Armpit Hair: Love Instead of Domination
When having discussions around topics that are so heavy like oppression (racism, sexism, transphobia, islamaphobia, etc), it can be challenging on multiple levels. We all are complex people with lots of identities. I'm not just a woman, but a white woman, and not just that, but a white woman who is heterosexual and who is a climber. None of us are defined by just one identity, but we can be restricted by the identities that we occupy. We live in a world that wants to put people into categories. A question that my friends of color are frequently asked is, “What are you?” This question is not usually an indication of curiosity, but more of an unintentional attack on their humanity. The question comes out of the premise that if a person cannot easily identify you, or if a person does not meet the status quo of what it means to be human, i.e. white, then you are an “other.” It is almost a statement instead of a question. It is as if someone is saying that you do not fit their idea of “human” and “natural,” so they must ask, “what are you?”
This question comes out of a need to categorize, to name, to label, to put in a box, so that the person who asks knows how to respond and act towards the person that they are interacting with, as if their race, background, or what have you, will serve as a kind of legend – a legend that will assist the questioner in mapping you out, decode you, and put you in a specific frame. This question is charged because it is rooted in the foundations of our culture – one that has been built from domination. In this sense, the question seeks not to humanize and understand, but to attribute an identity that the questioner feels comfortable with. These questions are usually asked by white people and unbeknownst to the white person, it is an act of oppression. Through this questioning of someone’s identity the person becomes a thing, an object, not a multi-facted, complex individual. It only serves this tradition we have of the white, cis, heterosexual man’s gaze. If you don’t look and talk like a woman should, or if you don’t look and talk like a man should, if you don’t have skin that is white, then what are you? If you don’t have a thin body and appear to be the object of a man’s sexual desire than what are you?
There is a struggle to define who we are. If our humanity is questioned by society, how do we grow into the power of our bodies? Marci Blackman, author of Tradition, an avid cyclist and veteran of the Sister Spit Rambling Road Show, says in a conversation with bell hooks, “I don’t see boxes. I only ever really hear people talk about boxes who are white, and generally white men, who [will say] ‘oh, well that was outside the box.’ And I’m like, what box are you seeing? Clearly, it wasn’t a box meant for me because I can’t find it.”
I'll never know the experience of a woman of color because I am a white woman. There will always be holes in my vision because I have not walked in someone else's body. Because of that, I will be constantly learning, and often times learning by making mistakes. Sometimes the mistakes I will make will come at the expense of someone and contribute to the pain they've experienced because of an identity. Regardless of my intent, my impact was the same: hurt. Unfortunately, this is sometimes how we learn and grow – on the backs of others. Therefore, when I do transgress, I understand if someone reacts to me with hurt. If that comes out as anger, I get it because as a woman, I know what it is like to have people transgress against me time after time. There have been situations when my hurt overrides my patience to calmly explain to someone about how their actions were hurtful. We are here to learn from each other. So rather than practice defensiveness, I'd like for our society to move into a place of practicing appreciation for learning about someone else’s experience if we do transgress.
The fight for peace, justice, and equality is a journey of supporting each other, filling our holes where our privilege blinds us. At times, it might be uncomfortable. Sitting with discomfort (not trauma) is an every day practice. For those of us who have experienced acts of discrimination because of our identities, conversations about oppression and injustice can be triggering (bringing up or reliving painful memories).
Growing up I found that it was an obstacle for me to reach any sense of athleticism in myself. I had brothers. I had a sister who loved and excelled in sports. But I found that it was an obstacle for me to even consider myself capable of athleticism, and of math. I was bogged down by the stereotypes that our culture sets up for girls. I have often thought about how my sister took up softball and basketball, and how I took up creative endeavors like writing poetry, children’s books, and theater. I acknowledge that there is a personality component to these choices. As two different people we were inclined to do different things. However, I also think from a young age I realized that though I knew I had the ability to throw a ball, the ability to maneuver a skateboard, the ability to build a tree fort, I was still affected by the weight of the world telling me that those things were for boys. I dabbled in soccer and cross country. My sister and I living in the same house had different experiences with this cultural conditioning. I was weighed down by neighbors telling me to marry a rich doctor, and from my mom’s friends telling me how pretty I was, and always commenting on my appearance. I grew to understand that my appearance mattered a great deal, and subconsciously, it came to be the measure of my worth.
All of my life I wanted to rebel against all of this. Being raised in a Catholic household, I remember my first communion sleeping with rollers in my hair the night before, and then waking up, going to a neighbor’s house to get prettified, don some lipstick even, a gold cross necklace that I hated, in a slightly poufy white dress and shiny, white shoes, and wondering why. I fussed and threw fits about my appearance battling with the internal rage of having to look just right. I was battling with my rational mind. At seven years old I knew that these were not celebrations of my autonomy, but rather celebrations of my indoctrination into a culture that I was forced to conform to. But I was too young to know exactly where the cognitive dissonance was coming from. I was too young to know where to direct my rage and how to not feel so angry all the time. I didn’t know that the source of my rage stemmed from my obsession with hair and make-up and Barbies. I didn’t realize that those things that seemingly made me happy were chaining me to a strict version, a rigid box, of “girl.”
I knew how wrong it all was. I knew I didn’t jive. I felt trapped, snared, limited, held back. I felt muted. I wanted to move freely and experiment, and raise my hand, or lead a conversation, but it took a great deal of work for me to find a base-level foundation of confidence and belief in myself as a valuable, thinking person.
I can’t blame my parents. They treated us with great dignity and gave me every opportunity. They never said I couldn’t do something. I spent years tracking down the root of my incapacity to believe that I could be physically strong and athletic. Upon entering college and taking a gender studies course, I found that it stemmed from this sexist, patriarchal culture that is so insidious even our parents cannot protect us from it.
In college I found a passion for running. My friend, who I considered athletic, was a runner in high school and encouraged me to run. We'd go out ten miles deep into the Missouri woods, our cotton shirts dripping with sweat from the ruthless humidity. Our bodies whipping past the dogwoods, oaks, and pines, racing alongside the hundred foot limestone bluffs. Nothing made me feel more alive. It might have been the first time I felt unstoppable. The solitary effort did me in. Pushing my limits for myself without anyone watching did me in. I liked the privacy of the act. It wasn’t gym class. I wasn’t on display or being critiqued by a coach. It was a safe space to move my body the way I wanted to move it, as fast as I wanted to move it. I didn’t want anyone seeing me looking disheveled because I was still working through the expectations that society places on women to look kept.
At 27, I no longer worry about image, but it took me so long to work through de-conditioning my mind. After college I moved to Moab, Utah. I continued trail running and met my ex who got me into climbing. I admired Dean Potter and Steph Davis. I saw a poster of Steph Davis with her hair flowing on a splitter crack in Indian Creek. I saw that poster, and thought to myself that if she could do it, surely I could do it too. I assumed it was staged. Granted, I also did not know that much about climbing. I also had my doubts about it being a hard climb, and was very judgmental. I criticized her for having her hair down because my rule was if you are doing something active you should wear your hair up (my ridiculous, judgmental rule that I do not adhere to anymore, and no longer judge anyone for looking any particular way when they are living and breathing and… being).
I was envious. This is a distinct memory for me. I was experiencing jealously and the hatred of women that our culture teaches us.
I write this not because I agree with my former self, but because I distinctly remember all of my life judging other women. Even with someone as inspiring and as accomplished as Steph Davis, my younger, mired-in-sexist-thinking-self judged Steph Davis. I thought I could do what she was doing because she was a woman, in the sexist way of thinking, “Well, if a girl can do it, I can do it too.” I write this because it is alarming. I hope it alarms whoever is reading this. This was how I started noticing my own misogyny. I would look women up and down. I would criticize everything they did, down to how they talked. My friend and I would go to frat parties in college, though I loathed feeling like a sheep in those musty basements, and we would just rip apart the other huddled groups of women. I remember a tiny voice in my head saying, “You are not that different from them. Why can’t you be their friend?” The rabbit hole of thought that this question required was not somewhere I was willing to go at the time. To look deeply, inquisitively, at our own demons is no easy task. I covered the question with hatred and excuses.
I kept myself guarded in this way and noticed how this was my retribution for a lifetime of feeling objectified and dehumazined, myself. If I could not walk free to be myself in whatever way I wanted, however I wanted to look and act, then I, without really knowing it, would pick at every little detail of another woman’s body, her humanity, her integrity, her choice, her agency. Her ability to live was in my control and through my judgements women were not allowed to just be. This is how we keep each other down. This is how we are slaves to the patriarchy. This is how we are complicit in our own demise.
As I transformed as a human, and as my understanding of feminism evolved (I studied this in college and beyond), the ways in which I approached climbing changed. At first it was to prove myself. That yes, I am a woman, and I can be strong and push my limits too. But then over time, I noticed how this was not a real political act. This was pressure to perform. As a woman I felt I needed to fight my stereotypes. I felt I had to do the label, “woman,” justice. But this is not liberation. This is no protest. This was reactive. Over time, I worked on fighting the feeling that I needed to prove myself.
Through a lot of work and interrogation of the self, I saw that I could be who I was and climb at whatever level that I wanted, in whatever way that I wanted. This translated into my daily life. I felt like I could walk in the way I wanted, I could talk in the way I wanted, and just be, simply to be, for the sake of myself and no one else. No longer did I abide by the outline given to me by society of some specific prototype of who I was supposed to be. I see this transition, from having to prove myself, towards choosing how and when and why to climb solely for myself, as reaching a kind of liberation in my thinking. In liberating myself from the pressure to perform, I liberated other women as well. I made a choice to save other women from myself. I will come back to this idea.
This culture often makes women feel like they have to be constantly critical of themselves and other women – that they have to prove themselves, prove their worth. This is the opposite of sisterhood, solidarity, and empowerment. This is the opposite of “women empowering women.” It took me a while to understand what "women empowering women" meant. I had to dredge up, weed out, and eradicate my own sexist conditioning of wanting to be the token woman, the coolest woman, the prettiest, the sexiest, the toughest. I had to learn how to humanize myself and humanize other women. This is a constant practice because re-training and de-bugging your mind requires a lifetime of work. It requires generations of work.
Once upon a time, I put all of my faith in feminism. I put it in a glass case, on a shelf, my trophy. I lifted it up, categorized it above Godliness. Then I read, "Bad Feminist," by Roxane Gay and all of my white feminism came crashing down. Good thing too because nobody has time for that. I started looking critically at feminism and the women writers, who were mostly white, who's words I was absorbing. I started reading women of color. What kind of fucked up, skewed reality did that create, only reading white people? Our world is created by white people, and we live and die by the books white people have written. And I am so sick of hearing myself and other white people talk. Where is the balance in that? But I have to speak and cannot stop writing just because I am white. I have to challenge myself like never before and challenge others like never before through encouraging them to interrogate their reality too. For too long the feminist movement has given the cold shoulder, sometimes the middle finger, to the realities of women of color.
I still have faith in feminism. I have a militant commitment to feminism. But that doesn't mean it doesn't have its flaws.
In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks discusses sisterhood extensively, and the historically tenuous relationship between white women and black women. She says, “until white women can confront their fear and hatred of black women (and vice versa), until we can acknowledge the negative history which shapes and informs our contemporary interaction, there can be no honest, meaningful dialogue between the two groups.” Trust is built over time. With all of the written material, blogs, books and videos out there about the experiences of black women, it is miserable how little this world understands about black women’s individual, and collective struggles. It is particularly important for us to seek out reading material authored by women of color. I encourage everyone to read the works of people we do not hear or see in mainstream media: anyone who is not white and cisgender.
Without radical confrontation, without interrogating our own, individual modes of thinking, as well as interrogating white female racism and black female response, true sisterhood cannot emerge. We must face the historical trauma that women of color endure, the trauma that is often ignored. There needs to be action towards constructing space for sisterhood in a way that allows for the examination of the attitudes and behavior white women project on black women, and all women of color. This space must be built with a careful avoidance of reproducing the servant-served paradigm. Black women are not here to serve white women in the way of satiating white women’s desire to “master” the subject of racism.
While I think more visibility of women and women climbing mentors is great, we also have to learn how to recognize our own sexist behavior and modes of thinking so that we can be accepting and welcoming to women as mentors. I once discussed with my women friends about trusting other women. Some of us have admitted that it was not always an immediate response to trust women as climbing partners or trust their skills. At the start of my climbing life, I was hesitant to climb with women on the sharp end because of all the stereotypes we place on women – that they are not technically savvy, that they are too emotional, that they don’t excel in situations where one is at their limit. I had to again weed out, eradicate, and blow-up the saddening amount of distrust that I had for women. Though I have worked through this and have found that I have liberated myself from this way of thinking, (and now have profoundly deep relationships with friends who are women), I am still troubled about my past thinking to this day. It is this kind of cultural conditioning that holds women back. And it runs deep.
Working on our internal selves is doing the work of love. When we recognize how we have colluded with dominator culture, a culture that wants to perpetuate white, cisnormative, heteronormative patriarchy, we can work towards ending oppression, boxes, and the agonizing struggle for our humanity. We often say things we believe, but then act in contrary ways. We are all coming into our own journey and processes. We must encourage positivity, love and compassion for all. Acts of self-love are important. I started growing out my armpit hair. For me, this is an act of self-love. For so long I have been ashamed of having body hair. It is in these minor awakenings, realizing that my hatred towards my own body is a sign of how I am oppressed, is where we will find our autonomy in a world that constantly denies us as whole beings, in and of ourselves, with or without any expensive products, or any social status. Women can have body hair, or not. What I want to stress is that we make choices for ourselves only, without influence. I may very well be an anarchist.
The work of ending oppression requires helping others climb the ladder. A Bodhisattva is someone who attains complete enlightenment and instead of ceasing, returns to save all other sentient beings. This is a person who is dedicated to helping others manifest liberation. It is required that those who are advanced along the path show the way to others. In our world that emphasizes greed instead generosity, independence instead of inter-dependence, and egoism instead of altruism, this act of holding a candle for others is political dissent. It is necessary and radical to empathize and show compassion in this way. There are four boddhisatva vows:
Shu jo muhen sei gan do
Bo no mujin sei gan dan
Ho mon myryo sei gan gaku
Butsu do mujo sei gan jo
Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them all.
Desires are inexhaustible; I vow to put an end to them.
The dharmas are boundless; I vow to master them.
The Buddha’s Way is unsurpassable; I vow to attain it.
Seido Ray Ronci, is an English professor at the University of Missouri and Zen Buddhist monk based in Columbia, Missouri. He became my mentor and was always reminding the Sangha: “Infinite are all beings, I vow to save them…from myself.” As I said earlier, by ceasing my impulse to judge other women, I simultaneously was working on eradicating the judgment and hatred I had for myself, and through that saved other women from myself. Basically, don’t be an asshole. When you’re standing in line at the grocery store and feeling stressed because you are late for work, or late for an appointment, do not let this keep you from being pleasant to the one at the register or the other people in line. Saving others from ourselves means that we will not seek retribution. We can be angry and we can be outraged, and in fact, we should be. The state of the world is angering and outraging. The historical dehumanization and the modern day enslavement of people is cause for fury. The North Dakota Pipeline, the mountain top removal, the poisoned water in Flint, Michigan, the travel ban, the mass incarceration, the unjust criminalization of people of color, the transphobia, the fat-stigma, the person who is in office, are all cause for fury. However, getting mired in anger is what keeps us in a state of domination.
Love is liberating and should be the basis of our actions if we are to consider ourselves activists, advocates, and allies in the struggle for peace, justice and equality. The feminist movement is not perfect, but it is what we can attribute for the greater access to gender equity in all spheres of our lives. The feminist movement is undeniably responsible for much of the improvements we see in law and public policy that posit women as equal to men.
We must teach mutuality in partnership. We must get comfortable in the discomfort of actively protesting patriarchal norms in our everyday lives. Challenging this challenges dominator culture. Mothers and Fathers must work towards ending the socialization of boys to embrace patriarchal masculinity. Capitalist consumer culture is not aligned with love. Doing the work of love means being a terrorist of this country. To be a true patriot, we must dedicate our lives to loving. Through this we will find the key to recognizing the humanity in all beings, and simultaneously we will be cultivating a closer relationship to the Earth. When we recognize the interconnection that exists between our human bodies, we see the interconnection that exists between our bodies and the natural world, as well.
"We need to examine why we suddenly lose the capacity to exercise skill and care when we confront one another across race and class differences. It may be that we give up so easily with one another because women have internalized the racist assumption that we can never overcome the barrier separating white women and black women. If this is so then we are seriously complicit. To counter this complicity, we must have more written work and oral testimony documenting ways barriers are broken down, coalitions formed, and solidarity shared. It is this evidence that will renew our hope and provide strategies and direction for future feminist movement.
Producing this work is not the exclusive task of white or black women; it is collective work. The presence of racism in feminist settings does not exempt black women or women of color from actively participating in the effort to find ways to communicate, to exchange ideas, to have fierce debate. If revitalized feminist movement is to have a transformative impact on women, then creating a context where we can debate and discuss without fear of emotional collapse, where we can hear and know one another in the difference and complexities of our experience, is essential. Collective feminist movement cannot go forward if this step is never taken. When we create this woman space where we can value difference and complexity, sisterhood based on political solidarity will emerge."
---bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress