Running for the wrong reasons

About two weeks ago, Sean and I went to Memphis to pick up a friend’s dog, hit the library, and purchase, among other things, swimsuits for our upcoming trip to the beach. Shopping for clothes, swimsuits in particular, is an unpleasant experience for me. I feel a lot prettier if I never look in mirrors, especially changing-room mirrors. Sean thinks I’m just beautiful, and he tells me so excessively, but that isn’t enough to counteract the predominant cultural messages that I’ve been subject to for a quarter of a century.

On the outside, I look like a feminist: I have comparatively little hair on my head and a comparative lot on my legs and in my armpits*. Most of the time, I can be a feminist on the inside, too. Feeling bad about my body in a changing room, I felt worse about my character. The self-loathing I was experiencing was two-fold:

  1. Heavens, my butt is rather unattractive!
  2. How dare I betray my ideals by hating my fairly healthy and by all accounts perfectly-nice-looking body!

I came out of the changing room more or less whimpering, detesting my insides and my outsides. Because I wasn’t happy with the way I looked, I resolved to start running again. Because I couldn’t stand the idea of basing a decision on hating my body, I retracted my decision. Taking back the decision didn’t address the initial feelings, so I came back to running. I went through this cycle a couple of times, going round and round with myself.

About two weeks ago, I started running again. I ran cross country in high school and liked everything about it except for the, y’know, actual races. I haven’t resolved my feelings about the decision, but I’m embracing the fact that it makes me feel better about myself: I feel good about my resolve, my health, and my strength when I run, not just about my body. We live in the prettiest part of Arkansas, so I always see something strange or cool or wonderful on the road (I saw a wiggly lizard this morning). I’m happy with the decision, but I’m uncomfortable with my motives. I’m exploring those feelings and disclosing them to gain some perspective, and hoping that my motives will eventually shift away from my looks and toward my health and happiness.

If I’m being honest here (I’m really trying!), I want to look good without working at it, and I want to feel like I look good (who doesn’t?). However, putting effort into my appearance based on other people’s ideas of what “looking good” is works against my efforts to make the world a better, more inclusive place. It’s a dilemma. I haven’t resolved it.

A few cleanup thoughts:

  • In certain social situations, I think it’s okay to want to look “normal.” Any event where someone else in particular is supposed to be the center of attention (weddings, funerals) is a good place to put away the funny hats and don a bra.
  • I don’t always disapprove of putting effort into my appearance: I think it can be fun to try to feel like a work of art and to use clothing and accessories to send a message. Most of the time, though, I just want to be dressed comfortably and functionally.
  • This isn’t a pity party: don’t tell me I’m beautiful because I wrote this post. You’d be missing the point.
  • running in the morning (when it’s not 100 degrees) is the bomb because a) then I don’t dread it all day and b) I get to feel great about myself (Yay! I ran today!) all day long. This is the great secret of people who actually exercise.

One of the greatest things that anyone can do to empower women and girls is compliment them on something other than their appearance. Maybe if the world hadn’t emphasized my looks over my health and strength, I’d be running for the right reasons.



*Women with hairless armpits always look a little strange to me.


“Ms. O’Connell, at the beginning of the year, didn’t you say you were a naturalist?”
“Like, someone who studies nature?”
“No! Like, someone who doesn’t shave and stuff”
“I never said I was a naturalist, but it’s been a while since I shaved my legs, I guess.”
-Z and Ms. O in 7th period

This is my world away from the homestead. It's always a wreck.

This is my world away from the homestead. It’s always a wreck.

Yesterday C pushed his luck pretty hard with our Principal.  C is going into his fifth year of high school – his fifth year of ninth grade English – for an array of reasons. One of the big ones is his temper. C is proud. His pride is pretty much all he has to be proud of, so he guards his pride with terrible care. He makes mistakes and he doesn’t have many role models who can keep their pride and still say “sorry,” so he often winds up clashing with authority. That’s kind of an understatement. C is actually the only student I have ever felt physically threatened by. I once thought “this kid is about to slug me.” He didn’t, but he had that look in his eye.

The principal asked C, repeatedly, to remove his hood, and C ignored him. The principal asked to speak to him, and C ignored him. The principal asked for an apology, and C refused. The principal gave him three days of In School Suspension (ISS). C came in from lunch fuming. He’d been given ISS for an offense that he felt was minor. He argued that no other student would have received ISS for wearing a hood. I pointed out that no other student would have escalated the situation the way that he did. He didn’t give the principal any opportunity to not punish him and still save face. We talked about that: how you have to make it easy for people to do what you want. We discussed how he doesn’t let people see the good in him. I see it, but most adults don’t and it’s easy to punish a kid who you think is a jerk. I told him to go talk to our principal like the intelligent, thoughtful, perceptive and sensitive adult that I know as C, and, after taking out some of his nervous energy on cleaning my whiteboards, he did. The principal (as a favor to me – I’m all in for this kid) put his suspension on hold. He told me that C was well-spoken and respectful when he came to argue his case. I’m proud of C. That act represents a huge growth in self-control and maturity. He needs second (thousandth) chances more than anyone I’ve ever known, because if he doesn’t grow up here, he probably won’t grow up anywhere. It’s very reasonable to suppose that he’ll wind up in prison.

A's awesome prism quiz doodle

A’s awesome prism quiz doodle

Our school doesn’t really focus on character development in a meaningful way. We don’t reward excellent character, and when we punish cheating or lying or violence, it’s always with the attitude that a child will learn to avoid the crime to avoid the punishment. I know that nine times out of ten, I don’t catch liars or cheaters. My classroom isn’t a police state, and I expect my students to be kind, honest and hardworking without surveillance. I try to use trust as a motivator, but I’m often disappointed. Cheating and lying have a low risk and a high reward for kids, and unless there’s something more than detention, loss of points, or a paddling hanging over their heads, they will not learn honesty. It’s easy to take your licks and move on. I learned to be honest out of fear of my parents’ and teachers’ disappointment and loss of trust. Guilt burned me up inside. I learned to be considerate by cleaning up after other people when I worked in the dining hall at Warren Wilson: When other people’s thoughtlessness impacted my life, I learned to be thoughtful to save other people discomfort or inconvenience. I can’t speak for others, but in my life, punishment was emotional and largely self-inflicted or relationships-based, and I think I have learned, as a young adult, to be honest and thoughtful to keep my pride and to maintain my relationships. How can we accomplish this in schools?

Note to self: Next Year …

  • Hit PEMDAS hard and early
  • Do an activity where you compare things’ weights: an apple is the same as an orange. Three oranges is a koala. Two snails is an orange. Two cakes make a koala. Make as many unique equations as you can.
  • Open response competitions all the time


Hair: When it’s on your head or isn’t.

Standing in front of a mirror in a white t-shirt, I thought I looked really, really white. And shiny. My scalp felt tight and tingly and, when I ran my palm over it, a little raspy. I was fifteen, and I’d just shaved my head for the first time. It was a nice enough head: not lumpy or pointy at all. Everyone told me I looked like Sinead O’Connor, which I didn’t. Over the next few weeks, a waitress mistook me for a boy in a skirt while I was at brunch with my family, and a kid in my class mistook me for his brother. My motives for shaving my head are long-forgotten, probably because they were weird and convoluted motives, but I learned something: I didn’t see the world any differently from inside a bald head.

My mother once said something to me about the way that femininity is tied to hair, something like “A woman without hair isn’t seen as a woman.” She was right, though her statement came from an experience very different from mine. People make assumptions and judgments about your gender identity and your sexuality when you don’t have a “feminine” hairstyle. Inside, I was still me: a mostly straight, mostly cisgendered person.  Outside, I was decidedly queer. For me, this was empowering. I was able to shrug off any negative experiences because they didn’t apply to my real identity, and embrace the escape from female stereotypes. People stopped assuming that I’d be submissive, ditzy, or emotional. I wasn’t objectified.
The positive, if superficial, feedback I had been used to receiving on my looks was missed. Sometimes, I was really self-conscious about my bald head. I’m not immune to social pressure, and I remember feeling hideous and embarrassed. With practice, I learned to see some new kinds of beauty in myself; I found the bunny-soft half-inch stage of growing my hair in and the arch and expression of the thick eyebrows that suddenly dominated my looks. I learned to really notice and appreciate being valued for my intelligence, though not yet for my kindness: I was not a kind teenager.
I wasn’t appropriating a symbol of some counterculture that didn’t apply to me or pretending to be something I wasn’t. My identity is complicated and I wear it in my heart, not on my skull. My skull I reserve for triumphs and mistakes in self-expression, convenience and daring. I’ve rocked a bald head, blue hair, a Mohawk and a buzz-cut. I’ve rocked bangs, spit curls, and long, mermaid hair. Sometimes, in the grow-out phase, I’ve rocked a mullet. There’s something to be said for all of it; Long hair is beautiful, wonderfully feminine and smooth to the touch; when I have short hair, I don’t have to wash or brush it every day, let alone keep track of hairties and bobby pins. I often look like a doofus, but I don’t care much.  My appearance is something I control, and if I feel like making the effort I can be gorgeous, tough, playful, lush, practical, feminine, androgynous, professional, alternative or look like a young Leonardo DiCaprio.