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Monday, November 3, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Wrestling With Womanhood

Body image, anorexia, sexual identity, pregnancy - 21 local girls talk frankly about adolescence and their transition to womanhood. The girls have linked with mentors including Maya Angelou, Wilma Mankiller and Anisa Romero of the band Sky Cries Mary. The girls' stories, and advice from their mentors, are part of a new book, "Daughters of the Moon, Sisters of the Sun," written by Bainbridge Island authors K. Wind Hughes and Linda Wolf. Excerpts follow.

-------------------- `Daughters' readings --------------------

Mentor Anisa Romero of Sky Cries Mary and several girls who tell their stories in "Daughters of the Moon, Sisters of the Sun" (New Society Publishers, $19.95) will read from the book at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Elliott Bay Book Co., and at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Eagle Harbor Book Co., 157 Winslow Way E., Bainbridge Island. More information about the book is available on the Web at www.daughters-sisters.org

Suzannah Ribeiro, Bainbridge Island, 18

Not eating helped me withdraw into my own mind. I became seriously trapped inside myself, looking out, seeing people, yet not letting them get near me. By the time I was hospitalized, I had retreated so far behind my eyes that when I looked out I could see everybody, but their voices became more and more muffled.

I was very thin but I didn't think so. I weighed about 90 pounds. My face looked normal; my cheeks were red but my mouth was really big. I remember a girl saying that she thought I was so beautiful. I couldn't understand how people could think I was beautiful, and then I realized what they were seeing. I was this beautiful image of death - fragile, so skinny, and very pale except for my cheeks. I was like an untouchable, unreachable creature, a deadly nymph. It was confusing. All these people were saying I was beautiful while my experience was that I was dying.

I was tortured by food. I could not walk near the kitchen without walking around in circles saying, "I can't eat anything. I can't touch anything." I wanted to eat all the time. I thought I was eating all the time. I'd tell my mom I was but I'd probably be eating a lot of carrots or celery, so it only felt like I was eating all the time. I lost my period altogether.

To me, dieting and getting a man were the two most important things a woman could do. All the women's magazines said, "Seven New Ways To Lose Weight," "Fifteen Pounds Lost in Fifteen Days," or "How To Get Your Man." They influenced me to think losing weight was how I could get a man, how I could be a real woman. . .

Jean Kilbourne, media critic and filmmaker, responds to Suzannah:

It's so important to share our experience with each other. People need to realize that anorexia and bulimia are major public health issues. We have to break through the denial, deglamorize extreme thinness, and recognize it for the problem that it is, and get the information out about how people can get help.

Anything we can do to strengthen our friendships with each other, cross-generationally and with our mothers, goes a long way to help us feel not so alone and isolated and increases our self-esteem. We need private discussion groups and books like this, ways to see ourselves as allies.

McKenzie Nielsen, Bainbridge Island, 18

It was hard coming out to my parents. I knew they were going to be upset. Especially my mom, who has problems with homosexuality. The thing I was most afraid of was that they would take offense and think that I was doing it to be different. I love my parents and I never want to hurt them. I waited for a year after I knew for sure it wasn't going to change.

I told my mom first. She was not happy about it. She was afraid of my father's reaction and of the world's response. She was afraid I wouldn't be hired if anyone knew. She tried hard to understand why I would make this choice, but couldn't. It's still really hard for her. I want my parents to be proud of me, but I have to be myself. I have to be open. I want them to know my girlfriends and to be a part of my life. I didn't want them to be distanced from me. They deserve to know that this is my life choice. There are no absolutes, but this is not going to change as far as I can tell.

Currently, I am in a committed relationship with an amazing woman. We have had hard times but we're determined to grow together, to become more ourselves, to be intimate, to share our lives. The truth is, all relationships are difficult, you have to work with them. I think this is the hardest thing for me to learn. As Jeanette Winterson says in her book, "Written on The Body," "I don't know if this is a happy ending but here we are let loose in open fields."

Emily Saliers of Indigo Girls, about her coming out:

The really strange thing is, just before I started to discover that I might be gay, I was very homophobic. I didn't know what it was, so I didn't know how to react. By the time I was 19 or 20 and I realized I was gay, I was OK with it. But I kept it from my parents for two years.

I told my sisters, one by one; it was no big deal. I don't know why I didn't tell my parents. I guess it's because I've always felt really close to my family, and I was afraid I was going to rock the boat in what was pretty much an idyllic family situation. I was afraid I was going to become the black sheep of the family, so I was scared.

But then I started thinking about it and I realized that they wouldn't react that way, so I had separate meetings with each of them and I cried, it was very emotional, and they were very accepting. The only thing they were concerned about was would I be well taken care of in terms of love and life.

Jessi Old Coyote, Suquamish, 16

I don't know who's stronger in the Native American culture because the self-esteem of the majority of our people on both sides, male or female, is really low. You either have people whose self-esteem is really low and who are struggling every day of their life just to try to stand up, or people whose self-esteem is really high and they know they can do it and they go out and do it. But I've never seen a rich Native American.

What I want for my life is a good job, a big house, a nice car, and I want to go to school. I know I'm gonna have to fight pretty much my whole life to get close to where I want to be because of who I am, because of where I live, and because I'm a minority. But when I succeed, I'll use my life to show others that they can do it, too.

Wilma Mankiller, the first woman to serve as principal chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, responds to Jessi:

. . .There are female ways of leading, and just because I was soft-spoken, that doesn't mean I couldn't get things done. Sometimes people think that leaders have to be loud or bang on tables to exercise power. But I had real power and I used that real power to build clinics and Head Start Centers (for early childhood education), to do a lot of things I wanted.

At first it was tempting to adopt a more male form of leadership because people understood that. I was head of a police force and talked to the U.S. Congress and I once had a staff of 1,400 people. I had this idea that you could be the boss and do things differently. I think that it was hard at first because they wouldn't take me seriously when I would tell them to do something because I said it in a soft-spoken way. Then they were totally shocked when I would carry out what I said I would do. They were used to someone coming in and saying, "I'm the boss. Here are the directives and you follow them."

Eeah, Suquamish, 17

My name is Eeah. I'm 17. I live in Suquamish with my mother, brother and stepfather.

I was born in Forks, near our reservation in Neah Bay. We were pretty poor. We lived in what was basically a shack. It's not like we didn't have enough food; it's just that on the Makah Reservation, like on most reservations, people don't have much work or enough to do. We moved to Seattle when I was 2, but we got robbed so many times we decided to move to Bainbridge where my grandparents had a farm.

It was OK there, but I didn't fit in. In Seattle I was a tomboy who played in the dirt and beat up kids. The Bainbridge girls were into Barbie dolls and the boys didn't play with girls. So I spent most of my time with my cousins. Practically everybody dark was my cousin. When I was 12, my parents divorced. When my mother remarried, she got the American dream. My stepdad is white and they both work on the ferries and for the first time we live in a nice house.

I don't really remember when I first started smoking pot. I grew up knowing the smell because it was always around. Probably my cousins first turned me on to it. They turned me on to drinking. But when I was 13, I had this secret identity. I lived in this trailer outside our house so I could sneak out all night long. I never told anybody - my parents still don't know - but I'd sneak out every other weekend, do Ecstasy, and go to raves. I'd go with this guy I met at a party in Seattle. He was 18. We'd get stoned and he'd give me this pill and I'd take it without any questions. . .

Anisa Romero, lead singer of the Seattle-based band Sky Cries Mary, discusses drugs:

Everyone in the band has experimented with drugs, but we decided a few years ago, after one of our band members kicked heroin, that when we practice and do shows, there are no drugs, there's nothing. It's out of respect for everyone else.

We found that we could reach those same kinds of highs and levels and oneness by doing our art, and we all saw how empowering that was. Personally, I drink a little wine, but that's it. I think there's a profound natural high in the universe that you can tap into through art and yoga, natural highs that are part of ancient traditions of soul-searching. Drugs can definitely get you there, but they're a shortcut.

I lived in an ashram for a while and people would ask the swami if samadhi, or enlightenment, is similar to taking acid or mushrooms. He thought drugs were a good way for Westerners to get there because that's how our culture is: We're kind of a junk-food culture. Fast food, fast enlightenment. You can use drugs as a tool to make you realize that there's something beyond our normal perceptions, but you won't get the whole picture.

Valerie Fox, Bainbridge Island, 18

For the past year and a half I've been in Oregon, going to college and traveling with Michael. We were in Colorado when the call came to go home and face the prosecution for my drug charges. We had been looking at our futures and we decided that it was finally time to go our separate ways. I needed to get out on my own, and we needed to be independent of each other and grow up. Two days later I discovered I was pregnant. I'm not going to have an abortion. We've talked about it and we're committed to going through the pregnancy together and have an open adoption.

I cannot afford to keep a child, and being single parents would be hard. I don't know if we'll be together for the rest of our lives. We want to make sure this child has a family. I always figured I'd be with Michael, having a baby in 20 years, but not now. If we got married now, it would be a forced marriage. I don't even have a life for me yet. I'm staying at my mom's. I don't want to be a stereotypical welfare mother.

Open adoption means we can be part of the baby's life and the baby will grow up in a home where the people are really prepared for parenting and really want a child. It's a gift for everyone all the way around. I know it will be painful, but that's part of it.

How it goes depends upon the people involved. It can be anything from sharing letters and pictures on birthdays and holidays to being like part of the family. Sometimes they even have the birth mother, while she's pregnant, live with the adoptive family so that they can become close. We just have to work it out between the four of us. We may find the perfect family but they might not want to see us all the time. That would be hard to take. But if they are the family that we feel is best for the baby, then we'll have to sacrifice. We want some kind of contact and involvement in this child's life. We don't want it to be confusing for him. But kids can grow up with open adoption, knowing that one set of parents is raising them and they have these other parents, too, who also love them. They can have the best of both worlds.

After writing this, Valerie chose to keep her baby and married the child's father.

Tasha Flournoy, 19, Poulsbo

I don't see myself as black or African American. I see myself as a human being. I've always felt like I fit in, but not in the world that society has created. The only time I haven't is when other people bring it up or look at me like I'm different.

I grew up not knowing much about racism. My mother never talked to me about prejudice or told me about things such as slavery and hate crimes. It wasn't necessary; she taught me to see people for who they are and to judge them by their personality and their behavior.

I grew up in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in California with my mother, my stepfather, who was white, and my brother by their marriage. I never lived with my real father, and my mother doesn't talk about him much. They were never married. He was one of the only black men my mother was ever with. I don't think she deliberately set out to be with racially mixed men, but this was a part of her philosophy of diversity. Some African-American men in her life let her down, just like my real dad let me down. I've been let down and abandoned by a lot of men in my life.

Maya Angelou, author

I don't know if I continue, even today, always liking myself. But what I learned to do many years ago was to forgive myself. It is very important for every human being to forgive herself or himself because if you live, you will make mistakes - it is inevitable. But once you do and you see the mistake, then you forgive yourself and say, "Well, if I'd known better I'd have done better," that's all. So you say to the people you think you may have injured, "I'm sorry," and then you say to yourself, "I'm sorry." If we hold on to the mistake, we can't see our own glory in the mirror. . .

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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