Disclaimer: This article often mentions women and female bodies alongside each other. However, we completely understand that not all women have female bodies, and not all of those with female bodies identify as women.
A recent CDC study has reported that after the first month of vaccination against COVID-19, over 79% of reported side effects were reported by women. In addition to various accounts of women themselves describing the severity of their side effects, this study has been raising concerns in many women about whether or not to receive a COVID vaccine.
Personally, when I first heard about this, I thought it was just a coincidence that women were reporting more side effects. However, upon looking into this issue, I’ve realized that there are actually several reasons for why this may be occurring.
One reason could simply be that more women than men are mentioning side effects after getting the COVID vaccine. Women tend to be more likely to address their medical symptoms than men are, so it’s possible that one reason women seem to have more side effects is because more women are actually talking about their side effects.
Still, there could be other reasons that have more to do with the biological differences between male and female bodies. Though not all women have female bodies, those who do tend to have stronger immune systems than people with male bodies. As a result, “XX females” tend to have a greater immune response to viral infections, which results in greater antibody production in females receiving vaccines, not just the COVID vaccine. Even influenza vaccines produce a greater antibody response in people with female bodies, so females facing greater side effects from vaccination is not just unique to the COVID vaccine.
As mentioned previously, though an increased risk for side effects does appear in women and others with female bodies, the chances of a severe reaction to the COVID vaccine are still fairly low. The CDC reminds us that getting vaccinated against COVID still has many benefits, so again, if you are able to receive the COVID vaccine, the thought of potential side effects should not deter you from doing so.
Trigger Warning: Anxiety, depression, and mention of suicidal thoughts
I recently overheard a student having a conversation with a member of Cornell Health’s staff. The student expressed how he thought Cornell Health services should be advertised better, as he felt that a lot of students do not take advantage of the CAPS program (Counseling & Psychological Services). The administrator responded that she wasn’t sure why more students don’t go to Cornell health, because there are “all these doctors” waiting around to help people. This statement made me pause. Why was this administrator implying that Cornell Health is somehow overstaffed? Is the building lacking in patients? Are doctors and mental health professionals simply waiting around to treat people? This hasn’t been my experience. The last time I was in a Cornell Health waiting room (pre-COVID), there were so many seats filled that I overheard a doctor gasp and express concern about how many students there were. I also know that many of my friends, acquaintances, and their friends struggle to get appointments with therapists—they’ve been asked to wait weeks to see someone, even after emphasizing how badly they needed an appointment.
Although Cornell Health has done an immense amount of work to make Cornell as safe as possible for us during the COVID-19 pandemic, there are too many instances where they have fallen short. Included are all the testimonies submitted to an anonymous survey responding to the question: “What is an experience (or experiences) you’ve had at Cornell Health?”
Some punctuation marks have been added or removed for grammatical correctness and clarity. Some phrases have been added in brackets for clarity.
I had to wait 5 weeks for an appointment with a Cornell Psychiatrist for a prescription. It was apparently considered non-urgent. Even after these 5 weeks, I did not even end up getting the prescription at the appointment. The doctor said they would write the prescription, but when I went to the pharmacy, I found that it was never even filled out. When I called Cornell Health, I found that they had never filled out the details in their notes such as dosage or instructions, let alone put the prescription into the system. I’m on week 7 now and still don’t have it.
I went to Cornell Health for a speculated STI appointment and had PreP (an HIV preventive drug) pushed aggressively. The nurse I saw tried to peer pressure me into it [by] saying that all the other gay men at Cornell are on it. Later in the same appointment, she tried to shame me into it and [warned] me about stealthing (when a top removed the condom secretly) and [said] that it was common “in the gay community.” I ended up just having a UTI but felt embarrassed throughout my entire appointment and very targeted. The nurse later sent me emails with information on PreP as well.
I started going to counseling at Cornell Health at the end of my fall semester sophomore year. I was also seeing my designated Cornell doctor who started prescribing me medication for my anxiety and depression, but none of the medication he prescribed helped. My mental health started to get concerningly [bad] in December and continued to decline through February. We were sent home in March 2019 for COVID [when] I decided to see a psychiatrist, who helped me get on medication that really helped my depression. But [the medication] drastically increased my anxiety and had some debilitating side effects. I got back to Cornell in the fall of my junior year and had to go back to Cornell Health, as my doctor out of state could not continue my care while I was out of state. I wanted to change my medication because the side effects were interfering with my school work. I waited two weeks to see my assigned doctor who told me he could [no longer] help me due to the nature of my new prescription and would have to refer me to the psychiatrist. To see the psychiatrist I had to make [my] schedule fit a one hour time slot 5 weeks out or wait even longer to get help. The psychiatrist started me on an excruciatingly long weaning off process.
Fast forward to November 2020 and I still am not off the medication, and routinely have to wait 5 weeks in between psychiatry appointments. After waiting 5 weeks, I get a call 30 minutes before my appointment saying the psychiatrist cannot see me and [I] would have to reschedule for another 4 weeks out. I have had several anxiety attacks in the weeks leading up and could not wait this long, so naturally, I panicked. The receptionist on the phone was very stern and not at all comforting. The only way she said she could help me was by letting me see a therapist who I had never spoken to [before]. So, I spoke to the therapist, and she said she would look into finding me an appointment because they (theoretically) save appointment spaces for these kinds of emergencies. I heard nothing from her in the time frame in which she said I would. I had uncontrollable crying spells for the next few days because I felt so alone and helpless. My own therapist later told me she would work on it, and I heard nothing. About a week later, the psychiatrist called me on a random school night at about 5pm to talk about my medication, but I had already decided that it would be within my best interest to go home for the remainder of the semester and seek care that could be more hands on and available.
The fact that Cornell health offers you 25 minute sessions every other week is a joke. Every therapist outside of Cornell Health who I have talked to about this has literally laughed out loud. It is just enough time to say, “yeah I feel awful, depressed, and have regular panic attacks. Ok, see you next week.” I was talking to my therapist once about a past relationship I was in and then in the last 2 minutes she said, “well that sounds like emotional abuse.” She never brought up the relationship again nor did she ask me if that was something I wanted to discuss, as if that wasn’t a traumatic experience that greatly contributed to my mental health.
It’s been pretty garbage. Gendered diagnoses that stigmatize men’s mental health issues. For example, men on my [athletic] team were deemed as medically malnourished during sports clearance, but were allowed to compete that season (even as incoming freshmen). Women on my team would never be allowed to compete if considered underweight and would have to undergo many other examinations and nutrition appointments.
I went to Cornell Health on Tuesday and they diagnosed me with mono by Thursday. I would say this was a pretty quick turnaround [compared to] my friend who had mono at the same time as me, but was told she did not have mono. She ended up having to go home because she was so sick and then was diagnosed at home. Cornell Health was proactive about getting me the medication I needed, speaking with my parents on the phone, and emailing my teachers.
I made an appointment at Cornell Health, and in my session, I told my counselor that I was having thoughts of ending my life (I’m okay now but clearly wasn’t at the time). In my later sessions, I was still having those thoughts, but he never asked about them again or made sure I was okay in that regard, and I found that really confusing.
I told my therapist about some abusive relationships I’ve been in, and when I finished explaining, my therapist said, “have you ever heard of gaslighting?” I told her that I had and we discussed further. In my next session three weeks later, we were discussing those same relationships, and she said “have you ever heard of gaslighting?” She [had clearly] forgotten about our previous session and didn’t remember much about my situation. There have been multiple instances like this one that indicated she was never truly paying attention to me. I feel that Cornell Health needs to give us longer sessions (I could only get in for twenty minutes every few weeks) and needs to hire more doctors.
Cornell Health ALWAYS tells me what I have must be mono EXCEPT for the time when it ACTUALLY was mono, when they said it couldn’t be that.
I write this not to discourage anyone from using Cornell Health’s services—if you need any sort of help or support, you should absolutely seek it (resources are listed below). However, I believe that Cornell Health can do much better. We are college students that study at an intense school where the prevalence of anxiety and depression is higher than it should be. On top of that, we are currently in a pandemic, which has shown to act as a risk factor for the onset of disorders such as anxiety, depression, and eating disorders or to exacerbate pre-existing conditions. If there’s a time to take action, it’s now. Cornell Health, do better.
For urgent services, you may reach the 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the 24/7 National Crisis Text Line by texting HELLO to 741741, the 24/7 National Lifeline Crisis Chat service here, or call 911.
Refer to the CDC’s Mental Health Tools and Resources page here for education on topics related to mental health.
For support, resources, and treatment options for yourself or a loved one relating to disordered eating or an eating disorder, you may contact the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline. You may call (800) 931-2237, text (800) 931-2237 from the hours of 3-6pm Monday through Thursday, or you can access the chat feature here. For crisis situations, text “NEDA” to 741741 to be connected with a trained volunteer at Crisis Text Line.
If you are a member of Cornell University, Cornell Health Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) is available to all students at Cornell University. If you feel you are in need of psychological services, you may call to set up an appointment with CAPS at 607-255-5155 or visit their website here. For urgent services, you may reach the Cornell Health 24/7 phone consultation line at 607-255-5155 and press 2.
Reserved. Quiet. A pleasure to have in class. Needs to participate more.
These were all used to describe me throughout my primary and secondary school experiences. They are, however, not the words that one would expect to describe a child with ADHD. Nonetheless, I was recently diagnosed with Combined Presentation ADHD.
Contrary to popular belief, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is characterized by much more than hyperactivity or trouble focusing in class. Under the surface, people with ADHD struggle with executive dysfunction, fatigue, impulsivity, emotional regulation, working memory, and more.
Those with ADHD are considered neurodivergent. This is a label that also includes other neurodevelopmental disorders such as Autism Spectrum Disorders, OCD, Dyslexia, Tourette’s, etcetera. Mental illnesses such as Depression, Anxiety, and Bipolar Disorder are considered “neuroatypical,” while those without either are considered “neurotypical.”
In the past, ADHD was solely characterized by hyperactivity. If you were inattentive but not hyperactive, you had ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). With the publication of the DSM-5, the diagnostic condition changed to identify three subtypes of ADHD. This altogether eliminated the diagnosis of ADD by characterizing the three presentations of ADHD as Inattentive, Hyperactive/Impulsive, and Combined (both inattentive and hyperactive).
Several conditions are comorbid to ADHD, including (but not limited to) Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria, Auditory Processing Disorders, Anxiety, and Specific Learning Disability.
That was a mouthful.
The common misconceptions about ADHD are harmful to both diagnosed and undiagnosed individuals. Those in school settings are often labeled “unmotivated” or considered bad students when, in fact, they are eager to learn but have trouble with memory, attention, and initiating tasks such as homework or note-taking. Individuals are considered “lazy” when they have trouble taking showers or brushing their teeth regularly due to executive dysfunction.
All too often, neurodivergent and disabled people are left out of the conversation, even conversations about their own communities. Organizations like Autism Speaks are designed by abled individuals to allow them to dominate the conversation, rather than letting disabled or neurodivergent voices speak up. You will rarely see a neurodivergent person diagnosing someone else as neurodivergent. Our communities are dominated by non-disabled and neurotypical people.
Furthermore, ADHD is severely undiagnosed in girls and people of color, largely due to the stereotypes surrounding this disorder. ADHD is not just the young, white boy being disruptive in an elementary school classroom. Bias clouds physicians who do not learn that behaviors present differently in those from marginalized groups and diverse cultures.
We are taught to behave, sit still, and act “like a lady” in order to fulfill our role in the patriarchal society we live in.
Girls who grow up with ADHD are often forced to mask it more than young boys. We are taught to behave, sit still, and act “like a lady” in order to fulfill our role in the patriarchal society we live in. This conformity often coincides with hiding the most commonly identifiable ADHD traits, such as fidgeting or impulsivity. We live behind the shame of being too loud, fidgeting too much, being too much, while boys are told that it is normal and that “boys will be boys.”
According to the CDC, boys are 7.3% more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than girls. The National Center for Health Statistics adds that White and Black children are significantly more likely to be diagnosed than Asian and Hispanic children.
Is this because of a genuine disparity in the population of those who have ADHD, or is this a systemic issue permeating our ability to acknowledge that neurodiversity is diverse? I mean, it’s in the name. So what makes this so hard?
Going forward, I challenge you to look beyond the statistics and stereotypes. See neurodiversity for what it truly is and neurodiverse people for what we can truly be. Neurodiversity is something to be praised and loved, not hidden and admonished.
Trigger Warning: this article discusses eating disorders and body image.
Everyone can appreciate a good ice breaker question. The rare thought-provoker can save you from having to listen to the all-too-monotonous answers of your classmates during syllabus week. One of my professors tried to get creative by asking us “how have your eating habits changed during COVID?” This question took me aback. What a specific, personal, and possibly triggering question to ask. And this same question was asked again in another one of my classes later that same day. I assume that my professors had nothing but good intentions. But from their perspectives as privileged, white men, they may not have understood how inappropriate such a question could be–especially now.
Why is there such an emphasis on eating and body image during the pandemic? I remember downloading Tik Tok during quarantine in March and being bombarded with Chloe Ting challenges, complaints about post-COVID weight gain, before and after pictures, etc. And these trends have not alleviated. Recently, people have been hula hooping to lose inches on their waists. I feel like every day I hear someone mention intermittent fasting. #WhatIEatInADay is making its way around social media with people listing their calories for the day, and some of these numbers are dangerously low. Diet culture has seemingly always existed in the United States, but why has there been an upsurge since the beginning of the pandemic?
Perhaps the danger that COVID poses to our bodies is festering in the American Psyche. As Lalita Abhyankkar writes in “Anorexia in the Time of COVID,” “eating disorders are only partially about body dysmorphia and body image. They often stem from an attempt to achieve control while in a state of anxiety or uncertainty.” Therefore, the anxieties that come with living through a pandemic are risk factors for those who suffer from eating disorders or struggle with body image. Since the beginning of 2020, people have experienced isolation due to quarantine and social distancing. Most of us had to stay at home near full-time. We’ve had to restrict our grocery runs, so a lot of us have been at home with overly-stocked fridges and pantries. Those who are underweight or obese have been added to the list of those at risk. And, of course, we’ve been exposed to the endless discourse on social media surrounding weight gain and weight loss (both pandemic-related and otherwise). These examples do not constitute a comprehensive list of risks that the pandemic has posed to those with eating disorders. There is an undeniable overlap between COVID and these disorders as one exaggerates the other.
This overlap can be seen in the way medical care resources have been exhausted as a result of both afflictions. The National Eating Disorders Association reports that they received a 70% increase in the number of calls and chat inquiries from 2019 to 2020. Just as we saw hospital beds full of COVID patients, inpatient eating disorder units became full. Those unable to receive inpatient care were put on waiting lists. Clearly, the stress that COVID has put on our healthcare system has extended to eating disorders and mental health in general.
When we speak of the pandemic, we obviously refer to the spread of COVID throughout the world. But perhaps the implications of our use of “pandemic” should include the current mental health crisis associated with COVID. Pathologies like anxiety, depression, and eating disorders seem to be comorbid with living through a pandemic, so we should acknowledge and attend to these serious issues. Just as you put on a mask to protect your family and strangers on the sidewalk, or socially distance from your friends, you should make it common practice to check in on yourself and others. We must be aware that this pandemic is far more widespread in ways we don’t always consider.
For urgent services, you may reach the 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the 24/7 National Crisis Text Line by texting HELLO to 741741, or the 24/7 National Lifeline Crisis Chat service here.
For support, resources, and treatment options for yourself or a loved one, you may contact the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline. You may call (800) 931-2237, text (800) 931-2237 from the hours of 3-6pm Monday through Thursday, or you can access the chat feature here. For crisis situations, text “NEDA” to 741741 to be connected with a trained volunteer at Crisis Text Line.
If you are a member of Cornell University, Cornell Health Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) is available to all students at Cornell University. If you feel you are in need of psychological services, you may call to set up an appointment with CAPS at 607-255-5155 or visit their website here. For urgent services, you may reach the Cornell Health 24/7 phone consultation line at 607-255-5155 and press 2.
Disclaimer: Please note that the following article uses the word “women” to largely refer to cisgendered women; this is not meant to be dismissive of transgender and gender nonbinary experiences. We acknowledge that the discourse surrounding sexual and reproductive health greatly omits a diverse community of transgender and gender nonbinary people whose needs may have similarities and differences to the needs of cisgendered women.
If I asked you whether you use birth control, you would most likely respond in one of two ways: “Yes, I use the pill” or “No, I don’t use the pill.” Nowadays, it is not at all uncommon to equate the concept of birth control solely with the contraceptive pill. This assumption is risky because it negates not only the possibility of the wide array of other birth control methods that exist, but also the seeking of help by women and individuals with uteruses who are unhappy with the side-effects of their hormonal contraception.
Let me share with you something that you have not heard before: if you have been taking hormonal birth control for say, four years, you have not had a real period in four years. That’s right—the monthly bleed that you experience is not real menstruation. It does not result from ovulation, nor does it involve real estrogen or progesterone. Instead, the pill is derived from steroid drugs that function as a hormone replacement not greatly differing from the one supplied to menopausal women.
As Dr. Lara Briden claims in her best-selling book The Period Repair Manual, “Pill bleeds are pharmaceutically induced bleeds which are arbitrarily coordinated into a 28-day pattern to reassure you that your body is doing something natural. Having the occasional pill bleed is necessary to prevent breakthrough bleeding, but it doesn’t have to be monthly. A pill bleed could just as easily be every 56 days or every 83 days, or any number of days you’d like.” In fewer words, hormonal birth control causes you to bleed monthly, but relies on shutting down your ovaries and hormones. This made sense decades ago, in the 1950s, when contraception was illegal and hormonal birth control was starting to be developed. The pill was proclaimed a cure for irregular periods and other “womanly” disorders (rather than for pregnancy prevention) with the sole purpose of attaining legality. Without a doubt, the emergence and legalization of contraception was once a highly significant step towards the feminist movement and women’s jurisdiction over their bodies. But seventy years later, it should no longer be acceptable to sacrifice women’s overall health, nor to disregard less harmful anti-contraception in order to prevent pregnancy.
But why exactly should you want to quit the pill? After all, the pill keeps you free of worry, gives you clear skin, regulates your periods, subdues your monthly pains, and even makes PCOs manageable. And your doctor seems to agree! Or is not hormonal contraception the first solution offered by a medical professional when you complain of any of the former maladies? What if I told you that the contraceptive pill is not a permanent treatment for any of those, but rather a band-aid that conceals your underlying health issues while unquestionably worsening your overall wellness? What if I told you that you can have regular, painless periods, reverse PCOs, and effectively (and conveniently) avoid pregnancy?
If you are not yet convinced that you should quit hormonal contraception, let me introduce to you the lengthy list of its short and long-term health effects. We are all familiar with the more commonly reported symptoms of long-term pill usage: depression, loss of libido, weight gain, blood clots, and hair loss. Lesser known is the increase in breast cancer risk by three times while on a high estrogen drug, as well as high blood pressure, thyroid dysfunction, digestive problems, yeast infections, and many other illnesses. The higher depression risk had been more of an anecdotal than scientific fact up until 2016 when the medical journal JAMA Psychiatry established a significant correlation between girls and women relying on hormonal birth control and clinical diagnoses of depression. And may I emphasize that this study only took into account those women diagnosed, and not the many more who experience mood changes but do not (or cannot) seek help.
Post-pill side effects are not any better. After stopping taking the pill, polycystic ovaries for the first months (or longer depending on how long a person took the drug) are not uncommon. Neither is acne, post-pill PMS, or missing periods. After so many years without ovulating, women who are trying to conceive without success are sold fertility treatments as the only option. Still, you may be reluctant to go off the pill because you were prescribed it for reasons (which you thought to be) beyond your control. The truth is that if you were prescribed hormonal birth control at a young age to regulate your period, you likely only had to wait a few more years for the newly emergent hormones of estrogen and progesterone to self-adjust. And if you suffer from painful heavy periods, PCOs, or even endometriosis, I highly encourage you to read Dr. Briden’s book. In it, she describes natural and highly effective methods to completely heal (rather than placing a band-aid on them) these maladies. From an absolutely anti-inflammatory diet to supplementation of Zinc and Magnesium, The Period Repair Manual will teach you exactly how to take back the reins of your health.
By now, you may still have three questions: one, does a healthy period really matter so much anyway? Two, what other effective yet convenient birth control methods are out there then? And three, what about all the beneficial aspects of the pill that my doctor has talked about? To answer the first question, your period is, in the words of Dr. Briden, your monthly report card. It is a representation of your general wellness. A healthy woman will have regular, smooth and painless menstruations. If you are unhealthy in any way—whether under eating, under significant stress, or consuming a highly inflammatory diet—your monthly report card will not fail to show so. Plus, progesterone, one of the hormones involved in your menstrual cycle, improves brain health, hair growth, and combats inflammation, among other benefits. If at any point you do decide that the pill is no longer for you, I urge you to not postpone your natural period repair since the longer you wait, the more troublesome and difficult to reverse your issues will become.
Regarding the other birth control options in existence, know that outside of other hormonal alternatives (including but not limited to injections, the “mini” pill, and implants), there exist at least five other ways, ranging in efficacy and convenience of course, to prevent pregnancy. The least unreliable ones include the “pull-out” method and spermicide, but methods with a failure rate even lower than that of the contraceptive pill include male and female condoms, the copper IUD, diaphragms and cervical caps, and the Fertility Awareness Method. Lastly, the benefits that you associate with the pill (namely preserved fertility and postponed menopause) are based on the outdated and now disproved concept that women’s ovaries eventually exhaust their eggs.
This article would not be complete without a brief discussion of the gender disparity between women’s and men’s birth control choices. Though it is unquestionable that a woman who solely relies on a man’s cooperation for birth control is at a huge disadvantage to say the least, it is similarly interesting to note that there exists technology for male hormonal birth control which continues to stay off the market. Why? It is highly dubious that men would agree to shut down their hormones, experience low libido, and suffer depression among other ailments in the name of contraception. And to be completely fair: why should they have to? By the same token, why should women have to?
All this having been said, I want to stress the socioeconomic privilege that those women who can even ponder whether hormonal contraception is for them have. Birth control in any shape continues to be representative of women’s autonomy over their own bodies, and that must continue to be celebrated. My only argument is that it is now 2020—not 1950, a time when contraception was illegal and when the pill was the most convenient option to prevent pregnancy. Let us keep in mind that for reproductive health to be attained, eliminating the very things that make us female (at least biologically) is not the answer. For this reason, the privilege of choice—a consequence of resources and education—is more crucial than ever before.
(For more information on quitting hormonal birth control, what a healthy period is like, and treatments for all the maladies discussed above, make sure to read Dr. Briden’s The Period Repair Manual)
The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly impacted families with children. With the closing of schools at the beginning of the pandemic, some of us might have witnessed our parents struggling to find a babysitter to take care of our younger siblings. Others probably came home from college to take on that huge responsibility and alleviate some of the family’s stress. Raised in a single-parent home, the latter would have been my reality if I had younger siblings to look after while my mom worked amid this chaos.
Last June, I had the opportunity to catch up with a single mother whose daughter I used to tutor when I was in high school. She told me she had been laid-off from work and was worried about her daughter’s academic performance. While her daughter was just in the fourth grade, the mother was concerned she wouldn’t be of much help because she wasn’t fluent in English and hadn’t mastered the use of technology. I had this conversation with the mother while the three of us waited in line for the weekly food pantry distribution.
How are other single mothers facing the pandemic?
This is the question I repeatedly asked myself following my conversation with this mother. In search of answers on the internet, I found that there’s been very little coverage on how single mothers are juggling the increasing responsibilities at home as a result of the pandemic. Nonetheless, I believe that the stories that have been reported deserve attention as they shed light on the reality many single mothers are facing.
To give some background, the United States is the third country with the highest percentage of children living with single mothers. There are approximately 15 million single parent-led households in the United States and 80% of them are led by single mothers. This means that there are nearly 22 million children across the country raised by single mothers.
NPR reported the story of Nellie Riether from New Jersey. Riether is the mother of a 13 and 15-year-old and lost her job back in April. She shares the psychological burden of being a single mother, especially during the pandemic, because she doesn’t have a partner to talk to or share financial costs with. Even for single mothers with jobs, the article reports the difficulties of dealing with work and their children’s remote school at the same time.
Another article shared a single mother’s desperation amid the pandemic as she searched for a new place to live with her five children due to her decline in earnings. Jimmysa Thomas is one in 4.5 million Black women who are sole providers and caretakers of their families. According to Safiya Charles’ article, single mothers are facing poverty, hunger, job losses, illness, underemployment, and unstable housing. Additionally, Charles acknowledges that single mothers of color are facing the most desperate circumstances during the pandemic.
With approximately 2 in 5 families headed by Black and Hispanic women living in poverty during the COVID-19 pandemic, I believe there’s a strong need for more coverage of their stories. Not only do stories like Nellie Riether’s and Jimmysa Thomas’ reveal the ineffectiveness of the one-time stimulus payment during a global health crisis, but they also serve to raise public awareness on the intersectionality of race, gender, and parenting.
Elisabeth, a pseudonym, is a thirty-year-old woman who has been held in the Buffalo (Batavia) Federal Detention Facility for nearly two years. She fled her home country of El Salvador after experiencing extreme violence and trauma and came to the United States seeking asylum. She was arrested and detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for illegally entering the country.
Elisabeth began communication with Cornell University professor Jane Juffer in 2019. Their correspondence sheds light on the realities and the horrors of the conditions of immigration detention in the United States. Elisabeth’s letters often relate to the day-to-day struggles and injustices many migrants and refugees face from within the ICE detention system. She wants her story to be shared so that more people know about the terrible things that happen in immigration detention in the US.
Most Americans are aware that the US, like many countries, maintains immigration law that restricts and controls entrance and migration into the country. Immigration law regulates who is allowed in, how long they can stay, and what rights they have. While this perspective is accurate, it is far from the whole picture.
In 2019 alone, ICE detained 500,000 people. That’s half a million people detained in facilities outside of the criminal justice system with conditions that receive minimal publicity. Part of the reason why this system has been able to operate with so much secrecy is due to a spatial politics of isolation. Federal immigration detention facilities are often located in isolated or rural areas, which means you’ve probably never seen one unless you happen to live nearby or had a reason to visit. Refugees, like Elisabeth, who are arrested on the Southern border of the United States may be moved around to different facilities without notice. It can be incredibly difficult to keep track of where someone is, which makes it hard for family, friends, and advocates to stay in touch as well as limiting access to legal counsel. Of the hundreds of thousands of people detained by ICE, over 70% are held in private prison facilities.
The Buffalo Federal Detention Facility where Elisabeth is held is located in Batavia, New York – 45 minutes from Buffalo, NY and about 2 hours from Ithaca, NY. Elisabeth is housed with approximately a dozen other women, most of whom also do not speak English. The remainder of the facility is dedicated to male migrants. Although I have lived in Ithaca for three years, I first heard about the facility in Batavia this fall. Through my work with the organization Justice for Migrant Families, I learned more about the immigrants detained just a couple of hours away from where I had been studying.
I have been fortunate to speak to Elisabeth directly and learn a little bit about her story. Yet, however long I listen to her discuss what her life is like in detention—her struggles, her small joys, the injustices and frustrations she faces with immigration law, the racist guards, the discrimination, homophobia, fear, hopelessness, and depression—I cannot convey her voice as well as she can. Thus, I am providing a selection of Elisabeth’s “letter from Batavia” that I hope will do justice to her experience, which mirrors the experiences of many others across the country, as she fights against the oppressive force of immigration detention.
Each of these letters was written by Elisabeth in Spanish and translated diligently into English. These are her words, her experiences.
April 19, 2020
Hello! How are you, my dear friend and your beautiful family. Here, I am preoccupied with everything that is happening around the coronavirus. It is getting very ugly. They say nine men have been infected with the virus.
The worst thing is that we don’t have soap. The truth is there is nothing to clean with, no rags or anything. They have moved those who are infected to a unit in front of us. We are very worried. Thanks to God, I have the soap that I bought from commissary with the money you gave me.
The officials treat us as if we are the ones who are infected. I feel as if I can do nothing. I cannot talk to them and tell them, don’t treat us like animals. We’re not the ones who are coming and going. They are actually the ones who are more likely to infect us than us to infect them. Plus, various officials go to the other units — C1, C2, C3, B2, etc.
Sometimes, I feel like I can’t stand to listen to any of the news anymore, or the official notices. I pray to God that he takes care of me and protects me from everything bad that is happening. I look out the window and see the lights of the gasoline station, the lights of some cars, trucks, and trailers. I think they are trailers because they are large. I ask God to let me leave this place so that I can know your country, my friend.
April 25, 2020
Hi Juanita! How are you? I hope this letter finds you well, at the side of your beautiful family.
Today, I did not want to eat any food. At 3:15 PM, they took me to medical and asked me if I was going on a hunger strike. I told them, never have I said I was going on a hunger strike, but that due to everything that has happened, I am just not hungry. I don’t have the strength to eat.
I feel like if I eat, I am going to get sick. The woman told me that if I don’t eat dinner today, they are going to send me to the SHU (Segregated Housing Unit) and take away my commissary and not let me buy anything more. I told them, that’s OK, but I will not eat until I leave this place. She said to me, oh you want to say that you are not going to eat so that they release you? I said, no, that’s not what I said. It’s just that I cannot eat because I have endured so much bullying here, and it has taken away my appetite.
If they take away my commissary, they take away my commissary. If they are going to punish me and put me in SHU, that’s OK. Let them do what they want to me psychologically, because they have already killed me. If they put me in SHU, I will just sicken and die more quickly. Whatever happens with my health and life, it will be the responsibility of the ICE officials.
August 9, 2020
It is 12:45 PM. I cannot sleep. I’m listening to music to try to make myself feel better because I feel very bad. My self-esteem is very low and I don’t know how to feel better. I decided to try writing, to try to express a little of how I’m feeling and what I’m thinking. With tears in my eyes, I think my life no longer has any meaning. I’m thinking of hurting myself so that I no longer have to feel what I’m feeling. A short time ago, I began to scratch myself and did not stop until I saw blood. I feel like I want to hurt myself some more. I know this isn’t good, though, and that’s why I started to write you.
I am thinking about the people in the world I love most. But that does not make me feel better because I had to leave my home because my life was in danger. I had to leave my country because they wanted to kill me. I had to leave my mother, my sisters, my nieces and nephews, my friends. I had to leave everything to save my life. And here, I feel like a criminal, like garbage, like I have been thrown away.
I can’t take it any longer, how the officials treat me like garbage. I do not understand what I’m doing to make the officials talk in such an ugly way to me, why they treat me so badly. The official who was here from 4 PM until 12 PM, I went at 10:25 PM to ask for a rag to clean the table. She was talking on the phone and spoke to me very loudly, yelling at me. I said, what’s wrong, and she just yelled at me again, in English, so I did not understand. Alejandra (a pseudonym) was cleaning the bathroom above. She came running to see what was happening, as did other women.
They all came by to see what was causing the official to yell so loudly. Some of the women, though, started laughing at me, maybe because I could not understand what they were saying. They started talking to the guard and she just laughed with them. Then one of the women walked past my bed, with a big smile on her face, and said something to me, I don’t know what.
Today, I am going to walk around the yard. I will walk for one hour, and I hope that by doing so, I can relieve a little of the stress I feel here. Maybe I will stop thinking about being here and I will try to imagine myself in my country, doing things that I like to do. Maybe that will give me the strength to go on
November 13, 2020
First, let me say, I am very happy because I spoke today with your students. I like it when they ask me questions because they look so enthusiastic. I do get nervous sometimes. With all due respect, I would also like to say that you look very beautiful when you’re teaching!
After I finished the video call with you, I went to Xiomara’s room. It was about 4 PM. The official Bordonaro began to yell. We didn’t get up, and she came into the room, yelling at us to go out and put the chairs up. I said, “no,” and Xiomara said the same. Then the official Bordonaro said to turn off the televisions. We said, “Go ahead and turn them off, we are not going to work.” Abi told the official what we had said because the official doesn’t speak Spanish.
She was furious. She went to her book and then yelled out my number: 376. I was scared. I got up and said to Abi, “Ask the official what she is saying to me.” Abi did, and then said, “The official is telling you to come out of your room, you are being written up because you are not helping with the work. “Then she said, “Go back to your room and stay there. You do not have permission to leave your room.” She just kept yelling at me, and I said, “Don’t yell.”
On Sunday, Xiomara and I were in the bathroom. Xiomara left and I stayed, brushing my teeth, when I heard the official, yelling very loudly, “Elisabeth!” I opened the curtain with my brush in my hand and answered, “What is going on?” I didn’t understand what she told me, and I went to wash my hands and finish brushing my teeth. I ran out when I heard my radio playing. My radio has an alarm that goes off at 6:45 AM and the official was yelling at me in English to turn it off.
I went to get breakfast and I told Xiomara, “That guard wants to hurt me.” Xiomara went to her room and I went to mine. I just laid in my bed and cried. I thought, “Other women have alarms that go off, and they don’t get yelled at.” Also, why does no one pay attention to the guard who works from midnight to 8 AM? This official turns on the television at five minutes before 6. He turns up the volume very loud and I cannot sleep. Even when I have a headache, I don’t say anything.
Things are so stressful here. I feel like I cannot take it any longer. If I do not work, they are not going to permit me to use the tablets, the microwave, the video chats. For this reason, I cannot stop working completely, but I can’t take the pressure anymore.
Right now, I am trying to think about what I want to do when I leave this nightmare. I think about my family, my friends, and how I would like to live with you and your family, to get to know you better and to get to know your family. I want to work to help my mother. I want to realize all my dreams. If God is willing, this can still happen.
I love you forever, Juanita!
Listed below are some organizations working against immigration detention:
A solo-performance written and performed by Miya herself. Winner of the Solo Performance category of the 2020 Heermans-McCalmon Competition.
My name is Miya. That is spelled M-I-Y-A. Sometimes when I go to the doctors office I see in my charts that they write down [Mee-ya], M-E-E-Y-A. You know that they have messed it up enough times when they actually write it into your charts how to pronounce it. But you’d also think that after 15 years of going to the same doctor’s office they would remember who I am.
Well, that rant is for another time.
So, my name is the Japanese spelling of Miya. My mom got to name my brother, Andrew, so when I came along it was my dad’s turn. Andrew was too normal, too boring, so he though, “Hmm, why not throw the world a curve ball and toss a random little ‘y”’ in there and we’ll call her Miya!” That’s me! Miya the “normal way” but with a (places hands on face as if questioning) “why” thrown in there. Names are a funny thing and so are nicknames. So much of our identity lies in our birth names, but the nicknames that are strung along throughout our life are sometimes even more telling. When I was little my parents called me (pronounced like too-key) Tookie, or Took for short. It stands for “too cute,” adorable I know. They still refer to me as Took which is a little embarrassing, but who is really going to decipher the meaning behind Took? That’s one of my more endearing nicknames, but I have many others.
If you aren’t familiar with the stereotypical coach who gives all of their athletes weird nicknames, know that the stereotype is true and that I had several of these quirky coaches. But the best nickname wasn’t even their brainchild. Let me set the scene. It was a Saturday afternoon, on a balmy winter day in beautiful Upstate New York. That day, I was competing in a pole vault competition. I was checking in with one of the officials when I heard, not my name, but only something racist enough for me to recognize that the woman calling my name was probably referring to me. I heard, “Is there a Maya Yamamoto?” Now, as much as I despise being called “Maya,” it has unfortunately become second nature for me to respond to it, or nearly anything sounding remotely close to my name. The last name on the other hand was completely different. My last name is “Kuramoto,” but looking at the population of white pole vaulters around me, I could only assume that she was talking to me. I swear I should be invited to star on the show “Botched” because the butchering of my name did not stop there. When I looked at how they spelled my name it was written: “M-U-J-A”.
I spoke to my coach shortly after telling him how they wrote my name and he exclaimed: (Pronounced like moo-ha) “MUJA!” To my coach and all of my teammates I will forever be known as Muja Yamamoto.
When you think about it it’s pretty racist; people walk around calling me Muja Yamamoto. But it’s ok because it’s all in good humor and for the comedic irony, right?
You see, I like to identify as a “halfie”; half Japanese, a quarter Irish, and a quarter German to be exact. Which is basically my way of explaining that I’m half Asian and half white. Saying halfie is so much easier than going into all the details about my ethnicity, but also isn’t as boujee as the word “multi-racial.” In fact I hate those questionnaires you have to fill out anytime you go to the doctor or literally any time anyone wants any personal information about you for a survey. If they ever make me pick one race I angrily check “other” or “multi-racial.” Like how dare you try to sum me up in one little box, nonetheless one that hardly encapsulates my complex identity like “other.” This stuff has pissed me off for ages… has, well still does. Like, I’m not caucasian or whatever you want to call the fancy word for “white.” But I’m also not completely Asian, and it would piss my mom off if I neglected to recognize the half of me that came from her. Therefore, by the property of subtraction, that just makes me “cauc.”
I really vibe with this one song from Futuristic called “Somewhere in the Middle”. He has a line that goes: “I’m somewhere in the middle, yeah; You a little bit off, you a little bit much; you a little bit strange, you a little messed up; You’re a whole lotta “What the fuck?” Maybe next time I have to fill out a survey I’ll list “a whole lotta what the fuck” on the little line next to “other”.
But seriously, the United States is supposed to be a melting pot right? These days you see all sorts of commercials with mixed families. How 2019 of them. If this is just starting to happen now, well then back in 1990 when my parents got married, they were ahead of their time, out here living in 2090. Not only were they a multiracial couple, but it is much more rare for a white woman to marry an Asian man than an Asian woman to marry a white man. Naturally, I did the research and the ratio of a married couple with a white man and Asian woman versus a married couple with an Asian man and white woman in marriage is 5:2. And if you look at the percentage of married couples composed of a white and Asian spouse, they make up 1.2% of marriage combinations in the US. So not to brag or anything but my parents are a minority amongst minorities. They are like super-minorities, trendy, marriage hipsters if you may. And if that wasn’t enough, my dad was the stay at home parent throughout my entire childhood. Do you know the percentage of dads that are stay at home parents? Well I’m going to tell you; it’s 15%. As I said earlier, my parents have been out here living in 2090. That’s some crazy progressive, futuristic stuff.
Where do I go next? Ah, yes my childhood. So continuing on the note of my father, I was raised by him. He and all of his little Asian ticks. While my older brother was at Kindergarten, I had two full years of him to myself. Those years were full of stuffed animals, tea parties, hello kitty, arts and crafts… so many arts and crafts and lots of tender bonding moments. I look back on those times fondly and I am still very close to my dad; his little girl. But I wouldn’t say that I’m not close to my mom. I’ll spend nights up with her until 1 AM talking to her about life, and laughing my head off about the stupid stuff we say. It’s just different. My dad is introverted, which might come as a surprise to those who know him as the outgoing “Steve of Lansing.” I think it has something to do with the fact that he’s been contaminated by my mom and her blonde, bubbly self. She on the other hand is extremely outgoing and will talk your ear off and envelop you in her loving hugs. I inherited this “gift of the gab” so to speak and I didn’t even spend the first five years of my life at home everyday with her. Imagine if I wasn’t raised by a reserved Asian man. I mean I’m crazy as it is. Not that there’s anything wrong with being outgoing and crazy. But I would be an extra-extravert.
Anyways, back to my dad… he is quite “Japanese,” but also the most American man you’ll ever meet. For one his name is Steve… he basically created the selfie, is always prepared to whip out a dad joke, and he enjoys drinking beer and eating a hot dog fresh off the grill just as much as the next guy, and yet he is very“Japanese.” I personally wouldn’t refer to him as super (air quotes) “Japanese.” I mean he can barely count to five in the language. But, it’s how my mom describes what just seems like normal dad to me. I mean, he and my mom had very different upbringings. There are cultural differences. My dad’s parents spent several of their teen years in internment camps during World War II. It makes more sense now doesn’t it? Why my grandparents would name their Japanese-American son Steve, not to mention their other two children Todd and Linda. Why wouldn’t they want to Americanize, rather than passing along the very part of their ancestry that got them interned in the first place? While much of the culture was stripped away, the stoicism and control of emotions remains with my dad. It took me years to understand that when my mom refers to my dad as “Japanese” she is referring to these characteristics. My mom on the other hand grew up with a large extended family out on Long Island. Her family was boisterous, but her mother was like my father’s family, stoic and good at keeping her emotions at bay. But somehow my mother’s personality diverged and she grew up to be the emotional, heart on sleeve, loving woman she is today.
So where do I fit into all of this? Well, I’ve told you about my ethnic background, my parents, their upbringing, and the relationships I have with them. I told you earlier and I’ll quote Futuristic again. When it comes to where I lie on the spectrum of identity, I exist at “a whole lotta what the fuck?” As trendy and cool as it is being a halfie in this day and age, it can feel as though I’m in a constant game of tug of war. Even though I am a “cauc,” I’m constantly being pulled from one side to the other. To clarify, in this game of tug of war, all 5’5” of me is the rope and on one side is a team composed of my short Japanese relatives and on the other side, all 36 of my mom’s loud Long Island accented speaking, German-Irish cousins. The Asians calm, cool, and collected as they pull, while the cousins are shouting in a chaotic chorus. I also feel the pull from parents. My dad will tell me to toughen up, compose myself if I dare to show emotion, or cry in public when I am upset. But if I withhold my feelings and suppress them, my mom accuses me of being too “Japanese” and closed off. Which one is it? I find my ethnic identity to be relatively fluid. Some days I can feel the power of composure from my Japanese side and feel as though I identify more with them. Some days it’s completely different and I am so passionate about something that I become emotional and might even cry, exposing my vulnerability for everyone to see. There are so many dependent factors that play into my identity. It could be someone mentioning my darker complexion during the summer months, mildly racist comments from friends, or being approached by individuals who are Asian, testing to see “what I am” and if I am Asian enough. I mean what is the criteria for being enough of one thing or the other?
From a young age when I played pretend with my friends. One of our favorite things was recreating High School Musical. Before we could start of course, we had to figure out who got to play each character. Obviously Gabriela was the desired role of everyone, because she got Troy. I mean what 8 year old wouldn’t want to be swept off their feet by Troy freaking Bolton. But, I rarely got to play her. My friends would explain that I didn’t look like her, my skin was too dark, so I got to play Taylor instead. I had nothing against Taylor, but looking back it’s so funny how they thought that I didn’t look enough like a white person and therefore I resembled a black person. Like what kind of logic is that? Well it’s the simple mind of 8 year olds thinking “one of these things is not like the other.” I mean what 8 year olds are self-aware enough to understand what is racially inappropriate or not?
But it has been clear since my childhood that I belong in the gray area. There has always been something about me that is not enough or too much, or just not right at all. I mean my goodness, if we just unpack the issue that is my name, we can see how much of a struggle it is to even identify me by the name I was given at birth. Rather than me explaining the importance of a name, I’ll leave it to my man Shakespeare; to quote Romeo: “What’s in a name, that which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet.” If you don’t remember breaking this quote down in high school English classes, Shakespeare is trying to say that when it comes down to it, a name is just the label, it does not define the object or person it has been given to. By that logic you can call me whatever the heck you want. I’m kidding obviously, I have a preference. But Shakespeare might have been onto something. In this modern age there are so many discrepancies about how individuals can identify themselves. I think that I will probably spend the rest of my life exploring my identity, but I know one thing for certain, I am “M-I-Y-A, Miya.” And I’m just somewhere in the middle.
The past several years has brought an influx of social media trends, influencers, and a rise of posts dedicated to body positivity. Body positivity focuses on people reclaiming their bodies from the unrealistic (and often racist, ableist, and transphobic) beauty standards that are socially engraved in Western culture. This social movement asserts that people should remain positive about their bodies regardless of what form they take, placing emphasis on the social acceptance of all bodies in a larger social context. In other words, the personal body is political and should be viewed through this lens.
While this movement has positive intentions, insisting that an individual has to remain positive about their body reaffirms that their body is not necessarily the “right” kind of body. Thus, it affirms that there is something inherently negative about being too fat, too tall, too masculine, etc… Body positivity forces young people to feel bad about not being positive about their bodies all of the time.
Body positivity, for me, makes me feel guilty when I notice something about myself that I don’t necessarily love. And while there’s nothing wrong with preaching acceptance regarding our different bodies, it’s emotionally taxing to be hyper-positive. We need to stop equating occasional self-criticism with self-hate. Because the reality is that you don’t have to love every inch of your body to still love yourself. It’s time that we stop assuming that self-love is a one size fits all or that self-love entirely relies on appearance.
Recently, the body positivity movement has been critiqued for becoming commercialized. In a recent interview with Vogue, singer, Lizzo, argues that the movement no longer benefits the people it was initially created for. Instead, body positivity has been primarily whitewashed and overtaken by influencers that profit from the hashtag. According to Lizzo: “What I don’t like is how the people that this term was created for are not benefiting from it. Girls with back fat, girls with bellies that hang, girls with thighs that aren’t separated, that overlap. Girls with stretch marks. You know, girls who are in the 18-plus club.”
Rather than focusing on how the body appears, body neutrality argues that we need to place an emphasis on what our bodies do.
So what, instead, does body acceptance look like in a post-body positivity society? Lizzo argues instead for body neutrality, or body normativity. Rather than focusing on how the body appears, body neutrality argues that we need to place an emphasis on what our bodies do. It normalizes all bodies in a way where body positivity falls short. Leigh Weingus writes in her op-ed that body neutrality’s “goal is to help participants acknowledge that loving their bodies isn’t always realistic. Sometimes, it’s OK to land somewhere in between ― in a more neutral place. Body neutrality is about seeing your body as a vehicle that, when treated with care, can help you move about the world in a way that brings you joy. That’s it. No thinking about how you look, either good or bad.”
Body neutrality is an attempt to eliminate body positivity serving merely as a buzzword or as a trendy movement to be commodified by celebrities and influencers. Body neutrality offers us a way to accept and love our bodies without equating appearance with worth.
What does feminism say about how women interact with each other? If women are seeking to gain respect, isn’t it important to also respect other women and treat each other equally? Isn’t it our duty as feminists to support other women and ensure that we stand united amongst ourselves before we fix divisions in our society?
The idea of what “women’s rights” actually entails has been contested amongst self-identified feminists.
Feminism started out with a simple yet essential message: ensure that women can gain equal rights and be treated with respect. While the movement has endured for many years, this core message has succumbed to divisions within the movement. The cause of these divisions is partially because of the source itself–the broadness of feminism’s core. The idea of what “women’s rights” actually entails has been contested amongst self-identified feminists.
Unfortunately, women are able to work against the rights of other women. Though feminism intends to unite all women towards the common goal of promoting women’s rights, the divisions within the movement itself prevents feminism from being unified and working towards the same goals. Some feminists see misogyny as an issue that impacts all women equally, making feminism a collective struggle towards the exact same goals. Other feminists recognize that misogyny does not exist in a vacuum and can be impacted by a variety of other factors that exacerbate the impact of misogyny on different groups of women.
In 1977, the Combahee River Collective, a group of Black feminists, issued the Combahee River Collective Statement. Through the statement, the women discuss the challenges they face as Black and lesbian women, explaining how they “have in many ways gone beyond white women’s revelations because we are dealing with the implications of race and class as well as sex”. Recognizing the impact of these other systems of oppression, the women of the Combahee River Collective explain how their path to liberation is different than that of other women.
Supporting other women is difficult when women from marginalized groups see others, who claim to be feminists, blatantly working against their interests.
Intersectional feminism, a term developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw, takes into account how other systems of oppression impact women. Women who are part of other marginalized communities face unique issues that impact their struggle for equality. Not all women are willing to accept these “intersections” of oppression, as they either do not believe that other systems of oppression create a unique situation for different women, or because they contribute to these systems of oppression themselves. This disagreement fosters divisions within the feminist movement, preventing unity. Supporting other women is difficult when women from marginalized groups see others, who claim to be feminists, blatantly working against their interests. For example, do BIPOC women or women in the LGBTQ+ community have a responsibility to support other women who actively work against their interests?
Women should not be able to use feminism as a shield to protect them from criticism when they are actively working against women’s rights issues. Mikki Kendall mentions in her book Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot that, “[i]gnoring the treatment of the most marginalized women doesn’t set a standard that can protect any woman.” For feminism to be a cohesive and unifying movement, rather than a mere concept, feminists have a responsibility to ensure that they are fighting for the equality of all women. This includes recognizing that even women themselves can contribute to racism, homophobia, transphobia, and other systems of oppression that create further struggles for other women. By understanding the complexity of women’s rights issues, feminists will be able to more effectively work towards the rights of all women in attaining true equality. This, of course, was the goal of feminism in the first place.