Jennifer

Kyira: “What made you decide that this was an important project to be a part of? And, or what made it important to you and where you’re at in your journey?”

Jennifer: “Um, it’s kind of a multi-part answer. The first is personal. I’m 50 now and it’s the first time I’ve been, sort of, content with my body. And this seemed like a good place to come and put a bookmark on it. The second is probably covered by just about every woman who does this that, you know, there’s – it’s a ridiculous standard that women are held to. And I know for me, I didn’t see an older naked woman until – and I know we’re not naked – but until I was maybe in my 30s, at a Turkish spa, you know.”

Kyira: “Wow.”

Jennifer: “I mean, that’s ridiculous.”

Kyira: “Yes.”

Jennifer: “So if you have nothing else to go on [as you age], you become held up to these ridiculous standards internally. So this is critical, I think, for women especially to see bodies at every age. And men, too, but mostly for women.”

Kyira: “Yeah. And I think you’re right. I mean, there are definitely standards for men and for women. The standards just look different. And it’s helpful on both ends to see what real bodies look like as we’re growing up.”

Jennifer: “Yeah. Well, and I remember when I – I have a younger brother, seven years younger. When he was growing up, I think he was 14, he had a poster of a St. Paulie girl on his door. And my mom sat him down one day and said, ‘You realize this is not really what women look like.’ (Laughing.) And she kind of explained the difference – important for young boys, not only for their own self-esteem but also for standards of female beauty, or realism.”

Kyira: “Yeah. And I think there was someone I talked to when we did an interview a few months ago who mentioned, she’s like, ‘I’m very comfortable. Like, I would be naked all the time. I really embraced that. To me, it’s just my body.’ She’s like, ‘But in our culture there’s such a fear of being naked.’ And we have to be covered so much that I think it perpetuates what you’re talking about. People don’t see bodies when they’re growing up because we’re supposed to cover it. And then so then it gets, you know, what’s the clothing size you buy? What’s the brand you’re wearing? What is this? So it all becomes about how we dress up the body to look a certain way, as opposed to just seeing bodies and knowing that no one body looks like this image we’ve built up that we’re supposed to reach.”

Jennifer: “Yeah.”

Kyira: “So how do you think the culture that we live in – and whether that is the family culture you grew up in, living where you lived growing up, or living in Madison, just any part of your identity and the culture you find yourself in – how do you think that’s influenced your ability to feel beautiful? Positive or negatively.”

Jennifer: “Um, do you have a preference about whether I answer that on a personal or a bulk level?”

Kyira: “No, it’s whatever would feel most relevant or helpful for you.”

Jennifer: “Oh, OK. Um, I think the driver for me is that I was raped when I was 11. And so I always wore very large clothes. Even though I was, at that point, and for a long time, really skinny, I had really oversized clothes to deflect attention.”

Kyira: “Yeah.”

Jennifer: “And then, um, and I was never comfortable with my body, just, you know, cuz it seemed like this was an instrument of wrongdoing, basically. And then, you know, as my life unfolded, um, I ended up having, well, 10 pregnancies altogether, only one of them lived. But even like when I was in my mid-30s with six of them under my belt, as it were, um, and none of them had lived to that point, I just kind of felt like my body had completely betrayed me. There was nothing good that was going to come out of this. So, um, personally I had to figure out a way to reclaim that, to sort of understand that something positive could happen here.”

Kyira: “Yeah.”

Jennifer: “And then, obviously and alternately, it’s just back to the standards issues. Because, again, if you meet those standards then you’re almost putting yourself at risk again because you’re becoming more attractive.”

Kyira: “Right. Which for you must have been such a bind because, again, there’s that piece of – I don’t know if ‘hiding’ is the right word. And I don’t wanna – I don’t wanna put my interpretation on your experience but …”

Jennifer: “Yeah, it’s to deflect attention.”

Kyira: “Yeah.”

Jennifer: “Which is a very common thing for rape survivors.”

Kyira: “Exactly.”

Jennifer: “And then interestingly for me, anyway, I would say over the past maybe five or 10 years, I’ve put on a bit of weight, probably about 75 pounds, and kind of rolled through my 40’s gaining weight. And then I lost about 60 of those last year and hit (age) 50, and it was a really interesting thing. Because when you hit 50, uh, you sort of become more invisible as a woman. And when you’re overweight you’re more invisible, so to have those things coincide where I’d become more visible because of lost weight and become sort of invisible because I’m older, it’s – it was a really interesting thing. Like, I experienced, um, being visible (laughing), I had like a month window where I was visible.”

Kyira: “Right.”

Jennifer: “You know. And men that I had known for like 20 years. I used to know them, and they would sort of see me again and say hi. Well, I’d been there the whole time, they just didn’t see me cuz I was overweight. It was like a fat burka, basically, you know (laughing).”

Kyira: “Geez.”

Jennifer: “So it was kind of fascinating. But where that left me was, um, was being happy to lose the weight, cuz I was very uncomfortable being that heavy, and it was just lazy (laughing). You know, not to lose it. So physically I was uncomfortable. But I was also comfortable with the idea of being less visible because of age. And so that left me in a really positive position of kind of feeling like now I can do whatever I want. I can dress the way I want. And for the first time in, you know, forever in my life I think, I’m comfortable wearing form-fitting clothes.”

Kyira: “Yeah.”

Jennifer: “Because part of me is not gonna be seen, you know.”

Kyira: “Oh, so there’s like a little bit of safety in that.”

Jennifer: “It’s kind of awesome.”

Kyira: “Yeah.”

Jennifer: “I’m comfortable, like, having a good body. I’m comfortable wearing clothes that fit it properly and are flattering. Cuz now it’s just sort of for me and I don’t feel like it puts me in danger. So it, what it’s actually come out to is a net positive where I’m content with my body and I’m happy with how I can dress and I can dress the way I want and feel safe doing it. It’s kinda awesome.”

Kyira: “Yeah. Well, and just, I mean, from even a journey – and maybe even a journey that started from before you were 11, but especially when you think about that traumatic event and everything that that did and shaped for you. Then to be here at 50 and saying, this freedom you’ve found to be who you are now, to be more in line with who you want to be, how have you seen that, like, what are some of those pivotal moments along the journey that you can kind of identify?”

Jennifer: “A really big one for me was, um, the sixth pregnancy I had – no, fifth pregnancy. And most of the pregnancies I had lost pretty early, like before the three-month mark. But this one made it to about seven months. And, um, so that was pretty devastating. And then I, after that stillbirth, basically, I’d hit that low point of like, this body …”

Kyira: “Right.”

Jennifer: “So, um, sorry. (Pause and quiet.) I bet you hit this point in every interview, don’t you? That’s how you know you’re doing a good job with the questions. Just give me a second.”

Kyira: “Take as much time as you need.”

Jennifer: “Uh, so I had to figure out something that would turn that around. So for me I picked kind of the most opposite end of the spectrum and started taking belly dance classes (laughing). Cuz for me it was a, something that is sexualized in this culture, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s actually a really muscular art form.”

Kyira: “Mm, hmmm.”

Jennifer: “And so I thought if it’s something that’s kind of a sensual thing and it’s very physical, it will get me exercising, which will help depression. It would sort of bring me back into connection with my body in a way that it’s doing something beautiful. So that was actually, that was great. It wasn’t beautiful for quite a long time! (Laughing.) But then I got better at it. And I’ve been doing it for 20 years, and I still do it and, yeah. And actually I hit a point about five years into training where, um, I still had a day job but I would take – I was probably in my mid- to late-30s by then – and I would perform at weddings. And so we were in Dearborn, Michigan, where there was a big Arab population, and I didn’t want to perform in clubs and stuff cuz that didn’t feel particularly safe and I’d have to stay up later than I wanted (laughing).”

Kyira: “Yeah.”

Jennifer: “Um, but I got hired for weddings. And so that necessitated costuming and makeup and things that you’d have to do deliberately to sort of glitz it up. Cuz the kind of dancing that I had trained in was, if you’re familiar with this at all, it’s Egyptian cabaret.”

Kyira: “Oh, yeah!”

Jennifer: “It’s what you think of when you think of, like, glitzy sparkly dancers.”

Kyira: “Yeah! I’m just thinking mostly about the strength and the physicality behind that, and the bind with what you talked about it being hypersexualized. And yet it is something that is – it’s a very different meaning in different cultures.”

Jennifer: “Yeah, so I learned that, yeah, it becomes like an active reclamation. So that helped a lot. That was a big turning point. And then having a kid that lived, that helped a lot.”

Kyira: “Yeah. And that was in your 30s?”

Jennifer: “Yeah, so that, I had number seven at 37.”

Kyira: “It says, I mean, there’s such tremendous resiliency in your story and in the way that you speak and you tell things. And I just – it sounds like it was also something that was a very lonely battle, like for a lot of that time. Because a lot of what you were struggling with was maybe not outwardly visible by everybody, or maybe it wasn’t always safe to let people in to know what was going on. Were there, was there support, or were there people that you feel like were able to be there with you in that?”

Jennifer: “Um (pause), I mean I’ve always had good female friends. And every female I know has some version of this, to some greater or lesser degree.”

Kyira: “Yeah.”

Jennifer: “So there’s that.”

Kyira: “Fortunately and unfortunately, right?”

Jennifer: “Right, yeah. You know, it’s – seeing how we are in the world, it’s hard to feel sorry for myself, because everybody’s got some of this going on, you know. And that’s helpful.”

Kyira: “Yeah. Sometimes I feel like the, the unity in something – even if we’re united in pain, there’s still a connection that can be the chord of hope that you need.”

Jennifer: “It’s that, but it’s also, um – I’m trying to think of the right way to say this – it’s contextualizing. You don’t, for me anyway, it’s um, you’re not isolated. It’s not just who are you and your sad story? Cuz everybody’s got it.”

Kyira: “Right.”

Jennifer: “So it really forces you to put that into a larger context and not, you know, and take action on it, not just sit there and have a pity fest.”

Kyira: “Right. Very true. I didn’t think about it from that realm too, but because, yeah, it makes it a little bit harder to stay isolated in that pain when you open the door to the fact that there are other people with this. So you can kind of …”

Jennifer: “Yeah, and a lot of people have it way worse off, so, you know …”

Kyira: “Right.”

Jennifer: “And many become kind of selfish.”                                     

Kyira: “Yeah. So how do you, how do you nurture yourself now in all of this growth that you’ve found and the way you’ve been able to thrive in the midst of all of this. How do you nurture that now?”

Jennifer: “Um, well I mentioned I still dance every week. And, uh, being more physically active, you know. Like I think I said, I lost all this weight this year and that sort of helped me find a balance of kind of better eating and the right exercise pattern. And that’s all hitting right as I slide into menopause, so I expect everything will go ‘ass over tea kettle’ in very short order (laughing). And I’ll have to figure it all out again (laughing).”

Kyira: “Yeah, but at least you’re pulling the strings enough to know that you have figured it out to a way that works for you, that you can figure it out again when the next challenge comes up.”

Jennifer: “Yeah.”

Kyira: “So are there things that I didn’t ask, or things that are kind of coming up for you while we’re talking that you feel like you want to talk a little bit about?”

Jennifer: “(Pause.) I don’t think so. It’s a remarkable breadth of ground we just covered in 15 minutes (laughing), so …”

Kyira: “Right! It’s always a little bit surprising to me when you can create the safety or the environment for something like that to happen just how, how easy it is for people to actually connect and talk about stuff – when the space is there. So it’s, when we talk about how hard it is to find that, I’m learning more and more in this project that it’s not a difficult as we think, it’s being intentional about creating the space to do it.”

Jennifer: “Yeah, I have to say that’s one benefit of all this is I really – and aging, too – is I don’t, um, I’m not a, I’ve never been a big small talker or something …”

Kyira: “Yeah.”

Jennifer: “I mean, yeah, you just create the space for it and everybody has more important things going on than, you know, talking about the weather.”

Kyira: “And usually people want to connect and they want to feel heard. It’s that we often feel like people don’t want to hear what we have to say.”

Jennifer: “Yeah.”

Kyira: “And so it’s, you know, learning how to get comfortable talking about it when nobody seems to want to talk about it and you don’t get to practice it as much. So it’s just, I think it’s a hard bind. I’m in the mental health field, and I talk pretty openly about struggles that I’ve gone through. And I’ve seen that that makes a big difference for people when it’s, when there can at least be a commonality in the pain in some way that we can get there more quickly. Cuz they’re like, ‘Wait, you might want to hear because of this, this and this.’ And I think this project does that in a different way where we are all talking about struggles and triumphs and all the ways that we’re growing and learning and evolving, but through different courses of pain. And so there’s a way that we can create that connection with each other and that help and that support, because of those types of things and sharing that vulnerable stuff.”