“I’ve never understood the anger and exclusivity of many people of color like this one,” a comment reads.
“They hang out with people of color and sit at the colored table making no efforts to get to know me, then blame me and say they don’t feel welcome.”
The commenter was, supposedly, one of my white classmates at Harvard. The article was an opinion piece I published in my college newspaper, The Crimson, about how the experience of Latinx students at Harvard has for decades been one of marginalization. As an opinion writer, my writing has always been open to scrutiny. There’s no feigning, in editorial writing, that your article’s perspective is absolute or conclusive. It’s open to counter-points, to being pulled apart by readers willing to engage with it. You publish pieces to further conversation on a particular issue, offering the articles as punching bags in the arena of public discourse.
Yet when I write about issues pertaining to my identity—my race, ethnicity, my experiences as someone marked Other at Harvard, in the United States, in a world built on social stratification—I am reduced to being a kettle of emotions. Like the commenter suggests, I’m nothing more than my supposed anger. It bleeds into every sentence I string together, every piece of punctuation used to convey my sense of rage.
Except that my pieces are not very angry. Their tone, though it does vary, is generally balanced and straightforward, especially on pieces that have required archival research or other forms of in-depth reporting. I care about the issues I write about, and I hope that the significance of talking about race, ethnicity, and marginalization shines through in my writing.
But often, because of who I am, I’m reduced to an angry journalist, an angry Latino writer. The amount of research I’ve put into the piece, the sources I’ve cited, the logical argument I’ve constructed—it all falls to the wayside. I am simply angry, whiny, bitter, or, as an email informed me, an “asinine snowflake.”
If these assumptions came simply from the outside—from these nameless, faceless voices on the Internet—they’d be easy to shrug off. Their assumptions of my anger would translate into nothing more than a race-tinged misreading of my articles. The label of angry Latino journalist, though, has seeped into perceptions of my capacity as a journalist.
This, of course, is not a phenomenon exclusive to my experiences at a college paper. April Ryan, a black journalist who covers the White House, has been targeted by the Trump administration. After asking Press Secretary Sanders if the president had ever considered stepping down, Ryan received a number of death threats. “I’m angry about the fact that people are ginning people up to come after me for that,” she responded. “I’m viewing the attacks as partisan. But that question had nothing to do with politics.”
Ryan, like many female journalists of color, has had her work as a journalist scrutinized through the lens of her race, gender, and identity more broadly. For decades, the newspaper industry has been staffed, led, and run primarily by white men. The demographics of newsrooms have slowly shifted, but reporters from underrepresented backgrounds still find their assignments and articles scrutinized through the lens of their identity.
Being perceived as “angry” (or a number of related emotions) can be a detriment to a journalist’s career, because it seems to undercut their objectivity. In a political moment when the role and importance of journalism are up for debate, such accusations cut deeply; objectivity is held up as a standard all journalists ought to aspire to.
Yet this is perhaps the grandest lie of journalism: that there is such a thing as pure objectivity.
There is, of course, true and false information. Journalists go to incredible lengths to correlate accounts and shape stories before they are published. But the way stories are framed, the words chosen to couch the facts, and the narratives that are put forward are all shaped by the writing and editorial teams. Perspective matters. Subjectivity is both inescapable and essential to good journalism.
“Objectivity,” in this context, has simply meant “the status quo”—an objective journalist perpetuates certain narratives, covers certain communities, deems certain stories worthy of coverage. The status quo has long been dictated by newsrooms much less diverse than cities in which they are based.
Thus, as journalists of color make inroads in the industry, they are perceived to produce work that is less objective. As Latina journalist Maria Hinojosa puts it, “As journalists we never want to be part of the story… [Yet] as journalists of color, we are part of the story.” The sorts of stories journalists of color pursue are often deemed biased because of the communities they belong to or identify with. In turn, their writing is unjustly scrutinized as emotional, angry, or political—the furthest thing from objective.
This double standard is a national phenomenon. And yet it has also been an intimate part of my career as a college journalist, one that has taken a very real, bodily toll on me in the past year or so.
A year ago, I threw my name in for consideration for a high-level leadership position within The Crimson. I’d served as the editorial chair in 2017, and I was willing to devote another year’s worth of hours, stress, time, and energy to seeing through the initiatives I’d put begun. But I also knew that my involvement with on-campus activism and the body of work I’d produced—often critical, often read as angry—would hurt my chances.
So I played politics, marketed myself in a way that was palatable to the people deciding on my future at The Crimson. I tried to hide my emotions, placing a smiling face in front of the very human confusion inside. My work over the past year was the product of dedication and competence. And yet I worried that my peers, like some of my readers, would boil me down to my comportment—not necessarily as it was in reality, but as they perceived it.
Ultimately my bid was unsuccessful, and, in a decision that still feels unjust, I was left off the organization’s masthead entirely.
I’ll never know how perceptions of me outside of my credentials played into the process. But given the different standards journalists of color are held to when it comes to their emotions and presumed objectivity, odds are that perception played a role.
This could be just another story about the need to overcome failure, or another story about the way the newspaper industry is stacked against people of color. And perhaps it is both of these stories. But when you strip back the argument I’ve presented here, this is most of all a story about how being perceived as angry comes with visceral consequences.
The first time I went to therapy, I spent most of the time talking about The Crimson. I did not tell my counselor about how I so often felt I was walking within a shell of myself, as if my actual being had shrunk inside my own skin. The days I spent feeling grounded, present, and fully aware of the world around me were slipping away.
I still haven’t completely processed my stint at The Crimson. I so desperately wish that as I step through the door of our building, I could stop worrying that others see me dressed in anger, an shining red A on my chest. But misconstruing anger is not an act exclusive to virulent racists or raging conservatives. When your peers are those who assume that anger accompanies your skin, your politics, your entire being, the toll is disorienting.
My experiences have made me seriously question whether or not I can ever pursue a career in journalism. I worry that my anger, this mostly monstrous and imaginary friend on my shoulder, will stand in the way.
Above all, I hope the day will come when I’ll be allowed to be something more than an angry journalist of color. I hope I can shed this anger, an old layer of skin that has never felt fully mine, and experience my emotions without worrying about how it will affect perceptions of my work.
These dispatches are a plea. Allow me to feel the way my white peers can, freely and without inhibition.
“We are constantly being told not to be angry. As a black woman especially, I hear it from all corners. To be angry is to give in to stereotypes of the shrill feminist, the mad black woman. To be angry is to trade intellect for emotion. To be angry is to be irrational and violent. To be angry is to be like them. To be angry is to lose. But none of that is true. I am angry because I love. I am angry because what I love is being harmed. I know why my people matter, why the environment matters, why human rights matter, why justice matters. And I know that this all deserves love. I know that it deserves protection. And I know who is fighting to deny it what it deserves. I know that when that which we love is being harmed — to not be angry would be unconscionable. […]
What if we took that anger beyond the internet? What if we took it into the streets more than once every two years? Into our boycotts? Into our strikes? Into the voting booth? What if we took that anger to our city council meetings? What if we took it to their campaign events and press conferences? What if we took it to our school boards and our workplaces? What if we took all this anger born of righteous love and aimed it?”
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As a teenager and budding poet, the very first verse novel I can recall reading is Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes.
Told from the point of view of many diverse high school students in a slam poetry style, it wasn’t hard for me to enjoy. However, the brief glimpses into the characters’ personal lives weren’t enough for me to completely love the book. After finishing Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X, I feel like it filled the gaps that Bronx Masquerade had.
The Poet X tells the story of Xiomara, an Afro-Latina teen who feels suffocated by her mother’s strict religious parenting and frustrated by the way the world perceives her as a brown girl with burgeoning sexuality. For a while, she writes down her truest thoughts in secret, convinced that no one will want to hear them. After being severely punished for daring to explore her sexuality and attraction to her male classmate Aman, she decides to join her school’s slam poetry club and finds the courage to express herself.
One of the first things about the book I noticed was Xiomara’s poetic voice. Even prior to joining the poetry club, it is very distinctive, powerful, and vivid. In the early pages of the book, there is a page called “Names” in which Xiomara explains the origins of her name and the impact of it, evoking the image of a defiant warrior. Her personality is summed up in the following lines: “My parents probably wanted a girl who would sit / in the pews / wearing pretty floral and a soft smile. / They got combat boots and a mouth silent / until it’s sharp as an island machete.”
Although Xiomara initially keeps her thoughts secret, her struggle and desire to speak and act on them is always apparent. This is especially telling in the homework assignments that she turns in for her English class. While the first drafts of those assignments are honest, the final drafts are toned down to convey what Xiomara thinks her teacher, Ms. Galiano, wants to hear. Later, the fact that Ms. Galiano truly cares for Xiomara’s deepest thoughts becomes a key factor in Xiomara’s decision to join the poetry club.
Ms. Galiano’s support of Xiomara is one of the most touching aspects of the book. She is patient enough to let Xiomara join the poetry club when she is ready and a caring enough teacher to gently nudge Xiomara toward slam poetry by introducing it in one of her classes. Later, she even becomes one of Xiomara’s shoulders to cry on after a tumultuous confrontation with her mother. Ms. Galiano reminds me of a Black high school literature teacher I had who encouraged my writing and helped me during a difficult time.
Others in Xiomara’s life include Aman, a young man with good intentions that almost always come through. There is Xavier, Xiomara’s genius twin, who tries his best to support Xiomara despite experiencing a very different sexual awakening from hers. But of the entire cast of characters, the character who most resonated with me after Ms. Galiano and Xiomara was Xiomara’s mother.
Xiomara’s mother is both problematic and sympathetic. She wants the best for her daughter but lacks the ability to listen to her daughter without using religion to criticize her. Her religion is a source of strength, because it helped her through the difficult birth of the twins, so she tries to impose it on them to help them be strong too.
Feeling stifled by her mother, her religion, and her peers, Xiomara uses the written word to say what she can’t say aloud. Most notably, she uses her words to express her sexual awakening and how women are held to different standards than men in religion and real life. The most surprising poem in the book involves her masturbating, something I rarely read about in YA books involving women of color. The ecstasy and stigma surrounding masturbation is examined, and it is refreshingly realistic to see in a book for teens.
Ultimately, I believe Xiomara and her story resonated with me so much because she reflects a part of the teen poet I was and the adult poet I am becoming now. My personal favorite pages are when Xiomara discovers slam poetry and starts to become braver and more honest about her feelings. I understand the joy and struggle Xiomara experiences as a poet because I’ve experienced them many times myself. The Poet X is a testament to finding and expressing your personal voice.
Spider-Man is both a title and a character that morphed and evolved over time.
Although it began as the story of Peter Parker, Spider-Man has since become a mantle taken up by people such as Korean American Cindy Moon and Afro-Latino Miles Morales. At the time of this writing, Miles Morales’ story has been gaining prominence through not only comic books but also the animated film Into The Spider-Verse. Adding to that fame is Jason Reynolds’ 2017 young adult/children’s novel Miles Morales: Spider-Man.
Set in the lively city of Brooklyn, New York, this book examines Miles Morales experiencing a sort of identity crisis. His superpowers are on the fritz and causing him so much trouble at home and school that he is considering hanging up the suit for good. However, Miles soon finds a problem that is affecting both his superhero and civilian lives. Now, he must learn to bridge his past and present as a superhero and teenager in order to defeat an enemy that is all too close to home.
One of the most palpable aspects of this book is how Miles interacts with the city and neighborhood around him. A really fun scene involves Miles and his best friend Ganke on the subway with showtime boys, young break dancers that appear and dance spontaneously for cash tips. Another lively scene involves Miles and his father Jefferson witnessing some playful banter between customers and the barber at a barbershop. These scenes brings Miles’ neighborhood to life in a way that lets the reader see and feel Brooklyn even if they have never been there.
Besides Miles’ interactions with his neighborhood, his interactions with his friends and family are delightful. In fact, the most entertaining interactions involve Ganke, Miles’ crush Alicia, and Miles’ parents. Miles’ parents have a strict yet loving dynamic with their son, while Ganke is both comedic relief and buoyant support for Miles. Finally, Miles’ interactions with Alicia embody both the clumsiness of teenage crushes as well as a complicated, socially aware drive.
Enhancing Miles’ interactions with his family and friends are introspective sijo poems that Miles, Alicia, and Ganke learn to write for class. A Korean form of poetry involving three lines between fourteen and sixteen syllables, the sijos written by the characters allow them to express feelings they have a hard time conveying aloud. A sijo poem that shows a more vulnerable side to Miles goes, “I hate my father’s face when he tells me my block is a burden / like my job is to carry a family I didn’t create / like my life is for fixing something I didn’t break.”
Balancing out Miles’ friends and family is the chilling super-villain that Miles faces. Without giving too much away, the villain is a cleverly crafted character that is more than just some kooky super-powered bad guy. The villain is very much rooted in the real world, something that Miles can’t just punch away. Watching Miles slowly figure out the villain’s motives and connect the dots about their plot is gripping, with the final reveal of the villain’s identity shocking the reader and asking them to critique their own lives.
A final aspect of the book worth commenting on is how self-contained this story is. Even if you have never read a Miles Morales Spider-Man comic book or seen Into the Spider-Verse, you can pick up this book and read it without ever feeling lost or confused. Miles’ superpowers and superhero backstory is casually shown in a way that feels natural rather than an information dump. Some say that comic books are a stepping stone to novels, but this novel is a good gateway to comic books.
Overall, Miles Morales: Spider-Man is a down to earth, thoughtful book that combines the best of superheroics and teenage antics. Miles Morales is both a superhero to himself and a superhero to his loved ones. As he faces a true-to-life villain and learns to balance being a teenager with being a superhero, readers just might discover their own inner super powers too.
Shortly after the Trump Administration announced it was ending Temporary Protected Status for Salvadorans, the New York Times ran an article with reading suggestions for understanding the country those immigrants are expected to return to in 2019.
Of the three books suggested, only one is by a Salvadoran author. Readers are led to assume that Salvadoran storytellers simply don’t exist—a dangerous lie I myself believed for the majority of my life.
Growing up, I devoured many, many books about white people. Stories about white people turned me onto reading. Though prep school and the glamourous New York City were completely foreign to me, J.D. Salinger managed to make Holden Caulfield feel like a familiar friend, a reflection in a funhouse mirror. Ray Bradbury’s short stories introduced me to the place where nostalgia meets science fiction, an intersection I now write from often. Stories about, and by, white people gave me a voice by which to pen my own stories.
But the stories I’d begun to formulate in the margins of a high school notebook full of biology notes were hollow. The dialogue and monologues that I gifted my characters with were all mine, imbued with my teenage confusion and angst. But the characters were not like me. They were not Latinx, they were not the children of immigrants, and they knew nothing of growing up Salvadoran in Los Angeles. My first full-length draft ended up being an eighty-page young adult novel where two of the main characters were white teenagers from the suburbs of Colorado.
At another juncture in my development as a reader, with a college acceptance that relocated me across the country, the handful of non-white professors at my predominantly white institution gifted me stories that were (finally!) not about white people.
In a contemporary African American literature course, Claudia Rankine, Toni Morrison, George C. Wolfe, and Paul Beatty stunned and haunted me. Lisa Ko, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Amy Tan wrote stories about immigrants that struck a chord deep inside.
Perhaps most life-altering were the Latinx authors I hadn’t realized were so desperately missing from my own personal canon. I flipped through Drown by Junot Díaz, as if to catch up for every day I hadn’t spent reading his work. Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera gave me the words to explain the feelings I knew too well, of being American but hyphenated. Achy Obejas, Luis Valdez, Julia Alvarez, Hector Tobar, and other Latinx authors unhinged my timid tongue. They offered well-crafted stories about Latinx families and enemies and lovers. Their work gave me permission to write stories as I lived them, in English and Spanglish and slang.
But El Salvador, the country of my parents’ birth, wasn’t in those stories. The conjugation of voseo, refugees labeled economic immigrants, a U.S.-funded civil war and its aftermath: it was all missing from the literature I was reading. I convinced myself that those stories simply didn’t exist and anything I wrote about El Salvador and Salvadorans was a whisper into a cultural abyss.
It wasn’t until months later that I’d come to realize that these stories existed, but that they’d been hidden away from me. According to Arturo Arias, “the Central American population remains nearly invisible within the imaginary conﬁnes of what constitutes the multicultural landscape of the United States.” Sociologist Leisy Abrego has argued that the U.S. government’s failure to acknowledge individuals fleeing the Salvadoran Civil War as refugees created “the silence that is the large void in generations of children of Salvadoran immigrants growing up in the US being denied access to our own histories.”
The stories I so desperately needed were out there.
But because of the value placed on Salvadoran lives and xenophobic assumptions of what El Salvador offers the world culturally, they were not on my radar. The journey I’m on now is one that involves recovering Salvadoran stories, mining them out with the help of friends and colleagues who offer a title here, a poem there.
It wasn’t until my sophomore spring of college, two decades into my life, that I finally discovered literature that represented El Salvador as fully as I’d come to know it on every international trip back to San Salvador. A professor asked me if I’d ever read Roque Dalton. I hadn’t, and I told him so.
Looking back, I feel an irrational sense of shame in the fact that, as an intense lover of books, I hadn’t heard about the most famous Salvadoran writer. But the stories had been hidden from me, and it wasn’t until I picked up Dalton’s poetry that I began to see the artistic landscape that’s existed in El Salvador for decades.
Though Roque Dalton’s extensive body of work comes from the years leading up to his assassination in 1975, he understood El Salvador and its diaspora the way I’ve come to, decades after his death. In “Poema de Amor” he refers to Salvadorans as,
los guanacos hijos de la gran puta,
los que apenitas pudieron regresar,
los que tuvieron un poco más de suerte,
los eternos indocumentados,
los hacelotodo, los vendelotodo, los comelotodo
Salvadorans, particularly those “eternally undocumented,” are those that do it all: as cooks, housekeepers, landscapers, farmers, and all the jobs in between. They sell it all as street vendors in Los Angeles where they’re criminalized for their attempts to make a living. Roque Dalton’s poetry has reflected what I know about the people who’ve left El Salvador for their new homes up north. Versions of my friends and families live in the poems I spent far too long assuming didn’t exist.
But Dalton was a poet, a damn good one, not an all-knowing oracle. A twelve-year-long civil war left 75,000 Salvadorans dead, 50,000 missing, and hundreds of thousands more displaced all over the world. A scissure of that degree inevitably changed the literature produced about El Salvador, especially when a three-million-person diaspora begins to pick up their pens to write stories Dalton could have never imagined.
In a stroke of luck, I was at Harvard at the same time as a Salvadoran graduate student and poet who led me to a generation of Salvadoran writers who were like me: straddling that space between El Salvador and the United States. One of her first recommendations was a Javier Zamora, whose debut collection was forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press a few months from the day of our conversation.
When it was released, Javier Zamora’s Unaccompanied felt like the book I’d been searching for from the moment I’d realized that writing about El Salvador was not a hopeless endeavor. My complicated relationship with another country that is mine, though more in my nostalgia than anything else, has never been an easy thing to articulate. Yet Zamora writes tactfully, “Tonight, how I wish / you made it easier to love you, Salvador. Make it easier / to never have to risk our lives.” The poems were written in the distinctly Salvadoran Spanglish I’ve learned to speak but had yet to see in print. Reading a line like “to say sobreviviste bicho, sobreviviste carnal. Yes, we over-lived” felt like knowing a secret language, coded just for me.
Roque Dalton died in 1975 and Javier Zamora’s collection was published last year. Their writing spans more than four decades. But initially, those were the only two Salvadoran storytellers I had to cling to. Only in the last few months have I begun building up my own personal canon of Salvadoran writers telling their stories, and indirectly mine, those of my parents, tíos, and tías.
William Archila conciliates the tension between American and Salvadoran by presenting them as one in the same, writing Duke Ellington into Santa Ana in his poetry.
Señor Ellington claps his hands along,
dancing in a two-step blues, stomping
in the center of everyone like a traffic cop
conducting a busy city street.
Leticia Hernández-Linares write musical poems about women who challenge the machismo of the culture they belong to, including one about a woman who shares my own mother’s name.
Sitting with Estella, Dolores conjures
cumbias with sugar on top, about women
who aren’t gonna take it anymore
Yesika Salgado guided me through heartbreak, hunger, and the presumed unknowability of our Salvadoran identity, writing:
every man I have loved does not know my country / has
not been awakened by the rooster’s crow / does not know
the swell of grass and dirt beneath June thunderstorms /
does not smell burning wood and think of home
My canon, writers from both here and there, grew little by little, like a Santa Tecla sprinkle turned tropical storm: Quique Avilés, Claribel Alegría, Cynthia Guardado, Elena Salamanca, Lorena Duarte, Karina Oliva Alvarado, Susana Reyes, harold terezón, Alejandro Córdova, Willy Palomo, Janel Pineda, Claudia Castro Luna, Roberto Lovato, Raquel Gutiérrez, Alexandra Lytton-Regalado, Gabriela Poma.
These writers, whose work has entered my life in its most recent era, give El Salvador and its diaspora shape, complexity, and dignity. Finding faithful representations of Salvadorans in literature has been a difficult process, access to texts being one of the central struggles. Personal recommendations and anthologies like “The Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the United States,” have made the process easier.
But it’s also required hours of sifting through footnotes and hoping that the cited texts are still in circulation. Two bilingual anthologies published by Kalina Editorial, “Teatro Bajo Mi Piel/Theater Under My Skin” and “Puntos de Fuga/Vanishing Points,” have been wildly helpful for identifying contemporary Salvadoran authors. Yet, I wasn’t able to buy copies until I was physically in San Salvador last summer.
These questions of access, of who comes across our stories and why, offers me, as a reader and writer, a challenge. For the sake of a rich but overlooked literary tradition, there’s a need to archive and connect others to our stories with the hope that people will begin to acknowledge that El Salvador is more than just its social ills.
In perhaps my favorite Roque Dalton poem ever, “El Gran Despecho,” he writes:
País mío no existes
sólo eres una mala silueta mía
una palabra que le creí al enemigo
That country of mine, nestled between two Americas, is the vibrant homeland of poetry and prose. Read its literature, lest you believe the lie that it simply doesn’t exist.
I started stealing razors from my dad in the first grade. It was easy.
I watched my mom and older sisters do the same for as long as I could remember. As soon as I began sprouting hair in areas I didn’t want covered (i.e., not the top of my head), I slicked them off quickly and painlessly without telling a soul.
Although I began signaling sexual maturation sooner than most, I was sure that my very understanding mother wouldn’t approve of depilation at age six. I was right. Dr. Miles, my pediatrician, had forewarned her that I showed signs of precocious puberty. My mom vigilantly observed for the markers that I expertly hid.
When I began menstruating at age ten — I concealed that fact for months before an untimely trip to the mall forced me to reveal it — my mom, in shock, exclaimed that it had happened before any pubic hair growth. I sassily retorted that that was only because I handled the fuzzy inconvenience before she even noticed. The glare she darted my way warned me to tread carefully in my remarks.
I was often referred to as “mujercita sin tiempo” — little woman before her time. It began when I decided to put the dolls away and play instead with my little sister. Toys held my interest for a very short period of time. That was the most prominent feature of my precociousness until I opened my mouth. That mouth got me sent to the naughty table in the first grade. It was there that I formed a lifelong friendship with Miguel, the first and only person to know that I had “woman problems” at the time. Perhaps my smart aleck-y attitude should havve alerted my mother to the situation.
Merriam-Webster simply defines precociousness as having or showing the qualities or abilities of an adult an unusually early age, exceptionally early in development or occurrence (emphasis on early). The National Library of Medicine provides a more precise demarcation for precociousness. Precocious puberty is the development of sexual maturation in boys and girls at a chronological age that is 2.5 standard deviations below the mean age of onset of puberty in the general population.
The language is ominous. Precocious puberty is 2.5 times away from average. Average is typical. Two and a half standard deviations below normal naturally seems abnormal. But is it?
For me, it was a minor change. And if you take it from the perspective of pediatric endocrinologist Louise Greenspan, MD, coauthor of The New Puberty, a book geared toward guiding parents through early development and sexual maturation, it’s a minor change for a growing number of girls. In a study launched in 2005 that evaluated a controlled group of girls in three cities, nearly 10 percent of the participants developed signs of puberty before eight years of age.
On a slow Saturday night, a Google search of “early puberty” returns approximately 1.3 million hits in 0.31 seconds. The right side of the search window shows a chart proclaiming precocious puberty a rare condition that is treatable by a medical professional.
Several headlines, some by prestigious news organizations, lament this ordinary change, a change that occurs in all (minus a sliver of a minority) sooner or later. Each publication parrots the others, rattling off a list of negative affects of early maturation — depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, early initiation of sexual activity, etc. — expounding the fears of clueless parents.
I was the fourth born, the third girl in a family of five siblings. My home was a stable household steeped in femininity. I watched my two older sisters grow into their womanhood, and the lessons my mother instilled in them flowed unto me in seamless transition. While I didn’t comprehend everything that was happening, I did understand that puberty was a series of events that would occur over time. My mother explained these changes as they were presented to my sisters, as I was a witness to their evolving bodies. My turn would be next. I wasn’t sure when, but I did know it was coming.
Four years ago, writer Elizabeth Weil profiled a mother and daughter experiencing the onset of precocious puberty for a piece in the New York Times Magazine. The article chronicled how Tracee Sioux, mother and now author of The Year of Yes! fought for a “solution or treatment” to the “problem condition” her nonplussed daughter, Ainsley, was traversing. Doctor after doctor had deemed Ainsley advanced but normal, but that was not the answer Tracee sought. The big, ugly world was revealing itself much too soon. Momma bear had to protect and guard against it. A puritanical concept of innocence was at stake.
The false sense of loss of innocence is the most pressing negative affect of early onset puberty. Society’s fixation on the sexualization of young girls — the famed Lolita Syndrome — should not dictate how we educate our daughters. Let’s divorce the idea of being wanted from that of being a woman and teach girls from the earliest moment possible that they are the owners of their own bodies, and that while they grow, those bodies will change. Girls need to be granted agency over their selves in order to successfully navigate the challenges that arise from childhood into adulthood. Womanhood does not begin with desirability.
In her “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” Leslie Jamison suggests that being a woman requires pain. Jamison goes as far as describing menstruation as “one kind of wound.” For such a central aspect of womanhood to be described as an affliction so casually is troubling. If everything ails, nothing will heal. Pain is not a gender.
Women need to lead the change to stop the stigmatization of our changing bodies. While it may seem preferable to be viewed as a victim rather than a whore, both perspectives are damaging. Our collective understanding of self should be the source of our bonding. The pains of our periods may indicate the possibility of fertility. There should be no shame in that potential. It’s potential: a maybe, but not a certainty. And if it does become a certainty, the reality is just another step in life.
Puberty is a beginning and not an end. It’s a minor change that leads to another that will successively lead to more. It may be scary (or not) and weird at first, but it’s just another phase, like fallen teeth and lanky limbs. Our bodies are our own, and that personal space requires respect. Teach this to our girls and our boys.
Let’s not rob our girls of the beauty of transformation. It will happen whether you want it to or not. Womanhood is process. Revel in the process. Revel in self-care. Love being a woman. It is not unclean.