We (Self) Care Too Much
Buds for life
Hellllooooo Dames Nation! We are Zan and Miranda, two people who are only slightly less goober-y than this ten-year-old photo of us—attending a “fancy party” in a college dorm room—would suggest. Zan is a full-time freelance writer and YA author who lives in Los Angeles; she’s mostly interested in things she would have written off as “dumb girl shit” in her teens. Miranda is mere weeks from finishing her MFA in Fiction at Washington University in St. Louis (she’s also written some freelance stuff) and is very busy trying not to get eaten by her adorable but bitey puppy, Dudley.
[Miranda: Feels correct that my dog is always slightly disdainful-slash-suspicious-slash-anxious because, like, eternal same.]
For this edition of Two Bossy Dames, we wanted to talk about a subject that’s been coming up a lot between us lately, and—as far as we can tell—all over the country / internet / world: coping mechanisms. When we’re watching 80’s action movies at 2:00 am (Miranda) or something from Bravo’s suite of reality television programming at a reasonable hour (Zan) or walking circles around our neighborhoods listening to celebrity gossip podcasts (both) (Who Weekly 4 life), what are we doing? What’s the difference between coping and healing, and what does coping do for us that healing—which is necessary, but can also be draining, difficult work—can’t?
If you read this newsletter you’ve probably heard that “guilty pleasure” is a stupid, usually sexist concept, so we’re not even going to go there, but we did want think about the stuff we do “for fun” a little bit—whether that stuff gets us where we want to go or not, and if not, why not. At the end of the newsletter we have a grab bag of links to stuff that will hopefully help you cope with whatever’s going on in your life this week! Without further ado:
Zan: I am actually VERY excited about coping mechanisms as a theme because this is something I got kind of obsessed with during The Direction Disaster, aka the year I spent caring only, truly about the men of One Direction. Because it felt very obvious to me that being obsessed with this boy band was a coping mechanism, in a kind of embarrassing way.
Like, I was barely surviving a depressive episode, I was unhappy or uncertain about work stuff, I hadn't dated anyone I liked in a real way in a long time. Of course I was going to get obsessed with a bunch of cute boys singing about true love. Like, how embarrassing of me. I felt transparent and, maybe worse, very childish.
But also, eventually I came to: there's nothing wrong with coping. Sometimes you gotta cope! Sometimes that's all you can do! I was dealing with very adult stuff. It was okay to want something to feel simple and joyful and uncomplicated for a couple of hours a week.
I mean, I was also doing all of the "deeper work" of healing (therapy, meds, exercise, job-quitting, etcetera), but while I did those things, I needed something to get me through the days, and Louis William Tomlinson, my trash rat Capricorn son, was that thing.
At the time, I also thought a lot about romantic fantasy and how it’s sold to girls and women, and then we’re mocked for believing in it or caring about it. I considered the money I was spending on albums and concert tickets and how it wasn’t supporting anything particularly noble. But it felt justifiable, somehow, I guess because it felt very clear that it was going to the ultimately noble cause of supporting me.
I have much more complicated feelings about my recent foray into skincare & makeup, two things that, six months ago, I would have told you I had an absolute bone-deep disinterest in. Don’t worry, I’m not going to re-hash the skincare wars here (though if you want to read about faces, Chelsea G. Summers’ piece for Unruly Bodies in the one), but it feels like a useful framework for asking other questions about what’s self-care versus self-coddling. Here’s a line from a piece I liked recently, by Charlotte Shane for The Cut:
“Instead of Botoxing wrinkles for our peace of mind, we’re supposed to practice routine selflessness and politically motivated restraint for the imagined greater good. So yeah, a lot of the time, maybe even most of the time, indulging our beauty rituals can barely scrape the surface of our anxieties. But abstaining from them entirely can make our lives as cramped, joyless, bitter, and self-flagellating as obsessing about our looks does.”
As someone who has tended toward both extremes, I recognize that during the years I spent washing my hair with baking soda and apple cider vinegar I was frankly more obsessed with proving a point about myself and my looks than I am now that I make things a little easier on myself and buy DevaCurl at a salon every few months.
One of the few things I feel totally unconflicted about is what I’ve come to think of as The Great British Baking Show of reality TV. It's from Japan and it's called Terrace House and of course it features some maddening idiot bros, but mostly it's just very sweet and soothing and I love it, and highly recommend it to you.
Miranda: I think Charlotte Shane is right, essentially. (Can you tell how hard it is for me to write the words “[someone other than me] is right”?) Even during periods when I have personally been harder-line in my own self-presentation re: how much time I am willing to allow myself to spend on it, I recognize that the point she is making is not a bad one.
But also, if we're going to make a choice to Botox or face-mask or put lipstick on or even shave our legs, I think it's smart to understand the conditions under which these choices were manufactured and made available and attractive to us.
There's an Ellen Willis quote from her essay "Lust Horizons,” which is collected in No More Nice Girls: "a truly radical movement must look … beyond the right to choose, and keep focusing on the fundamental questions. Why do we choose what we choose? What would we choose if we had a real choice?" (I read the essay back in 2010 or 2011 but it—and that quote specifically—has been, for obvious reasons, making the rounds of late; I came across it most recently in Amia Srinivasan's excellent "Does anyone have the right to sex?" in the LRB.)
Willis is talking specifically about sexual choice—which, don't worry, I have sexual choice thoughts!—but I think it applies (or maybe doesn't not apply) when it comes to self-care, too. By which I mean: choices made about one's appearance (especially if you're as close to the Western cultural standard as I am un/lucky to be) are made under the umbrella of patriarchy. And while I don't want anyone living cramped, joyless lives, I do think there's something to be said for trying to sneak out from under that umbrella. For trying to find a way to care for yourself that one, feels joyful, and, two, isn't always already (lol can you tell I'm in grad school) also getting you closer to the female ideal as sold to us by capitalism, patriarchy, Cosmo, etc.
But okay, I said I'd talk about sex! For the past couple months, for no particular reason, I've been spending a not insignificant amount of time thinking about how much of my desire was formed by and around cultural products made by men who run the gamut from "deeply problematic" to "sexual predator." Like, I'm sure there are other reasons I am attracted to men who are willing to argue-with-slash-talk-down-to-slash-yell-at-me, but I don't think the fact that The West Wing premiered the year I was twelve is not connected. (Don't worry though, my AIM screen name was "morethandonna," it's not like I didn't know it was a problem.)
Donna is all of us.
Anyway, I think what I've proved so far is that none of our choices or desires are free or exist in a vacuum (um, duh) and I guess what I want to say coming out of that is: this doesn't mean harm reduction can't also enter into your coping calculus. Like, there are more and less responsible ways to cope, and just because, for example, you, a single person, eating less meat, won't by itself reverse global warming, it doesn't mean you shouldn't consider eating less meat. Or like, at least less red meat.
Basically, not being able to fix something doesn't mean you should feel free to make it worse slash not care and if you don't believe me, ask Kant, I'm pretty sure that's what the categorical imperative is all about. For a longer, smarter exegesis that doesn’t list The Critique of Pure Reason as pre-req, I recommend Meredith Haggerty’s excellent deep-dive into American Giant, a clothing company that makes a point of manufacturing all of its products stateside.
[Zan inserts herself here to say; did you know that Miranda and I took a Kant seminar together in college to impress our boyfriends? Not a single one of us was cool.]
Oh also! bad eighties action movies! I've been watching a lot of them, first in order to deal with thesis stress and now to deal with post-thesis depression. Thank you podcast How Did This Get Made for introducing me to such gems as The Running Man and Johnny Mnemonic; thank you Nicholas Cage for your entire filmic oeuvre.
I think one of the most delightful things about them is how they're often so overtly patriarchal-slash-capitalist it becomes clear how utterly ridiculous the whole underlying deal is. (What are male action stars if not the patriarchy on literal steroids!) Like, in Demolition Man, Sylvester Stallone devours a burger made of out rat meat to prove a point about what "real men" eat! (The movie takes place in a future society where everyone's a nonviolent vegetarian? And this is a bad thing?)
Zan: Basically I agree with you w/r/t harm reduction and the simultaneous importance and impossibility of trying to figure out why we want things—trying to untangle what's inherent from what's imposed, as if there even were binary possibilities in this life.
I actually just finished reading an advance copy of Sheila Heti's Motherhood, which isn't out until May but is a lot this kind of thinking—her working through her feelings around whether she wants to have children or not, and where her feelings around the subject come from. But also that's a very reductive way to describe the book, which about art-making and the time that's required to do it, and inheritances and expectations and sadness and, to lazily quote the title of her first book, this question of How Should a Person Be?, when that person is living in this particular kind of body and trying to figure if that fact needs to mean anything to her.
I'm actually in a very weird place right now because I just had surgery, and so I need to be coping, but also, the surgery has messed with all of my normal coping mechanisms. In January I broke my pinky, and it turned out that this was because there was a cyst in the bone, weakening it, so last week someone went in and took out the cyst and put some cadaver bone in there instead. (I have made many, many jokes about the probability that I am now eternally haunted by my own pinky.)
The surgery was routine, brief and relatively minor, but I woke up with my whole right forearm in a cast, when I had been expecting what I got when I broke it—a little taped-on splint. And now I can't really type. I can't exercise, because you don't want to sweat up a cast. I can kind of cook but only barely wash dishes.
Almost all of my coping mechanisms are also ways of keeping busy. Or staying active? It's hard to tell, and it's hard to talk about, because it ends up sounding like I'm bragging on a job application or something. "My greatest flaw as an employee is that I care too much." "Oh, I really struggle with taking two weeks off from the gym." But like ... I am genuinely struggling with these things. Working out is a way to manage my anxiety and various body-image issues. Same re: cooking, and same re: writing, except that one is good for the gamut of “my issues,” not just the physical ones.
I manage my life by ... managing it, in a lot of kind of exacting ways. Which is probably one of the reasons I'm so particularly in my head about whether having a skincare regimen is acceptable or not: because it doesn't fit into my usual rubric of self-care as thing-other-people-perceive-as-work. Like, going to the gym and / or yoga 6 days a week is a totally luxurious indulgence, in terms of time and money spent on myself, but because other people don't like exercising as much as I do, I get way less side-eye, internally and externally, when I do 90 minutes of strength training on a Monday morning than when I spend 15 minutes putting on serums before bed each night.
Also probably, men exercise but don't do skincare, so there's that, too, in re: the way we look at those activities.
I mean, the real answer is: no one knows anything, and there is no best way to be alive. One of the things I do appreciate about the ceaselessly babbling brook of the internet is that it can sometimes remind you in these really concrete ways that there are other perspectives out there—not just the horrible ones (so many of those!!!!) but also ways you wouldn't have thought to see a thing, or maybe even a way you don't see a thing, but you can see how someone else might. To that end, here is Arabelle Sicardi on a place both of us find terrifying: Sephora.
"What I really like is that Sephora is a place where femininity is prioritized. It’s one of the few places in a public venue where you should be playing with makeup and presentation in ways where anywhere else, in public, it’s weird and people would look at you. If you do your makeup on the train, people will stare at you and give you side-eye like, get it together. In Sephora, you’re the weird one if you’re just looking and not doing something because everyone else is creating."
Miranda: I actually think one of the biggest differences between us—and like, pointing out our differences is worthwhile because for years, when we lived in the same place and had hair of similar length, people would often mistake us for each other even though I am at least an inch taller than you and also, you know, don't look like you at all—is the mix of depression / anxiety we deal with. Like, I think I'm probably more depressed day-to-day than you are, and maybe as a result my coping mechanisms tend to look a lot more like the absence of self-care, whereas you're more anxious, so yours look like an excess of self-care.
This is all sort of throat clearing, but I think it has to do with what I'm going to talk about next. The first thing that struck me, reading that Arabelle Sicardi quote, was how uncomfortable the kind of femininity that gets prioritized inside a Sephora makes me.
Like, inside a Sephora, I don't experience joy or freedom or play; I experience (sometimes literally!) a panic attack, my brain telling me, this is how to be a woman correctly, and you're not doing it right. And part of it I think is, obviously, the things that patriarchy codes as "feminine" it also codes as "worthless," and I've definitely internalized some of that messaging—but I think it's also because I'm already close enough to the patriarchal ideal that wanting to get closer feels like some kind of betrayal.
I'm harder on myself because I know that I can get away with not wearing makeup. I can leave the house with my hair unwashed and my face greasy and I'll still be white and straight and cis and my skin will still be like, okay, and I will still "pass" as feminine / cute enough / etc., and so it feels wrong to move further in that direction. Only moving away from that feels okay to me. Because I already meet certain beauty standards, I feel weird about deciding to invest a lot of time and effort into meeting them even more fully.
Reading that interview with Arabelle Sicardi (whose writing, by the way, everyone should read if they're not already; for example, this Hazlitt piece from the end of 2017 that begins with the sentence, "I knew this year would be strange when it started off with my failed kidnapping," and proceeds to be exactly as terrifying (in the best way) as you would, on that basis, think it to be—and then also, unexpectedly, touches the sublime), I was struck something the interviewer, Sara Black McCulloch, says in the intro, "There’s a huge difference between trying to make yourself someone you’re not and allowing yourself to become the person you want to be."
For some people, traditional feminine beauty stuff allows them to access the person they want to be. When I do it, I always feel like I'm playing someone else's game—so that even winning feels like a kind of losing. In think it comes down to: on some fundamental level I think I should be giving the power my appearance affords me up.
But okay, counterpoint: I'm so (for myself) hard line on all this beauty stuff, but like, when I give a reading? I put on eyeliner. And my number one coping mechanism (besides laying in bed and watching Frasier) is cleaning, followed closely by cooking—pretty much the most stereotypically feminine tasks ... ever. So, like, you're never that far from the patriarchy! How fun for everyone!
Sort of related to harm reduction, this piece (originally linked on Ann Friedman's newsletter, I'm pretty sure?) on living in the "Age of Emergency" has made me feel weirdly hopeful about the future, which you know I usually am not. Also, because I taught Jenny Zhang's "We Love You Crispina" (from her collection Sour Heart) to my students a couple weeks ago, I've been slowly reading / rereading this Zhang essay on ... well, a lot of things, but especially the embarrassment of poetry / the embarrassment of desire / the embarrassment of emotion more generally. Finally! Two images on my mind recently: Tracey Emin's "I've Got It All" and Catherine Opie's "Self-Portrait/Pervert." Three, actually, because I think about [heads-up for nudity in this link] "Self-Portrait/Pervert" always in conjunction with "Self-Portrait/Nursing"—probably because … someone (I hate that I can’t remember this right now; I want to say Maggie Nelson but I am also somehow sure it’s not Maggie Nelson) mentions them together ... somewhere.
Zan: It’s funny, I actually had a long conversation with my mom about this last night—about domesticity and, of all things, MLMs. We were talking about how many new moms we’ve known who end up doing multi-level marketing stuff, and what it means, especially at that really scary transitional moment, to want or need to affirm yourself as still being active in The Marketplace. Because it’s not like new moms need anything else on their plates, but they do need time for themselves. And often, the way that’s offered to them—the way that’s seen as acceptable for them to take it—is to do a thing that’s clearly monetarily profitable. (Or promises to be, anyway.)
Because there is absolutely nothing wrong or weird or value-less about cooking and cleaning. Those are really essential tasks! But it feels sometimes like we got so far—saying, hey, “women’s work” is work, and it’s hard, and not everyone is suited to it, and also, it can be boring—and no farther, not to the point where we figured out how to value that work for what it does and is, how to acknowledge the time and energy we put into doing it. Like, the consensus is that a home-cooked meal is the cheapest, maybe healthiest and hopefully tastiest option, but patriarchal culture has no value for the time and skill it takes to produce, so when feminists were like “everyone out of the kitchen!!!” that stuff got kind of abandoned, instead of re-imagined.
And like, good on those feminists for throwing down their spatulas. I’m glad that happened! But now we’re here, and wouldn’t it be nice if we could start doing some re-imagining. Like, peeking out from under the umbrella that informs our choices, and also saying, the shade this umbrella casts is a shadow, not a definitive darkness. I can still see a lot under here, and I’m allowed to start to define for myself what I’m looking at when I do. I don’t want to get closer to a patriarchal norm, but I do want to do the things that give me joy—making beauty, making food, caring for the spaces I live in, including my body. So hopefully we can figure out a way towards those things that’s more informed by our desires, and less tied up in… you know, everything else.
A list of things that help us cope:
This tee shirt, for days when we worry we’re bringing shame on ourselves and our families by trying so hard to make stuff.
The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, edited by Karen V. Kukil. (No, seriously.) For days when you think you’re the worst, dumbest, laziest person, and need to be reminded that everyone has these thoughts, even capital-A Artists.
Eighties action flops, specifically Tango and Cash (1988), for days when you need to turn your brain off. [Shot of Sylvester Stallone in a three-piece suit, reading The Wall Street Journal] Voiceover: Meet Ray Tango. He likes money. But doesn’t bother … with Cash. [Shot of Kurt Russell in jeans and a loosely-knotted tie] Voiceover: Meet Gabe Cash. He won’t dance around trouble, and he doesn’t mind stepping on toes. Pairs nicely with the relevant HDTGM episode. [Warning: it is a legitimately bad movie, and also from the eighties, so—unnecessarily violent and also racist and also homophobic.]
For days when you can’t get out of bed, Anne Boyer’s “What Resembles The Grave But Isn’t.”
For days when you need to change your look, Robyn’s haircut.
Young adult novels, for days when you need to bury yourself in someone else’s work and words for a while. Zan recommends Mary HK Choi’s Emergency Contact and former Dames pinch-hitter Amy Spalding’s The Summer of Jordi Perez, which are both out now, as well as Brandy Colbert’s Finding Yvonne and Maurene Goo’s The Way You Make Me Feel, which will be out this summer. [Dame Sophie can heartily second the recommendations for Jordi Perez & TWYMMF: they are both heart flip-flop-inducing and thought-provoking and funny as heck, and as LA stories about friendship & romantic love, pair beautifully. You know, the way Amy & Maurene themselves did when they co-edited our November 2016 guest issue! I will be reading Emergency Contact & Finding Yvonne ASAP, of course!]
Oh also Adrienne Celt’s Invitation to a Bonfire: not YA, but the kind of sexy literary historical thriller that will make you mad at whatever you read next for not being it.
And this gimlet-eyed micro-fictional gem, by Erinrose Mager, whose writing you should all be reading.
And for when traditionally femme pursuits are not enough: Learning how to throw a punch.
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