CW: mentions of sexual harassment/assault/abuse, violence against women, internalized misogyny/homophobia, suicide/self-harm, body image/eating disorders
*names have been changed
“Hold on,” my mom yelled out, just as I had one hand on the doorknob. “What are you wearing?”
I glanced down at my chest, basking in the warm embrace of the oversized black hoodie I had bought from my university bookstore during my first day on campus as a college freshman. “What d’you mean?”
It was mid-December, just after Fall Quarter final exams had finished, and my mom was staying with me in my San Diego apartment just down the street from campus for a week before we headed home to Los Angeles for the winter holidays. My mom had some work in San Diego; she had spent the last couple of years when I had been in college doing research on the health benefits of mindfulness and teaching meditation classes all around the world, including in San Diego. I was in my second to last year of college, and I was working on a degree in mathematics/applied science, with a concentration in chemistry. In the fall, I had just begun working in a theoretical biophysics research group on a project on neuron ion channel dynamics. I had opted to use the week of no classes between finals and the week of Christmas to catch up on my project, in which I felt thoroughly out of my depth. It was around 8 at night, and I was meeting Daniel* in the Biomedical Library. Although Daniel* was the most junior member aside from me and the only other undergrad in the group, he was a physics and bioengineering double major, and he had been in the lab for longer than I had. I was hoping I could use some of his expertise to get past the basic computational issues I was having.
I shrugged. “Mom, it’s freezing outside. This is comfortable.”
My mom bit her lip. “Don’t you at least want to put on some of your nice earrings or some lipstick? Are you really going to go out and meet a guy looking like that?” She gestured at the way the thick fabric of my hoodie rendered my usually annoyingly protrusive curves shapeless.
I laughed. “Mom, ew! We’re just going to work. I’m not trying to get him to notice me or something.” Beyond the fact that I had absolutely no interest in dating or even being close friends with my labmate (I am personally a strong believer in not s**tting where I eat – what if I needed to vent about things going on at work?), I was also a flaming homosexual – but she didn’t know that then (and neither did I, for that matter).
She shook her head in frustration. “Paheli, you don’t understand these things. How you present yourself makes a difference, even if you don’t want to date him. You’re an attractive woman. Accentuating your natural beauty could open up doors for you in the future. You never know where these people will end up and what opportunities they could bring if they remember you.”
“Mom, actually what the hell? You are crazy.”
I dismissed her, laughed about what she’d said with my friends, and chalked it up to her being my naive old immigrant mother who had no idea how things worked in universities in the US. At times, I even felt offended by her implication that somehow my intellect wasn’t enough to bring me the opportunities I needed to succeed in STEM. She’d never wanted me to join this research group to begin with.
Although I had an early inclination for math when I was three or four, I’d never been the best in math exams at school. In the spring quarter of my freshman year as a Chemistry major, I overloaded myself with difficult courses, including second term physics (electricity and magnetism) and fourth term calculus (differential equations), which yielded grades of C and C+ respectively – my first semicircular grades. At first, I was discouraged from STEM, especially physics, but once I decided I needed to get it over with to get my degree, I became determined to prove myself for my last required physics course. In this course, I worked my a** off, went to my instructor’s office hours all the time, and ended up being recruited for the theoretical physics group, as my instructor had said I had one of the top five scores in the course and I knew how to ask the right questions to succeed in research. I was inspired by this recognition of my quantitative abilities and instantly decided that I loved physics and math and we had just gotten off on the wrong foot at first. Impulsively, I tried to change my major to physics, but as it was my second to last year and I already had too many credits from chemistry courses, it was too late, so I turned to the math department. I designed my major so I could use my chemistry theoretical credits to fulfill half my courses and applied math courses to fill the other half instead of laboratory classes, and this math background would provide complimentary training to succeed in my theoretical physics research group.
My parents were not shy in expressing skepticism for my sudden interest in physics – after all, I had gotten a C in freshman year. “Theoretical physics?” my mom asked, rubbing me the wrong way with her pronunciation of theoretical. “I don’t think you’re a theoretical physics person if I’m being honest.” My dad, who had an engineering degree in undergrad from India and went on to get a master’s and PhD in Finance when he came to the US, was a Finance professor and always compared me to himself. “I think you’re like me, Paheli,” he’d said. “You have that Physics envy. I definitely had that too – Physicists are seen as smart and brilliant, but not everyone is meant to do physics.”
I’d always felt that my parents encouraged me to do what I wanted to do and, while they put pressure on me and my brother to succeed, they didn’t put an undue amount like many immigrant parents. “Most Indian parents want their kids to become doctors or lawyers or engineers,” my mom had told us when we were little. “But I don’t care what you do – as long as whatever you choose, you are the best you can be at that one thing. Even if it is a driver – be the best possible driver you can be. I just want to see that passion and persistence.” We’d grown up socioeconomically privileged, thanks to my parents’ hard work (and luck due to the economy at the time) as immigrants who came to the US to study from India. They worked their a**es off so that we wouldn’t have to worry about money the way they did growing up, and because of that, it made sense that there was no excuse for us not to strive for excellence – all we had to worry about growing up was studying and extracurriculars – no obscene amount of chores, no early parenthood/nannying of younger siblings in a 4-5 child household, and no rent and bills. They didn’t narrow the range of paths to excellence the way many of their fellow Indian immigrant parents did, so long as we made sure to pursue excellence. But I felt like my teachers in school believed in my science abilities more than they did.
There was a part of me that said “What if they’re just lying to me because they want to feel good about encouraging a woman in STEM? What if I’m just another statistic to them?” Although I had chronically low self-esteem for most of my life thus far, I must’ve had some shred of confidence, because I decided to stand my ground with my parents on this one. “You’re just going to have to trust me,” I told them. “I know you might not think I can do this, and I don’t know if I can, but all I know is that doing this gives me purpose. So maybe it’s not right for me, but I’ll have to find that out for myself by trying, not stopping before I’ve even given it a shot. All I need from you is support, not more negativity. I’m already terrified.” And I think my parents gained respect for me after that.
It bothered me at the time that my mom seemed to be suggesting that I needed to rely on my sexuality to get ahead in my career – I was already self-conscious about being sexualized simply due to the body type I was born in. Since the time I was eleven, everyone, from older men on the street to my “friends” and peers, had made a point to express to me that they noticed my large breasts (which I never even asked for or liked). My freshman year suitemates had made a video compilation of my a** crack hanging out of my pajama pants and had laughed about it behind my back – I only found out about when my roommate told me after we’d moved out. The last thing I wanted was to voluntarily sexualize myself, and at first, I took my mom’s suggestions as a personal affront. Ultimately, I realized that it had absolutely nothing to do with me; her statements were a projection of her own experiences as a woman in a male-dominated field in the 80s. Moreover, underlying what seemed like a ridiculous statement to me was a reflection of a more sinister element of her own past.
My parents met in graduate school, when my dad was a new professor and my mom was a PhD student in his department (though not directly under his supervision). The way my mom describes her admission to graduate school somewhat explains the way she’d encourage me to dress up in the presence of my male colleagues. “I went to the dean of admission’s office, and you know, I was a pretty girl, and I think he was quite taken with me, so he let me join the PhD program.” She waved her hand. “Paheli, I was not a math person at all. I don’t understand anything you’re doing. I was scattered, unfocused, all over the place. I was always looking for male attention for validation. Thank god you have your dad’s focus. Just keep focused, don’t get into these silly things, and you’ll get further in your career than I did.” My mom had her undergraduate degree in mathematics, physics, and statistics. After she got her PhD in computer information systems in the business school, she went on to work in Bell Labs – a place I was familiar with only because my undergraduate computing class in C mentioned it in the textbook describing the founding history of computing. She worked as a programmer back when there were no laptops and even desktops – each computer was its own room. After she got married to my dad and was pregnant with me, she left her career in computing and went back to school to pursue a Masters of Social Work and start her practice as a psychologist. For years, she managed her therapy practice, our house, and our family of four, driving me and my brother between school and art class and gymnastics and swimming and music and home, often cooking four different meals in one night. As a teenager, I was hospitalized twice for self-harm and overdose attempts, and I think that’s what led my mom to quit her therapy practice and pursue mindfulness meditation instead when I went to college.
We grew up in a community of hyper-competitive and wealthy elitist Indian immigrants in Los Angeles, some of whom we were friends with and some of whom my mom pretended to be friends with but couldn’t stand for the life of her. I distinctly remember attending one of our family friends’ parties in college, and one of my mom’s frenemy aunties whose kids had attended my high school, Aarushi* aunty, asked me what my major was.
“Math-Applied Science,” I told her.
She widened her eyes. “Oh, I see!” She whacked her stubby fingers on my shoulder, leaned in, and chuckled, rasping, “You probably got your brain from your dad then, eh?”
Before this, I didn’t know much about Aarushi* aunty besides the fact that she was a strict mom who thought that unless her kids got into Harvard, they were failures, but I’d never known exactly what my mom’s problem with her was until this moment. The blood boiled in my cheeks. While my mom had always joked about how she wasn’t a math person and how she wasn’t focused enough, I thought it was a bit of a stretch to say that she didn’t have a math brain. One of her undergraduate majors was math, and she’d done a whole a** PhD in a math-related field and even landed a job in one of the historically groundbreaking labs. She’d chosen a different path ultimately, but that didn’t mean she didn’t have the brain and capacity for it. Who the f*** was this Aarushi* aunty and what did she know about my family? Unlike my mom, I cannot pretend to be friends with someone, so I quickly dismissed myself from the conversation after that.
Right after undergrad, I went to pursue my PhD in Biomathematics, where I started working on my own project on mathematical/biophyiscal modeling of the relationship between neuron structure and function across cell types under the supervision of a theoretical biophysicist whom I admire greatly. I’m now in my fourth year in the program, have advanced to candidacy, and am starting to think about applying for academic jobs after the program. Later this month, I will be attending my second (but first in-person) American Physical Society Conference in Chicago, where I’ve been accepted to give a talk about my new paper in the works. Although I’m definitely not the best physicist in the world or the brightest or most productive graduate student and I’ve definitely been lucky in a lot of ways from all the support I’ve received, I think I’ve gotten further than I thought I could in conducting independent research in theoretical biophysics and I find the research as well as my mentoring and teaching duties meaningful. My parents are proud that I stood up for myself against their skepticism and pushed through my difficult undergraduate experience despite the fact that it was traumatic for me – I couldn’t have gotten here without it.
This past winter holiday, I was lucky to spend some time with my parents, and somehow, the topic came up about whether my mom had changed since she had kids. My parents were reminiscing on their experiences when they were around my age, when my mom was a PhD student and my dad was a junior professor. The way my dad was describing how my mom used to be – well, she reminded me of how I used to be when I just discovered my passion for physics, how I found nerdy references to make about everything in everyday life, and how I was quick to come up with scientific explanations and theories for everyday phenomena. “Mom, you seemed so…nerdy. But you’re always talking about how you’re not a science person and you don’t understand my nerdy jokes. Do you think having a child changed your brain at all?”
“Oh, of course, ” she said, and she grew somber. “Something I didn’t expect is how about half my cognitive capacities were out the window after pregnancy. It was impossible to keep up with things like I used to. I used to love reading proof books and trying to understand things and discussing ideas, but, well, my brain changed. It was a biological change.”
“Wow. Well, that sounds horrible. I’m so sorry to put you through that, and I never want to have kids.”
“Paheli, it’s a choice you make,” my dad insisted. “Yes, you make some sacrifices, but when you’re ready-”
“Actually, it didn’t really feel like a choice,” my mom countered. “I mean, yes, I chose to change my career and I chose to have children. But losing my cognitive capacities – that didn’t feel like a choice. It was biology. My brain was just wired differently after having kids, and it won’t be the way it was no matter what choices I make.”
One thing I found strange about the exchange is how my dad seemed to insist that it was a choice, as if he knew what it was like to have womens’ hormones and go through a pregnancy, as if it was a choice that he had to make for his body. Or how my dad used to make fun of my mom for leaving her assignments until the last minute in her master’s program when she was literally growing a human in her body (me). How my mom somehow had to make the most sacrifices for the family including her bodily and cognitive autonomy, and my dad could just continue with his professor job unaffected. Just the subtle misogyny or lack of understanding – despite the good intentions of my father – that I’d overlooked as a kid, as a teenager, and even to some extent as a college student, but could no longer ignore. It just seemed so unfair.
“I used to love reading books and learning and thinking about ideas,” my mom had lamented. “You know, for my PhD thesis, I worked on the simplex algorithm.”
My dad shook his head disparagingly. “No one uses the simplex algorithm anymore. There are much better numerical methods now.”
“But it’s still important,” I protested. “We spent a whole week on it in my computational algorithms class in grad school.”
“I had presented my ideas to one of the main people in the field. I think he was pretty impressed with me.” My mom continued.
My dad snorted. “He was trying to seduce her. Everyone knew about this.”
My mom laughed. “I had no idea about any of this. I mean, he was married. I thought he just wanted to talk about ideas. There were a lot of times I talked to men because I thought we were just discussing ideas, and I liked thinking about things with them, but it turns out they were interested in me. I had no idea.”
The whole conversation made me want to throw up, but it made me suddenly realize why my mom was so convinced that she was not a math person, and it made me understand how my mom had reacted to me in certain ways, how she’d told me to befriend more men because women were “catty” or “too much drama,” how she told me to give men a chance even if I didn’t like them, how she had pushed me to lose weight to be more attractive since I was 9 years old, how she encouraged me to use my looks to open up professional opportunities, and how she refused to acknowledge the gravity of the experiences of sexual violence I’d faced. It was internalized misogyny. It was the lens through which she’d always viewed her own womanhood, surrounded by all these men in graduate school, and it was the only lens through which she could perceive mine.
I should have realized this about four years ago when I had told my mom about a disturbing experience I’d had with one of my math professors. He’d been the most encouraging and dedicated math instructor I’d ever had, holding extra office hours and review sessions on the weekend and helping me with math far beyond the confines of the course. We’d talked about some of our shared interests in mathematical physics, and he went out of his way to not only recommend books for me to read, but scan, print, and laminate chapters from his copies of the books and give me PDFs so I wouldn’t have to find and purchase them myself. I did all the extra credit problems for his course, and he’d told me that he thought I was talented and he thought I was good at math. He was part of the reason that I became interested in my current program, Biomathematics, which is an applied math-centered program with research focusing on biology problems.
There were times this professor made me feel uncomfortable with his proximity and his comments about how he loved watching me write math on the board, but I chalked it up to the fact that he was so nerdy that he must be just excited about math. This man had such an incredible reputation and an army of cronies (almost all men) who would visit his office all the time and write proofs on the board, so I didn’t trust the unconscious bodily reactions that my senses picked on, signaling that this was not a safe environment for me. I had social anxiety and I was used to feeling nervous. It was probably just that.
It wasn’t until the last couple of days I spent with him that he started acting strange (throwing things) and showing some attitude. He’d commented disparagingly about my interests in biology, stating that biology was a “weak field” and biologists didn’t know what they were doing. He made demeaning comments about how my parents were rich and I didn’t have any problems in my life aside from getting into graduate school, and that I didn’t deserve anything I had (I had no idea how he knew anything about my family, because I’d never mentioned them to him). He said that I’d be lucky to get into graduate school because it means I would have gotten three professors to lie for me in writing letters of recommendation.
For a long time, I’d blamed myself, thinking that I’d done something wrong, that I wasn’t focused enough, and that I wasn’t aware of my privilege in having parents in academia and wasn’t working hard enough to progress in math. It wasn’t until I told my mom about it, and she’d laughed, saying, “Well, maybe he had a crush on you.”
“What the hell, mom?” The thought had not even crossed my mind. I was a silly, bratty undergrad – as he’d made it perfectly clear – why on earth would someone so much older and smarter be interested in me? “That makes absolutely no sense. If he liked me, why was he so mean? Wouldn’t you be nice to someone you liked?”
She shook her head. “Men and women are different. I remember when I was your age, I had similar experiences. Guys would get all sarcastic and rude suddenly, and it turns out they had been expecting something from me and were angry when they realized I wasn’t interested.”
As I processed the situation over the years, I realized how much of an impact it had on my self-esteem, how it made me realize that no matter how hard I worked, I could never force anyone to respect me or see me beyond my identity as a woman, as a “modest Indian girl”, as a gay woman (as some kind of sexually deviant pervert), and as that girl with the big, saggy boobs and visible butt crack. I’d always thought that I could work hard, gain skills, and use my skills to prove that I was smart and capable and worthy of respect, but getting a near-perfect score in this professor’s course wasn’t enough to earn his respect. I started to lose some of the emotional connection I had to my identity as a nerd who has “no life” and who had her “nose in books” all the time, the identity that had temporarily allowed me to find myself outside my insecurities about my weight, my body, and my sexuality. This abusive man was the epitome of that caricature, and he was the last person I wanted to be like. I went off the other end. I lost over sixty pounds by compulsively exercising, abusing laxatives and diet pills, and forcing myself to throw up after meals. I started to obsess over my appearance and weight. I objectified myself. I put myself in sexually risky situations, including with men I had no interest in, to validate myself as an attractive woman despite the fact that I was gay, and there were all these stereotypes about gay women being ugly and overweight and predatory (probably made up by the same salty men who can’t have them and think that they’re “taking women off the market”). I lost interest in academic communities, left the lab at 5 pm and went to hang out with my friends in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles. I was just so tired of being around people who had no concept of life outside school, who had repressed their sexuality so deeply that it exploded and came out in their strange ways. I didn’t want to be that person, so I finally allowed myself to be myself. To find community in the LGBTQ+ community. To embrace the part of me that enjoyed being a person and having friends, and not just proudly advertising that “books are my only friends.” The experience destroyed my self-confidence as a scholar and intellectual, but I ultimately found myself as a person, which was a plus. But now, I want some balance. I want to rediscover the part of me that loved school and wasn’t just going through the motions of grad school and preparing for an academic career because it was the only future I’d ever envisioned for myself. I don’t want to give anyone else the power to quench my passion.
“Mom, why do you say you’re not a math person?” I asked her one day at dinner, a few days after that conversation with my dad. It was just the two of us and my brother this time. “I mean, you have a degree in math. You got a whole PhD. I mean, not everyone can do that. You worked on the Simplex Algorithm. You had a job at Bell Labs. You yourself said you used to love reading proof books and discussing ideas. You sound just like me. So why do you think you’re not a math person?”
She laughed gently. “Paheli, don’t overidentify with me. I was not focused like you. I was always thinking about boys.”
“So?” I challenged her. “So? I’m not always thinking about math. I think about girls sometimes. That simplex algorithm dude who was trying to seduce you or whatever, he wasn’t so focused on math, was he? But he still gets credit for the simplex algorithm. Does anyone call him unfocused? Dad was obsessed with you for years before you agreed to date him, but he’s still a professor and respected in his field. Does anyone call him unfocused?”
“But you don’t understand. You just have the math brain! My brain just wasn’t built for that.”
“What do you mean by that? Explain,” I insisted.
“You know, I was able to succeed in math if I worked hard. But if I stopped working on something for a little while, it would go away! I had to practice all the time to have it!”
My brother and I giggled.
“Mom, that’s literally everyone,” I laughed. “You just don’t know that because you were surrounded by arrogant and overconfident men like dad! You think they didn’t struggle like that too? You think they don’t have to practice to get it? They just don’t have people constantly breathing down their neck, expecting them to fail.”
My mom looked at me with such an innocent sincerity in her eyes, and she said, “That’s true, being a woman did make it harder. And as a woman, and, you know, I always wanted to go study out late and discuss ideas with all these men in grad school, but…well, being the only woman, it wasn’t exactly safe…Paheli, maybe you should talk about this in front of dad. Maybe he would understand then. He doesn’t listen to me, but he listens to you.”
In that moment, I felt that a lot of my resentment towards my mother had dissolved. My mother, who was feminist enough to keep her last name and give us a hyphenated name, but who told me not to report my professor for sexual harassment because he was an immigrant and an allegation like that would destroy his career – prioritizing his career over other young women’s who he had the power to ruin. My mother, who was liberal enough to have gay friends and to attend their weddings, but not liberal enough to consider the possibility that her kids might be queer, and it might not be a choice. My mother, who was a licensed therapist, but who tried to handle my depression/anxiety and PTSD with toxic positivity. Throughout my life, I’d put adults on these pedestals that they could not sustain, seeking something from them that I could only find in myself, from my mentors and professors to my own mother. I knew now that she wasn’t able to validate my experiences, not because she didn’t care, but because it took the woman I’d grown into without her to validate hers.