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South Whidbey artist shaves her head to protest bullying
FREELAND — Start today, a new direction.
These are the words that South Whidbey artist and writer Mary Anne Radmacher decided to shout out to the world in the form of an acronym written across her newly shaved head.
What is written on her pate changes from day to day. Today her head reads: “Itgetsbetterproject.com.” But the message is always the same: Stop the bullying.
Radmacher had her head shaved on Oct. 9 to protest the pernicious epidemic of bullying that she said runs through society and is responsible for the high rate of suicide deaths among teenagers, especially gay teens.
Radmacher said the issue has had a cumulative effect on her for many years, but that the recent story of 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, who jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge in New Jersey on Sept. 22, was her breaking point. The Rutgers University student committed suicide after his roommate and his friend secretly filmed him during a sexual encounter with another man in his dorm room and posted it live on the Internet.
“These struggles are my struggles,” Radmacher said, while sitting in her art and writing studio in Freeland last week.
She was surrounded by a drafting table full of current work and several of the inspirational books she’s authored with titles such as “Live Boldly and “Lean Forward Into Your Life.”
Ironically, these titles seem as if they might have been a lifesaver in a maelstrom of bullies for someone like Clementi.
Radmacher is devoted to helping people live the lives they were meant to live through her books and art, which is why she said she is so affected by the rash of news reports about young teens killing themselves. Elsewhere in the country and also in September, Seth Walsh, 13, Asher Brown, 13, Billy Lucas, 15, and Raymond Chase, 19, were all driven to commit suicide because of bullying.
According to the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s National 2009 School Climate Survey, nearly nine out of 10 LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) students experienced harassment at school in the past year, and nearly two-thirds felt unsafe because of their sexual orientation.
Radmacher decided she could no longer be silent.
“We tell the tale by what we write on the pages of our days,” Radmacher said.
“This we do with our actions and our attitudes.”
On her blog, click here, which documents her personal journey to “STAND,” she has posted a quote by Lily Tomlin: “I always wondered why somebody didn’t do something about that, then I realized, I was somebody.”
This sums up Radmacher’s intention of taking action against bullying every day, and why she thinks that every person can make a difference.
The idea came to her a while ago, but she brushed it aside. But it persisted, and she remembers hearing the voice in her head say, “Maybe you should write a message on the side of your head.”
Shaving her head was just the starting point.
She researched the tradition of shaving one’s head and discovered the ritual crosses all cultures and religious sects through several millennia.
“It shows intention and action. It is not an immovable position. I asked myself, ‘How do I take a stand?’ That’s when the ‘Start the day; new direction’ occurred to me,” Radmacher recalled.
Fifteen minutes after she shaved her head, Radmacher was at the grocery store and was taken aback by a group of women who were blatantly laughing at her bald head. She discussed it with her husband later that day, and decided the incident was reflective of exactly what she was trying to spotlight.
“Maybe shaving my head is contrived, but having that group of women laugh at me felt awful,” Radmacher said.
“When you follow that thread back to high school, people have to realize that’s the way it is. It’s behavior that we’ve all gotten used to; behavior that’s acceptable on TV,” she said.
Bullying, Radmacher said, is insidious in the society and is often not noticed. Her experience with being laughed at goes beyond the recent incident in the store and as far back as her childhood. She was the victim of bullying in grade school and recalls taking action against it even then.
“I became pro-active in creating a community of people who were like me,” Radmacher said.
“I created a service club called the ‘Proud Crowd.’
I turned the derision into a source of pride; the abuse into action.”
The Proud Crowd cleaned up litter at the school, policed the playground and cleaned up graffiti. The Proud Crowd took their licks.
“This is a reminder to myself,” she said pointing to her head, “that it only takes a second to be kind.”
Radmacher believes that if each person did at least one thing each day to take a stand against bullying, such attitudes could grow exponentially.
“We don’t have to tolerate watching someone be bullied,” she said.
Her personal approach is guided by Rachel Simmons, author of “Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls.” Radmacher said Simmons, who is a national anti-bullying advocate, talks about empathy as the key to stopping this runaway epidemic.
In her essay, “Responding to the Bullycides: How we Can Stand Up & Honor Their Memories,” Simmons writes: “All of us — parents, teachers, mentors, big brothers and sisters — can talk with kids about what Asher Brown must have been feeling as he went to school, day after day — as he was tripped down the stairs, had his backpack emptied and its contents scattered, berated with insults like ‘fag.’ You can ask: What emotions did he feel? Is there anyone at your school who goes through that? What can you do to help that person?” (Asher shot himself after enduring what his mother and stepfather say was constant harassment from four other students in the middle school he attended.)
Radmacher said that by following the advice of experts such as Simmons and using empathy in one’s daily life, the momentum of bullying can be broken.
“It only takes a couple of minutes a day,” she said.
Radmacher believes that if people are more pro-active when they see bullying taking place, boys like Asher Brown and the others might still be alive.
Luckily, there are several online resources for youths that have made their way into the spotlight after the recent spate of suicides.
At one point, Radmacher’s head read: www.trevorproject.org. The Trevor Project is the leading national organization focused on crisis and suicide prevention efforts among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth. TV celebrity Ellen Degeneres is one champion of the project, as are many other celebs who have been recently recorded on the site reaching out to youths telling them, “It gets better.”
At Itgetsbetterproject.com, syndicated columnist Dan Savage is reaching out to young gay people using the abundant tools of social media. Using Facebook, YouTube and its website, the project gives voice to those who share their stories of experience and who encourage gay, lesbian, bi, transgendered and questioning youths to get help if they need it and by promising them that “it gets better.”
To the teens who go to the site, Savage tells them that high school is the worst it will ever be.
“If my adult self could talk to my 14-year-old self and tell him anything, I’d tell him .... that there really is a place for you. And one day you will have friends who love and support you; you will find love and a community. Life gets better. The bigots don’t win. The people who were picking on me then don’t matter,” Savage says.
Not all people have responded to her protest in a negative way, Radmacher said.
In the same grocery store, one woman crossed over two checkout lines to tap her on the shoulder to say, “I like your hair.” A gentleman also applauded Radmacher and told her, “It really matters.”
Radmacher sees her shaved head as 45 more days on the edge of uncomfortable in order to continue the education of others, to share the knowledge, to do something. On Thanksgiving Day she will begin to grow her hair back.
“Thanksgiving will be a good time to express gratitude to the people who have made this a positive experience,” she said. “When issues are so big, and people get lost in the magnitude of the problem and are unable to act, I plant seeds in lots of different fields.”
“We all have voices.”