I was watching an episode of Sex & the City today -- "Cover Girl." The girls are in a bookstore, helping Carrie research ideas for her new book cover while they browse for their own purchases. Charlotte is looking for a copy of Starting Over Yet Again, while Miranda searches for a book with a title like "How to Lose That Baby Fat While Sitting on Your Ass." Miranda settles on From Fat to Fit, but then decides against buying it when the sales clerk advises her to start Weight Watchers instead. Charlotte, nervous about being seen in the Self-Help section, decides to order her book online.
The episode got me thinking: we've all read something to make us feel uncomfortable. What books have I been embarrassed about reading in public? And why?
In college, my roommate and I took an LGBT-awareness class. Our first assignment was to buy Brian McNaught's Now That I'm Out, What Do I Do? somewhere other than the campus bookstore. The purpose was to put us in a place outside of our comfort zone, so we could understand what the LGBT community, their parents, and their friends go through when they go to buy the same books. My roommate shared with me that she did in fact feel a little embarrassed walking around the bookstore with it. She felt like she was being looked at differently. I remember being proud of myself for getting through the assignment with little to no feelings of shame. Now that I look back, I know I should have tried harder to put myself in others' shoes.
For me, the most recent book I can think of makes me ashamed to even bring up the story. Not because of the book itself, but because of the very fact that I was embarrassed to be seen with it. I am embarrassed for my embarrassment. Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America, by Ellen Chesler, should not have caused these feelings to bubble up in me. I usually have no problem admitting to anyone, even strangers, that I consider myself a feminist. Yet there I was, keeping the book huddled against my chest every morning as I made the walk from the parking garage to my workplace.
It's amazing how once you're out of the safety of a college campus, all your ideals have to become...private. Inoffensive. The issue with me this time had to do with exactly that -- offensiveness. It was the abortion topic...or at least, that's how I was perceiving people perceiving me.
Honestly, my thinking was in line with Margaret's. I believe women should have a choice when it comes to their bodies, which is why I was so excited to find this book on the shelf. I was enthralled with Margaret Sanger and her story when I learned about her in my Philosophy of Women class. Her movement spoke to me. Her struggle to make birth control accessible and normalized for all women was something I could really look up to. Reading her biography, which promised to be just as accessible, would be like icing on the cake.
But reading the book about Margaret soon became my own struggle. The book was not as "readable" as the cover proclaimed. But not only that, I was finding out a lot about Ms. Sanger that was spoiling my idea of her. Who knew that role models could be human?
Anyway, it wasn't so much Margaret's personality that made me duck the book under my armpit as I walked the streets of Cleveland. I may be a feminist, but I know Margaret Sanger is an obscure enough name that no one would be offended by that alone. No, it was the rest of the title that I was hiding: The Birth Control Movement in America.
But why? Why did I care? I still can't explain it. Maybe it was the stereotypes. Maybe it was my own self-righteous opinion of myself. I did not want people to see me as a baby killer. Because I know that's not what pro-choice means. But the simple people on the street, they didn't. I am such an ass! I can't believe myself.
I stopped reading Woman of Valor. Not because of the embarrassment. It truly was just too hard to get through. The writing was too elevated. But the shame I feel now when realizing how embarrassed I was for reading that book is still going on.
I sort of meant to make this post more light-hearted. You know, talk about the trashy romance novels I also take care to hide in my purse when making the commute to the office. Or the fantasy fiction novels I enjoy with the dragons on the cover. But I think it was more important to make this other, more serious point to myself.
They say that if you assume something, you make an ass out of you and me. I found that it's true...and to be embarrassed about my reading choices just makes an ass out of, em, me.