5 Things You Should Know Before Reading How To Be A Woman

This month’s selection had all sorts of Our Shared Shelf-ers up in arms. Maybe folks expected something different from a book with the words “how to” in the title. Maybe they were not ready for her language. Whatever the case may be, folks railed against her exclusivity (she wrote from an exclusively white cis female pov) and words she used like “fat” and “tranny.”

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Emma Watson started a feminist book club on GoodReads. This month, we read Caitlin Moran’s How to be a woman.

(You can check out the books from the last couple of months here and here)

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Caitlin Moran is raw, funny, open, and nothing if not controversial.

(Though I try to be as family friendly as possible, due to the nature of this particular book, this post is not for young eyes. You have been warned.)

This month’s selection had all sorts of Our Shared Shelf-ers up in arms. Maybe folks expected something different from a book with the words “how to” in the title. Maybe they were not ready for her language. Whatever the case may be, folks railed against her exclusivity (she wrote from an exclusively white cisgender female pov) and words she used like “fat” and “tranny.”

So, in lieu of a review of sorts, I decided to go with a warning of sorts this month. Just in case you are thinking of grabbing this book off the shelf to take a gander…

  1. This book is not ok for young young ladies. Moran talks about– and thereby IMG_9485normalizes– things that are typically off limits (especially for us ladies). Things like masturbation, menstruation, drug use, miscarriage, and abortion. If these are things you have not talked about with your little lady, you may want to do that first. On the other hand, because of how raw and open Moran is, I think this could be used as a discussion starter with older teens. Mom and daughter book club, anyone?
  2. This is totally NOT a “how to” book. Before I started reading it, my eight year old saw it on the counter and said, “How to be a woman?! But, there is no RIGHT way to be a woman, mom!” to which I replied, “I am thinking that might be kinda the point.” It is, on the other hand, a memoir about her adolescence and young adulthood. One Our Shared Shelfer put it really well, “…the whole thing reads like a love letter to her younger self, like advice she wishes she could’ve sent back into the past… Like she’s teaching herself how to be a woman.” She opens each chapter with a personal memory, an experience. Then she takes us through lessons learned and her thoughts on those experiences now. So, if you are thinking you might want to see what all the fuss is about, remember, you will not actually learn how to be a woman. You might, however, learn about another woman’s life. And thereby learn a thing or two about yourself.
  3. Keeping the fact that this is a MEMOIR in mind, Caitlin is a WHITE, CIS FEMALE. She is now upper-middle class, though some of the stories about her youth strongly suggests she grew up downright poor. And she writes from this white, cisgender female, middle class point of view. Though this seems obvious, I add it to the warnings, because folks over at Our Shared Shelf were super upset about her ignoring the experiences of non-white, non-middle class, non-cis gendered females in her book. I might be totally missing the point of their argument, but I feel like I would have been pretty offended if she tried to include the experiences she had not herself experienced.
  4. She is not formally educated and writes in a very raw way. According to some book club members, she was homeschooled, and then started working as a pop culture and music critic when she was 16. She writes in a very readable manner-I like she is writing to a friend. She uses ALL CAPS and lots of exclamation marks!!!! So if you are looking for a scholarly discussion of the female experience, this ain’t it.
  5. She is not angry. She is a feminist, sure. But you will not find angry rants here. In fact, she talks about things like laughing at the patriarchal crap, encourages us to look at everyone as “one of the guys,” suggests replacing terms like “pro-women” with “thumbs up for the 6 billion,” and asking if things are “polite” rather than “sexist” or “misogynistic.” One group member put it this way:

I think one of the main things I am going to take from this book is that it’s time to laugh at the patriarchal crap that is said in my presence. Laugh at it and give it no power. Oh I will still fight for the things that need a strong and perhaps angry voice. But in my day to day life, it’s time to laugh as if what has been said is just too stupid to be taken seriously.

The response to this book was VERY mixed, and lots of members decided not to read it at all. One member, however, could not get enough. She wrote:

Can we appreciate this book for what it is? I also have a deep appreciation for her very graphic depictions of pivotal moments in a woman’s life, often considered taboo to discuss publicly in too much detail. While she still employs humor in those sections, the tone definitely shifts; the material is darker, heavier, and simply disgusting. I love it! I’m referring specifically to her graphic discussions of menstruation, masturbation, and drug use, but especially her first childbirth and later abortion. I know she is not the first or only writer to do this, but this is one thing that, in my opinion, we can’t get enough of. These issues need constant exposure to be normalized and to erase the stigma!

Personally, I enjoyed the book. I thought she used humor and blatant honesty to discuss things I had never seen anyone write about before. Yes, she was  insensitive about some issues that are on the fore-front of everyone’s minds right now, and I will not defend her for it. Nevertheless, I was able to take some nuggets of wisdom away from the book, and I thought it was intriguing to read about a coming-of-age experience that was so different from mine (or was it??).

If you are not at all familiar with Caitlin Moran (I had never heard of her before reading this book) here are a couple of clips to give you a feel for her style…

The first clip is an open letter to teenage girls. I dare you not to tear up.

In the second clip, she kinda sorta addresses a comment she made on Twitter. See, apparently she and Lena Dunham chatted and Twitter user lizzie c was not happy that Moran did not address the lack of women of color in Dunham’s show “Girls.” When Lizzie expressed her concern, Moran replied that she “literally couldn’t give a shit about it.” This obviously made quite an impression on folks. Though she doesn’t apologize (I have a feeling that’s not really her style), she does touch on it a bit at the end of the second clip. She talks about ‘Girls’ as being mostly about spoiled white girls in New York because Lena Dunham was a spoiled white girl in New York. Dunham is most comfortable making jokes about her experiences because they are her experiences. Moran mentions that she looks forward to more and more people sharing their own experiences, perhaps by using the template Dunham has laid out.

 

 

 

April

 

Emma Watson’s Book Club: All About Love

Emma Watson’s book club selection for March was All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks. I had been hearing fantastic things about Ms hooks and I was super pumped to jump into this book!

In the first discussion thread, Emma posted an interview she recently had with bell. One of my favorite quotes from bell is:

I look at how to bring that whole self out. I’m interested in fashion, too. I’m particularly interested in fashions that are comfortable and beautiful. I have an overall obsession in my life with beauty. I’m always wanting to surround myself with the kind of beauty that uplifts you, that runs counter to some of the stereotypes of feminist women.

I was drawn to this for obvious reasons– I too am drawn to and interested in this idea of beauty and I loved how she kind of called for a challenge to the stereotypes that might come to mind when we imagine a feminist.

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Emma and bell! (Picture from @bellhooksinst via Twitter)

 

After announcing the book, several discussion threads were quickly started.

The most popular by far was Not Feeling It.

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I really wanted to love this book, after hearing such great things about the author. But, alas, something just did not click. Turns out, I was not alone. Here are some laments from the Not Feeling It crowd:

  • Several members thought the book was too “self-helpy” for them. Though it was largely based on personal experience and filled with opinions like a self-help book, the lack of practical advice makes it a tough fit for the self-help shelf.
  • Many folks, myself included, were put off by some blanket statements that seemed to be presented as well-known facts. For example, when discussing Nicole Simpson, hooks states that Nicole “kept herself and her children in a dangerous, life-threatening environment in part because she was not willing to sacrifice her attachment to a superficially glamorous lifestyle among the rich and famous…” (p. 112, emphasis added). Now, had bell talked to Nicole? Had Nicole expressed this to hooks? We don’t know for sure, but this is just one example of an opinion that seems to be presented as a truth, but is not supported with any “evidence.”
  • hooks is an advocate of love as a powerful force, but this idea came across to some readers as a bit extreme. More than one book club member expressed discomfort with the idea that any one solution can be applied to all problems.

My biggest struggle with the book came in the connection that was made a few times between being abused in youth and therefore being unable to love in adulthood.

Not too long ago I stumbled upon something online (a video? an illustration?) that was very touching. It was done by an adult who had been abused as a child. The individual remembers seeing and hearing this idea that all abused children grow up to be abusers. This only galvanized his feelings of shame and depression. He was horrified at this idea that he would have no choice– he would grow up to be an abuser BECAUSE someone had abused him.

It is tragically un-empathetic and unloving to continue to make such claims. Certainly, folks who were abused as children have a tougher task learning what healthy relationships look like, but to say things like “…the parents who came from unloving homes have never learned how to love and cannot create loving home environments…” (page 27) is truly hurtful. It makes me ache for the folks who have been through hell and work everyday to make sure that their children, or children they know, don’t know what abuse feels like.
I also have to take issue with her ideas that spirituality and religion are the key to being loving. On page 74 hooks writes, “Imagine how different our lives would be if all the individuals who claim to be Christians, or who claim to be religious, were setting an example for everyone by being loving.” As a non-religious person, I feel I am not off the hook when it comes to being an example of love. So let’s re-work this a bit: “Imagine how different our lives would be if all the individuals who claim to be humans were setting an example for everyone by being loving.” Ahhh. That’s better.

Lessons learned from All About Love

 

Though the criticism were many, I think that the overall message of the book is an important one. And there were some points that really jumped out at me:

I loved her discussion of “cathexis,” a word I had never seen before. Apparently, it cathexisrefers to the emotional investment we make in another person which is often mistaken for love. Very intriguing!

I loved her definition of love as an action. Borrowing from M. Scott Peck, hooks defines love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth” and as a combination of care, commitment, trust, knowledge, responsibility, and respect. Her words rang true when she wrote: “Undoubtedly, many of us are more comfortable with the notion that love can mean anything to anybody precisely because when we define it with precision and clarity it brings us face to face with our lacks–with terrible alienation.” (cue mic drop)

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Don’t get along with your co-worker? Here, let me shove you into the same t-shirt. Not cool for adults = not cool for kids. (Image from BuzzFeed)

“Care and affirmation, the opposite of abuse and humiliation, are the foundation of love.” I can’t help but think of those terrible pictures floating around the internet of crying kids sharing an over-sized t-shirt with the words “This is our Get Along shirt” scrawled across the front. Or videos posted on social media with the sole purpose of humiliating a child who mis-behaved. What if we did this to adults? Have a co-worker you just can’t seem to get along with? You get to share a shirt for an hour and I will post pictures online! We wouldn’t stand for it. So let’s not do it to our kiddos, mmk? Humiliation is not the answer. We can do better than that.

 

 

Discussing TV shows geared towards families, hooks laments that they often favorably represent  kids who are overindulgent, disrespectful, or acting out. I could not agree more! Though the book was published a decade and a half ago, this is still the norm. Shows like Lab Rats teach us that dads are self-centered and arrogant, and that children should be ridiculed for their appearance (I swear, if I have to hear about how Chase is ‘too short’ or Leo is ‘too skinny’ one more time…!).

“When we hear another person’s thoughts, beliefs, and feelings, it is more difficult towhen we hear project on to them our perceptions of who they are.” Yes! YES! YES!! Please, for the love of all things good and beautiful, listen to people! Learn about who they are and why they understand things the way they do. And don’t be a jerk.

Quoting Richard Foster, hooks writes “Greed has a way of severing the cords of compassion.” Though an often repeated idea– that greed and money are ultimately hurtful– I liked this reminder that compassion is a necessity that can be overlooked if we find ourselves becoming focused on “getting more.”

“The more genuine our romantic loves the more we do not feel called upon to weaken or sever ties with friends in order to strengthen ties with romantic partners.” I wish I had heard this when I started dating!


I have to admit, this one was a bit of a tough read for me. But I remain hopeful that some of bell’s other works will make this one shrink from my memory and help me better see her as the incredible force she is known to be.

All About Love did make me think, which is the whole point, right?

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If you are curious, next month’s book has been announced.

In April, Our Shared Shelf will be reading How To Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran.

 

 

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Beauty is…everywhere.

I like to think my sense of the beautiful only grows as I come to recognize more forms of caring and resilience and to appreciate a wider range of shapes and sizes and colors and textures. On my best days, I see it everywhere, and the more I see it, the more space it takes up, which is wonderful.

In celebration of Women’s History Month, I chatted with Dr Penny Weiss, the Director of Women’s Studies at St Louis University.


 

Can you give me just a little bit of background. Where are you from? Where did you go to school? What brought you to St Louis?

I am a native of Miami, Florida and a graduate of the University of South Florida. I went toslu_vert_blue university-of-south-florida-logograd school in the Midwest and have since spent most of my adult life here. I came to STL in 2008 because I had the chance to move from a position in a political science department to one in a women’s studies program, and from a rural setting outside a small city to the big city. It was a phenomenal switch!

 

What drew you to Women’s Studies? Was there one turning point or “ah ha!” moment?

I came of age when WS programs were starting and the women’s movement was hitting another peak. What drew me? Everything: the questions, the people, the politics, the passion, the purpose, the activism, the festivals. Women’s Studies, like feminism itself, made (and continues to make) sense of my life.

What is a common misconception you encounter when you are discussing feminism?

I think, unfortunately, that people know more about what anti-feminists say feminism is than what feminists say. Among the most persistent misconceptions: reproductive justice only means a right to abortion; most religions are incompatible with feminism; feminism means whatever any individual chooses to say it means (and feminism means you can’t criticize any choice anyone makes); and then there are the oldies but goodies…feminists hate men, are all lesbians, are selfish, are (too) aggressive and demanding, are unreasonable in their demands, etc.

It’s Women’s History Month; who are some women from history you have loved learning about?

Emma Goldman, Anna Julia Cooper, Christine de Pizan, Mary Astell, Mary Wollstonecraft, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Jane Addams, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and many more. Just as important, I loved learning about the work women together did to bring about change, in organizations from anti-slavery associations and women’s labor groups to peace leagues and suffrage associations. And all that work is still being carried on around the world!

 

I recently came across this image and the idea it reflects online:

What are your thoughts on this? Can we fairly say that general history courses are to men what women’s studies courses are to women?

The cartoon is still all-too-true. We know that we still do not know about women’s lives to the extent we know about men’s. It is the accomplishments of men (especially in politics and economics, narrowly defined) that have been deemed historically important, the deeds of men (especially in war, industry, and government) that have determined the ways we distinguish one historical period from another (such as pre-Civil War or post-industrial), and the arenas in which men acted (military, legal, etc.) that important things worth recording were said to happen. This leaves out three things: the impact of all of these deeds and events on various groups of women, the stories of women’s lives both within these boundaries (at work, in political office) and beyond them (in the community, participating in street riots, as victims of gender-based violence, as caregivers, raising crops and children, as activists, etc.), and how we might reconceive historical eras (and philosophical schools of thought, etc.) once we read women into them. I’d say that “general history courses are to men what women’s history courses are to women,” rather than “what women’s studies courses are to women,” because we teach much more than women’s history (including the study of masculinity).

Who are some women in your life that have inspired you?

My two daughters amaze me. My colleagues and students in Women’s and Gender Studies amaze me. The women in my neighborhood who keep on keeping on amaze me.

What is your definition of beauty?

That it evolves (I’m not attracted to the same things or people I was 20 years ago, nor do I aspire to the same ideals I did then) and mostly involves appreciation. I like to think my sense of the beautiful only grows as I come to recognize more forms of caring and resilience and to appreciate a wider range of shapes and sizes and colors and textures. On my best days, I see it everywhere, and the more I see it, the more space it takes up, which is wonderful.

Beauty is everywhere (1)

Happy International Women’s Day

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March 8th is International Women’s Day, a “global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity.” (according to InternationalWomensDay.com). Woman’s Day was organized by the Socialist Party of America, and was first observed in New York in 1909. Though it was claimed to have been organized as a remembrance of the 1908 strike of the International Ladies’ Garment Worker’s Union, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of that strike actually happening. Inspired by the Americans, over one million people celebrated Woman’s Day throughout Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland in 1911. The popularity of the Day continued to spread, and in 1977 the United Nations General Assembly invited member states to proclaim March 8th as the UN Day for Women’s Rights and World Peace.

This year’s campaign theme is built around the easy to share #PledgeForParity. According to a 2014 prediction made by the World Economic Forum, global gender parity will not be achieved until 2095. 2095, y’all! But that is not the worst of it. The very next year the very same group re-evaluated the numbers and, given that progress towards gender equality had SLOWED, they extended estimate to 2133. So, they are saying that women will not have equal rights, education, and representation for another ONE HUNDRED AND SEVENTEEN years! I won’t see it, I get that. But I am not ok with the idea that my daughters won’t even see it. In response to this abysmal estimation, people are being asked to take a pledge to take concrete steps to close the gender gap before the estimated date. Some suggestions are to pledge to:

  • help women and girls achieve their ambitions
  • challenge conscious and unconscious bias
  • call for gender-balanced leadership
  • value men and women’s contributions equally
  • create inclusive, flexible cultures

Tons of people have already make pledges, including the Global President of Mars Foods Fiona Dawson and Founder of Virgin Sir Richard Branson.

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“It’s sad to see that in this day and age, gender parity is still far from a reality in many parts of the world.

I’ve always felt strongly that the best places to work are those that foster an inclusive culture – one where differences are celebrated and our people can be themselves and feel at home.

Here at Virgin, we recognise that a culture that brings together the right group of people who mirror the wonderful diversity of our world and who can promote diversity of thought is good for business. It’s a huge opportunity, not a challenge, and it’s great for the communities that we serve. We have the desire to make a positive difference to people’s lives through changing business for good, so we create an environment where all people can thrive – because of who they are, not in spite of it.

That’s why, on International Women’s Day, I support the Pledge for Parity. It’s an important reminder that all of us in business can and must do so much more to promote equality, respect and fairness.”

 

How will you help bring an end to gender disparity? Pledge here.

 

 

Emma Watson’s Book Club: What you’re missing

In January Emma Watson started a virtual feminist book club. And it is kind of a big deal. With over 100,000 members, it is undoubtedly the largest group on Goodreads. So far the group has explored Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road (in January) and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (February’s book). For those of you who are curious, but just don’t have the time, here is a synopsis of what is happening in the club:

The Color Purple

In January Emma Watson started a virtual feminist book club. And it is kind of a big deal. With over 100,000 members, it is undoubtedly the largest group on Goodreads. So far the group has explored Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road (in January) and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (February’s book). For those of you who are curious, but just don’t have the time, here is a synopsis of what is happening in the club:

goodreads

The Discussion Topics range from the super popular and super broad “Finished the Book” to the virtually ignored “Shrinking Evil.” There are a few of my favorite threads:

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The book for February was The Color Purple

Discussion Topic: Finished the Book

The most popular discussion is “Finished the Book” which was started by over-achiever Amy, who read the entire book in one night and opened up a thread for other speed readers to discuss their thoughts without having to worry about us slow-pokes getting upset about spoilers. Most commenters loved the format of the book, and pretty much everyone struggled at first with the dialect in which the book is written, but got used to it. One commenter mentioned that the subject matter, especially in the beginning, was like a “punch in the face.” I have to agree. I had no idea what I was getting into, and the first couple of pages had me reeling. I was hooked, though, by what another commenter described as a “horrific and beautiful” novel.

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Discussion Topic: Book vs Film

This discussion opens with a link to a review of the film adaptation of The Color Purple. Apparently when the movie was released in 1985, there was a backlash from males in the black community who resented that the film depicted them in a negative light. Commenters in this thread largely found that to be a bit short-sighted and thought such views kind of missed the point of the book/movie. As commenter Jackie put it, “I’ve always read it as the story of an undereducated, abused woman coming into her own with the help of other strong and supportive women.” And group member Iluminada agrees, “To me, it seemed the book was trying to convey the loss in a man’s life, white or black, when he can’t see women as human beings.”

The thread goes on to discuss some of the differences, good bad or indifferent, between the book and the movie:

  • The relationship between Shug and Celie: though some thought it was not as well portrayed in the movie as it was in the book, commenter Jackie argued, “I actually thought that the Celie/Shug relationship and the Celie/Nettie Relationships were the only ones that transferred well in the film.”
  • The character of Mary Agnes/Squeak is not explored enough in the film.
  • The redemption of Mr ____ is left out of the movie version.
  • The time sequence (sooooo many readers had an issue with the time sequence) is different in the film.
  • Shug singing is a powerful addition to the movie that we were not able to get in the book.

Another important point that this thread brought up was the incredible jobs Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, and Danny Glover did in the film. Group member Kressel noted, “Wow. IMBD says 11 nominations and not one win. It makes me think differently about the boycott on the Oscars this year, which I was skeptical about until now.” This is just one of the ways that this book seems to transcend time (more about that below).

Discussion Thread: Indifference

This thread was largely and woefully overlooked. It touched on the indifference that the native tribe in Africa, the Olinka, had towards missionaries in the book. Though the thread was started out of what seems to be a super personal experience, I think it touched on a very important issue. As one group moderator noted: “Missionaries are often unwelcome, and native populations are under no obligation to welcome their teachings.” The Color Purple touches on so frickin’ many issues it is unreal. And, as I mentioned above, it completely transcends time as every issue is still being discussed today.

I hadn’t given much thought to missionaries until I was an Anthropology minor in college. Let me be clear that I am speaking to religious missions, not humanitarian aid. The two are very different, though I know that modern missionaries have endeavored to meet both the physical and spiritual needs of the people they are traveling so far to help. The problem for me is the underlying idea that these people need spiritual help in the first place. Generally, a missionary’s understanding is that the group to whom they are proselytizing have an inherently WRONG understanding of the world and must therefore be saved. Missionaries tend to go into their mission field with the understanding that their own story is correct and worth sharing, while the stories of the people whose homes they are entering is wrong and needs to be changed. This is tragic to me because it misses the beauty and richness that has lived and thrived in the native culture. The so-obvious-it-really-shouldn’t-need-to-be-said-but-I-will-say-it-anyway exception to this is any tradition or custom that infringes on basic human rights, like child brides and female genital mutilation. That shiz needs to be changed.

Discussion Thread: Other Aspects of the Book

Being a feminist book club, this thread was started in order to touch on other issues (besides the growth and empowerment of the female characters) the book brings up, like colonialism/missionaries and sexuality. These issues are what make Purple so timeless. The book was written in the 1980s, but these issues are nowhere near outdated. Some issues that were not mentioned in this thread, but are also vital to the book are the concept of faith (this is touched on in another thread, though) and how the image of god changes through the course of the book, and the human relationship factor– the growth of each individual character and how that personal “coming of age” impacts the relationships the characters foster.


 

This is my first time being involved in a book club of any sort, and I have absolutely loved it so far. A couple of things I especially love about this group is the sense of community that has already grown within it. For example, last month the book was VERY difficult to get a hold of. For some, it was a money thing– $16 for the e-book just wasn’t in the budget. For others, the book was simply not yet available in their part of the world or in their language. One member responded by putting the entire book on her OneDrive and then sharing it with the whole group!

Another awesome thing that is happening is meet-ups. From Belgium to Los Angeles folks are getting together and talking about these books, which I think is pretty darn cool.

I also love the diversity of this group. There are entire discussion boards in Spanish and French. I just wish I spoke those languages!

And one more thing I love about the group– Emma has been great about interacting with authors. Shortly after we started reading Gloria Steinem’s book, she announced that she was going to have the pleasure of interviewing the author at an event in London and opened up a discussion thread for members to suggest questions for Ms Steinem. For The Color Purple, Emma talked to Alice Walker over the phone and shared some insights from the author herself. And Emma just announced the book for March, All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks. Again, Emma has a connection with bell, as bell recently interviewed Emma for Paper Magazine.

I love that this group is a thing. And I love that I get to share it with you!

 


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