Wednesday, August 24, 2005

How Do You Feel About...

So here's a little anecdote about Mac's sordid past.

Years ago, as a frequently-drunken undergraduate working too many jobs to pay for my education, I was sitting in a dorm lounge with some friends late one weekend night.

Now, my 19-year-old self knew just exactly how very clever I was, on the one hand--but also, my 19-year-old-self was doing some struggling with gender-identity and feminist issues. I'd been raised in a magnificently repressive fundamentalist Christian home and church-culture. I knew without any discussion or articulation that all queers went straight to hell, do not pass go, do NOT collect two hundred dollars. Queers die, get hauled straight to the basement, and popped in a kind of torpedo tube direct to the underworld, right? So my 19-year-old self had never so much as kissed a girl, and I certainly couldn't directly confront the odd...longings...starting to manifest themselves.

But I could and did approach the snarly problem from a feminist perspective. That approach was, in fact, quite encouraged in this particular little liberal-arts institution. I don't know why it was all right for me to first address the problems of misogyny in fundamentalist Christianity--but I suspect it was because my mother was a sort of underground feminist, in her more lucid and rebellious moments. She'd planted seeds of questions and anger about the injustices of misogyny that were more approachable to me than were questions of personal sexual identity.

So here I was with a group of similarly beginning-to-seek-enlightenment friends--both male* and female--sitting in a dorm late one Friday or Saturday night, probably a bit drunk. So the whole topic of female bodies comes up, and the upshot of the whole discussion leads us to decide we must conduct an impromptu and unscientific survey, right then, of whoever happened to walk through the lounge on their way to their room.

The survey questions were simple: "How do you feel about your breasts? Do you like them? Why or why not?"

This led, quite predictably, to a fairly wide variety of responses. Lots of the young women we asked promptly grabbed their own breasts, and put an exaggeratedly thoughtful look on their faces, and answered with a wide range of mostly very positive observations.

More than one guy grabbed his girlfriend's breasts, then grabbed his own chest in comparison, to offer his input, as well.

A couple of girls just averted their faces and fled for their rooms.

Meanwhile, almost twenty years later, I still recall this episode with disturbing clarity. Because it seems to me what we were really asking is something akin to, "how do you feel about the sex of your body--outside of normal gender conventions, if you can go there; or inside those conventions, if you cannot."

So I want to ask it again. In a more thoughtful and less drunken way, this time. How do you feel about your breasts? (Or your vagina, for that matter--but we just weren't goin' there, that night. We weren't that brave and clever.)

More specifically, how do you feel about the condition of being a woman, in a woman's body? And for the guys out there reading this (you know who you are...) I'd like to broaden that question to include you, as well. How do you feel about your male body? What do you think about the condition of being a man in a man's body?

How does this shape who we are--which is so much more than either just our brains or just our bodies, but seems to me to be a synergistic sum?

Because the harder I look at those questions, the more I realize how right we almost got it, that night so long ago. So very much of our personal identity is wrapped up in our sexual identifiers. Which explains an awful lot about interpersonal dynamics, when we damn well ought to know better by now.

*Interesting side-note: two of the three guys involved in this event later came out gay.


Kira said...

So much of who I am is based on how society treats and views women I'm not even sure I can answer this question in a satisfactory way.

I like my body. I like the feminine-ness of it. I like its curves.

I don't remember not having curves, but I remember hating them when they showed up--I was ten and I learned to hate the way riding a bicycle flattened my shirt against my chest. I was fourteen before I liked the way my body looked.

It's complicated. I like to feel pretty, but I hate to be summed up that way. Dismissed that way.

I simply cannot imagine being in a body not of the female gender. I think if I could switch bodies with a man for one day, I'd return really pissed off at how differently I was treated by the world at large.

I absolutely identify with myself as a woman first, a person second. When my male boss called me a 'smart cookie', I took that as him being condescending to a woman rather than a person. It was misogynistic before it was condescending in general.

When I accomplish something traditionally male, like changing a tire, I'm conscious of an attitude of "Ha! I can do that, too."

I guess I can't separate it enought to answer more clearly.

Flash!topian said...

I grew up in a similar situation to you, Mac -- repressive Christian family, with a serious undercurrent of progressive values. Of the time when I was growing up, I honestly don't remember being gender-differentiated from my brother until I was about 13. (It's what makes me love Frances Willard, whose feminism was based on a similar childhood ignorance of double standards.) I was into all the icky boy stuff my brother did -- fishing, breaking stuff, dark colors, video games, reading. I had no use for pink-n-purple anything. But, after age 5, I got really fat (while my mother got fat as a reaction to sexual abuse) and had virtually no friends until 14 or so, when puberty caught up with my weight. I basically had become an outgoing, grungy, smart "boy" with tits and long hair. I didn't date during high school, which is just as well. I remember that I loved my body because I was a singer. I was a size-12 diva with a broken-open ribcage that made me look intimidating and hourglassy.

Yes, there were many childhood years of taunting, suicide attempts (age 8!) and general loneliness that I've affiliated with my body as a child. But I wasted too much time worrying about my physical self. It all came out okay in the end. In college and beyond, I've had the opportunity to see my female body as (a) not the most important thing about me, yet (b) an endless source of pleasure for me and others. I'm glad I have a body, and although I occasionally wish it were slightly thinner or whatever, I am more glad that I spent a long time having to rely on something other than prettiness to get by. I take endless pleasure in my head, but only because my body still feels new to me.

I suppose a cynic might say that I spent so long hanging out with my brother and absorbing patriarchal feelings about women and bodies that I see mine as just a playground. That's possible. I just don't know what else bodies would be made for, other than wonderful physical pleasure. My self-worth is elsewhere.

Flash!topian said...

Ah, and therefore -- how do I feel about my vagina?

Hooray! Go, vagina, go! You are awesome!

I don't have anything deeper than that to say to it.

Mac said...

I'm constantly surprised and baffled by people who read lesbianism as a rejection of one's own sex--because I feel just the opposite about it.

In fact, because I'm comfortable and competent with many male-identified tasks (changing tires or whatever) I suspect I missed the learned helplessness that we sometimes associate with being female.

To me, though, I read that competence as a further expansion of the definition of myself as woman--not as the rejection of my own sex that others sometimes perceive.

Ms M said...

I completely agree and this is why I love being physically strong, with quite a "boyish" looking body (at least I have a muscly body which is often perceived of as boyish and yet I also have quite sizeable breasts. I love the muscly, slighly butch, large breast me and this makes me feel like I have expanded the concept of what a woman is meant to look like and do, or for that matter, what a lesbian is meant to look like and do. This is not to say this positive reflection of my body image didn't come with quite an amount of hard cognitive restructuring mind you...

Jill said...

I'm an hourglass, zaftig, petite woman and I can't really imagine what it would be like to be a man. I've wondered what it might have been like to be a head cheerleader for a day (I can't do a split or a cartwheel if a terrorist captor demanded it), but I've never wondered what it would be like to be a guy.

Does that mean anything? I don't know.

But my relationship to my body has been informed by my grandmother's death from breast cancer when I was three or four and my mom was 26, and then my mother's breast cancer when she was 44 and I was 21.

I just turned 43 and still have my breasts. I've promised a girlfriend that if I make it to 45 with breasts intact, I'll flash on Bourbon Street in Nawlins (she did it in 2001 but I was asleep in our hotel room).

I accept my body and I hate that my third grade daughter told my husband she needed to lose her "belly" this summer. I immediately called the camp directors and demanded that they counsel the counselors (mainly teen girls) to get with the program and listen to what the kids are saying to one another.

Overall, my reproductive components have served me well and I respect their miraculous ability to have worked just the way they're supposed to. Because, I bet like you, I know many women for whom those organs don't work they way they should or the way the women want them to. I'm no intelligent design supporter, but the intricacies of it all do make a person wonder.

Kira said...

"To me, though, I read that competence as a further expansion of the definition of myself as woman--not as the rejection of my own sex that others sometimes perceive."

After a night of letting this topic float around in my subconscious, it seems to me that this is the way we should all see abilities...a further extension of self, because abilities really are genderless. Or ought to be.

My first first-hand encounter with a gay person was my cousin. We didn't know each other growing up, but we were roomates in our early twenties. It never occured to me to see his gayness as a rejection of gender.

It was just part of who he was, as a man and a person.

Ms M said...

Kira said "After a night of letting this topic float around in my subconscious, it seems to me that this is the way we should all see abilities...a further extension of self, because abilities really are genderless. Or ought to be."

While we're at it I'd like to suggest that disabilities could equally be understood as an extension of self in the same way that abilities are. It then becomes a social question of how some abilities become valued over others and some become negated as abilities at all.