The Promise (Belly Button) Ring

Slouching towards the end of my first semester of college, deadlines nipping at my heels, I decided to get my belly button pierced. It was a decision solidified over the course of a few conversations with my best friend from high school. Until this point, we both had avoided body modifications, even ones as noncommittal as piercings. I had gotten my ears pierced years ago, when I was eight and finally, finally had secured my mother’s consent. I celebrated the rite of passage by nearly kicking the pregnant sales associate at Claire’s in the stomach, propelled by last minute nerves. Since that near-fiasco, I had abstained from further body piercing endeavors.

But, with the exchange of a few feverish emails, charged with the intoxicating awareness that our parents would wholeheartedly disapprove, my friend and I devised a plot to be carried out upon our winter break reunion. The details of the plot were as follows: My friend picked me up to go to dinner – OR SO OUR PARENTS THOUGHT. Instead, deviants that we were, we went to the piercing parlor! To get our belly buttons pierced! And then we went to dinner at a nice Mediterranean restaurant and were home by midnight curfew. I managed to conceal my sordid, body-altering shenanigans from my parents for roughly twelve hours, eventually bursting at the seams to announce my rebellion. I had undergone the needle for the sake of sexy! I could not fathom waiting another six months until summer, when I would inevitably broadcast the news with a bared midriff.

I’ve always possessed an appreciation for the ridiculous, and, as I stood in that oceanfront piercing parlor, awaiting puncture, I knew I must have seemed precisely that. Despite my efforts to appear blasé, to sign the release forms with cool disaffection, the tatted up, variously pierced employees saw right through the charade. Certainly I was nervous about the actual piercing process. It struck me as intimidatingly surgical, with the lean-to enswathed in the slippery paper you only encounter in a doctor’s exam room, the rubber bottles of antiseptic, and the hodgepodge of clamps. Happily, the event was relatively tame (my limbs behaved, I was docile). In what seemed both a minute and an epoch, I was unleashed unto the world, soaring on a rush of adrenaline. I was pierced in a minimally bad-girl way; now everything was going to change.

And that was just it: the parlor sales associates may have sensed my trepidation, but it was entirely secondary to the idealistic enchantment radiating from my every facial pore. I had carefully studied the music video for Aerosmith’s “Cryin.” Alicia Silverstone takes a turn for the badass after she acquires her sexy belly button ring (and after she gets a tattoo, but, again, I suffer from commitment issues). I had no plans to bungee jump from an overpass, and I didn’t have any ex-boyfriends who deserved a good scare and the middle finger. But maybe that was the problem.

Getting my belly button pierced seemed to me like a spot of pain in the pursuit of pleasure. It was a promise to myself to be more sexually bold – to maybe even bare my midriff when I wasn’t sea or poolside. I was going to kiss boys, and then some. I was going to have the sort of interactions with boys that involved them actually seeing my belly button ring. Cheesily antithetical to the promise rings of the Disney Channel teeny boppers, my belly button ring symbolized my intent to get some – and, more importantly, to not be afraid of getting some. Thus far, college had not been the sexual playground I had hoped it would be, primarily because I was too timid to approach guys unless a beer or two had lowered my defenses. And even then, I was, all things considered, quite chaste.

Oftentimes when people get their navels pierced, they justify it to others by saying, “Just knowing I have it makes me feel sexier. No one needs to see it.” I parroted variations of this remark to my friends, and I think, for me, the statement was valid up to a certain point. It was satisfying to see the little barbell that slid through the rim of my navel. Sometimes, when it caught my eye, I would smile like a goon. Yet it was part of a larger project of cultivating my sexual persona, part of the body that I was learning, slowly, to love. Someone seeing it—someone with whom I shared mutual desire—would feel like a triumph.

So I returned for the second semester of my freshman year with this modest adornment. Nothing much changed, really – I certainly did not become the sex goddess of my wildest ambitions. But I did become more sexually bold, empowered by the thought of the little glistening jewel in my stomach. At a time when I struggled to accept my face, with its vaguely Semitic traces, the reminder of my belly button ring shored up my confidence. It wasn’t a means of negotiating self-acceptance. I wanted to love my whole body; I am still trying to love it. But in that fleeting moment, my belly button ring became a sort of weirdly anthropomorphized cheerleader.

It was there when I lost my virginity, an event that was, in reality, woefully unsexy. It reminded me of my feminine sexual agency when I was twenty-five and separating from my husband and could not help but feel that I had broken my life into fragments and flung them over my head. When I timidly explored new love, its presence reminded me that I deserved pleasure – and was capable of giving it to another.

Now I am twenty-eight and contemplating allowing the piercing to heal. In a few years, my soon-to-be husband and I want to have children. I’d prefer not have a widening chasm in the middle of my stomach over the course of a pregnancy. I’ve been told time and again how long it takes a navel piercing to fully heal. Still I’m so reluctant to make the move.

I wondered at first if this reluctance stemmed from a sense of missed opportunity. My mental sex checklist does remain fairly incomplete. And it’s true: being more sexually adventurous—outside of a monogamous relationship, that is—could have been liberating, empowering, exciting. Or maybe I would have been largely underwhelmed. Regardless, I don’t think it is regret that keeps me from sliding out that little barbell; it’s the sense of loss I know that I will feel. The satisfaction of minor rebellion has never dissipated; I am if nothing else a chronic good girl. But over the course of our decade together, I have learned other, various ways to feel erotically empowered and desirable. If I am parting ways with my trusty piercing, I am still cultivating my sexual self by other means. The promise to get some lives on! It just adapts to circumstance.

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Body Parts

It is a hideously dreary weekend, and I am thinking about my body.

I love bodies. I love the myriad of ways they register the world, their exquisite vulnerabilities. I love the beauty created by bodies. I love to think about these things.

And, for the most part, I love to be aware of my own body. Perhaps I should turn that sentence around: I love to be aware of most parts of my body.

A few weeks ago, I visited my student health center for a check-up. First things first, blood pressure and weight. As I stepped onto the scale, I celebrated the small convenience of being able to keep on my shoes (this almost never happens). Then, I waited as the nurse pushed the metal arrows to the right and left. She kept pushing to the right. Further to the right always means fatter.

As I waited for the nurse practitioner to call me into an examination room, I fretted over the number the first nurse had recorded. I don’t own a scale, and I don’t remember whether this year’s number is larger than the one from last year. I am vaguely aware that, whatever the number, I would not be satisfied.

Finally I am summoned, and I head to one of the dingy, dinky little rooms to meet with the nurse practitioner. I ask her about my weight, and she squints at the computer. “Oh,” she says. “Mmm.”

Shit.

She turns to me with a look of pity that would seem more suitable if she were about to issue a cancer diagnosis. According to the hallowed and revered BMI index, I have edged into the “overweight zone.” “It’s not that you have a weight PROBLEM,” she assures me. “You’re just overweight.”

I sit with this information for a moment and am silent. The nurse wants to be helpful. “Would you like to make an appointment with a nutrition counselor?” she asks, eagerly handing me brochures. I feign appreciation and stuff the brochures in my bag. I go home. I curl up in bed, cry, and feel like a wad of wet dough. Later that night, I realize that I am actually fortunate because I am twenty-eight, and this is the first time–to my knowledge–that I have ever been identified by someone as “overweight.”

I don’t care what percentage of people would agree with that nurse practitioner – or rather, with the BMI chart upon which she based her own assessment. I only know that I hate how we make each other feel about our bodies – how we inhibit each other’s ability to love our flesh. And I’m sick of women being made to feel as if we take up too much space. We diminish ourselves in the name of Health. Really, we are only performing expectations that are utter impossibilities.

This week a friend drew my attention to the “No Makeup Selfie” campaign that has been making the rounds on social media. She participated and asked me to do the same. I had just changed my Facebook profile picture to one of the only close ups of my face that I do not hate. The friend who took the picture is a professional photographer, and I sure as hell am wearing makeup. I have begun to pride myself on my creativity in the cosmetic arts and tell myself that I am finding new ways to “enhance” my facial features. This is probably mostly bullshit.

I support my friend for participating in the campaign and tell her she looks beautiful because she does and she is. But for a few days, I refrain, cowardly. One evening I take a photo of myself without makeup, but think that posting it publicly would make me nauseous. The next morning I try again. Without looking too hard at the picture, I post it to Facebook.

I hate that photo of me so much that I can hardly bear the sight of it. I endure it only to respond to the comments of wonderful friends who say supportive, kind things. But I’m still glad that I took the photo, and that it is there. I think it is good for me to sit with the discomfort of having broadcasted an image of myself unadorned. Still, I don’t know that I could do it again.

Today I am feeling the heaviness that comes of a weekend spent eating appetizers at a conference (free food means not paying for groceries, after all). I will go to the gym tomorrow morning and tell myself that the most important reason for doing so is to “feel good.” Really, I want to be in shape when my family sees me in my wedding dress in June. I don’t want my body to take up too much space when I walk down the aisle. I’m doing this for all of the wrong reasons, but I keep hoping that will change.

I keep hoping that the next time I have the energy to write about my feminist politics, that the energy will derive from a better ability to separate myself from gendered social expectations. Today is not one of those days, but it will come. I am determined for it to come.

Why I Like to Teach Sex

This past week, Paul showed a room of graduate students and professors just how foxy Harvey Keitel is in the sack.

Disambiguation: Paul was a panelist for a workshop on how to teach film in literature courses. He delivered a mini-presentation on how to analyze a scene, focusing particularly on sound and music. He chose, as his sample, a scene from Jane Campion’s “The Piano,” which is, let me tell you, one of the most exquisite films that I have ever seen. It is also the only film that, to my knowledge, features Harvey Keitel as an explicit object of desire. When we see Harvey (or rather, when you see Harvey, because I probably cannot sit through any of his other, much more violent, films), it tends to be in this sort of context:

Image taken from badassdigest.com

In “The Piano,” Harvey Keitel’s character has also adorned himself with tattoos, but they are limited to his face and signify his assimilation into the tribal communities of 19th Century New Zealand. Whether or not said tattoos work for him would likely generate some debate. But, in any case, they seem to work for one of the film’s female characters, because she falls deeply in love with him. And after these characters express their mutual feelings, they engage in a rather lengthy and graphic bout of love-making. This is the scene that Paul showed us as part of his presentation. Nervous laughter ensued.

A number of factors contributed to the giggles that rippled through the audience. First, Paul warned that the scene includes partial nudity, and there is simply nothing “partial” about it – unless, of course, anything less than full-frontal shots of genitalia is, in your opinion, child’s play. That said, taking into consideration that we do not see the women from the front, and assuming Harvey is relatively endowed, I would put the extent of the nudity in this scene at about 95 percent. Perhaps if we had only caught a quick glimpse of the love-making, then the effect would not have been so dramatic. But oh, how the camera lingers. We see caresses. We see smoochies. We see Harvey mount and penetrate with a determined thrust. And all the while, the music is gorgeous!

Paul did, ultimately, cut short the viewing, having forgotten just how long we are privy to the lovers bumping uglies. And, honestly, it is a shame that he felt that compulsion, however understandable it was. Jokes aside, the scene was perfect for the point Paul wanted to convey to us, and it productively accompanied his brilliant feminist analysis (I won’t divulge said analysis to you because I hope he publishes it someday).  Afterwards, my friend and colleague, Katie Stanutz, the organizer of these teaching workshops, joked that Paul was responsible for the first nudity to make its way into the series. She also hatched what I think is a brilliant idea for another workshop: how to teach controversial material. After the panel, a few of us, including Katie, began to talk about how presenting or discussing explicit material is always a challenge. It also can have varying–sometimes difficult–effects on the space of a classroom or lecture hall. Of course, everyone who attended this workshop loves Paul and appreciated precisely why he had shown us that film clip. But the affect of amused discomfort was palpable as we gradually recognized that this was a long scene of no-holds-barred sex – one that we were watching in public, amongst professional colleagues. Afterwards we realized that this was one of those “teaching moments” to which we all refer (sometimes with a dollop of sarcasm).

I am by no means immune to the impacts of encountering controversial material, whatever the nature of its content. However, I also do not shy away from teaching it. Because my research interests include human sexuality, the topic tends to make its way into just about any course I teach, and in a variety of manifestations. I have incorporated “The Piano” into a women’s literature class before (with Paul’s help, I should add). This semester, in my Introduction to LGBT Literatures class, I will teach poetry by the brilliant Essex Hemphill. When I teach within my comfort zone, i.e. the Victorian period, I assign Michel Foucault and Eve Sedgwick, and challenge my students to think about the ways writers articulated their erotic desires in a climate that was far more conservative. It is especially important to me to teach women’s sexuality because of the ways it has been–and continues to be–scrutinized, fetishized, and exploited, both within literature and outside of it. Some of my very favorite lines of poetry–lines that strengthen me whenever I feel judged by others–are from Victorian poet Augusta Webster’s “A Castaway.” Webster’s poem imagines the interiority of a kept woman struggling with her “fall” from sexual propriety while still asserting her self-worth:  “I have looked coolly on my what and why / And I accept myself.” Sometimes it is nearly impossible for me to speak those words aloud without getting choked up.

My students generally come to know me as a teacher who will “go there.” I am comfortable with this, both because I try to make those moments productive and because I think it is critical TO go “there” — in other words, to the sex. We see evidence every day that society still does not know what to do with sexuality. However often we read humor pieces about the trials and tribulations of forgetting your vibrator when you visit your parents, talking sex tends to make us nervous unless we do it in a private setting. I recognize that everyone has limits to what s/he wants to discuss, and I am by no means arguing that we should all broadcast our sex lives, heedless of our audiences. Despite being a very sex-positive person, there is a great deal–although perhaps it does not always seem like it–that I prefer to keep to myself. And there are details about my life that others simply need not know. But as an instructor, I believe in challenging my students to question the boundaries that shape their comfort zones. Discomfort can be one of the most productive things we feel, so long as we are willing to reflect on what has generated it. I want my students to read material that makes them uncomfortable. Doing so enables us to have vibrant and healthy discussions about what that discomfort means – what social or institutional forces influence and perpetuate it.

As long as we continue to tiptoe around discussions of sex in the abstract, we will not be capable of fully facing the social problems that derive from sexual anxieties. For instance, until we can recognize the validity of sex workers, it will be one more factor that contributes to a culture of slut-shaming. So too, will be the systemic silencing and blaming of sexual assault victims, many of whom are women. For as long as we fetishize and exploit same-sex eroticism, queer people will not be encouraged to regard their love as valid and beautiful, just as all love is. (For some of the latest in outrageous lesbian fetishization, see Shakira’s latest music video. My opinion of her has lowered considerably: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o3mP3mJDL2k. And no, Macklemore does not make it all better.) I could go on at length, and it would just depress us all. It’s Friday, so I don’t want to do that.

But there is so much that we need to do. We need to talk with our students about the line between the pornographic and the erotic, and why that matters (see Audre Lorde’s “The Uses of the Erotic” if you want to do a little outside reading that will inspire you to start a revolution). We need to create supportive and generative spaces where words like “vagina” and “aroused” don’t get caught in our students’ throats as they attempt to make points about the day’s reading. We need to teach tolerance for sexuality and, in so doing, emphasize the difference between choosing to maintain one’s privacy and feeling compelled to hide a fundamental part of oneself.

When I teach sexually explicit material, I hope that I am able to impart some of these lessons — or, at least, to create a pedagogical climate conducive to these conversations. Because, while I want to challenge my students (and myself, too), I always, always want them to feel safe.

And if all else fails, I guess I can just show my students a naked, tattooed Harvey Keitel over, and over, and over again. (Thanks, Paul!)

Teaching Pretty: The Politics of Fashion for Women Instructors

My relationship with high heeled shoes is a fraught one.

Aesthetically, I am dazzled by them. They compliment my body’s shape and infuse more conservative outfits with a bit of pizzazz.  I feel intoxicatingly powerful when I manage to trip across sidewalk grating in high heels without getting stuck or face-planting in a spectacular display of bipedal ineptitude. (I may or may not tempt fate on a semi-regular basis in hopes of experiencing this high. I do know the name of a very good cobbler.) Entering a crowded room in high heels generates a similar sense of confidence and assertiveness – and it generally does not result in bodily harm.

The positive affective powers of the high heel has propelled me to teach most of my classes in them. And when I do, those high heels are almost certainly paired with a dress, or a skirt, blouse, and blazer. But by the time class has ended, and I have trekked back to my office, my feet have sent my brain a read-only version of the Bill of Rights, with the Eighth Amendment circled in red, and arrows pointing at it for good measure. And therein lies the rub: Can I walk in high heels? Yes. Does it eventually hurt like hell? Emphatic yes. As an especially energetic teacher, I often will walk around my classroom, and, no matter how many reviews I read assuring me that “you can totally wear these high heels ALL DAY and you won’t even notice them,” I do notice. I notice big time. Perhaps one day, I will locate the miracle heels that I really can wear for eight hours without chomping at the bit to kick them off, but that day has not arrived.

The day has also not arrived where I have discovered panty hose or tights with an elastic band that does not eventually make me anxious to wriggle free. And fitted blouses? I am forever nervous that one wild gesticulation too many will result in torn fabric.

But regardless of the above, I do love to dress up and take a great deal of pride in my sartorial decisions. I recognize that, while I do seek to fill my wardrobe with clothes that are both classy and comfortable, high heeled shoes that feel like a pair of TOMS are a scientific impossibility. And, if I want to wear high heels, patterned tights, and cute, fitted blouses, then I am simply going to have to accept the accompanying bodily constraints. That is my choice, and I make it willingly.

The real question is why I insist on wearing this sort of highly-feminized attire when I teach. Yes, “looking professional,” however that is to be interpreted, is indeed important to me. I do firmly believe that more formal attire projects dedication to my work as a teacher and a scholar. I am here to work, to teach, to learn, and I take all of that very, very seriously. And, as I said, donning heels and a dress makes me feel quite confident. In my fancy duds, I am prepared to deliver a fantastic lesson, presentation, or to engage in an intellectually rigorous conversation with one of my mentors. Generally, I wait until the middle of the semester to wear pants to class, and when I do, I almost certainly pair them with heels.

But–and I know this is not revelatory–one does not need to wear high heels to look professional. A female-bodied person does not need to wear conventionally feminine clothes in order to look professional. The hesitancy I feel whenever I put on a pair of ballet flats has nothing to do with whether or not I will appear too casual for an academic environment. Along these same lines, my decision to start wearing blush and lip color this year does not impact my overall professional image – in fact, I doubt if anyone has noticed but me. Waiting until the ninth week of the semester to wear pants and heels instead of sporting them by the fourth or fifth week probably has no effect on my pedagogical ethos. So then, why do I set these guidelines for myself?

My sense is that they are the result of inculcated gender expectations – what I believe I need to do as a twenty-something woman in order to command respect from my students and from my peers. For instance, when I walked to my classroom the other day, I passed a male instructor wearing shorts, a tee-shirt, and sneakers. My first thoughts focused on whether he had sustained severe nerve damage. Personally, I cannot not conceive of venturing outside in 30-degree weather without every inch of my body covered, save for maybe one eye. But it also occurred to me that I would absolutely never–never–teach a class dressed the way this man was dressed.

A few things: First of all, I am not attempting to construct a gendered binary where “male” equals “less concerned with professional appearance because…patriarchy.” Part of my surprise at this instructor’s attire simply derived from its being, in my estimation, inappropriate for an academic environment. I of course know many male instructors who take great care in their appearance, particularly on days that they teach. And plenty of female instructors dress more casually than I do, all the while projecting airs of professionalism and confidence. There is, as always, no viable binary to create here. But that said, the fact that I do not feel comfortable dressing casually when I teach is, to a large extent, an issue of gender. And the fact that I encounter far more male instructors who are comfortable dressing informally in front of their students is, too, a result of gendered socialization. Having had conversations on this topic with a number of my colleagues, I have the sense that far fewer women would teach class in a tee-shirt, shorts, and sneakers. The reasons for this extends beyond the simple question of what we consider “professional dress.”

After all, clothes themselves are gendered identity markers. We use them both to send messages and to interpret one another as personalities and as bodies. There is no need for me to recount for you the history of regulated female attire or, for that matter, the anxieties that still surround transvestism. People tend to feel most comfortable when the cultural codes that mark a body parallel their interpretation of the body itself. Somewhere in my social conditioning, I came to an unconscious realization that people would respond to me more favorably if my attire matched my feminine persona and female body – and that I enjoyed the benefits of fulfilling these expectations. For reasons gendered and otherwise–excluding a few years of elementary school–I liked pretty clothes and wanted to wear them whenever the occasion permitted. Once I started my doctorate and began teaching college-level courses, I must have interpreted female professionalism as being, to some degree, tethered to conventional depictions of acceptable hyper-femininity – in other words, dresses that flatter one’s figure (but not too tight, and for goodness sake, not too low cut!); heels that accentuate the legs (but not too high – that’s trashy!); and full make up (but tastefully applied, please!).

I do not mean these snarky asides to suggest that teachers should walk into their classrooms wearing pleather catsuits and crimson lipstick (although, a universe where that was the norm might be kind of fun). What interests me is that female professionals are implicitly encouraged to be modest, yet fetching, and in a markedly feminine way. In fact, I would go so far as to say that we are encouraged to be sexy – thus the cache of “Hot for Teacher” films and outfits deemed–approvingly–“sexy librarian.” “Sexy nerd” is most certainly a thing in academia, for men and for women. But society encourages women to be attractive to everybody, including our students, even while the official discourse promotes conservatism. And of course, take “sexy” too far, and may the slut-shaming commence.

As is probably painfully clear, I can offer no solutions here. I only know that the way female professional dress is scrutinized is highly problematic, as are the many conflicting messages society sends regarding heteronormative expectations of female workplace appearance. I am only becoming more fully aware of how these various forces have shaped me and, more specifically, my sartorial choices. I realize that many of these decisions materialize because, as a woman, I am especially concerned with my professional visibility. I feel most visible, it seems, when I am dressing the way society asks me to dress. This is a problem.

The matter becomes increasingly complicated because I cannot parse my desire to present myself in a “professional manner” from my clearly socialized conceptions of appropriate dress. I do not know that these issues can be extricated from one another. Do I get dressed with the intent of attracting attention? No, but I wonder to what extent the desire is inherent in the efforts I put forth, even if my “teacher clothes” are neither provocative nor flashy. Visceral aesthetic delight aside, why do I take such pleasure in looking “pretty” when I dress for school? To what extent I am actually dressing for my own benefit?

Ultimately, these questions can be crazy-making. I do want to continue to dress up when I teach and attend department functions. After all, normalizing informal attire in the workplace would only generate new gendered fashion conventions. And I do benefit from the fashion decisions I make, even if I simultaneously am skeptical of their origins. Feeling confident enables me to do my job more effectively. Besides, we all have the right to feel beautiful, whatever that entails for each of us.

What I think we need is a more sustained conversation about what professional attire means for all genders and to what extent we are troubled by the expectations that shape fashion norms. What sorts of privilege are at work here? (I am, for example, fully aware that my ability to dress the way I do derives from a certain amount of economic privilege.) How, above all, do we make our work environments empowering spaces for all who occupy them?

I hope that you will help me to grapple with these questions. In the meantime, I will do my best to leave the high heels at home a bit more often. My feet could use a little respite, and I could use the practice.