portrait of meHere I am at the Met.  Here I am in my new dress.  Yes, that is me.  Look, look.  The feminist and the philosopher in me are fretful, though, about me putting my own picture out, “posting” it is the verb, like soldiers are posted somewhere. Do people now know that I care about how I look, or, worse, do they know that I care that I care what they think of how I look?  Look how I look when I like how I look!  Look!   Isn’t it embarrassing to be vain?  Isn’t it even more vain to be embarrassed about being thought vain?  

Perhaps this is all, as someone said to me, “Something you should get over.”  (But then what would I write about if I got over things?)

Vanity I don’t fear out of some Puritanical sadomasochistic urge.  Well, perhaps a little of that, as I am a good Episcopalian, but I also have found that humility is almost always the first step to happiness, and vanity threatens humility.  Doesn’t it?

I remember this moment, reading some ladies’ magazine, when I thought, all this about being beautiful is wanting to be loved.  All these magazines were about wanting one person to tell you you were beautiful because he was in love with you, and once someone is in love with you, you look different to him, of course.  I felt, then, freed to enjoy the magazines, all of fashion and beauty, because I knew what it was.

My sometime bursts of wisdom, notwithstanding, I spent age twelve to sixteen hidden in my clothes, thinking that because of my breasts or my braces and glasses, no one would ever love me.

Although deeply humiliated to agree with a New York Post article, being a good feminist, I am pleased when strangers say anything positive about my appearance.  I say thank you to polite men and completely ignore rude ones, and I am pleased.

This does not mean men should call out to strangers, as many women find it upsetting.  Let us refrain.

I understand that there is a lot of pushback that has to happen, from so many years when women’s appearance, and others’ ideas of it, was the source of what little power they had.  But let us also ask: why are women frightened by strangers talking about how they look?  Why is the idea that your appearance is attractive, or arousing, threatening?  Why does this empower the man, and not the woman? Isn’t saying no to a man a powerful thing?  It feels very powerful to me.

There is power you have over someone when he wants to look at you, wants to touch you.  You know.  Someone has had that power over you.

Wanting to be noticed, wanting to be hidden, back and forth, back and forth.

Did I not make of myself a bit of visual art, dress choice, makeup, dyeing my hair– for that matter, standing as I stood?

The photos I’ve taken of myself, trying to look just as I want to, are secret.  They would show that I am just as vain as everyone else, and I am both somewhat vain and somewhat ashamed of it.

Being single, perhaps my looks matter more?  Perhaps I need them.

And how do you keep yourself seeing yourself as you are?  Is the outside a part of that?  Changing it, looking at it?  The outsides-matching-insides adjustments.

When I go to the monastery, I don’t put in my contacts, or wear makeup.  I don’t do anything but wash my face and comb my hair and put it back so it’s out of my face.  I wear covered-up tops and the same skirt of pants every day.  This feels good and normal there.  I can’t imagine anyone there asking me to dress any particular way, this just feels right to me, the same way it felt right to cover my shoulders in Rome or Qatar.  Right?  Even exciting, that you are so lovely you must tone it down.

And when I put the other three minutes back in my toilette, the last morning at the monastery, I feel sparkling.  There are my curls!  My eyelashes!

Sometimes, perhaps, it is out of love for my dress I chose for the occasion, I do have many dresses, and I am happy they have gotten to go to that party, and the dress will help me remember that occasion, where I bought it, how it felt to wear it.

And I think, I will be old, I am only older and older (as They Might Be Giants would remind me), and I would like photos of when I was…young?  Younger?  To do what with?

Photos of in a swimsuit to prove to someone, someday, that I had a lovelier human body, not one that looked worn, as it will, if I am lucky.  Photos to show something of my accomplishment as a woman, as still, part of being an accomplished woman is being as lovely as possible, as it is a pleasure to add to the loveliness of the world by dressing thoughtfully to go buy a newspaper.  Photos to have on the door of my room at the nursing home so people will think, Oh, she was a pretty one, she was.  Let us treat her like a pretty person.

Some families have photos of your parents or grandparents that people would use to remark, She was so pretty.  In our family, what I remember is my dad calling my mom “a pretty girl,” and me “a pretty girl,” my mom saying, “You look beautiful,” and I knew what they meant was, “I love you.”

In Fashion

I went to the fashion show last night because my dear friend, after she’d had two beers and a scotch, assured me that Gloria Steinem would forgive me.  So I wore black Etienne Aigner heels ($10 at antique mall), H&M linen pants (oh, if only all pants were so long, long, long! say people permanently haunted by growth spurt age eleven), my mother’s hand-me-down olive tube top from 1988, and a black sparkly fly-eye Target cocktail ring.  I love the art of dressing, and I like the art of fashion.  Dressing is presenting oneself.  Fashion is the spectrum of tools and creations.

I went to Kansas City’s 18th Street fashion show several years ago.  I felt weird about watching the models, about what it meant to look at them and their bodies in the clothes.  So I hadn’t been back.  But, with the endorsement of my tipsy friend, I gave it another try.

On the sidewalk, to the left of the runway set up down the street, I was crammed six inches from the black t-shirted shoulder and pale neck of a stranger.  A lonely little bead of sweat chugged down the back of my calf.  People kept pushing their hips and arms into me as they wormed behind me, along the edge of the sidewalk.  Some man I barely saw grabbed my waist to scoot me out of the way.  I jumped.  It tickled.  I smelled someone’s cologne, a strong and sober smell, compared to my rose and jasmine perfume.

“Men act; women appear.”  After I read that (not John Berger himself, but some other feminist writer), I acted.  I made it a point to act.  I grew up with the nagging suspicion that if someone told me I was pretty, I would feel whole.  So I became resolute: in the future, when I appear, I’ll enjoy it, but I won’t let that be my self.  Appearing will be secondary.  Women fought for the right to keep it secondary, if they choose to– which doesn’t mean it should be secondary, or that the mind is better or more meaningful than the body, or the soul.  It just means there should be a choice.

There is always vulnerability in a woman presenting her body.  There’s a whole world of history murmuring, setting her worth and taking her apart.  On the other hand, don’t I think women’s bodies beautiful?  Don’t I enjoy my own?  Don’t I love nudes? Haven’t I sharply reprimanded people who criticize other women’s dress, whether they whine it’s too revealing or too flashy?  Don’t I enjoy being complimented on my clothes and my body, even by strangers, even rather crudely?  I do.  Is it because I think of myself more as a brain than a body, or because I make an effort to dress well and like my body?  Is it because I’m naturally thin?  Or because I like a little obnoxious behavior now and then?

Walking and standing on the runway, I could tell the women who glowed with comfort and charisma, and the ones who radiated need.  What if she agreed to participate so she’d feel pretty?  Isn’t that the worst way to feel pretty?  The opinions of strangers?  The crowd complimented a woman with an ample ass, well set off with a tiny snap of a skirt.  People applauded most for the women most traditionally beautiful, and the clothing the most traditionally displaying it.

Aren’t models like peacocks displaying wide, marbly colored tails, huge and gorgeous, attracting and aweing and arousing us all?  Like my cat arching his fat white, furry belly for me to admire and scratch?  I don’t feel much awkwardness admiring beautiful animals, or, for that matter, beautiful men.  Isn’t every display of beauty lively and good at its heart?  Isn’t beauty as nourishing as oxygen?  For me, it is.

“Why do they all look angry?” someone said.  Because they are appearing, and you must be tough as nails to appear.  You must steel yourself to reactions.  You must be a thousand percent confident, or a great pretender of confidence.  Either one will do.  To smile joyously while you present yourself is difficult.  Smiling is an act, not an appearance.

All of us– and I could see half the crowd on the other side of the runway, were tasting these women with our eyes.  They were being offered up, whatever it meant, offering up coverings and decorations and something of themselves, and we were taking it.  We watched them.  We watched each other watching them.  We took from each other, our faces and our smells and our shapes.  What exactly I took, I’m still not sure.

photos of the show: http://www.kansascity.com/2011/06/12/2945135/party-pics-west-18th-street-fashion.html

Paine ‘n’ McCain at the OK Corral

“We have it in our power to begin the world again.” –Thomas Paine

“There will be no cooperation for the rest of the year.” –John McCain

I just got back from the southwest, where I met and insulted a charming cowgirl.  I expected Tombstone, Arizona to be sort of like Frontierland at Disneyland.  Instead, we parked across the street Lefty’s Corner Store, where they offered a wide selection of guns and ammo.

There was even a saloon that looked not like a dusty Hollywood set, but a shiny, functioning, gorgeous Western tavern, complete with pool table and a panoply of intoxicating bottles lounging before a long, blaring mirror.

Tourist souvenir shops did dominate the main street, to be honest.  We wandered into a few.  A pair of baby booties that looked like cowboy boots lured us in.  “Where y’all from?” the clerk asked.  “Kansas City,” we said.

I asked her if she lived in Tombstone, or if anyone actually lived in Tombstone.  “I don’t, but some people do.  I only come here to work one day a week, and to bring my kinfolk when they visit.  But some people move here so they can live full-time like it’s 1880.”   Freaky!

“Do you think these booties are okay for a girl?” my friend asked.  Now this clerk, she wore close-cut white hair, a spanking-ironed pearl-button shirt, arrow-straight jeans, and lovingly polished cowboy boots.  “Girls can wear anything they want,” she snapped cheerfully.  I was a little in love with her.

Looking at the cowboy booties’ packaging, my friend remarked, “Hmm… made in China– isn’t that funny?” Because I’m kind of an idiot, I returned, “Well, people in China need jobs, too.”

I had betrayed myself as a pinko liberal UN Esparanza wacko to the cowgirl I loved.  Conversation had to immediately turn to how awesome American workers are and how awesome the stuff they make is, and at least I was wise enough to not go on my pontificating rant about how much I love Japanese cars.

Back and forth, enemies and allies.  The spitters and Hitler/Obama melders and race-baiters aren’t them.  They’re us.  Much as you might try to maintain strong enemy relationships, the world is a slippery place.  Enemies to allies.  Allies to enemies.

The health care reform plan is market-based, largely runs through the private sector, and maintains our position in the world as a right-leaning democracy.  Still, John McCain is so angry that he’s taking his toys and going home, when his job is to cooperate.  Unless you get elected supreme dictator, that is your job.

John McCain won’t always be an enemy.  He’s resolutely anti-torture, and I admired and respected his stand.  He didn’t cave to his party for political gain.

Thomas Paine was also a strong-willed man.  Towards the end of his life, people constantly approached him with pleas for conversion.  Paine called himself a Deist, and said things like “My own mind is my own church,” which lit a fire under many evangelically-minded Christians.  He died slowly, and ignored all the begging to accept Jesus.  He stuck to his guns the whole way.  Religious symbolism rings peaceful and true in my ears, but I respect his stand and his faith in himself.  His idea about recreating the world is, in Christian terms, “resurrection.”

I like old women who have never given a shit what people think of them.  I’d guess my cowgirl grew up in the 1940s or 1950s, and thinking of her wearing what she wanted and living free through those stifling times made me happy.  On the other hand, I also do sincerely believe that Chinese people are no less deserving of jobs than Americans, and that there can be enough work for everyone.  Allies to enemies.  Enemies to allies.

Hearts and Flowers

Oprah and I usually get along fine.  But this week, she did a show on erotica and pornography.  Some women have sex with strangers, on camera, for money.  Some women buy kinky lingerie and sex toys.  The show gave the overview of everything NC-17 and passed judgment on none of it.  So I’m going to.

Buying a sex toy is not the same thing as buying porn.  Nobody gets hurt if you buy a sex toy or crazy lingerie (unless, I guess, if you’re into that).  Pornography, on the other hand, transforms girls into women with dead eyes.  Actresses who have played in sexy scenes, nude scenes, look slightly sheepish in their interviews.  Actresses who have had sex on camera look humiliated.  Their eyes look despondent.

Winfrey interviewed Jenna Jameson, who is, apparently, a big ol’ porn star.  And it’s perfectly healthy and she’s completely empowered, except that she cries when she talks about her infant sons finding 0ut about her past.

I won’t say that I think it’s right for her to be ashamed.  I don’t think there’s anything inherently shameful in what she did.  For whatever reason, many human beings feel like sex is something that should be private.  Whether this is natural or unnatural, right or wrong, I was sad that Jameson clearly feels shamed by what she has done.

I haven’t known women who worked in pornography.  I have known women who worked as strippers, and that was bad enough.  Preach all you want about women’s choices and how boobs are perfectly healthy and sexuality is perfectly normal.  I agree.  But that doesn’t matter.  I’ve seen that their eyes have the glaze that resembles the look of abuse victims: confusion, shyness, shame.

Maybe allowing the audience to decide their own boundaries was part of Winfrey’s intention.  I wish she had drawn a clearer line, or asked more pointed questions, at least, about how various sexually explicit activities and purchases affect women.  The last segment showed Lisa Ling interviewing an actress who talked about getting regular HIV tests, and having to trust that her costar hadn’t had sex with anyone since his negative test result.  Thankfully, it was hard for the show to wrap things up on a light note after that.

It seemed flippant to suggest, as Winfrey did, that you should ask your girlfriends if they watched porn, the same way you might ask them if they wear thong underwear.  The question of pornography at least deserves more serious consideration than that.  Is the fun or thrill or release of pornography worth the possible suffering of some people who produce it?

I don’t know.  I buy flowers every week at the grocery store: gerber daisies, roses, carnations, lilies.  I love having flowers in the house.  I have learned that a lot of our flowers are grown south of here, in countries where the workers are mistreated.  Tons of pesticides.  And still, I buy flowers.

We all support various evils with our money and our time.  Sometimes we know about it, and we do it anyway.  Maybe those crummy flower growing jobs are the only jobs those people can get.  Maybe it helps their kids go to school.  On the other hand, I stopped buying meat because I couldn’t stand the idea of all those animals being callously raised and killed.

In fact, Winfrey pushed the meat industry a few years back, and was the recipient of some pretty sharp retaliation.  I respected her stand.  And knowing that, I wish her recent show had been as brave.