Sexuality Love + Sex Love

I can’t believe it took me this long to talk to my friends about masturbation

The first time I masturbated I didn’t know whether I had orgasmed or not. I come from a conservative family in a conservative society. I did not grow up hearing about masturbation or sex at all. What I knew about orgasms was only what I had read in romance novels. And honestly, mine was kind of underwhelming compared to what I had read. “Is that it?” I wondered. I wanted to know how an orgasm is supposed to feel, how it feels for other people. Do they also take ages to reach climax? Is it kind of disappointing for them too?

(This piece is going to be littered liberally with rhetorical questions, much like life.)

But I didn’t feel like I could ask anyone. I knew a couple of my college friends would be willing to tell me, but for some reason I was hesitant. It was a combination of a deep hesitance to bring up the topic at all and the slight shame of being so inexperienced that I didn’t know what an orgasm should feel like.

I had a vague conversation with one of my school friends (who was also my roommate in college) once, on a rooftop bar two drinks in. Let us call her Rhea*.

Rhea is a part of my school friend group. We have known each other for 10 years, some of us even longer than that. Rhea and I discussed how it took me a long time to reach orgasm while it took her only a few minutes. This was my only point of reference – I wondered if there was something wrong with me.

And somehow even in that open and trusting environment, with one of my best friends in the world, I could not ask about her orgasm.

As I write this article, I am a little surprised at myself. I know she would not have judged me. We knew everything else about each other’s lives. I also considered myself to be a liberal, well-read, and worldly person, someone who understood the restrictions placed upon me by the conservative society I lived in.

I thought I had moved past these restrictions in my head, but now I know that that was not true. Even when we were already on the topic, I hesitated.

A couple of years later, I was drinking tea with another friend from the same group. Let’s call her Luna. I don’t remember how but the topic turned to masturbation. Maybe it was because I was older, or that Luna and I had been getting closer over those few months, but I mentioned something about not knowing whether what I feel are “proper” orgasms or not.

She matter-of-factly told me what it feels like and I felt a rush of affection for her. It was literally that easy. (And yes, my orgasms were fine, I was worried for no reason)

“How come we haven’t talked about this before?” Luna asked me, amazed. She told me that masturbation has a way of stimulating her and making her feel more alert after climax.

I told her that it’s the exact opposite for me – I just feel pleasantly tired and ready for bed. If you had asked me before that conversation I would have told you that of course orgasms are different for different people! But it was more theoretical in my head rather than from any actual knowledge.

The conversation was pretty fun and we decided we should talk to our other friends too, to find out how it was for them. On our next video call with the whole group, Luna brought the topic up again. There was a moment of surprise, followed by a very fun and open conversation. Everyone expressed the same surprise that this was the first time we were talking so openly about masturbation. One of them pointed out that it was probably because we had known each other when we were children – it is difficult to change the tone of conversation when you’ve known each other for so long.

Whatever the reason was, I am glad we had that talk. It was funny and supportive and made me feel closer to these girls that I already felt incredibly close to. Talking about masturbation not only helped me learn more but also helped reduce the taboo and shame I felt about it. It was a healthy conversation to have with friends and I could not recommend it enough!

*Names are changed for anonymity.

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The Politics of Pink, and the sexism assigned to it

Pink is the hue of femininity. It’s the color of breast cancer campaigns, of “female” gender reveal parties, and a genuine ‘no no’ for boys. It also holds the unfair tag of vapid girlhood. But why is this the case? Let’s delve a little into the politics of pink:

Pink was actually a color for boys

Assigning color to gender is a twentieth century trait that began in Western Europe and America. At the start, pink was actually a color for boys because it was a watered down version of red; a strong, bold color signifying ferocity. What was the color for girls, you ask? Blue; navy blue in fact, since this was the color of – surprise surprise – the Virgin Mary. Blue was also considered more dainty and delicate (I shudder as I think back to my Convent School’s depressingly navy uniform).

It was not until World War 1 that the color assignment switched. Men off to war were given blue uniforms, and almost immediately it became the color of masculinity. It was only fitting that pink was then handed down like an old sweater, and pushed to become the girl’s hue. “Think Pink” was the slogan used to motivate women to embrace their femininity, and to know their place was outside of the man’s new, blue world. A 50’s film starring the adored, feminine icon Audrey Hepburn showed her to wear only pink outfits, inspiring this generation of women even more. Ladies, our great grandmas were brainwashed to think pink was always for us. I suppose it’s not the worst thing they were told to believe about women, but it did provide a clear-cut color palette for throwing upon sexism for years to come. 

I grew up hating pink 

While I now think pink is possibly the greatest color yet, I actually grew up disliking it.  I think subconsciously my brain realized pink wasn’t all that cool because girls weren’t all that cool. And I wanted desperately to be one of the effortless, unrestrained boys; the ones who ran amok on the playground without fear of dirtying their cute, pink frocks. While I’m embarrassed to have ever thought like that, I’m also grateful because it’s helped me understand why men may fear pink so intrinsically. They have been made to think that women – and anything associated with us – are beneath them. Pink, the bold color it really is, has come to symbolize fragility and gentleness, in their eyes at least. And that is not what men want to be. Heck, who can blame them – that’s not what I want[ed] to be either!

I asked a couple of my male friends why they don’t like pink. One guy said he’d “wear the occasional pink golf tee, but never choose to decorate with it in [his] house”. Why not, I said? Good point, he replied. My own boyfriend expressed his disdain for our pink couch cover and the pink plush whale I keep on our bed (even though he oftentimes and happily uses it as a headrest). This is the same boy who admitted his favorite color as a kid was this electric, hot pink on his mother’s nail file. What changed in him, then? Well, boys are scolded, molded and teased for liking anything girly, of which pink is the pinnacle. Whilst young girls like me who favor blue and wear shorts and tees, are cool. At least, until we grow up…

Why do we assume those who love pink aren’t smart?

One of my best friends is a pink advocate; her room is all-pink from the duvet to the curtains, so when the sun shines through, you get this luminescent, all consuming pink aura. I remember thinking to myself, it’s so funny that Adriana loves pink so much and yet she’s so smart. But now I think, why do we assume only dumb, vapid girls like Regina George and Gretchen Weiners like pink? Why was Elle Woods such a never-been-seen-before lawyer clad in rosy hats and coats? I’ll tell you why: it’s our own internalized misogyny telling us that femininity ≠ smart. And I thank Adriana’s sheer intelligence and unashamed embracing of pink for helping me see that. 

I guess what I’m trying to point out is the ridiculousness of gendered colors. And perhaps the toxicity of them – how they help in setting clear, unwavering gender binaries. How they police boys into frigid masculinity and into othering women. How they play a part in gender revealing parties that set fire to whole forests. So PSA: you’re allowed to like pink, you’re allowed to hate pink. And it shouldn’t have to mean anything that it sadly still does today. 


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Music Pop Culture

How Miraa May’s music helped me redefine femininity

Looking somewhat ethnically ambiguous has always been a bit of a trip. Especially for a woman or female-identifying person like myself, I’ve noticed that it always puts others on edge to not know how to make sense of me.

What I’ve found was that being Arab, or from the Gulf, can make people around you feel like you’re sensitive to everything. She lives in the co-ed dorms and wears crop tops, but she stays mostly to herself and is close friends with hijabi women. Can I crack a crude joke in front of her or will she be offended? Even though maybe they don’t mean to, they must wonder what ‘kind of woman’ I am. As if the binary is split evenly between a ‘sexual’ woman and a modest one; as if they are mutually exclusive. 

First impressions must be confusing. I don’t neatly fit into any of their preconceived notions, so it’s difficult to make assumptions about me. When I go out with friends and pass someone that’s seen me in class, they’ll stop me and say with bewilderment, “I never thought I’d see you here.” The same goes when I put on an abaya the next day and it seems like I’ve become someone else by the way people address me. Suddenly it felt strange for me to slouch or make certain jokes. 

At times, this becomes frustrating. Do I have to let go of a part of myself to be fully ‘understood’? Do I show more skin? Is that too much? Femininity, whatever that meant, seemed so abstract but, at the same time, I couldn’t find a place for me anywhere in it.

The way I approached love and sexuality depended on who I was as a woman, that’s the way I saw it. I could either be what I thought was traditional, swooning over someone I was interested in while remaining discreet and proper, or I could completely adopt a ‘men ain’t shit’ attitude and always look out for myself first, hence never letting anyone in. Needing someone terrified me as it felt like a threat to my independence, so I tended to go with the latter, which didn’t always work out well, as you can imagine. All of this combined took a devastating toll on my sense of self-worth.

That’s when Miraa May’s music came up as a recommended artist on Spotify. I decided why not, I’ll try out her top song  ‘I Don’t Want Ya (Didi)’. 

Just with the opening beats, I was hooked and I’ve had it on replay ever since. There was something about her music that put together puzzle pieces that were supposedly not meant to fit together. The song starts with traditionally Arab sounds, drumming and ululation, almost like it’s posing to be a ballad. Then it gives way to her voice crooning, “Ohh you lie. Tell me you care. But you don’t, don’t lie.” I felt my body thrumming, there was something about the music that made me feel alive.

As an artist, Miraa May is still relatively up-and-coming, but she has four albums under her belt and is still on the rise.

Born in Algeria but having spent most of her life in the UK, she infuses her music with Middle-Eastern type beats while weaving in her own edgy R&B style. But to put it that way would do it injustice, I think what draws me to her as an artist is that she doesn’t allow herself to be defined. In some tracks, Miraa May is defiant, not wanting to let anyone in, ‘I Don’t Want Ya (Didi)’ and ‘N15’ before turning over and showing a more vulnerable and warm side in ‘Travel Thoughts’ and ‘Benji’. 

Her lyrics are short but in no way simple. Her use of slang itself becomes a character, reminding her audience that singing about love doesn’t mean she has to give up her hard edges. I particularly love how she explores the duality of being a woman and approaching romance in her own way in the song ‘Woman Like Me’.

She sings about falling in love, describing it as: “It’s a rush, I’m in love but I’m not no victim. I’m a thug, you G’d up.” There is no distress in ‘falling’, she’s no victim shot with Cupid’s arrow. She isn’t burdened by the love she feels and she is unashamed of saying that she needs them, ending the song with ‘I need you.’ I admire how she can both be powerful as a ‘thug’ and still dependent in a way and  ‘in love’, something I’ve always approached as being mutually exclusive. 

I realized that what I saw as ambiguity in terms of my cultural background or my femininity, her music turned into complexity. Miraa May allowed me to think in a completely different way about myself. This is also reinforced by the way she dresses, in a street-style that is both androgynous and feminine. It feels like she writes her songs and lives based on the way she feels, rather than trying to make herself understood by others. I feel that approach is so crucial because the weight of trying to boil myself down to something understandable is stifling.  

All of this is to say that, in many ways, Mira May’s music redefines what it means to be an Arab woman. She brushes all of those labels off and does as she likes, as she should, like the lines in her song ‘Angles’, ‘Don’t fit in a box, I fit in a mansion’. There is nothing about Miraa May’s music that tries to cling to any convention. That makes me proud of myself for being unconventional. Her songs, particularly the album N15 has always stood out to me because of its cheek, that it is whimsical but also biting. 

Needless to say, Miraa May is an artist to look out for. Her unconventional attitude towards femininity and love has made me comfortable in my own skin as well as encouraged a healthier outlook on relationships

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Feel-Good Sexuality Love + Sex Love

I found my femininity through masturbation

I never liked how I looked when I was a teenager. But then again, who does? I always found myself too lanky, too skinny, too flat. My hair was too curly and every pimple was a disaster. My friends pointed out my flaws the same way I did myself, but I don’t blame them. My mom would comfort me when she saw me deprecating myself and call me the most beautiful girl she’d ever seen. But I was too stubborn to believe her. I knew I couldn’t love the way I looked till I had a bigger waist, clear skin, and a healthy pair of breasts.

I cursed my existence as a girl. My body remained pretty much the same as I grew up. I was afraid that I was going to become an adult woman without looking like one. I felt so unfeminine with the way I looked, I was afraid of being feminine. I would don a tomboy attitude, to convince myself that I’m better off without my femininity.

The summer before I turned 18, I did something new. It was subconscious and quite out of the blue; I started masturbating.

I didn’t think much of it first, but I realized how scared I was of my body. It felt sinful. I felt like I was being violated. But I liked how I felt.

I was curious about female pleasure and anatomy. I did some reading and made a few observations. 

Sex education in school taught me about my ovaries, uterus, and periods, but never about the vulva. It was almost shameful to think that I wasn’t familiar with parts of my own body. But I’m not alone in this. On average, more than one-third of university-aged women can’t find the clitoris in a diagram.

In a conversation with a female friend, I asked what she thought about girls masturbating.

This may be traced back to linking the purpose of sex differently to genders. Men are taught to have sex for pleasure. Women are taught to have sex to reproduce. This means that organs that are specifically meant for pleasure are overlooked. For instance, anatomical textbooks omitted depictions of the clitoris until the twentieth century. 

I also found out that no one talked about female masturbation, at least no one I knew. I’d find a few articles here and there about pleasuring oneself. But none of my friends or the women I knew were open to discuss it. In a conversation with a female friend, I asked what she thought about girls masturbating. Her reaction was a mix of disgust and surprise. 

A study in the US shows that only 58% of female 14- to 17-year-olds masturbate, compared to 80% of males. It’s also very likely that girls aren’t comfortable with sharing their masturbation habits. 

Society hides pleasure from young girls, but not sex. We’re shown sex that makes us afraid of it; violent pornography, widespread rape, and sexual abuse. Sex becomes pain, and so does pleasure. We teach our girls to be afraid of what their bodies possess. We teach them that the repercussions of wanting pleasure are painful. 

Medically speaking, there’s nothing harmful about female masturbation. Contrary to popular belief, masturbation can increase sexual desire and sensitivity. It also releases built-up stress, helps you sleep better, relieves cramps, and boosts your mood.

For me, masturbation taught me to become comfortable with my own body. More importantly, it helped me accept my femininity.

Masturbation made me realize that pleasure isn’t synonymous with pain.

Looking back, I realize that I had confused femininity with desirability. The feeling that I didn’t fit into the ideal body type convinced me that I wasn’t desirable, that I wouldn’t be able to sexually satisfy anyone. I measured my worth by the standards that society had for an attractive woman. 

When I took matters into my own hands (pun unintended), I realized that feeling good about myself was up to me. I had control over my pleasure and my body. I was a sexual being, who was built for being touched and having sexual intimacy. 

Masturbation made me realize that pleasure isn’t synonymous with pain. It helped me embrace and understand what my femininity truly meant. 

I found femininity in being a woman with sexual desires, not in the size of my thighs or my bra. I found femininity in my self-confidence, not in the validation from a society that preys over my body. 

Masturbation made me a woman.

My hope for the future is women seeing their bodies the way they are; feminine, sexual, and unashamed. 

Fashion Lookbook

The rise and fall of the straight male crop top

The straight male crop top had a brief but wonderful moment in the 1980s and 1990s. Now, however, when the topic of the crop top is breached, as Joseph Longo puts it, “it’s drenched in gay panic”.

The second coming of the crop top happened in recent years, deep into the 2010s. The resurgence has appeared mainly in women’s clothing, even though both the female and male crop top first gained traction in the same time period.

The aerobics craze of the 80s saw many elevating their T-shirt hemlines in a bid to emulate Madonna in Lucky Star and the movie Flashdance. At around the same time, the rise of the male crop top took its cue from athletes, the most traditionally potent manifestation of masculinity.

American college football players’ tearaway jerseys were designed to stop them from being tackled on the field, leaving them with cropped tops by the end of the game. This spread to Hollywood, with the likes of Johnny Depp, Will Smith, and Carl Weathers all sporting crop tops on-screen. Prince also performed onstage in a series of winning crops.

Prince performs on stage wearing a long-sleeved, collared crop top.
[Image description: Prince performs on stage wearing a long-sleeved, collared crop top.] via Refinery29.
The general male population took to the trend when gyms outlawed being bare-chested. The crop top was the perfect way to get around the ban by showing off their physiques while still technically clothing their upper bodies. Even Nike hopped on the bandwagon and started producing male crop tops

The crop top for men was a way to show off their muscles – the exact same purpose the tank-top serves today. “The midriff cut extended their silhouette and enhanced the size of their torso and muscles,” says Professor Vicki Karaminas from the School of Design at Massey University, “it was a very masculine gesture, or look”. 

Carl Weathers in Rocky III wearing a blue crop top.
[Image description: Carl Weathers in Rocky III wearing a blue crop top.] Via Reddit.
How then did an item of clothing that was so deeply rooted in the masculine physique and masculinity itself come to be shunned by the straight male population and thought of as an item of femininity or indicator of queerness? 

The death of the straight male crop top came about in waves. A mandate that made full-length jerseys compulsory and outlawed tucking jerseys in in the early 2000s put an end to the on-field crop top. Dr. Shaun Cole, Associate Professor in Fashion at Winchester School of Art, also shared how, post-AIDS, straight men didn’t want to be perceived as gay: “fashion, as well, has traditionally been derided as frivolous and feminine”.

Every time a straight man dons a crop top today, it is either in the context of an environment that encourages experimental fashion, such as music festivals, or taken as a sign of his political progressiveness, thus putting the item out of reach for a majority who don’t want their clothing to be indicative of such a statement. 

Kid Cudi wears a red crop top on stage at Coachella.
[Image description: Kid Cudi wears a red crop top on stage at Coachella.] via
Women have largely altered perceptions when it comes to the clothing we choose to wear. Since Diane Keaton’s famed turn as Annie Hall, the women’s suit has gone from strength to strength and is now an outfit choice that is as much hers as it is his. It no longer serves as a politically charged gesture or a power move that sparks a dissection of the wearer’s gender and sexuality.

When it comes to clothing, the more freedom of expression that women and the LGBTQI+ community enjoy, the more there appears to be discomfort from straight males about sharing that space and being perceived as effeminate or queer. Even if popular figures such as Jaden Smith and Timothee Chalamet take more liberty with their clothing choices, choosing androgynous pieces or items that are more overtly feminine, their presence in the more progressive fashion-forward sphere makes their choices unlikely to be adopted by the general straight male population anytime soon.

The watery “comeback” of the straight male crop top in the media is used mostly for shock value, as a gag, or as an inference of femininity. A sad legacy for an item that was once celebrated by all, regardless of gender or sexuality.

Celebrities Gender Race Inequality

Lana Del Rey has always been problematic, we just never talked about it

Late last week, Lana del Rey gave us another installment of Racist Dogwhistling by White Women Who Should Probably Know Better, a semi-monthly social media conversation that usually ends with iOs apologies and discussions about “real racism.” 

The singer posted an essay on her Instagram account that began thusly, “Question for the culture: Now that Doja Cat, Ariana, Camila, Cardi B, Kehlani and Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé have had number ones with songs about being sexy, wearing no clothes, f**king, cheating etc – can I please go back to singing about being embodied, feeling beautiful by being in love even if the relationship is not perfect, or dancing for money – or whatever I want – without being crucified or saying that I’m glamorizing abuse??????” 

She went on to describe herself as “just a glamourous person singing about the realities of what we are all now seeing are [sic] very prevalent emotionally abusive relationships all over the world” and said that she finds it “pathetic” that her “minor lyrical exploration detailing [her] sometimes submissive or passive roles in [her] relationships has often made people say [she’s] set women back hundreds of years.”

Apparently, she is “not not a feminist” but feels that there should be “a place in feminism for women who look and act like [her] – the kind of woman who says no but men hear yes – the kind of women who are slated mercilessly for being their authentic, delicate selves…”

Let’s unpack this. While I do not care to follow anything regarding Camila Cabello’s career because she has her own history of anti-Blackness, the rest of the women that del Rey name-checked have been criticized often throughout the course of their careers, for being “too sexy,” being “too political,” breaking up with their partners, their tattoos, their partners’ infidelities, the ways that they speak or dress. On one hand, del Rey was being ridiculously self-absorbed and obtuse. On the other, save for Ariana Grande, every woman on that list is a woman of color. 

Perhaps Lana del Rey could benefit from a brief chat with a capital F feminist, because then she may learn a little about the ways that Black and Latinx women have been stereotyped and hypersexualized by racists for centuries. And that by propping herself up like this “authentic, delicate” victim of undue criticism, she is operating right out of the Racist White Women of Yore Playbook, by invoking ideas straight from the Cult of Domesticity, or the Cult of True Womanhood. 

In response to the backlash she swiftly received, the singer wrote that when she mentioned women who look like her, she was referring to “people who don’t look strong or necessarily smart, or like they are in control etc. it’s about advocating for a more delicate personality, not for white woman [sic].” Which, as several Twitter users pointed out, still does an efficient job of masculinizing Black women – another old, racist standby. 

Full disclosure: I do not hate Lana del Rey’s music, despite some of its problematic themes. I enjoy a good, hauntingly depressing track every now and again. It was good music to write to when I tired of my other standbys, but I would often get put off by some of her lyrical choices, and I’m not at all heartbroken that I have to give it up. 

For example, in her song “Off to the Races” from 2012’s Born to Die, she repeatedly references Lolita, with the lyrics “Light of my life, fire of my loins,” a couplet that author Vladimir Nabokov actually pulled that quote from the real-life child abduction and molestation case that inspired his novel. 

If possible, she managed to make this even more troubling by heaping a bit of cultural appropriation on top, by describing herself (or perhaps more accurately, the character she plays) as “Lolita gets lost in the hood” during a 2011 interview with The Guardian. That she’d donned this “hood” persona but then turned around to throw Black and Latinx women – for whom being considered/stereotyped as “hood” can result in being devalued or disrespected – under the bus in 2020 is…not surprising, but it does rankle the nerves. 

Then, there’s her notorious sample of the troubling 1962 song by The Crystals, “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss” in the title track of her 2014 album, “Ultraviolence.” Are the accusations of glamorizing abuse really that far off? 

Lana del Rey has relied heavily on shock value in the past. For example, “Cola” from her 2012 album, Paradise literally begins with the lyrics, “My p***y tastes like Pepsi Cola/My eyes are wide like cherry pies.” Which she immediately follows up with “I got sweet taste for men who are older/It’s always been so it’s no surprise.” Is that a reflective take on power imbalances in her previous relationships? Or is it her leaning into her problematic “Lolita” persona? 

In her “final” note about her earlier post – which, spoiler alert, would NOT be her final words on the subject – she stood firm in her stance that she was merely “writing about the self advocacy [sic] for the more delicate and often dismissed, softer female personality. She went on to predict that the “new wave/3rd wave of feminism” would be helmed by the kind of women for whom she is speaking. 

Not even touching the fact that Lana del Rey does not know that third-wave feminism is already a thing, let’s dissect her comments about the aforementioned artists not being “soft” or “delicate.” 

Nicki Minaj was the first female rapper with major buzz in years, and she literally sang love songs, calls her fans Barbies and made the color pink a huge part of her brand. Beyoncé has songs about insecurities, feeling silenced in a relationship – the woman literally put out “Lemonade,” which repeatedly made references to her real-life husband’s infidelities. Cardi B breastfed her baby in a music video. Kehlani’s “Nights Like This,” one of the most-streamed songs of her career, thus far, is all about feeling powerless in a relationship that does not serve you. [Note: I’m skipping over Doja Cat because then, I’d have to write about her most recent scandal, and honestly, we’d be here all night.]

The fact that this all comes on the heels of food writer Alison Roman accusing decluttering genius Marie Kondo and cookbook author/famed Twitter user Chrissy Teigen of “selling out” for having become successful – it’s just too much. Roman was interviewed about her career’s trajectory and was discussing her future, and instead, squandered the opportunity to further her own wins by hating on two Asian women – one of whom (Teigen) was prepared to actually work with Roman. 

Apparently, if Asian women build successful careers by leveraging ideas and recipes inspired by their own cultures, that’s selling out. However, when a white woman does it, it is innovative and creative, and cool. When Latinx and Black women make music about sexuality, they can never be “delicate” or “soft.” Instead, they are “strong” and “in control,” which is code for “unfeminine.”

Given Lana del Rey’s response to the backlash she’s received, I’m fairly certain that she is shocked at her comments are racist. But here is the tricky thing about racism, especially in a country with a history like that of the U.S.: it’s been so heavily ingrained in American culture that many white people who traffic in casual, underhanded, or coded racism shut down the moment they are called out for their behavior. They believe that only violent, taboo racism is “real racism,” and that anyone who disagrees with them is reading too much into things, being overly sensitive, or misunderstanding their message. They don’t even recognize their own dog whistles and will argue you down that you are wrong because they didn’t mean it that way.

That is why the unlearning process is such a big part of becoming a say-it-with-your-full-chest feminist: this society was built on a racist, patriarchal system, and those who refuse to listen to women of color when they are called out for this kind of behavior are doomed to repeat it.

Culture Family Gender & Identity Life

Motherhood does not have to define womanhood

All my life I’ve expected to be a mother and wife. They just went hand-in-hand. Growing up, whenever I did something wrong, the first thing I would be asked by Aunties is, “Is that what you will do in your husband’s house?” Through comments like these, I was taught that my misbehavior wasn’t detrimental to what I could accomplish on my own, it was detrimental to my success as a wife. Being a wife but not experiencing motherhood was unthinkable. One without the other suggested that you were a failure or defective in some way. 

Let me be clear, I was allowed to aspire to greatness, to put my best foot forward and be ambitious. However, that ambition and tenacity were always intertwined with what was expected of me because of my gender. I would mention, offhandedly, my dreams of a corner office and almost immediately be bombarded with advice about maintaining a work/life balance, including how to take care of kids while maintaining excellence in a career. In my mind, I would always ask myself “but what if I don’t actually want kids?” I knew if I asked that out loud I would either be ignored or smugly told that I’d change my mind. I wouldn’t be taken seriously. 

I jokingly pitched the idea of avoiding motherhood altogether amongst older women once. I was met with a combination of radio silence and shocked stares. This is because Nigeria is an extremely conservative society. No matter what you achieve, none of it can be complete without children. As a woman living in Nigeria, this type of thinking was impossible for me to escape. I saw it in media, experienced it in church, and rolled my eyes through it in conversations with my family. 

That question is one I only asked myself seriously when I turned 21.  I always assumed that I wanted kids. But I would look at young children and feel no maternal instinct. I never once experienced “baby fever” even looking at the cutest of children.  I definitely felt tenderness whenever a toddler would stretch a pudgy arm up, asking me to hold them, but that was about it.

Knowing all this about myself, I still felt the need to have them. The idea of “leaving something behind in the world” was too strong. You’re expected to leave a legacy and proof that you were here. My grandfather may have died but the eyes he had are the same ones his children, grandchildren and maybe great-grandchildren may have. Didn’t I want that as well? This argument is one I wrestled with on and off for four years.

Then, in a fortunate stroke of serendipity, I came across a Naomi Campbell interview. She was asked about motherhood and she responded with all the models who she helped, the up-and-comers and those already established. Those women are her stamp on the world. The lives you touch throughout your life can be your legacy and your shot at living forever even when you’re gone. Love can be found in all sorts of places and not only in the traditional nuclear family structure.

I don’t know if I want to be a mother not. I still have a lot of living to do and maybe I will change my mind in the years to come. What I do know is that I refuse to let outdated ideas surrounding womanhood control or define me. My worth isn’t determined by my ability to procreate and neither is my womanhood.

Health Care The Vulvasation Love + Sex Love

Things that everyone with a vag should definitely know

Vulvasations is a Tempest Love exclusive series dedicated to spreading awareness about the female reproductive system, debunking myths about periods and dissecting everything vajayjay related. Let’s talk about vaginas!

I recently came across a series of paintings done by a brilliant artist named Jacqueline Secor. The pictures made me do a double take because what looked like floral textures at first, were in fact, vaginas. It was a series of work depicting floral renderings of female genitalia.

What was intriguing about these pictures wasn’t that they were female genitals painted in flowery patterns, but how different they looked from each other. It didn’t look like the same thing done in different styles. There was a noticeable difference between them.

image description: A series of nine artworks in a grid showing floral depictions of vulvas
[Image description: A series of nine artworks in a grid showing floral depictions of vulvas] via Jacquelinesecorart on Instagram
I previously believed that vaginas looked all the same. In hindsight, I’m surprised at my naivete.

Now, we already know women should explore themselves more, and I truly believe that. The statement that the vagina is the most talked about and least understood part of the body, doesn’t just apply to men.

In theory, you know what a vulva is, but would you be able to pick yours out of a line-up? If you can’t, then maybe you should work on that. Why don’t you grab a mirror and take a good look?

I’m not saying you should start researching vagina pictures (unless that helps you).

However, a first good step would be to remove the preconceived notion of what a vagina should look like, and instead, recognize how different each one can be.

Why is it important to appreciate and understand the variety in vaginas? Because the more you appreciate the beauty of your body, the less likely you are of looking for that validation from someone else. Self-love and acceptance are incredibly empowering.

The failure to recognize, embrace and love yourself the right way, can have greater consequences than just misrepresentation and unawareness. It can lead to psychological distress and at times, even a severe condition known as body dysmorphia or Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD).

Body dysmorphia is a mental disorder which causes individuals to obsess over an aspect of their appearance relentlessly, even if the perceived flaw is non-existent or insignificant. Falling for a media-based view of the perfect vulva can cause people to feel genital dysmorphia. They could find themselves making the desperate leap to cosmetic surgery, an industry which is more than happy to sell you the idea of perfection by going under the knife.

Plastic surgeons currently perform two kinds of corrective surgeries on genitals:

1. Vaginoplasty: A procedure to make your vagina tighter. It may also include the removal of some external skin for a more aesthetic appearance.

2. Labiaplasty: The surgical modification of the labia. The clitoral hood, the lips at the entrance of the vagina, and pubic lifts or reductions.

These surgeries can have serious side effects and might not treat the actual source of the problem: that there was nothing wrong with the appearance of your vagina in the first place, it was deeper rooted than that.

Plastic surgeons claim they’re going to make a patient’s genitalia “more appealing.” But to who? Are they trying to meet other people’s expectations, or is the media feeding you the idea of what a vagina should look like – without you even knowing?

If you need some realistic insight into this, please understand the porn industry is definitely NOT going to help you. Neither are pictures of genitals represented as neat little fruits and flowers.

image description: sliced fruit on purple silk
[Image description: sliced fruit on purple silk] via Charles on Unsplash
There are some amazing artists who have done alluring pieces of work similar to this that are worth looking up. There is also a captivating and thought-provoking documentary called 100 Vaginas.

The film is a very up close and personal look at vulvas and people with vulvas openly talking about them and their experiences. If you get a chance to watch this, do it, and understand that it will change you in some significant way by the end.

At least to a point where you won’t feel like you want to run and hide every time there’s a full-blown vulva on your screen.

image description: a woman is smiling while holding a camera between an open pair of legs
[image description: a woman is smiling while holding a camera between an open pair of legs] via IMDB
In the documentary, one woman said “It’s [the vulva’s] physical appearance and makeup is rarely discussed. And while we are taught endlessly about the blood, birth, and pain it will bring to us, its potential for pleasure is only ever really noted in relation to others. We live in a society that treats women entirely like a cock pocket.”

There are many diverse types of vulvas, and all of them are beautiful.

And if your V doesn’t look the way you thought she should, trust me, she’s still lovely, and you’re still a goddess.

If this is an explorative journey you have yet to take, I highly encourage you to try. It’s empowering, and you can never have too much of that.

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Culture Beauty Lookbook

Apparently, I’m not a good Desi woman – because my ears aren’t pierced

My ears aren’t pierced. This is usually my fun fact during party icebreakers or introductory small talk.

My parents made an attempt, once, when I was too small to remember and too naive to fear pain. The cries of the child in front of me, being bounced up and down in her father’s arms, unnerved my own protective mother.

“I can’t do this to her,” she said. “I can’t let her go through that.”

My ears remained untouched. And they have remained that way.

This shouldn’t be the shocking revelation it’s often taken to be. As an observer of hijab, you can’t see my ears most times of the day anyway. Like my hair, they are part of my veiled femininity and inaccessible to the ordinary passerby. There are occasional lamentations or denouncements of that decision and choice, but most of them don’t linger on my hidden lobes and what may, or may not be, dangling from them.

Surprisingly, though, this small aspect of my body often becomes an issue of debate. Like everything else about a woman’s body, this too cannot go by without judgment—and none of it, on the “for” or “against” side, takes me into account so much as whether or not I am appropriately performing femininity.

One of the biggest examples of this is my aunts’ displeasure with my unpierced ears. Being of marriageable age, I’m constantly deluged with daydreams about my future wedding, from hypothetical sari patterns to whether or not I will submit to a line of kohl around my eyes. Even more pressing, though, is their anxiety about whether or not I will wear the fabulously gaudy and heavy jewelry expected of a traditional Bengali bride.

That jewelry, of course, centers around piercings, from the path that rests in a bride’s nose to the earring it connects within her ear.

This concern often touches on my anxious biracial nerves. How else can I prove that I am Bengali enough if I do not honor my culture’s wedding traditions as reverently as my American dreams of a white gown and veil? Out of everything else, this cultural pressure does hold a great deal of sway.

When I was first born, my late paternal grandmother presented my parents with a small set of gold earrings to adorn my lobes when the time came. My mother wears those now. It feels like another way in which I’ve failed to be the ideal Bangladeshi girl, who embodies beauty with every jingle of her bangle-laden arms and can mince delicately in a sari.

(On the other side of my family, my African-American grandparents were always more concerned about whether or not I was eating well, instead of how my bare lobes might not attract a man—which makes living with them somewhat easier.)

However, when the request is dissected, it becomes less cultural and more patriarchal in tone.

After all, if I do not wear the nath and have my ears prepared for the finery—am I truly the bride my potential husband deserves? Can he show me off to our community and society with bare, unadorned lobes?

The implication of being incomplete or unfinished needs to be acknowledged and named. My unpierced ears haven’t barred me from employment, prevented my achieving good grades or are what I am questioned on by prospective partners. The issue stems from a lack of compliance with societal expectations.

If you look at the cultural issues behind the nath, it only gets dicier. Some superstitions claim that, if a wife doesn’t wear a nath to block the air she exhales, she may make her husband sick. That aside, the usual beliefs—that traditional jewelry is a more tangible way of being able to hold onto money in times of financial insecurity—can be fulfilled with bangles and rings alike.

Why do I need to get a needle to my face or ears to soothe anxieties?

I’ve had my lack of earrings chalked up again and again to a lack of interest in “being pretty,” “dressing up” or “making an effort to look nice.” Insert heels or makeup or exposed hair before these accusations, and it is obvious that it is less of an issue with how I feel about my appearance and more of what others expect of me. It is about a lack of conformity with gender roles in a way that threatens how society feels about women’s bodies, and how pressured those women should feel to please society at large.

My ears are not pierced because my mother could not tolerate me enduring pain in the name of fulfilling this conformity. That, too, was a challenge to the system. Being able to stand up against assumptions about how your daughter’s body should look, how much it should weigh and what she dresses in is never easy.

Being able to see the patriarchal influence on these pressures, though, does not make it easier for me to shake them off. If anything, it further complicates my own feelings about my ears and whether or not, if ever, I should pierce them. When I browse through cute earrings or eye the waiting stool at the local Claire’s—I wonder if my desire to consider piercing is self-motivated or societally influenced. Do I really want those pretty studs because they might look good on me, or will I end up realizing it was just my desire to assimilate?

Is it really aesthetics or will the system win if I give in?

Ironically, once again, a patriarchal perspective has muddled the waters of my piercing debate. My father has been a firm advocate for years that if I pierce my ears, I lose an aspect of myself that is unique. There will be no going back once that little hole is made in my skin. It is an argument that doesn’t sound unlike other complaints about changes made to a woman’s body, but it has haunted me every time I was on the cusp of making an appointment to get my ears pierced.

This, too, is about gender roles in a way that makes me uncomfortable. After all, if I take the perspective of my being the cool, unpierced girl, I position other women as lesser, succumbing to a misogynistic system that only I was able to resist and rise over.

This is a decision that I made for myself. It shouldn’t have to be a big statement, or a potential deal-breaker in the way my Desi side of the family attempts to conflate it.

For now, my ears remain bare. Whether or not that bothers anyone is their problem.


Why does the #resistance hate femmes?

In a recent appearance perhaps doomed for casual bigotry on Real Time with [known racist and Islamophobe] Bill Maher, Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry proudly announces a one-liner For The People. “[Trump] really is the rare combination of an 8-year-old boy—” Kerry redirects his rib, “I mean, he’s got the maturity of an 8-year-old boy, with the insecurity of an 8-year-old girl.”

It seems a simple thing, to mock the erratic behavior of hormone-addled teenagers. Everyone’s heard: boys are wild when they’re young, but girls are more difficult as teenagers. Girls grow boobs and hips, they hysterically discover blood and inner aches pulsing from their new awkward, pimpling limbs. Girls peel away from their parents to chase boys, who hurt their feelings and send them right back their homes in sobbing fits of rage. Girls cut up their T-shirts and hike their dresses up past ‘the fingertip!’ rule. Girls are so, wicked.

Maher, perhaps sensing the potential pushback from his long-aggrieved SJWs, adds, “A ‘mean girl!’” The “mean girl”—a stereotype turned into cultural fact. The pervasive idea of exclusive groups of young girls just looking to inflict pain and fuck boys, creates a window of opportunity from those who hate women and love vulnerable targets. If people actually cared about the cruelty of children, perhaps they would look to address the conditions girls have to grow up under: predation and sexual assault, pedophilic beauty standards that uplift youth, hypersexualization of minorities, life under the ceaseless stress of poverty, the prescribed all-day workday for Millenial and Gen X children, homophobia, depression, anxiety. Perhaps, especially in the case of John Kerry, one might express even the slightest opposition against state murder—the bombing of young girls and women abroad.

The list goes on, but instead the ‘mean girl,’ the silly and crying and utterly unimportant teenager—she is who progressives refer to in their quest to humorously deride Trump.

Teenage girls shouldn’t need to be defended, because there’s nothing wrong with simply aging to 11 years old and (surprise!) continuing to age through adolescence and into adulthood. Numerous responses to Kerry’s not-so-unique comment have pointed out that teenage girls are easy targets, that girls are insecure because of bro-y demonstrations of toxic masculinity like Kerry’s, that teen girls are difficult because their worlds are difficult.

Kerry’s comment is completely normal, because sexism and patriarchy are normal. Even as the #resistance announce and re-announce their opposition to the Trump administration, they reinforce those same systems. One day, “Red Maiden” protests decry Brett Kavanaugh’s personal and professional abuse of women. The next, young girls—who are on their ways to becoming women (if they don’t wither in a constant battle against the world first)—are the butt of a former U.S. official’s joke, on a primetime television show that apparently still runs despite its host’s delight in the n-word. (Why does Bill Maher still have an HBO show?)

“Love Trumps Hate,” but hate is pretty popular. Issues of patriarchy transcend claims to ‘liberal’ or ‘Trump,’ neoliberalism and leftism. Literally any viral tweet criticizing Trump, or even the Right more generally, will lead one to meme after meme of Trump with lipstick, Trump kissing Jeff Sessions, Kavanaugh staring dreamy-eyed at Trump, the progressive favorite—Putin and Trump being girlie and fondling each other. NYT even ran a Bill Plympton animation depicting a hyperfeminine, teen romance-inspired romance between the American and Russian oligarchs, the joke being…being gay. John Paul Brammer points out that this punchline is not even remotely as subversive as liberals appear to believe. Such humor not only reinscribes existing stigma, but is an unapologetic demonstration of stigma.

Emasculation as a strategy against powerful bigots, particularly when employed by other powerful bigots, is only a theater of liberal smarm. With the unfortunate side effect of punching down on queerness and femininity. Trump is not a teen girl, or a child at all. Donald Trump is a 72-year-old wealthy white man, acting like most other wealthy white men. Trump is a direct participant in structural violence against women—undocumented women, low-income women, sick women, queer women, minority women. And so are the so-called #resistance in nearly every attempt to undermine him.

Progressives not being so ‘progressive’ is more of the same. This is what matters: an active commitment to destroying gender hierarchies and protecting queerness— in all of its poor or black or brown or trans or nonbinary or femme facets. Not your stupid, terrible jokes.

Movies Pop Culture

This character helped me finally embrace my own femininity

“I’ll show you how valuable Elle Woods can be.”

When I first saw Legally Blonde, I hardly thought the film was going to be formative. What could Elle Woods, the film’s protagonist as portrayed by Reese Witherspoon, possibly have to teach me? What was I going to learn from this blonde sorority queen Valley girl?

Elle, to a younger me, should have been shoehorned into the box of mean girl. The movies and TV shows that I was most exposed to, be they Disney Channel Original movies or Bollywood movies, taught me that girls who cared about beauty were not aspirational figures. According to these stories, there were two types of girls: girls who wear makeup and girls who don’t.

The girls who don’t are naturally beautiful but they probably don’t know it. How lucky, then, that a guy will come along to tell them otherwise she would have never known because she has literally never seen her own face without glasses and has zero self-esteem when it comes to her looks. She is like the cool girl trope’s younger sister, someone who apparently gives no thought to beauty despite being effortlessly beautiful. This girl was the protagonist of all my favorite movies and I wanted to be her. She was happy by the end of these movies, it seemed, and who didn’t want to be happy?

And the other girls, the ones who wear makeup and heels? Harpies, typically. These are the mean girls, the girls who are popular despite the fact that they treat their friends and boyfriends poorly. To care about beauty before a man entered your life meant that you were typically vapid, shallow, and devoid of interests that would carry you past high school. The more makeup, the more shallow the girl. The example of Susan from the Chronicles of Narnia comes to mind, and how she would never return to Narnia with her siblings because she had developed an interest in makeup.

This dichotomy is not new. The distinction between virgin and whore is an old one, and the message is clear as to which one little girls are meant to want to be.

Elle Woods was a beautiful girl who knew it. She has always been beautiful, potentially to her own detriment as she worries it is all people see when they look at her. The catalyst of the film’s action is admittedly driven by a stupid man’s rejection. Elle decides to become a student at Harvard Law School in order to get back together with her ex-boyfriend Warner who broke up with her because she is not the “right kind of girl” for a guy like him to marry (“Elle! If I want to be a senator by the time I’m 30, well I need to marry a Jackie, not a Marilyn”).

Elle Woods incredulously asks "So you're breaking up with me because I'm too... blonde?!"
Via [Image description: A blonde woman, Elle Woods, incredulously asks “So you’re breaking up with me because I’m too… blonde?!”]
But she was no doubt that this is a goal she can achieve and works hard to become a law student. When she realizes that Warner will never see her as good enough, Elle works harder than ever, gaining the respect of her colleagues and landing coveted internships. Eventually, Warner and any men become irrelevant to Elle proving herself to herself and realizing a new dream. Just as Elle knows she is beautiful, she knows she is smart and worth taking seriously, even if no one does, and she fights for herself.

Elle is also a fairly nice person. She takes care of her loved ones and sorority sisters, and is ready to become friends with just about anyone. She is sweet and tries to give others, particularly other women, a chance. This is in direct opposition to the “girls who wear makeup are mean” rule as well as the adage that women have to stomp on one another in order to succeed because there can only be one woman at the top.

Elle Woods, wearing glasses and a blonde high ponytail, asks "What, like it's hard?"
Via [Image description: A blonde woman, Elle Woods, wearing glasses and a blonde high ponytail, asks “What, like it’s hard?”]
In a world where women’s success is still predicated on what men want, a character like Elle was and still is refreshing. Femininity continues to be degraded in our societies, to the point where, in order to succeed, women are encouraged to downplay any semblance of the girly. There is nothing inherently wrong with a woman not preferring the conventionally feminine for herself. Indeed, everyone should be given a choice, but just as no woman should be forced to make herself more feminine to succeed she would also not be forced to do the opposite should she not choose to. I am not anything close to lawyer, but in Elle’s case, I would imagine whether or not she chooses to wear her hair long and her suits pink and tailored is irrelevant to the quality of her work.

Elle chose to present herself as she desired and to be a badass lawyer at the same time. I wish I had as much drive as her, but when I figure out what I want to do, I’ll remember that I can do it while expressing as much femininity as I should please.

Elle Woods, blonde woman with graduation cap, gives graduation speech at a podium.
Via [Image description: Elle Woods, blonde woman with graduation cap, gives graduation speech at a podium.]
Gender & Identity Life

My Desi community tried to impose the patriarchy on everything I did, but I fought back

The patriarchy sucks. No novel idea there. Too many people have tried to impose it on me with nonsensical phrases like:

“You plan to let her go away from your house to live on her own during university? She is going to be out of hand,” said the sabotaging relative to my parents.

“She went abroad all by herself. This is what happens when you give girls too much freedom. She has no reason being abroad – she will not make money or run a home,” they chided my parents yet again.

“She has finished university and plans to pursue a higher degree – she will not find a suitable man. Why are you not stopping her?” they barked while putting more nonsense in my parents’ heads.

Thank goodness my parents brushed them aside even if it was difficult for them to do. Each time that I asserted any level of freedom or choice to live life on my terms it became a topic of ridicule for others. Yet, the scary scenarios everyone tried to brilliantly display in front of my parents never happened. I spent way too much time brushing off naysayers that tried to make sure I remained under the control of my parents because my life was not my own, at least according to them. Dreaming was pointless unless those dreams were about the perfect husband. Because the perfect husband solves any women’s problems for the rest of their lives.

Regardless of growing up in the United States, the South Asian Muslim community that I grew up in felt the need to cling to extreme patriarchy in order to protect their “culture” in the West. They felt like warriors for the hard work it took to maintain this clinginess. They joined my worth to an imaginary husband,  imaginary men making my decisions, an imaginary home, and an imaginary life of submission and compromise. With the way everyone made having a husband sound, I felt more than happy to pass on these expectations. As much as the social circle around me wanted to blame Western society and ideals for making me feel this way, their ideas were the problem.

I was constantly hassled with the phrases: “You can do all of this now, but not in your husband’s house.”

“You have to maintain the home, otherwise your husband will get tired of you.”

Or, my favorite one: “Just get married and perhaps your husband will let you work or study.”

Newsflash: I have a husband now. I chose him not out of desperation and not because everyone told me to. No, he nor I ask for “permission” for anything because we are not hormonal teenagers. Any changes we have had to make in the way we operate before our marriage came from both of us.  We come to mutual agreements on most issues based on our resources and the life we plan together. We both take care of our home together. He exhibits no signs of leaving me over any of the reasons people cited to me before. Want to know why?

Because marriage is a consensual agreement between two adults. Women are conditioned to believe that if anything goes wrong in their marriage, the onus was on the woman to save it. It would be the woman’s fault rather than the fault of them both. So far, my husband and I have a great system for realizing when we are blaming one another rather than owning up to our mistakes. I am also a flawed person continue to work on this. I can’t count how many times I have to stop myself from using “you” in my sentences.

If I ever listened to any of the nonsense my realm of patriarchy blurted, I would never have learned what a healthy marital relationship was for myself.  The strange irony about patriarchy is that it defines a woman’s role, but her ability to exist in this world remains in an infantile state. Someone must approve or disapprove of everything she decides or does. Otherwise, society makes a moralistic judgment of her roles and abilities.  Many women internalize this judgment, and in order to “keep the peace,” stay away from disrupting the status quo.

And I do not completely blame them. Unfortunately, patriarchy’s favorite myth is that if we keep going down this line, women lose their femininity. Women become more like men (oh, the silly gender binaries), and men become emasculated.

Even if that was the case, why do traditional ideas of femininity still sell? From fashion magazines to every beauty trend in the book on dressing your curves, femininity is well and alive. Patriarchy has been the suppressor of femininity in traditionally masculine settings. Most of these settings are public and outside of the domain of the home.  Patriarchy may not be going anywhere soon, but every day I remind myself of how more women are disproving its greatest fears.