t it—having to teach people how to be there for you. It’s just another way to be exhausted. You can’t leave room for interpretation when someone is feeling that bad about themselves. All of the blanks that I will fill in are basically: I am a piece of shit.

A: Totally. One of my downfalls is that when depression arrives, I have a very clear idea of who I think should be present for it—often friends who enjoy my company when I’m not depressed—but it’s just not always possible. It hurts, but there’s usually someone else willing to care for me. They might be someone I haven’t spoken to for a while or don’t even know that well, but it doesn’t matter, it’s good to stay as open as possible.

C: Right, and for others to not act like it’s too much. I think one of the fears of being mentally ill is being too much, right? Being a burden. That whole narrative that you tell yourself over and over again about, you know, basically being a pain in the ass, being needy, needing something that other people don’t need. It’s basically a constant adjustment. People have to adjust, because that’s your life, and that’s how it’s going to be, maybe, over the next few decades.

A: No thank you.

C: I mean, that might not be the case, but I feel like that might be the case for me. I’m getting to a point in my life where if people can’t deal with it, I’ve had a few conversations where I’ve had to say, “I’m still really unwell, but what you said or did—or your lack of acknowledgement—was inappropriate. I need you to go away and really give this some thought now that I’ve told you how it makes me feel. God forbid, if I feel like this again and you respond that way, I’m not gonna do this anymore.” It’s all very well to enjoy my company when I’m well, but historically there have been quite long periods when I’m unwell, and I don’t want that abandonment.

A: That’s really validating to hear. I’ve definitely had that conversation in my head many times. I’m impressed to hear that you do that, because it’s so hard to balance advocating for yourself with hating yourself for bringing this stuff into a space with other people.

C: It’s coming with you, but you’re not bringing it. It’s not a choice you’re making, it’s just there, right?

A: I find that part so hard though. Like, regardless of the mechanics of how it got there, it has found a host in my body, and my body is the body my friends and family have come to love—and lovers...Don’t get me started on romantic intimacy. It’s just depressing. In the colloquial sense, it’s depressing to try to be intentional about who you love; to try so hard to reserve your care and excellence for the people you want to build a future with, for other queer and trans people of color, for people who share your struggles and experiences and languages of celebrations, and for that to all be horrible in the end too.

And so much of it comes down to trauma, right? The inevitable fact that when queer people of color try to love each other, the trauma can just really rub up. What do we do about that? It’s scary.

C: Yeah. I think networks of care/not relying solely on that person is really important. Sometimes there's not much choice in the matter, but it's better if there are multiple people available, and that those people know that you have other people you can turn to if they can't help, talk, or be there in that moment. Separate therapy is really important too. And communication, and a commitment to giving space (from each other, and also to emote) without judgement. You have to work on your own shit and bring some of your learning into the relationship.

So much in romantic relationships is assumed (e.g., monogamy, what care and love look like) when actually loads of us want different things, find different things acceptable, and have experienced trauma throughout our lives in totally different ways.

A: It can feel impossible. What do we do with the people who are less easy to care for, who might slip into abusive patterns? What do we do when that person is us?

C: It's so, so hard when you have to experience the trauma of abuse whether it’s from another depressed person or not. Part of me has felt like I totally deserve it in the past, or it's maybe been a form of self-harm, tolerating behavior I wouldn't put up with when I'm well.

There are ways to be ethically depressed, right? If someone isn't showing through their actions that they're consistently trying to unpack how they are hurting others, or if they refuse to do so, my wish is for whoever is around that person to have the self-love to cut them loose. I think we know instinctively when someone has pushed it too far.

A: Yeah, I’ve also realized though that I have a fear that I’ll use up people’s kindness; that they’ll tire of me needing support from them. I often think: They could just find friends who don't need this kind of support. I feel so guilty that this person, through no fault of their own, has decided to love me, and then I pay them back by barely clinging on; by suffering in a way that makes them suffer, too.

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C: I'm terrified of this! It's totally my stuff, though—no friend has run out of being there for me. Part of this, maybe, is trusting people to not give more than they feel able to without really stretching themselves, and having that conversation about boundaries. You don't have to pay anyone back for loving you, Aisha. That's the reward in itself: They get to love you. You're not something to be dealt with or managed—you're a kind, complex human being. And you'll be there for them when they struggle too. I don't think that support has to be a finite resource, but it is something I'm scared of too. Like the emotional equivalent of sustainable farming, you know?

A: I've been thinking about what, in these moments, keeps me wanting to stay here. I find it soothing to think about. If I really think about it, that thing that I want to stay here for might grow stronger. For me, it is mostly my mum and some early memories of immigrant family life: the smells and the fierce kind of love. There's usually some general hope—some distant memory of music and laughter and good sex and wonder—and I hold on in faith that I'll feel it again, even though in moments, living through this pain to get there, knowing that I might have to do this again and again, it doesn’t seem wise.

What keeps you alive, Cat?

C: Not wanting to distress anyone, partially. Fear of trying to die not working and ending up in the hospital. The hope that I'll feel better soon (I have before, after I've felt really bad), the hope that I'll learn to like myself a little more. Friends, and the idea of supporting my friends through whatever is coming next. The faint thought that being this sad is only a few steps away from being crazy happy, in a way.


This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.


One Hand on the Internet

I wrote this on loneliness and the internet for Vice.

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Sometimes when I am in bed I frown because I feel a sharp pain inside one of my stomach rolls or on my arm or behind my knee and I take a look and what I find is that I’m being burned by the overheated white square part of my computer charger and when the pain subsides I smile because it’s nice to have something warm in my bed. Sometimes I catch a view of my legs in the bed with all the wires and the hairs and the differently sized screens and it’s like watching a family through a window. I feel sick because if there was an apocalypse tomorrow I don’t know what I would do to help and my least favorite thing is to feel useless, which is one of the reasons I love the internet.

Two or three times a week I stop what I am doing because I am panicking. I am panicking because I’ve remembered I have no idea what the internet is, either physically or conceptually, like what the fuck is an email, is this a womb or a war zone, why are my nudes in the sky, who is my king now. My brain then automatically presents me with the scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory where Mike Teavee is transmitted from one part of the room to the other, followed by a short clip of the early 2000s British exercise show for toddlers, Boohbah, and I return to whatever task is at hand. I mean I don’t know what the internet is, and I don’t particularly want to excavate anything personal about it for VICE, anything “identity” about anything, but I’m broke and easily flattered and I want something to put on the internet.

Working in mental health you hear a lot about the loneliness epidemic, about how it’s killing people faster than the rest of the stuff that’s killing people, about how the internet has made it worse. I’m so far gone at this point that I am genuinely surprised when people tell me they are straight, no less that they believe the internet makes us lonely. Maybe these are the same people who think the internet invented echo chambers or maybe they find validation IRL, I don’t know, but I find myself fighting this idea dutifully and often from a position of complete personal loneliness.

Sluts will still be sluts, right, after the internet? Like, anxious people will still be anxious, and if I want to find a way to be witnessed slow grinding to Usher I still will. While I was writing this I bumped into a friend and he told me about a tweet he saw once that was like, “being human was still stupid before smartphones.” And I’m like, “exactly dude, exactly.”

When I was younger and people would ask that weird ice-breaker question about which decade you would want to live in if not this one, I would feel uncomfortable and confused and a bit nauseous and never really knew why, and now I realize it’s because I would rather have my queer arse be killed by Sophia the robot than inhabit any single version of the past.

Sometimes a friend will read something on the internet about how the planet has survived mass extinctions before this one, about how maybe this isn’t the end, that Earth can take it, that we might survive. That makes me nervous, too. I enjoy thinking about the millennial apocalypse because a key feature of it is like, no WiFi, like the past existing in the future, and I suppose I can relate to that kind of time travel. If an imagined future with no internet brings me peace, it’s not because I dislike the internet, it’s because the world is fucked and I am interested in opportunities to disappear.

Thanks to the internet, I built a 300-strong record collection by the age of 14 and was slightly famous on “Funky Monks,” the Red Hot Chili Peppers message board, for my extensive collection of bootlegs, and willingness to trade globally. My username was Metal_of_India, a term of endearment I found reading Shakespeare, and a vague nod to my second love, books, and my heritage. My choice always made me a little uncomfortable but I tried not to overthink it.

A few weeks ago I chose the username Exotica_Fatigue for my Seeking Arrangements profile and around the same time noticed that my Instagram friends had become adverts. Sometimes I feel like the internet has made us numb and then I remember it’s just a reflection of a society that numbness is an adaptive response to. We know so much, and yet I, too, have laid my head on a white man’s chest and felt peace.

I have stopped trying to explain the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) to Americans because it is like talking to a decommissioned robot even though it does not take very long because it’s just ~free healthcare for everybody~. I see lights turn off and shutters come down and their heads nod but they do not compute because in a society where you consider yourself “lucky” to be able to pay $1 million a year to have conditional access to the utter hellscape that is care in this country, it is perhaps not wise or possible to think outside of it for too long.

People are lonely in England, too, though the myth of post-racialism is lonely and allyship is tired. The NHS saved my life for free, but I still programmed my phone to ask me how I was feeling at random intervals three times a day. I still shared cyber hugs with white people on bipolar support forums. I still learned how to eat and meditate following the advice of careful strangers in Facebook groups, learned that my instincts for protection and my frenzied exhaustion made sense actually, that I was not alone, that I was alone but I could be safe there, that it was OK to laugh at it all.

Living by myself for the first time since my brief attempt at living on a houseboat during a manic episode in 2013, I’m the least lonely I’ve ever been, or like, I’m not as lonely as I thought I’d be. You know, loneliness isn’t always about physical isolation; it’s as much about being forced to share space, ideas, and intimacy with systems that will never really try to understand you, with people who will never say sorry when they let you down. Sometimes loneliness is not having the means to opt out. The internet gave us space.

My friend, the poet El Roy Red, texted me recently: “Seeing a million interracial couples... then I realized, every relationship I’m in is an interracial relationship, including w myself lol.” I’m like, “same.” I’m like, I don’t experience loneliness because of the internet, I’m lonely because there is no one else like me. No one else made up of all these parts that I refuse to name for anyone anymore but that I sit with, a new model, waiting for everyone to catch up and yet hoping they never do.

I’m into the internet as a gateway to systems of care. And not the tacky care of a white woman; not the pressured care of a psychiatrist or the just love, love, love yourself, you’re worth it kind of care, but the kind of care that turns a sad finsta post into a spontaneous visit, a phone call, a gift; turns a silent question into 1,000 late-night answers, turns the monster within into a collective hum.

I’m not religious but who doesn’t want to live forever? I’m not religious but I do wonder sometimes if all my blocked exes keep each other company. A few weeks ago, someone on Tinder sent me a message saying, “My tooth hurts,” and I replied, “Sometimes I dream of a cottage with two chairs outside, where the bears are. We are safe, you and I, but I cry anyway and you ask me why and I tell you it’s because you’re so beautiful.”

There’s that moment at the party when someone asks where you two met and you say “the internet,” swallowing your words with a giggle. It used to be accompanied with such a real flush of hot embarrassment, nasty, like burnt hair, and then at some point we were ready to let go of the shame. Now we will enthusiastically recall the story of how we stalked each other for months before taking turns methodically following each other on multiple platforms, eventually becoming friends, lovers, or something shared but undefined. I guess we’re ready to own it because everything matters less now, because loneliness sells, because the internet is a planet and I guess it sucks because we are the aliens we’ve been searching for.

A YouTuber Brings Tarot to the People

I wrote this profile on my favourite astrologer, Amber Khan, for the New York Times

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Age: 40

Hometown: Morningside Heights, Manhattan

Now Lives: Ms. Khan splits her time between a two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan, a few blocks from her childhood home, and a three-bedroom house in Ebeltoft, Denmark, where her son lives.

Claim to Fame: Ms. Khan is an astrologer and tarot reader with a YouTube channel that has about 115,000 subscribers. Her practice draws from her Muslim and Pakistani heritage, as well as her childhood trauma, which includes witnessing domestic violence in her extended family. “I’m really good at being able to pick out where a person’s pain is because I lived with people who were full of pain,” she said.

Big Break: In 2016, after decades of giving private tarot readings, Ms. Khan decided to start her own YouTube channel, the Quietest Revolution, where she broadcasts monthly readings for each astrological sign. She has had many notable clients but declined to list them (“an astrologer never, ever name drops”). “An astrologer is like a priest: We have access to the most personal details of someone’s life. That’s just disrespectful.”

Latest Project: Ms. Khan is working on a self-published book, “Vector Equilibrium: Journey Through the Major Arcana,” to teach others how to read tarot using characters that represent ancient archetypes. “Your intuition is a lot better than you think it is,” she said. She is also designing her own deck of tarot cards. “I like arming people with enough insight into themselves that they can understand whatever is going on with them,” she said. “Mythologies are necessary, we need them to understand ourselves.”

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Next Thing: Later this year, Ms. Khan is filming a documentary at Ted’s Shroom Boom, a psychedelic mushroom farm in Negril, Jamaica, about psilocybin and the “fundamental changes it can make in the neuroplasticity of the brain,” she said. She will work with trauma survivors “in the warm water of the beach, letting the tears come, and the laughter come, and walk away changed.”

Self Care: Ms. Khan is used to skeptics and having her work seen as a gimmick. “It’s not as mystical as we think,” she said. “Pharmacology is failing us. People are scared to go to the psychiatrist. Everyone out here now is trying to become their own shaman, to heal themselves.”

A Cage of One's Own

Some reflections on 2017, published by them.

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In January I met an Aquarius in Chinatown. She was sad about her acne and the new president. I told her I knew he was gonna win because part of me hates women too. She told me a room of one’s own is impossible now, only cages if we’re lucky. She gave me a wooden birdcage with a battery-powered bird that sings inside but the song sounds like an alarm. She told me I could use it to scare men and I told her that I loved her.

When I was a teenager I liked that bit when Anthony Kiedis sings, “my friends are so depressed” even though it wasn’t 2017 yet; even though my friends weren’t so depressed yet. I am always confused when people say, “It’s 2017, why is this bad thing still happening?” I want to ask them what they were hoping for from this arbitrary marker of time. It never ceases to amaze me how literally everything is easier when not depressed. Depression is like the less glamorous cousin of stress. Depression feels too close to absence to be stressful. Depression is the sea floor, but stress is like that little fish that’s still fucking trying.

When I think about stress I feel guilty because my life is easy. When I think about stress I picture my vibrator, the surface area of which is too big for my clitoris. When I think about stress I think about being punched in the chest by someone I love and telling myself it’s ok because they’re stressed. Stress is the phone call I get at 3 p.m. every day from Dina. I am stressed because she wants money for the collection agency and I am stressed because she always asks so nicely. Every time my phone rings I think it’s Dina and that is stressful. I try to think of a time my mum has said she is stressed and I can’t. My mum is too poor to be stressed. I am too quiet. Stress is the psychiatrist who can’t maintain eye contact. We don’t touch our scalps enough.

When I think about stress I think of Beloved. I think of Toni Morrison writing Beloved while raising a child; I think of trees. This year someone told me I don’t listen to my ancestors, but my back hurts when I am stressed and that’s how I know I’m still alive. Stress is wearing a binder outside for the first time and losing your wallet on the same day. Stress is choosing not to love white people or men and being punished anyway. Stress is pre-diabetes even though Ella told me that’s the best type of diabetes to have. Is it more or less stressful if we call it stress? I haven’t read the news since 2013 but I’m still stressed though.

I work in trauma response which is how I have chosen to engage with the rumbling tragedy of modern life. When I think about stress I think about hell, I think about health insurance. I think about my client describing the sound his body would make on the floor outside if he jumped right now. I think about having to do this job for the rest of my life — the one job robots can’t fucking do. When my clients tell me they want to die, I tell them that makes sense. I tell them it will pass. I recount times they have felt excited to be alive — I remember when they can’t. I’m surprised that it works. We keep trying to live.

Last night I had a dream that I had sex with four hot dogs wrapped together and I have been depressed since I woke up. On days like this it feels like an illness. My knees feel pain but it’s not physical, the weight just finds my knees. On days like this I type slow and everything is pretend rather than a regular movement in and out of pretending. White men look redder and I miss my mum but I don’t tell her because I don’t want to draw attention to disappointment. On days like this I feel guilty about the prospect of falling in love and wonder how we will ever get past days like this. I don’t take selfies or dance or check my bank account, but I never check my bank account (sorry, Dina). On days like this, I want to comment “why?” underneath people’s ultrasound photos. On days like this, I feel relieved that there is a name for it, even though on other days I think the name is an insult and a lie, because on other days I refuse to believe that sadness just comes to life in a vacuum. But on days like this when I am locked inside that vacuum, I need that to be enough.

Is mental illness a lie or am I just scared of being ill? Who the fuck wants to be ill? Maybe on days like this I do. Maybe I want a word and a pardon and an assurance to others — it’s not you, it’s me. Maybe I would be more comfortable claiming illness if everyone didn’t already think it’s me. Days like this feel like a resignation, but I appreciate the permission to flatline. We know too much to be present all the time. The day after a depressive episode I feel reborn, but it is not enough.

It’s the end of 2017 and I live in an apartment with a train outside my window and feel uncomfortable about my tits in approximately 40 percent of my shirts, but I don’t think those things are connected. Sometimes the train sounds romantic and sometimes it just sounds like a train. Sometimes I feel like I’m aging out of my body, like on the street I can’t breathe and I have to look at the sky. I text my friends: R U OK? How do u feel in ur body? What do u fantasize about? I’m sorry that happened. How is ur mum? Do u remember that time in Chipotle when u told me white women shouldn’t be allowed to have children? Did u go to therapy? Go to therapy plz. Is the Great Barrier Reef dead yet? I’m bored. I just want to b held. What can I do 4 u? Come here. I want to put my phone down.

It’s the end of 2017 and I have cancelled both memes and horoscopes because I don’t know how to have fun; because I’m trying to remember who I am and how to feel something without feeling it all. I’m stressed because I don’t know what bitcoin is. I’m stressed because I retweet every tweet I’m mentioned in and I don’t know if that’s cool. I’m stressed because I’m not smart enough to write sci-fi.

It’s the end of 2017 and men are scared and I’m glad about that. My therapist told me life isn’t as precarious as I think it is, but I took two Advil an hour ago and I still have a headache.

‘The Big Sick’s disgusting treatment of women of color illuminates the violence of “colorblind” love

Originally published by the amazing blog, RaceBaitR

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To be clear, I am not a fool, and therefore my expectations were not sky-high for a movie about heteronormative interracial love written by Kumail Nunjiani, a Pakistani comedian, and his white wife Emily Gordon. There were some immediate red flags, the main one being that, yes, this is yet another mainstream love story about a man of colour in pursuit of a white woman. This pursuit is the main hook of the movie, which takes off when Kumail, a comedian and Uber driver, meets Emily, a thin blonde woman, at one of his shows.

 

I thought, “Really, Aisha, if you want to witness yet another brown man waste both his and your time chasing a boring-ass white woman around while using women of colour as props you could stay at home and re-watch Master of None.”

But I felt compelled to give it a go as a result of something I am going to call the “Just One More” Effect, aka the never-ending goodwill that people of colour extend to a world that has done nothing to deserve it. Just one more white partner, just one more free explanation, just one more mainstream movie that will almost certainly disappoint you.   

I wanted so badly to be able to support Nunjiani. Blame it on the representation drought or whatever, but here is a Pakistani, Muslim immigrant who has found a way to write and perform his own story for the mainstream. Centering himself in a love story is already radical given the chronic de-sexualization of South Asian men, and so my curiosity won over my skepticism.

The truth is, dear readers, no amount of skepticism in the world will prepare you for how disappointing and violent this film is; how hard it was to watch, as a queer, Muslim, South Asian person; or how desperate Kumail Nunjiani is to be liked by white people.

Before the film even began, my friend Paula and I were shushed by the middle-aged white couple behind us for laughing during the commercials in the theatre. On the one hand, this was a classic white attempt to silence Black and brown women’s joy for literally no reason, and on the other, this was perfect foreshadowing.

In an early scene, Emily heckles Kumail while he is performing. He then approaches Emily, who is with a brown woman friend, after the show. The two proceed to flirt with each other, completely ignoring the woman of colour until she gets up, and silently moves out of shot, never to be seen again.

It was then that I leaned across to Paula’s stiff body and whispered, “maybe they’re making a… point?” proving those who might call me a chronic pessimist wrong. But the scene is reminiscent of a universal experience of tokenism, invisibility and disposal shared by all women and non-binary people of colour, and it is a motif that escalates throughout the rest of the film.

Cut to Kumail’s family. I’ve been waiting for this. One big room, full of South Asians. A western cinematic impossibility I am always hungry for. A mother, father, brother and sister-in-law, all brown, and all perfect caricatures of South Asian Muslim brownness. We see them almost exclusively in domestic settings: around the dinner table guzzling samosas, in their living room drinking chai and—you guessed it, motherfucker—interviewing a montage of South Asian women for the esteemed role of Wife of Kumail.

Most of the women being interviewed are characterized as dumpy, unintelligent losers, and one literally does a magic trick for the family in an act of bizarre South Asian minstrelsy. A South Asian family presented as obsessed with arranged marriage to the point of mania? What? The innocent man of colour trying to escape the clutches of his overbearing, barbaric, ignorant Muslim family so he may lay with his Aryan princess one more time? Never heard of it!

In Hari Kondabolu’s recent documentary The Problem With Apu, he investigates ‘Patanging,’ the phenomenon whereby someone’s South Asianness is exaggerated for the screen to the point of a dehumanizing stereotype, usually at the behest of a white director, for a white audience. This will include being asked to put on a thick, broad Indian accent (as I’m sure the brown women playing Kumail’s suitors were asked to do for this movie), and being expected to embody what are seen as traditional “Indian” body movements such as the wobbling head and the screwing-in-the-lightbulb hands. You know, the ones we were bullied in the playground for.

But Nunjiani isn’t white. Why is patanging found throughout this film? Why is there literally not one moment of nuance afforded this family? Why is the father characterized as some kind of Bollywood-singing-cymbal-banging-monkey-toy, and, more importantly, why is his mother characterized as an evil heartless bitch who is able to disown her son without shedding a tear or ever explaining why?

Meanwhile, the bulk of the plot revolves around Kumail trying to win the affections of Emily’s white parents while poor Emily is in a coma. They are presented as funny, kooky, good-hearted, protective of their daughter, caring, vulnerable, multi-faceted. We learn about their history, how they met, what they like, what they don’t like, how they feel about and relate to their daughter and their changing feelings about Kumail.

Emily’s mother makes an overtly racist comment to Kumail about 9/11 the first time they meet, and this is overlooked completely. She is even given a scene later in the movie during which she comes to Kumail’s defense when he is being racially heckled at one of his shows – some kind of white redemption narrative.

His own mother gets nothing of the sort. In one unnecessary scene, when Emily has woken from the coma, she lies in bed getting her hair stroked by her mother in yet another big screen depiction of the Unbreakable Tenderness of White Women, while we can only guess that Kumail’s own mother is at home making 100 curries, and cursing the day he was born in a very strong but generic Indian accent.

The man sitting behind us, whose wife had shushed us before the movie started, laughed gutturally throughout the film. This is a white liberal’s wet dream: permission from a Muslim to despise Muslims. At one point Kumail even jokes about never crying when hearing about the genocide of Muslim communities, but crying at the film Up. In loaning his identity to this racist film, Kumail Nanjiani gave permission for white people who believe they are good but who are latently bigoted and racist, to laugh openly at a depiction of South Asian Muslims as heartless and backwards and I truly hate him for that.

There is a specific racialized, gendered violence against all the women of colour in this film that is scary. A pivotal moment in the movie is when Emily, who is told nothing about Kumail’s family beforehand, finds a box of photos of the women with whom his parents are trying to arrange his marriage. With next to no information about the situation, Emily goes ahead and absolutely loses her shit, potentially becoming possessed for a second as she screams, cries and breaks up with Kumail on the spot.

This is framed 100% as Kumail’s bad and Emily’s innocence in this situation is never questioned. In an attempt to get her back, Kumail burns the photos of the brown women, puts the ashes in a jar, and literally gives it to the white woman who, of course, dismisses him, but is secretly pleased.

I had to be reminded of this scene by my editor when settling down to write this which indicates to me that 1) there was so much symbolism towards the disposability of brown women in that film that I was able to forget such a big example of it and 2) I may have genuinely repressed it. When I left the movie theatre that day I felt winded and deeply sad, and while I’ll be the first to admit that I am generally a sad bitch, I normally have pretty good momentum through a range of different sadnesses and this is one I have not been able to shake.

It is sad. It’s so sad. It’s sad that a straight man of colour won this platform and managed to turn it into some kind of carnival of the model minority by making a film as devastating and disrespectful of brown women as if a white man had made it. It’s sad that this film signals the last time I will trust a straight man of colour to handle any matter at all with any decency. It’s sad that due to a legacy of systemic racism and acute lack of representation in media for black and brown people, there is a huge onus on the people who do have a platform to handle it with care.

It’s sad that straight men of colour and white women insist on using the fallacy of depoliticized love as a way to enact white supremacist and patriarchal violence, and to further the erasure and abuses of women of colour.

Fuck this smug “we are the future” defensiveness around interracial couples that positions the rest of us as villains for not believing they’re saving the world every time they fuck. If that’s the love you’re choosing for yourself, godspeed. But loving white people is a political choice. The proximity to whiteness not only makes the person of colour involved more desirable to white people and therefore the world at large, it often also makes them more dangerous to the rest of us. It forces us into proximity with the delusion that whiteness can ever be a safe resting place for people of colour, and that white women really are as innocent as they will have us believe.

This film is traumatic. Perhaps that is dramatic, but if white women can be dramatic and still be cute, so can this brown non-binary piece of shit. This is how racial trauma is upheld. Watching photographs of people who look like me burned, stuffed into a jar, and handed to a white woman to apologize for ever having had any contact with them, and then calling it comedy, is the big sick, Kumail, not the flu your white girlfriend had.

I try to laugh but this has been painful, painful to watch, painful to remember, painful to exorcise onto this page. I feel guilty for coming for one of my own, a fellow traumatized person of colour trying to make it in a fucked up industry in a fucked up world. I get it. But if I’ve learnt one thing this year it’s that your trauma is no good excuse to treat others badly. Okay, cis-het men of colour? Okay, Kumail Nunjiani? It’s okay man, you can love yourself without hating the women who raised you.

 

Why Are We So Damn Anxious All The Time?

Originally published in Cosmopolitan Magazine.

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Almost everyone is familiar with anxiety, the jolt of panic you feel when you think you’ve lost your keys, the rumbling dread while you wait to give a presentation, or that feeling when someone you care about says “Listen, I need to ask you something” in a really serious voice and you fumble through your mental rolodex of everything you could have possibly done wrong in preparation for what they’re about to say which is actually just, “Do you like my new hat?”

Anxiety can feel like different things for different people at different times, though feelings of dread and panic seem fairly common across the board. A friend once described it as “the feeling of being on a rollercoaster just before its drops, but 24/7”. For me, it’s a gnawing feeling of impending doom that can last for hours, weeks or months. It’s like there’s a small mouse trapped inside my torso, sleeping on my stomach, or sometimes just leaning with one elbow on my heart or lungs – physical pressure and constant nebulous fear.

As anyone who lives with it will tell you, anxiety can be incredibly debilitating, interfering with your ability to simply do the things you want to, which over time can erode your sense of self. Sometimes these uncomfortable sensations can escalate quickly and seize control of your body in the form of a panic attack, during which you might hyperventilate, sweat, have scary thoughts and quite frankly feel like you’re dying.

But as powerless as anxiety may make you feel, there’s power to be found in understanding just why you might be panicking all the damn time.

When I was around 22 I started having panic attacks whenever I got on a bus or train, which was a pretty good and completely horrible indicator to me that I needed to slow the fuck down and pay attention to my body. I remember looking out of my bedroom window each morning, down the street, and having truly no idea how I would get there, like it was a tightrope, like the pavement was made out of quicksand, like wild animals were on the loose.


Anxiety is often characterized as a fear reaction to some kind of unspecified or overblown feeling of threat, but the truth is, all marginalized people live with fear and threat as part of their intrinsic daily reality, be it the structural oppression at the core of society, making it way harder for certain people to thrive (e.g. worrying, “will my Muslim name get my visa application rejected”?), or the microaggressions we encounter as daily reminders that ultimately we are “other” or less than (e.g. "where are you really from?"). Women, queer and transgender people, particularly those of color, endure great strain just by existing, because the rich, straight, white men who hold power globally and in our institutions and workplaces simply do not have our wellbeing in mind. It’s grim, but when you think about the constant reality of street harassment and sexual violence against girls and women, the scarily disproportionate number of black people incarcerated or murdered by police, the trauma of poverty or living as an undocumented person, the terror of surviving as a trans woman of color despite the very real threat of assault or murder every time she leaves the house, surely the question becomes: why wouldn’t we be anxious?

A few weeks ago I left New York City to go on a day trip. My date and I joked that we were nervous about going to a place where we would likely be the only queer people of color, but agreed that sometimes white people have nice things like beaches and crab shacks and that it was worth giving it a go. We were just 20 minutes out of the city when a white woman in the car in front of us began shouting into her rear view mirror and frantically gesturing at us without making it clear at all what she wanted. Unnerved and bewildered, we drove on, only to be pulled over by cops ten minutes later asking if we had “been in an accident”. Hiding our fear, disbelief and rage we explained calmly and charmingly like the Good Brown People we are that there had been no accident, and then we waited patiently for 30 minutes as both the cars were checked for signs of collision — for no reason other than one more white person’s racist imagination.

The wait was tense, a second police car pulled up to join, and passing cars slowed down to look in as we wondered what the white woman had told the police, if they would find or fabricate a reason to detain us, what would happen to the rental car if they did, and how it would affect my visa status. I wanted to comfort my date with a hug or a kiss but we did not touch each other for fear that we would reveal our gayness and be discriminated against further. So we sat facing forward, telling each other it would be ok, and dealing with it quietly as we have been trained to do. Despite being hugely protected in that moment by the fact neither of us are black, and despite eventually being told we were free to go, the psychic toll of an experience like that is huge. So is the energy it takes to regulate your heartbeat again, process some of what just happened, bury the lingering feelings of humiliation, anger, anxiety, recover quickly for yourself and each other, joke, smile, put the playlist back on and drive further into a place you are unwanted.

The daily experiences of marginalized people are littered with little intensities like this, the cat-call on the way to school, the sly comment about your hijab, the group dinner you can’t afford, the “you don’t sound black”, the “are you a boy or a girl?” Over time we can internalize these micro-aggressions as a sign that we are somehow defective or powerless or unloved, which can really fuck with our ability to trust ourselves, our intuition, our experiences, our worth, our feeling of safety, our ability to heal. It’s exhausting. Just because women, queer and trans people, and people of color have learned to thrive against a rigged system doesn’t mean we aren’t suffering. On the beach that night my date told me their dad used to say “the sea spits out everything it doesn’t want” and I was relieved because that, at least, felt fair.

Our bodies do not exist in a vacuum. There are lots of reasons for anxiety, including biochemical factors, imbalances in brain chemistry which for some people can be addressed by medication and psychiatry alone. The thing is, no one knows what you need better than you do. The role of society is chronically underplayed in diagnosis and discussion around mental health because it is more convenient for the powers that be; pharmaceutical companies, educational institutions, legal and political systems, if our attention is focussed inwards, on what is wrong with us. This, combined with all the systemic elements of oppression, makes it harder or impossible for some people to access the care they need.

As a mental health professional working with people on Medicaid who have “chronic mental health conditions”, I see first hand the barriers faced by marginalized people when trying to access adequate care. These include lack of money, lack of support in navigating and advocating for oneself within the healthcare system, and (fear of) not being believed. As one of my own clients, an elderly black woman put it “I was never diagnosed, I was just called a bad child”.


While it can be empowering to learn the discomfort you live with isn’t because you’re broken but actually an appropriate response to living in a hostile environment, this knowledge alone doesn’t fix everything. In fact, it can feel really lonely, overwhelming and disheartening to have all this information about the psychic toll of oppression, seemingly powerless to change anything. For this reason it’s really important to do what we can to find or create micro-communities for ourselves in real life or online. To fill these communities with people who understand our experiences or at the very least believe and support us completely when we communicate them. This could look like a friend who goes with you to the doctor to help you advocate for yourself; a therapist who is skilled enough to draw links between the manifestations of your trauma and the systemic oppression you have faced; someone who can validate your everyday experiences, remind you that they make sense, brainstorm ways to feel more comfortable in the moments that hurt.

These could include taking a walk or doing some exercise, writing a list of all the things that could be making you feel anxious, watching TV, masturbating, meditating or other grounding activities, getting your eyebrows done, texting someone you trust, doing nothing in particular and letting the feeling pass when it’s ready.

If you feel really anxious in certain environments, with certain people, consider that maybe it’s them and not you. Say no to things and people that make you uncomfortable so you can make space for alternatives — they will come. Listen to your body and let it guide you to places of fun and safety. Many of us are probably going to live with anxiety in some form, on and off, for the rest of our lives, so we might as well try to approach it with gentleness, curiosity and the understanding that this doesn’t mean we are fucked up. We also might as well remember to really celebrate small victories; finding time to eat breakfast before work, not checking your ex’s Instagram, making your friends laugh. These moments are as important as the painful ones and deserve as much attention and pride as we can muster. They are proof of our survival, against the odds.

White Women Drive Me Crazy

Originally published by Buzzfeed, this personal essay got over 1 million views in 4 days and I received hundreds of responses from people it resonated with which felt very cool and important.

Yesterday I stepped on a white woman’s yoga mat by accident and she looked at me like she had woken up to me standing at the foot of her bed, like I had just suggested we murder her husband and run away together. She looked at me like I had escaped from a zoo, like a hippo had found its way into this Brooklyn yoga studio and was casually waiting for the 8 a.m. class to begin. She looked scared, like she had just found out that the world really did end in 2012, and she had been going to yoga three times a week since then for no reason, because she is actually a ghost.

She looked at me like I did not exist in her world; but here I was, and she did not know what to do with me.

Sometimes white women look at the rest of us like they are hungry. These are the kinds of white women who might refer to us as chocolate, or coffee with or without milk, or Princess Jasmine. Common accompanying behaviors include commenting obsessively on our features; asking us to speak languages we have nothing to do with; really trying to take selfies with us; an uncomfortably overblown interest in our lives (especially when they find out we have heritage from Egypt or other suitably palatable brown countries their ancestors have stolen from); and using the brown hand emojis.

They say, “Are you okay?” when they know we are thriving.

Sometimes they look at us with grief and pity, like they’re watching a UNICEF ad rather than a person dancing very discreetly to Moby at a bus stop. This look comes from a place of assumption — for example, “It must be hard to be a liberated Muslim woman (let me save you).” And then surprise — for example, “You are so articulate.”

Sometimes they look through us with a hard, vacant stare after we have said something funny or clever, or when we look even better than we usually do. This look is also employed when it becomes no longer convenient or safe to be allied with us, and can be turned on very quickly and without warning. They say, “Are you okay?” when they know we are thriving. They say, “Are you okay?” instead of “I feel uncomfortable,” because they are not used to feeling uncomfortable and they are happy for us to be the problem instead.

Sometimes, when we defend ourselves, white women look at us with the utmost fragility. They claim access to emotions such as fear and pain without missing a beat, like they were born to do it, before we can even dare to consider that we may be frightened or hurt, too. Their eyes rattle in their sockets, saying, “Why do you punish me for having such a big heart?”

On an East London playground in 1999, the kids are playing kiss-chase. It was a playground game and potential site of trauma for many of us, where boys chased girls and girls chased boys, and if you were caught you were kissed. I didn’t play because I didn’t want to chase the boys and also I wasn’t invited to play because the boys certainly did not want to chase me, but I watched, and I wished I was a boy and I wished my boobs would come quickly. My first crush was either Mary-Kate or Ashley; I don’t remember which. I sat in front of the television before school, 9 years old, buck-toothed and wiry headed, lost somewhere in the space between wanting to kiss her and wanting to be her. Looking at her shiny pug nose felt warm, like toast or wetting the bed, and I was happy alone, watching her through the glass.

White women, especially the monied ones, are so dangerous because they are allowed to be so soft. Stroke by stroke, they construct a type of womanhood that viciously negates the fact their bodies still function as agents of white supremacy. They are so gentle with themselves that they simply cannot comprehend that they could be oppressed and yet still oppressive.

White women are innocent until proven innocent until proven innocent.

We are taught to walk home with our keys between our fingers for protection from men in the night, but no one tells us how to defend ourselves from the white women who will try to ravage us from the inside out, with a smile, a comment, a betrayal, a vital inaction, a look. How they will choose comfort over effort, how they will read this and think I am talking about someone else, another pardon. And even if we are told, even if our mothers tuck us into bed with a warning, we won’t truly hear it, because white women are innocent until proven innocent until proven innocent.

On the beach last summer, my friend J said, “Think about Islamophobia, transphobia, slavery, prison … Black and brown men experience as much gender discrimination as white women.” And within the safety of a nonwhite circle of friends in the sunshine, with no white feelings to protect, no white shock to absorb, we leaned in and considered it: the person who asked J if they are a “rug dealer,” the racism and fetishization of feminism, and all of the times I have walked through a room of white women to stand next to a man of color without even thinking about it.

It’s funny, because sometimes a white woman is so delicate that I will elicit a full-blown horror reaction from her just by standing too close to her stuff, even though she is a white woman doing yoga and so in fact none of this was ever her stuff at all. It’s not funny, because this look becomes a call to the police, becomes another brown person incarcerated in a cell or a psych ward, another black person murdered. Despite having received more love in my life than is reasonable, and despite being told I am beautiful, as an instruction, from the beginning, this look is the reason I have always felt dirty — or at least never quite clean.

The look at the yoga studio felt familiar, like an old relative I had not seen in a while and didn’t want to see. As I registered the look, I regressed to the childhood version of myself who did not know why I was being looked at or what I had done wrong, but knew what humiliation felt like and knew what panic felt like and knew what it was like to be a wild animal, a beast or a pet. The depressed version of myself, unable to be looked at by anyone, watching British TV dramas with entirely white casts in the dark and feeling cozy, or some fake version of that. The adolescent version of myself getting hot for Mary-Kate, for Cameron, for Scarlett, waiting for them to notice me, lick my face, touch my hair. Brown people are the greatest time travelers, existing so many places at once and yet definitely also here.

This look is the reason I have always felt dirty — or at least never quite clean.

We eat eggs and I tell Y about how when I was 8 years old, I taught my white friend, B (actually called Becky), how to count to 10 in Urdu. How at school the next day she looked at her feet as she shuffled past me, and the white teacher pulled me aside and asked me why I was bullying Becky, because Becky’s mum said I was bullying Becky, and that maybe it would be best if I didn’t sit next to her anymore. She suggested this with the kind of half-arsed, sad-eyed, apologetic shrug that white women perform when it is less of a scene to administer psychological warfare against a brown child than it is to challenge your fellow white woman.

I remember well the acute shock and confusion of that day. I had been so damn sure Becky and I were having a good time. I felt so guilty, despite my mother’s insistence that Becky’s mother was a racist bitch and that I had done nothing wrong. I felt frightened of myself and my potential to hurt innocent white girls without even realizing it.

“It starts so young,” Y says, when I stop talking. “How we learn to doubt ourselves, second-guess our intuition, mistrust what we know to be true, and all because white people are meant to teach and not to be taught.” Eighteen years later, the affirmation still feels fresh, like it feels godly to tell this story to the person I love and not have to explain the experience of constant emotional contortion, not have to explain why it hurts.

About two years ago, I walked into some art event in downtown Manhattan, realized I was the only person of color there, and immediately walked out. I guess my time being a token was over. In this city where emergency vehicles wail like mothers, like the worst has already happened, I have learned not to live in the shadow of whiteness. I have learned that I am the sun, the object and the shadow. I have learned to bend over, to shake my arse, to put my fingers deep enough inside myself that at the age of 27 I finally put a tampon in right. Cleanliness is overrated, and I have always seen beauty in the city.

I dug my bare foot into the purple yoga mat and held the white woman’s gaze.

My first panic attack was on a Northern Line tube carriage in London during the summer of 2011. I didn’t know what anxiety was yet, but I had it pretty bad, and I had become obsessed with the fear that I would jump in front of a train or be blown up, should I successfully make it onto one. Despite having no idea how any type of bomb works, I would methodically check everyone’s hands to see what they were doing whenever I got on a train or bus. This was my secret, because I was ashamed that I had become the horrified white woman, but the more I tried to suppress her, the more anxious I became.

I did not expect to shout at the white woman with the yoga mat, because I do not shout. I cry, I stay in my bedroom for weeks, I write, I make sly remarks to people I love, I cut myself, and I slap people too hard on the arm when they make me laugh, but I don’t shout. Maybe I’ll prove them right if I shout: “Look, it speaks.”

A couple of years after that panic attack, I was standing in a huge crowd of white people at a music festival, wearing a backpack with some wires inside. I opened it to get something out and I registered a sharp feeling of gratitude that none of them seemed frightened of me. Guilt, even, that I had put them in a situation that could be perceived as a threat. I’m the bomb, I realized, standing there. I am the bomb. I had not become the horrified white woman; rather, her panic, disgust and fear, her grotesque theatre, had found a home inside me, and it had flourished to the point of saturation. I was seeing explosions everywhere because I was finally ready to explode.

“Listen, it was an innocent mistake,” I shouted at the horrified yoga woman. You could also call it a generally audible remark, or one tangible thing in a giant sea of mental fuckery. Innocent. I am innocent. I have always been innocent. “So if you could fucking relax I would really appreciate it.”

I walked away, waiting for remorse, shame or anxiety to visit, as they usually do after any sort of confrontation I get into in white people’s rooms. They did not come, and in the space they usually inhabit I felt something like peace, or at least it was quiet.

Later I ask my friends, “Is this what it feels like to give no fucks? Has my time finally come?”

“Sweet dominion over white emotion,” N replies with a slow smile. R the poet says, “I want their bigotry to die in public. I want to kill it enough to become human.” Emerging from a cloud of cigarette smoke, P announces, “I think Princess Jasmine was the first brown femme I had a crush on. I mean, she was such a great princess of color until white women ruined it.” We look at each other and laugh.

At work last week, my colleague pulled me aside hurriedly and said, “I’m really trying to work through something in therapy, but if I can’t, I might have to drop a bomb on you later, okay?” I said, “Okay,” but I also could have said, “Why do white people always want to drop bombs?” or “Sorry, this dumping ground is full” or “In 2017, can white women relax?”

I don’t know if I liked sleeping with white women because I’m queer or because they all smell so good. Like if I pressed my body against theirs and breathed deeply enough, some of their clean might rub off on me. I just wanted to feel clean. I wanted to smell good. These days I mask my smell with the scent of roses and a Burberry perfume I can’t afford and everyone says I smell good but I don’t fuck white women anymore. ●

In Defense of Self Defense: Why The MacDonalds Workers Who Beat Up The Racist Are Heroes

Published by Media Diversified.

In 2001 I was sent to my first day of secondary school with the instruction that I am clever and beautiful and that if anyone hits me I am to hit them back ten times harder. Survival knowledge. But I still close my eyes during battle scenes. You know. I don’t like violence, I don’t choose it. It makes me feel sick. In fact, I still haven’t watched the video of the MacDonald’s employees beating a man who called them “fucking pakis” while they were at work last Saturday night. I haven’t watched it because I do not want to expose myself to the physical attack, nor have to endure the psychic violence of witnessing racial abuse…again. I haven’t watched it, because I don’t need to see it to know they are heroes.

When I first heard this had happened, streets away from where I had gone to school in Bow, a heavily South Asian part of London, I felt simultaneously exhilarated by the bravery of these men, and guilty for feeling that way. I forced myself to mask my happiness that a racist has had his comeuppance by making excuses for him. He was drunk. Maybe his wife had just left him. Maybe his dog had just died.

I instinctively put myself in the white man’s shoes because that is what people of colour, particularly women, are taught to do. We are taught to make sure the whiteness around us is always comfortable, even when it makes us uncomfortable, even when we are in danger, even when it comes into our place of work, baying for our blood, screeching so loudly our ancestors are woken. I feel guilty for my joy, and then I remember that there is nothing scarier than an angry white man.

It seems that for the most part we can all agree that racism, explicit or not, is “bad” and “sad” and tut, tut, “very unsavory”. However, there is a reluctance in discourse to see it as violence, indeed, a type of violence that wounds and tears and leaves scars buried so deep you cannot see them, so complex that when they do burrow to the surface, no-one has any idea where to fucking start. But it’s OK, because sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me, right?

The reluctance to acknowledge non-physical forms of violence makes sense. To do so would force all of us, who think we are pretty good people because we haven’t punched anyone in a while, to dig a little deeper. To accept all racism as violence would also categorize the actions of the staff in MacDonald’s that night as self defense. But those men are not allowed that dignity.

There is a racialised mental health crisis in the UK, whereby people of colour have acutely increased challenges to their mental health, and less access to support. Yet somehow in “detained populations”, people of colour are massively over-represented, with compulsory admission rates, specifically of Black people, to inpatient psychiatric units, almost three times greater than those of white patients. In other words, we must deal with our pain respectfully, or get locked up.

To me those men are heroes because they didn’t suffer in silence, or “do the right thing”. In every news report I have read, the white man’s violent behaviour has been “alleged”, his ‘racism’ in air quotes. This is part of the centuries-old project of colonial disbelief and denial of race-based oppression that keeps people of colour stifled, doubtful, behaving. Just last week two Muslim women in London had their hijabs pulled off by men in public, with no-one stepping in to help. The men in MacDonald’s are heroes for drawing a line in the sand. They are heroes for providing catharsis for all the black and brown people who can’t fight back. They are heroes because they will suffer for this, and they are heroes because that white man will not try that shit again.

Welcome to the front line of racism in 2016. Talking is really nice, conflict resolution is really cute, but it is not our job, as the receptacles of racist violence, whether physical, verbal or silent, to make the redemption process creative or fun for you. It is the white person’s job to simply not do it in the first place. Until then, people of colour have a right to self-defense in a world where no one else is going to stand up for us.

On Being Mad, Brown & Hairy

Felt very honoured to be asked to write this piece about growing up with body hair for gal-dem's first print edition. May god eternally bless the women who have made this publication possible. They have my heart.

Sometimes I shave my legs and sometimes I don’t; Sometimes I comb my hair and sometimes I won’t; Depend on how the wind blows I might even paint my toes; It really just depends on whatever feels good in my soul (India Arie, Video. 2002)

I was 12 or 13 when I first noticed that I had a moustache, ugly black baby hairs resting on the light brown skin under my nose – what a drag. I bought some hair removal cream and set about resolving the issue. Looking in the mirror I was both amused and horrified by the yellow-white smear across my upper lip, the stench of egg and metal and the tingling. I left it on a little longer than was recommended at the behest of some sort of internal guidance system which already knew that the rules were not written for me. I left it on after the tingle became a sure burn because I knew already that pain was inherent in womanhood. I scrubbed the skin with a towel after I finally washed the cream off, until it was no longer brown, but red, swollen and hairless. I rose the next morning with a purple-brown crust where the fluff used to be, a rainbow-shaped scab that hurt when I moved my face. I remember rationalizing that this was better than having hair there, and crept out of the house to catch the bus to school. Later that day, my form teacher, a slight, dreadlocked white woman for whom I had made a copy of Ms Dynamite’s debut album earlier that week, cornered me in the playground.

“What happened to your lip, Aisha?”

“Nothing.” I was shocked by how tense my small body became, how hard my eyes were. My face was burning, this time with humiliation.

“I could guess?” she offered. That sounded like a fun game.

“Well don’t.” I walked away quickly into a sea of white hijabs and grey polyester trousers.

At my East London girls’ school, populated almost entirely by children of the Bangladeshi diaspora, we were weeding together in near silence, our bodies united by sweat, shame, desire and respectability. This silence would be punctured rarely and magnificently; that PE lesson in 2003 when Halima rolled her tracksuit bottoms to the knee, revealing a single, shining, hairless leg that we all took turns to feel in the queue for the hobby horse. The fateful afternoon when Layla, one of the bullies, locked me in a classroom and said she would only let me out if I told her where I get my eyebrows done. The first time I shaved my torso and brought it to school like show and tell, peeking from underneath my acrylic jumper, a little moon.

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When I was 19 I had my first relationship with a perfectly handsome and squat white man. I would watch him each morning as he woke up, rubbed a hand over his face, and ran to a lecture, feeling, and indeed looking, perfectly acceptable to the world. What freedom was this? It was around then that I really dug into my obsession with body hair (from the scalp line, down), and soon after, its intersection with mental health, queerness and race. I often describe it as an obsession, not to mark it out as a strange kook, a niche subject or an attempt at self-deprecation, but rather because the body hair obsession is a simple fact. We are all obsessed with body hair because we have no other choice. But so often it is not a creative obsession, it is one characterized by control of ourselves and others, psychological and physical elimination, self defense. I don’t care what people do with the hair on their bodies, but it really fucking bothers me that our choices are so limited – that something so personal and abundant is up for grabs. It is not just the hair on our heads the white hand wants to touch, and it is not only the physical touch we must be wary of.

The body hair focus in my work is central to my study of the mental health impacts of micro-aggressions. Body hair, for many of us, is a constant micro-aggression, attacking us from within, no matter how many times we rip it out from the root no matter how much we convince ourselves that it’s really not that deep. It exists as a mental burden, particularly for femmes, transgender and black and brown people because our stakes are always, always higher.

If we know, generally speaking, that western body hair norms and rituals are oppressive, and that the “choice” to rebel against them is stressful, then how is that same stress felt by a black person who is already navigating white supremacy on a daily basis? How is it felt by a brown person who has been taught respectability as a tool of individual and group survival? If hair removal is so deeply associated with being clean, pure, fair and lovely, how does that feel for those of us who live in fear of becoming the “dirty pakis” or “terrorists” or “monkeys” or “scum” that we have heard about? What are we reinforcing every time we shave? What are we saving ourselves from, what are we trying to be, what are we locking in? If body hair is used to police our gender, what does non-binary body hair look like? Where is liberation found in having and removing body hair? When does body hair feel good and how can we teach that to our children?

My art is a holy place of experimentation and imagining. It is fun and cathartic to make, and is a reminder to me and maybe others that body hair is not only a site of sadness, but one of subversion, resilience, challenge, beauty and joy – regardless of what we choose to do with it. I collaborate with and include only black and brown, queer and trans people because I can, and as a means of escape from a life spent explaining and reacting to whiteness. One of the things I love about working with body hair is that to some extent, everyone has got it. Everyone has a relationship to it, everyone has a story, and no matter how dubious or defensive people may be at first, everyone wants to tell it. It is somewhere between these survival stories, these bodies, these histories and these experiments that there is a freer freedom, a choosier choice, a less cluttered headspace, a body that just is. This is where I find my peace for the time being.

Staying Alive Through Brexit: Racism, Mental Health & Emotional Labour

On Brexit, for Black Girl Dangerous.

It’s the night of the EU referendum. I am three thousand, four hundred and fifty-nine miles from London, my home town, and I am scrolling. The UK is sleeping but New York is five hours behind and I am here, trying to pet the dog and have a nice time at a BBQ, while watching the votes get counted. I report the result of each area to my American friends like one of those text message services you didn’t sign up for, and we talk about it even though none of us know what it means. I text my mum to tell her what has happened while she was sleeping and in the morning she replies, “whatever happens, happens” which I momentarily mistake for apathy.

A few days later I am at New York PRIDE’s Dyke March celebration. The music is good, the weather is good, I look good in the photos, my friends are nice and I am the most comfortably gay I have ever been. This should be a good or at least average day but I realize I am uncomfortable. My eyes are darting, focusing on everything and nothing and my chest is getting tighter with every step, until it almost feels solid. I recognize this as the beginning of a panic attack and excuse myself. As I leave, an intuitive friend asks me how I feel about Brexit. On a quiet corner I cry and gasp and try not to piss myself. Brexit. I have never felt so far from Home.

I am still awake at 5am, the tightness in my chest now a watermelon. It is hard to breathe. A dear friend from London has called and I struggle to speak loud enough for her to hear me. I am searching for hope like lost keys, it’s here somewhere, I just had it. She tells me a story to try and cheer me up, a story in which all is not lost and London, in all its super-diverse glory, in all its tolerance, prospers. In this story, my friend witnesses a drunk English man in London tell a group of Eastern European women he does not know that he is so glad they are there. I tell her that is not a happy story.

And the unhappy stories keep coming.

“Haven’t you gone home yet?”

“Paki”

“Would you like a banana with that?”

I think about my mother as a child in 70s Britain, quiet, skinny, hairy, brilliant. The oldest of four, she was tasked with protecting both her immigrant parents and her younger siblings from the constant threat of physical and psychic white violence. I think about my grandmother who kept a bucket of water underneath her letter-box just in case a burning rag or a firework visited in the night. I think about my sister, my cousins, their brown skin, their Muslim names. I try to stop thinking. Eventually I fall asleep with my fists clenched.

The leave voters are not the problem. They are the product of hundreds of years of colonial divide and rule, most recently implemented via a vicious austerity program that has nothing to do with migration, and everything to do with keeping the elite rich. I am most fearful of the white middle class liberals who voted to stay, who think they are Good White People but are actually People With Power Who Never Listen Because They Don’t Have To. These are the people who see themselves as separate from the leave voters and the black and brown people being attacked on the street; distinct, commentators with so much to say. I have spent hours, days and years in conversation with people like this, discussing structural inequality in the UK, isolation, fetishization, why I had to escape—and still they seem to think racism started a week ago.

They are the people who really scare me, because after this recent spike of hate crime normalizes, and we are left with the constant, low-key, micro-aggressive, soul-destroying racism that has always characterized life in the UK for people of colour, they will forget. They will continue to talk over us, to tell us we are “moderate Muslims”, to get paid to write and speak about things they know absolutely nothing about and to doubt us every time we try to talk about racism. To truly consider what life as a black or brown person of colour might feel like takes work – hard work, a rupture in a free existence and then inevitably, culpability. I have yet to meet a white person prepared to do that work, to step into that vulnerability. There are cheese and crackers that need to be eaten after all.

We can talk to the leave voters all we want, and we can blame old people if it makes us feel good, but they are not the people in charge now or in the future. They did not create this and this does not serve them. I am lucky enough to have experienced higher education among the elite, the artistic and political leaders of tomorrow. They are scary. They think their white liberalism is ***Flawless, they pretend to listen but they do not hear a thing, they use our bodies and our stories, they put our faces on their websites and they pretend they can’t see us when we finally collapse, just like their daddies did. They put our heads on sticks and call it multiculturalism.

As the days continue, well-meaning Americans make conversation with me about Brexit. Every time, I feel a wave of sickness, pain in my chest and a scramble of thoughts, flashbacks, half-words, reveries. I hold my stomach and speak through long, measured breaths. Despite moving to New York on a scholarship to study the mental health effects of oppression, I am finding it so, so hard to admit to myself that a news story is making me feel like I’m dying so many times a day. I wish the white people telling me that I need to be gentle, that I should talk to those who are different from me, had any idea what it feels like to be this tired.

We will talk. Right after we have dragged the UK’s legacy of violence from under its ugly, expensive carpet, after we have learned it, taught it, remembered it, accepted it as an explanation for everything we see. We can talk after we have taught our children mental and physical self defense. We can talk after we have spoken to each other, about mental health, survival, and the anti-blackness we perpetuate within our own communities of colour, oppressing black people in a space they should be safe. We have lots to talk about. If only middle class white people would stop talking.

In 1980 my mum, a first generation Pakistani living in North London, won a writing competition aged 16, using the prompt, An Event of Importance to my Community. In it she writes:

Today it is unsafe for any Asian person to walk down the street without his colour, speech, or dress being made fun of. You, the readers, may think that I am exaggerating, but the truth of the matter is, that no-one has yet realized the seriousness of racial prejudice… I fear that by the time we grow up, we will be too full of bitterness simply to sit down and talk things over. If anything isn’t done, we are going to explode and you will explode with us.

We explode every day and we piece ourselves together again. We explode for our ancestors, when we don’t expect it, and then again when we remember. We explode every time our trust is abused, every time it becomes obvious no-one heard us, every time we have to retreat, thicken our walls that keep us locked in, angry, safe. We explode.

WHITE PPL. IF YOU WANT TO LEAVE LONDON, JUST GO

I wrote this article for The Guardian in response to all of the annoying articles about people leaving London and New York for a better life because they can. They changed the headline to something that doesn't make sense because they got complaints about the original one from a whole lot of racists.

My friend Rick takes nice photos of England

London and I are doing fine, thanks for asking. North-east London, where I was born, is pretty much the love of my life – surprising and constant, quiet and loud, dirty and home. I understand why people want to leave London because I have eyes and ears and I read the news sometimes. I have survived an attempted mugging here and I have been unemployed for way too long here. I have had panic attacks on the tube and I have watched the glass houses sprout from my childhood playgrounds in Hackney and Tower Hamlets, up towards the sky, towards nothingness. I, too, have felt the loss of this city. I have tasted the bitterness of realising who will be untouched by these changes and who will suffer, who will have houses bought for them, and who will never have houses.

I understand there is a psychic toll of living in a place where you have to fight, for space, time, money. But what these Why I am Leaving London articles are missing is that, while the psychic burden of living in the city with the highest living costs in the developed world is very real for a brown person, in my experience the cost of living surrounded only by white people is worse.

London is super-diverse. Steven Vertovec coined that term in 2005 to describe a kind of rare and messy diversity that I have never seen anywhere else – a space where so many different cultures and so many different experiences of those cultures exist in such close proximity. I like the idea of super-diversity, but it is still only another term made up by a white man to describe brown people in London. For me, London is the smell of Pakistani cooking through the window of a Haringey council house, it’s the reggae coming from my neighbour’s garden and it’s a primary school newsletter translated into 11 languages. By 15, I could cornrow hair, paint henna on hands, play most Red Hot Chili Peppers riffs on electric guitar, and had embarked on a lifelong love affair with dancehall music. You can call that diversity, or even super-diversity, or just life. So many of my cultural and personal reference points were brown people, and I absorbed the knowledge that, while we may not run the world and while the girls on TV do not look like us, we exist, and we are rich in our own way. This is a great gift.

I definitely do not wish to push the idea that London is some sort of racial safe haven. We have got so, so far to go, and so much racism and abuse to drag from underneath the carpet, and that is why I need to be here. The smells and the songs are familiar here, and I am in close contact with people who look a little bit like me and are angry about the same things. I can exist, for the vast majority of the time, without being looked at and without reacting to that look, without questioning myself, and without being the only brown person in the room.

I feel the comfort of London peel away whenever my train pulls out of King’s Cross and the threat of overt racism is increased. A few years ago, I walked into a pub in Cornwall with my then boyfriend, who was white. A man at the bar asked him “What’dya bring that in here for?” referring to me (and before you go into overdrive searching for an alternative meaning to his statement, let me save you time: it’s because of the colour of my skin). Outside London, I am put immediately into a position of defence. This is something my white counterpart will never understand. That is why when I read the headline: Live in London? No thanks, I’m happier in Bath, I couldn’t help but laugh. Good luck to you, and the majority white population that will greet you there.

If you want to leave London, or you feel you have to, then go my sweet friend. But please, not another smug, reductive article about fleeing this capitalistic nightmare for somewhere you can work three days a week and grow your own vegetables. Not another article that ignores so much about what a place like London, a place where black and brown people live and have claimed spaces, brings to some of us and that is not attainable elsewhere.

Go back to the home counties. Go, and here’s what will happen. A few months into your new life you will realise that you haven’t seen a black person in a while, but you will still describe your new city or village as diverse to anyone you speak to because there is a Chinese restaurant and a cluster of guest workers. Sometimes you and your friends will discuss diversity while you’re drinking wine together in the garden but most of the time you will forget about it. Your beautiful white children will go to schools full of beautiful white children and the rest of the world will validate you and them forever. That is not the way I experience the world and it is not the way I want to. That is not the way my body moves through it.

I’m staying behind with the women who are fighting this government for accessible social housing in the places they grew up and know the taste of. We need to fight for better realities in London. Fleeing the only place we can call home is not the answer.

“i’m a hairy black bitch. i’m a hairy, beautiful queen. and I love it.”

This is an early version of my thesis on body hair, race, queerness and mental health. It was also published by a ny collective called YOUNG, COLORED & ANGRY that only features the work of black & brown people.

“Untitled” (Facial Hair Transplant, Moustache) 1972 - Ana Mendieta

Body hair is everywhere and nowhere. In the Western World, it is a weed that is pulled from women’s bodies systematically and without question, rigorously policed by a chokehold of patriarchy, capitalism, racism: shame.

In my examination of mental health, art and activism, body hair is often characterized as an abnormality or aberration, for example as the medical condition ‘hirsutism’, as a pornographic fetish, as something threatening or something trivial, and always something to be removed, something to be removed, something to be removed in every sense of the word.

In my first relationship and close contact with a man, I would watch, as he would routinely wake up, rub his hand over his face, and leave the house to begin his day. I have always worn very little make-up myself, and tend to let the hair on my head do whatever it decides to that day, but still, the disparity between us in freedom of movement and freedom of mind was clear – and I began to see this disparity everywhere I looked, in advertising, in the lives of my friends, in the university sanctioned reading lists that were considered exempt from criticism.

It was around then that I stepped into the shower to perform my regular shaving ritual, and a small thought pushed its way to the front of mind: that this act is absurd, and that the double standard that it is couched within is even more absurd.

It wasn’t until two years later, when I left university and moved into a large shared house in London, that I was able to transition from someone who “experimented” with body hair (which often meant wearing cardigans in the sunshine) to someone who could begin to accept her body, find it beautiful even, and begin to make choices about it that felt like they were hers.

Danni Paffard was the enabler of this transition, and my experience watching her is the basis of much of my strength of feeling around the importance of the image. Danni lived in the room above me and was always running. She would run up and down all the stairs of the four-floor shop-turned-house and would leave the house at 6am every day without fail to run the streets of London. She’s an environmental campaigner and is known among friends for being hilarious, and having a piercing laugh that can work as a routing device at music festivals when everyone’s phones have died. Danni is loved by men. She wears lots of mascara and has an asymmetrical fringe. She doesn’t remove any of the hair on her body and makes no attempt to hide this fact regardless of where she is. Danni Paffard blew my mind. I remember sitting opposite her for the first time, watching her tie her hair up with both hands, desperately trying, like a child, to catch a glimpse of her armpits.

Danni & friends

It wasn’t just seeing the hair so brazenly displayed that began rewiring my brain, it was the context, the fact it was so clearly situated among other stylistic choices: the make-up, the clothes, the fact that she laughed so often, danced so hard, felt desire and was desired, and yes, the fact that she was able to muster an unapologeticness which I felt could shatter the world.

I believe that much of her ability to live like this comes from an inherent confidence which is undoubtedly tied to social factors. That she is a white, middle class, able- bodied, heterosexual female cannot be overlooked, but neither can it discredit her role in my personal awakening. Besides, there are many, many women who share all her identity markers, and who do not challenge beauty norms in this way.

It was the fusion Danni Paffard represented (hairy social deviant meets outgoing stylish babe) that created a new level of understanding within me, and perhaps her being white and fulfilling so many other traditional beauty norms was part of that.

In a psychological review of work that has been done on ‘hirsuteness’ (“an excess of body hair in the male distribution” (Conn & Jacobs, 1997)), Keegan (2003), states:

A display of facial or body hair is only acceptable in women who in some way represent the ‘other’.

Two such categories of ‘other’ emerge: older women (i.e. past the need to be sexually attractive) and ‘foreigners’. To be happy about the presence of ‘superfluous’ hair is also the prerogative of women regarded socially as deviant, e.g. lesbians. One implication of this, which is not directly spoken, is that sexually attractive heterosexual women cannot display facial and body hair.
— Keegan, 2003:14

That body hair is palatable in situations where the women involved already lack value in society or have in some way ‘let themselves go’ speaks again to the importance of The Image, and particularly images which challenge those ideas by fusing unexpected images, for example, a woman’s hairy stomach with her manicured nails. These fusions are so powerful because they present the hair as an active choice rather than an involuntary byproduct of old age or illness or lesbianism. In short, images can remind women they have a choice, and what is feminism, if not the pursuit of the right to make empowered, agentic choices? As Lesnik- Oberstein writes:

Attendant on this issue is a challenge too to some (mostly popular) feminism to consider more carefully its formulations around ‘fun’ feminism and ‘victim’ feminism. The whole idea of make-up and clothing, or other ritual decorative practices, as constituting in any simple way ‘celebrations’ of ‘femininity’, serves to close down important questions around the coercive practices of social ridicule and social exclusion for those not willing or able to participate in this ‘celebration’, never mind the more general question of how women (or anyone) come to believe that they have freely ‘chosen’ to engage in certain practices.
— Lesnik-Oberstein, 2006:6

As I have grown in confidence and challenge myself to experiment with my body further, it has become a billboard; at clubs, on the subway, in classrooms, and I have come to think of it as an act of direct action, as well as one of deep self love. My body provokes many conversations with women, usually after a few drinks, and these have become the conversations I enjoy the most, as there is a real feeling that a psychological burden is being unloaded between the women participating, as personal stories that have often never been told before are being vocalized. These conversations are not always easy, however. Sometimes women feel judged or chastised by the sight of my body and the jarring reminder that there is another relationship we can have with our hair. I am met with a great deal of defensiveness that I try to dismantle, often by telling a few stories of my own, about my moustache and the other parts of my body where hair growth still disgusts me. Still, these conversations, by and large, become about choice, and by making something which is barely allowed to be seen so strikingly visible, that conversation has been achieved.

As I welcomed increasing discourse and activism around body hair, I couldn’t help but feel that something still wasn’t right. I began to realize that the experience is different for Women of Colour in a way I did not have the language to express, or was frightened to. But as feminism became more of a diverse space, and crucially, via social media, one that was easily accessible by diverse women, this very dilemma began to be played out.

‘Misogynoir,’ coined by activist Moya Bailey in 2013, became a go-to term on the blogosphere to describe the double bind felt by Women of Colour by virtue of our gender and race. And as I read more, it transformed my understanding of my instincts. It helped me realize why I felt uneasy as my white, middle-class feminist friends gleefully lambasted Beyoncé for the way she moves and for her contradictions, and why I felt uneasy about a feminist body positivity movement that did not seem to account for the unique experiences of black women.

Then in August of last year, writer Mikki Kendall called time on these double standards when she started the hashtag, #solidarityisforwhitewomen. It exploded, inviting Women of Colour globally a chance to grab the microphone. Using social media as a tool for unity, change and liberation, women tweeted vignettes of what it means to be a non-white woman and a feminist, and why that’s an important distinction to make.

My unease also came from the look in my mother’s eyes every time she saw my body hair. The look has been persistent over the years and communicates so much more than a feeling of disgust or judgment that I have come to expect. I could not help but feel that as a Pakistani woman who grew up in a racist 1970s Britain under constant threat of attack, there was a deeply racial and particularly social element to her discomfort with my choice, though that was never said.

This line of thought was reawakened while studying under photographer Deborah Willis. Around the same time I heard about gender professor Breanne Fahs’ course at Arizona State University entitled Race, Class, and Gender in Women’s Body Hair Narratives. As part of this course she offered an extra credit for female students willing to grow their body hair and male students willing to remove it and document their experiences. This was widely discussed on social media and Dr Fahs analysed her students responses wherein she found body hair removal “an example of how women have internalized patriarchal ideals of femininity.” The interesting bit of this however, was that while the majority of her female students found the challenge “difficult” and “disgusting”, there were marked differences between the experiences of the female students of Colour, and the others. As she reports:

Reactions to body hair carried raced and classed elements, as women of color and/ or working-class women reported more familial regulation about body hair and far more social penalties for growing out their hair than did white or middle/upper class women. Women of color often expressed that body hair exacerbated their ‘differentness’ from white or middle/upper-class women in the course. For example, Ana compared the quality of her body hair with her white classmates:

When I compared my hair to the hair of the other girls in class, there was an obvious difference. My hair grew in thick and coarse. The other Latina women in the class understand that the white girls had it easier because their hair was thinner. I felt like people would think I was a ‘dirty Mexican’ because of the hair, that I was doing something nasty, and people would connect my body hair to my being lesbian or Mexican.

Body hair for some women of color became a marker of racial status, which made it harder to assimilate into white middle-class educational settings.
— Fahs, 2013:494

Isn’t it amazingly fucked up that a body that is maintained in line with society’s narrow code of acceptability (a white code) is one that has “looked after itself”, that has not “let itself go”? This is discussed by Foucault (1986) who describes it as a process by which regulation of the body comes to be seen by us as self-care, rather than as a process which may reflect gender or economic power relations – or racial ones.

With regard to respectability and body hair, the most striking testimony can be found in Breanne Fahs’ classroom study:

I come from a family that didn’t have much money, and to let yourself go is going against everything I have been taught. I’m always careful about coming across as respectable and clean, just so I don’t confirm all of those stereotypes people have of me as dirty and low class.

These comments reflect the association of body hair with both a lack of femininity and a lack of respectability, as women of color implicitly faced judgements about how their bodies circulated in public spaces as indicators of their racial or class statuses. Women of color constructed their bodies as having more at stake in this supposed loss of respectability.
— Fahs, 2013:494

No-one, as far as I can see, has tried to measure the psychological impact of body hair practices for Women of Colour, but it has been attempted for white middle class women (surprise!) with a very direct correlation proved across the ages between ‘hirsuteness’ and ‘psychological morbidity’. In a 1938 study by Rabinowitz et al on hirsutism and anxiety, women with hirsutism had significantly higher levels of anxiety than the control group. In 1992, Barth et al measured psychological morbidity in pre-menopausal women with hirsutism. The results found that there was a measurable correlation between hirsutism and social dysfunction in women, which in turn led to overall psychological morbidity in hirsute women.

More recently, Lipton et al, in their 2006, ‘Women living with facial hair: the psychological and behavioral burden’ found results that support many of the earlier studies carried out; namely that 1. Women with unwanted facial hair experience high levels of distress and that hair removal constituted an immense time and emotional burden for these women. In addition to the time burden, it appeared that many women had concerns about their appearance, felt ashamed, and lacked self- confidence. Thoughts about unwanted hair were constantly in the minds of most women, demonstrated by their frequent checking for hair, and 2. Although a large number of women perceived their facial hair to be severe, a finding more pronounced in mixed race and Asian women than white women, this perception was found to have little bearing on their psychological health.

It’s getting there but the research is lacking, or perhaps useless. What about women who are not considered medically ‘hirsute’? What about women who do not display signs of mental distress? What about black women? This is not a medical phenomenon, it is a social one.

There is clearly a mental onus around body hair rituals that exist outside of the realm of having a full blown mental breakdown which can be measured on some sort of psychological scale (though that obviously counts too). I can’t help but feel that for many women, particularly Women of Colour, the mental health effects are much more insidious, hidden among other pressures and concerns, hidden from ourselves,  couched confusingly within a culture where these practices are considered ‘self-care’ and the experience of participating in them, indeed a therapeutic one.

I am interested in the small stuff. When there is open critique of beauty rituals, this often revolves around the cost of them, the time they take and the pain that must often be endured. This is a neat retelling of the experience. A few studies I have read indicate that body hair is something that is “always on their mind”. This quote, found in one study on psychology and hirsutism is particularly harrowing:

Behavioural measures to conceal hair in this sample included covering the lower part of the face with the hands, staying in shade, maintaining physical distance from others, moving quickly to avoid close observation, wearing concealing clothes and an avoidance of physical contact.
— Zerssen et al, 1960

The mental burden of hair removal does not stop when the hair is removed. It has to be planned and timed around social events, wage delivery and potential sexual encounters. For example, if Layla has a work event on Thursday and a date on Saturday and wants to wax her moustache for the work event, she may encounter a problem as the hair will not grow back fully before her date on Saturday so she may not be able to remove it again before then, but the stubble will be showing, which is unacceptable for a date. Headspace.

Researching the psychology of body hair, I have found a repeated testimony of women describing hair as “dirt”, themselves as “dirty” and the process of hair removal as one intricately tied to the idea of cleanliness. Douglas (1970) suggests that a contravention of order by any object which is “likely to confuse or contradict cherished classifications” becomes, “dirt”. This is striking and makes me think immediately of sexual assult survivors self-reporting as feeling “dirty” (Coy, 2009). So let’s think about race. Worldwide, darker skin is considered undesirable and dirty, with many practices employed by women such as scrubbing and bleaching, in efforts to lighten the skin (Craig, 2002). Many racial slurs imply dirtiness. So what is actually going on when women of colour take their hair off? What does it feel like to live with a daily triple burden of brown skin, body hair and a history of sexual abuse, as so many many women do? This framing around the concept of dirt helps to understand why so many women may become so observant of hair removal practices, which are closely related to ideas of cleanliness and purity. This shit goes deep. These ideas were also found in the testimonies gathered by Fahs:

Ruby confronted her own sexism and racism about body hair: ‘I also thought, like most people, that women who did not keep up on their appearance through body hair removal were lazy, dirty, and kind of crazy. . . I never thought that it could be a choice.’ Sharon, who could not finish the assignment because she found it intolerable, described her fear of dirtiness as a raced dimension: ‘As a black woman, I know what it’s like to be looked down upon by white people. I don’t need to be made aware of that any more than I already am.’ Ana similarly commented on her body hair by noting its raced and classed dimensions:

I found myself wearing makeup more often, at first unconsciously. Before I’d stopped shaving, I hardly ever wore makeup. I started because I didn’t want anyone to think that I didn’t ‘take care of myself’ and I’m always aware of the fact that, as a Mexican, I have to go that extra mile. I’m not a college professor and I don’t live and work with other feminists like some of my girlfriends do. I’m a waitress, and my coworkers would think I was a freak.
— Fahs, 2013:495

———

Last year, Chinese women made headlines for “bombarding” Weibo, a social media site with images of body hair growth. Although framed as a competition, this was a highly politicized online campaign, including the statement:

Many people consider it personal hygiene or etiquette for girls to shave their body hair, be it leg hair or underarm hair. Guys, on the other hand, get away with sporting bushy armpits and a forest of hair on their legs, arms and even chests “because it’ s manly”.

In the UK, 23 year old Harnaam Kaur has made big headlines this year due to her decision to keep her facial hair and speak very publically about it. She has polycystic ovary syndrome and began growing hair on her face aged 16. After years of intense bullying, shaving, waxing, bleaching and a few suicide attempts, she decided, supported by her brother and close friends, to grow her beard out fully. For her there was a religious element too, that appears to give her strength in her decision. She began growing her beard shortly after being baptized as a Sikh and therefore not cutting the hair on her head anymore. In one interview she said, “It’s the way that God made me, and I’m happy with it.” She has since gone on to write articles, give many television interviews, and was the only woman included in a London exhibition by photographer Brock Elbank, that was in celebration of the beard. She also has her own YouTube channel on which she talks, directly to her audience, about her experiences. She has said:

I can laugh about it now but back then it affected me so badly that I began to self harm because it felt better than all the abuse I was getting. I’d talk to people with a hand over my face and I wore baggy, tomboy clothes to cover up the hair on my chest and arms… But I wanted to make my own decisions and live for myself – not anyone else… I’d had enough of hiding. I’d had enough of the bullying and the self-harming and the suicidal thoughts… I’m able to go out and shop in the women’s section without feeling I shouldn’t be there. I wear skirts, dresses and jewellery and I like to get my nails done like every other girl… If I had any message it would be to live the way you want – it’ s your journey and it’ s your life.
— Harnaam Kaur

Harnaam Kaur - Brock Elbank, 2015

A further black women and body hair related search on YouTube returns a video posted by Brittany Virginia Green, a young, American Black woman, called, “Why I DON’T Remove My Armpit Hair (OR ANY OTHER HAIR ;)”. It has had nearly 5000 views and has a constantly renewing flurry of mostly positive comments underneath. The video is powerful, funny and very thought-provoking. She says:

No. I’m not doing it anymore. And I feel like there’s a different type of sexiness to it. Like, a natural, womanly, womanly, sexual, sensual, aura to it. I don’t know how to explain it, I just feel like this is me in the raw. I’m a woman. I’m not nine. I have hair on my vagina. Get over it. Also… hair is psychic, it’s a part of our nervous system. It’s psychic to be sensitive, to know what we want, to be aware, to be self-aware, to be able to pick up on unsaid ques… hair assists with that. When we cut it off, we’re cutting that off… So, with all that said, I’m keeping all my hair, boo. Every last bit of it. Coz ain’t nobody got time to be sitting in the bathroom… doing all these things. I’m keeping it. I love it. I’m a hairy bitch. I’m a hairy, beautiful queen. And I love it.
— Brittany Virginia Green

She also speaks to her black identity and its relevance in conversation about body hair:

Let me tell you this. I’m a black woman. My hairs are coarse, curly, and thick. I know a lot of Black women or mixed women or Latina women or Irish women, or Italian women can relate. We deal with razor bumps, dark marks, just all the complications that come with shaving your armpits, or waxing your bikini line, or doing all this stupid shit that we really don’t wanna do, but we do because it’s etiquette, it’ s an anomaly to see it on the street, or because our guys expect us to do it.
— Brittany Virginia Green

 

These intersections of race and body hair politics are empowering and promising and brilliant, bright and visual, but they are not common enough. I am collecting testimonies, using a call-out for self-identified Women of Colour to tell me “how your racial identity has influenced your relationship with your body hair, if at all”. Below are some responses I have received so far:

Jenny: Becoming-aware of body hair was definitely concomitant with becoming-aware of not being white (I remember one of my best friends referring to me affectionately as a ‘half-caste’!). The first time the two came together in my head was when a half-Polish girl in a group of other friends (and certainly an ‘other’ in the school due to her name, too) talked to me about getting rid of our moustaches, which I was very embarrassed about discussing. (She used bleaching cream; I tried, but it had the horrific consequence of bleaching my upper lip skin as well, which didn’t show on her). She said we both had dark hair because of our ‘heritage’; and afterwards I remember becoming-aware of the idea that Asian women have more body hair (which I just fact-checked and apparently ISN’T TRUE). The idea that I have more body hair, especially facial hair (that I need to get rid of, but that’ s another story) is in my mind linked to me being half-Indian/Pakistani. I had totally internalised this idea until you asked about it.

Nadia: I found that growing up asian girls were taught that straight hair is desirable. Even now hardly any asian girls and even black girls embrace their natural hair (luckily there are some websites like naturallycurly.com). Also having dark body hair was a problem with asian girls at school, they would get their eyebrows and moustaches threaded/waxed off well as the white girls got away with less waxing as they tended to have blonde body hair.

Shauntell: well for me personally, i didn’t start becoming more free and comfortable with my body hair until i got in the #naturalhairmovement, which basically is a movement for black women that decide to go to our natural roots, fros, frizz, kinks and all and learning to love ourselves, and educating on ourselves about our history more. it’s a lot deeper than hair, i can tell you that lol and throwing out relaxers etc. i had done the big chop and have been natural for 2 going on 3 years now. doing just that alone was big defining moment for me and was really deep for me. around the same time i did that, i also started questioning other beauty standards i had once subscribed to and wanted to go against tho’s as well. so i simply stopped shaving. at first i was really uncomfortable and even disgusted with the sight of it, much like the hair atop my head, because i wasnt used to seeing it. but i realized that was a conditioned response. i started talking to a guy friend of mine and he really made me feel better about myself. i honestly have never felt sexier than i do currently, body hair untouched etc. i feel more like a woman that’s in control of my own life and body and it’s extremely liberating.

Shauntell

— — —

In conversations I have had about body hair I have been told I am a killjoy, that I should just be grateful I still have my clitoris, that I should shut up. In conversations I have had about race, I have been told that I have never experienced racism, that it is all in the past, that I am making people uncomfortable, that I should shut up.

It is in the past, and that’s why it exists in every cell inside my body and every hair outside of it. My hair gives me voice that is louder than the haters, it is a radical re-scripting and a crucial daily reminder to me and the people around me, that the choices offered to us are not the only choices available. Before we can make a true choice, we have to remember we have one.

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The Tools To Resuce Myself (aboatwithnoengine)

This was written for a series on The Politics of Mental Health being run by the brilliant Transformation section of Open Democracy.

My hair is falling out. Of course, the rogue hair on my chest is still there. Of course it is. But the hair on my head is falling out.

I find myself busy considering the potential impact of the hair loss on my identity. This is a sign that I am ok. I feel like I have an identity. The hair loss feels viscerally bad on many levels: the physical sensation of it dislodging from my scalp with such ease, with no fight, the political assault on my body as my form is altered in a way that is out of my control, because of pills prescribed to me when I was barely conscious. – Maybe it’s ironic, considering my passionate belief that women should be allowed to choose what they do with the hair on their bodies, my belief in its significance.

These are the thoughts that travel through my mind and out of my follicles.

It’s a sign that I am ok because a few months ago, when I wasn’t ok, I was trapped inside the badness of this feeling. There was no space for social analysis, or any sort of healthy interaction with the world. I would just sit, tugging my hair out of my head repeatedly, waiting for it to stop coming out, or I would fantasize compulsively about shaving it off and starting again. I would make up stories about all the bad things I had done to deserve this punishment.

I had lost my sense of self, the peace that comes with knowing who you are. I relied on external cues from friends, lovers, and doctors to navigate the world and I became them. I became my feelings, my moods. I became pleasure and pain. I lost all touch with my agency, even if from the outside it looked like I was doing whatever I wanted. I believed my thoughts were facts.

People became a stand-in for my core. Their love sustained me and I engulfed them. It’s hard to come to terms with even now, but what was happening to me was too big for us to handle or survive, let alone fix. I needed people who didn’t love me too, and the systems they have built.

With regard to hair loss, I was unable to step back and come to terms with it as a side effect of medication that may or may not have helped me to survive falling into a catatonic depression 16 months earlier, after which – following a series of manic and psychotic episodes – I was diagnosed with what they call bipolar disorder. It just hurt, like everything else.

It has taken a long time to relearn how to deal with emotions, to interact, to empathise, to reason, to consolidate the shit show inside my head with the jungle outside of it. The process is not over. I feel how I imagine it would feel to come out of a coma, or how Bradley Cooper with the long hair felt when he took that pill in Limitless: clumsy, overwhelmed, full of promise.

That has been one of the most frustrating things about recovering from a period of insanity. The punishing slowness of it. At one point showering was all I could hope for in a day. Indeed it was a triumph. I crawled to the bathroom once. (I have a degree you know).

But somehow, it was the speed itself that played a big part in the recovery. Eventually I realised that I couldn’t move faster than I was ready to. When I accepted that, it was actually almost relieving. I moved onto a shower, a meal, a walk – on a good day, maybe a session of texting and one Guardian article!

It took me a long time to accept the slowness because I was not used to moving at a pace dictated to me. I had to realise that I was dictating the pace.

Once I was able to listen to my body, it was incredibly comforting because its rhythm belonged to me, it was coming from within me, separate from the desperate push and pull of the rest of my life. The slowness wasn’t something to fight against, it was the fight.

There is no doubt that it was society that saved my life when it felt as though there was nothing inside me, when I was hollow, when my perception of reality was undoubtedly warped. Well, more warped than the average anyway, A mix of medication, mindfulness, therapy, technology and unconditional love got me to this point. But it was this feeling, this slow, steady pulse, from the inside out, that signalled the move from survival to recovery.

I say “recovery” as if I’ve “recovered”. As if I’m certain my bathroom-crawling days are over. But I don’t know that recovery is quite the right word. It’s too neat for something so very messy. What I mean by “recovery” is really the process that began when I stopped waiting to recover. When I realised it’s possible to transform trauma, rather than waiting for it to leave.

Waiting for an imagined future is no more healthy than mourning an imagined past. I had to work in the present, from the inside out. I had to stop the cycle of frantically grabbing for branches that couldn’t support my weight, feeling the assault every time one snapped, feeling the pain of that encounter reverberate through me, shattering my core even more; becoming that pain. I learned to sit still and listen.

That’s not as zen as it sounds, by the way. The process isn’t zen and neither is the desired outcome. When you sit still, everything that’s been troubling you is still there. Pain starts peeking from behind the curtains, an anger problem or two stuffed in the bedside table. But the fact you’ve turned around to face it means you’ve already won.

Just like today, when I got frustrated while I was writing this article, and threw my notebook across the room and cried. That was me winning. I promise. How awesome, to be crying for a normal reason, like stress and frustration. How great to know exactly what the problem is, and live it fully but not in fear that it will take over.

I find it hard to use the language of ‘transformation’ to describe the way I am learning to live with depression, anxiety, mania, psychosis… or the way I am learning not to have to live with them. My moment of transformation was when realised I was me all along. Does that make sense?

There have been a lot of ‘realisations’ in this article. Almost all of them can be traced back to the whispered words of someone who loves me, or a conversation I’ve had in a white-walled NHS building.

Humans cause the biggest transformations within each other, and within society. My recovery has been built, block-by-block, upon the support of people who love me, sometimes at the expense of their own health.

It was a person who held my hand in A&E as my life fell apart. It was a person who woke me up, made me packed lunches and escorted me to work, who gave me mouth to mouth until they couldn’t breathe anymore. It is a person who has given birth to me so many times.

Their role in my transformation is still too big for me to comprehend.

There is a unique sort of hope in the kindness of a stranger. Somehow, despite my catatonic state, despite barely recognising the people I loved, I remember feeling that a society with a system that cares the way the NHS does, is somewhere I could learn to live. That’s not to say my experience with the NHS was plain sailing. Most of the time it felt like we were on a ship in a raging storm, pulling ropes and seeing what would happen, sliding across the deck on our arses. But there was a ship, and there was a crew, and we were trying.

In moments where I felt I couldn’t live in a world as utterly fucked up as ours is, it was the humanity that I found in the kindness of strangers that was able to penetrate that fog that everybody else had become a part of, and keep that glimmer of self-awareness alive, that slowly became my identity again.

Suddenly my previous activism against this Government’s brutal agenda of cuts to services like the ones that delivered these strangers to me made even more sense. Since December 2012, when I was diagnosed in hospital, to now, the NHS has been a constant and unconditional support and somewhere between the system, the strangers and the loves of my life, I started ticking again. And this time I have the tools to rescue myself. I hope I’m a stranger to someone someday.

Madonna Has Armpits

A few words on Madonna’s armpits for The Independent.

So, Madonna has armpits. She also has products to sell. Let’s just get this out of the way. Even if that armpit picture was timed to coincide with the release of her new advert, even if that was the case – that is besides the point. The point is, why is it, that still, in 2014, despite woman’s hour and twitter and feminist pop songs, a woman with body hair will get so much attention? Whether that attention comes in the form of a snigger on the street or dickheads like me writing articles about it. Why does it remain one of the unshakable truths of the universe, that if a woman makes the choice not to shave what her mama gave her, the human race, capable of designing video games, and building really tall buildings, and writing love letters, start hyperventilating and cursing and spitting at the sight of any hair below the eyebrows of a woman. What the hell is wrong with people?

The answer to that question dear friends is ‘the patriarchy’. I’ll give you the short version because it’s a really nice day and I’m getting bored of explaining that it is a very basic and very important human right that women be allowed to choose what they do with their bodies, with their minds, and yes, with their pubis. And no, women do not have a choice. If being jeered, humiliated and exposed, if being told you’re ugly over and over again, is the consequence of being hairy, that does not make a woman’s decision to remove it a choice, it makes it a necessity.  If it was a choice, Madonna having a hairy armpit or two would not be news, in the same way that if we lived any sort of half way decent existence, people not wearing make up would not be news. As my friend Ellie put it: “There are quite a lot of people who don’t wear make up. Mostly they’re called men.”

So why then, if women’s big bare faces and furry pits are so totally natural, if they are something that shouldn’t need to be celebrated or shamed but should be allowed to just exist the way that, you know, men’s do. Why did I drop my egg mayonnaise down my dress this morning from sheer excitement when I saw the picture? Because whether I like it or not, it is a brave thing to do. Women’s bodies gross everybody out so much that even for one of the world’s most powerful women, it is a brave thing to do. For some of the fierce feminist warriors that I know, leaving the house without make up on would be a brave thing to do. I believe there is no woman living in the Western world and soon, universe, for whom it is not a brave thing to do. Shall we all just take a quick moment to meditate on that?

I don’t care if Madonna is attention seeking, not least because that’s her job. I don’t even care if she glued it on, what Madonna did is an act of resistance. Now, I know we’re all waiting for Russell Brand to say something funny so we can share the video and call it a revolution, but fuck waiting. This is the revolution. Every time a girl is allowed to make real choices, rather than do what she has to, to survive, that is a revolution. Madonna’s armpit is the revolution. My armpit is the revolution. Beyoncé bringing feminism to millions of young people who otherwise might not have known about it is a revolution. Beyoncé in general is a revolution. Jennifer Lopez making valiant feminist statements to horrific music is a revolution. Men wearing make-up and singing La Isla Bonita on the harp is a revolution.

Madonna has a long history of subverting gender norms, and as she disclosed in this interview, a long history of hairy armpits. She said:

Drinking beer and smoking weed in the parking lot of my high school was not my idea of being rebellious, because that’s what everybody did. And I never wanted to do what everybody did. I thought it was cooler to not shave my legs or under my arms. I mean, why did God give us hair there anyways? Why didn’t guys have to shave there? Why was it accepted in Europe but not in America? No one could answer my questions in a satisfactory manner, so I pushed the envelope even further… But it was hard and it was lonely, and I had to dare myself every day to keep going… And I wondered if it was all worth it, but then I would pull myself together and look at a postcard of Frida Kahlo taped to my wall, and the sight of her mustache consoled me.

The issue of body hair is consistently dismissed as something feminists should be over. It will never be over because that girl that Madonna describes will always exist. That girl who wants to be allowed to be herself. I bet that picture is going up on some bedroom walls tonight.