Permission to Notice

Yesterday at the gym, after spending an hour on the weight machine circuit doing drop sets, I walked past the gorgeous personal trainer (let’s call her PT) and nearly walked into a wall. Last week I caught myself checking out her butt. That is absolutely the first time that has ever happened. I mean, sure, I’ve been checking out guys’ butts all my adult life. That just meant I was awake and my eyes were open. But a woman?

As near as I can figure, I have only been allowing myself to notice beautiful women for about eight years. The first class I took in seminary was an anti-racism/anti-oppression class, where I realized how institutional racism and sexism were, as my brother would say, a thing, and I also realized that I had classism and homophobia to deal with. Working in academia for two decades means the classism is being continually reinforced from the outside, but Boston is a fairly liberal city, so aside from the same old story of heteronormativity, I feel like the homophobia is coming from the inside.

It is strange. I have always thought beauty was a neutral category. (There are no neutral categories.) I thought that I noticed attractive people (men) simply because they naturally stood out, like a streetlight on a dark road. Undoubtedly, there are a handful of Outrageously Beautiful People for whom that’s true, who walk onto the train and the squeaking of all the passengers’ heads swiveling to follow them is deafening. But they’re the exception, not the rule.

The first women I noticed was about twenty years older than me, a white-haired dean who was 95% of the time breathtakingly efficient and capable. Nervously, I asked a lesbian friend if the dean was hot. “Absolutely” was the reply. Okay. Good call. (Trust your instincts.)

So yes, I guess I understand that giving yourself permission to see things or people in new ways can open up new possibilities. But when did I become the kind of person who walks past a beautiful woman and nearly walks into a wall?

Aesthetics, Culture, Choices

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I understand that aesthetics are culturally embedded. In times of famine, fat is beautiful; in times of plenty, thin is beautiful. In an agricultural economy, dark skin means you are an outdoor worker, and thus lower class. In an office work economy, a tan means you have more leisure time outdoors, and thus are higher class.

I think of this now because suddenly I find myself knowing three different (dark-haired) women who don’t shave. Refusing to shave is a classic second-wave feminist act of defiance against our society’s straight male expectations for how women dress (and be) to attract the men’s attention, affection and presumably babies. By not shaving a women is declaring herself completely outside of and uninterested in that whole agenda.

Mentally, I can understand why some would want to make such a statement, but aesthetically I find it distasteful, especially as more fur is more visible. But here’s the thing. I think an awful lot of men should shave too. The problem isn’t that we have a standard of hairlessness so much as that it is a double standard. Frankly, I think that a far larger swath of our male population should not only shave far larger tracts of themselves than they currently do. They should buy mini- rider mowers and hire little gerbils wearing little Carhartt caps to do the landscaping for them.

Some jobs you can do yourself. But for big jobs, go with the professionals.

 

Muscles & Mascara Monday: Truthful Statements

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“Style is fundamentally a truthful statement… There are layers and layers of truth; and style, whether in dress or life, art or literature, is involved in their discovery.” –Freya Stark

I have been thinking about makeup lately. I used to think that makeup was something women put a huge amount of time and money into to get the attention of men, who often don’t even bother to shave. O, patriarchy, why you so mean?

I am lucky enough to have clear skin and dark blue eyes so I always figured that if a guy needs me to “put on my face” simply to notice me, then he’s not a person I really feel like being noticed by. I still feel that the Manhattan style of makeup is over the top, but New York has always struck me as being a hard-edged city and maybe it’s just a form of protective coloration, layers of powder rather than a sword and buckler.

Boston, as an academic city (we’ve got thirty colleges just within a few miles of the city center) tends toward the mildly androgynous. We probably have more comfortable women’s shoes in just a five-mile radius than they have in Manhattan and Los Angeles combined. And women who work/teach at these colleges are not an exception, whether they are full-time, part-time or graduate students (and the undergrads in baggy sweatpants). This always worked for me. As long as I looked “professional” and teacher-like, I figured that nobody would care if I didn’t take the time to put on makeup before running out the door guzzling my coffee and trying to remember my lesson plan. I get good student evaluations every semester. The rest is meaningless.

But in January, I started going to the monthly lesbian happy hour, which is a fascinating sociological activity. Where else are you going to find a sample of about eighty women with such a wide variety of clothing styles in the same bad bar lighting? More than half of our sample look like any other women you might see on the train every day. But there are a few types who stand out.

Fashionista/International Femme: Makeup, long hair, dress, heels. An air of being exactly where she needs to be. Even if I wore the exact same thing, if I was standing next to her, no one would notice my existence. I have had friends like this.

Grad Student Femme: Shortish wash-and-wear hair. Casual clothing, such as skinny leg jeans. Comfortable shoes, minimal makeup. The glow of youth.

College Dean-ish: An excellent haircut, whatever the length. Makeup, but never too much. Classic jewelry. Professional clothes, more femme than not. Classic but comfortable shoes, probably expensive. An air of quiet authority.

Grad Student Butch: Short hair with a little product for style. No makeup. Men’s style clothes but not necessarily menswear. Comfortable shoes, maybe spiffy. The glow of youth.

Flannel Butch: Plaid flannel shirt, dark wash jeans, expensive sneakers. Most of the jewelry is in one ear. One or more tattoos. A. The glow of youth AND/OR B. An air of quiet authority AND/OR C. Laidback attitude.

Bowtie Butch: Short hair. No makeup. Menswear, including either necktie or bowtie. Men’s style shoes. Laidback attitude.

Perhaps if I saw the same people in the bright light of day, the differences might not be apparent. But in the dim light of a bar, the women who don’t wear makeup, especially if they are over 40, look kind of grey and washed out.

So I’ve made a couple of visits to Sephora, one to get help in picking a shade of lipstick and one to get a 15-minute primer on how to apply eye shadow the right way and get help picking good colors. The young women (and one or two men) who work there are all made up to within an inch of their lives. But when they ask me what style I am going for, and I say, “Sorta like Ellen,” and they say, “Oh! You mean natural!” they are gung ho in helping me achieve a look that is as little like theirs as possible.

My shift in thinking about all this is primarily a shift in thinking from more outward–what do other people see when they look at me–to more inward–can I see my best self when I look in the mirror, blue eyes, Polish cheekbones and all.

It also helps that two of the faces of makeup companies in recent memory have been Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Ellen Degeneres (Ellen the Homophobia Slayer), both of whom have fresh light looks that don’t scream, “Look at me! I’m wearing makeup! Ask me how!” Which is funny, actually, considering that is exactly what they’re getting paid to do… Ah, marketing, why you so sneaky?

Muscles & Mascara Monday: Yin, Yang, and Strategizing

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Since I sprained my ankle last August, I haven’t been doing the group class thing at my gym these last few months. My intent for Saturday was to start the Bodypump® class, guaranteed to make you burn 560 calories in an hour, but when I went to sign up online, it was already full. The following hour was Pilates, so I signed up for that instead. You could ask me if I broke a sweat in that class, but honestly, I am still aching too much in unexpected places to remember.

Pilates relies on small weights (1 or 2 lbs.), resistance bands, the body’s own weight, and small movements, repeated many times to strengthen specifically targeted “core” muscles, i.e., the muscles that support and protect the muscles and joints that actually do, as one might say, the heavy lifting.

I personally know the importance of these muscles from having subluxed one shoulder once and the other about four times. Subluxation is when a joint pops out and then pops right back in again. I’ve been loose-jointed all my life and my doctor says it will serve me well as I get older and arthritis kicks in more, thickening the joints. But I still remember the first time I did it back in karate in college. My teacher performed a simple circle block with minimal force but a very good angle and I was committed to the punch, which meant I was just stiff enough that his wrist on my wrist tugged my arm out of my shoulder for a millisecond. I was instantly on my knees, gasping.

Don’t go there, people.

At first glance, this might appear to be a convenient metaphor for masculinity and femininity: the large muscles getting the big job done, and the small muscles stabilizing the joints. It’s not a terrible metaphor. In martial arts classes, men do tend to try to use their height, weight and muscles against their opponents. As a woman who is anywhere from 3 to 12 inches shorter than most guys, I, like my women peers, tent to go more for speed, angles, and being sneaky, er, I mean strategic. For example, in a fight don’t necessarily try to kick him in the nuts. Go for the knees. Men ALWAYS protect the family jewels automatically, but in comparison forget they have knees. Also, the knees being lower, you can always reach them. And all trees are felled at ground level.

But like most metaphors about binaries, this lacks the subtleties present in real life with its wide spectrum of experience. I, too, have sometimes tried to use brute force (and failed, natch), I think in part because we live in a brute-force culture. In the west and the US in particular, we are surrounded by ideas of physical power, supersized pickup trucks, World Wildlife wrestlers, and hamburgers. When I was writing this yesterday, I was sitting in a restaurant known for its 1 lb. Godzilla burger (with 4 slices of cheese and fries, $12.99), which is actually the smallest of the “Gigantic Burgers.” There are six increasingly larger and more expensive choices, the largest being the “Eagles Challenge”: 6 lbs. of burgers, 20 pieces of bacon, 20 pieces of American cheese, 5 lbs. of fries. And a dill pickle.

Heart attack: $65.99.

Defibrillator: priceless.

Don’t get me wrong. Like every student of Asian history, I know that China and Japan and lots of smaller countries in the region have had their massacres. But the idea of balance is much more respected in the east. In some Asian countries, the officers mark their rank with flowers (rather than stars or pips). Imagine a US Marine general wearing a small gold chrysanthemum on his shoulder boards to convey his rank.

Brigadier General: “I’m a badass! I have a flower!”

General: “Ha! I have four flowers!”

Brig. Gen.: “I bow down to your extreme badassery.”

Anyway, now that the college year is ending soon, I’m going to have more time to spend at the gym. It has taken me the last six years to lose the first 20 of the extra 30 lbs. I put on in seminary. It should have taken less time, but I get into ruts, doing the same exercise routines all semester because it’s easy and at the end of the day after work I am tired. One of the advantages to group classes is that all I have to do is follow the teacher’s routine. And since the gym’s schedule and mine are very different, I probably won’t be able to take the same class twice in a week, which will change up what I am doing even more. And when I can’t make it to class, I’ll do weights or rowing. With any luck, my body won’t know what hit it.

Hopefully, being more strategic this way will give me a better outcome. My New Year’s resolution was to lose 6 lbs. this year, and although I’ve lost about an inch around the middle, because I have been building muscle, my weight hasn’t changed. I want to lose another 2 inches so that the shirts I bought 5 years ago fit again and I don’t feel semi-strangled by them. That is no fun and leads to a negative body consciousness that I had actually never experienced before. I prefer the positive body consciousness I haven’t completely had since college, the feeling that because my body can do cool things like kick your hat off, the person inside the body must be pretty badass.

And by the way, I have three flowers. (Thank you, Ebay.)

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I Am My Voice

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People often talk about the voice of a writer, and to some extent I think that can be problematic. Saying that a writer has one voice to use for all projects and genres is misleading. Look at Meryl Streep. Does she have a single voice? No. Instead she modulates her voice for every role she takes, making her one of the most flexible actors in film. On the other hand, one’s speaking voice is, in effect, oneself. People who know you will recognize your voice the moment you say “Hello” on the phone

For the musically inclined, this is even more true. If you hear one of Barbra Streisand’s long-held notes, even if you didn’t hear the way she pronounces whole words, you would know that it was her. This is one of the reasons I named this blog after the film and musical Victor/Victoria. In the film, when Julie Andrews was forty-seven, she had a five-octave voice, which is not a common phenomenon even among professional singers. In the musical, when Andrews was sixty, she had four octaves, also very impressive for a singer at that age.

The plot is simple: “A penniless soprano, named Victoria, colludes with a struggling gay impresario to disguise herself as a man named Victor, who entertains as a female impersonator known as ‘Victoria’ – and as a result becomes the toast of Paris. Complications arise when a Chicago mobster sees the act and finds himself attracted to the star” (“Victor/Victoria.”) So you can see why Andrews’ incredible voice is central to the plotline.

I did not give much thought to the movie when I saw it, as I was still in high school “singing low” and not really giving much thought to what that meant for me. In church at my confirmation, a classmate turned to me and said, “Sing like a girl!” as if that was a matter of choice. Later, in college, when the Christian Fellowship group split to sing men/women for different stanzas or harmony, I always sang with the men because I could do that cleanly and both loud/soft, whereas I did not have a whole lot of control over the small higher part of my voice. If people thought it odd, they didn’t say anything. Years later in church choir, I sang tenor. People looked at me a little bit sideways, and our choir director often found himself saying, “Women, do such and such. Men—er—Low voices, do the other thing.”

At this point I was in my thirties and I wanted to improve my voice so I could sound a bit more like the other singers in the choir. Luckily, I met a teacher named Kamal Scott. When I told him that I was a tenor, he sounded thrilled and told me that women who can sing that low can usually also sing equally high, eventually. After four years with him, I proved him right. So I could sing pretty much anything as a tenor, and a lot of things as a second soprano, but when I tried to sing in the middle of my voice, the alto part, I often sounded like a twelve-year-old boy on a bad day.

I spent ten years between voice teachers, but when I found my new teacher, I actually found someone who could smoothen out the crack in between my head voice and chest voice and teach me how to sound like a single human being. Around this time, I was learning about queer theology and gender identity/performance, and at some point I found the DVD of the only filmed performance of the Broadway version of Victor/Victoria, which they made for broadcasting in Japan, so I had a chance to compare the film and musical versions.

I got so excited that I bought a small version of the Broadway poster and put it up on a wall in my bedroom. I remember thinking, primarily in regard to my own voice, that this would remind me that we get to choose who we are, by choosing how to use what we are given. I still love the low part of my voice best, because when I sing low, I can feel the vibrations all throughout my body. When I sing high I can only feel a bit in my head and face; it’s not nearly as much fun. But I still get to choose where I want to sing, as at Christmas when I went to church with my dad. Singing “Angels We Have Heard on High” to a loudly played organ, I chose tenor. Singing “Silent Night” to a piano, I chose soprano. In a way I am both those things. It’s the best of both worlds.

 

Victor/Victoria (musical).” Wikipedia. 27 Feb. 2016. Web. 7 Mar. 2016.

Territoriality and the Body

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“We are each, inside of us, a country with our own mountains and plateaus and chasms and storms and seas of tranquility but like a Third World country we remain largely unexplored, and sometimes even impoverished, for want of a little investment.” –Dorothy Gilman, A New Kind of Country

A recent writer I was working with, an architectural graduate student, is writing about territory from an architectural perspective. The theoretical background he is using assumes the physical territory of land and buildings as a manifestation of power. His proposal did not include the idea of zoning or explicitly address how policy-making affects the territory and the territorialized, but it got me thinking about how our bodies are also countries: ideally, in a culture of consent, sovereign ones able to make and enforce our own boundaries without the permission, intervention or invasion of others.

Having studied a small variety of martial arts for over half my life, this kind of bodily sovereignty is something I have long identified as a positive value. Our culture is run by institutions, media, subculture and individuals (all of which are made up of people, so I shall not say “that”) WHO are also involved, whether we like it or not, with institutional level oppressions such as sexism, racism, homophobia, classism and others; because of this the ideal culture of consent is a long way off. I believe it is important to be able to protect myself from harm; having said this, I will also say that I would never carry a gun. As Sir Terry Pratchett would say, “If you want war, prepare for war.”

I have been thinking of this lately with all of the disastrously political discourse going on in this country; the all-out war on women the Republicans are waging; Evil T-Man (He Who Shall Not Be Named) fostering bigotry, racism and Islamaphobia; and some of the ridiculous anti-trans bills being considered in legislatures across the country (including the one in South Dakota that Gov. Daugaard just vetoed, thank God).

Why? Why is it so very hard to accept people who do not look Exactly Like Us? Why are the big boys so terribly afraid? Why don’t they see just how stupid it makes them look?

Meanwhile, why aren’t they ranting and raving about the things that really are a threat to the American Way of Life?

  • the lack of a living wage for millions of Americans earning by the hour
  • climate change that is going to burn our forests and flood our cities
  • the American terrorists who committed a mass shooting pretty much every day last year (and who look Extraordinarily Like The Men running the Republican party)
  • the amount of student loan debt that makes college grads indentured servants until it’s time for their children to go to college
  • our crumbling infrastructure: roads, bridges, railroads, water pipelines, etc.

And the place where social/geographic territory intersects with the body? If we don’t clean up the land, the folks who live on it can’t make the kind of contributions their God-given talents and hard work should enable them to make.