Month: September 2017

WHY DO MEN LOVE SAD GIRLS?

I wrote this for Harper’s Bazaar. Image courtesy of Paramount. 

“You were so frail that you looked like you would just float away.”

My ex-boyfriend says he fell in love with me that day, as I sat saturated in sadness reading the Buddhist recovery memoir Dharma Punx, wearing a ripped Diane Von Furstenberg dress and the label of Major Depressive Disorder. The dress had torn during a date rape when I first moved to New York, but I continued to wear it years later because I loved it. And like some perverse attraction to dating a depressed girl, men flocked to me because of it.

It’s a trope that pop culture loves to depict (The Virgin Suicides, Prozac Nation, and Girl: Interrupted, among others). But for me, a bisexual and queer woman who at the time was primarily dating cis-gendered straight men, it meant a stream of partners being attracted to, and enjoying, my inability to stand up for myself: an excuse to sleep with a “beautifully fragile” woman who would not ask for much in return.

The fact that an aura of sadness can attract partners is not uncommon. On average, men find women with some psychological vulnerability more attractive, according to a 2012 University of Texas at Austin study which looked at the connection between sexual exploitability and sexual attraction. This is not necessarily problematic, explained clinical psychologist and relationship expert Barbara Greenberg, but it can become a substantial cause for concern for those experiencing severe suffering who may be less likely to protect themselves. This can often appeal to the wrong type of men.

Most of my lovers during this time didn’t know what to do with me, and I allowed those who loved and made love to me to treat me with limited deference. I later found out this can be a typical occurrence for people who are depressed. “A lack of respect can be tolerated when a person is down,” noted Dr. Greenberg. “They may not be aware of self-protection because they are so hungry for validation wherever they can find it. We are worried about the predators who come at it from a place of bad intention—a person who probably has either a narcissistic or antisocial personality, somebody who lacks empathy.”

Indeed, one of the most twisted guys I dated during my lowest was a man whose label read “Antisocial Personality Disorder.” He wore it loudly through lies, a lack of empathy, and eventually, verbal abuse. Those with mental disorders such as Narcissistic Personality Disorders and Antisocial Personality Disorder are especially eager to take advantage of someone who is depressed because it’s all about their needs. Diagnosis of personality disorders is controversial (it’s a bit twisted to tell someone that their personality is a disorder), but people with limited or nonexistent empathy certainly exist, in my experience.

Essentially, my radar for picking well-meaning partners was broken because my self-esteem had gone dry. Within the span of a few months, I was sexually assaulted (again), my parents divorced, and I left a long-term cohabiting relationship. I moved to Brooklyn and simultaneously gave up alcohol in an attempt to start over. But the combination of leaving a relationship in which we shared many mutual friends, and no longer socializing in bars, dissolved many of my friendships. The isolating side effect of depression didn’t make finding new friends easier. I hadn’t yet learned nourishing coping mechanisms; so rather than focus on healing myself through therapy, creative outlets, and new friendships, I poured myself into sexual and (questionable) romantic relationships with lovers who didn’t treat me with the care that I needed. The effect was cyclical. I would feel worse when a partner put me down or used me for sex, leaving me to seek validation in other men—and during this time, they were always so easy to find.

The other type of problematic partner one encounters while living with depression is the savior. In cinematic portrayals of love and depression, the sad girl’s partner usually has good intentions. They want to rescue her. The trouble is, you can set groundwork for a relationship dynamic that is difficult to unweave later, says New York City-based sex therapist Kelly Wise. When the depressed partner begins to recover and gain autonomy, the “savior” partner may find themselves uncomfortable with the new power balance.

Still, there are partners who genuinely care. However as my friend Ashley, who suffers from Major Depressive Disorder and wished only to use her first name, explained: “After a while, they give up. One of my exes broke up with me because he said I was bringing him down and he couldn’t handle my breakdowns anymore.” It took years before Ashley learned to avoid partners ill-equipped to deal with depression by being honest and upfront about her own situation.

Of course, dating with depression is very different when you’re in a long-term relationship than when you’re single. A reliable, committed partner will educate themselves about their significant other’s sickness (and yes, depression is a sickness, not a moral failing) and learn how to be supportive. Those with depression may experience it again in their lifetime, Dr. Greenberg reminded, which is why she advises being honest about your mental health history with partners.

A supportive community along with self-care during periods of depression can also help you tune into your needs, and as a result, sniff out the bad guys. With the support of friends, family, and sometimes therapy, you’re less likely to rely on unhealthy partners as a means of companionship. “You need to have your radar up, and if your radar is not operating properly then you need to operate on the radar of people who love you. Rely on the radar of your friends and rely on the radar of your therapist because yours is probably not as sharp when you’re depressed,” explained Dr. Greenberg.

Eventually, I got better and gained the self-realization and strength to untangle myself from unhealthy relationship patterns. I was able to heal through therapy, antidepressants, and the self-care of beauty routines. Perhaps most importantly, I built up friendships and community that provided love, support, and companionship without expectations of sex.

I know the demons I saw still exist, I simply now understand how to slay them. Recently, due to personal changes and the political climate, I, like many others, caught another whiff of depression. So I continue to work hard while making time for self-care, which for me, looks like splurging on a good massage followed by a night of reading, or watching Shonda Rhimes. As a single person, since many of my demons did arise from sexual assault and abuse, I now make sure to let lovers know when I need some time and space. And I’ve noticed that people with an honest interest in my well-being are very understanding when I express that need.

I acknowledge the part of myself that was once completely convinced that my existence was meaningless, however I’m also able to decide that even when living seems hard, the moments of joy make the moments of misery worth it. Believing in magic is more fun than believing in nothingness. And when it comes from a healthy place with worthy partners, having good sex and falling in love is one of the most delicious ways to revel in the joy of being.

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An Ode to the Misunderstood Beauty of the Tramp Stamp

Please read this. It is important!

Originally published in Broadly, Photo by Evil Pixels. 

I faced backward with my legs splayed open like Britney Spears in her “Stronger” music video. Behind me crouched Tessa BX of Gnostic Tattoo, who was adorning my lower back with my 11th tattoo—colloquially known as a “tramp stamp.” Spears also has one; hers is a fairy. (I was getting a snake, based on a piece by one of my favorite artists, Alejandra Sáenz.) Much like Spears’ infamous 2007 meltdown (which in my opinion was a valid mental reaction to her circumstances and metal as fuck), the lower back tattoo is largely—and unfairly—viewed by society as trashy and even tragic.

Women in Western society began inscribing ink on their lower back in the late 1980s, according to Dr. Anna Felicity Friedman, tattoo historian and director of the Center for Tattoo History and Culture. “Due to lingering mid-century stigmas about tattoos, they wanted to get them in a place that was easily concealed,” she explains. Jill Jordan, one of the most well-known female tattoo artists to emerge in the 1980s, called them the “chick spot,” according to Margot Mifflin in Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo. The trend crept into the early 1990s as more women started getting tattoos and by the mid-90s, the tattoo’s popularity soared due to an influx of tattoo magazines featuring models with lower back ink.

I recall growing up during this time and hearing men refer to the tattoo as a “target” or “bull’s eye,” insinuating it was the sign of a slut and that the bearer was “easy.” While I’m sure some women have gotten tattoos to lure lovers, body modifications from makeup to cosmetic surgery are choices women make to feel more powerful or comfortable in their body. “Tattoos appeal to contemporary women both as emblems of empowerment in an era of feminist gains and as badges of self-determination at a time when controversies about abortion rights, date rape, and sexual harassment have made them think hard about who controls their bodies—and why,” Mifflin writes. But our patriarchal society assumes women’s body modifications are less about their own agency and more about catering to men’s preferences, so women with lower back tattoos are simultaneously sexualized and shamed.

Selecting the image and placement for a tattoo is personal. It’s a decision rooted in reasons ranging from healing after sexual assault to simply wanting something pretty to adorn your body. In Bodies of Subversion, Jordan says that lower back tattoos are “a tremendously sexy and really flattering way to be tattooed—it just narrows your waist.” In The Witch’s Book of Power , professional witch Devin Hunter writes that the primal soul “sits within the lower soul of our being” and explains that in dharma, a concept with multiple meanings in Indian religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism, a “giant serpent known as Kundalini lies coiled within our root chakra, acting only out of primal instinct.” Kundalini deals with basic life energy, or prana, writes Shakti Parwha Kaur Khalsa in Kundalini Yoga: The Flow of Eternal Power .

I wanted a tramp stamp of a snake to commemorate a time in my life when I was unchaining myself from patriarchal restrictions like toxic relationships and finding my authentic self. The snake imagery and body placement represented my primal self and “living deliciously,” like Eve accepting forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. The tail of my tattoo begins at the root chakra but the rest lies mostly on the second chakra, like all lower back tattoos. While the root chakra represents primal energy, security, and survival, the second chakra represents sexual energy (and is located by our reproductive organs). “That area is sacred; it’s called sacrum for a reason” says Ashlee Davis, a Kundalini yoga instructor and holistic health coach that specializes in helping clients that struggle with emotional eating and body image.

Before the boom of ’90s tramp stamps, 20th century examples of lower back tattoos could be found as early as 1937. In an article titled “Tattooing Among the Arabs of Iraq,” originally published in American Anthropologist by Winifred Smeaton and republished in The Tattoo History Source Book . Smeaton writes of a midwife from Al-Kadhimain (a Northern area of Baghdad) who he called “one of the best informants on the magical aspects of tattooing.” The woman, who Smeaton did not name in his ethnography, explained the practice of tattooing a small design of three to five dots on women’s lower backs “just above the buttocks” as a fertility ritual to ensure childbearing.

By 2000, when Spears and her fairy tattoo were owning a chair in “Stronger,” the tramp stamp began falling out of fashion, says Dr Friedman. “When low-rise jeans exploded around the year 2000, making these tattoos very visible, it clinched the association with slutty sexuality,” she explained. Mifflin writes that by the new millennium the “chick spot became the tramp stamp and lost its charm.” When I asked Dr. Friedman for a contemporary equivalent of a ’90s tramp stamp, she answered rib cage tattoos. While speaking with Tessa prior to my appointment, she said that one of the most popular tattoos for women is the feather, so the butterfly above the butt has given way to the feather on the ribcage.

“I have done fewer lower back tattoos than I have forearm tattoos or other places, but since I’ve grown up, that’s always been a stigma. It’s a ‘ tramp stamp.’ From someone that loves tattoos, both giving and receiving, I find it hard to have an opinion about the placement of a tattoo,” Tessa says. As she inscribed a snake on my lower back, it made me feel protected and powerful, and I wondered if Britney felt a similar kinship to her fairy. (I hope so.)

While I (and the rest of the tattoo community) strongly advise against getting a paramour’s name tattooed on your body, the rest is up to you. Good luck trying to shame me for my tramp stamp—my snake has charm, and the 90s are back in fashion.