Tag Archives: New York

The Complexities of Shame

28 Apr

I learned something about myself this week: I am ashamed of my body. Now this isn’t a fishing expedition. This isn’t to get people to come out of the woodwork with all kinds of positive reinforcements. That isn’t what this is about. And, honestly, it has nothing to do with how I look in a lot of ways. It is, I think, largely about the fact that in my never-ending intellectual quest to understand my role in this world as a female, I have neglected to take care of myself…or, I guess more specifically, to engage in self-care…by which I mean to place importance on my own sense of empowerment, my own autonomy over my sexuality, and, perhaps most importantly, my own definition of it. Let me explain.

Earlier this week I was at a store buying a bra. As you ladies know, buying a bra is no easy task  – especially when it involves procuring support for a pair of boobs that have not been sized in years in advance of wearing a backless dress. Wearing a bra in the right size for you is a life-changer. Believe me. I feel like a brand new woman today. That’s not the point. So there I was at this fancy lingerie store with my good friend. I have never been to a fancy lingerie store as the main event; I’ve always been the sidekick. I have never thought that fancy lingerie was really “my thing,” whatever that means. We were in the changing room and the lovely woman who was helping me kept bringing me in all these different bras to try on. I kept putting on bra after bra and while my friend kept looking and telling me how good this one looked, or how pretty that one was, or how sexy I looked I just stood there, staring, feeling like I was wearing a costume. I felt like a little kid dressing up in her mom’s high heels and lipstick, prancing around the house like an absolute diva. (I never actually did this but I feel like it’s a thing that happens?) I just kept standing, staring at myself in these beautiful things, understanding that if I saw someone else in them I would think how incredibly beautiful and sexy she looked. How in control of her sexuality. But when I looked at myself I just felt…silly. I felt like I was trying to be someone who I am not. It was like, if there was a touch of cleavage showing then I had undone all the hard work I had put in over the years. All the effort of getting people to see me as a human and not a sex object. But part of being human, I think, is sometimes feeling sexy. And understanding that it doesn’t always have a negative connotation.

So obviously I got to thinking about it.

And thinking.

And thinking.

And it dawned on me. All of the years of the wrong people calling me sexy for all the wrong reasons, in all the wrong places, with all the wrong intentions had eroded my ability to understand that being sexy can, in theory, be empowering. I see that other women can do it, and I don’t look at them and think that somehow they are doing something wrong, that they are abandoning the cause, or whatever. I just don’t get how they do it. But this isn’t about women at large. This is about me. This is about me and the ways that I have internalized all the years of being a woman, or, I suppose more accurately, all of the years I’ve spent feeling like a sex object. And this is not to say that I feel like that all the time. That is by no means the case. A lot of times I just feel like a person. But often, not always but often, when my being female is made apparent to me, it is made apparent in a disempowering and hyper-sexualized manner. To the point that sometimes I just want to throw down everything I have, grab a bullhorn, and scream, for everyone to hear,


I would love it if my experience, and I can only speak for myself although I imagine there are plenty of other women out there who feel similarly if not the same way, was less like this. I wish I could brush off some of the bullshit and find my sexuality empowering. But I think the thing is that my sexuality has for so long been used as a weapon against me, been used as a way to make me feel small and less whole, that I don’t even know how to trust it. It’s like a separate part of me, almost. Like a lot of times when my sexuality is pointed out, I become less Rebekah the  Woman and more Rebekah the Object. And surprise surprise, I don’t like to be Rebekah the Object.

I mean, okay, so get this. Just now, I decided to look up the word “sexuality” on the Internet to make sure that I was using exactly the word I wanted and this is the definition I was given:

a capacity for sexual feelings

And its use in a sentence:

she began to understand the power of her sexuality

The power of it.

That is what I am talking about. Sexuality as a weapon. Or as something that is not easy to control by its posessor. Something that can, if not properly tended to, control her. Either use it to your advantage or it gets used against you but there is no opting out of the game. You can’t just say

Nah, I’m cool with just being in the world, going through my day and then unleashing my sexuality for the person, or people, I wish to share it with.

And, as I am sure you have all guessed, the significance of the “she” in that sentence was not lost on me. Of course she began to understand. And you know how she figured it out? Probably because someone showed her by using her sexuality to disempower her in some way. She realized the usefulness of it. What she could do with it. And that’s where I get a little bit lost. Somewhere in here, in all of this, to me, reads something of a manipulation. I try to go through life as something of a straight-shooter. People more or less know where they stand with me. I don’t keep my feelings quiet, and when I do manage to keep my mouth shut my facial expressions and body language always out me. So my issue is that there is something slick, something calculating, something unsavory about the way we talk about sexuality.  I know it doesn’t have to be that way. It doesn’t always have to be a con. But sometimes it feels like that’s the way we talk about it to such a degree that it just becomes what it is in practice. And it’s like, sexuality is its own separate being as opposed to a part, with so many other parts, of a complex human.

But back to the dressing room. There I was, in that dressing room, trying to find a bra that wouldn’t draw more attention to my chest. A bra that wouldn’t give me more cleavage. A bra that wouldn’t undo all the hard work I’ve done to prove that I am well rounded. Hard work that has made me everything but. And, it’s like, I know that now we say that

strong is sexy


smart is sexy

and somehow sexy is supposed to be empowering, and meanwhile everything about high school dress codes and cat callers on the street and rape victim blaming and sexist comments and rape as a fucking war crime tells us that our sexuality, our sexiness, is something to be hidden and contained and something we should be shamed for, or hurt because of. Except for sometimes. Mostly in private. And how do we balance that? How is it our best friend and our mortal enemy all at the same time and how do we, on so many occasions, not have ownership of it? It’s like this weird, fucked up commodity that we can trade in, but only on occasion and with permission, and people may or may not try to make us feel badly about it. And sometimes that just seeps in. And some of us feel like maybe it’s best to try not to trade in it at all. But we’re not allowed to do that, either. It’s almost like we can’t do anything right.

So I don’t know. Maybe shame is the wrong word. Maybe feeling shame just plays into the whole damn thing. I guess what it is more than anything is that I just want to feel whole and autonomous and in a world where we have control over very little, I would like to be the only one – barring tragedy – with control over my body. And of course, it isn’t that I don’t want people to find me sexy. It’s just that I want the idea of being sexy to feel less unbalanced, less like something I use to get something, I want it to be more holistic. I want the idea of sexy, from the jump, to extend beyond just the physical rather than that having to be an add-on. And I know some of you are saying that it can be, and maybe you have found a way, but I don’t know. I just think it is too complicated, and so many of those complications  don’t stem from us. Rather they are learned behaviors given to us by society at large.

Clearly I’m still working this out.

I remember someone, after watching me do something kind, told me how sexy he thought that was. And for the first time in a while, since my ex was around probably, I felt good about being sexy. I felt like it was because of who I am rather than what I look like. And that’s something I can get behind. It’s about sexiness as a whole being, rather than sexiness as an entity apart. And I guess I wish it was always like that. Because I think my friends are sexy and, while they are all beautiful and handsome in their own ways, it is more because they are caring and smart and giving and funny and complicated and team players and all those other things that make them incredible humans.

I guess, in short, I like it when it feels well-rounded, all-inclusive. Because what I find sexy is someone who is smart, with a big laugh and a bigger heart, who is engaged in the world around them and also in a constant state of self-improvement. Because the physical stuff fades, eventually. Gravity does its work. But the rest of it, that takes longer to erode if you put the work in.

But for me, and as it concerns me, when it is just the physicality of it – that just doesn’t feel like mine anymore. I don’t feel like I own that. It’s been taken from me too many times. And maybe that’s why the shame sneaks in.

(And please, don’t anyone send me text messages saying you think I’m sexy. That’s not the point. And then I’ll feel like a shitty writer and that would ruin my day. Don’t ruin my day. It’s nice out.)

Merry Christmas, Mima

25 Dec

For as long as I remember, on Christmas Eve morning my parents, my two siblings and I would pile into whatever car my dad happened to be driving at the time (except for when he and I went out car shopping together in which case we always returned home with some completely impractical 2-seat convertible, meaning we would have to take my mom’s Saab for the trip because my mom has basically always driven a Saab) and head up north to New Salem, New York to celebrate Christmas with the Wehren half of the family.  My dad would drive, my mom would be in the passenger seat, and my sister Lucy and I would take our turn at the dreaded middle seat.  (Aaron never had to sit in the middle because he was “older and taller,” whatever, so unfair.)  The trunk would be full of suitcases and neatly wrapped presents.  My mom is excellent at wrapping presents.  We’re talking crisp corners, multi-colored ribbons which were often times the ones that if you dragged the sharp edge of the scissor over they would end up all curly like a pig’s tail, and cool cards always signed, in my mom’s unique handwriting, Love; Mom and Dad although my Dad did none of the shopping and basically was just as surprised as we were by the contents of each of the boxes.  Inevitably, on the seemingly arduous ride up (it was only 2 1/2 hours, a walk in the park by my post-India travel adventures but seemed like forever when I was 8) we would stop at the Sloatsburg Travel Plaza off the New York Thruway for some Burger King and Sbarro.  My dad always got a stomach ache.  And then it was back on the road.

Once we got off the highway at our destination, we would wind our way through Voorheesville and New Salem.  For most of the time we went up there, the town only had one stop light so it was pretty much smooth sailing.  We would drive past the two houses where I have this vague memory of a story I was told about two teenage kids, some phone calls and a police visit; we would drive past the high school and the police station; past the Smitty’s and the middle school with it’s fancy wooden playground and then arrive at my grandma, Mima’s, little house behind a bigger house, about 6 houses down on the left.  (My uncle Pat used to live in the front house.  As a little kid I was pretty afraid of Pat and his house because he always wore army clothes, never smiled, and basically kept the lights in the house off at all times.)  Sometimes Mima would  hear us coming up the driveway and would meet us out front and sometimes not, but we knew she was home waiting.  As we got older we would grab what we could and make our way in, but as little kids we would barrel into the house always making sure to close the outer door before opening the inner one so as not to allow Something, Mima’s rather sassy cat, to escape.  The rest of the afternoon and evening was full of tree decorating, eating the candy Mima always kept around but couldn’t eat (she was diabetic) and lots of talking.  Lucy could usually be found in the corner reading a book.  We gave Mima a new ornament yearly, and we always, always, got to open one present on Christmas Eve.  When I was younger, I would pick one that looked like a book and leave the bigger and oddly shaped presents, the more exciting ones, for the next day.  I always loved those Christmas Eves.

After dinner the 5 of us would leave Mima and head back to the hotel for a good night sleep before we headed back to her house for a full day of Wehren-family fun.  When we got older, and after Uncle Pat passed away and my Aunt Vida moved into his house (she painted the walls colors and turned on the lights!) me, Aaron and Lucy would all sleep there, taking care to pack pajama layers because Vida basically doesn’t believe in turning the heat above 65 degrees.  Brr.  Christmas day was always full.  My cousin Jessica and I generally got matching sweaters.  I seem to remember one year we got matching red leggings and a sweater with a reindeer on it which we changed into immediately and wore around for the rest of the day.  We loved getting matching sweaters.  I think that stopped when we were about 11. There were gifts, there were stories, there were mashed potatoes, there was the inevitable argument among the Wehren siblings about religion, education and politics (they are all varying degrees of extremely liberal).  My dad always went back to the hotel to take a nap in the middle of the day.  I think it was all a little much for him.  The next morning we would all meet at a nearby diner for breakfast before we headed home to Jersey.  That was the typical Chirstmas.  But there were a few incidents that I will always remember.

There was the time when my cousin Jessica and I decided to go back to the hotel with my dad during his afternoon nap.  We wandered the halls, playing games, pretending someone was following us through the halls of the hotel.  We didn’t know what room he this mystery man was staying in but we knew he was after us.  At one point, riding the elevator from one floor to another, we got impatient and hit basically all the buttons.  We got stuck in the elevator for about ten minutes.  To this day elevators still make me uncomfortable.

Then there was the time, after Mima started getting sick so we moved Christmas dinner down the driveway to Vida’s house, when there was a lot of snow.  Like, a lot of snow.  So much snow that, when all the pipes froze due to the insane cold, we had to go outside and get snow to melt in order to wash the dishes.  Even though this was in the era when Lucy, Aaron and I normally stayed with Vida, my dad insisted we all stay in the hotel so he didn’t have to drive to pick us up in the morning and brave all the snow.  We headed out.  The snow was pretty deep and falling fast.  Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “I Like Big Butts” was playing on the radio.  My brother and I (I think this might have been the year Lucy was in Florence) were singing along at high volume.  My dad, deciding one road seemed to be a little more treacherous than he liked, decided to attempt a K-turn into a snow bank in the Saab.  Needless to say we got stuck.  Aaron and I kept singing.  My dad did not think it was funny.  I’m pretty sure my mom tried to stay neutral but was on our side.

The time (or was it times?) when Aaron would block my exit from the revolving door and I would go around and around and around, unable to enter the hotel if we were getting back, or leave the hotel if we were headed out.

Whether there was an event or not, it was always fun.  It got harder as we got older.  We all had our separate lives.  Aaron got married and started spending Christmas at my sister-in-law, Claire’s, house.  Lucy moved to Boston.  Mima got sick and could no longer really participate in conversations like she used to.  But it was always nice going up there.  Always nice to talk to Mima about what we had been up to.  I told her about my running, my studies, and my traveling.  She seemed to be proud and impressed no matter what I was up to which I find funny because Mima is basically one of the most impressive women ever.  Mima raised 6 kids by herself and managed to feed and clothe them all.  And keep a functioning house.  I don’t think Mima had very much fun but all the kids, in the end, turned out great.  Whenever I hear some politician comment on how single women are incapable of raising well-rounded children, I want to counter with the example of my grandmother.  The older I get, the more amazed by her I am.

This is my second Christmas staying in Brooklyn.  My second Christmas after Mima died.  And while it is nice to be home and avoid the holiday travel, I really do miss all five of us piling into that car, stopping unnecessarily on the way up, seeing the family we only got to see twice a year.  I miss decorating a tree with the same ornaments year after year.  I miss making fun of my dad for his Chirstmas afternoon nap.  I miss the matching sweaters.  Most of all, though, I miss Mima.  So, Mima, where ever you are, a very merry Christmas.  I miss you more today than the other 364.

It’s the Little Things

21 Jun

Sometimes being a woman in New York is exhausting.  The hooting, the hollering, the cat-calling, the whistling, the honking.  I tend to get the most harassment when I am on the run.  I can’t even count the number of times I have heard the comment

“Can I run with you, baby?”

“No.  And you couldn’t keep up if you tried.”

I’ve never had anyone take me up on my challenge and I hope that I don’t.  I’m fast(ish) but put me up against someone who does a few speed repeats and I’m toast.  Because of a vast amount of past experiences, when I run I tend to expect the worst from (male) passersby.  Every now and again, though, they surprise me in a good way.  I have been living, and running, in the same neighborhood for 7 years now.  I know all the neighborhood characters by face and some by name.  I pass the same people day in and day out.  For some reason, though, it never occurred to me that these same people notice me, too.  Today, I left my house with my gym bag, resigned to running on the treadmill because the prospect of 95 degree heat plus humidity plus a blazing sun seemed a little too much to handle, especially when I have to work until 4am.  On my way to the gym I caught sight of this guy who I have seen for years now but never spoken to.  He seems to know a lot of the old school people in the neighborhood.  He has a gravely voice and he oftentimes walks down the middle of fourth avenue rolling a shopping cart full of what appears to be sheet metal.  He curses a lot for reasons I have yet to figure out.  Call me an asshole but I never felt compelled to stop and have a conversation.  Today as I walked to the gym he caught my eye and in that unique voice he said,

“You can run, baby.  God bless you.  I seen you and damn, you can run.”

I smiled, thanked him sheepishly and went on my way, a little spring in my step.  Mostly, I run for me but every once in a while it is nice to be noticed and appreciated by a pseudo-stranger for the things you work hard at.

Only the Card Will Do

22 Feb

I’m all for the government, but these last few weeks dealing with government bureaucracy have really got me reevaluating some of my positions.  Anyone who has spent the better part of 3 days in government offices (in my case Social Security and two separate DMV outposts) can tell you, nothing there makes sense.

Day One.  Location, South Orange DMV Office, New Jersey.  Me and my mom.  We arrived at around 2:30 PM on Friday, February 10, 2012.  I was there looking for my New Jersey Driver History Abstract.  I had in hand my birth certificate, my passport, my ATM card, my health insurance card, and my necessary application.  I arrived at the front of the line, presented the attendant with my materials, and was asked for my driver’s license number.  Well, I didn’t have my driver’s license number because my license had been stolen.  The lady told me to call up Trenton and request my license number from them and then come back.  But surely the New Jersey DMV is automated and you have my number on file, I said.  No, I had to call Trenton.  Okay.  Called Trenton.  Guess what?  The lady was not authorized to give me my own license number over the phone.  I would have to apply by mail.  It could take up to 2 weeks to arrive.  Sigh.  Anger!  Disbelief!  Luckily, my mom is crafty.  Call your dad and get Bruce’s (our insurance agent, also my dad’s friend from high school) phone number.  He has it.  Called Dad.  Called Bruce.  Success!  (He found it in my police record.  I ran into a tree once in high school.  It was really icy.  I skidded.  The tree never knew what hit it.)  Filled in my number on the application and, huzzah!, New Jersey Driver’s History Abstract obtained!

Day Two.  Location, Atlantic Center DMV Office, Brooklyn.  Me and a lot of angry people.  I arrived for my first attempt at approximately 3:09 PM on Tuesday, February 21, 2012.  I had in hand my passport, my birth certificate, my ATM card, my health insurance card, my Con Edison bill, my New Jersey Driver History Abstract and my application.  I patiently waited in line while catching up on I Blame the Patriarchy on my Google Reader.  I arrived at the front of the line at approximately 4:15 PM.  I first handed the lady my Driver’s Abstract, which is two sided, one side has a seemingly useless list and the other side has the necessary information.  I accidentally handed it to her useless side up.  What am I supposed to do with this?, she snapped.  Turn it over, I replied.  She turned it over.  Massive sigh, even more massive eye roll.  Ugh, I hate these things, she spat.  I then handed her my passport and original birth certificate.  Social security card, she said.  Well, I don’t have one.  Well, you need one.  She took a blue piece of paper out of her stack, dated it, and said bring this with you when you come back and you can skip the line.  Well, at least that’s something.  I went to exit, feeling sorry for the people who had to use the bathroom and got locked out (they ingeniously moved the bathrooms to the hallway so if you have to go, you lose your hard earned spot in line.  As I said, ingenious.  As I didn’t say, I had to pee so bad I thought I was going to drown in my own urine.  Not able to withstand government bathrooms, I made my way to The Gate to have a glass of wine and fix my predicament.)

Day Three.  Location, my bedroom, Brooklyn.  I woke up and immediately started making phone calls, trying to figure out exactly what I needed to make sure I didn’t spend another useless day in line.  I first tried calling the New York State DMV helpline to inquire about Social Security number verification but all I got was an automated dude telling me the lines were busy.  No wait time, no nothing.  After telling me the address of the (impossible to navigate) website, he hung up on me.  Great.  So, I called the Social Security helpline* and a really nice lady answered the phone.  She told me all I had to do was go to the Social Security Office (she gave me the address and everything!) and they would issue me a paper saying I had requested a new card and voila!

Location, Social Security Office, Fulton Street, Brooklyn.  Me and a lot of surprisingly not-so-angry people.  I arrived at the office at approximately 10:55 AM.  The line snaked through the entire lobby.  There must’ve been at least 200 people in there.  Sigh.  I filled out my sheet and resigned myself to reading an article about Ron Paul.**  One of the security guards announced that there was no food or drink allowed and if, upon arriving at the metal detector in the front of the line, we were found with either of the aforementioned items, we would be sent to the back of the line.  It reeked of time out.  So, I sadly asked the gentleman in front of me to hold my place in line while I exited the building, dumped my coffee, and gently placed my uneaten pear in a safe spot near the entrance to the office in hopes that it would be there when I left.***  I finally, 2 hours later, made it to the front of the line.****  Oh, happy day!  I then went up to the upstairs line.  Forty-five minutes later I had a raging hunger headache and my official paper!  Huzzah.  Quick, get to the DMV office!

Location, Atlantic Center, DMV Office, Brooklyn.  Me and a lot of angry people.  Time, approximately 2:00 PM.  I hustled down Flatbush Avenue and back into the dreaded office with my blue get-out-of-line-free pass in hand.  I triumphantly walked up to the security guard. Bitch had dated it wrong.  Back in the line I went but not after having an argument with a toothless guard.  Too angry and disgusted to read my New Yorker.  Glaring at the yuppy in front of me reading a manual on scrap-booking.  Forty-five minutes later I made it to the front and, alas!, I was helped by my arch nemesis from the day before.  But I had her beat.  It was Rebekah for the win.  I gave her my abstract and again, the eye roll, the spat hatred of New Jersey Driver History Abstracts.  I gave her my passport and original birth certificate.  She asked for my Social Security card.  I handed her my newly obtained paper.  A sick grin came over her face.  And she said, only the card will do.

*I had called the Social Security helpline 6 months earlier to ask about getting a replacement card and the man on the phone told me that as long as I knew my SSN then the card was really unnecessary.  The days of me blindly believing employees of government agencies are over.  I will now call at least 5 times and believe whichever answer comes up most often.

**I am of the opinion that Ron Paul is a complete and total fruit cake.

***It wasn’t.

****But not before some 22 year old white girl named Bianca Skye (I snuck a look at her application) commented on the behavior of a woman with not one, not two, but three children all of whom appeared to be under the age of 5.  Bad parenting skills, she said.  I almost threw my magazine at her.  I regretted no longer having the pear.