Maya, 24, Boston, United States

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Can you tell us about a time when you failed or disappointed yourself? What is your story of strength?

The thing that comes to mind is my struggle with being biracial early on. Because of the intersection of my identity – being a woman, being a woman of color, being slightly white passing in certain spaces and not in others – it was hard to define what those identities meant to me and it was challenging to make decisions about myself because I didn’t know who I was in the context of an all white town that unabashedly upheld white standards and values. There was a lot “you will do this, and you will be this,” from my peers, teachers, and parents.

When I think about the most visible and simultaneously invisible struggle I had, it was with my physical appearance, chiefly, my hair. It has been such a contentious thing throughout my life, within myself and within my family. They wanted me to be proud of being mixed, and they wanted me to wear my hair natural and curly, but I grew up in a place where Afros were both exotic and ugly and I was never comfortable being my authentic self in that way. Therefore, when I was 12 I decided to chemically straighten my hair because I couldn’t change my skin color or my geographic location, so to feel some sort of agency, I went to a hair salon to for a chemical relaxer. I thought this would relieve me from my shame and consequential pain.

And for eight years, the chemicals just destroyed my hair. My hair felt like hay and I lost 10 inches or so of length.

There was a day I realized how insane this was because I wasn’t any happier with damaged lifeless hair. I had to use like 20 clips to put my hair in a ponytail. I was doing this to make myself feel beautiful, but I still didn’t like myself and in that way I really let myself down because I had let other people dictate what beauty meant to me. I think I just realized that I’ll never look white, I’ll never meet those standards, and I was trying so hard to look like these people who would never consider me their equal.

I went to therapy and I talked to a lot of people. I did the research and understood the history of chemical straighteners in the black community. For generations, black women have done this to assimilate into white culture and it wasn’t just for looks – it was rooted in this idea that if we assimilate, we may be treated as equals or really, just as human beings.
Ultimately,  I stopped processing my hair and I worked really hard to create an image of myself that I was proud of. It took me awhile to get there and the regrowth was awful. Half of my hair was one texture and the other half was dead, straight, and brittle. There was also a lot of shame around that for a while, but I grew so much from the experience and in the end, learned to accept that while I made a hard and damaging decision I had the internal strength to rebuild. Women have so much more to offer than their physical appearance.

What does being a woman mean to you?

The interesting thing about that question is it so complex and deeply personal. The sociologist in me always wants to challenge these types of  questions with “well, gender is a social construct so…”, but there are extremely real consequences of identifying and being perceived as a woman.
There are multitudes of expectations and burdens placed physically, emotionally, politically, and socially women. There always has been, but depending on where you live, you also may have many beautiful freedoms and liberties that are unique to being a woman. All in all, I believe that being a woman means having the capacity to be a powerful change maker and that’s a beautiful thing.  

How can women better support each other?

I belong to this feminist book club, and honestly I have only gone a few times, but we talk about this question a lot. Millions of women fight for equality and human rights every day, and we have been for generations. I feel like as a movement, we continue to make huge leap and bounds every few years, but there are times when it feels like we are stagnant or even taking a step backwards.

When women are critical of each other’s choices and shame each other, we cannot make progress. For example, with the Harvey Weinstein cases right now – many women are shaming each other for not speaking up about their experiences earlier or who are choosing not to share their story or name their abuser, which is so frustrating and sad. Instead of listening and validating, we are choosing to actively shame those who have endured one of the worst things that can happen in this world. We just can’t judge that choice, it’s not our place.

And this idea that there’s a “right way” to be a feminist– I just don’t agree with that. What I do believe is that everyone likes to talk right now and while discussion and dialogue are crucial to making progress, we simultaneously have to acknowledge that we don’t know everything about the human experience. Let’s start genuinely listening to each other and creating spaces where we can come together and realize there isn’t a right way to “do” feminism and there isn’t a right way to be a woman.

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