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Author Archives: Nik Sparlin

  1. September 2019: Body Positivity

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    At Mabel Wadsworth Center, our interns are responsible for updating the bulletin board in our waiting room once a month. In case you haven’t had the chance to visit us recently, you can read about this month’s bulletin board topic here. This post is by our 2019 summer/fall intern, Sarah Penley (she/her/hers), who comes to us from the University of Maine in Orono.

    Being a person in the world is hard. Everyone seems to have an opinion about everything, from what we eat to how we look and the ways we move through the world. We’re constantly bombarded by images in the media of thin, hairless, light-skinned young women (often heavily retouched) along with ads from the diet, beauty, and “wellness” industries that promote an unattainable standard of attractiveness. All of that informs our own opinions about ourselves, and our emotions can get pretty intense pretty quickly. But even if we don’t see ourselves as perfect human beings, that shouldn’t mean we need to feel terrible about ourselves 24 hours a day.

    The body positivity movement aims to alleviate some of this stress by advocating that no person should be shamed, discriminated against, or held back because of how they look. Body positivity has its roots in the fat acceptance movement, but thanks to the work of advocates from all walks of life, it has become so much more than that. It includes celebration of trans bodies, thin bodies, short bodies, tall bodies, thick bodies, large bodies, small bodies, bodies of varying abilities, bodies of varying races and ethnicities, changing bodies, bodies of all ages, non-conforming bodies, and non-binary bodies. The movement wants to show that you don’t need to squeeze yourself into somebody else’s narrow definition about what a person ought to look like. You are allowed to take up space, and you are worthy of being admired.

    Some people prefer the term “body neutrality” to body positivity. This recognizes that sometimes the pressure to think positively about one’s body ends up being more of a burden than a relief. People who are experiencing illness or chronic pain might not have the capacity to love their bodies – but nor should they need to constantly beat themselves up about the parts of their bodies they don’t care for. It also recognizes that no person is going to have perfect self-confidence or love for their bodies at all times: our emotions naturally fluctuate depending on what we’re going through at any moment in time. It’s totally okay to feel bad about yourself from time to time as long as you are not paralyzed by constant self-scrutiny.

    Reaching a place of positive self-image, or even body neutrality, can take a lot of work. To begin with, investigate your assumptions about other people you see out in the world living their lives. When you see a fat person running on the sidewalk, what are your assumptions about their life and their motivations? Ask yourself, would your assumptions change if the person you saw running were thin? Recognize that these assumptions come from years and years of social conditioning and do not have any bearing on an individual’s worth as a human being. When we begin to practice seeing every person’s dignity and worth, we can begin to see our own inherent value as well.

    So how do we translate acceptance of our own bodies into action that improves our community? There are several ways:

    1. Model body positivity: Modeling body positivity around others creates an environment of loving support. Kids who are forming their own relationships with their bodies use adults as their example. Avoiding negative self-talk about your own body, modeling intuitive eating, and celebrating your physicality can promote positive self-image in others. Modeling positive behavior includes how we refer to others – especially as they relate to ourselves. Celebrating your own body doesn’t mean you have to put down other bodies that don’t look like yours – for example, we can celebrate curves without demeaning “skinny” people in the process.
    2. Advocate for representation: Everyone deserves to see themselves reflected in public in a positive way. Seeing people we can relate to tells us that we are not alone and that it’s okay to celebrate the way we look. Without representation of many different body types in the media, we are missing out on stories about people who matter. Unfortunately, some companies have used fat acceptance as a tool to sell products without truly understanding what the body positive movement is about. Take action by holding companies accountable who drape themselves in the mantle of body positivity but only actually show images of young, white, cisgender, able women who are no larger than a size 16.
    3. Support Others: Gaining a positive body image is a journey, and it’s one that’s easier to make when we know we’re not alone. Notice when your friends and family engage in body positive behavior and let them know you appreciate it. Celebrating others makes us feel good about ourselves, too, creating a positive feedback loop that helps us build upon the inner strength we already have. If you witness others beating up on themselves for their looks, you don’t have to immediately shut them down – instead, seek understanding about why they feel that way and collaborate with them on getting to a place of acceptance. Support for others also means standing up for people who are being treated unfairly for how they look.
  2. July 2019: Shark Week Stories

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    “I thought I was dying. People had said that you’ll see a little blood. No one tells you that your first period may be clumpy, brownish, and terrifying. I was so scared and ashamed that I didn’t tell anyone, and didn’t realize until two months later when I did see “normal” blood that it was my first period.

    No one should feel as alone and scared as I felt.

    I have taken this lesson of shame and terror and I answer my young daughter’s questions honestly, I use anatomical names for body parts, and I wholeheartedly try to normalize the spectrum of reproductive health experiences.”

    Submitted Anonymously

     

    “I still remember the first time I had ever heard about Periods. I was in either third or fourth grade and in an after school program at my local YMCA. One of my friends had recently had the puberty and growing up talk with her mom and brought this subject up to our friend group. I remember being so horrified at the thought that I would literally bleed one week out of every month “down there” because, honestly, it sounded a little gruesome.

    After airing our pre-pubescent disgust, my friends and I rushed to the bathroom as a group and went into the giant disability stall together to check to see if we were bleeding. (For the record, none of us miraculously started our periods in that moment.)

    I pretty much forgot about that experience until I started menstruating in middle school. I remember thinking to myself, “huh. That’s really not as much blood as we thought.” And that was that.”

    Submitted by Nik Sparlin (they/them/theirs)

  3. August 2019: Unmentionables

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    At Mabel Wadsworth Center, our interns are responsible for updating the bulletin board in our waiting room once a month. In case you haven’t had the chance to visit us recently, you can read about this month’s bulletin board topic here. This post is by our 2019 summer intern, Julia Seixas (she/her/hers), who comes to us from College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, ME.

     

    A majority of us grow up in a society where we do not talk about sexuality and reproduction. For many Americans, most of our schooling involved little to no sexual education, leaving us feeling weird and uncomfortable talking about sexual and reproductive health, even though it is a normal and necessary part of our lives. Some of us may have had “the birds and the bees” conversation at a young age, but that was likely far from an inclusive dialogue. Perhaps we learned about sexual health in our schools, yet that did not leave us in a better position in navigating our sexual lives. Many of us get squeamish when we talk about sex and our bodies, so how can we become more comfortable when we are talking about sexuality and reproduction? 

    According to the Guttmacher Institute, only 24 states mandate sex education: 22 of those require both sex and HIV education, and the other two require only sex education. Meanwhile, a mere 13 of those 24 states require the information to be medically accurate, which is an appalling statistic. With an education system that largely does not teach students about a natural part of their lives, it creates a world where it is socially unacceptable to discuss sex and reproduction openly. The lack of openness in talking about sexual health perpetuates a society that is unaware, and therefore uneducated about our bodies and our options. Without proper knowledge about safe sex practices and a general understanding of our bodies can lead to various health risks such as sexually transmitted infections and increased chances of unintended pregnancy. 

    The solution is clear: we need schooling that teaches students to love their bodies and embrace their sexual and reproductive lives. If we learn about our bodies, including about how puberty begins, how contraception and birth control work, pregnancy risk, the dynamics of consent, and about the diversity of human sexuality and gender identity, it sparks a conversation that can prepare us for our sexual and reproductive lives while providing us with the knowledge to be more understanding of others and their experiences. 

    We need to bring human sexuality into the light and create a culture where it is normal to talk about it so we can empower each other by sharing our stories and experiences, letting people know they are not alone. If we are more open to talking about sexuality and reproduction, it helps to build a more welcoming society.

    At Mabel Wadsworth Center, we have a client-centered, feminist approach to healthcare, and believe that everyone deserves to be educated, empowered, and have the right to autonomy over their sexual and reproductive lives. Though the reintroduction of the Mabel’s Voices Project, our goal is to demolish the silence, shame, and stigma that surround sexual and reproductive healthcare, bodily autonomy, and personal identity by building individual and collective power through story sharing.

    On August 9th, Mabel Wadsworth Center will be hosting a Story Slam at West Market Square Artisan Coffeehouse in Bangor. The slam will focus on stories of sexual and reproductive healthcare, and everyone is welcome to share stories that they might not have been able to before. The story slam will be a safe, inclusive, and judgment-free space where all folks are welcome to listen and/or participate. 

    Let’s change the conversation and make it normal to talk about sex and reproduction. We look forward to hearing your stories! 

     

  4. June 2019: Shark Week

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    At Mabel Wadsworth Center, our interns are responsible for updating the bulletin board in our waiting room once a month. In case you haven’t had the chance to visit us recently, you can read about this month’s bulletin board topic here. This post is by our 2019 summer intern, Hannah Piecuch (she/her/hers), who comes to us from Agnes Scott College in Georgia thanks to the Civil Liberty & Public Policy (CLPP) Program’s Reproductive Rights Activist Service Corps (RRASC) Program.

    July may contain the week-long Discovery Channel special program all about sharks, but “shark week” is also what many of us call our periods. It makes sense, since there’s often a bloody mess at the end of the week! However, there’s also a lot of stigma about both sharks and periods that ends up hurting both sea creatures and people who menstruate alike. While we believe that no one deserves shame or overly negative feelings toward their period here at Mabel’s, we also believe that the way everyone feels about their period should be up to them—whether your period makes you feel in sync with your body, makes you feel grossed out, causes feelings of dysphoria, or doesn’t make you feel much of anything, your whole range of feelings and experiences around your period are valid.

    An additional note: notice that in this piece, we’re purposefully not using language that equates having a period with being a woman—this is because many transgender men and non-binary people have periods, but they aren’t women. Additionally, there are tons of women, both trans and cisgender, who don’t have periods, so suggesting that having a period is an essential part of womanhood causes harm because it doesn’t adequately describe everyone’s experiences.

    When you get your period, it’s actually just one part of the hormone cycle that makes it possible for humans reproduce. There are many awesome online resources that explain the menstrual cycle in-depth (and our July bulletin board in our clinic illustrates it as well!), so we won’t spend a lot of time talking about it here. But at its most basic, the ovaries release an egg cell so that it’s available to meet a sperm cell if the person has unprotected penis-in-vagina sex. In the meantime, the uterus grows a lining of blood and other tissue for the purpose of being able to support a pregnancy if the egg cell does meet a sperm cell and implants in the uterus. If a pregnancy does occur, the uterus needs this lining, called the endometrium, to continue nurturing the
    pregnancy, so that’s why pregnant people don’t get periods. But most of the time, no pregnancy occurs, so the uterus no longer needs this lining: it sheds the endometrium, as well as the unfertilized egg cell, in the week-or-so of bleeding that most people know as their period.

    The biology behind having your period might seem kind of complicated, but the culture of shame and stigma around periods in the US is even more confusing. While we intentionally use language that gives voice to the experience of non-binary people and trans men that have periods, we can also acknowledge that American culture writ large still equates women with people who have periods, so misogyny shapes these negative social views of periods (and hurts non-binary and trans people in ways specific to their identities in the process). Periods are often exaggerated as gross, unsanitary, and causing hysterical reactions, but simultaneously, people who have periods are pressured to minimize any period pain and be as secretive as possible about anything related to them.

    These pressures on people who have periods as a whole hurt people on an individual level. For example, when preteens are told that having a period means they can now have children because they’re becoming a woman, it can cause them to feel sexualized or reduced to their reproductive capacity—or if such a preteen is trans or non-binary, feelings around being objectified can compound with pain from being seen as a woman when they’re not one. Or a person who has really painful periods might assume or learn from experience that they won’t believed if they tell their healthcare provider about their pain, so they just suffer through disabling pain without ever getting compassionate help. Cultural norms around periods being gross can contribute to people who menstruate feeling like they have to apologize for their bodies, especially if they’re wanting to be sexual with cis men. It doesn’t help that the same stigma causes cisgender boys and men to know very little about periods and react squeamishly to any discussion of them, both a result and cause of ongoing period shame.

    So what can be to help our culture have a more healthy relationship with periods? Much of feminism and social justice is centered around believing the experience of marginalized people, so listening to and believing people’s feelings around their periods—and creating space where they feel safe sharing them—is a crucial step. Talk about your period with anyone who will listen, especially people who rarely hear about menstruation, and seek to listen to those whose experiences with periods are different from their own. But before that, you can believe your own feelings, too, whether negative or positive, or intense or mild.

    At Mabel Wadsworth Center, our client-centered, feminist approach to healthcare means that believing a patient is the critical first step to providing care. We work to eliminate shame and stigma because we know our clients deserve to have autonomy over the way they feel about their reproductive and sexual lives.

  5. Queer Resistance and Existence: Understanding 50 Years of Pride

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    At Mabel Wadsworth Center, our interns are responsible for updating the bulletin board in our waiting room once a month. In case you haven’t had the chance to visit us recently, you can read about this month’s bulletin board topic here. This post is by our 2019 summer intern, Hannah Piecuch (she/her/hers), who comes to us from Agnes Scott College in Georgia thanks to the Civil Liberty & Public Policy (CLPP) Program’s Reproductive Rights Activist Service Corps (RRASC) Program.

    This year’s June Pride Month marks the 50th year since the Stonewall Riots, the events that launched the modern LGBTQ+ liberation movement and, specifically, the tradition of Pride. In 1969, the most marginalized members of the queer community in Greenwich Village of New York City, including transgender women, people of color, drag queens, and sex workers, many of whom were homeless, frequented places like the Stonewall Inn. Stonewall and similar bars were one of the only places they could connect with other queer community members and simply exist openly as themselves.

    However, police often raided places known to be frequented by queer folks, and when yet another violent raid took place at Stonewall on June 28th, the patrons had had enough. Legend has it that Marsha P. Johnson, a homeless trans woman of color and sex worker, threw a shot glass against a mirror, sparking everyone to riot against the cops. Further demonstrations broke out at neighboring bars, erupting into a wave of anger that would turn into the modern gay liberation movement. Johnson’s close friend and fellow activist, Sylvia Rivera, is said to have exclaimed, “I’m not missing a minute of this — it’s the revolution!” When a year had passed after the Stonewall riots, Pride parades were held in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco to sustain the energy of the protest on its anniversary, and the tradition has continued ever since.

    Although the first American Pride events took place in its biggest cities, the history of Bangor Pride also reveals the radical roots of this celebration. In 1984, Charlie Howard, a young gay man from Portsmouth, NH, was walking along State Street arm-in-arm with Roy Ogden when the two crossed paths with three teenage boys. After harassing Ogden and Howard for daring to be visibly gay in public, the boys threw Howard into the Kenduskeag Stream, and he drowned. The small queer community in Bangor, many of whom were closeted due to the political environment of the time, expressed outrage at his senseless and violent murder. The outpouring of grief and anger following his death spurred Maine’s queer activism; that year marked the founding of the Maine Lesbian/Gay Political Alliance, which is now EqualityMaine. The first Bangor Pride parade took place eight years later in 1992 thanks to the efforts of Jim Martin. Even now, 35 years after Howard’s death and 27 years since the first Bangor Pride, it is evident how, in our community, it is a radical act of resistance to simply declare one’s queerness, and to express pride in that queerness.

    From shutting down the Food and Drug Administration to demand better access to AIDS-fighting drugs, to resisting police violence against trans bodies during the Compton Cafeteria Riots, to mourning those who died from AIDS by making a national memorial quilt in each person’s memory, queer resistance has taken many diverse and poignant forms. Nowadays, Pride is a month-long celebration of queer culture on seven continents—yes, including Antarctica. The transformation of Pride from a riot into a celebration of queer life is not without controversy; although activists do not necessarily want violence at Pride, the events have been criticized in recent years for the overwhelming presence of multinational corporations, lack of intersectionality and inclusivity, and overall dissipation of political energy. It may seem like queer culture is now genuinely supported by corporations because large companies often sponsor Pride festivities today. However, it’s also important to hold these companies accountable, so they’re not, for example, getting all that rainbow advertising during Pride month but then abandoning their LGBT employees’ needs the other 11 months of the year. Additionally, relying on the support of corporations like these can move queer activism more toward the center, leaving more radical queer goals such as holding the criminal justice system accountable or addressing wealth inequality to scrounge for support at the margins.

    As we contemplate how Pride has changed over the past fifty years, there is a wealth of opportunity to remember the LGBT people who have come before us, reflect on mistakes, and look with hope to the future. We can honor and tell the story of queer people who faced violence throughout their lives because of their identities, like Charlie Howard. We can use the history of Pride to remind us that Pride has always been about the most marginalized members of our communities, and to challenge us to always think harder about who is being left out of our spaces.

    In Mabel Wadsworth Center’s work around reproductive and sexual healthcare, Pride reminds us as an organization to center queer and trans folks who are excluded from conversations around contraceptive and abortion access, and ask ourselves what care we can provide to even better serve our queer community. This Pride month, we remember that taking pride in queer existence connects us with the radical visionaries of the past, as well as allows us to envision the hope we have for a beautiful, queer future.