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Let There Be Light: Diwali amid COVID-19

By: Sai Siddhaye

With almost 70 million cases of COVID-19 worldwide, the festive cheer that autumn usually brings has been thoroughly extinguished. Though quarantine is a necessary measure, it has caused significant turmoil as families are unable to reunite for the holidays. For children of immigrants, it is already difficult to juggle the two sides of a split cultural upbringing when apart from family; the inability to celebrate cultural holidays means an even greater separation. This year, Diwali landed in mid-November, preventing the Indian festival from being enjoyed to its fullest extent. The increasingly strict shelter-in-place orders meant that millions of people were separated from traditional Diwali festivities this year.

“It just doesn’t feel the same this year,” admits Rohan, a graduate student at UCSB. “I usually look forward to seeing my friends and family during Diwali, not to mention the amazing food. It just feels like a time where I can really come back to my roots. This year, Diwali just felt a little flat; I didn’t see any point in celebrating on my own, so I just felt a little sad and lonely the whole time. Even without all the decorations and the dressing up, the thing I miss the most is being with my family.” 

Diwali, known in English as the festival of lights, is a Hindu holiday that commemorates  the victory of good over evil. Its theological origins stem from The Ramayana’s tale of the return of King Rama to Ayodhya after his defeat of the demon Ravana. To embody the symbolic triumph of light over dark, the festivities revolve around lights of all kinds. Diwali is extravagantly celebrated; it is the Christmas of Hinduism, if you will. Though this festival is primarily observed by Hindus, many Jain, Sikh, and Buddhist communities in India also recognize the holiday. This year, it took place from November 12-16, smack dab in the middle of a surge of COVID-19 cases in both India and America. 

In India, Diwali is integral to morale, spirituality, and economy. It is celebrated by nationwide parades, religious ceremonies, and large family gatherings. Fireworks can be seen lighting up the sky for days, and puja, or prayers, take place in many homes and temples. To honor the importance of light overcoming darkness, most people decorate their homes with diyas (clay lamps), paper lanterns, string lights, candles, and  rangolis. These decorations, aside from bringing a positive spiritual atmosphere to homes, also account for a sizable portion of India’s business. In fact, spirituality and economy during Diwali to the point that “stock exchanges remain open during non-market hours for a special trading session called Muhurat, scheduled at an astrologically significant time on the evening of Diwali”¹. People are more likely to buy new clothes, jewelry, electronics, and even cars during this time. Just like Christmas in America, sales skyrocket during Diwali. 

This year, however, India’s economy is locked in a fierce battle with COVID-19. Many large markets, anticipating vast crowds, have closed, but India’s economy relies on the sales made during Diwali, so the majority of stores and markets remain open. India was second only to the U.S. in its number of coronavirus cases before Diwali, at 8.5 million cases ¹. With currently over nine million coronavirus cases and 138,000 deaths ², Diwali’s festive frenzy seems to have taken its toll on the overall health of the country. 

Diwali among the diaspora, on the other hand, is quite different. The melting pot of America contains a steadily growing Indian-American population of approximately four million³. Therefore, Diwali is still a widely recognized holiday, but is generally limited to religious centers and household parties rather than nationwide events. However, many people still use their elaborate decorations to show their cultural pride. Diyas, paper lanterns, rangolis, and string lights–some homemade, some store bought–still adorn many homes during this time. Indeed, an easy way to spot an Indian home is if their Christmas lights come up a few months early. Many families hold large group gatherings to celebrate amongst their communities, bedecked in traditional Indian clothing and jewelry. Firecrackers are common at such parties as well, although they are much smaller than the ones seen in India. Amid the children waving sparklers and the wide arrays of Indian food, it is easier to feel connected to Indian culture despite the physical distance. 

Predictably, the pandemic has brought massive changes to the way Diwali is observed in America as well. Most religious and community centers did not hold public celebrations due to health and safety concerns, and many people are deciding against extravagant parties. Though this might make it easier to mitigate the damage of COVID-19, the festivity and togetherness of Diwali have been effectively squashed. Nobody has felt this isolation more, perhaps, than the children of Indian immigrants who no longer live with their families. Those who are not able to travel home for Diwali are separated both physically and emotionally from the traditions they likely grew up with, which can have harmful effects on their connection to their cultures. Just as people often lose fluency in their mother tongues after leaving home, cultural practices must be repeated to be maintained. 

Shreya, a student at ASU, says she felt the separation from her family. “ I Facetimed my parents while they were doing the puja and everything, even though they didn’t have any parties. Celebrating Diwali through a screen really doesn’t feel like Diwali at all.” When asked whether the physical distance from her family affected her closeness with Indian culture, Shreya said “Absolutely. Diwali is usually one of the only times during the year that I can be fully proud of my identity and not worry about what white people think of me. It’s so validating to be around a bunch of other Indian people who I love and don’t have to whitewash myself around. Not having that this year definitely felt like a blow. I hope next year will be normal, but if it isn’t, I want to have my own celebration just to have that feeling again.”

Others have a more positive outlook on Diwali during COVID-19. Amita, who moved to California from India in 1997, says “I celebrated Diwali with my husband, daughter, and father-in-law. It was small, but it still had that core feeling of togetherness. We made an akash kandeel, a paper lantern, and put diyas around the house. Even though we didn’t want to risk breaking our quarantine to have a party, it was still lovely to be able to wish everyone through group Zoom calls. Technology really has made the distance between our friends and extended family more bearable.” 

Just as Diwali celebrates finding light among darkness, perhaps the way to survive this uncertain time is to find a spark of hope and optimism in the bleak isolation.

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Blood Type: Queer

By: Sai Siddhaye

The COVID-19 pandemic has left us with a dramatic shortage of blood. The implementation of social distancing measures has shut down blood drives, and the national blood supply has become dangerously low. You would think–given how critical blood donations are to the livelihood of the country–that all healthy and eligible people would be encouraged to donate blood right now, but even amid a pandemic and a national blood shortage, the FDA is still enforcing its discriminatory restriction of blood donations from queer men: the infamous MSM policy. 

The restriction of blood donations from men who have had sex with men was established by the FDA in September of 1985, in the midst of the AIDS epidemic. The policy was that even a single sexual encounter with another man made men indefinitely ineligible to donate blood, “due to the strong clustering of AIDS illness and the subsequent discovery of high rates of HIV infection in that population”. This policy was in place until December of 2015, when the lifetime ban was revised to a yearlong deferral period, known as the MSM (men who have sex with men) deferral policy, after decades of pushing from LGBTQ activists.

After blood donations began to drop nationwide following the beginning of the pandemic, FDA officials did make a temporary modification of the MSM deferral policy. As of April 2, 2020, the deferral period has been shortened to three months rather than 12 months, meaning men must abstain from sexual encounters with other men for three months before donating blood. This change was implemented by the American Red Cross in June of 2020.

It is crucial to note that every unit of donated blood undergoes thorough screening tests for HIV, hepatitis, syphilis and other blood-borne diseases, regardless of who the donors are, to ensure that blood transfusions do not infect recipients. It is also important to understand that everyone, regardless of sexual identity, gender, or race, can be susceptible to these diseases. AIDS and HIV are not exclusive to queer men, nor are any other infectious diseases. So why does the FDA only restrict queer men from donating?

 According to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), though “none of these tests…are 100 percent accurate, and they can produce faulty results. For instance, despite current restrictions and testing of approximately 12 million units donated each year, 10 HIV-infected units have slipped through. To ensure the safety of blood and other tissues for donation, the FDA uses scientific data to automatically defer certain populations. Because gay and bisexual men have higher incidence of disease, they are eliminated from the donor pool immediately.” The American Red Cross states that “The FDA selected the 3-month deferral to provide adequate time for the detection of infected individuals”. 

Though this reasoning certainly seems logical, the policy is too two-dimensional to specifically screen for at-risk donors. The FDA’s donor guidelines are in place for good reason; most policies target behaviors that pose a legitimate risk of spreading infectious diseases. The three month deferral period applies to people who have a history of syphilis or gonorrhea, have gotten unregulated tattoos or piercings, have engaged in non-prescription injection drug use or shared needles, and other behaviors that have a very high risk of contracting and spreading infections. There is already a policy in place that indefinitely bars anyone who has tested positive for HIV, and a three month deferral period for anyone they have had sexual contact with. The MSM deferral policy differs from these examples in that it imposes restrictions based only on queer identity, not on actual risk of infection. 

The FDA’s concern about preventing the spread of HIV has already been addressed by its other restrictions, making the MSM policy increasingly arbitrary. Implying that having sex with other men automatically makes a person “contaminated” not only stigmatizes queer sex, but is also simply untrue. Having unprotected sex creates a high possibility of infection regardless of sexual orientation, but creating a policy that only restricts men who have sex with men–including protected sex–does not address that threat at all. As NBC puts it, “Even with a clean bill of health, a gay man is considered more of a threat to the blood supply than a straight man who was treated for chlamydia, syphilis, gonorrhea, venereal warts, and genital herpes within the past year.” Restricting queer men who do not fall under any of the other deferral categories, therefore, cannot be seen as anything other than discriminatory. Shortening the deferral period from one year to three months does not change that.

The MSM policy, like so many other policies and systemically-ingrained practices, perpetuates the hypersexualization of queer people. Institutionally tying queer sex to medical contamination is one of many ways that queer people have been systemically portrayed as sexually dangerous, prompting discriminatory policies in the name of ‘protecting’ the rest of society. Like the unwarranted racism and xenophobia that Asian Americans faced in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, queer people have battled the social stigma that followed the AIDS epidemic for decades. The historical caricature of the “sexually perverted and predatory queer man” continues to manifest itself in discriminatory practices such as DADT and the MSM policy. The bottom line is that blood donation is critical to our national health, especially in this pandemic, and the FDA should be encouraging all healthy people to donate blood rather than arbitrarily restricting them based on their sexuality. The way to repair this is to remove the MSM deferral policy altogether and focus on targeting actual threats of infection so that as many people can safely donate blood as possible. Perhaps there is no way to rectify the harm that the medical industry has done to marginalized communities, but working to eliminate medical bias and prioritizing medical equity is the only way forward.

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Honey, I Shrunk My Tits: My Experience with Breast Reduction Surgery

By: Sai Siddhaye

In December of 2020, I underwent breast reduction surgery. After years of loathing my body and desperately wishing to change it, the tipping point came at the beginning of quarantine, when having no distractions from my body became overwhelming. My bra size was a 32F, which–as those educated in bra sizes will know–is uncomfortably large. My intense back pain, abysmal posture, and painful marks in my skin left by bras, which were constants in my life for so long, became unbearable. 

On top of all this, my already unhealthy body image was worsening in isolation. I had always resented my big chest, viewing it as something keeping me from achieving dainty femininity, but being quarantined and not having to perform gender made me realize how much I disliked having to cosplay femininity at all. It became clear to me that I was simply wearing inauthentic femininity as a façade to fulfill my expected social role, rather than acknowledging my inherent androgyny. Letting go of my gender performance revealed that the disconnect between my hyperfeminine curves and my authentic gender presentation was the source of many of my bodily insecurities. With even more discomfort and distress focused on my chest, I fantasized endlessly about getting breast reduction surgery, believing it was a faraway dream only accessible to celebrities and the like.

Remarkably, it was TikTok that came to my rescue. I happened upon a video of an ordinary woman describing her breast reduction and waxing poetic about all the good it did her, laying out the process and encouraging others to look into it. She spoke about her experience without the judgement that usually surrounds cosmetic surgery. What had seemed so out of my reach suddenly became much closer to me. 

I am very privileged to have access to health insurance, which made my process much easier than it would have been otherwise. After consulting my doctor and discussing the pros and cons of reduction mammoplasty, I was sent to a surgeon to iron out the details. The process of getting an insurance claim for my surgery was, as expected, a series of rather expensive hoops to jump through. My surgeon was very helpful in helping me game the system, so to speak; she recommended that I appeal to my insurance company from the angle of alleviating physical pain rather than body dysmorphic disorder to get the best possible insurance claim, and made the process simple and stress-free. After getting referrals from specialists and attending physical therapy sessions to ensure that mammoplasty was the best course of action, I was ready for surgery. 

My surgery took about 6 hours, and after an overnight stay at the hospital, I returned home sans-breasts. For the first few days, I did nothing but sleep and eat, sluggish as I was from the pain medication and residual anesthesia. This was probably for the best, as the swelling following the surgery was remedied by drains hung from my bandages like grotesque chains, which were just as distasteful as they were medically useful. This was probably the most unpleasant part of my recovery process. Though I began to heal surprisingly quickly, my incision scars were raw and painful for many weeks. In fact, the first time I was allowed to shower after the surgery, the sight of myself stitched up like Frankenstein’s monster–combined with my low blood pressure–was enough to make me faint right onto the bathroom floor. 

I’m now approximately two months post-op, and since I hit the one-month mark it has been smooth sailing. My incisions are still sore, but I can move normally and don’t have to wear gauze anymore. It has also been a year since I took my first steps towards my breast reduction, and it is one of the best decisions I have ever made. Taking control over my body has been an empowering experience that I strongly encourage everyone to experiment with.

My experience with cosmetic surgery has taught me two big lessons: repairing your body image requires more than changing your appearance, but making the choice to change your body should absolutely not be stigmatized. I am so much happier with the size of my chest now; I have far less back pain, moving around has become easier, and looking in the mirror is far less unpleasant. But changing my body has not fixed my issues with gender and body image. That is something I have to work on every day, and takes much more time and effort than surgery does. Regardless, if it weren’t for the stigma surrounding cosmetic surgery (especially mammoplasty), taking these steps to feel more comfortable in my body would have been so much easier. It is worth analyzing why our culture vilifies body modification, because unpacking it will give countless people the freedom to heal. 

To anyone considering breast reduction surgery: my experience has been overwhelmingly positive, and I am immensely grateful that I was able to have this experience. I strongly encourage you to speak with a medical professional and see if it is the right step for you too.

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Aliya Hunter: The Future of Theater

By: Sai Siddhaye

Borne of the turbulent political climate of this era, Aliya Hunter is one of a generation of young artists channeling their activism into their creative pursuits. Originally from southern California and presently a student at UC Davis, Hunter’s interest in performing arts collided with her passion for social justice during college, creating a drive to use her talent to make waves. Her calming presence and charming manner are still present within our socially distanced phone call, through which her infectious laughter crackles merrily. 

“I think it was a series of moments,” Hunter ruminates, “that made me realize I wouldn’t be happy without [theater] in my life”. Hunter has been acting for several years now, and recently began exploring new facets of theater. “I love acting the most; I’m hoping to get my MFA in acting… but I do really love directing and writing too”. Hunter is dedicated to creating multidimensional characters who embody the marginalized identities that are so rare to see in the media. Her conviction to create the representation that she would like to see is evident in her work, which focuses on the complex process of navigating life during and after trauma, and carries strong feminist undertones. 

Hunter began her newest endeavor of writing and directing this year. “In terms of writing, I really like drawing from my own lived experience as a woman. Watching a lot of representation of gender minority characters is really frustrating sometimes, because I don’t think there are a lot of realistic and nuanced representations of them”. Hunter’s work is heavily colored by her own life as a queer woman of color. It illustrates the most brutal parts of living in a world that was not created for you, yet also showcases the silver lining of finding pleasure and community by virtue of being human. 

Hunter’s forthright manner of speaking about her work alludes to her passion for creating positive change through theater. She recounts that her favorite theater experience was acting in and directing OurStories, an annual production about survival and healing that the UC Davis Women’s Resources and Research Center runs. “I didn’t think it was a stereotypical theater experience; there were a lot of people who wanted to perform but weren’t necessarily involved in theater. So very different kinds of performers, but they all had incredible stories to share.” The use of theater as a form of group therapy is an innovative way that Hunter’s work has impacted her community, but she aims to spread her reach even further.

Hunter is also a member of Theater for Social Change, a performance arts group at UC Davis. “Our main goal is to highlight and give a platform and a voice to students of marginalized identities and allow them to develop their own work… and have more of a space than they would within the rest of the [theater] world”. Theater for Social Change was created in the summer of 2020, during which they collaborated with the Davis Shakespeare Festival and several UC Davis alumni to debut their online theater productions. They not only use classical and well-studied methods of production, but also use new technology and innovation to redefine what theater means.

Her most recent project with Theater for Social Change, Stricken, was a multimedia production that took place on the day before Halloween. “I had just had this idea to get a bunch of artists together and see what they could come up with about the idea of fear, which is what the showcase is about”. Stricken showcased many different types of fear in several different mediums; from interpretive dances about existential dread to comedic sketches about irrational fears, this performance displayed the full range of human emotion and creativity. Hunter’s performance in Stricken, titled Appetite, was the first time I had seen her acting. Her subtle emotional cues and authentic performance brought to life the stir-crazy yet exhausted character she played. This piece confronted disordered eating and a crumbling sense of reality in a candid manner that I have seldom seen in the theater world, and was the prime example of ‘showing and not telling’. As ever, her powerful performance was loaded with a poignancy that reflects the larger sociopolitical issues that influence her work.

During the start of the statewide lockdown, Hunter began writing her first play. Entitled THREE, this piece draws inspiration from her personal experience of isolation. “I wrote THREE in quarantine, and that was one of the first scripts I ever developed fully, I think just because the ideas I was thinking about were so heavily influenced by COVID. The idea of a person wanting so badly to avoid certain aspects of their life was really compelling to me, and inspired me to start writing THREE.” THREE examines the mental, emotional, and physical struggles of isolation, and was planned and performed entirely over Zoom. 

Perhaps because of the creativity that quarantine has sparked for Hunter, she is optimistic about the future of theater amidst the transition to virtual life. “I think acting–at least how I’ve seen it–can actually translate really well through Zoom. I feel confident in the future of virtual theater, actually. I think another perk of quarantine is that a lot of people are going to virtual plays now, because they have free time and they don’t have to go to physical theatres, which are unfortunately pretty expensive because they’re geared towards an older audience. So I think this is a really exciting time to gain a new audience of younger, more diverse people.”

Hunter represents a generation of trailblazers who have used the momentum of our geopolitical moment to pave the way for new artists to expand the medium of performing arts. It is people like her who will bring progress upon us.

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Body Neutrality: Separation of Body and Worth

By: Sai Siddhaye

I, like many others, grew up within the culture of body positivity, yet also in the wake of a society that is deeply discriminatory. Some told us to love ourselves and our bodies, to accept that we were beautiful despite our flaws–and yet body negativity did not disappear. The subtle (and not so subtle) critiques of others’ bodies were veiled under “good intentions”, but their impact was no more positive. Though body positivity means well in theory, it is not quite effective when it comes to tackling the internalized and unfathomably long legacy of fatphobia, racism, transphobia, and ableism. A contemporary offshoot of body positivity, coined ‘body neutrality’, has been attempting to reframe the tenets of body positivity, and decenter attractiveness from the discourse about body inclusivity. Though this movement may not yet be able to fully decolonize how bodies are discussed in our culture, it is taking the important stance that inclusivity is about giving every body the same value, care, and visibility, regardless of whether or not it is beautiful or attractive.

The Body Positivity movement began around the 1960s, though similar sentiments have cropped up throughout history. It began primarily as a movement for fat acceptance, and over its multiple waves has expanded to promote acceptance of different sizes, features, and skin colors. Its primary goal is preaching the idea that people of all different appearances can be beautiful, and has made waves in improving the self-acceptance and general psychological health of people who it has influenced; its main goal is inarguably beneficial. However, many people have voiced their dissatisfaction with its scope. Placing emphasis on embodying beauty in order to feel self-worth reinforces the standard of beauty that is valued in our heteropatriarchal culture, and increases the value of beauty within our society. As such, using the values of body positivity in daily life can quickly turn into toxic positivity, which invalidates any negative affect and encourages people to veil their normal emotional fluidity with unwavering positivity. Body positivity can put pressure on us to feel beautiful regardless of what we look like, but this is hard for most people to truly internalize. Trying to ignore a fluctuating self-image in order to feel beautiful all the time can stop us from processing what we are feeling about ourselves, and from analyzing where these thoughts stem from or talking about them. Body positivity encourages accepting one’s own flaws, but doesn’t analyze the history of how these characteristics came to be labeled ‘flaws’ in the first place. 

As someone who has survived body dysmorphia and body image issues for several years, it has been very difficult for me to embrace body positivity, despite my best efforts. Trying to feel beautiful while my mind was filled with disgust at my own body was not feasible for me, nor was it a healthy way to try to repair my self-esteem. I felt that unless I was able to feel beautiful, I would not be worthy of love, from myself or others. My fixation on beauty as a gateway to acceptance was holding me back from caring for myself and healing. This certainly isn’t an indictment of body positivity, but rather an example of its limitations; I have many privileges and am certainly not one of the most marginalized in our society, and yet the scope of body positivity was not able to repair my unhealthy relationship with my body. Unless this school of thought can adequately benefit the most vulnerable in a community, namely fat people, trans people, disabled people, and BIPOC, it is not a viable solution for the intense body shame ingrained in our culture.

Though the idea of body neutrality is not directly confronting the root of conventional beauty standards either, it nonetheless separates itself from the patriarchal notion that being attractive gives a person more value. Subverting the power that beauty holds in our culture also means rejecting the influence of the power structures that emphasize a certain kind of beauty. Body neutrality has the same goal as body positivity: self-acceptance regardless of what your body looks like. However, its approach prioritizes the undisputable and objective value and functionality of each body over its appearance. In a body neutral approach, people do not have to feel beautiful in order to treat their bodies with love and care, nor should they emphasize other people’s beauty over their inherent value. 

I should make it clear, however, that valuing your body regardless of your appearance does not mean anti-change. A side effect of putting less importance on appearance should be that bodily changes, whether it be weight loss/gain or gender confirmation surgery, are destigmatized, but still legitimized. Prioritizing people’s physical and mental health, no matter what that entails–as well as divorcing health from appearance (read: thinness ≄ health)–should be one goal of body neutrality. However, a  critique of body neutrality is that moving focus away from attractiveness and onto health and functionality makes this movement inclined to ableism. Focusing on what a body can do instead of what it looks like is hugely detrimental to the disabled community, as it still places value on physical ability and productivity, which is not an inherent quality that all bodies possess. In order for the goals of body neutrality to be achieved, they also must be sure to put value in human bodies regardless of what they are physically capable of, or they will further marginalize disabled people.

Rejecting a connection between value and beauty also goes beyond combating fatphobia, and should also combat racism. Whether this means transgressing Eurocentric standards of beauty, combating fetishization, or addressing how “pretty privilege” is yet another function of white supremacy, body neutrality and anti-racism should go hand in hand. Decentering attractiveness and appearance from discourse about bodies benefits everyone, and requires systemic changes–such as preventing racial bias in medicine and dismantling the prison industrial complex– along with cultural changes. True body neutrality can’t be achieved without dismantling power structures like white supremacy or cissexism. 

The tenets of body neutrality have helped me finally understand that treating myself with love, care, and respect is possible even when I don’t like what my body looks like. Though this may come naturally to many people, my experience with mental illness has forced me to relearn how to care for myself, and refusing to place value in physical beauty has made this process much easier. The subversive nature of body neutrality may be hard to fully internalize, as that requires unlearning most of the cultural norms that we have been indoctrinated with, but it may have the potential to help repair the fraught relationships that many of us may have with our bodies.