I am a multi-award-winning poet, artist, and performance artist working at the intersection of mixed- and digital-media. As a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, much of my work focuses on space, place, and identity in post-Colonial America and often addresses the vast disparities faced by indigenous people today. Many of my projects also directly address issues that have impacted me personally, such as mass incarceration, alcoholism and drug addiction, homelessness, eating disorders, and the opioid epidemic. One example of this hyper-personal implementation is my curation of an anthology of poetry by incarcerated indigenous women. I am the only person in my family to never be incarcerated, and offering workshops in correctional facilities while providing these women with a platform for their voices was a project stemming from my own experiences of having family members trapped in the nation’s “justice” system.
In the business facet of my life, I own a small writing services company (MehtaFor) which specializes in creating search engine optimization (SEO) rich content. The emphasis of technology in my business life organically spread to my creative and research life in the past decade. Increasingly, I have been utilizing technology in my creative work, such as the creation of a virtual reality (VR) poetry experience with proprietary software that allows users to immerse themselves in indigenous poetry in new, intimate ways.
My interest in VR partially stems from research from the University of Barcelona that suggests embodiment in VR has the capacity to permanently increase a person’s understanding, empathy, and compassion—my hope is that non-Native users who experience poetry in VR may undergo similar results. I also offer poetry in other non-traditional formats, such as in performance art with elements of shibari rope tying using customized measuring tapes to draw attention to eating disorders. Eating disorders are the deadliest, most under-insured, and most under-diagnosed of any mental disorder, and are especially under-treated in non-white communities.
Indigenous audiences are a natural fit for my work, but I know that those who might benefit the most are non-Native. I consider myself an artist and writer first, but hope to also serve as a source to help encourage knowledge-sharing, the opening of discourse, and information exchange beyond indigenous communities. I am constantly working towards making poetry, art, and technology as accessible and engaging as possible. Unfortunately, poetry is often seen as the literature genre which is the most elite, dry, and boring—even though this, of course, is not true. By introducing poetry to audiences in different formats, I aim to create a welcoming opportunity to experience the genre.
For more information on my art, background, and projects, please visit my site at www.jessicamehta.com.
Do You See the Stars?
This is waking up. Rememberwhen you pressed your thumbs, thick and unforgiving, into my eye sockets? Slow as deathuntil I caved to the dizzy and you whispered, accent sticky, dripping in rose syrup,
Do you see the stars?
And I did. They burst in the darkness like kisses. This city has a heart, flutteringcrazed and drunken as a beast, handsitchy and always wanting, wantingand a mouth with hunger so palpableI gave myself in an instant. I was new, damp when I came here, ridiculousas one of those puppy mill survivorstoo petrified to take a single step from the cageinto green grass and sunshine. I stumbled, blinded, but for the stars.
I risked it all for youbecause it was home, because it was you, the cage I left behind, dank and cloyingand so sadly, pathetically familiar. It was a husk, forgotten like nightmares and used to be’s,
but it was all I’d ever known.
Pulitzer Prize Pig
Pulitzer Prize Pig spoke of what it means to be ***** as a ***** man with a look the look that look women were born knowing how to read. I knew that look the look at fifteen when the AP teacher crouched beside my desk in the dark while flashes of syphilis and gonorrhea shuddered across the projector screen. (Still, even now, I hear the tired clicking of the tapes). I knew the look, saw a look, at eleven when grown men whistled at my unfolding hips and high school boys rolled Corollas along middle school parking lots with eyes that spider-scurried pressed breasts. And I knew, I saw that look, his look at four. In the bathtub, I learned shame— I shot my father in the eye with a plastic alligator squirt gun and never bathed with open doors again. Pulitzer Prize Pig sidled up close, nosed for nipple drinkers and sniffed out my slop. Trough walls are low, but sticky, slick beside stys, and boars are happy with scraps.
I Thought You Were Praying
Through the deserts outside Al Ain, the babysucking like a beast at your breast,mosques gave way to dunesand the oiled street workers to palms. Beyond the camels,past the tribesmen,we didn’t stop until we were away from it all—the malls with their ungodly air conditioning,the fat children making loud love to their sweets,the fat wives engorged in their abayas, rollinglike sun-swollen beetles through the shops.In ballet flats and the jeans that hugged my asslike a fetish, I climbed the dunes as if I belonged,while beautiful golden menh in glorious keffiyehshonked safely from the highway. And I,staggering like a drunk as the sand clung begging and desperate,my cuckolded lover to my perfect white feet, mounted the crest, dropped to my knees,ready and eager as a whore,to fil a mason jar with contraband. And you,nipples burnished as the sand, laughed, I thought you were praying.
About Jessica Mehta
Jessica (Tyner) Mehta is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, multi-award-winning poet, and author of over one dozen books. Place, space, and personal ancestry inform much of her work. She’s also the Editor-in-Chief of Crab Creek Review and owner of an award-winning small business. MehtaFor is a writing services company that offers pro bono services to Native Americans and indigenous-serving non-profits.
Jessica integrates technology, archival photos, and performance art into many of her creative projects. “Red/Act” is a pop-up virtual reality poetry experience made with proprietary software. It aims to introduce more people to poetry, and specifically indigenous poetry, through a uniquely immersive encounter. Her “emBODY poetry” performance series features experimental poetry on nude form while incorporating shibari rope work to address topics on body image and eating disorders.
Her novel The Wrong Kind of Indian won gold at the 2019 Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPYs) and at the American Book Fest Best Book. Jessica has also received numerous fellowships in recent years, including the Everett Helm Visiting Fellowship at the Lilly Library at Indiana University in Bloomington and the Eccles Centre Visiting Fellowship at The British Library in London. Jessica is a popular speaker and panelist, featured recently at events such as the US State Department’s National Poetry Month event, “Poets as Cultural Emissaries: A Conversation with Women Writers,” as well as the “Women’s Transatlantic Prison Activism Since 1960” symposium at Oxford University.
She has undertaken poetry residencies around the globe including at Hosking Houses Trust with an appointment at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England, Paris Lit Up in France, and at the Crazy Horse Memorial and museum in South Dakota. Her work has been featured at galleries and exhibitions around the world, including IA&A Hillyer in Washington DC, The Emergency Gallery in Sweden, and Institute of American Indian Arts in New Mexico.
Jessica is also an experienced registered yoga instructor (ERYT-500®), registered children’s yoga teacher (RCYT®), certified Yoga Alliance Continuing Education Provider (YACEP®), and NASM-certified personal trainer (CPT). She’s the founder of the Get it Ohm! karma yoga and strength movement, which offers free classes to groups that don’t have access to traditional yoga studios and/or don’t feel comfortable in such environments.
For this year’s National Poetry Month at BMP Voices, we seek to celebrate the ways in which we’re interconnected — highlighting community, gratitude, and the ways in which creativity redounds upon itself, fed by collective energy and goodwill. Our fee-free contest is open to all styles and forms of poetry, with an eye toward our mission of discovering voices that are immediate, immersive, and urgent. Poems inspired by the work of others are welcome. We also welcome poems written to other poems or poets.
The way to remove darkness from a room is simply to turn on a light. In the same way to rid yourself of any difficulty, concentrate on the solution rather than the problem.
—Daniel Levin, Zen Oracle Deck
I’m a renewed fan of the manga Fullmetal Alchemist. I watch each episode now with more conscious eyes. View anything from a conscious eye, and it sparks questions of how it relates to life in real time.
Alchemy—a transformational process of construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction. In the manga, all alchemists create a transmutation circle which allows them to transmute the energy of one source to another of equal mass. However, Full Metal, the code name for Edward Elrich’s character, can do this without a circle—a “secret” he acquired during a risky transmutation exchange.
I considered the art of transmutation with anger, another form of energy yet to be mastered.
Passion, the root of anger, is an intense, driving force of feeling or conviction. Merriam-Webster includes the word “overmastering” in their definition, so it is possible to master our anger through passion?
Feelings of anger tend to be triggered by incidents left bottled up in our belly—the seat of our emotions. The bottled-up feelings burst and transmute into destructive behavior. The aftermath unearths a rebirth that’s not always positive.
Could it be the Phoenix was an angry bird, tired of her old life, and allowed herself to combust to cleanse her spirit of what no longer served her?
My own angry narrative reads of dismissal. Emotions categorized as erratic behavior. People made a point to remind me I have so much to be grateful for, and they aren’t wrong. Just wasn’t where I was at the time. Didn’t have an “anger manager” to teach me how transform those feelings into something useful, so the fire regressed back into a bottle of repression. Anger soon became this misunderstood feeling I couldn’t quite grasp or verbalize. The source undetermined. A dangling feeling that would manifest as manic words on a page or nasty ones spewed at a loved one or unsuspecting innocent.
To say anger is only allowed to those who experience trauma minimizes the experience of another. Being a woman of color, specifically, our anger is constantly minimized as unwarranted banter, but Solange Knowles says, you gotta right to be mad… From Serena to Cardi B, even fellow colleagues in the workplace, all treat their anger as side-hustle emotion with no room for growth and scale.
“Angry” Woman Archetypes
I’m sure the woman with metaphorical platinum spoon gets a deep side-eye when she expresses distaste with her controlling parents. Their constant need to silence her voice and impose upon her an “adult path” absent of her own mind and beliefs. Although their intrusive behavior could be the result of financial codependency or her parents trying to live life through her, we’ll never know, because her anger is dismissed. I mean, daddy pays her way, so what is her real complaint, right?
Lack of individuality becomes an issue here, and the expectation to build relationships off a family name is daunting because no one seems to see them outside of that. Fear of expressing their own free thoughts because it may be misquoted in a public forum for likes and reach.
I contemplate how frustrating it can be. Afraid to speak out and assert their need and desire for individual happiness without being “cut off.”
Maybe the woman in the underserved community never sought to have multiple kids and lose sight of her dreams. Spend half her childhood caring for her brothers and sisters because grandma worked twelve-hour shifts or because mom couldn’t juggle the responsibility alone or because her dad chose the hustle over parenting.
These are only surface issues, though, because I’m sure her story runs deep.
Because many of us only look at the surface, see her pop out that EBT card in Whole Foods, ’cause at least she’s trying to be healthy, we judge. Give her the bootstrap lecture and do our due diligence to hold her accountable for her lack of action. Is she wrong for feeling as if the same government programs geared to help her, enabled her due to lack of resources, restricted funding, or case managers who play favorites and fudge numbers to maintain federal assistance?
A seed to consider.
Then there’s the working woman. She works her ass off for those racks of cash, three weeks PTO, and the self-care indulgences each quarter, but that hard work hasn’t netted her anything besides net pay. The proverbial glass ceiling, quite the reality, and the need to take a leap became the daydream that keeps her up a night and doped up on caffeine. She fears trotting down the same path as the woman she saw at Whole Foods swiping the EBT card—though secretly she wishes it was her. The anger courses through her belly and grows. At her break point, she expresses her disdain with the economy and tax bracket disparities during her monthly girls’ brunch, but her friends quickly remind her should be grateful she can even afford brunch.
But should she?
Each day, she navigates through the “big boy” terrain, shattering glass ceilings left and right. Constantly planning her next move, only to be told she isn’t qualified to make one but too qualified to stay where she is and can’t seem to get the qualifications that would make her qualify for the qualified.
Angry they can’t seem to break through. Angry that friends and family minimize their experience into simple affirmations to be repeated three times, while you spin around and touch the ground, but that isn’t always realistic. Their feelings, our feelings, in this moment, right now, are realistic, and it behooves us to constantly tell women they must wish them away as if they never existed. As if their anger, no matter the source, is invalid.
When did we become Justice?
An Angry Solution Prescribed by Alchemy
I sought alchemy as the perfect resolution to our anger because it requires us to master our emotions yet doesn’t dismiss or minimize what we feel. Our anger evolves into a solution, not a problem. The fuel we need to propel forward. The idea of alchemy requires our focus on passion as the source and to reconfigure it into useful matter. Full Metal uses his alchemic power to emerge an iron staff from the ground and fight against his enemies.
Are you willing to use your anger as a means to fight against your enemy?
In this case, the enemy is self: woman vs. woman. Anger as an alchemic formula for healing requires us to be like the fire bender and redirect the energy into a new passion. We deconstruct the old path and reconstruct a new one.
If you are the woman in the underserved community, can you take that anger and use it as fuel to push through the roadblocks? Make those “superiors” your footstool. Demand your worth because, deep down, you’re worth more. Are you willing to see yourself as the Phoenix, burn down everything you thought you knew, rise from the ashes, and soar?
As the working woman, can you wrangle your anger and create your own position or start a company of your own? Design a way to kill the narrative that you are only as good as your last good deed, master your finances and carve out the best life you can possibly live. Are you willing to accept that you alone are the master of your destiny?
To the platinum spoon baby, you are not your parents’ name. Understand that an angry woman with money longer than a man’s peen is the world’s greatest threat. Can you tap into the likes of every woman who’s played the boy’s boardroom and be the Queen you are? You run the board. Allow your anger to be the leverage to attain your “pawns,” find you a good rook and work the hell outta that board. Money and status may be an access key, but it is your passion, through anger, that will set you apart from all the other players in the room.
Instead of a lightning bolt of rage, we must create a metaphorical transmutation circle and transmute our anger to solutions. Anger is rarely, if ever, viewed as a gateway to a solution because it is seen as a fault. “Miss Which” in A Wrinkle in Time gifted Meg with her faults as a superpower. We when accept our anger as a solution, as opposed to a fault, we become “passion alchemists” and use that energy as a portal to set ourselves free. When you claim agency over your faults, no one or thing can own you.
“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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It’s something I’ve heard since I was a child: Go to school, get an education, get a good job. It’s a mantra recited by Black parents to Black children ever since we were allowed to be educated and gainfully employed.
So much of Black history is about celebrating Black firsts: the first Black to reach an executive position at a corporation, the first Black head doctor at a hospital, the first Black ambassador. Reference books are full of sepia-toned photos of dignified-looking men and women of color who overcame prejudice to graduate from Ivy League schools or obtain government appointments. Education and hard work was the only approved way for respectable African-Americans to get a piece of the American dream. The background of iconic Black entertainment is all about coming up. From The Jeffersonsto The Fresh Prince of Bel-Airto Black-Ish, the message is that upward mobility is the way out of poverty and discrimination.
The flip side of that aspiration is less spoken of. It’s the unwritten but universally understood employment contract drawn up between White employers and Black employees in America: To be allowed access to the world of upward mobility, there are certain adjustments to be made. You will have to dress a certain way. You will have to speak a certain way. There are certain behaviors of your employers that you will have adapt to or overlook. That contract has undergone amendments and modifications over time, but the primary stipulation remains the same: if you’re Black and want to get—and keep—a job, you will have to compromise.
In my early twenties, I was working the third shift at Johnny Rockets in Jacksonvillle, Florida. One night I was running the dishwasher with a coworker, a Mexican guy who had been there some months longer than me and was unofficially in charge of the night crew. The restaurant manager, a white guy, poked his head into the door, and he and my coworker went over some closing procedures. The subject of a lack of supplies came up, and the manager placed the blame on the stinginess of the district manager, whom I had to assume was Jewish from the joke the restaurant manager made about him.
I wanted to say something, but I didn’t. I remember thinking that it didn’t affect me, as I wasn’t Jewish, but I knew it was an unprofessional and offensive remark to make in the workplace. I looked at my colleague and he rolled his eyes, a gesture I interpreted to mean that I was to ignore the manager’s comment, which I did.
The next year, I worked a summer job at a warehouse, and one of the foreman handed me a note to give to a shipping and receiving clerk. It said to be sure the “dago truck driver gave her an invoice.” Obviously, the foreman thought nothing of giving the note to me and had no fear of me reading it and saying anything—and he was right, as it turned out.
Both Johnny Rockets and the warehouse job paid minimum wage, and I had no intention of making a career out of either, but the idea of quitting or confronting a manager and getting fired because I felt offended was unthinkable to me at the time. Jacksonville was, and is, a very conservative southern city, and jobs were hard to get if you were Black. I wasn’t rich. I needed to work. So I decided to adopt the strategy of focusing on my job, not making waves, and working until I could do better.
Things improved when I moved to Atlanta. In Atlanta, the Black success mantra manifests itself like no other city in America. You could say Atlanta was built on it. Here was a city where Blackness wasn’t defined by survival, but by prosperity and its display. There were Black people in positions of power, from the mayor’s office to corporate boardrooms. Black culture was Atlanta culture.
The economy was booming, and I landed an office job not long after I arrived. The casual displays of racism I saw in Jacksonville were nonexistent here. But in the “Black Mecca,” genteel condescension can be as bad as blatant hostility. In meetings, I would be interrupted while trying to speak. If I made a suggestion, it was patronizingly listened to and quickly ignored—but if a white colleague made the same suggestion worded differently almost immediately afterward, they would receive praise for it. White coworkers would make coded comments about other coworkers’ mistakes being due to their ethnicities in my presence.
I hid my displeasure behind nervous smiles and shaking my head. I moved from one corporate job to the next, and very rarely did I speak up. I was making a very nice income for a single man with no kids in a major city. I didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize that.
I grew up proud and aware of my heritage. My immediate family shared stories with me about our ancestors from the time I was old enough to understand them. As a teen I devoured the words of Malcolm X and the music of Public Enemy. In Atlanta I was surrounded by examples of Black empowerment. Me and my friends were heavily into Afrocentrism and got into discussions about racism that would last for hours. I knew what Black people suffered and how they fought to gain access to gainful employment, and I believed in Malcolm’s strategy of confronting racism head on wherever it exposed itself.
But when I walked through office doors on Monday morning, I still made the compromises I felt I had to make to keep food on the table and a roof over my head.
What’s a paycheck worth? If someone makes a racist remark in a social setting, it’s easy to call them out on it. In a business environment, how do you handle that? Do you go off on the person or ignore it? Whatever you do, you’re risking a lot—your career if you address the remark, your self-respect if you don’t. It’s a choice no one should have to make, but Black employees face it every day. The results can be soul killing.
A couple weeks ago, political commentator Melissa Harris-Perry publicly parted ways with MSNBC. On the day she left, she released a statement saying that the tone of her show was being compromised and that she refused to be a “token, mammy, or little brown bobble head.” Her experience is not unique. In workplaces across the country, there’s still an expectation that people of color who rise in their chosen professions should be eternally grateful for being given the opportunity to work—as if they didn’t get there on their own merits—and that they are obligated to maintain a safe, nonthreatening image.
Recently, I was talking to someone being groomed for a management position in a company I work with. He was a younger White guy, and he often came to me for mentorship. We weren’t close, but we got along pretty well. I enjoyed having someone to talk to about my work and exchange ideas with. One day, in the middle of one of these conversations, a client approached us. She was a Black woman, in her early forties if I had to guess. Her speech and dress gave the impression of being poor or working-class. She asked a few questions about a product, then left. Once she was out of earshot my colleague said, “Leave, and take your nappy weave with you.”
I was stunned. I’d never felt anything from him that would have made me expect a comment like that. I can only guess that he felt comfortable saying that around me because I was seen as “safe.” I felt anger rising up inside me, and right away the professional and social indoctrination about not making waves rose up to check it. This time, however, outrage won out. I pulled him aside and confronted him, and he gave me a weak half-excuse, half-apology.
Our relationship hasn’t recovered. I cut off any conversation not pertaining to work, and I stopped mentoring him. I may have betrayed my own “safe” image, but I don’t care. I’m at a point in my life where the one-sided compromise of the Black success mantra no longer serves me.
Words matter. When disrespect goes unchallenged, it only gets worse. I want to be successful, I want security. But I don’t want either at the cost of my integrity.
I have a pretty good professional life. I have mentors of different backgrounds in various fields, and I’ve made connections that I hope to be able to cultivate for years. But I’ve also had enough contact with clueless and casually racist people in business settings that I have my guard up, anxious for the day when someone I thought knew better makes a hateful remark couched as a joke and I’m expected to laugh about and shrug off.
I shouldn’t have to accept that, and I don’t intend to.
I stopped being a writer; today I have the words to tell you why.
I don’t write because I’m being watched. I turn off the words; I numb the feelings; I avoid the associations; I distract the thinking; I step away from the situation. I am here to document the ways in which I have chosen silence over action.
The first time I went to Friday prayers after moving to Chicago, no one said salaamto me. I thought, “Is this how a Desi gets treated in a predominately Arab masjid?” I remembered Dad telling me about the young, connectionless men at his masjid. He said, “They keep coming and going out of nowhere – they must be spies. No one talks to them.”
He asked me, when I told him about volunteering at an Islamic nonprofit, where their charitable donations went. He said these organizations get in trouble for sending their money abroad and their members get labeled terrorist sympathizers.
I text my sisters that I have a thing to tell them that’s not bad but I feel weird telling them on the phone so remind me to tell you when we all next meet (days, weeks, months?) so whoever the FBI has assigned to read this group text won’t find out (can’t I have some secrets, FBI agent?).
Before we got married, Neema seriously asked me if I was an FBI agent. “You’re perfect,” he said. Too perfect, he didn’t say.
You could say we’re paranoid; but we’ll say we’re up-to-date on our news and have learned our histories. Connection is risk.
I decided to practice radical empathy after Michael Brown was shot. I did not and do not have a hard time feeling empathy for protesters, for rioters, for the rage that leads people into the streets or for the rage that leads them to want objects to burn. I never wrote that I felt this way but I do feel this way and have no difficulty conjuring these emotions (but do struggle to make them disappear).
I practiced empathizing with George Zimmerman and with Darren Wilson and with Timothy Loehmann and with the officers of Waller County Jail and with Dante Servin and with the Baltimore Police Department and with Jason Van Dyke and with and with and with and with and with
I didn’t like it and I succeeded. But that’s a different story.
I am going to qualify here because if I do not you will wonder that having empathy for someone does not mean excusing someone.
I tried practicing radical empathy after James Foley was executed.
I am trying not to stop myself from writing this.
I tried practicing radical empathy after James Foley was executed. That empathy exists as a heaviness in my chest and a shortness of my breath. That empathy pushes at the edges of my heart but I am scared to let it in. I feel it as a failure of my humanity and I fear it as a failure of our humanity. I do not Google ISIS because I do not want anyone to know I Google ISIS. I do not know the stories or motivations or language of the humans-not-monsters who constitute ISIS because I do not think I can subsequently assert their humanity without putting my own into question. Empathy is risk. I am not a monster.
But I will own to being a coward; by now you know this. In my circles we talk about strategies for change: sometimes you want to be a Malcolm and sometimes you want to be a Martin. Mostly I am a chump choking back both my words of violence and my words of peace.
I remember back to my ethics class in journalism school. The question was whether journalists should not publish information that the government asks them not to publish for security. “Well of course,” said the class, “for security.”
For. Whose. Security?
I do not remember agreeing to value our lives more than their lives. I do remember my question knocking up against the insides of my teeth as I kept my mouth shut. I do remember remembering Abu Ghraib and air strikes against civilians and the Pentagon Papers and the people like me who were killed for the security of people like me. I do remember not saying that I thought our allegiance as journalists was to the truth.
I grew out of wanting to argue to argue. I do not hold these ideas as objects in my mind with dimensions I can manipulate and play with. I feel them in my gut and they bubble up as bile in my mouth. I do not want to taste this publicly in our class discussion or over coffee or as a Facebook comment. I do not want the acid that is burning holes in my stomach to sting in polite company. Would you even understand that while I skinned my knees on the same playgrounds as American soldiers and while my livelihood is tied up in American interests they serve, my mouth also prays the same prayers as those Arabs and Afghans and Pakistanis and Persians we are meant to fear? Maybe you could not understand me but you do suspect me in my skinny jeans and brown skin.
Understand this: I have written. And I have deleted. And deleted and deleted.
I know I am watched. As a consequence, I decided to restrict my speech and my press and my pursuit of happiness. I have been silent, but I have not been blind. I, too, have been watching.
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.