Photo: Jaime Chang
Photo: Jaime Chang

Women We Read This Week

Tyrese L. Coleman “Why I Let Him Touch My Hair” in Brevity

I read Tyrese L. Coleman’s short piece a few weeks ago, and in the time since it’s returned to me countless times, as though it were a story many times its length. In some ways it is a story many times its length, one that could collect infinite examples for this same offense. It’s a story, on the one hand, about a small encounter at a bar, an encounter between Coleman and a white man. She writes, “A typical white boy. No match for me, yet, I started it, impressed him with what I knew white boys liked: Metallica, tits, Seinfeld.” But a story that starts out deceivingly small unfolds to a long history of encounters between black girls and women and white boys and men, encounters witnessed or experienced by Coleman—“My title: the black girl. The only one, surrounded by white boys.” And the ending is what won’t leave me. Its small balances of power and submission, of robbery of power—they reflect whole worlds.

Katie

Jordan E. Rosenfeld’s “Why Is Everyone So Damn Squeamish About Breastfeeding?” in Dame Magazine

Despite breastfeeding three children (one currently, the other two for close to three years each), I have yet to be shamed for doing so in public. I’m either lucky or I exude enough of a “don’t mess with me” vibe. But I do read about it happening with what seems like increasing regularity. My theory is that people don’t like being reminded that we are animals, and breastfeeding is as mammalian as it gets. According to this fascinating piece on why people are uncomfortable with seeing women nurse their young, my theory is somewhat correct, but goes one step further: reminders of our animal nature are reminders of our mortality.

The roots of these outdated and unsympathetic responses to the oldest form of feeding a child are complex and multifaceted, but seem to share one surprising source: a fear of our own mortality, known in social psychology as “terror management theory.” A 2007 paper in the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, “Mother’s Milk: An Existential Perspective on Negative Reactions to Breast-Feeding” by C.R. Cox, et al., defines this as “a framework for understanding how a large part of human behavior results from defensive motivations related to the awareness of death.”

Apparently a breast in a sexual context conjures life, but a breast that spills its cloudy milk into a waiting infant’s lips reminds us of our temporal animal nature.

So in essence, breastfeeding is triggering an existential crisis. What’s odd, though, is how opposite the actual experience of nursing a baby can be. It’s comforting to bask in the primal nature of the act, of the intuitive ability of my body to feed my child. It also makes me feel more connected to my fellow mammals. Maybe next time someone tries to shame a breastfeeding momma, she can respond: “It’s ok: no one makes it out alive.”

Kate Marvel’s “The Parallel Universes of a Woman in Science” in Nautilus

This thoughtful, introspective essay mixes memoir and physics with stunning results. It’s about self-doubt, potential, and sexism in science education. It about how being a woman in the sciences often means being made to feel extraneous or not worthy of time or teaching, or far worse, being vulnerable to sexual assault. This piece shows us how those experiences can impact women’s lives and career trajectories. The author finds comfort in theorems, concepts that describe the physical truths of the universe, the laws of nature we must exist within:

Here is Noether’s Theorem, named for the woman who discovered it. … It tells us that physics rests on symmetries: The sameness of a perfect sphere viewed from every vantage point means something fundamental is preserved on it. Conservation laws of energy, momentum, and charge all arise from fundamental symmetries of nature. It is tempting to impose moral dimensions on this: Invariance means fairness, fairness means the preservation of important things. Symmetries are beautiful. But they are not eternal.

I stand on a hill between two identical valleys. Both possibilities are equally open to me so long as I remain undecided. Choice destroys this: Moving downward toward one valley means moving away from the other. Possibilities are closed. The symmetry is broken.

Olivia

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