Body Ownership: On shame, humiliation, growth, and acceptance.

I started going to the gym again this week. It’s been a while. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror at work yesterday and did not like what I saw.

As much as I talk about how I want to lose weight to be healthy, I don’t know how true that really is. I am already healthy. I carry a little more weight around, but every time I go to the doctor, it’s all good news.

The fact is that I want to be thinner. I’m tired of my thighs rubbing together until they burn. I’m tired of the way I hate having my belly touched. I’m tired of my arms being thick and dangling. I’m really tired of not being able to wear button down shirts that fit me nicely around the middle because of my belly.

I want to wear clothes that make me feel good and sexy without feeling like a sausage in a casing.

And I want to be able to say that to people. But I feel like, in saying that, they will see me as saying that bigness is a bad thing. It’s not. It’s just not something that I am happy with. I love all my gorgeous, fabulous, loud and large friends. They’re great. And I’m glad that they are happy living in their bodies and admire the work that they have done to get there despite the bill of goods they are sold all the time.

Losing weight is a weird topic nowadays. I feel like I can’t be as excited or expressive about it as I want to be because I will be seen as fat shaming myself. I take great care when talking about this stuff to not say how badly I want to be thinner, because I’m aware that it’s a touchy topic for a lot of people.

If I’m being really honest with myself, what I want is to be thinner. To be able to see my back  muscles in a mirror. I am all about back muscles and I really want to see mine in ripples move across my back when I lift a heavy thing in the gym. I want to have legs and arms that are defined and strong, where you can see the muscles move as I run or climb a rope. I want to see my abs for the first time ever. I know they’re under there. I can feel them when I flex my stomach as I lift heavy things. But I want to see them.

I want to be more confident in my body. And the more time I spend at the gym, the more I feel myself become aware of what I can do. The less afraid I am of headstands and running with my dog and hiking and riding a bike. Because without physical activity, I withdraw from my body. I try not to notice it. It becomes an elephant in the room that I do not talk about and do not want anyone to acknowledge.

When I think about myself I don’t see myself the way that I look in the mirror. I see myself as powerful. And I want to look powerful. I want my muscles to show.

When I walk into the gym as I am now, I feel this powerful sense of humiliation. I feel like the unfit among the glorious. Even though not everyone around me is necessarily thin. I know that the people around me are somehow better than me. And I feel them looking at and judging me. It makes me flustered. Makes me wish I hadn’t come.

The hard part for me isn’t just getting the nerve up to go to the gym. The hard part is staying. The hard part is not fleeing the field in tears because I know that I don’t fit in with these other people who are so much more deserving and hard working than I am.

Afterwards, when I am at home and showering and enjoying the blooming ache of muscles, I feel awake and alert as my body chemically responds to my workout. Those moments are amazing. And the moments when, at the gym, I stop thinking about anyone but myself, about anything but the task at hand. About anything but my goals. Those moments are amazing too.

I live in those moments. I nurture them afterward. I dwell on them as I fantasize about what my body will look like down the line. And I try to feel pride in each little victory on the way.

I have to remind myself: This is something I can do. I am capable. I am enough. And let everything else fall away.

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On being afraid all the time.

I used the Companion app to walk myself home last week with a virtual companion.

I resented every moment of it’s presence in my pocket. Even though it was helping me. I resented it’s existence. Even though it made me feel safer.

I resented it because I needed to be made to feel safe rather than feeling safe naturally.

I left my brother at Broad Street and told my phone where I was going. I told it to tell my girlfriend if anything happened to me.

On the way home, in the space between street lights, I turned to see if anyone followed me.

Shadows lurking at a corner up ahead, a group of four, sent me walking across the street to avoid an unwanted situation. When I passed them a block later, they proved to be three teenage girls.

From a distance, every shadow is menacing.

I remember being younger, in high school, a friend asked me to walk her to her door from the car that was dropping us off, down her dark street in Port Richmond.

I don’t know what she thought I would be able to do if we were threatened, but I agreed, and walked her to her house in my combat boots and pleather jacket, trying with all my might to ooze the type of confidence I had seen men saunter with.

On my way back from her door, I passed an alleyway.

Shadows separated from the shadows of the alley wall, growing larger as they drew closer.

“Here, kitty kitty,” one of the shadows whispered. Menacing.

Heart in my throat, I bolted down the street to the safety of the car and jumped in. I imagine I looked like an action movie stunt person. I told the person in the car to drive.

A short distance down the block, the alleyway gave birth to lurking shadows. I sat in the car, shaking.

We anchor ourselves, we of the femme persuasion, to safety zones. Our apartments, the brilliance of night-erasing street lamps, the arms and company of friends. We anchor ourselves there and stretch to the ends of tethers, hoping that we will not be cut loose.

We need apps to walk us home. Because walking home is not safe.

We send texts to let family members know we are alive. Because they worry otherwise.

The world outside of our safety zones is not a safe one. We careen from one into the other, traversing the intervening space as quickly as possible. We plan the shortest routes.

When people tell me that gender equality is over. When they say we don’t need feminism. I ask them to explain to me why, if that is true, I am so terrified to be on the streets alone at night.

Moving. Doorways. Exhaustion.

Frankie and I are getting ready to move. Moving is always a really strange feeling. The uncertainty of it. The odd, liminal feeling of being between places. Of having one foot in a solid, real-feeling space and the other in a dream. The whole process fills me with anxiety.

What if there isn’t enough water pressure?
What if the utilities cost a fortune?
What if the neighbors are homophobic?

There is an element of throwing oneself into the unknown. Of leaping and hoping to be caught.

It’s also exciting. You start to plan out what your life will look like. To fantasize about where you will put your things. About walking home. About the things that you fell in love with about your new space. I get lost in daydreams about no longer dealing with the things that frustrate me about my current apartment. It’s such a good feeling, knowing you will be free.

The whole process is exhausting in the extreme. Boxing up your life and preparing to take it to a new place is stressful and time-consuming. There are so many things I am going to want to do in the next month that I’m not going to be able to.

All this is to say that I’m super excited about the move and all the possibilities and opportunities that it opens up, but I am also going to be totally wiped over the next month or so and ask you all to bear with me.

Good things are coming!

Nudity: An Ode

warm winds touch bare skin
softer when it is
divested of restraining fabrics

water kisses more gently
the flanks we bare
so willingly

similarly,
eyes see more clearly
into eyes
stripped of defenses

laid nude like
heroic marble
standing tall
and unafraid


Photo credit: Self portrait of a reclining Amelie Rives Chanler. (MSS 8925. Photograph by Petrina Jackson)

National Coming Out Day: I’m late as usual

In middle school, I fell in love with my straight best friend. As so many lesbians are wont to do, it seems. Identifying it as love or sexual attraction was something I didn’t do until later, but the way that I hung on her every word, the way that I pined after her for years, how I mourned when she passed from my life, all of that was the beginning of me coming into myself. A process that would take far longer than I expected.

Like so many people, coming out for me was more gradual than the stereotypical and somewhat fictive egress from the social closet. I spent years questioning my sexuality. Years in and out of shitty relationships. Settling for less than I deserved. Struggling with the “bi” label and trying to figure out why my relationships with women always felt like fantasies, too easy to possibly be true. While my relationships with men were always a struggle. A struggle that I associated with realness and authenticity in a way that was incredibly damaging. So, you know, thanks for that, romantic comedies.

Oddly, coming out to myself was the hardest part. I remember sitting in bed with Frankie, early on in our relationship. I had this sick feeling in my stomach as I turned to her and said:

“I’ve been having this really ugly thought.”

“What thought is that?” she asked, not giving away at all the fact that she already knew the thing I was going to tell her.

“What if I’m just… gay?”

The impact of that question was like a physical blow. Frankie let me eat a lot of ice cream to console myself. And she did not let on that she already knew for a whole hour after my initial statement. Because she’s sweet like that. The implications it had for every relationship I had entered into before her were staggering. I felt like I should apologize to every man I had dated from age fifteen to twenty-nine for being totally gay and not really present at all during those relationships. For playing house with them.

The coming out process isn’t as simple as acknowledging it to yourself, of course. The coming out process is ongoing and public as well as privately played out. It’s not as if we all get slapped with a rainbow sign when we admit who we are to ourselves. It’s not that simple. I still come out once or twice a week because, as a queer femme person, people never expect me to have a female partner. The ongoing and repetitive outing of myself can be frustrating. But it can also be surprising and comforting, to see how positively people react. How excited they are for us to be together. Support and love can be found in the strangest places.

Coming out to my friends has always been as simple as showing up in a place with a girl. Or talking about girlfriends. Coming out to strangers is similarly easy. Coming out to family was harder. Way harder.

I think it can be hardest for family because they set ideas and expectations up about you from a very early age. They imagine a life for you, build an image of you in their heads that it can be hard to deviate from. Although, to my brother’s credit, he knew about my dawning queerness from the moment I fell in love with Liz in middle school. And he never once gave me grief about it.

I told my mom pretty early on that I was queer. When I experimented with polyamory, she knew about that too. But I don’t think my sexuality became real for her until I moved in with Frankie and brought her around at holidays. And even then, it didn’t really hit until we got the right to marry in Pennsylvania and she and my dad had to grapple with the reality of that legal shift.

The initial fallout was hard. We’ve gotten past it, though. And even that has happened in small steps. Little gestures and statements that move us past the hurt and betrayal of that first explosive fight that ended in me cutting off contact with them for several months.

So that’s it! That’s my coming out story. Such as it is. It’s strange and involved and a little convoluted. It was hard to write about because the narrative is so much bigger than one of stepping out from the shadows. I’m still working through all the baggage I’m carrying around from having not known myself for so many years. I suspect that process will go on for quite some time. But I’m happier now than I have ever been, all things considered. Reconciling with who I really am has been such a worthwhile process. And it will continue to be. That much I am sure of. Because hidden in the depths that I’m revealing is a sensation of caring for myself that is new and gentle and worth all of the strife and upset that it took to get me to this place.

Happy National Coming Out Day, everyone!

 

Art Lesson: The Male Gaze

I’m gonna use my degrees in this blog! Are you excited? I’m excited. Ok. Here we go.

One of the things that I learned about in my art history classes was the male gaze. The term was coined by feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey and has been talked about by all sorts of smart people. Susanna Danuta Walters defines the male gaze as having three distinct “looks.”

First is the gaze within the representation itself: men gaze at women, who become objects of the gaze; second, the spectator, in turn, is made to identify with this male gaze and to objectify the woman on the screen; and third, the camera’s original “gaze” comes into play in the very act of filming; the camera here can be understood as an extension of the male eye.

The gaze within the painting is always interesting to me. I didn’t really start thinking about it until I took a class on Impressionism and noticed the way that the figures in the paintings looked at each other. And how those looks effected the way that I read the painting and what was happening in it. The play of glances in a piece of art can turn women into objects or empowered beings. They can change men from slaves into free soldiers and mercenaries. They can turn a relationship from sweet to sour, based simply on where the people in a picture are placing their eyes.

The act of gazing at a painting is another means by which we can experience the male gaze. There are a lot of paintings and pieces of art that make me feel as though I am being voyeuristic merely by looking at them. The most famous of which, to me, is Marcel Duchamp’s assemblage Étant donnés: 1. La chute d’eau, 2. Le gaz d’éclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas). In this particular work, the absence of the face and the inability of the figure to look back at the viewer is particularly unsettling. Added to the fact that one must peer through too small holes in the wooden door preceding the work, the whole piece takes on a voyeuristic feeling which is incredibly difficult to reconcile for most viewers.

ED-2

When Walters points out that the camera itself is an extension of the male gaze, she is referring to the idea that the creation of the image itself is an inherently voyeuristic act. Art and voyeurism are bedfellows a lot of the time. It’s the nature of art and the artist to be looked at, after all, and the nature of the public to look. The voyeurism inherent in art is highlighted when it comes to photography, which allows the artist to capture something in a moment without the necessity of hours of work or even, and this is especially true nowadays, the consent of the subject that they are capturing. But photographs are not the only medium that can create the feeling of voyeurism. Sometimes that feeling is the intention of the artist. Sometimes it is something that is read into the experience based on what the viewer carries with them. And voyeurism does not necessarily have to imply the male gaze in any way.

The thing about the male gaze is that, once you are aware of it, you can’t ever unsee it. It’s kind of like feminism. Once you start to see the world through a certain lens, you can’t just flip a switch and turn that lens off.

So now that you’ve had a mini art lesson, here’s an object lesson in the extremity to which the male gaze is recognizable.

When I sat down the other week at Talking Headz and waited to get my side buzz refreshed, I did what I usually do, consummate art nerd that I am. I opened the issue of American Art Collector that was sitting on the table in the waiting area. I paged through it, then stopped when I was confronted with these two images, facing each other.

20150919_112817 - 1

Without even looking at the pictures of the artists, I knew that the image on the right was done by a male artist. Everything about her pose says “I am being looked at. I am here to be looked at.” She locks eyes with the viewer, her arms held over her head to expose her chest. Even her vagina is bare. She holds nothing back.

In his bio, J. Richard Anderson states that he wants to portray the modern woman of the 21st century. He says “She is empowered and takes control of her future and her destiny. She is, without question, amazing.” But that is not what he has given us in this image. Tamara, as this painting is titled, has no future. She has no destiny. She does not have anything in this image to put her into a societal context. She stands in front of a white background, totally divorced from the real world. She is ideal in that she is uncomplicated and exists only to be consumed by the viewer. Anderson’s version of “empowerment” is entirely a sexual one. He wants his women just empowered enough to bare their pussies for a nude photo shoot, but he is unable to conceive of a woman’s power beyond the moment in which it is given over in an act of sexual surrender.

Morning Light by artist Connie Renner also portrays a semi-nude woman, but the differences could not be more explicit. Rendered in a style reminiscent of Mary Cassatt, she sits up in bed, sunlight streaming across the wall behind her. Like Tamara, her arms are also behind her head, but it appears as though she is in the act of putting up her hair. Or perhaps stretching. Flowers adorn the background. The fabric draped around her waist warms her skin lends a sense of wanton immodesty to the scene that feels somewhat cheeky. She is not looking at us, but we do not feel like a voyeur. We are in her space, but it feels as though we have her permission. We are her intimates. Her trusted friends. Perhaps her lovers.

The strange thing is that the direct eye contact of Tamara tends to put me in mind of Manet’s Olympia and other women like Renee Cox that I tend think of as empowered and in control of their bodies. But eye contact does not always mean agency, and this woman does not seem to have any in this image. In a similar contradiction, I tend to associate anonymity with powerlessness in images of woman. But, although Renner’s woman is anonymous, she feels powerful even without a name. She is not looking at us, but the sense of voyeurism is mitigated by the soft Cassatt-like style that draws us in rather than holding us at arms length.

I have had several furious conversations about these works over the last several weeks with artist friends and feminists. And all of them have immediately commented on how gross and exploitative the work on the right seems, when compared to the work on the left. Part of me wonders if the pairing of these two was not a joke on the part of whoever laid out the edition. Because the pairing seems too strange and sarcastic and perfect not to be.

This is not to say that the male gaze cannot create things that are of great value and artistic integrity. It is merely to say that the male gaze is pretty easily recognized. And that this particular guy’s view of women is troubling, strange, stilted, and pornographic in a way that, I imagine, would make it hard to sell paintings. It is worth noting that, 5 years after this magazine was published, I can find Renner’s web site but it looks as though Anderson is not even online any longer. Which I guess is what you can expect when you create paintings of what are, essentially, overblown Playboy centerfolds.


The cropped image in my header is from Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 painting, Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer (Wanderer Above the Mist).

What I learned from going viral on Twitter

Content Advisory: Suicide, graphic images, harassment.

I don’t really tweet all that much. I’ve had my Twitter account for years, but it hasn’t been something I’ve been really interested in until very recently. And even recently, it’s not a huge priority to me. I tweet sporadically, contributing to hashtags or commiserating with friends on occasion. I don’t even have 300 followers as of this posting.

Ten days ago I posted the following to Twitter in an effort to support the #ShoutYourAbortion hashtag. I posted other things to, but, as you can see, this one got just a little more attention.

Pretty much immediately after posting it, I was inundated with tweets from trolls and internet abusers. And I wasn’t the only person to receive abuse over this. The originator of the hashtag, Amelia Bonow, was forced to go into hiding after the hashtag went viral. Which I guess just goes to show that the “pro life” set really is more “pro-birth” than pro actual human life.

At any rate, the first abuse that I saw was an image of a man holding severed heads sent to me by Twitter user @TwerkingSpider [GRAPHIC original tweet behind hyperlink]. I immediately reported and blocked him. I have since been told by Twitter that his message was “not in violation of the Twitter Rules.” Which I just… don’t get. Their rules specifically say you cannot threaten people, and I’m not sure how sending someone a picture of decapitated heads does not constitute a “threat.” But maybe I’m just being over-sensitive, right? There’s such a thing as a friendly beheading, right? Right?

Of course, it didn’t end there. There were other tweets telling me I was basically an ugly dude and that I should kill myself. Which, coming from supposedly “pro-life” people was just… confusing and enraging.

There were loads more. Luckily, I went on vacation and missed a lot of it. I also had cool people around me who told me about how to block the majority of the yuckiness.

I learned a lot in the few days that my tweet exploded. I learned that people on the internet do not know how to use basic logic when it conflicts with their opinions. I learned that the ease of tweeting lends itself to all manner of repulsive insults and hurtful words being slung about. And I learned that answering those people with ridiculous questions and comments like “ARE YOU A RIDDLE?” and “LEARN LOGIC.” brought me no small measure of joy.

There were two big things that the people arguing with me seem to have trouble dealing with.

  1. Bodily autonomy: fetuses are not more valuable than adults.
    • I know it’s hard to grasp, but a fetus does not have a right to live at the expense of the body of another person any more than a fully grown human does. If I have cancer and the only thing that can save me is your bone marrow, you cannot be compelled to give it to me. No matter how sick I am.
      I think the fact that fetuses cannot speak for themselves is the thing that gets a lot of people with this one. And I get it, you want to speak for the silent masses of developing blastocysts or whatever. That’s fine. But the fact of the matter is, even if they could talk, they would not have any more of a right to life than I would, dying of cancer because you didn’t want to give me your bone marrow.
  2. Abortion has always existed. And will always exist. Because sex is fun.
    • Sex is super fun. It’s true. People have been banging for the fun of it for ages and ages. Hell, the Romans drove silphium to extinction with their need for birth control to manage family size. This isn’t new information. It’s not a shockingly revolutionary societal development like lolcats or something. Society didn’t wake up one day and become this loose moral ground where people can bang whoever they want. People have always banged whoever they want. Acting like it’s a surprise just makes you sound like a totally disconnected idealist who doesn’t get how the world works. Or, you know, genitals.
      Since sex for funsies has always existed, so has birth control, and so has abortion. The difference between abortion now and abortion at the beginning of human civilization is that, not unlike childbirth, women have a better chance of surviving it now.

For the most part, I don’t have many friends who will argue with the rightness of a woman’s right to choose for herself whether to continue with a pregnancy. But I’d like to take a moment for the one friend who I had before the #ShoutYourAbortion hashtag went up that did, apparently, stand in the opposing camp.

She’s religious, of course. And she has an issue with abortion. The strange thing for me is that, years ago, before she got married, she and I had a conversation about abortion, the end result of which was her stating that she was, in fact, “pro-choice.” Because even if she wouldn’t get one herself, she wasn’t the sort of person to stand in front of the rights of other women to a safe and healthy medical procedure that was perfectly legal.

Now, though, things have changed. I don’t know if she was merely paying lip service to me before, or if being married to someone who works for the Archdiocese changed her viewpoints. I can’t say either way. Needless to say, we got into a long conversation about my tweet and her views on abortion. I’m going to take the main thrust of our discussion and spin it out here for you.

In my original tweet, I re-posted an image talking about bodily autonomy, which is my chief reasoning behind my stance as pro-choice, as well as one of my core principles generally. The reason I say that I “had” this friend before we had this debate is that, during it, she called the autonomy argument “silly.” I have a couple of problems with that. The first of which being that the right of everyone on this planet to control what happens to their body is at the core of my system of beliefs about the world. The second of which is that, legally, our bodily autonomy is very important. It’s one of the things that makes rape illegal. Or assault. Consent and all of it’s trappings are important and valuable components of our legal system.

All in all, the conversation did not go well. But it made me think. And it made me realize that, if you do not value the autonomy of others and their ability to make the medical choices that are right for them and follow through with them safely, I can’t really be friends with you. That’s a line in the sand that I am more than willing to draw. And one that will happily stand by.

So #ShoutYourAbortion, my loves. Shout because it is nothing you should be ashamed of. Shout because you made the right decision. Shout because one day, the act of you shouting will not be something to be frightened of.