The Answer to the Question, “Are You Changing Your Name When You Get Married?”

My last name is Shelnutt—like nutshell, only backward. (And spelled funny.)

That’s the way I’ve explained it my entire life: when giving presentations in school, putting my name on a waitlist for a table at a restaurant, and introducing myself to Comcast agents on the phone.

Throughout my school years, I wore my last name like a strange badge. I enjoyed hearing new teachers hesitate when reading it during roll call on the first day. (Never mind the fact that my first name, Jenna, is spelled with G, further adding to the confusion.)

I appreciated how rare it was. If you know another Shelnutt—which you probably don’t—chances are I’m related to that awesome human.

My days of roll call are long gone, and now I’m getting married in the fall. My dad will walk me down the aisle, but I will not play the bridal march. My dress is white, but I will not wear a veil. I’ll say the vows, but I will not change my last name.

I’m a Shelnutt. I’ve always been a Shelnutt. I like being a Shelnutt. I like that my name comes with a little joke that warms people to me when we’re first introduced. I like how it sounds following my first name. I like the disheveled look of my signature.

From a young age, I found it unfair that women lose their names when they get married, and men do not. Even when those women have obviously cool last names like Shelnutt.

When my fiancé, Todd, and I first started dating, I confessed to him that I had no intentions of ever taking another man’s last name.

“Good for you,” he replied without hesitation. “I wouldn’t have expected anything different.”

And that was that.

When we got engaged, the conversation re-emerged. Todd assumed we would both keep our names as previously discussed. I’d stay a Shelnutt. He, a Sevier.

I wasn’t happy with that either. To me, that seemed like getting married and nothing changing.

But when you get married something is changing. You’re coming together in a legally recognized partnership. You’re committing to forever together. Marriage has lasting impacts on both parties, and I wanted a name reflecting that.

I offered plenty of alternatives to the non-name-change. Sevier-Shelnutt. Shelnutt-Sevier. Or my personal favorite: Shelvier. (How gorgeous does that sound? Much better than Sevnutt; let’s be honest.)  I even suggested we take Todd’s last name but change the pronunciation from severe to sev-vee-ā, like we’re an adorable French couple.

Todd didn’t buy it.

We discussed, debated, and buried the whole name-change concept in the ground. Then, I dug it up from the grave, and we discussed and debated some more.

One night over dinner—somewhere between chicken parmesan and tiramisu—Todd brain-birthed a new solution: we could both take each other’s last names as our middle names. He’d be Todd Shelnutt Sevier. I’d be Genna Sevier Shelnutt.

And that was that.

When I explain our decision to those who ask, some are amazed, others perturbed. Some applaud our individuality. Others are made uncomfortable by it.

Maybe it’s annoyingly progressive. Maybe it’s progressively annoying. Maybe it’s audacious. Maybe it’s pretentious. Maybe it’s just plain stupid.

But it doesn’t matter. Because it’s us.

It’s reflective of our equal partnership. It’s reflective of our compromise. It’s reflective of us coming together. And it’s reflective of the change we’re both making together. It connects me to him and him to me without compromising our identities as individuals.

And best of all, it allows me to remain a Shelnutt—like nutshell, only backward. (And spelled funny.)

 

Genna & Todd Take Miami

 

Lessons in Accessorizing: A Childhood Traumedy

Milford Creek Lane was a straight, flat stretch of middle-class Georgian suburbia. The blue ranch house I called home sat about a quarter mile from the stop sign at the end of the street. During the school year, I walked that route twice a day to catch the bus in the morning and return home in the afternoon.

One morning in early winter, my breath clung to the frigid air in front of me as I walked—the grass still turgid and shimmering with overnight frost. I wore a navy wool coat and scratchy black gloves. On top of the gloves, I wore my newest prized position: a real, grown-up ring.

I had told my mother I wanted a real ring, and for reasons I’ll never understand, she allowed me this indulgence. She took me to Uptons department store where I peered in to the jewelry case on my tip toes. I picked out a small gold ring with a marquise amethyst and the tiniest of diamonds lacing over it.

The next day, I was so eager to show off my new ring, I couldn’t bear to cover it with a glove. So my eight-year-old genius decided to wear the ring on top.

When I arrived at the stop sign that morning, my fellow bus riders gathered in a loose mosh pit on the sidewalk. Older children and troubled children and stranger children all intimidated me, so I kept to myself.

I shoved my hands in my coat pockets and felt a wad of cloth. Pulling it out, I recognized my other pair of gloves. Not only did this set better match my coat, it also had sparkles woven in the fabric, giving it all the softness of a Brillo Pad.

Without a moment of hesitation, I peeled off my black gloves and put on the newfound haute couture pair instead.

I sat in my fourth-grade desk at school for no more than 10 minutes that day before the revelation occurred: my fingers were bare. The ring was gone.

Dread rose in my chest as my child-brain backtracked through the morning and realized the ring had popped off at the bus stop when I switched the gloves.

It could be anywhere now. It could have rolled into the sewer. It could be caught up in the blades of a lawnmower—yes, even in the winter! It could have been carried off in the talons of an eagle, swallowed by a jewelry-eating dog, found and kept by a vicious neighbor with excellent taste in rings.

My mother would never buy me another ring again. She might never buy me anything at all! I’d probably never have another valuable possession for the rest of my life. I hadn’t deserved the ring, and now I’d lost it in my first 24 hours of ownership. The thought of having to tell my mom what I’d done twisted my stomach in knots. Laying my head on the cool faux-wood of my desk, I tried not to cry or panic or simply bust through the school exit and sprint all the way home to look for it.

My nerves turned to nausea as the day ached on. Every bump and turn and squealing first-grader on the excruciating bus ride home forced my stomach farther up into my throat. As the yellow behemoth rounded the last turn to get to our stop, my entire body tensed.

By requirement only, I waited until the screeching brakes came to a complete halt before bolting to the front. I arrived at the door as it opened casually via accordion fold with its customary whoosh of air.

Darting out, I launched for the spot where I was standing when I switched gloves. I flung myself on the ground—aware of how strange I might look yet not caring in the least—and smooshed my hands frantically into the grass hoping to feel the hard metal against my soft palms.

Nothing. Nothing but cold dirt.

And then, amid my panic and dismay and guilt and terror and disappointment, I saw a glint of gold hope among the sullen green. I crawled over on my hands and knees.

There it was. Unscathed. Unaware of the anguish I’d endured over the past six hours. Bathing in the sunshine, just waiting for me to come home.

Even though I haven’t worn rings over my gloves since, I still don’t trust myself with valuable jewelry.

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The Unexpected Perks (pun intended) of Having Tiny Tits

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When I was 17, about to turn 18, and finishing my senior year of high school, I asked my mom if she and my dad would buy me breast implants as a graduation gift.

Not surprisingly, she said no. Mom was all about loving your body. Not so much about altering it to appease society’s unrealistic expectations of how women should look.

What mom didn’t know was how I had longed for bigger breasts ever since my darling duo started to fill in and then came to a sudden halt at what struck me as far short of the finish line.

She also didn’t know that my then-boyfriend had an obsession with big boobs, a fact I stumbled upon when using his laptop. While typing a Google search that began with the letter “b,” the search engine offered me his recent searches as suggestions.

“Big boob asian porn” was my boyfriend’s most recent “b” search. I deleted the “b” and typed “a” instead. “Amateur girl on girl huge tits,” Google suggested. I tried “c” to the same effect. D? You better believe it. One by one, I checked each letter in the alphabet. Every last consonant and vowel had been summoned to hunt for porn involving one common theme: the giant boobs I didn’t have.

I like to half-jokingly describe my figure as chocolate-bar shaped. When people arch a confused eyebrow in response, I’ll explain, “You know, like a rectangle. Broad shoulders. Broad hips. Broad waist. Flat chest. Built like Kit Kat.”

In college, I gained the cliché “freshmen 15”…two years in a row. Much to my dismay, my boobs refused to put on a single pound. Instead, my figure shifted from boyish to full-on doughboy. The same boob-obsessed boyfriend told me he was no longer attracted to me. And that was how we ended.

Without his standards weighing in, I finally saw myself through my lens of beauty. I realized how I loved my pale skin, dotted with freckles along my shoulders. And I stopped trying to brown it in the sun.

I rediscovered my big brown eyes, which always reminded me of my mother’s. And I stopped wearing green-tinted contacts.

I embraced my fat bottom lip, which often appears crooked in photographs. And I began drawing attention to it with bright lipsticks.

I even found love for my boobs—their roundness, their perkiness, their density. And I threw out every last one of my push-up bras.

In 2015 at the age of 29, I found myself once again single for the first time in a long time. Online dating had become a thing, and I threw up a profile hoping to meet someone new.

An older, newly divorced banker chatted me up. We both liked University of Georgia, literature, and witty banter. It seemed like a good match. After getting to know him over text messages, we met in person for a drink. I wore a navy dress and dangling gold earrings, hot pink lipstick and high heels. I felt fabulous and flawless.

Within an hour of the encounter, his tone grew serious as he leaned in toward me and asked, “Have you ever thought about getting a boob job?”

When I returned home that night, I plucked off my jewelry and slipped out of the dress. In front of a full-length mirror in my bedroom, I removed my bra and underwear. I looked at my body and resisted the urge to scrutinize it.

Instead, I looked with love. I saw a woman who won’t settle for less than she deserves. I saw someone who worked hard to find herself and fights to be the most authentic version of that self every day. I saw strong arms and healthy legs and a well-fed stomach.

And sitting proudly on my chest, I saw the boobs—my boobs. The boobs that are exactly right for my body—even when I don’t realize it. The boobs I have loved and hated and loved again.

They may never win a wet t-shirt contest, but those boobs helped me narrow my dating pool by one shallow divorcee that night. And that’s more than good enough for me.

 

Personal note: This post is by no means suggesting that having small boobs is better or worse than having big boobs. It’s an account of the journey I took to love my body the way it is. It is also not suggesting that there’s something wrong with breast implants. Everyone’s journey is different As long as you have found or are moving toward a place where you love yourself, you’re doing it right.

 

Image (Abstract Nude Female Laying Down) is from Ceres Fine Art and available for purchase via Etsy.

 

Fresh Ink for Old Wounds

“My mother is dead.”

I don’t say it to make people uncomfortable. Or to get attention or pity. I say it because it’s true.

My mother is dead. And she has been for three and half years.

When people who could be my mother’s age find out my mom is dead, the first question they ask is how it happened.

“Pneumonia,” I’ll explain.

They look incredulous. “People still die from pneumonia?” (Even if they don’t say it, I can tell that’s what they’re thinking.)

I’ll nod in response. Yes, yes they do.

The next thing they want to know is how old she was when she died.

“56,” I’ll say. “About to turn 57.”

They wrestle those facts together and arrive at the same inevitable conclusion: It could have been them.

I got my first tattoo right after I graduated from high school. A peach on my right hip.

I was class of 2004’s valedictorian and president. The peach made me feel less bookworm, more badass.

I planned on keeping the new ink hidden from my parents, but I never could keep a secret from my mom. I walked straight into her bedroom as soon as I returned from Psycho Tattoo and whispered, “Can I tell you a secret?”

Her eyes lit up. She nodded.

I pulled my blue jean skirt down just enough to reveal the peach.

A smile spread across her face. “Can I get one too?” she fired back in equally hushed tones.

We were conspirators. Always.

Sometimes I post about how much I miss my mom on Facebook. Usually around Christmas or Mother’s Day. Sometimes around her birthday.

People often offer words of comfort in response: “She’s with you every day.” “She’s there, just not physically!” “She’s always in your heart.” “She lives on in you.”

When I got a quote to have my hair and make-up done for my wedding in November, there was a $600 minimum charge for an on-site stylist. The salon owner suggested I have my mother’s hair and make-up done to help reach the threshold.

And that’s how I know that the supportive people on Facebook are wrong.

My mother is not with me every day. And she won’t be there on my wedding day.

The photographer won’t take a photo of us as she zips up the back of my dress. She won’t laugh nervously as she meets my fiancé’s family for the first time. And she certainly won’t help me reach the minimum balance on my hair and make-up bill.

“She’s with you” is a nice thing to say, a nice way to cope. But I had my mother with me for 27 years, and I can tell the difference.

When people see my tattoos, they sometimes tell me, “I love tattoos on other people, but I don’t think I could ever get one.”

“Why not?” I’ll ask.

They explain, “I don’t think I could pick something that I’d be okay with forever.”

I’ll nod and pretend I understand, but really, I know nothing lasts forever.

My mother died five days before Christmas. She was in a coma before my sister and I ever arrived at the hospital in Tennessee.

I used to come up with positive spins on the grief, like “We had 27 years together, and all of them were great” or “It’s better she went quickly instead of watching her suffer.”

The truth is 27 years were not enough. The truth is I’m jealous of everyone who gets to say goodbye before losing someone they love.

The truth is if I had the choice between more time with my mom and closure at the end, I don’t know which I would choose.

The truth is it doesn’t really matter anyway. No one gets that choice.

When I was young, my mother once asked me if something were to happen to her, would I want her to come back as a shooting star or a budding rose.

I didn’t answer. I thought it was a stupid question.

My most recent tattoo is on my left forearm. It’s the largest and boldest and most colorful of them all. And it’s the only one I see every day—a pair of budding turquoise roses.

It reminds me of her, but not because of the question she asked when I was young. It reminds me how she let me be me. How she taught me to trust myself. How she helped me bloom.

And despite what all my wonderful Facebook friends may say, I realize my mom won’t be sitting behind me on the first row when I say forever to the man of my dreams this November.

But I find peace in knowing I’ll be wearing her love on my arm. On that day and always.

The Beginning of Us

"We loved with a love that was more than love" - Edgar Allan Poe

When I first met you—you with your tight lips, tense jaw and green velvet jacket—I wasn’t sure.

Not about you, I mean.

I wasn’t sure about me. I wasn’t sure what I would do with someone as smart as you. Someone as grown up. All I’d ever known was men who needed baby-sitters for girlfriends.

Then along came you.

Successful and independent with this fine-tuned sense of self. You knew who you were, and you weren’t afraid to share it with anyone. With everyone.

Not even an hour into our in-person meeting and you raised your white linen shirt above that pink rhinestone-studded belt of yours to reveal half a torso covered in tattoos and scars. Your own demons inked across your skin. Your pain made into a painting. You made no excuses or apologies for any of it.

I wanted to press my lips to them. The ribs. The scars. The darkest parts of you. I had no excuses or apologies to offer you either.

You could afford to buy me all the Jack and Coke I’d ever drink that night, but you didn’t mind if I needed to pay for a few rounds on my own. You let me be me.

I asked question after question after question. I fought for a smile. Then pushed for a laugh.

I ended up with your hand wrapped around the nape of my neck as you held me against a wall in your bedroom and kissed me in a way that felt like an entirely foreign experience—like a complete revelation.

I knew then. Even then. I never had a chance.

I lost myself in the feeling of you. The candle-lit darkness of your downtown apartment. The swirling of alcohol in my head. The melodic urging of “The Discussion,” a playlist we curated over text messages before we even met. I lost myself in the falling for you.

Because fuck it if it was too soon. And fuck it if you told me not to.

I wasn’t going to not love you. I wasn’t going to deny myself that kind of pleasure. The once-in-a-lifetime kind.

So love you I did. And incredulously, you loved me too.

Two years later and I still struggle to believe this reality is my own. Some days I’m so happy that I can’t help but expect something horrible will happen to one or both of us at any minute. Because that must be what comes next when you get everything you want. Some days I panic about not being present in every moment with you. That’s how happy you make me. So much that it actually stresses me out. And then you’ll sneak up behind me while I’m getting ready for work and kiss the back of my neck, and I swear to God my knees give out and I fall from the very top of our love all over again.

Last November, when you proposed to me—me with my unwashed hair, sloppy cream sweater, and oblivious laughter—I wasn’t sure.

Not about us, I mean.

I wasn’t sure how I would ever repay you for making me the happiest human that’s ever existed.

I still don’t know how I’m going to do it. But I’m so grateful you’ve given me this lifetime to figure it out.

I am not WITH her.

I am not with her. No.

I am not with her. But I am with the woman who waited 95 years to cast her vote for a female president.

I am with the woman who took her three young boys to stand in line on a historic Tuesday in November to visit Susan B. Anthony’s grave.

I am with the woman who winked at a fellow pantsuit-patriot when she came across her in the office elevator this Election Day.

And I am with the man who wore his wife’s pantsuit to the polls this morning. And the one who wore standard dress—polished off with a pair of high heels.

I am with the woman who voted because she feels mocked by a candidate or party—for her race, or country, or religion, or sexuality, or disability, or femininity, or ANYTHING.

I am even with the woman who won’t vote for HER at any cost—because the sanctity of her own beliefs. Yes, in some ways, she and I are just the same.

And of course, I am with the 30-year-old woman who waited for two hours in four-inch heels among a sea of camo-clad men in Johns Island, South Carolina to cast her first vote ever.

And I am absolutely with the woman who enjoyed e v e r y  l a s t  m i n u t e  of that wait.

No, I am not with HER.

Because I am her.

I am the woman who is running for President of the United States.

Because she is every woman.

(Even if she is not your woman.)

And this moment belongs to all of us.

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Burn the “Locker Room” to the Ground

Donald Trump Holds Campaign Rally In Nevada

I was in seventh grade when a boy in my pod came up behind me during locker break, ran his hands up between my flared Gap blue jeans, squeezed, and walked away.

I was in high school when I made the choice to have sex with my first serious boyfriend. He proceeded to brag about it to all his friends at school. Word spread to the church we both attended, and I was summoned to the choir director’s office for questioning and counseling. He was left alone.

I was in college when, after a night of heavy drinking with my girlfriends, I fell asleep in a guest bedroom of a friend’s home. I woke up to a man on top of me—a roommate of the homeowner—and in my half-asleep, half-drunk state, was only able to mumble “no” over and over again until he finished raping me.

Those three stories don’t even begin to cover the number of times that men have harassed, debased, and assaulted me in my brief 30 years. And my story is far from unique.

From ass-slapping and crotch-grabbing by complete strangers to full-on unwanted sexual intercourse by men we think we can trust, women are treated like sex objects, like toys to amuse and arouse. And let’s not even get started on the daily onslaught of disgusting, unprovoked verbal comments thrown at our gender every day as we go for a jog, fill up our gas tanks, or simply walk down the goddamned street.

This issue. This mistreatment of women. This abhorrent disrespect. It’s personal to me.

So when you tell me that you’re going to vote for Donald Trump, I won’t just say, “That’s your right. You can vote for whatever candidate you choose.”

Because having the right does not make you right.

Your support of a man who has always and continues to degrade women perpetuates a misogynistic culture that directly results in how women are treated today, myself included.

Your support tells Donald and men everywhere that they can say these disgusting things about women, that they can do these disgusting things to women, and not only is it okay, but you’ll stand behind them. Hell, you’ll even vote for them if they run for president.

For every time a woman you love has been violated by a man and you could do nothing to protect her, for the women who’ve been grabbed in the pussy by men in positions of power, for the ones who’ve been scandalized and scrutinized for their sexuality, this is your chance. This is your chance to say, “I will not support this behavior. I will not perpetuate this culture. I will not endorse a man who treats women this way.”

It’s not political. Not anymore. It’s personal.

It’s personal to me. And it should be personal to you too.