dear spinster aunt ciara #1

I am a 26-year-old queer woman living in Melbourne. I grew up in a fairly conservative, but loving, family who couldn’t always understand me, but at least tried to accept me. For as long as I can remember, I made things. I drew, crawled under my desk, and made up worlds. This progressed ’til I fell in love with theatre, and I fell hard. I started out making costumes, then I did some training and still try to continue what I started. More and more I try to meld my love of writing with design so I can make new work that’s, well, a bit
strange.

This lead me to the warehouse I currently live in. Yes, I used to live with the lady who set up the lease, but more importantly I felt that I would be around creative people who would finally get me. Living in this space has been the most challenging experience of my life. By that, I mean that I am challenged to my very core and have begun to question my identity and self-worth.

Being very shy, and having a difficult time at school growing up, my default setting is withdrawal when I feel threatened in big groups. All of my housemates are load, outgoing people. They are raucous and share a lot of the values that I do. However, because I am not as loud, they tend to ignore me and I feel that it has become and ‘us’ and ‘her’ set up. I feel that they also believe that I am
conservative, a bit boring, and don’t have fun like they do. I really want to connect with these people and feel like I have interesting things to say. I want them to enjoy my company. Do I need to be a delinquent to be accepted? Should I move out? Any tools to overcome
shyness and get to a place of better self-acceptance?
–from a shy & struggling artist

dear shy & struggling artist,
i can relate. i can be shy sometimes too, especially in groups, especially in groups where i feel like i am being actively disincluded & judged. it’s a struggle sometimes to sort out whether those feelings are based in reality, or whether they are a product of my insecurities. it sounds like it might be a mix for you–six one, half-dozen the other. i have a few recommendations:

1) don’t condemn yourself for feeling insecure. it’s a natural response to a new & unfamiliar situation. it’s an especially natural response to an attempt to be accepted into a world you admire from the outside. here is a little story about that very topic: when i was 17, i was dating a woman who was out to the whole world, except for her family. we lived in a small town in ohio & the queer community there was very small. she had been the only out queer kid in our school (that was before i “got the call,” as it were). when she enrolled in college, she decided that she wanted to join the campus queer rights organization. but because she craved the acceptance & community of other queers so desperately, because it was something that had been missing from her entire life to date, she was tormented by the possibility that they would reject her & she would be completely alone–without even a maybe-someday-future community to join. it sounds like you might be having similar anxieties about seeking inclusion from your artsy radical loud-&-crazy roommates, & while i understand that, it’s also important to remember that the very worst thing that can happen is that they reject you & you move on & find other people who will accept you. because there’s always someone who will accept you. this girlfriend i am speaking of went to a meeting of the queer rights group, had an anxiety attack, & ran out in tears. she was horrified & angry with herself. she felt she’d embarrassed herself in front of the only people in the world who would ever accept her & wrecked her chances with them. but one of them followed her out to her car & talked with her until she felt ready to go back inside & meet everyone. within two years, she was the president of the group, & in that time, we both met a ton of other queer kids on campus who became our friends–many of whom had no interest in the organization. these kids you live with are not your only chance, & you’ll never know what kind of relationship you have with them until you try.

2) it’s also important not to build them up too much in your imagination. yes, they seem really fun & interesting & cool, but if they are making you feel shitty, to the point that you are doubting your own self-worth, it’s worth asking yourself if YOU want to be friends with THEM! i spent a good chunk of time in my 20s trying to be friends with people i thought i “should” get along with, instead of the people i really liked, who accepted me for who i am.

3) no, i don’t think you should have to become a delinquent in order to be accepted, if being a delinquent is not something you want to do for yourself. (but if you are interested in trying it out–have fun!) another story: when i was 22, there was a woman who blew in my town & whisked all my friends off their feet. she became fast friends with all of them & being kind of shy, critical, & quiet, i felt left out of the loop. this woman’s entire life philosophy was “keep it posi”. keeping it posi is something that is completely counter to my basic nature as a person. but because i wanted to be included in her circle & so often felt condemned & judged by her when i was say something critical or negative, i tried. i tried like hell. & all that happened was that i cried every single day because keeping it posi just wasn’t something i could do. i always fucked up & said something critical–or thought it & felt silenced because i couldn’t say it without being condemned as a negative, hateful person. after endless panic attacks & six months teetering on the brink of depression, i gave up trying to keep it posi & forfeited a friendship with this woman. i immediately felt a million times lighter, happier, & freer, because i was making myself happy–& the only person you should ever really worry about pleasing is yourself. especially when you are already prone to anxiety & social isolation.

4) if you decide you do want to try to build bridges toward friendship with your roommates, i would recommend inviting them each to do something with you one-on-one. maybe make breakfast together one morning, or work on a craft project together. something that would be fun for both of you–don’t feel pressured to live up to their standards of fun. maybe by getting to know them on a one-on-one level, they will start to include you more often when you are all in a group together–or you will feel more comfortable & empowered to include yourself.

5) remember that all you can be is YOU. if you start feeling pressured to conform to their expectations of what constitutes “fun,” it might be worth sitting down & making a list of things you know you like to do. & then pursue those activities–alone, with your roommates, or with people outside your house. remember, it’s okay to not enjoy an activity that other people consider fun. if all of this fails & you still can’t connect with your housemates, you have a touch decision to make about whether or not to leave the house. if you think there are positive things you can get out of living there even with the alienation from your roommates, you might want to stay. but don’t stay just to prove a point. you have to make yourself happy, & you might be happier in a quieter, less action-packed environment. there are undoubtedly countless people out there who are interested in what you do, share your values, & won’t write you off as boring or conservative for not wanting to party the way they do. seek those people out–but remember: your best friend is yourself & that’s the relationship you need to nurture above all.

when dealing with feedback…how do you do it without taking it so personally?
–from a writer

dear writer,
this is an excellent question that all creative people struggle with at one point or another. it’s complicated because feedback takes a lot of different forms. someone might critique the content of your writing, disagreeing with your ideas. someone might not like your stylistic decisions. someone just might not like you, & will attack & condemn your writing as a result. some critiques are valid & useful, & some are not.

the first thing i’d recommend is sitting down & figuring out for yourself what kind of feedback you want. for example, i am pretty confident about my writing on a style level. i know my own writing voice, i think it’s strong, & i don’t need a lot of help with it. but when i am putting together an argument (like when i am writing about political stuff), i like to get feedback a lot of the time. mostly i am concerned about whether or not what i’m saying hangs together as an argument. am i staying on topic? am i deviating from the point? what kind of rebuttals can i expect, & is my argument strong enough to withstand them? over the years, i have developed a little crew of folks who are familiar with my writing style & general political outlook, & i give drafts to them to look over. they let me know if my logic is faulty, if i am veering too far into hyperbole, etc.

your need for feedback will be unique to you–& it will probably change as you grow & develop in your craft. when you are first starting to receive feedback, you might only be able to handle a little bit at a time, & only in the kindest possible terms. but as you & your writing get stronger, you will probably start looking for something deeper & more challenging.

so how do you handle unsolicited feedback–like when someone pans the ever-loving shit out of your zine & tears it to pieces? that’s a bitter pill to swallow, but i do my best to parse through any feedback i receive. i ignore anything that smacks of a personal attack, ie, “ciara, you’re just a negative bully who hates everyone.” i know that’s not true, so i don’t concern myself with it. developing a thick skin for this sort of thing takes time & patience–& a fair amount of exposure. depending on your temperment, you might have to cry a few times, or tell a friend & have them assure you that you are awesome. but i would caution against the temptation to surround yourself with sycophants, because even the most scathing feedback can sometimes contain a little kernel of harsh reality. none of us are perfect, after all.

my general rule is: when you start hearing the same critique again & again, it probably has some merit. maybe this critique is, “you can’t spell,” or, “you’re bossy,” or, “you never wash the dishes.” that’s when you have to consider whether or not this is something you can change about yourself, & whether it’s something you want to change. for more on this, see my previous answer & the story about my failed attempts at cultivating a “keep it posi” mindset. it wasn’t something i was capable of doing, & eventually i realized it wasn’t something i wanted to do.

remember: you can’t please everyone. i believe albus dumbledore once said, “if you’re holding out for universal popularity, you will be in this cabin for a very long time.” play to your strengths, write to make yourself happy, write what interests & satisfies you, know who your audience (people who actually seem to enjoy & appreciate your stuff) is, & write for them. stephen king recommends having a “reader” in mind–writing as if you are doing it just for that one person, writing what you know they will enjoy. conversely, zadie smith recommends reading your own writing as if you are your own worst enemy–it’s a good way to find your weak spots & shore them up before anyone else sees your work. you just have to strike a balance between self-awareness of your shortcomings as a writer while not giving up on yourself.

I am 26 years old and living at home because of the lack of nursing care I receive (oh, hey, I’m disabled!). I have a boyfriend who lives on the other side of the country, but he frequently visits. When he is here, we like to have sex. I am not sure how my parents would take this information if they found out – my parents are pretty awesome about most things, but I feel like this will BLOW THEIR MINDS. I wouldn’t care much (just keep doing it in secret), but I would like to go to the gyno, and my mom would have to drive me/accompany me. I know that I am an adult and all that, but I don’t want to ruin my sexy time if my parents not cool with it. They should be cool with it, but they sometimes have that ableist mindset where I am eternally 12 because I use a wheelchair. I am nervous about approaching my mom, because I will definitely have to talk to her before I go to the gyno. Any advice would be awesome.
–from scarlet

dear scarlet,
kudos to you for wanting to take care of your reproductive health! i think it’s absolutely crucial for everyone to get regular check-ups & look after their health in that respect. it doesn’t matter whether or not a person is sexually active–shit can still go haywire down there, & catching problems early, or being aware of chronic problems from the get-go, can make a huge difference in a person’s life. sometimes it can be the difference between life & death, not to get all dramatic.

so of course i think you should get yourself to a gyno, post-haste! i’d recommend sitting your mom down & having a frank discussion with her. if you’re not comfortable letting her know that you are having sex right off the bat, you can open by saying that you have been thinking about other way to look after your health & you would like her to take you to the gynecologist. if she protests, tell her that it’s something you need to do for yourself, because having a disability certainly doesn’t preclude you from having other everyday health concerns. my hope is that this will be a non-issue for her & she’ll be embarrassed that she didn’t think to have this conversation with you first. you don’t need to tell her about your sexual activity right now, if you’re not ready for that, or if she doesn’t seem ready for it–but i do think it’s important to tell her eventually, & probably sooner rather than later. after all, you’re 26. even if you still live at home, even if you are in a wheelchair, you are your own independent person & for you, part of that means having sex. maybe your mom isn’t ready for her baby to be all grown up–but she’ll have to get on board. maybe your mom even thought she’d never have to deal with her baby being all grown up since her baby is in a wheelchair–but that’s ableist thinking she’s going to have to work out for herself. living with & loving a person with a disability means that she’s probably amenable (perhaps with a little bit of time for digestion) to accepting this aspect of your independence. & who knows? maybe she already knew & just didn’t want to ask you about it & invade your privacy. sometimes moms are smarter than we give them credit for.

The ladies of the Babysitter’s Club – who would win Top Model?
–from when fandoms collide

first, we have to assume that every member of the babysitters club would grow up to be at least 5’7″ & in possession of vaguely model-esque proportions (or as model-y as is necessary for “top model,” which basically just means “skinny girl at the mall” proportions). now, there are a few edits that tyra employs season after season–the know-it-all, the awkward girl who blossoms into a swan, the girl who doesn’t want it enough, the girl who photographs old, the too-sexy girl, etc. let’s see how each member of the babysitters club would fare in tyra’s tyrannical editing room:

the first girl cut is generally the girl who is just clueless. she’s pretty, but there’s no spark of life in her eyes, she gets awkward in front of the camera, & her prettiness doesn’t translate to “model” in photos. i think shannon (yeah, i went there–obscure associate babysitters club member shout-out!) would get this edit. she’s cute, but she’s thinking about french club & she’s not connecting with the camera. she just tried out on a lark anyway. see ya!

next cut would be stacey, our know-it-all. stacey has done some modeling before, at bellair department store. people have been telling her she should model since she got out of diapers. tyra would be drawn in by stacey’s tragic sob story, living all these years with diabetes that would kill her if she even looked at a snickers bar the wrong way. but when stacey sasses miss jay at the runway teach & declares that her signature walk is what will make her famous, & then pitches a hissy fit when her hair is cut at makeovers, tyra would let her know that she’s not as smart as she thinks & send her packing.

dawn has been struggling in photos. although she is praised for her casual model-on-a-go-see style before panel, she looks old in photos–all those years of laying out on the beach & getting shipwrecked on deserted islands off the coast of connecticut have ravaged her california good looks. she’s looking leathery in photos. she lacks the freshness required to move “seventeen” & cover girl & she is sent home. (mary anne cries. a lot.)

meanwhile, mallory, after a lifetime of braces, glasses, nose job fantasies, & frizzy red curly hair, received a make-over that gave her gorgeous auburn extensions & tyra had her braces removed & outfitted her with contacts. the judges rave over her unique freckled look, but it’s looking a little cheesecake in photos. after years of being the ugly duckling, mallory is over-compensating with her newfound sex appeal & it’s getting, shall we say, men’s magazine. after flashing her rack at mr. jay on set & then delivering a dead-eyed booty-prominent photo, mallory is eliminated with the too-sexy edit (but not before sharing a clandestine liplock with last week’s male model!).

with claudia’s natural stunning (& don’t forget exotic) good looks, she looked like a shoo-in to take it all. tyra didn’t mess with claudia’s long black hair, which perfectly off-sets her creamy blemish-free complexion & almond-shaped eyes. & although every photo has been praised by the judges & claudia has sailed through every challenge without incident, she hasn’t really seemed present. at panel, the judges confront her, & she admits that she’s really missing her line-up of nine weekly art classes at the stoneybrook community center. the judges wonder if modeling is what she really wants to do. claudia confesses that, given the choice, she can’t give up art. the judges eliminate her for not wanting it enough. it’s the shock of the season!

that leaves our final three: jessi, kristy, & mary anne. kristy has been steamrolling the competition through sheer force of will. she’s something like cycle seven melrose, but cuter, & minus the leg warmers. none of the girls can stand her. she’s made poor insecure mary anne weep in confessional more times than the editors can count. kristy always follows it up with an apology, but it’s pretty perfunctory. jessi has been good at letting the madness roll off her back. she busies herself with ballet exercises & the notebook in which she draws different kinds of horses. when the final three shoot their cover girl ad, jessi & mary anne are able to produce natural, fresh, all-american smiles, but the judges see a hard edge in kristy. the smile doesn’t reach her eyes. they’re not sure women will be able to relate to her. she is eliminated (this is also known as “the bitch edit”).

jessi & mary anne are our final two! mary anne’s personal story & trajectory is compelling: raised by a widower father, she overcame a strict upbringing to be level-headed & compassionate, but insecure with her looks. she never really thought of herself as “the pretty girls,” especially compared with stacey & claudia. she was always just the “okay girl,” in her own mind. but the competition has allowed her to come out of her shell & explore her true capabilities. she’s discovered a reserve of inner beauty within herself which has translated to one knock-out photo after another, & her girl-next-door sweetness is something that will sell racks of cover girl eyeblaster shadow crayon. but jessi also has a compelling story! she lived through a whole pile of racism, both from some of those stoneybrook assholes, as well as from the fucked up readers of the babysitters club series that are constantly giving her grief over ‘whining” about being black, & it’s only made her stronger & more self-confident. she has a natural grace that has created some of the most elegant shots of the season, & her big long-lashed eyes could sell the shit out of some smokemonster shadow eyeblaster. the girls walk the final runway show, wearing a variety of huge over-sized athletic socks that cover the entire body (this inspires claudia’s much-vaunted later “athletic support” period, when she sculpts jockstraps out of chewing gum & sells them for thousands of dollars). at the end of the runway, they jump into a vat of cream pies while techno music pounds in the background & ann shoket fans tyra with a palm frond. (kristy is delighted to be a decoy in the show & get to live out her dream, as stated in BSC #19, & being covered in whipped cream.)

the judges deliberate. both girls have taken beautiful photos. both girls have sad stories tyra can exploit for other aspects of her media empire (maybe a podcast, since the talk show thing didn’t pan out). but who is “america’s next top model”? tyra convincingly argues that, although jessi is beautiful & will undoubtedly go on to do great things in the fashion industry (like toledo fashion week, or maybe the cover of “wig reveal” magazine), she’s really more a dancer than a model. mary anne gets the crown. she, jessi, & the judges all drown in the flood of mary anne tears that follows.

&…scene.

if you have a question you’d like to see answered here, leave a comment or e-mail me at learningtoleaveapapertrail@hotmail.com!

5 Comments Add yours

  1. miss tukru says:

    A+++ for quoting dumbledore.

    1. ciara says:

      i thought you might like that.

  2. Nicole says:

    Good answer! I thought you may go with Kristy… but took the Mary Anne route. Sort of reminding me of the Nicole who won from Minnesota (I forget which cycle).

    1. ciara says:

      dude. tell me you are not talking about cycle five when they went to london & that awful whiny brat named nicole won. that was such a miscarriage of justice. her biggest problem in life was that she felt her mom thought her sister was prettier. she snarfed on bre’s granola bars & cried to tyra when bre poured her red bulls down the sink. she screamed at pigeons & had a face like play-doh. bre or nik should have taken that cycle. mary anne is far superior to cycle five nicole!

  3. Sadako says:

    Great blog post–I always thought that MA would win, too, just based on that uber fashion-y and kind of edgy photo on the cover of Fire at MA’s House.

    Stacey totally thinks she would win, doesn’t she? Every other statement is, “I COULD model but I’m so smart and good at math and fashion and everything.” Blech.

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