Why Don’t Men Get To Be Sexy?

I was just recently watching a video of a dance competition in which the couple competing were dancing “sexy.” When the woman shook her hips, she got cheers. When the man did a little shimmy, the announcer said “that’s just wrong.”

People talk a lot about the expectations that are placed on women to look a certain way, and how those pressures negatively affect them. Nearly every woman I know has self esteem issues surrounding their body, has dieted or is dieting, worries about their weight, and is uncomfortable identifying themselves as beautiful. This seems to come about because women are hyper-sexualized and forced to be in the role of “sexually available” pretty much all the time. If you’re a woman, beauty is the price of admission for life. So when a woman acts sexy or dresses up or puts on new makeup, people cheer.

But there’s another element to the “women are the sexual objects” bullshit that doesn’t get much airtime and it’s one that pisses me off royally. Whenever I try to tell my boyfriend that he’s sexually attractive, he gets legitimately confused. It’s rare for men to be called sexy unless they’re movie stars. When your average man dresses up or tries to shake his booty, people laugh or shrug it off or say “you clean up good,” as if that’s all the validation that men need when they’re trying to present themselves nicely.

Why don’t men get to feel sexy too? Why don’t we treat men as attractive?

I’m a straight woman. I’m more likely to describe other women as hot or sexy than I am men. Isn’t that a little bit odd? Isn’t it likely that people are going to feel uncomfortable with their sexuality, their bodies, and their relationships if they’ve never been told they’re desirable, or never seen other people of their gender labeled desirable?

Here are some problems with men never thinking they’re attractive:

1. It’s considered weird if a woman initiates sex or intimacy

2. Men think that they must be the aggressors and feel a great deal of pressure to initiate

3. The idea that women must be convinced into sex makes more sense, because men are simply not attractive. Therefore no woman would ever want sex on her own, and so must be convinced/coerced/forced to have it.

4. Physical attractiveness and other positive traits get separated. Men see themselves as intelligent/funny/capable, but not attractive, whereas women are attractive and so cannot be those other things.

5. Men are more afraid of looking at their own bodies, being open to different sexual things, or seeing sex as a mutually pleasurable experience that they can approach in a variety of ways because they can’t conceive of their bodies as something sexy or interesting or attractive, but rather as a tool or instrument for doing things.

6. It just feels really awful to think you’re unattractive, and we’re teaching boys that their bodies will never be attractive.

We can do better. We can teach our kids that every body is attractive in some ways and to some people, and probably less attractive to other people. We can teach people that their bodies are desirable, that they’re desirable, and that they can both give and receive pleasure thanks to their bodies. Even men. We can teach each other that anyone is allowed to pursue a romantic interest (until that interest indicates they do not reciprocate the interest) and that there’s nothing creepy, weird, or wrong about women being the assertive ones or even about having a mutual relationship in which each partner initiates sometimes and some things.

I think men are sexy. I think my partner is sexy. And I want men to know that they are sexy.

Playing, Introverts, The Highly Sensitive, and Bodies

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about play. I don’t play very much. I write, I do trivia games sometimes, I crossword, and I watch TV. But I don’t play. I’ve never played sports (I just work out), I’ve never played video games. I only recently started playing board and RP games. From the moment I learned how to read as a kid, it was my chosen form of entertainment. I’d spend hours and hours in the summer holed up in my room curled around a book, ignoring the outside world.

Oh sure sometimes I’d play with my beanie babies or make up stories with my friends, but I wasn’t very good at doing anything like that myself. I was already creating involved to do lists by the age of 12. I never simply explored.

There’s a lot of evidence that play is really good for human beings. It’s how we learn things, it’s one of the ways we become comfortable with our bodies and our environments, it makes us more creative and better at problem solving, and it often creates social connections that go a long way towards making us more comfortable with people more quickly.

Basically, play is great. It makes us happier, better connected, smarter, and better workers.

In concert with thinking about play, I’ve been reading a lot about introverts and highly sensitive people lately. I am a pretty classic introvert, and I am definitely what’s called a highly sensitive person. For those who aren’t familiar with that term, it refers to someone who reacts to physical, emotional, and social stimuli more strongly than others. That means on a physiological level, not simply in the behavior they have in response.

These characteristics tend to lead a person to want to control their environment. You’re more likely to seek out calm environments, dark spaces, less people, intellectual and internal stimuli rather than outside interests. And I pretty well fit those descriptions. When I did seek outside stimuli, I did so in very structured ways: I joined clubs and classes and activities because they made sense and had a clear structure and order to them that I could rely on.

Exploring things has always been scary to me. New foods, new sounds, new places are highly overwhelming because I just feel a lot. Unfortunately, that’s made play, especially individual, explorational play, really hard for me. I didn’t do a lot of playing in the dirt or wandering around on my own or poking at things when I was little, and I still prefer things to be in a clear order rather than just jumping in and messing around with something new. I can’t color or do arts because there’s no clear end point. I can’t just listen to music, I have to be doing something else with a point. I have a really hard time with these things.

So: I’m introverted and highly sensitive, which means I’m not much good at explorative play. I’ve managed to do ok when it comes to creativity and connection through some hard work with my therapist. But what’s still giving me serious trouble is my relationship with my body. I have serious difficulties seeing my body as part of myself, something necessary and innate, something that is me rather than just an annoying extra feature that I’d rather get rid of.

Theory: play helps us understand our own bodies. It helps us develop the senses that locate where the parts of our bodies are, it helps us understand the limitations and abilities of our bodies and respect what they can and can’t do for us. In many anecdotes about bold kids who play often and without fear, I hear that they grow up to be people who are pretty at home with their physical presence and not afraid of being hurt.

The more you play, the more you realize that a body is part of being human. It lets you learn and interact. Kids who don’t play, but instead read or work or practice an instrument, or whatever, don’t learn how to just exist with their body and be ok with it. They need something external to help them along. There are lots of people who don’t play enough anymore. Humans pretty naturally play throughout their whole lives, unlike many other animals. But we keep forgetting to do that, which may be leading to some disconnects from our bodies.

It seems highly likely to me that kids who are introverted or highly sensitive might need a little more effort on the part of their parents to give them space to play. They might need quieter spaces with less color and less stimulation. Maybe they need to play with one other person instead of lots, and be allowed to take the lead in their play. Maybe they need a yard that’s fenced in so they know what to expect. Maybe as adults, we introverts and sensitives need to make these kinds of spaces for ourselves.

Let’s try an experiment: I’m going to play more this week. I’m going to climb, I’m going to play in the rain, I’m going to roll around with my kitten and doodle and get messy in the kitchen. I’m going to buy a ball or some nerf swords and see what I can do with them. Play will be my task. One thing that I’ve found works incredibly well for me when it’s warm is to go somewhere I can climb or run or swim with a friend and a camera, and just go on a photo adventure. What works for you?

Liz Lemon Is No Tina Belcher

I’m a bit behind on the times, but I’m finally getting around to watching 30 Rock. Unsurprisingly, I deeply enjoy it and also appreciate that Liz Lemon is unabashedly interested in promoting women. But there’s one little thing that drives me crazy every time I watch the show.

Tina Fey is a conventionally attractive woman. She is skinny, white, has a pretty face, dresses perfectly well in the show and elsewhere, is able bodied and cis. There is really nothing about Tina Fey that falls into the unattractive category. She also is a pretty normal person. Her weirdest habits are such odd things as eating, not going to the gym, and working too much. So why are there comments nearly every episode about how Liz Lemon is fat, how she’ll never get a boyfriend, and how she’s really weird?

There’s an entire plot line about how she needs to settle instead of holding out for her ideal man, because she’s already over the hill (at the age of 40, which is younger than my parents had me). How damaging is it to see a beautiful, skinny woman called ugly and fat over and over? I know that personally when I watch the show, I walk away feeling more self conscious and more worried about my appearance because any body is apparently fair game for criticism, even in shows that are purportedly feminist.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with being not conventionally attractive, or honest to goodness full on weird. See other feminist idol Tina Belcher, the teenage heroine of Bob’s Burgers who is voiced by a man, drawn almost entirely with straight lines, and basically incapable of human interaction. She writes erotic stories about zombies. But Tina is not ashamed. Tina loves who she is, and no one gives her crap about it in the show.

The contrast in 30 Rock is uncomfortable. Liz isn’t doing anything wrong. She’s perfectly competent at her job, and yet she’s sexually harassed, teased, mocked for her weight and her body, and told she needs to stop eating as much. She seems ashamed of her behaviors, which is a weird choice for the writers and for Tina Fey as Liz is supposed to be a strong (although flawed) woman. We don’t need anymore women with stereotypical, unrealistic flaws. We don’t need anymore women whose flaws are that they work too hard and don’t clean enough and have high standards when it comes to dating and like to eat. I’m getting really sick of the “very pretty person portrays nerd/ugly person” trope, as it reinforces over and over again that a. ugly people shouldn’t be ugly because it’s wrong in some fashion and b. that if you actually aren’t conventionally attractive then you’re full on hideous.

This is hardly a new complaint. We see it in a lot of the geek to pretty girl movies like The Princess Diaries or She’s All That. Except that in this case it’s a show that’s heralded as being good for women, and it’s not nearly as obvious. There’s no one telling Liz that she directly needs to change in order to get something, just mocking. We can do better. We can have more Tina Belchers.

Maps on the Body: Further Thoughts on Gray Consent

The conversation in the ace and gray ace community about the nitty gritty confusing areas of consent has been robust since Queenie first proposed that we begin discussing it last week. I contributed my own minor thoughts here, and I’ve really appreciated the ways that others have built off or challenged those thoughts. Mostly, these thoughts have circulated around the experience of ace or gray ace people (and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that since this is a question that overwhelmingly affects that community), but today I want to touch on an element of it that’s probably more likely to affect allosexual folks. It’s not only ace people who sometimes deal with muddy, confusing, halfway consent, and I think addressing all the different ways this happens is going to be helpful for everyone as it will make conversations about consent more nuanced and help us create new models that can benefit anyone.

The last time I saw my therapist we were talking about asexuality. I’m still trying to figure out where on the spectrum I am, although at this moment I feel closer to allo than ace. I mentioned this to her and she said “Sometimes your body knows before you do. It might have been a sign those other relationships were over.”

Now if I were still actively identifying as ace this would have been a horrible thing to say, but since I’m in a fuzzy place it was incredibly helpful as a template to make sense of my experiences. I filed it away and didn’t think about it until a few days later when my partner tried to initiate sexytimes and I turned him down. I wasn’t really sure why and I felt guilty and weird about it (see: all the conversations from previous posts about compulsory sexuality and conflict aversion). He pushed me a little bit on why I was so quiet, and after some thinking I realized that we had left a previous conversation unfinished and I was still feeling uncomfortable about some of the requests I had made that he hadn’t quite answered. It was hardly a big deal or a fight, but I simply felt uncertain and off, and needed to talk out some relationship things.

I don’t know that I would have realized this if I hadn’t stopped and listened to the gut feeling that I wasn’t interested in intimacy at the moment. This is one of those times that a lot of advice blogs would have told me to just try to get in the mood because there was nothing in particular that was deterring me, I just wasn’t really feeling it. My partner and I would have lost out on some insight into ourselves and making our relationship stronger by figuring out some things that were stressing me out. My body knew before I did.

Here’s where I want to get real specific about what I mean. The purpose of emotions, in general, is to provide us with information. Fear tells us we’re in danger, sadness tells us we’ve lost something. Oftentimes we react emotionally to something before we can rationally sort out what an appropriate response would be: emotions are the immediate information (which means that sometimes they’re very, very off but that oftentimes they’re very helpful). Sometimes they put things together in ways we consciously don’t notice until we stop and pick at the emotion. It’s not completely off to suggest that sometimes we figure something out emotionally before we do rationally.

Bodies tend to be emotionally driven. I’ve written elsewhere about the fact that emotions are often physical. Our bodies often express our emotions before we even really know what we’re feeling. It’s important to pay attention to what our bodies are doing because it can provide us with information about how we’re feeling, which in turn gives us information about our surroundings, our boundaries, and our safety. I’ve noticed this happen quite often when it comes to sexual situations because they require a lot of trust and vulnerability. Sometimes it’s not immediately apparent that there might be a reason that you don’t want to be vulnerable with someone, but your emotions and your body tell you by just not being interested.

I’m concerned about many of the narratives that suggest we should compromise around sex and just try to have it if there’s no real reason not to. We don’t always know our reasons not to. We’re not always fully informed about ourselves, and this seems to be one more instance of ignoring the very important things about our bodies, like the ways that they’re intimately tied to our cognition and our emotions. Sometimes consent is clear and easy and we know what we want or don’t want. But sometimes consent requires time. I’ve almost never heard a script for “going slow” except in the sense of not having sex immediately in a relationship. What about one partner initiating some kissing and foreplay, and the other saying “hey, I’m not sure how I’m feeling, can we just kiss for a while?” and so that happens for a while. Maybe hands get involved, maybe partner two asks to back up a little, or maybe partner two says that they’re just not feeling it and they don’t know why. This opens the door for some conversation about how to make everyone feel more comfortable.

Now maybe some of you are thinking this is just basic consent. But it isn’t an on/off switch, as many people tend to think (even when they recognize that you can take away that consent at any point). It’s the process of figuring out together where everyone is and where their boundaries are at that moment, and maybe even why their boundaries have moved around. I don’t think it’s fair to either partner to expect each person to figure out exactly what they want on their own. It works a lot better if you talk it out a little bit. Maybe this is something like open consent, consent that you sort out together, consent when things aren’t clear but you don’t want to leave your partner with no clue about what’s going on in your head. To some extent the concept of negotiation covers this, but sometimes it’s not just about negotiating with the other person, but an internal negotiation as well.

Consent is often touted as a way to improve communication in sexual situations, and I’m all for that. What seems to be a potential problem is that if you don’t have a clear idea of what you want or need, it might scare you away from speaking up, as there isn’t good consent language for “I don’t know.” I’ve noticed that many people feel as if they need to have a clear answer yes or no before they say anything. I’m not entirely sure how many other people have this experience of embodied emotions, but it might be a nice way to talk about ambivalence: “my body isn’t really on board” or “I’m not sure why, but I’m just not getting turned on. Can we stop and talk for a minute?” It makes it less about whether you’re mad at the person, or what you’re thinking, and more about a simple fact that your body isn’t reacting.

Yes We Should Talk About Bodies

Body positivity, skinny shaming, fatphobia, fitspiration. The internet has brought the age of infinite scrutiny of bodies. There are a lot of problems with this. There are fights, there’s an us vs. them that appears between fat and skinny women, there’s name calling and huge amounts of pressure to be fit and healthy.

One solution to this that many people suggest is that we should stop paying so much attention to bodies. We should focus on what people do and who they are and what they say. None of these things are unimportant, but the tendency to push the focus away from bodies in order to make people feel better about their bodies has quite a few downsides, and it’s one that I don’t hold with even though I have seen firsthand the dangers of focusing too much on my body.

I was reading earlier today a post with some criticisms of the body positivity movement. I am all for some of their thoughts (no, it’s really not that helpful to replace fatphobia with skinny shaming), but I was surprised when I hit #3: “It Keeps Us Body Focused”. The thrust of it was that we shouldn’t pay attention to what we look like because we aren’t our bodies; we’re the things we do and the personality inside. A lovely thought, but not really backed up by science.

Let’s talk for a minute about embodied cognition. I love embodied cognition, and I think you should too because it’s utterly different from the typical ways that we think and speak about minds and bodies, but also appears to have a fair amount of evidence supporting it. Embodied cognition is the idea that our brains and thoughts aren’t simply housed in our bodies, in many ways they are completely dependent on bodies. Our bodies not only influence the way we think, but sometimes changes in the body can completely change how we think. Andrew Wilson and Sabrina Golonka define it as follows: “Embodiment is the surprisingly radical hypothesis that the brain is not the sole cognitive resource we have available to us to solve problems. Our bodies and their perceptually guided motions through the world do much of the work required to achieve our goals, replacing the need for complex internal mental representations.” One great example is this study that found people who needed to pee, who were hungry, or were tired were less likely to believe in free will.

George Lakoff, a linguist, has done a lot of work on embodied cognition and found that many if not most of the ways we speak and think are based off of our bodies. We use spacial metaphors for nearly everything, and those metaphors have a physical effect in the brain which can influence our bodies. For example a study found that when asked to think about the future, participants leaned slightly forwards but when they were asked to think about the past, they leaned slightly backwards.

None of this is hard evidence that our thoughts are entirely dependent on our bodies, but they do give some evidence that what we’re doing with our bodies has a big effect on our thoughts and vice versa. For more on embodied cognition, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Ok, so what does embodied cognition have to do with body positivity and improving self esteem for women and girls?

I have this suspicion that despite the intense scrutiny to which we hold our bodies and the bodies of others, we actually spend very little time paying attention to our bodies. We pay attention to how our bodies look, but not to how they feel or what they’re doing. And we ignore the ways that they affect us. We ignore that when we’re hungry we can’t think and we’re cranky. We ignore that being sleep deprived makes us nasty, angry people. And while there are times that we’re willing to point out how our bodies are ignored (for example when it comes to healthcare), we don’t necessarily talk about how embodiment affects our experiences of sexual and domestic violence, or of low self esteem, or of perfectionism, or all the other problems that women are facing today.

I’m willing to put down money that these things both have an impact on and are impacted by our bodies and our bodily experiences of them. Ignoring the actual, real bodies of women has led to a lot of problems in the past, from horrible medical care to rape. I suggest a reframing of feminism to a focus on bodies, but not bodies that are cut apart from our minds and seen as some kind of separate entity. Rather we need to spend some real time figuring out for ourselves what our bodies can do and how they’re frickin awesome (this may or may not involve looking at your body), as well as educating other people about what our bodies mean to us.

The obsession with certain body types is not actually a way of showing that we value our bodies and that we place importance on them. While it is a kind of focus on bodies, it’s actually a focus on the outside perception of bodies. It’s an obsession with standards and rules. But it misses out on whether our bodies are healthy and functioning, it misses out on all the ways that our bodies communicate to us (many of our emotions come to us through physical signals), and it misses the ways that oppression harms our bodies.

If any person is going to be relatively happy and fulfilled they need to be able to pay attention to their body enough to pick up on cues that something is wrong or that things are going right (like hunger cues or a runner’s high), as well as to understand that we can affect our emotions with our bodies. Respecting our bodies, both male and female and other, is actually pretty damn feminist since the masculine ideal tends to be of a disembodied rational brain. Let’s imagine a world in which politicians take a minute to do a mindfulness meditation when they start getting out of control angry. I imagine it would be a way better world, but I also imagine that it’s a world that’s respecting the traditionally “feminine” virtues a little more.

It’s possible that feminism can be successful by ignoring bodies and focusing on accomplishments. But I find it hard to believe that a movement that seeks to make people more empowered, happier, and create a just society will do so by ignoring an integral part of the human experience.

 

Food As An Emotional Modifier

Some people eat when they’re in a bad mood. Most people, actually. Comfort food is a well known concept and we all have foods that are associated with home, safety, and good feelings. Some people don’t eat anything at all when they’re in a bad mood. Oftentimes depression can come with loss of appetite, and restrictive eating disorders are the extreme of “I feel bad I won’t eat”. Human beings use food to adjust and react to their moods.
For the most part this is considered unhealthy. Emotional eating is often at the heart of eating disorders, and many dieticians find that working with their clients to come to a healthy place with their emotions leads to a stabilization of diet. (FIND LINK) When we call someone an emotional eater, we don’t mean it as a compliment. Our thoughts/feelings are supposed to be radically separate from our bodies, and it’s unhealthy to seek out a physical solution to an emotional problem.
Except for the times when it’s not. Recently, I’ve started to try to regulate my emotions using food. “EATING DISORDER!” I hear you cry (or so I assume, I always cry out in distress when reading blogs). Well, not exactly. I’ve been trying to regulate my emotions using food by eating on a regular schedule, listening to what my body is craving, and eating until I am full. In addition to regular mealtimes, I’ve also been trying to notice when I’m getting cranky, anxious, sad, or otherwise unstable in some fashion and whether it has any correlation to how long it’s been since I’ve eaten. Guess what? It often does. I’m low energy and low happiness first thing in the morning, and I hit a low in the afternoon before dinner. Guess what these two time periods have in common? It’s been a while since I’ve eaten anything and I’m probably low on calories. Not having enough calories will make anyone more emotionally vulnerable.
Secret knowledge dropping time: our emotions are highly dependent on our bodies. Being tired, hungry, thirsty, cold, or sick will affect how you process what’s going on around you and what your reaction to the world is. Not all of these are things we can adjust immediately. If I’m having a bad day at work I can’t simply take a nap and feel more rested and thus stable. But I can go grab a snack or put on an extra sweater. I can use my body in a positive manner to influence how I’m feeling.
More often than not, things that are unhealthy for us are that way because they are extreme in some fashion. This doesn’t apply to anything (please do not go take moderate doses of arsenic), but for many things, we can use them positively if we understand how they actually interact with our bodies and minds. Exercise is another great example of this: too much or too little can throw us out of whack, but a moderate amount of exercise on a regular basis, and strategically applied exercise during times of stress can do wonders.
I don’t necessarily promote the view of the body that sees it as a machine (I think we’re far more integrated into our bodies than we will ever be with machines), but it can be a helpful metaphor when thinking of how to modulate your emotions. What kinds of things might this machine need to function better? Have I been getting too much or too little of any of the necessities? How can I make a small change right now to bring things back into balance. It’s not magic, but it is certainly a helpful framework for in the moment actions.

Why a Compass?

This post is going to be incredibly personal, but I think some of the imagery that I’m using might be useful for others who deal with perfectionism/body issues/self esteem issues which is why I want to explain my use of the image.

I’m planning to get a new tattoo soon, and unlike my previous two this one is not nearly as self-explanatory as the others. I think in part, I don’t even entirely know what it means to me except that the idea of it has been calling out to me for quite some time now ever since my therapist threw out the idea of “why don’t you think of yourself as an explorer?” in a therapy session a few months ago.

Why is it so important for me to have a word to attach to myself, particularly this one? What is it about being an explorer that helps me as a human being? And why do I want to have a reminder of it on my skin? I think that tattoos can be cathartic. They are changes we choose to make to our bodies, permanent and visible. For me, they are an important element of constructing my own identity. So when I start to construct a new piece of my identity, something that feels like moving forward in a positive fashion, I want to have a reflection of that on my physical being.

My last tattoo was the eating disorder recovery symbol. For me, it was a choice to try to change. But it was also a recognition that my life was still ruled by food in many ways, even if it was through a choice to try to be healthier with my food. Now, as the next step in recovery, I am actively trying to create an identity that has nothing to do with my eating disorder (or at least very little. I do still want to be an advocate for mental health care). The image of an explorer resonated with me for a number of reasons.

One of the things that has been overwhelming to me in the past is my curiosity. I can never know enough, and for the last five years or so that was something that provoked a lot of anxiety in me. One of the things that I like about the image of exploring is that it does not imply that I HAVE to explore any given thing. I get to try out new places, new things, and then come home. No explorer is expected to give up everything else in their life to only explore or to try every single thing. You might go to space or deep sea or discover America, but there is nothing that says you have to try absolutely everything. You can just try what strikes your fancy. The label seems to imply freedom to come and go.

Another piece of exploring that is quite comforting to me is that the essence of exploring is uncertainty.I have had a hard time accepting ambiguity and uncertainty in my personal life. I want to know where I’m supposed to be going and what I’m supposed to be doing. I want a path that will tell me what’s Right. Unfortunately reality does not exist in that fashion, and finding the excitement of uncertainty is a goal of  mine. There is no set path, but that does not mean I’m doing something wrong or that I’m going to die. In fact not knowing can actually be a great thing, something that leads to growth and deeper understanding and connection and support and vulnerability.

I’ve also spent a lot of my life afraid of leaving people behind. I hate the idea that I could be spending time with someone but I’m choosing to do something else, as if it will ruin any love or care that we had. But explorers have to leave. That doesn’t mean that they won’t come home again or that there won’t be loved ones waiting for them. It doesn’t mean they don’t care or that their relationships are not good enough. It means that they have a drive to find new things, and that they need to do that sometimes. But they can always come home. There might be some pain in leaving, but there will always be joy in coming back. There is security in knowing where home is.

But perhaps my favorite part of the image of a compass is the space it implies. A compass is for going, for finding, for doing. It is for wide open spaces and running and sailing and GOING. There is so much in me that loves movement and filling up all the space I can find with my words and my thoughts and my body. There has been so much fear in my life of hurting others if I let myself stretch and be as large as I want to be (this is metaphorical). It has become more and more obvious to me that making myself small does nothing for others. I am giving myself permission to fill every space I want. The image of exploring says to me that I get to do this, I get to be in all these new places. I get to expand myself in all directions. It is freedom.

My body has never been a site of freedom before. I want to know what that’s like. Having an image that speaks to me as part of my skin feels like control to me. It is the control to make decisions about who I am.

The Body As Evidence

I’ve written before about the frustrations of having a mental illness that leaves visual signs on my body, and that it can often feel as if my body is betraying me with its scars or its size. I’ve recently noticed what appears to be a corollary to this and it’s something that gets under my skin (pun intended). For those of us who have mental disorders that result in a physical change, our bodies are used far more often than our own words or mental state to gauge whether we’re ok or not.

This is something that has been criticized for some time now. We’ve heard that “you can’t see whether someone has an eating disorder by their size”. Many people are still convinced that size and weight loss are the indicators of eating disorders. Others are certain that depressed people probably look like vagabonds and don’t wash or take care of themselves. I would hope that we all have enough evidence by now that people of every shape and size can have a mental illness and most of the time it’s utterly invisible.

But there’s another layer of looking at bodies as evidence for mental illness, and this one is more subtle and more insidious. This is the one that comes when someone knows that you have a mental illness and really wants to know how you’re doing. So they pick apart your physical appearance for signs: are there dark circles under your eyes? Have you lost weight? Gained weight? Is there a scar or a cut that indicates symptom usage?

Now of course if you’re nervous or worried for someone it makes sense to try to find evidence of how they’re doing. Where this turns into a problem is when bodies are used as evidence against the person whose body it is. Often, when someone with a mental illness says that they’re doing ok, their body is scrutinized to see if they’re right or not. The individual can’t be trusted to know their own mental state or to truthfully express it to others.

In many ways, I think this plays into the idea that people with mental illness are manipulative or disconnected from reality. For most people, if they said that they were feeling ok, or doing better, or their mood was up, they would be trusted unless there was some glaring evidence to the contrary (muttering, monosyllables, glowering face). Particularly with physical illness, if someone has an injury but says that they feel fine, most people take them at their word. We’ve all experienced having a particularly nasty looking scratch that doesn’t actually hurt and reassuring others that we’re fine. For the most part, they trust us to know whether we’re in pain or not. Even with illness, if someone has some symptoms but reassure us that they’re feeling much better, we smile and tell them we’re happy for that.

Obviously all of us use our common sense to determine whether we think someone is lying to us about their internal conditions, but for some reason those with mental illness are held to a far higher bar than others. Any evidence of symptoms is often construed as evidence that our  mood cannot and is not ok, or that things are going downwards. Particularly for things like purging or self-harm, there is a guttural response of disgust and fear to the symptoms that means outsiders are often convinced that it’s impossible for an individual to be doing ok and still engaging in those behaviors (never ever nuh uh). That means any evidence of symptom use is held up as evidence that things are not ok and if the individual says they are it is a lie.

Maree Burns in Eating Like An Ox says “In cultures where identities are read off the surface of the body, one’s physical state is understood to represent both moral and mental health”. There are intersections here with numerous other oppressions: fatphobia, racism, sexism, slut-shaming, ableism (as well as many others I’m sure I’m forgetting at this moment). The problem with assuming that a body is an identity is that no one can ever convince you you are wrong because they must be lying. There is an odd tension in American culture in which we partially dismiss the importance of bodies (we assert that focusing on looks is shallow, we eat horribly and don’t take care of ourselves, we shame people for having sex, and we typically subscribe to a Cartesian dualism that suggests our mind is our self while our body is just a nice carrying case), but at the same time we are convinced that we can read identity and selfhood off of bodies. Fat people can’t control themselves, people with disabilities are lazy, people of color are Other (scary or dangerous).

We don’t see bodies as selves, but we see them as books on which selves are written, clearly and unequivocally. The tension between the fact that we don’t see our bodies as our selves and the fact that we think our selves are clearly reflected in our bodies can make self-identity a serious challenge, but it also serves to undermine the self that an individual might seek to portray or express to others through means that are not the body. And this of course always impacts those who are already oppressed because we are more easily assumed liars.

My body cannot tell you things about my self, my well-being, or my identity. I may have scars, but I am ok. Someday I will openly wear my scars and smile and laugh and be a walking advertisement for the fact that mental health is not visible. Until then, I will just repeat over and over: I’m ok.

Safe Spaces: CONvergence

I am back from CONvergence and ready to post about all the fantastical things that happened there. Not really, I’d much rather just still be there, but as I don’t have that option I will console myself by reliving the weekend with a billion posts about the topics that caught my interest while I was there.

The first thing that I noticed while I was at Con, something that made me both very happy and very sad, was the high number of people I noticed who had self harm scars. Not only did they have self harm scars, but they were wearing clothing that openly showed their scars, and they seemed utterly unbothered by the fact that others could see. Perhaps even better was the fact that I never once saw or heard someone comment on scars or react negatively in any way.

To most, this might seem unimportant. Con is a place where everyone is utterly and completely themselves. I saw someone dressed as a cat walking on all fours and reacting to a “master’s” commands. I saw people in costumes, people with colorful hair of every known variety, people covered in tattoos, people who were on the extreme ends of fat and skinny, people with almost no clothes on, people walking on stilts…one of the most beautiful things about going to Con is that everyone there is presenting exactly as they want to be perceived.

And yet when I was preparing for the weekend, choosing my cosplays, getting dressed each morning, I was fully aware of the fact that I didn’t think it was totally ok to expose some of my scars. As an example, for the last two years I’ve had cosplays with short shorts (Femme!Hammer and Amy Pond):

8439_10151481244972601_938655005_n amy

In contrast, this year both of my costumes had full length pants involved (Coraline and Orange is the New Black Nicky). I made this choice purposefully because of new scars on my legs. In my mind, despite how safe Con is, nowhere was safe enough for self harm scars. I remembered vividly hearing one of my friends mention at a past Con being triggered by the sight of self harm scars on someone’s arm. I deeply did not want to be that trigger for someone else.

And I was certain that if I did show scars, there would be a comment or a look. The special ones. The ones that say “I have no idea how to react to this, I’m so uncomfortable” or “gross, that’s so fucked up”. What I forgot was that the community of people who actively seek out geeky nerdy activities has a huge percentage of people who have had major struggles in their lives. It draws in people who have been bullied or ostracized, people whose day to day lives hurt too much to stay there in their fun time, people who need an escape and unmitigated acceptance. If there was any place that I would find a group of people with similar experiences, people who have needed to use negative coping mechanisms, it would be here.

And so while these scars can be triggering, and there were a few iffy moments this weekend, I really appreciate how open people were with their bodies. There is such vulnerability in having your worst moments visible on your skin. It’s so easy to choose not to let others see them, even when it means you are less comfortable. But it is not only brave for yourself to show them, but also brave in that it normalizes the fact that many people have these struggles and continue their lives and survive and are amazing. It is a wonderful stigma reducer and community builder to have these small (or large) signs that show to others “I have hurt myself and I’m still here. You don’t have to be afraid of me, and you don’t have to be afraid of yourself”.

And it also creates an undercurrent of self acceptance. Not everyone has to feel comfortable showing all of their body, but when people appear to be wearing what they feel like wearing without worrying about judgment, it shows a lack of self judgment. It takes a great deal of self acceptance to openly wear scars, whether they are from self harm or not. People are hardly encouraged to expose their scars, and while we can never know someone’s exact motivation for being willing to show their scars, we can assume that they’ve managed to slough off some of the societal expectations that were harming them.

Being able to see that around you is wonderfully comforting. It tells you that you can do the same, that you’ll be welcomed, that there are others who have been there and understand even if you’re not quite there yet. It says to me that I’m in a space people are building to be safe for themselves, not in a space that is built in the image of patriarchy or racism or heteronormativity or beauty culture.

And so while Con does a million things to make their convention safe (and I absolutely love them for it), the thing that makes me feel safest at Con is the other people who are brave enough to feel safe.

Featured photo is this year’s cosplay.

 

It’s Just So Real! The Appeal of Orange is the New Black

The new season of Orange is the New Black is out, which means that everyone I know is talking about it on all the social media because let’s be honest, it’s that good. One of the articles that made the rounds recently was an ex-con watching OITNB and talking about whether or not it’s realistic. Spoiler alert: it’s not. Prison is not like TV prison. And yet one of the things that people often applaud OITNB for is the fact that it’s “realistic”. I have this feeling that most of us are aware that prison is not in fact full of ladies fisting in the chapel and yet we continue to talk about how real the show feels (I have even been guilty of saying this myself).

So what on earth are we talking about when we say it’s so real? Why do we all get so drawn into this show if we know that it’s painting a nonrealistic picture of prison?

What sticks out to me when I identify OITNB as an amazing show is not the realistic portrayal of prison, but rather the realistic portrayal of human beings. Perhaps this is not how human beings actually act in prison, but it is how a lot of the human beings that I know act. It’s how they look. It’s how they talk (ok, maybe a bit snappier than my friends, but basically the same). It’s how they fight (a bit bloodier, but about the same things). It’s how they fall in love. It’s how they fall out of love. It’s how they make stupid mistakes. It’s a little bit like high school but with higher stakes, which essentially is real life.

The thing that people love about OITNB is that they can see people who look and act and talk like they do, people who aren’t used as the butt of a joke (not even Suzanne, who started off as a joke and now is really coming into her own), people who are trying to survive. There is an open trans woman (PLAYED BY A FOR REAL TRANS WOMAN HOLY SHIT), there are people of color, there are people of all body shapes and sizes. There’s people who aren’t fit, there’s people who are gay, there’s people who aren’t sure if they’re gay. There’s people who are all about sex all the time, and people who really couldn’t give less of a shit about people. There’s honest to god old people who have real personalities. There’s people who are/were teen moms and that is not the defining characteristic of their lives. There are so many women, all kinds of women, women talking to each other and women having problems and women thinking about women.

These things should not be revolutionary or amazing, but they are. It seems to be a decent indicator how ravenously hungry the public is for TV shows that focus on the perspectives of people who are not often represented. And what’s real about this show is that when we see someone like Red, we all know people like that (a momma bear who will rip you a new one if you fuck with her). When we see Soso being an obnoxious social justice pain in the ass, we’ve all known someone who did that crap, and we get both where she’s coming from and how flipping annoying it is to be around her. We look at Alex and Piper’s relationship and dear sweet lord we’ve all known that couple.

The point of OITNB is not really being in prison. Prison happened to be a convenient place to throw together this disparate array of people and let them get down to the business of being people. It introduced some power dynamics and some limitations on behavior that are interesting. But at the end of the day, what drives the show is the characters (and the writing through the characters). And while it’s a good idea to point out the ways the show gets prison wrong (because honest conversations about prison are also few and far between), continuing to praise the show for realistic portrayal of human beings is also a pretty good plan.

It’s important when we use adjectives that we’re clear about what noun we’ve attached that noun to. Especially when it’s a piece of media, it’s better to be specific about what is realistic or what is sexy or what is dehumanizing or what is sexist. Because media is complicated and can have good and bad parts (gasp). Being able to have a complicated handle on media is really incredibly important if we want to have real and good criticisms of media.

So yes, OITNB is both realistic and not. And I’m ok with that.