It’s been a year since my NYT essay, “Does My Virginity Have a Shelf Life?” was published. Here are the lessons I’ve learned.
The buzz phrase these days may be “Be Authentic.” But when it comes down to it, people are uncomfortable with being vulnerable. They are even more uncomfortable with others they (think they) know making themselves vulnerable. Many friends and acquaintances I ran into on the trails, at work, at church, in the gym, at the grocery responded to my NYT essay as if they’d seen me naked, almost embarrassed to admit they’d read it. And so, I decided to take it a step further. In June I went ahead and had actual professional nude photos taken, black and white photographs which focus on specific shapes and curves in my body. It was another awkward but freeing experience. Like publishing a piece of writing dear to your heart, the nude photo session required me to grant myself grace in my imperfections (or at least how I saw them). Another experience where, if I felt confident in my own skin and showed myself some compassion, I was safe.
Privacy and a sense of safety involve constantly renegotiating boundaries with yourself and others you care dearly about. I didn’t think twice about publishing my essay on my virginity. I felt strongly about putting it out there. But when I woke up in the middle of the night it went live online, I freaked out when I saw I had emails from as far away as India and the Middle East. When I let on to my parents the next morning that I was afraid, I remember my father candidly saying, “You’d better be ready. People are going to be out to get you.” I felt like I was 16 again on the track with 200 meters to go in the race. I could hear my father yelling, “They’re coming!” It was at that moment that morning I realized, so long as I appeared calm to my parents, they wouldn’t let on to their own fears. By “faking it” a bit, we kept each other both feeling safe. Expect controversy if you open a discussion and be ready for it.
There’s a fine line between pride and shame. When the NYT article was published, I wanted to shout it from the mountain tops. A minute later, I was looking for the nearest hole to hide. I know my parents were proud of me but they also had mixed feelings about how much personal information I’d shared. The Sunday morning it was printed in the NYT Sunday Review, I called home and my father answered: “Do you have any clothes on?” he asked sarcastically. “Oh, just reminiscing about the essay,” he joked. One stressful night before leaving for NYC for the Katie Couric show, my mother and I got into it. “You never asked Dad or me if we cared about you sharing naked stories with the world!” To which I retorted, “You never said I couldn’t when I shared the essay with you two!” The truth is, I didn’t want to ask, because I knew they’d be uncomfortable with it. The other truth is, they didn’t want to voice their opinion, because they were also excited for me. It was interesting monitoring my reaction watching my mom deal with her decision to share or not share with her friends my essays and appearance on Katie Couric. In some ways, I wanted to control who in our community knew, and in other ways I wanted her to share and be proud of me. I realize I had put her in a tough situation. I am beyond blessed to have the sort of relationship with my parents that I do.
Think twice before marketing your heart. I constantly have to remind myself this as I hear the chatter of others advising me to capitalize on the media attention while the subject is “hot”. I was not writing about the newest trend in marathon training or a new gluten-free cornbread recipe, I was writing from my soul. I have felt like I’ve been riding a wave for a year, not knowing when and if I’m going to “run out of time” and crash into the shore. If it’s a wave, then I have no control over what happens. If it’s a sail boat, then I feel the pressure to continue to adjust my sails to catch as much wind as possible to get as far as possible…whatever that means. There’s a fine line between adequate and over self-promotion. I have to monitor my competitive nature when comparing myself to writer friends I see posting on Facebook their awards and book signings. The bottom line is figuring out what feels comfortable and good to me. It’s a delicate thing marketing your heart when you know there really are others out there who benefit from it. The sweet emails of support amongst the critical ones are the glimmers that have continued to motivate my writing.
Don’t tell me, “You’re brave”. I only hear, “You’re stupid”. It’s like when someone says to you, “Wow, you look really tired.” What you hear is, “Wow, you look like shit.” What felt good to hear was, “Wow, you put your heart out there.” Because I did.
When someone asks you, “Why did you write it?”, “Because I wanted to” is answer enough. One ex-boyfriend sent me the following message the day it was published: “I read your article and the point of you writing it and your goal of sharing it escaped me as it apparently did the vast majority of people who read and commented on it.” I told him, “I didn’t expect you to get it. I started writing it 7 years ago originally to cathartically work through issues and then decided to try to publish it as a voice for many other women (and some men) who are also not understood. Luckily the NYT ‘got it’ and thought it was a voice/opinion and a piece of writing worthy of being heard/read. And frankly, that’s what matters to me right now.” Sometimes it’s hard not to listen to your subconscious that shouts, “WHO CARES?!” Somebody does.
Don’t make your essay title a question if you don’t want advice. I received more emails from 50+ year old men giving me fatherly advice than I ever imagined. Of the 600 online comments, I read about 6 of them and then stopped. I didn’t write the piece for advice; I’d already thought about the subject enough to drive me almost mad.
Readers aren’t judging you. They’re judging themselves. Sex, particularly virginity, is such a trigger topic for everyone because everyone has his/her own set of experiences. It’s hard to write about your personal experience without others inadvertently thinking you are judging them. In reality the writing makes them judge themselves and then turn on the writer projecting on him/her their own feelings.
It’s a blessing to be able to write about and have published something so dear to your heart. Hundreds of writers write vacuum cleaner reviews, police reports, and book reviews their whole lives and never have the opportunity to truly share what matters to them in their writing.
Media thinks someone choosing to be a virgin based on their own principles is more interesting than based on religious principles. And yet, no matter how many edits made, they are highly intertwined. The NYT, Elle and Glamour all edited out most (if not all) mention of religion in my essays. However, I wouldn’t be who I am today if it hadn’t been for my sense of self-worth instilled in me through Christian teachings. I still believe in and love God today. And I still (yes, still) believe that sex is sacred, even if my goals have changed since I was a chaste teenager standing in front of the church congregation for a “True Love” ceremony (ironically alongside a friend I later learned was already having sex).
Wait! Who is in control is debatable: the discipline or you. The Elle article I most recently published argues that my identity is not defined by my sexuality. In many ways my identity has been defined (through athletic and academic training) by discipline. And yet, as the year has progressed I’ve continued to question my discipline to wait to have sex in a mutually exclusive loving relationship. Has my disciplined nature created an inescapable situation? Does waiting have a control over me? Just as love is winged cupid or death is depicted as the Grim Reaper, I’ve wondered what “waiting” would look like if he/she were animated?
“Ground down to rise up.” I love this often quoted line in yoga class. With all the attention and hype around the Katie Couric show and the NYT article, it was easy to get caught up in the questions, expectations, and criticisms of others. In order to rise above the meaningless chatter in my head, I had to ground myself in what mattered most: my family and friends who knew me and loved me at my core and my own heart.
And the final lesson: All is well if you know you’ve written honestly from your heart and protected those you love.