Featured Fenom: The Woman Who Will Not Be Contained
Photographer and medical lab scientist Allison Theria has been nominated as this week’s Featured Fenom because she empowers women to embrace all aspects of their femininity. Allison’s writing and photography emphasize finding strength in vulnerability, overcoming trauma through art, and defying limiting ideas about what a woman should or should not be. Her artwork affirms authentic and raw portrayals of self, and encourages women to re-evaluate and embrace their “feminine” traits — such as vulnerability and softness — that hyper-masculine America deceives women into believing are weaknesses.
What do you do? As your job, as your passion, for your hobbies?
I’m a medical lab scientist. I spent the last five years as a medical microbiologist, identifying bacteria causing infections and finding the best drugs to treat them. I recently moved to a different lab, where I will be doing blood work. I’m also an avid photographer, specializing in portraits and exploring topics such as grief, softness, vulnerability.
What drew you to lab work? And how did you get involved in photography?
I fell into lab work completely by accident, and totally because of a cute girl. I loved anatomy and physiology. In my second semester A&P lab, I had a huge crush on my lab partner, and she introduced me to blood banking. So on a whim, I changed majors. When I started the actual lab classes for the degree, I feel in love with the subject matter.
As for photography, it started as a coping mechanism for a short-term memory disorder, and turned into a tool to handle social anxiety. I take pictures of everything, but people are my favorite, and people seem to like the portraits I take. It gives me something to do at parties, distracts from my anxiety, and I find a lot of joy in it. It’s helped me grow in so many ways. It helped me deal with the grief of losing a partner, which lead to exploring the topic of other’s grief. I’m now playing with depth of field on my grandfather’s twin lens, which naturally lends itself to themes of softness. Growing up in a world where traits associated with femininity are considered weak, and that one’s gender makes them a second-class citizen, photography is a great tool to explore feminine themes and show that femininity and vulnerability are a source of strength.
My current goal as a photographer is to help support other women artists. I’m hoping to do a show with one woman, and a zine with another.
What advice would you give a young woman who wanted to follow in your career path?
Advice I give to everyone starting in my field: answer the phone. It’s scary as hell at first, but you learn so much faster. My field is mostly women, which is rad, and usually far more diverse than the nursing or MD staff. There is a subtle, institutional sexism; you’ll find a disproportionate percentage of men in management positions. Despite the field having so few men, they do rise up faster. But the ones who can’t work well with women don’t last long. Any sexist issues are often clashes of generational norms (women are just as likely to enforce sexist norms as men are, and those norms have changed so rapidly, combined with the fact there is a generational gap in the field, with the majority being either in their twenties or over 50). I love working in a woman-dominated field, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy or fun.
What advice would you give yourself when you were going through a hard time in life?
When I go through a hard time in life, I tend to follow a pattern: do what needs to be done first, examine when you’re able, create. I left my dad’s house as a teenager once I realized I didn’t have to endure abuse, and that the abuse wasn’t my fault. When my partner died, I focused on finish school and starting a career; I didn’t really examine it until four-five years later, because that’s when I had the time and emotional capacity. I did a photo and interview series examining grief, which was very cathartic. The best advice ever though, came from my mom: when she was having a tough time, she ran and played guitar. I always keep a good sports bra and running shoes, and an instrument. (Right now it’s a keyboard.) Even though I’m not musical and can’t play, I have everything I need to learn. Basically it’s about keeping healthy outlets nearby and easily accessible.
Why is feminism important to you?
So, growing up, feminine = bad. My dad would write off my mom’s emotions as “hysterical” or “hormonal.” I grew up around conservative Christian girls who were deeply homophobic, so I kept my bisexuality hidden (though a few suspected). My childhood abuser was a woman. My church told me if my husband beat me, it would be a sin to leave. Female sexuality was an serious taboo. It resulted in some internalized misogyny. I hated being a woman, and I was nervous around other women. I still have some anxiety dating women. For me, feminism is constant self-examination, rooting out misogynistic beliefs and habits. Analyzing moments when women are pitted against each other, such as when people praise one woman at the expense of others (“you’re not like other girls.”). Recognizing that women who are abused, mistreated, or gas-lighted are often labeled as crazy. For me, the best tools for combating sexism are empathy and openness, and listening to the stories of others. I’m still working on it.
How do you feel about recent current events? What advice would you give young women feeling dismayed by the current political climate and misogynist rhetoric?
I’m in shock and afraid, but I also have less reason to be afraid than others: I’m a white women whose sexuality affords her passing privilege, who has no student debt, who has an IUD, who has a retirement account and a job and a home and a car. Even though I live in one of the most dangerous cities for women, in one of the most dangerous states for women, I’m incredibly lucky. This election will affect me, it will affect other women far more. A lot of people are hurting, for a various reasons. My best recommendation is to acknowledge that whatever you’re feeling is valid. Don’t feel shame in those emotions, and walk away from anyone who tells you what you’re feeling is wrong. Support others in their emotional experience. Those who feel rage, let them rage. Rage with them. Those who are afraid, acknowledge the fears, and support them. Those who are grieving, let them grieve and understand that grief is good, it nurtures empathy. I avoid saying “it’s okay” or “look at the bright side.” It’s kinda like telling someone whose upset to calm down; it invalidates their emotional state. I do try to look at the bright side, for my own well-being. Millennials are overwhelmingly liberal and far more accepting of racial, sexual, and gender diversity, and the generation after them even more so. There will be a lot of rad art, poetry, and music.