To my Lennys,
I’m Doreen St. Félix, Lenny’s editor at large. Miss Deaux if you’re nasty. Well, also if you’re not nasty. Like, Deaux is just my nickname and I give you permission to call me that. Anyhoo, my job is to write about all things pop and cultural and to bring talented writers into the Lenny-fold. Can you believe this is our sixth newsletter? Back when our team gathered in a small Brooklyn office at the height of summer, we had big dreams — about where we could get an iced coffee that cost less than $5 — but nothing close to the support, readership, and wild enthusiasm you’ve given us since we launched.
The tone in this week’s issue varies from introspective to dark to funny to matter-of-fact, but a general theme unites the pieces: they’re all meditations on how the outside world treats women. First off, we have Jenna Lyons, the creative director of J. Crew who has indirectly dressed you, your mom, your coworker, and your boss. In turn, Jenna has been scrutinized and praised for her style. Her reflective piece, “The Watermelon Skirt,” takes us back to the moment Jenna, who lives with a genetic disorder, realized the power of clothes to initiate self-transformation. For young Jenna, the road to positive intimacy with her own skin began with the first article of clothing she created, the skirt with a watermelon print. For me, it began with learning to braid my hair. The feeling is like a little revolution.
Next, we have Liza Dye — in my opinion, one of the great comedians on this earth. Liza’s voice, that mix of dark humor and searing truth, lets us into her experience navigating the health-care system after a subway accident left her severely injured. Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to President Obama, illuminates the consequences of loopholes in state and federal laws that allow domestic abusers to purchase guns. These two pieces provide real information about health care and domestic-violence law, two systems that can negatively affect the well-being of marginalized people.
And since it’s the first week of the month, we have another set of freakishly accurate Lennyscopes from Melissa Broder. Don’t sleep on these, fam. Last month, my horoscope told me to write a list of things that I am grateful to have, and in the process, I dug out my fleece onesie. Been hibernating ever since.
I hope you enjoy Lenny No. 6. Listen to the stars.
The Watermelon Skirt
By Jenna Lyons
I am not sure when it first occurred to me.
It might have been on a trip to Knott’s Berry Farm. I was around 13 years old, standing in line for one of the rides. My younger brother, Spencer, was standing with me. I remember there were two high-school girls behind us. The kind of girls I wanted to be. The kinds of girls who wake up, shower, put their glossy straight hair in a ponytail, and bounce out the door; no makeup, flawless skin, long eyelashes, bodies made for roller skating on The Strand. One of them said to the other, “LOOK AT HER SKIN, WHAT DO YOU THINK THAT IS?! THAT’S GROOOOSS!” It took me a minute, and then I realized they were talking about me. I can’t quite describe the feeling. It was somewhere between humiliation, fear, and self-loathing, all complemented with utter despair.
I figured: if they are thinking that, everyone is. And what’s worse, they didn’t know the half of my grossness. God. There was so much more. All they could see were the scars on the back of my legs. They couldn’t see the huge scar resembling a topographical map of the Fiji Islands under my arm. They couldn’t see the blistered puffy scars along my bikini line. They couldn’t see the stripes on my rib cage. Shit. They didn’t see my conical teeth! And most likely they didn’t see the giant bald spot on the back of my head. Because for sure they would have whispered loudly about that too.
(I have a genetic disorder. Best part: it was a spontaneous mutation. Which means I am so talented, my body managed to self-mutate its genetic code. It wasn’t inherited. I am the lucky one and the only one in my family. It’s extremely rare, and because of that, I was misdiagnosed quite a few times. According to my mother, she was told by one doctor when I was a baby not to touch me. Awesome. Here is your bundle of joy you have waited nine months for, BUT no touchy.)
A hot pain washed over me.
I honestly felt like my life was over.
I was officially gross.
Not my outfit. Not my hairstyle. Me. I, Jenna Lyons, was gross.
I was screwed.
I never really saw myself the same way again. I eradicated the word “gross” from my vocabulary. The mere sound of GROOOOSS bounced around my brain like a foamy piece of rotten fruit. I told no one what had happened. I started wearing long sleeves and pants every day in the hot California sun. I stopped smiling. And when I couldn’t help myself, I covered my mouth in shame.
I am not sure what the exact timeline was, but somewhere after that, I slipped into depression. I guess that’s what you call it when someone cries on the bathroom floor for no apparent reason, sleeps all day after school, and spends endless hours studying every inch of Vogue and Mademoiselle, desperately trying to imagine what those girls’ lives were like: what kind of things did people say about them? Did boys like them? Were they popular? I dreamed of what it would be like to wake up beautiful, only to realize that was a pipe dream. That led to dreaming up ways to go to sleep myself. And not wake up.
As I became aware I was different, so did the other kids in my school. I soon found myself the one last picked for the dodgeball team. The LAST girl picked at cotillion. As if cotillion isn’t bad enough. I was the butt of jokes in social studies.
But seventh grade was an odd turning point. I took a home-economics class. Profound life changes can happen in home ec. Believe me, that statement sounds just as ridiculous to me as it does to you.
What happened was I learned to sew.
In addition to my grossness, I was also five foot eleven by seventh grade and super skinny. There were no “talls” available in size zero back then. Shorts were out of the question. Skirts were always too short. I had to buy size-ten pants in order for them to be long enough.
And then I made The Watermelon Skirt in home ec. I got to go to Florence Fabrics, pick out a Butterick pattern and three yards of fabric, and make something that actually fit me — my measurements, my length, my custom-made watermelon skirt.
The Watermelon Skirt.
The Watermelon Skirt was like reupholstering your beat-up Pinto’s car seats with two-tone custom leather interior. It marked the beginning of my own private, self-initiated makeover. But it also marked the beginning of my understanding transformation. I realized for the first time that people’s memories are short and their opinions are malleable.
Three more things happened that crystallized this notion:
1. Dara Peterson, one of the Peterson twins, asked me where I got my skirt. You have to understand who Dara Peterson was. She was HOT. All the boys said so. Both Dara and her sister were beautiful, sexy, warm, and funny. They lived in a huge house in the “Estates.” Their mom was divorced and super cool. She was always away and left the girls to have parties in their fancy house. THAT Dara Peterson. One of the most popular girls in school. I had been sitting next to her for an entire semester and she had never given me a glance. Then one day, she asked me where I got my skirt. When I said, “I made it,” her eyes lit up. What happened next is seared into my memory. She said, “Would you make me one?”
2. I got invited to a party. A cool party. These kinds of parties had been happening all along. I had had no idea. The party was at Tommy Song’s house. He was rich and cute. There was beer, wine, liquor, and porn. All things I had never had access to. And then we played spin the bottle. I got Tommy. And we kissed. With tongue. I had never done that before. I am sure I made a mess of it, even though it went on for a shockingly long time. His tongue was sort of short and sharp, swirling around my mouth like a toilet-bowl brush. It was amazing.
The next day, Tommy passed me a note in home ec. He had scrawled a message in his boys-don’t-care handwriting: “Will you go with me?”
3. I got a professional haircut and style. Not at Super Cuts, where they left my hair dry, all 14 strands of it frizzy and limp. This time, my mom took me to a salon. A real one. This super-nice man cut and feathered my hair. FEATHERED!!!!!!!! All the pretty girls at school had Farrah Fawcett hair. Now I did, too. Sort of. What’s better, he showed me how to comb my hair AND cover my bald spots. The next day, I walked into home ec and Tommy said, “Your haircut looks really pretty.”
Not gross. He said pretty. Prettttttyyyyyy. Me.
Don’t misunderstand. My external transformation did not expel my internal doubt and lack of confidence. But it did give me a much-needed boost. A feeling that if I followed some level of instinct like I had used in Florence Fabrics that day, that maybe, just maybe, I could do well for myself. The road from then to now has been riddled with poor judgment, internal combustion, and enough self-doubt to fill Lake Powell. But I had no choice except to put one foot in front of the other and keep going. And to this day, I often feel like I’m on the outside. But what I realized along the way was that a lot of the really smart, interesting, talented, compassionate, and equally dysfunctional people sit out here with me.
The irony of all this is another trifecta. I have a job that involves all my kryptonite.
My job requires:
1. That I have confidence.
2. That I spend time reviewing endless contact sheets of beautiful, perfect, glowing models.
3. That, to my absolute shock, surprise, and deepest appreciation, I am often talked about favorably for how I look. Beautiful, excited, and nervous young girls and even boys actually ask to take photos with me. They apologize for interrupting me.
People. Don’t apologize for asking. It’s the MOST flattering request in the world.
It makes me feel special. The opposite of gross. So, thank you.
Jenna Lyons has pretty much only had one job in her life.
We Need to Keep Guns Away
By Valerie Jarrett
from Domestic Abusers
When I was growing up, domestic violence was often considered a private matter, kept in the shadows and behind closed doors. First responders, from law enforcement to health-care providers, were not adequately trained to intervene. Hotlines and shelters did not exist. All too frequently, victims’ complaints were ignored, and if the attackers owned guns, the results could be fatal.
Though we’re talking more openly about abuse today than we did back then, it still happens far too often: studies show that about one in four women has been the victim of domestic violence. And if an abusive husband, boyfriend, or ex has access to a gun at home, a woman is much more likely to be murdered with it than she would be if no gun were present.
During the past seven years, I’ve spoken with people from across the country about ways to confront the issue of gun violence in all its forms. The vast majority of Americans want Congress to pass legislation to help keep people safe. They reject the misguided belief that it’s pointless to try to address the problem — that people seeking to commit a crime with a gun will always find a way to obtain one. We know that’s wrong. We know that simply running background checks has prevented more than two million illegal purchases since the system became operational in 1998.
There’s another reality to gun violence in our country as well. Every year, countless Americans are killed not by strangers who are criminals, but just because a gun is present in an already volatile situation. Simple disagreements may escalate to shootings and death. And hundreds of women in abusive relationships are murdered every year with guns. Women who are victims of intimate-partner violence are more likely to be murdered with a firearm than all other means combined.
We can’t accept this as normal in this country. That’s why President Obama and so many people have called on Congress to act. Among other issues, Congress needs to act to ensure victims of domestic violence are safe from gun violence. The law prohibits many people who are subject to a restraining order, or have been convicted of a domestic-violence offense, from buying a gun. But there are also gaps in the law — gaps that mean not all of the perpetrators of abuse are prevented from gun purchases.
Of course, stronger laws can save lives — a 2014 study showed that states with universal background checks have 46 percent fewer intimate-partner gun homicides. Unfortunately, the gun lobby has been so successful at preventing open and informed discussions about gun violence that Congress has made it harder to conduct even basic public-health research on the impact of guns, let alone take further steps to protect victims and survivors of domestic violence.
Thankfully, over the past generation, an important cultural change has happened. Finally, Americans are seeing domestic violence as the public-safety problem that it is and not as a private matter. With that change comes an opportunity to raise our voices to keep guns away from dangerous people and situations.
When I advocate for change, one of the stories I think of the most is of a woman named Johanna, whom I had the fortune to meet four years ago. We brought Johanna to the White House to honor her as a “Champion of Change” because of the work she’s done to end domestic violence. As Johanna told me, she used to be in a physically and emotionally abusive relationship. Like many victims of abuse, she explained that she often blamed herself, believing if she just “tried harder,” the violence would stop. It took two years for her to realize that wasn’t the case and build the courage to leave the relationship. Yet after she left, her ex found her and raped her at knife-point. And two weeks later — after she reported him — he found her and shot her in the face with a sawed-off shotgun.
Unlike many women in her situation, Johanna miraculously survived. And in the years since, she has used her new beginning to help ensure no woman relives her experience. She educates young women and families about how to spot the early signs of an abusive relationship so it never reaches a tragic end. And she has used her voice to effect legislative change, helping shepherd a bill through the Ohio legislature that better protects teens from abusers, bullies, and stalkers. She has also pushed for the passage of rules in the City of Cleveland that ensure teens are educated in school about dating violence.
Just like Johanna, you too can have an impact. We need to engage your voices to help reframe this debate. Help others understand that we can have responsible gun ownership and save lives. Remind people of the innocent lives that we’ll lose this year not just because people buy guns with the intent to kill someone — but because people we all agree should not have guns have them and use them. Please share the stories of the people in your life who have survived domestic violence, of those whose lives have been lost, and of those whose lives may be lost this year without our action.
Where advocates like you have reminded their communities that this is a domestic-violence issue and not just a gun-safety issue, states have passed their own laws and had success protecting women and families; since just 2013, 20 states have enacted new domestic-violence-related gun laws. In Wisconsin, for example, members of both parties overwhelmingly came together to pass and enact the SAFE Act, which created statewide procedures to take guns out of the hands of convicted domestic abusers who are already prohibited from buying them.
The voices of women have become louder with each generation — bolstered at each step by men who have understood that domestic violence is a human-rights issue that affects us all. As the next generation of Americans speaks up, there’s no limit to what we can accomplish. And just as the voices of domestic-violence survivors like Johanna brought the issue out of the shadows and into our collective consciousness, our voices can make America’s violent status quo unacceptable as well.
Valerie Jarrett is a Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama and the Chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls.
I Got Hit by a Subway and I Had No Insurance
By Liza Dye
“A de-gloving of the lower left extremity” is the medical term for the injury that I sustained on Thursday, February 13, 2014. A de-gloving usually results in amputation. Just a few hours before, I had been your average uninsured 25-year-old, struggling, trying to make it in New York City on the way to an (unpaid) gig. In less than a day, I became the poster child for Obamacare.
Before the accident, my career as a stand-up comedian and actress had been thriving. I had just come off an audition for Saturday Night Live, and although I wasn’t hired, being “looked at” by NBC got me an amazing manager, who sent me on my first pilot season. My first real, on-camera audition was for Orange Is the New Black, and I couldn’t have felt more inspired.
My personal life, however, had been suffering. After getting five months behind on my $900 rent in Crown Heights, I had to move out. I rented a U-Haul van to keep all my things in and, occasionally, to sleep in. Finding stable work was hard; I was barely getting by with freelance gigs and part-time work, from which I made just enough for a MetroCard and food. Unpaid internships were falling out of the sky, though. Health care didn’t cross my mind. I’ve never been the type to get sick or catch winter colds, and even if I do feel one coming on, I can usually nip it in the bud with home remedies like ginger tea, turmeric, or an aloe-vera plant.
One morning during Fashion Week, I was booked to shoot a comedy video with another up-and-coming comedian, John Early. The premise of the video was for John and me to come in with prewritten jokes about the movie Cruel Intentions. I had never seen it, and neither had John. So we decided to meet early (ha) to watch it, write our jokes, and then head to the set. I left my friend’s place in SoHo, where I’d crashed the night before, to find a full-on blizzard outside. Up to that point, I’d been keeping my clothing in the van. But it had been towed, so I was without the majority of my heavy coats and winter clothing. I’ve also never been a big breakfast person, so I hadn’t eaten. I can clearly hear Michelle Obama’s voice saying “Young people think they’re invincible” during a promo for Obamacare.
I had no idea how the accident happened. I still don’t. But I woke up on the tracks of the train. My left leg was pinned underneath the wheel of the first train car. Most of the skin was gone, and a lot of bone was exposed. I was taken to Bellevue Hospital — the oldest hospital in the nation and soon to be my new home for the next two and a half months of my life.
“Do you have insurance?” became a regular question that brought me to tears to answer. Every blood-transfusion request from a well-meaning doctor turned into an argument, with me screaming that I couldn’t afford it to the poor sap who was just trying to save my life. I knew my medical bills were piling up, and I knew they weren’t going to be cheap. I learned about emergency Medicaid, to which I was entitled because my injury was severe and I was uninsured. However, I didn’t learn about this through my social worker. I learned about it from my friend Jordana, whose mother works at a hospital in Queens. I don’t know what I would have done without them.
Not only were Jordana and her mother helping me, but the comedy communities in New York and Los Angeles were beginning to help me as well. Sue Smith, a comedian at Upright Citizens Brigade and a good friend of mine, created a YouCaring page to help raise money for my medical bills, and before we knew it, big-name comedians like Aziz Ansari, Louis CK, and Chelsea Peretti were all donating, tweeting, and organizing benefit shows. (My bills, by the way, came to a whopping total of $405,000.)
I was discharged from Bellevue in May 2014. It was insanely expensive for me to stay in New York. My mother and I wanted to head home to South Carolina, because we thought it best to go to a more affordable state, regardless of its public reputation. I came up with a compromise with my surgeons that I would stay in New York for a few weeks and come in for outpatient-clinic visits to be sure the final skin grafts were taking and healing properly. There was a huge concern about my being exposed to viruses and diseases since I had been in the hospital for such a long time. We were able to return to South Carolina in mid-June 2014; upon our return home, we immediately applied for disability benefits there.
I was denied for disability twice, and my third appeal was approved over a year later, in March 2015. I now have Medicaid, which covers a good portion of doctor’s visits, as well as most medicines. However, I still must come up with co-pay fees, which add up considering the tightly fixed income that I now rely on. I also have to pay out of pocket for expensive bandages, lotions, creams, and other things that Medicaid won’t cover, like custom compression garments that my physical therapist and plastic surgeon required to attempt to reduce swelling and pain.
The disability benefits that I was awarded in March 2015 total about $750 a month. Because I’m recuperating at my mother’s house and she’s disabled too, the state is attempting to cut her benefits. Apparently, we collectively accumulate $40 too much, according to Social Security benefit guidelines. Our SNAP benefits were just cut off as well, so having access to fresh, healthy foods is now another stress that we must add on to our daily battle to simply survive as non-wealthy — need I say, black — people in America.
Though there are fewer uninsured young adults than there were before the Affordable Care Act was passed, about a quarter of Americans ages 18 to 25 still don’t have health insurance. South Carolina was one of several states that did not accept the ACA’s Medicaid expansion, which makes health care available to a greater percentage of low-income people. You might think you’re invincible too — but you’re not. I’m the poster child for Obamacare because you don’t want something like this to happen to you.
It’s pathetic that pretty much every developed country except for the United States has universal health care. I now have several medical appointments daily with physical therapists, orthopedic surgeons, plastic surgeons, and dermatologists. All of them are terrified to prescribe me pain meds because of our country’s problem with substance abuse, even though I now suffer from chronic pain. Dealing with the insane complications of the medical industry has pushed me beyond depression and made my recovery much harder. I am now back in my wheelchair after making a little progress walking over the summer. After surviving a near-death experience, being faced with all the health care system’s obstacles feels like I’m being hit by the subway train all over again.
Open enrollment for the Health Insurance Marketplace started on November 1. If you're uninsured, click here for more information.
Liza Dye is a classically trained theater actress, writer, and comedian currently residing in South Carolina.
By Melissa Broder
(October 23 to November 21)
Whatever you are trying to stop doing will not work until you cease being a dick to yourself. Like, you can still be a dick to yourself in other areas. Far be it from me to preach totalitarian self-love. But when you try to remove something from your life, a person, object, or action that no longer serves you (though it once seemed to serve and protect you very well), be nice to yourself. Why would you give it up if all that’s left is you and some asshole in your mind?
(November 22 to December 21)
OK, so if I tell you to be still with yourself again this month, will you kill me? I'm doing it, because you need it again. Your outward odysseys and surface comings and goings are cool and make for good stories and experiential learning. But the inward odyssey, even the feelings you’d rather not feel, is the bigger trip. Try to take a few minutes each day to do absolutely nothing. If you can’t do it once a day, then just do it once, right now: ten minutes, eyes closed, focus on the place between your brows and breathe.
(December 22 to January 19)
Somewhere along the way, we decide that some of our needs are OK and some of them aren’t. It’s strange that what we choose to define as OK usually bears little connection to reality. Most likely, it stems from our parents’ early expectations. When in doubt, blame your parents. For me, the need for approval and the need to be perfect feel OK. The need to just be human and the need to be vulnerable? Not OK. Which needs of yours are you shunting away to the outer layer of your psyche because you fear they are unacceptable, unattractive, or too much for this world? Maybe dig one out and let it live.
(January 20 to February 18)
Stop listening to what you think you know. Knowing things is boring. Spend this month knowing nothing. Knowing nothing is exciting, like a small flame softening the wax of who you think you are. The wax is getting dusty and gross. It’s a moldy cinnamon-spice candle in a jar at someone’s aunt’s house. You really don’t have to know anything. Be smoke.
(February 19 to March 20)
OK, here are a few ideas I like. Do with them what you will:
1. Fear is nothing but imagination, unless it’s tethered to something that is truly, actually occurring in the present moment.
2. All our attributes as human beings (including imagination) can be used to make our lives more beautiful or more miserable.
3. Life is scary when you think a scary thought.
4. It’s hard to direct our first thought, but it’s much easier to direct the thought that follows.
(March 21 to April 19)
If you haven’t already figured out that time changes everything, come join the party. For example, some of the people I thought were just OK ten years ago were actually, looking back, deeply fuckable. And some of the people I thought were deeply fuckable were merely a projection of who I wanted them to be. Same goes for what you imagine you want out of life.
(April 20 to May 20)
You don’t have to know what anything is. Nobody knows what life is, and we are all still here. If you are having an experience that feels powerful but you are unable to define it, don’t sweat it. Oftentimes, the more you define something, the less you can feel it, and the more you feel it, the less you can define it. Leave words alone this month. They will still be there next month.
(May 21 to June 20)
Everything is so not OK, and it’s fine. Like, you’re just never going to get to the place where you have everything under wraps: your body, career, relationship, living space. Honestly, what would you even do if everything were under wraps? You would probably panic and unwrap something, just to avoid a greater sense of Now what? I want you to know that unwrapped as you are, you are killing it. Believe that, and you will always be wrapped in your own way underneath the fraying ends.
(June 21 to July 22)
Some people say that happiness is a choice, and those people are annoying. Anyone who has ever struggled with mental illness or been overcome by a feeling knows that it is not always a choice. At the same time, what might be a choice is the degree of acceptance we have around a feeling. This month, when feelings of sadness, anger, or other sensations we deem “bad” come up, can you be like, OK, bring it on? Can you see it as a sign you are alive?
(July 23 to August 22)
Envy is totally fine and human, but it’s also like peeing on yourself while the person you envy stays dry. What’s also weird about envy is that as much as it is uncomfortable, it gives us a hit by allowing us to feel in control of a situation we do not control. This month, experiment with envy. When you notice that you feel envious of someone, immediately wish them wonderful things in your mind — anything you’d want for yourself: happiness, health, love, friendship, success, money. This will feel like a punishment at first, and also totally like a lie, but see if you feel less pee-soaked the more often you do it.
(August 23 to September 22)
You exist, and fire exists. Start burning shit. Burn bundles of cedar and sage, sticks of incense four or five at a time, dried lavender in an abalone shell, marshmallows on your stove flame. Don’t worry about the proper way to “smudge” or the perfect woo-woo prayer. Google nothing, set no intentions, just revel in the glory of pyromania and how long it’s been since you’ve done anything for the sheer sake of doing it.
(September 23 to October 22)
Let’s make this the month of yes and no. Observe your yeses and nos, all of them. Do you ever lie and say yes to something when you know you will not make it or will have to bail? Why do you do that? How do you feel when you say no? Guilty? Empowered? Punishing? Scared? Do you no longer say yes to anything because you’ve already said a lifetime’s worth of yeses you didn’t mean? Do you want to have more fun? Are you tired?
Melissa Broder is the author of four collections of poems, including the forthcoming Last Sext (Tin House 2016), as well as So Sad Today, a book of essays out in March from Grand Central.
Correction from Lenny No. 5: The headline for the Jill McCabe piece incorrectly stated that she is already a Virginia state senator. She is currently running for that office.