Is the personal political?

Ivy HestSkills and Principles, Theory, Uncategorized

(About 8.5 minutes to read)

This past Wednesday I shared a deeply personal story about my body, my feelings about my body, and how it impacted the way I interacted with others.   It was published in my friend’s sex, dating, and relationship column, The Debrief, on

Here are the thoughts that went through my head throughout this process:

  1. It’s 3am and I can’t sleep.  I’ll just want to write this story for myself, as a way to make peace with it. 
  2. Ok, I want to share it with my partner, so he knows how I relate to this experience.
  3. I guess I should share it with my friends who were there for me when this all happened.  Maybe they have more insight for me.
  4. Maybe I should share this with my super body-positive friends and see if they have any similar articles they can point me to about others who have experienced something similar.
    High school me.  Check out the ginormo boobs, and the resulting t-shirt-turned-crop top.

    High school me. Check out the ginormo boobs, and the resulting t-shirt-turned-crop top.

  5. I want to share this with other people.  Only women though.  It’d be weird if I shared this story with men, it might make them and me uncomfortable.  Do I really want guys I’ve known in my life knowing about the history of my breasts?  I think I’m safe only sharing this with women.
  6. Men need to hear this story.
  7. Ok, fine.  I’ll share it with the internet.  And old Jewish grandmothers.
  8. Do I put my name to it?  It should be anonymous, so it doesn’t bite me in the ass later.
  9. How is this going to bite me later?  It’s my story and my history.  Future employers will…what? Reject me because I had plastic surgery when I was 17?  If that’s a thing, I don’t want to work there.
  10. If I put my name to this, everyone will know.  The story won’t be mine to share selectively, it’ll be there for everyone.
  11. If I leave my name off, it’ll still be helpful, but won’t make the statement I want- that I’m not afraid of it anymore.  That I don’t want it to be anonymous.  It shouldn’t have to be.
  12. I’ve turned it in.  This article can’t be unseen.
  13. I’ll just let it sit there on the internet.  I won’t promote it or anything.
  14. Think of the hilarious status messages I could post along with the article!  Oh, I’m so excited!
  15. What did I just do?
  16. I totally just did that.

The day I posted it, I checked Facebook every 3 minutes.  I had to carry a charger with me because I was refreshing so much I kept running out of battery.  I felt sick to my stomach, and also pretty energized.

I wasn’t sure what my goal was in sharing my story.  There was a lot of self-loathing and fear before the surgery.  But there was also part two in my re-telling, of my life after surgery, where my body changed but my beliefs about myself and my fears didn’t.  It’s complicated.  It wasn’t a story of “love yourself, no matter what”, even though I wanted it to be.  There’s a resignation, an unavoidable-ness, but also a celebration and pursuit to use my experience as a resource for others.

I know...I'm sorry!

I know…I’m sorry!

It’s a huge part of who I am- someone who shares topics and parts of my life that many feel are taboo in shared spaces (I can’t help but laugh when someone says “TMI”).  I know it sometimes makes even my closest friends feel uncomfortable, and certainly still throws Seth off-guard (like when I nonchalantly texted a photo to him and my mother of a toilet bowl asking, “should my pee be this color?”).  I like sharing uncomfortable things because much of what I go through and the questions I ask myself are shared experiences, but as long as we keep them to ourselves, we won’t benefit from others’ experiences.  People may squirm when I ask them how much they paid for something, or tell them about how I initially got married for the health insurance (and for love too, honey…I swear…), but when we keep these experiences to ourselves, we remain isolated.  I want to be that person my friends think of when they think that the rising cost of Health Care doesn’t impact them.

People were surprised that I shared so much in this story, and honestly, I still haven’t processed what it meant for me to reveal all that and how I feel about it. 

But something that struck me is a question: what is public and what is private? 

I and many other organizers have discussed carefully choosing stories that we tell those we are organizing, so that it reveals vulnerability that will allow us to gain trust, while still maintaining a professional relationship.  I even went through a 3 day training focused on “public”, “private”, and storytelling.  We are trained to be somewhat militant about maintaining a public relationship and steering conversations so that those we meet with also stick to telling public stories versus private, personal ones that we reserve for our closest friends.

Where is that line drawn?  When does a personal, difficult struggle become something that one can share to move others to action?  Was I publicly venting something deeply private to my friends that I’ve now broadly defined as anyone who reads a Jewish website (lookin a you, Nana!), or did I have a public purpose, even if I wasn’t sure what it was?

In my three-day training on the subject, we all started with Our Story.  We would pick one story that defined why we did social justice focused work, and we’d tell it over and over again, getting more feedback as we practiced.

The first time I shared My Story (a different story, perhaps one I’ll share in the future), I couldn’t tell it without crying.  It was a powerful story, I’ll admit that, but I couldn’t tell it without feeling the pain myself.  That’s probably too private.  But I wanted to tell this story.  I wanted to learn how to make it a public story.  And so I cut, omitted, and practiced to the point that it felt genuine and strong, but also showed enough about who I am and what I believe in.

There’s this one organizer in Boston (ok, there are probably a lot of them…) who folks have an Organizing Crush on.  We swoon hearing his stories, and want to be his disciple.  But he’s also so opinionated and direct that it’s intimidating, and many cower, too afraid to actually sit down with him.  When he tells you how to do something, you listen.  He taught this 3-day Storytelling Training.  And when I told my story, he paused, said “wow”, and then said “you can’t cry.  Save that for your friends.  You’re doing a job.  If you can’t handle telling other people, you shouldn’t tell it.  Find a new story.”

I ignored him, and instead continued to focus on this story, trying to make it something I could detach enough from that I could tell it.  It felt like the story I needed to tell, and that it was a genuine explanation for why I do this work.  I can now tell this story publicly, though I sometimes cry when I extend it with friends and put back the parts I’ve taken out for the public.  I decided this private story should be public.

Bring it on.

Damn right.

Seth sometimes shares pieces of movement history with me.  He reminded me that I’m one in a long line of women who have shared those “private” stories.  That a key element in feminist movements (among others) has been women sharing stories about personal pain that many thought weren’t to be discussed.  Those talks happened around kitchen tables, over coffee, and eventually, on the streets.  The stories were hard to tell and took a lot of courage.  But once some stories came out, more stories were told as women saw themselves in the stories others told.  The phrase “the personal is political” is best known from the feminist movement.  And a movement started that continues today. 

And so, years later, I shared this particular story about my body very publicly.  This story is, by almost anyone’s definition, something that’s considered personal and private.  This definitely would have been a story that Organizing Crush Organizer would deem inappropriate to share, unless I was working on some issue wherein this story was directly and absolutely relevant.  But I disagree.

When I decided to share this story with everyone- not just a women’s forum, not on an exclusively “body positive” blog, not through a feminist cause or directly affiliated with an organization- it was because I had gotten a bit fed up with feeling like it was something private, or something I should be ashamed of.  Until this point, is was a “coming out” story of sorts; It had become a hurdle I had to get over before moving forward with new relationships (of whatever variety), every time.

Ok…but Beyonce IS flawless.

I thought about Beyonce’s “Flawless” and the expectations I had of other peoples’ breasts, and even the Facebook “likes” I got when I warned folks they were about to learn a lot about my breasts that weren’t followed up by any reaction to the article itself.  Maybe I took away from others the romanticized idea that women’s breasts were exclusively sexual, or even a beautiful part of birth, and made it into a scarred, uneasy part of me that should stay covered and quiet but that I’m airing for everyone to see.  Or maybe people just really didn’t think much about it.  Whatever the case, I was tired of hiding, and tired of lying.  I needed to share this.

I didn’t know what to expect as a public reaction, but what I got I was not expecting.  Some people told me they just never noticed, some said the writing was beautiful, some just thought I was super ballsy.  And some people messaged me to thank me.  They shared their stories of how they felt about their bodies and how they related to it over time.  They were the same story even though the issues were different.  People who told me that they wanted to write something about hair.  About weight.  About not feeling like a woman.  About not wanting to be a woman.  About the pain we all share about body image, what others think of us, and what we do to ourselves because of the perceived and real judgments placed on us.

I didn’t think much about the repercussions of sharing this story publicly.  I wanted to write this story for myself, as a way to heal.  But when I shared it, it took on a life of its own.  I saw it as a short story, but in a way, what I did was radical.  It was feminist.  It was political.  It gave others a way to share their story.

For me, the distinction between public and private is blurry, at best.  As a person, I try to live my life in a way that makes others feel comfortable and heard.  I want people to ask me the weird questions they don’t feel like they can ask others.  I’ve benefitted so much from flat out asking questions that I “shouldn’t”, and I want to push others to do the same.

As organizers, we ask people to share their personal, painful stories publicly.  By doing this, the storyteller allows others to come out about similar issues, and helps the storytellers realize that they are part of something bigger.  Stories are powerful things.  And they make the personal political.

P.S.  I’m sorry this post is late.  We’re getting a puppy, and things got distracted!  Seth’s making fun of me because I’m already blaming things on the dog eating my homework…

Meet Ruggles! (Mr. Ruggles when we're angry with him)  We're taking him home in a few weeks!

Meet Ruggles! (Mr. Ruggles when we’re angry with him) We’re taking him home in a few weeks!

Time for some feedback!
On Allyship and Action