When I was eight I wanted to be an Olympic gymnast. By the time I was ten, I was sure I was going to become a world famous singing sensation. At twelve I started toying around with the idea of becoming the first woman president, or at the very least, a wildly influential Senator from Texas. When I finally started to realize I might need a reasonable and profitable career at about fourteen, I settled on becoming a choir director.
Today is my 24th birthday. I read a quote recently by Imelda Marcos that really resonated: “My dreams have become puny compared to the reality my life has become.” The ten year old me or the fourteen year old me or even the sixteen year old me could never have imagined that a movie bearing my name would premiere at Sundance when I was eighteen and change the trajectory of my entire life. I certainly wouldn’t have predicted that this birthday would mark nine years in the feminist movement, more than a third of my lifetime, or that today I would be participating in the second photo shoot in two months for another mainstream women’s magazine feature on the leaders of the next generation of feminism.
There’s nothing like a birthday combined with being heralded as a representation of your generation to really scare the shit out of a girl. I wonder often if I did the only important thing that I would ever do when at fifteen when I started a campaign to get abstinence-only out of my high school and if I’ll spend the rest of my life failing to meet these huge expectations it feels like everyone has of me. I wrote yesterday about the suffragist Inez Milholland, who had an amazing and productive career as a speaker and organizer and then died at 30 of exhaustion. What I didn’t mention is that I’ve often thought that might be the best thing that could ever happen to me because I can’t imagine any experiences in my life that could be as amazing, surprising, and wonderful as the ones I’ve had in the past nine years of traveling across the country and organizing with young feminists.
Shortsighted and strange? Yes. Morbid? Definitely. But it’s real. And real is something I’ve been missing for a long time. I feel like I’ve been playing the role of ‘Shelby Knox’ for so long that I haven’t stopped to find out who just plain Shelby might be or become. What I do and say and write is definitely real and it’s what I believe with all my heart. But I also want to finally be able to believe that even if I hadn’t been in a movie or had a famous mentor or testified before Congress, people would still want to know and listen to the girl who gets behind on her emails and double books meetings and sets off the fire alarm making toast every single time.
Of course I don’t really want to die at 30. I want to write a book. I want to write several books, actually. I want to help make abortion a right so solid and undeniable that the protests of today will seem sad and bizarre. I want to help women achieve equal representation at every level of government and I want to campaign for another pro-woman woman for president and this time I want to see her win. I want to be an organizer in the generation that finally understands that all oppressions have to be uprooted at the same time and acts upon that understanding. I want, more than anything, to change the world.
But, I’m starting to realize, if I’m ever going to do any of those things I have to start moving more towards real. I can’t help anyone or be the representation of anything until I love me for me and act that way. I have to allow myself to be 24 and to sometimes be unsure and to be scared and to ask for help. I have to stop preaching self-care and start practicing it by remembering to eat every day and exercise and occasionally look up from my computer and all the injustices it alerts me to and remember that there are also many wonderful things in the world to do and experience. I have to stop thinking my past isn’t mine or I don’t deserve it and own everything, the privileges, the mistakes, and the successes.
I guess the first step to real is this post, which I’m terrified to put out in the world. Are some people going to think, “what a privileged bitch she is, moaning about her practically perfect life?” Sure, and probably rightfully so. But, to paraphrase Gloria Steinem, a pedestal is a damn small space and on this birthday, I’m jumping off it. Not to my death, but to my life.