“Want You Back” makes its way onto a playlist I label “july pop,” a short collection of upbeat songs I listen to between spins of the Gone Now and Melodrama albums, which I swallow whole all season. I am not interested in working out during these weeks, but on the mornings I have off, I listen to “july pop” and put on sneakers and a sports bra and walk around Battery Park and South Street Seaport and never break a sweat. Knowing my days in the city are numbered, I walk to embrace the narrow FiDi streets, the backdrop of my college memories, before everything changes. In the afternoons, I walk straight up and down Broadway, six, seven, eight miles per day, to and from SoHo brunches and East Village ramen and Brooklyn lemonade. (The days are heady this season. I can still feel their potency now when I am brave enough to reminisce.) Walking through the city all summer feels like an accomplishment rather than an obligation, as if opportunities will sprawl from my front door forever.
Flash forward now, to the following October: I am running around a track in Providence wearing the same sports bra but a new pair of sneakers, which I bought begrudgingly—the sixty dollar charge feels like a critical loss. I am missing my college friends and their feminine embrace, my classes and my identity, my former job and my sense of purpose, my walks in the Financial District. I have very few responsibilities and the kind of free time that adults fantasize about. I am running most days of the week after work. I am extremely unhappy.
I sit down on the track, my forehead dripping sweat, the fall heat suffocating like summer sun after just a few laps. I take a Snapchat of my bitter face and caption it: If I’m going to be miserable anyway I might as well be skinny.
I look at my list of friends but hesitate before I send it because I don’t believe what I’ve written, at least not completely, and I don’t want my friends to believe it, either. I especially don’t want them to hear it from me. I am supposed to be the capital-F Feminist friend. I am supposed to be the one who challenges these standards, not the one who adheres to and perpetuates them. I am supposed to be better than this. I delete the picture but run another lap.
In December I start spending more money on clothes, on new pairs of glasses, on gel manicures. I notice that people are noticing. They compliment my wide-leg black dress pants, my boots with a too-high heel, the highlights in my hair. They ask me how I manage to always dress so well, always look so nice, and I feed off of it. My body begins to feel like an accessory, something that exists for the aesthetic pleasure of others, for the first time since high school. Then and now, I start to believe that I can use my appearance to get me what I want: satisfaction, attention, validation, purpose.
It’s February now and I am not eating after 4 pm and I am running on the track in a sweatshirt on a rainy Sunday morning because I sent a text message I regret on Saturday night. I realize I’ve lost a bit of weight slowly then all at once and I am the thinnest I’ve been in my adult life. I have gotten sick more times since graduating in May than I did in all four years of college combined so no one is surprised when I get the flu this year. It leaves me feeling weak for longer than it should but I have plans on Friday, important plans, so I go to the mall after work and buy a crop top to wear out. As I shop, I convince myself that now I will be able to attract the guy I’ve been trying to win over. I believe the delicate combination of my thinner figure and my more revealing clothing will allow me to control situations, render myself irresistible, all-powerful, God-like.
If my approach is successful, if my body and its reveal get me what I want, then I am a model of female sexual empowerment. But what am I if they don't?
I am exhausted. Standing next to him, I lean back against a brick wall and subtly glance to my left whenever I can. He buys me a Bud Light that I didn’t want but don’t regret.
It’s March and I am on the phone with a friend and she is insisting that when she comes to visit me in Providence she’ll wingwoman for me at my favorite bar. I tell her that I don’t think she would be very good at that. She asks, surprised, Are you kidding me? Don’t you remember that bar in Florence and the lacrosse player? I nod, laughing along as I remember the pivotal moment to which she is referring. I know you have the personality for it, I explain to her, but we look too much alike. Any guy would see you, realize you’re the hotter version of me, and choose you instead.
Next I decide that since I’ve lost weight I should really build muscle, but in a healthy way, of course. A body positive, even feminist way. I need to do yoga, I decide. Yes, I know how to handle all of this. Yoga will fix everything. Although I haven’t noticed anything wrong with my skin, everyone I know keeps telling me I should be using a toner when I wash my face. No matter how many times I ask, no one can explain to me exactly what “toning” means or what part of my face needs to be fixed by it. It’s a toner, it’s super natural and good for you, it’ll tone your skin, everyone tells me. I am perplexed and indignant but I buy a bottle anyway, use it every morning and night.
It’s April and I am at a party standing in a stairwell with a boy I’ve been flirting with exclusively through friends for a few weeks now. I spend a half hour listening to him tell me about a girl he’s been eating, drinking, traveling, and sleeping with for months. But we’re not together, he assures me as he takes a step closer. Really, she’s not, like, my girlfriend or anything. I roll my eyes. Classic, I tell him, as I clench a plastic cup filled with half a bottle of red wine. You wanna have your cake and eat it, too. When I turn to leave he touches my arm and spews out a list of impulsive compliments, trying to grab my attention before I move on. Your hair always looks so perfect, Jaclyn, and you dress so well and your nails are always painted so nice and I love that, that’s so nice, really, I’ve noticed. His voice is both hushed and rushed as we hear the sound of a woman coming through the front door of the apartment building one floor below us. Before I walk away, I lean in and whisper to him, Your girlfriend’s downstairs.
Later in the month: the weather is getting warmer and I have fixated on wanting to get rid of the red bumps on my upper arms that have been there for as long as I can remember. As I Google how to banish them once and for all—it’s called keratosis pilaris, you know, and it’s caused by a buildup of keratin, which actually protects your skin from infection, and there are 3 million cases of it per year in the US alone and there are products you can buy that promise they will fix it forever—I picture how I would look if I didn’t have them, how I would glow all summer long. I picture a perfect self living an ameliorated version of my life. If I fix the few things I don’t like about my body, then I will surely end up posing on a picturesque dock in a dress as the sun sets in orange; at bougie barbecues wearing an oversized white hat; strolling out of the ocean waves Baywatch-style with my hair blowing perfectly in the wind. I buy the generic brand of an expensive cream and incorporate it into my morning and night routines, right after the toner. I buy a bottle of a vitamin that I read can help, too, and plan to put it directly on my arms before I shower each day. I sit with a scissor at the desk where I wrote my college thesis and cut open each of the two hundred tiny capsules one by one, spilling the liquid from each pill into a sandwich bag to create a supply and then throw away the outer shells. The months are long this year.
It’s Memorial Day weekend and I am in the bathroom of a bar in Newport tucking my shirt into my jeans to define my waistline. Since high school I have been wearing dresses and skirts almost exclusively, ones that flow out and rarely accentuate my shape, which I never thought twice about, but recently something shifted in me and I have been wearing skinny jeans and black V-neck shirts as often as I can. I like this outfit because it makes me feel small in the middle. I care about this more than I wish I did and more than I will admit. My favorite pair of jeans, perfectly hugging my ass and legs, have begun to rip and I am preemptively devastated at the damage I know is coming. I will either have to order another $75 pair, which I can barely afford, or call the store and beg for a refund because I’ve only had them since December, after all, and shouldn’t I be able to at least get two years out of them? I don’t know what the protocol is because I’ve never loved a pair of jeans like this before.
My friends and I dance past midnight at the bar as a live band plays. I set my sights on the guitar player, who is not my type at all, and I become determined to get his attention. I am intoxicated by the possibility of this ending in my favor. I stare at him, a short guy with black hair who wears Converse high tops and Adidas track pants and barely looks my way.
It’s hot as hell in the bar and I am sweating now but I keep my cardigan on because it allows me to leave my shirt tucked in without being self-conscious about my midsection. If I take off my cardigan I will want to untuck my shirt and if I untuck my shirt I will lose my waistline and if I lose my waistline then I might as well just go home.
A Less-Than-Comprehensive List of Places I’ve Caught Myself Sucking In My Stomach in the Last Three Months: in a fourth-floor social studies classroom, sharing lunch and laughs with my best friends at work; in the dressing room of a TJ Maxx, always; walking through Providence as the wind blows my sundress against the round of my stomach, worried someone I know will drive past me; tailgating a concert at Gillette Stadium, singing my lungs out in search of catharsis; having dinner with old friends, bragging about my graduate school acceptance; teaching at a summer camp that aims to empower young girls through music; under a seatbelt in the passenger seat of a car I probably shouldn’t be in anymore; wearing a new bathing suit at RISD beach on the Fourth of July, immediately after getting a stomach virus and vomiting twice in the parking lot.
June is winding down and I go to the mall with friends to find new clothes for our respective summer breaks. After finishing lunch in the food court, my friend says she’ll regret eating such a big meal in a little while when she’s trying on clothes and feeling bloated. For a moment I agree, but then, feeling defeated, I flippantly tell her, Honestly even if we hadn’t eaten this we’d probably still hate ourselves because this whole process is always miserable. We let out a pensive laugh colored by anxiety.
An hour later, we are in adjacent dressing rooms at The Gap, trying on maxi dresses and rompers and showing each other our options. When she finds something she loves, she says things like, I just have this amazing vision of me wearing this yellow dress with these sunglasses on and my hair being really big and curly! I can imagine the scene she describes perfectly and I want it to come true for her. Oh my God YES that is PERFECT, I say. You look SO good. You’re going to LIVE in that dress this summer.
As we continuously boost each other up, it becomes easier to drown out our own criticism, and we can sense some solidarity in this struggle. Before we leave, a woman from a few dressing rooms down walks over and tells us, You two have a great relationship.
We go to Zara and I buy a new shirt I was happy to find and I wear it out that night. When we get back from the bar after 2 am, the guy who’s been trying to kiss me with some regularity comes up behind me in my kitchen and puts his hands on my hips and tells me I’m beautiful. He’s not the one I want so I laugh lightly and tell him to fuck off. I skirt away but hold onto his compliment for days. Maybe weeks.
Early July, at the beach, lying on a towel on my stomach until I can feel the sun start to turn my skin pink: I remember being seventeen and getting a sunburn on my back that was embarrassingly noticeable in my senior prom dress. I remember feeling the sun beating down on me that day and knowing I’d regret not turning over or sitting up but being too self-conscious in front of the friends I was with to show my stomach in front of them. These girls were extremely thin, knew their weight to the nearest decimal point at all times, and constantly talked about dieting and wanting to be skinnier. If they saw themselves as imperfect, I reasoned, they must be disgusted by me.
I realize, when I think back to that day, that sunburn, and the mindsets those girls held, that I am luckier than most women I know: both my personality and the ways I naturally adhere to normative beauty standards (which I am neither blind to nor unappreciative of) give me advantages. Perhaps more importantly, I have spent many hours reading about how culture and capitalism can construct and distort our perceptions of beauty and sexuality. My feminism and my education cannot be understated here, and I am privileged to have these on my side, giving me the ability to list the comforting facts that I know deep down to be true: that beauty is socially constructed, and every single thing we believe to be either “flattering” or “unflattering” was made up by someone who makes money off of us when we internalize these ideologies; that despite the way we talk about bodies in this culture, no one has a responsibility to be thin or exercise or eat healthy food; that health is cultivated inwardly—it’s something you feel and not something you look, and therefore it cannot be spotted and charted by any onlooker or tabloid or cosmetics company; that no person is obligated to look, act, or use her body in any way that isn’t decided upon entirely by her because her body belongs to her and her alone; that any time in my life that I have been truly happy I have not been worried about keeping a gym schedule; that despite how many photos of perfectly svelte women are posted online every day, documenting how sexy you are is not a requirement of modern womanhood; and on and on and on.
And yet here I am, still able to pull all of this baggage out and put it on paper. Although these thoughts and actions may read like a list of paralyzing insecurities, in reality they are so ingrained in my everyday life that they are as regular as brushing my teeth. I rarely give them a second thought—but I am trying to. I am trying to actively cast away the negative thoughts I have been taught to have about my body and my sexuality with the goal of undoing a lifetime of conditioning. But this is a constant production. Its complexity remains as the year progresses.
It’s finally summer again, mid-July of this year: Ariana Grande releases “God is a woman” and I have mixed feelings and a date with a new guy tonight. After dinner and drinks, we go to his house and listen to this song while we hookup on his rooftop. After a minute or so, I pull back, let his lips linger for a little. My eyes still closed, I say, It’s such great pop songwriting but I really hate it, too, revealing to him the abridged story of how my two great loves, pop music and feminist media studies, are star-crossed.
A few weeks later this boy with the rooftop loses interest in having a casual relationship with me and I am racked with questions about what I should have done differently: should I have slept with him sooner? Or waited longer? Played harder to get? Should I have taken more initiative? Did my nerves prevent me from giving him all that he wanted? Were my text messages too forward, too flirtatious? Did I not make it clear that I was interested in him? Didn’t I explicitly say that I don’t need something serious right now? Is there more I could have done to impress him, to make him lose his senses over me? Isn’t he supposed to be fawning over my body? Was there something wrong with what he saw? How come he doesn’t believe that God is a woman, and that that woman is me?
This isn’t about my inability to handle rejection or to accept when “he’s just not that into you.” I am well aware of the ways that people can be misaligned and intentions can be misinterpreted. This is about an entire culture telling me one thing about how my sexuality and my appearance empower me, build me up, make me stronger and better, and make me able to get what I want from men, while my lived experiences directly contradict this. This is about my struggle to recognize the truth of my own stories in my real life when my real life exists completely entrenched in a culture that says the opposite is true. This is about a year when I did all that I thought I was supposed to do to feel sexually empowered but still ended up feeling hallowed out and powerless over and over and over again.
If I am supposed to be as powerful as God because of my sexuality, what does it mean when I’m not? When I can’t win over the guy I really want; when the one from the party only wants me to fill some superficial void because he already has a woman in his life who is, for all intents and purposes, his significant other; when I go completely unnoticed by the one(s) in the bar(s) despite my trying so hard to preserve my waistline; when I offer my body up to a man the way I think he is supposed to want me to but still end up feeling out of control—how many more pieces of myself can I try to change in order to reach the ideal, to reach the sexual power that Ariana Grande and many, many others are singing about? How many crop tops can I buy, how much can I lighten my hair, how many laps do I have to run, how long will I be asking unhelpful employees at Lush what the fuck a toner actually does?
If you asked Ariana Grande, I assume she would say that every woman should feel powerful, that it isn’t about looking a certain way but rather feeling a certain way. But the concept of “God is a woman” (and other songs like it) requires women to use their sexual power to please men, making empowerment about being outwardly sexy—which is determined by what a woman looks like, how she performs sexually, and how much men enjoy it—rather than her personal sexuality—the way she feels about her own relationships and her own sexual desires (not to mention that same-sex couples are still nearly invisible in these messages). We are fed this vision of sexual empowerment all across pop music—this idea that we can make boys weep if we buy the right products and present ourselves in the right way and always look our best, as if men are victims of women’s beauty and sex appeal. This is the particular form of success we tell young women they should aspire to. And at what cost?
According to this ideology, I should rest assured that feminism is mainstream enough for a major pop star to release a song called “God is a woman”—which is a huge statement—and bask in my female empowerment, confident that all of the boys from the last year are drooling over my Instagram and regretting not choosing me. But when real-life women don’t feel empowered in the way that Ariana Grande says we can, it makes us look at ourselves, our own actions, our own bodies and understood flaws, our own sexual choices, and place blame inwardly. If so many of our media messages tell us that it is possible to be empowered through our sexuality, and then we find that ideology to be false in real life, we blame ourselves. We should have worked harder, dressed better, eaten less, posted more pictures, bought more products, spent more time, pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps in this incredible modern world of girl power and female sexual empowerment. Don’t you realize how lucky we are to be women today? Why do we even need feminism anymore if girl power is everywhere? Can’t you see how empowered women are? Haven’t you heard that god is a woman?