Show and Tell
I was thirteen when I first began starving myself, but you’ve heard stories like mine before. Like genital mutilation and date rape, anorexia has had its recurring moments in the spotlight, an issue sensational enough for TV movies and the serious columns in women’s magazines, and a problem too ingrained within our culture to go away any time soon. Anorexia is old news and in many ways anti-feminist. Anorectics, after all, are among the most obvious slaves to the evil manipulations of media imagery, knowingly killing themselves to obtain the impossible ideal portrayed by models and celebrities. It’s sad, yes, but come on already and break free of the chains! Celebrate your powerful, womanly curves! Eat something!
If only it were that simple.
Anorexia is an issue that has been glossed over again and again. The easy answer is the surface one – she feels bad about her body because our media-fueled culture has made her feel that way. To solve this problem, we need to: a. make her feel better about herself; b. change the ideal portrayed in the media; and/or c. teach her not care about media images in the first place. All of these are very nice ideas and have led to girl power messages and bans on Barbie dolls that may or may not have a positive effect on the psyches of little girls. But they do not address the underlying issues of power and control that make anorexia so pervasive and difficult to overcome.
The tank top is a lovely apple green. I tried it on with a long matching over shirt, did my usual pantomime of chalk board writing to see if it was comfortable, scrutinized it to see if the over shirt hung in such a way as to avoid showing the contours of my nipples, visible through the tank top, was satisfied, and left the store.
I put it on one morning, paired with some new light grey jeans, and wore it to work. I got several compliments on the color and also a few glances that made me self-conscious. I ignored them as best I could. I did not try to wear the shirt again for a while. Some weeks later I put it on again. I stepped into the living room to ask my sweetheart Will what he thought. I turned this way and that, put my hands on my hips, brushing the overshirt aside as I do in class sometimes, took a few turns, and waited for his reaction: "It's a bit nipply." I took it off. I have not worn it to work since.
I don't want to wear my nipples to work. I don't want to deal with people looking, looking away, and looking back. I don't want to worry about whether they think I am a hippie or a slut. I wouldn't care if they thought the former but I would be afraid that if they thought the latter they would think it in the erotophobic, judgmental, shaming kind of way that I do so much to resist.
Several years ago I gave up on wearing bras. This was not a political move, at least not initially. It was about my own physical comfort. I have never found a bra that fits well, looks good under clothes, and feels comfortable for more than a couple hours. Since I have never been physically uncomfortable without a bra, I decided to forego them. At first I only went without on the weekends. It seemed too risky to go without at work. Then eventually I decided to go without there, as well. It was then that I encountered my nipple dilemma. I had always worn bras that had a bit of padding, and even my apparently steely nipples never showed underneath them. Without a bra, every top presents a challenge. Dark colors and patterns are the easiest. I often wear vests, jackets, or over shirts for extra coverage. Sometimes, as with my apple green combination, even an over shirt doesn't seem like enough. (I have a similar conflict with a light tan t-shirt and matching vest combination.)
A year ago I ran into Karla, a good friend’s twin sister at the hair salon. “You look fantastic!” I said to her. “Is it the new haircut?”
“Well,” she admitted, “I’ve had some work done.”
I was nonplussed. What did getting her patio fixed or her roof repaired have to do with how radiant and youthful-looking she suddenly looked? “No, silly,” another friend chided. “Getting work done means having your face worked on. Not your house. They used to call it a facelift.”
I’m European. When I was a girl, we called getting our period “being unwell.” “Getting work done,” is the new euphemism in my present stomping ground of Beverly Hills, California. But I’ve caught on. Recently, I’ve been ill and haven’t been out much. When I told my husband that I’d become a virtual recluse, he was extremely sympathetic. “It’s because of your bad hip,” he said. “You haven’t been able to drive anywhere.” In Los Angeles, you can’t really get about without a car.
I disabused him. “That’s only half the reason. Because of my hip, I haven’t been able to drive to see Dr. T. And so I can’t face any of my friends.” He scrunched his brow to make a moue. He’s a guy and doesn’t get Dr. T. at all.
The issue of relationship “exploitation” has been on my mind lately. There must be a way that “interdependence” can exist between a man and a woman where no one is getting “exploited.” Our culture comes up with models to address the exploitation factor, but more often than not, these models miss the mark. I’m thinking in particular of this relatively new glamorization of pimping, which is a misguided notion.
I had a very strong reaction to a picture of Patti Smith the other day. As I gazed at the fur under her raised arms, I felt guilty and envious. That peek of hair made me think that when it came to being at home in one’s own skin, I was all talk and she was all action. The feeling was akin to meeting a vegetarian and being forced to reflect on my own carnivorous hypocrisy—lamenting the cruelty of the meat industry and recommending grave documentaries on bestial torture to friends, only to throw back some BBQ during my lunch hour. Staring at the picture, I felt that Patti was the real thing and I was just the synthetic version; as though all the depilatory agents I put between me and my own naturalness had seeped into my pores, making me more chemicals than ideals.
Meet Sandy, a smart, attractive, successful woman in her thirties. She’s an editor at a premiere magazine, has tons of friends, a warm, supportive partner whom she loves and likewise adores her, two rehabilitated shelter cats, a Sedaris sharp sense of humor, time to volunteer and work on her novel, and to top it all off, a brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn. In short, she has it all. Yet every once in a while, she’ll call me in hysterics having talked herself into a panic over something in her life that’s not perfect. These blips, as I call them, can be small and relatively harmless: the phone company has overcharged her for text messages, or large and unyielding: the sister she never got along with is on another rampage. We all know women like Sandy, women with fabulous lives that never quite fulfill their expectations of perfection.
For years, women have had to confront harrowing archetypes that limit the scope of their experiences, desires, and ambitions. The good girl/bad girl dichotomy remains a steadfast way for our culture, and women themselves, to classify not only wants and behaviors, but entire lives. However, as perfection striving becomes more and more common among women living up to impossible standards, a new dichotomy has emerged: the good girl/best girl.
In recent years, the number of women going under the knife for cosmetic genital surgery has skyrocketed. More and more women are regularly participating in painful bikini waxing procedures to return to the bare pubis of their youth, and increasing numbers of adolescents are seeking genital piercings to decorate their labia. The popularization of all of these procedures begs the question, what is the Western female genital aesthetic and how is it established? Furthermore, we must ask: What are the implications of women pursuing a genital ideal?
American representations of the female genitalia are extremely varied. Certainly, there are aspects of a popular culture that celebrate the vagina. From paintings by Georgia O’Keefe to the popular activist play The Vagina Monologues, works of art and literature have represented the female anatomy in a positive light. However, these positive expressions of female genitals and the accompanying symbolic power of vaginal iconography exist as counter-efforts and are far less prominent than the negative representations that prevail.
Meet Jill Di Donato. I met Jill back in June when Sex In The Public Square, Center for Sex and Culture, and some amazing sex bloggers and writers got together at Happy Endings for a reading where we raised money for CSC. Jill heard me say that I was wanting to expand Sex In The Public Square and came to me with an idea for a new column, Show and Tell, which would be a place for people to write about the sexuality-and-society issues that are most personally important to them. Since no good deed goes unpunished Jill has been assigned as the curator/editor for our new venture! She's given me a sneak peak at some of the pieces she's collected so far and I'm very excited. Our goal is to put up a new Show and Tell piece about every two weeks, or twice a month. To submit an opinion-based editorial (500-1000 words) on issues relating to sex, relationships, beauty, identity, or any related topic, please email her at email@example.com.
Here's a bit more about Jill:
Jill Di Donato is a Brooklyn native with a BA in English and Sociology from Barnard College and an MFA in Writing from Columbia. As a 21st Century feminist, she's contributed essays, fiction, and art to various publications, from obscure literary journals to mainstream media outlets. She's the author of the forthcoming novel Beautiful Garbage about a 1980s New York artist who finds herself immersed in a world of high-class prostitution. In addition, she's editing an anthology of feminists writing about sex, gender, and beauty. Currently, she's an adjunct lecturer in English for the City University of New York, teaches at Barnard College and The Fashion Institute of Technology as well as privately in New York City. An advocate of communities that spark healthy and provocative discussions about intimate issues with insight, complexity, and humor, she's thrilled to join the staff of Sex in the Public Square as the new Show and Tell column editor.
Photo of Jill Di Donato by Celeste Giuliano and used by permission. (c) 2009 Celeste Giuliano. All rights reserved