In Search of Empowerment

At Best Buy one lazy Sunday afternoon six years back, I sampled my first Ipod. The pre-programmed music selections featured India.Arie singing “I Am Not My Hair,” a magnificent composition written, in part, to honor Melissa Etheridge, who appeared bald at the Grammys after her chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer:

I am not my hair
I am not your expectations, oh no.
I am not this skin
I am the soul that lives within.
 

Everything about this tune is sexy, funky and in charge. I keep it handy when exercising, driving and yes, when writing.

Full disclosure – I have big hair. Okay. I have a head of hair big enough for three people. As a child with long thick locks, I looked like a Little-Kiddle doll (damn, I am dating myself), with an enormous mane overpowering my tiny body. I know what it is to lead with my hair, working to tame it, to make it look cool, to make myself look pretty and acceptable. So, when I saw women being brutally critiqued for their appearance and every part of their personal and vocal presentation in 2008, this was one more drop in the misogynist bucket.

“I am not my hair.”

No one, least of all me, could have predicted that two years after I first heard India.Arie’s powerful lyrics, my life would be redefined by a need to write about the treatment of women, specifically how they are judged by their appearance while their accomplishments are relegated to the back burner.

Moved to action by my passion for Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, 2008 was a year of firsts for me. Long a news junkie, I became a Hillary junkie, and a justice junkie. For the first time, I voiced my objections to errant political and social behaviors in a loud voice. Going public was mortifying and exhilarating. I made donations, signed petitions, attended fundraisers, made GOTV phone calls, wrote letters to the editor, and made calls to party leadership. Then I morphed from “lurker” to “blogger” and turned my priorities upside down. My thirty year obsession with my acting career came to an abrupt halt. Typing fast and furious, I argued for my candidate in such a – well – spirited way, I no longer recognized myself.

All the time I had spent working my way up, mostly on television hardly mattered. How we treat each other, how the political debate plays out, that we get an opportunity to have the best leadership regardless of appearance, matters far more. So when the spirit moves me, I load the laptop onto me and start clacking away – hunting and pecking at eighty words per minute, my beautiful Caruso kitty nestled beside me, a paw on my leg, urging me to finish what I started.

“I am not your expectations, oh no.”

It is hard to divorce my activism from my writing because I write to empower myself and release the frustration I feel at the events unfolding around me. Writing has always been a great tool for catharsis, to discover myself and share those secret parts of me with others.

150 blog articles later, staring at the NYC-sized yellow pages full of research materials I had amassed, I realized nothing but a book would do. I set out to write Dirty Words on Clean Skin in exactly the wrong way. I was told it could not be a memoir because nobody gave a damn who I was. I had too small a “platform.” I was told it could not be a nonfiction book about 2008 and Hillary because it was too late to write it. No one would care by the time it came out. In other words, the untold story of the despicable treatment of a candidate and her 18,000,000 supporters in the most historic primary battle in history would lose its luster after a couple of years? Even though we were still fighting the same battles with misogyny?

Only sunlight will make the roaches scatter, I thought. Only debate will force people to look at their long held stereotypical beliefs long enough to realize they have been brainwashed into maintaining them.

As per usual, my mile wide independent streak ignored conventional wisdom and I did it anyway. And I really “did it wrong” because I wrote a nonfiction book that read like a memoir. It was the only way the story could be told. I needed a way to communicate on a cellular level how trashing one of the most powerful women in the world had and has a devastating effect on all of us. I had to rise or fall by the truth I needed to tell and the way I needed to tell it.

Every time a woman looks into a mirror and thinks there is something wrong with her body, her hair, or listens to her own voice and thinks she sounds bad or wrong, she has someone in the media, in advertising, some comedian, some politician or some jealous person to thank. Sadly, she has herself to thank if she allows the poison to so seep into her psyche that she perpetuates a message which says she is less than amazing. Her willingness to beat up other women the way she has been psychically beaten is likewise painful to me.

“I am not this skin.”

With the help of friends encouraging me past the terror of signing my name to my political opinion, and three years of noodling, writing, pitching and re-writing later, I got the book published.

Now, another first, I am on national radio talking about it. I talk about how Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas, 16, was on the receiving end of mass twitter-hate for her hair, and the preoccupation with Olympic gold medalist Missy Franklin’s “big feet.” I detail the double standard facing women in politics, and the call out the media which still slaps at women unchecked. Since this was swept under the rug the last two election cycles, it is clear why a female candidate is conspicuous by her absence in this one.

In my latest interview, I said the media “basically fed Hillary a crap sandwich daily while offering love letters to her opponent.” A crap sandwich? I mean, it is true. 100%. But I actually said it. Out loud. On the radio. What happened to me? It wasn’t a pretty phrase but I guess it got the message across. That is the gift of the written or spoken word: painting a picture that evokes a visceral response.

I have been privileged to earn the support of lovely women and men who know me only through my writing. Some of us have spoken on the phone; most of us have never met. Some are thousands of miles away, yet they have been so generous in urging me to craft and share this message. Having spent many formative and adult years as a people pleaser, I was happy to let people think I shared their opinions rather than going out on a limb and having my own. My outspokenness is a byproduct of my passion on this subject and nothing more. That passion has both overtaken and surprised me more times than I can tell you. But without my lovely and generous angels encouraging me to have a voice every step of the way, perhaps my words would just have wound up in a drawer collecting dust.

After a lively debate with yet another radio host, he asked me what we can do about the bias women still receive. I said “Sir, you are doing it right now. You are talking with me.”

That, I think, has been the gift of writing. I learned to reason, to think, to make an argument and defend it; hopefully, to move others and induct them to my reasoning and energy. Writing also equals gratitude. When I look back at a phrase, paragraph or chapter, I see ideas that matter to me come to life. Having a career that was always based on air, the written word has a sense of purpose, permanence and weight that cannot be erased.

Writing is my way of ensuring that I offer up more than my hair.

“I am the soul that lives within.”

*****************************

Anita Finlay is the author of Dirty Words on Clean Skin: Sexism and Sabotage, a Hillary Supporter’s Rude Awakening, available on Amazon in print and kindle editions.

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