The Naked Truth about Middle-Aged Womanhood in America
The truth is…I’ve earned more with my naked female body than I have as a (clothed) woman with two degrees, three published novels and years of experience in my industry. The truth is…when they said “all you need to teach is a book and an MFA,” they were lying. The truth is…I’m 48 and staring into the abyss, worrying about losing my home, fearing for my future, wondering if I’m going to end up eating cat food while doddering about my room in a pay-by-the-day residential hotel, wearing a shitty polyester housecoat, fending off roaches and lamenting my fizzled-out star. The truth is that I watched Can You Ever Forgive Me with an uncomfortable knot of recognition in my throat, feeling its knife slice too close to my bones.
At 41, I shucked off the mantle of fear I’d worn for decades and came out to my family. I was married with two children, and I set fire to my nest. (Gently, though, gently.) I agonized, writhed, and divorced. I had a second adolescence — those funnily fantastic South Park years — with my likewise newly divorced bff and roommate with whom I partied away my crushing guilt on the days when I didn’t have my kids. I suffered a splendidly agonizing rebound relationship before setting into a long-term partnership with a handsome soft butch (yeah, I know no one says that anymore). But the seven-year itch came on like poison ivy and she left me, back in the same house that we’d bought back from my ex-husband. The same house that I’d walked away from years before. Here I am, middle-aged and single, poised on the cusp of greatness or the cusp of spectacular failure.
Is it the house, I wonder? This house of broken dreams where my two most significant relationships have ended? But this house — or at least the half of it that I own — is all I have. And I’m trying desperately to hold onto it. None of my friends in California own homes. They are also middle-aged women (and men). They rent. While being award-winning professionals, skilled workers, creatives and artists, teachers and professors, they are in the lull. Swinging between periods of lack and plenty. My sister and I own homes, but we were both married and raised to believe that real estate is the only safe investment. So we were driven to buy. When my mother paid off our childhood home, she gathered us around the kitchen table and we cheered as she tore up the last mortgage statement.
I’ve digressed, but I write this because I’m baffled. Flummoxed, golly-whomped. The system is broken. I’ve likened my job search to standing on a cliff and throwing resumes into the wind. Each ATS-optimized one seemingly vanishes into a black hole. I’ve had a few interviews but I’m officially overqualified (one manager worried that I’d be “bored”) and facing age-discrimination. Academic positions are highly impacted and the adjunct crisis grows, souring many in the profession. Trying to transition from a career in journalism and admin/management to one in academia has been a Sisyphean task. I’ve put the academic search on the back-burner for now to concentrate my efforts on a position in publishing, journalism, office management just to survive. I’m even willing to be a front desk receptionist again, a position that this little phone-avoidant introvert loathes. But I’m a grown up and I know how to behave, and would apply my time well and do my job with a smile. I thought that the reward of degrees and experience ensured forward momentum, but no. I’m moving backward. My search for full-time employment has been going on for years, but I also recognize my immeasurable luck to be in this position when there is so much greater suffering, sorrow, and trouble in the world. I do not take it for granted, and I am grateful for the privileges that I’m afforded.
Many publications and writers use the platform Submittable to manage submissions. Here’s how it works. The writer creates an account with their bio, contact details and relevant info. Submittable can be browsed for open submission calls among its member publications or the writer can log in through a publication. It works inside out and outside in. You can track its progress and all correspondence is viewable in one place. You know if it’s been accepted, rejected or stalled. We need something like this for jobs. Job seekers need visibility in our searches; an aggregation platform for hiring companies and applicants. All resume info, references, job history, skills etc. tracked in one platform to save applicants the hours of entering the same information again and again. (Academia has something similar in HigherEdJobs.) As it is, we are mice trapped in a neverending maze searching for that elusive nugget of cheese. We’re at the mercy of ATS robots, outdated hiring and interviewing processes, isolating tech and increasing competition for limited positions. Government jobs have historically been considered “safe” but that security is dependent on sane leadership. (Today’s New York Times ran a crushing article about imperiled federal workers facing poverty as the presidential temper tantrum, I mean shutdown, continues.)
I’m an artist, a creative, and a diligent little turtle determined to win the race. I have to gird against ‘poor me’ thinking and professional jealousy as writers I know secure film and tv deals, as their books go into the umpteenth printing and get rolled out in new translations in countries around the world. Practicing my metaphysical teachings, and staying tuned with singing bowl meditation, I keep my eyes on the prize and on my own paper. Focus on my accomplishments (an audiobook of my novel The House of Erzulie releases next month, and a short story appears in Kweli Journal) while wondering how I’m going to keep food on the table and pay my mortgage. I’m not alone. Many women (and men) in my age group face the same daily crisis. While we make art, write books, teach tomorrow’s generations, and churn the gears of the corporate machine, we wonder what will become of us.
My job search, my writing career — my survival — feels like a neverending game of ringers. I keep thinking of it, this circle of torment that lurked on my elementary school playground. The goal was to complete the circuit by swinging from ring to ring, like a monkey. I remember the feel of my body weight hanging from my hands, the momentum required to successfully swing from loop to loop without slipping. The ringers were high. Us little kids had to jump or get a lift to reach them. I had (still have) arms like cooked noodles and as an asthmatic, sickly child, was notably unathletic. I’d leave the playground with the ringers’ rust on my palms, smelling of blood, and determined to try again. Someday, maybe when I was a grown-up, I’d make it all the way around.
Representing faith, action, and momentum, the ringers are the perfect metaphor for working life in America. So here’s the naked truth. As a recent high-school graduate in 1989, I balanced multiple jobs but I made the most as a life drawing model for art colleges and classes. Sure, I was a naive 19-year-old who once found herself locked in the college president’s office for a private session fending off a “backrub” (I was nude — working) from the elderly head of school. I disrobed in church basements, classrooms, and art studios. But I earned $18–25 per hour (double that in today’s dollars), more than I’ve since earned at most of my jobs since then. It was lucrative and most people were incredibly respectful, polite and nice. It was how I supported myself in the months after my mother died of cancer at age 48. The truth is, I’ve consistently earned more simply by virtue of owning a female body than I have for my education, experience, and hard work. It does leave me a little bitter. Disgusted with the gross injustices of our capitalist patriarchy and determined to change it. My value was higher as a naked teenager than it is as an adult woman with two degrees, three published novels and years of experience in my industry. So the idea circulates in my head like a fly at a summer picnic. Maybe I should go back to modeling…if someone wants to commit my mediocre mom-body to canvas, why not? At least I’ll get paid what I’m worth.
Kirsten Imani Kasai is a flabby intellectual for hire, and the author of The House of Erzulie, Ice Song and Tattoo. She teaches graduate-level creative writing courses and has an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. Kirsten lives in Southern California with her family. Her advice? “Keep swinging, kiddos.” Follow her at KirstenImaniKasai.com or Instagram @mehetebelly.