The badass women of TED: or, my second herpes outbreak

Big TED, little Ella.
Big TED, little Ella.

I have never wanted to be flawless. It took a long time to understand that about myself. I don’t mean flawless in the “***flawless” Beyoncé sense; I mean perfect, undamaged, smooth—what young women are supposed to strive to be. My edges have always been jagged, and I’m a provocative person despite how much I loathe loud confrontations. I am aggressive about who I am and the woman I want to be, but I have always gotten high off showing the delicate skin of my wrists, thin and translucent. This blog has a readership because I’m becoming steadily less afraid to go there, to write about post-graduate depression and imposter syndrome and herpes and heartbreak. I’ve always been very good at owning who I am… at least once I’ve had time to process who that might be.

A few years ago a spider bit me while I was driving, and after a handful of days the spot on my upper thigh became infected. A ring about four inches in diameter turned chillingly red, raised and running hotter than the rest of my skin. The swelling died down with the help of antibiotics but it formed a gruesome black abscess about an inch across that needed to be popped, drained, and covered with gauze as it healed. The process was disgusting and agonizing, and for months I had a pus-rimmed crater in my thigh that I told strangers was a gunshot wound.

To make matters worse, this infection coincided with my first herpes outbreak, and the two collided in a perfect storm of pain, fever, shame, and heavy medication. It was one of the most traumatizing and painful episodes of my life. Now it is little more than a hazy, white blur in my memory, unless something pulls it back to the surface. Or, to use the technical term, unless it is triggered.

Over two years the hole in my leg shrunk inward, my skin knitting itself back together. Now it is little more than a dime-sized red circle and I run my fingertips over it sometimes. Partners are careful with it, apologizing profusely when they snag it with a fingernail by accident, but it doesn’t hurt. The scar is part of the embroidery of my body now, ugly and me. I would rather be resilient than flawless. Maybe that is why I have always considered ‘badass’ to be the highest of compliments.

On my third night in Vancouver, just before the beginning of TED2015, I found myself having dinner with three other TED staffers. We passed around a bowl of mac and cheese and chatted about the speakers whose talks we were most excited to see that week, not as part of TED but as individuals. It was impossible to choose just one: there was Martine Rothblatt, the elusive tech entrepreneur who also happens to be a trans woman; Fei-Fei Lee, a computer scientist teaching machines to recognize objects in much the same way her son is learning about the world; and Dame Ellen MacArthur, who broke the world record for the fastest trip around the world in a yacht by herself.

And of course, Monica Lewinsky. I was fixated on Lewinsky. I had been ever since I watched her early rehearsal footage and found my hands shaking. I was shocked by how much I related to someone who up until that point had been nothing but a vague caricature from my early childhood. When her scandal first broke I was too young to understand the disturbing sexual politics at play, but I am now the same age she was during the affair: twenty-two years old. That week at TED, Lewinsky went on to reclaim her narrative with incredible poise almost twenty years after having it snatched away by mass media.

The speakers we personally looked forward to the most were badasses, we concluded. Sure they were brilliant; most TED speakers are. But more than that, they were daring, strong, and very human. They were also all women, as were the four of us having the conversation.

In a year when the majority of TED’s speakers at the annual conference were men, it was the female (or female-identified) speakers who had me hanging onto their every word. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from how they held themselves, some unapologetic in their presence as if they had no doubt they belonged there, others acutely aware of how much they had to fight to reach that stage. Dame Stephanie “Steve” Shirley sat on a stool for her talk, wearing an eye-catching floral blouse that would have made me dismiss her at first glance if I had less respect for vintage clothing. She proceeded to hold us all spellbound as she detailed her pioneering rise to the top of the 1960s tech industry. “You can always tell ambitious women by the shape of our heads,” she quipped. “They’re flat on top from being patted patronizingly.”

A friend and I messaged through many of these talks the same refrain: “Badass.” “Baller.” “The ultimate HBIC.” For someone as young as me, at the very beginning of my career, to be in the presence of so many lady bosses was practically electric.

And the same went for my experience backstage. The coworkers I collaborate with most often on TED’s editorial team are predominantly ladies of the talented and hardworking variety, managers and teammates, mentors and friends. We took a team picture together with the TED letters and someone decided we should all “look badass” in the photo. I’m the smallest, the newest, but I gave it my best shot.

(Most of) the warriors of Team Editorial.

A few days into the conference I began fantasizing about my own TED Talk, as TED staffers are wont to do. When you stare at that beautifully lit stage for long enough, you crave the chance to be on it, to stare out into those faces and change the world, maybe, in the allotted ten to twenty minutes. In my fantasy I am wearing my favorite black Kills tank top under a leather jacket, or maybe a blazer for a sheen of respectability. The first two lines of my talk: “No three words have struck as much fear into the hearts of both listener and speaker as I have herpes. Except, perhaps, you have herpes, which implies an element of surprise.”

That night I discovered that while my brain had been racing with new ideas and appreciation for this whirlwind of a business trip, my body was panicking. The new environment, long hours, and lack of alone time meant stress I hadn’t consciously felt, and I had my first herpes outbreak in two years—my second outbreak ever.

Staffers dashed around me as I stared unseeing at the Google spreadsheet we were using to organize social media coverage. I felt fear for logical reasons: had I packed Valtrex? Would I have access to painkillers? And, oh god…should I explain to my manager that the trap door at the back of my brain had just been wrenched open by the gravity of the past? I was clinging with my fingertips at the edge, fighting the black hole of trauma I associated with this unique type of pain. For a moment I thought I would lose myself. For a moment I was no one at all.

I compartmentalized—how I managed to do so is still a mystery to me; perhaps I just knew I had no other choice. I swung the trap door shut with all my might, lines of Twitter copy still strung about my fingers like cobwebs. But I was shaken and it showed.

As it turned out I had packed the medication I needed, and the staff room was full of all the Extra Strength Tylenol a herpedic girl could ask for. I told my manager I wasn’t feeling well and headed back to the hotel for a bath and good night’s sleep. Around 3am my body woke me up again, demanding attention, but I was more uncomfortable than in pain. I kept waiting for the violent self-loathing I had felt in the past every time I previously suspected I was having an outbreak. I remembered how my partner coached me into breathing through a panic attack when I woke him up sobbing in the middle of the night. I still knew the words that battered me from inside back then, that I was disgusting, shameful, unlovable, that this was my fault. And I knew the words he used to bring me back to myself, that I was safe, that I was not alone, that it would be okay.

My roommate tossed and turned in her bed next to mine. I wondered if I was numb. Was I suppressing the feelings that had nearly overwhelmed me in the staff room only a few hours ago? Would they come back tomorrow, or next week when the conference was over? But no, I really was okay—there was more copy to brainstorm, and more Tylenol when necessary, and I woke up in the morning with clean hair and the awareness that I was now two years stronger than I was when I had my last outbreak. Everything could be dealt with. Everything could be survived.

In the New York Times profile about her that ran the same day she gave her TED Talk, Monica Lewinsky had this to say: “One of the things I’ve learned about trauma is that when you find yourself retriggered, it’s helpful to recognize when things are different.”

I never felt fully comfortable identifying as a survivor—what was I survivor of? I knew the significance of claiming that identity for victims of sexual assault, but the violation of consent I experienced when I was given an STI wasn’t the same thing. I have survived things, sure—the smoke fumes of triggers catch in my lungs every time I smell my emotionally abusive ex’s cologne. But survivor lends the past a centrality of being, and my experiences don’t define me as much as they used to anymore. I would rather be a badass than a survivor. Someone capable of so much, the sum of her experiences and the only one qualified to speak about them.

Watching Lewinsky give her TED talk was one of those moments I will never forget for the rest of my life. To see a woman become the keeper of her own life again, of her own narrative and meaning in this world, was nothing less than transformative. When she was in her twenties, the media decided who Monica Lewinsky was. At TED, she set a remarkable example by refusing that definition and telling the world just who she is, as well as what her experience will mean. You got the sense that it was Day One of the rest of her life.

The official theme of TED2015 was Truth and Dare. But the unofficial theme, for me at least, was what makes someone a badass in the first place. Badass suggests an undeniable level of cool, for one thing. There’s a reason my most-worn item of clothing is my leather jacket, its elbows now faded and stringy from nearly seven years of use. Despite it having seen better days, I wore it like armor throughout the conference. Badass also implies boldness, determination, and strength. Badasses seem to not give a fuck while very much giving a fuck about specific issues and goals that they deem important. Badasses refuse to be told that they are incapable of anything, whether that might be sailing around the world alone or curing a rare disease.

But badasses are not perfect—they can’t be, because they do not fit anyone else’s standards. A badass is not fearless, but she does not let fear stop her. She cares so much it hurts. She gets knocked out, cut down, and told to shut up, but her scars are proof she didn’t listen. If she listened, she didn’t let them stop her. A badass is not flawless; she is the sum of her flaws and doesn’t care about being flawless in the first place. A badass knows who she is and tells the world. And a badass doesn’t just endure.

She creates.

My co-workers told me that my first TED conference would be a life-changing experience. They warned that it would be exhausting, hectic, and more than a little terrifying, but they promised me that I would come out on the other side a different person. TED2015 was enriching and challenging, don’t get me wrong, but I found it instead showed me how much I already changed without even noticing. Parts of myself had healed, new skin had grown over wounds that were still open the last time I checked. My second outbreak passed without a breakdown, or even so much as a tearful call to my mother. Instead of ruining the most important business trip of my life thus far, it is now just an interesting anecdote for my eventual TED Talk.

“Yo even if I totally blow it on this stage today, still won’t be as ridiculous as the first time I came to TED…”


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Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.

9 thoughts on “The badass women of TED: or, my second herpes outbreak

  1. Please stop using “female-identified” to describe trans women. They are women. They are female. Period. They “identify” as who they are, just like everyone does.

  2. Your an inspiration Ella. I have wanted to come out so to speak & do something like this forever. I wish I had the strength and courage you have! Your amazing! Xx

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