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.

How Do We Talk About Mother’s Day?

The older I get, the more capacious the significance of Mother’s Day becomes.

Yet this has very little to do with biology. For one thing, I am not a mother myself. In the most simplistic, Hallmark card terms, I identify as “daughter” in each relationship that is traditionally relevant to the holiday. Daughter, granddaughter, and, soon, daughter-in-law.

I by no means want to diminish these relationships; each is dear to me, and I will talk about them in this post. But I find myself frustrated by the biologically essentialist emphasis upon blood lineage perpetuated by this holiday. Women create exquisitely intimate ties amongst themselves, ties transcending and circumventing bloodlines. Lineage is not exclusively chromosonal. Motherhood, while important for its conceptual origins in biological connectivity, carries an even richer meaning when we widen the breadth of its reach.

So then, how do I talk about Mother’s Day?

I want to talk about teachers – the women who have taught me and who teach me still. I think first of my undergraduate advisor, Deborah Morse, who has been both an intellectual and emotional mother to me ever since I edged timidly into her office, just days before the beginning of my freshman year. Her classrooms were luminous and nurturing spaces where, over semesters and years, Victorian literature–Deborah’s field of expertise–became my ardent passion. Through her tutelage I cultivated this passion, and it has become one of the sustaining forces of my life. I owe this to her, as I owe her many other things.

I think, too, of so many other women at my alma mater, women like Deborah who taught me the soul-preserving importance of living a feminist life. Women who taught me that tolerance and empathy are not antithetical to intellectual rigor and thus inspired me to become the teacher I try to be. Women who guided me through the woman-authored texts that have shaped my life: Jane Eyre, Mrs. Dalloway, essays by Judith Butler, Middlemarch, Symmetries. I think of my high school English teacher, Carrie Gantt, who urged me to read The Awakening. I reflect with gratitude upon the women who enrich my graduate studies, whether through their focused support or by setting examples as women who write, teach, bear children, love, and live passionately.

I think of Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot and the millions of women they have nurtured–sustained–with the novels we have loved so well for so long. I think of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. I think of how she has taught me to better understand my propensity to feel so very, very ashamed. I think that female-oriented intimacy is possible even when mutual recognition is an impossibility.

I think of Tori Amos, and how she saved my life in eighth grade and ninth grade and tenth grade – how she taught me comfort through “Hey Jupiter” and “Jackie’s Strength” and “Bells for Her.”

I think of my grandmothers, who, at age 28, I am obscenely, indulgently fortunate to know. They are strong women, full of passion, and multi-faceted love. I think of Grandma Olga, wounded by so many when she was young, but never jaded and always so tenaciously open-hearted. And my Grandma Kappy, all vigor and might. She taught me–and continues to teach me–that feminism and marriage can and do co-exist in beautiful ways. I think of Maria, who will, in less than a month, become my mother-in-law. I think of her inexhaustible capacity to love and tremendous impulse to protect. She was so willing to know and to love me, and I am eager for all that I will continue to learn from her. She is, already, a mother.

Finally, my mother who birthed me. Kathy. Momma. Sweetness embodied, generous, open-hearted – a woman without whom I could not understand the nuances of kindness and empathy. The mother who, on roadtrips, let me fill our car with the sounds of Little Earthquakes and who entertained my ephemeral obsessions with Taylor Hanson and Leonardo DiCaprio. The mother who could not help but cry when her daughters did because, as she would say, her heart was attached to ours.

Perhaps it seems contradictory, after beginning with a critique of the Hallmarkian emphasis upon bloodlines, that I end this piece by writing about my grandmothers, mother, and the woman who will possess blood ties to my children. But I am of the firm belief that these women would be just as significant to me regardless of our biological relationships. This is not to say that I am unmoved by the knowledge that my mother carried me in her womb for nine months (bless her). She, together with my father, gave me life, and that is a uniquely special gift. But that gift is enhanced by the intimacy we have cultivated over the years. It achieves greater significance because we have shared our lives, and because she maintained reassuring proximity as I learned to make my way in the world.

As Mother’s Day becomes for me a more generous and varied celebration of women, I am overwhelmed by an embarrassment of riches. There are so many women existing in the world in beautiful and amazing ways, and having the opportunity to know some of them illuminates my own existence.

And so, with that, a very Happy Mother’s Day.

 

 

 

Playlists

The emotional peaks and valleys of this semester have been uncommonly extreme. On the one hand, I have taken another, exciting step towards achieving my goal of writing creative non-fiction for wider audiences. The wonderful people at The Hairpin published an essay that I wrote about 90’s roller rinks, nostalgia, and teenage sexual awakening (You can check it out here: http://thehairpin.com/2014/04/fantasy-on-wheels-my-roller-rink-sexual-awakening). This in and of itself was a tremendous honor, not to mention a thrill; I love The Hairpin and very much believe in their goal of promoting woman-centered writing. Then, at the end of the same week, as I absent-mindedly perused my Twitter feed, I found that The Paris Review had highlighted the piece. Talk about a compliment – I very nearly vomited in appreciation (Is there such a thing as glee-vomiting? One of these days I might make it so – unwillingly, mind you). And in the meantime, people have shared such wonderful memories with me. The gift economy of writing is both so enriching and fulfilling. I want to spend my life swapping stories and ideas with people through every available venue, and I am committed to doing exactly that.

And yet, it has been in other ways a very humbling and frustrating semester. Not everything has gone as I would have hoped–not even close–and I have had to grapple with several disappointments. Such is life. In the midst of one rough patch, I was feeling particularly in need of a little sonic morale boost. So with the help of some friends, I compiled a “graduate student empowerment” playlist. It is available on Spotify, and because I had so much wonderful input from other folks, I feel quite comfortable saying that the playlist kicks ass. Whether or not you are a graduate student, I highly recommend that you give it a listen (you can blame me for all of the Robyn).

A couple of weeks after making this playlist, I read a wonderful essay by Buzzfeed writer Summer Anne Burton, entitled “The Fine Art of Mixtape Seduction” (http://www.buzzfeed.com/summeranne/crush-mixtapes). Mind you, I am no slick fox, so I have never performed my own seductions via mixtape – or via any other means, for that matter. I have always loved a good music mix, though. And in middle school, high school, and college, I made a number of them for my friends. In high school, my mixtapes always included track listings with detailed rationales for each of my selections. The rationale was always a mélange of autobiography, pseudo-philosophical musing, and “isn’t this song just, like, the best?!” Moreover, the process of compiling the mixtape’s content was itself a craft. One could not record the songs willy-nilly; order was crucial. Putting “Both Hands” (with the orchestral accompaniment, of course) after “Bullets With Butterfly Wings” would have been a grave mixtape transgression, as would including too many songs by the same artist. Any music snob worth her salt knows that she must represent her taste as both refined and varied.

I have always turned to music for emotional sustenance, and this semester, with its many ups and downs, has certainly been no exception. Between putting together the Graduate Student Empowerment mix and reading Burton’s fantastic piece, I have also been reminiscing about my music mixing days and the track listings that probably took me as long to compose as any English paper. I thought, for the heck of it, that I might revisit this exercise and put together a “mix” of the first ten songs that came to mind – ones strongly tied to specific memories. Lately my students and I have been thinking a great deal about biographies and memoirs–we just finished Audre Lorde’s Zami–and so we have had many conversations about how we remember and revise our histories, not to mention the associations that provoke or accompany memories. Often the memories that cling most tenaciously or perpetually resurface cannot be arranged into a cohesive narrative. So, what I am saying is that seventeen-year-old Rachel would probably sneer at this playlist. But I will ignore her pretentiousness and sally forth.

1. “Time Ago” by Black Lab: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kI_Y4hgsXYY

When I first heard this song, I was eleven years old, sitting underneath the window in my bedroom with my portable CD player in front of me. Immediately after, I concluded that it was the sexiest song I had ever heard. I had recognized “sexy” as an adjective since I was maybe nine. As an eleven year old awash in a complex web of new feelings, I all of a sudden realized that certain things, certain people, were sexy to me. Still, I could not quite articulate what that meant. I looked primarily to music and movies to cultivate my understanding of the term, and so I learned the following: 1. Having sex outside was sexy. 2. Having sex in a car was also sexy, especially if said car did not belong to you (ah, Titanic, the dreamscapes you inspired). Black Lab wooed me with the lyrics “All by ourselves we made love under the sleeping, moonless night,” because, as you will observe, they refer to bumping uglies in the outdoors (possibly on the hood of a car!), and THAT is sexy. But I was also a sucker for any song that articulated a man’s pained and nostalgic longing for a woman. I wanted to be that woman for somebody and was fearful that I never would be. And so, each time the local DJ fulfilled my wish and played this hyperbolically earnest one hit wonder, I would imagine it as the soundtrack to my first tryst with whoever I fancied that term.

2. “I Would Do Anything For Love” by Meatloaf: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iOikQWAL8qc

One night, during our sophomore year, plagued by too many English papers, midterms, and theatre rehearsals, my friend Kellyn and I–roommates at the time–determined that there was only one way to mitigate our collective stress. We sought out Meatloaf in Kellyn’s iTunes library, turned the volume up as high as our RA would permit, and treated the rest of the floor to our vocal stylings. We stood defiantly, if precariously, on our wobbly desk chairs, hairbrushes clutched in our hands (microphones, you see). Within a few minutes, our neighbor Sarah LeCates rushed in to join us (we shared a hairbrush). While we were both quite friendly with Sarah, we were not close friends. But we shared a fleeting intimacy that night, even if our impromptu karaoke did not significantly change the nature of our friendship. The next year, Sarah left campus to study abroad in Senegal. Before returning to the States, she fell ill and died shortly thereafter. My sadness, while profound, could not be the same as the sorrow felt by those close to her – and, being a warm, vibrant person, she had many dear friends. But I never hear a note of this song without thinking of her.

3. “Jackie’s Strength” by Tori Amos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C7WET8khBc4 

If I were a Tori Amos song, I would be “Jackie’s Strength” – at least according to the Buzzfeed quizmeisters. Apparently this has something to do with my penchant for the dramatic, so clearly their algorithm failed. Truly, though, I could not help but feel a bit of pleasure with my result. This song became my lullaby in eighth grade, its ethereal chorus engulfing me, forming what felt like a protective shell around my vulnerable, insecurities-riddled body. At school it would often play in my head, materializing into armor just beneath my skin and guarding me against the harsh social climate of my middle school. And it was there when I could not be brave – when I lay on my bed, staring at the ceiling, wishing that I could be anyone or anything but what I was.

4. “I Will” by The Beatles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rx_APcTyIUg

At the reception following my first wedding, two of my ex-husband’s relatives sang this song, accompanied by another one of his relatives on guitar. It was a beautiful tribute to what I thought at the time would be a long marriage. For a couple of years following our divorce, I could not listen to this song without pangs of guilt and an acute sense of shame. Hell, sometimes I would listen to it as a form of self-punishment. Now the song conjures a fraught mix of associations: Paul, my ex-husband, the family of which I was once a part, my second wedding, steadily approaching on June 7. I can accept the joy with the pain now – and that is all I can do. I do not expect that this is an association that will ever weaken.

5. “Shake it Out” by Florence + the Machine: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WbN0nX61rIs

Oh Florence, you Pre-Raphaelite goddess. You do you, always.

No word play will make my connection to this song less hokey, but the associations are significant to me. I listened to this song as I walked from Paul’s house on my way to the bus stop one morning (and then many mornings, afternoons, and evenings after that). We had been dating for several months, but I was still licking my wounds from the previous, hellish year, when I both married and separated. Unsurprisingly I was particularly affected by the lyrics, “…it’s hard to dance with the devil on your back, so shake him off.”  I wish I could say that Florence’s wisdom healed me on the spot. Of course it didn’t, though it did make it into many a Facebook status message. Yet it reminded me that I had a right to be in love with Paul and to embrace all of the accompanying feelings. I am pretty sure that I sent him a stupidly cheesy text message before the song ended.

6. “Jumper” by Third Eye Blind: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lObgLdtXYpU

“Rachel, I wanna listen to the song where he goes ‘Yiyiyiyiyow,'” said my youngest sister, then in pre-school, many, many times.

I readily obliged, for reasons she did not know.

7. “The Freshman” by The Verve Pipe: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1umEXpGHc0E

I spent over four years desperately in love with a guy who did not love me. He and his friends, all freshly-minted high school graduates, had formed a band years ago and were spending the summer before college playing coffee house gigs. Those gigs were the place to be that summer, and I, a rising junior who did not yet have her license, frantically sought out a ride to each one. When my job as a grocery market cashier prevented attendance, I felt deeply bereft. My crush’s band would often cover this song – and well, I might add. Perhaps it was the explicit connection to high school, the song’s hyper-solemnity, or some combination of the two, I don’t know. But this song, more than all of the others on their set list, reminded me that my crush, the frontman, was moving on to the greener pastures of collegiate life. And no matter what Wet Seal halter top I wore to his shows, he would not return my affection the way I wanted him to.

8. “Dancing On My Own” by Robyn: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CcNo07Xp8aQ

Throwing punches alone in my apartment, attempting to channel everything I imagine Robyn to be, I would dance until I broke a sweat. Desolate and guilty, this song fortified the backbone that enabled me to leave my marriage.

9. “Stand Inside Your Love” by Smashing Pumpkins: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2nm4xv3firw

A Pumpkins devotee since age ten, I could not wait to share every last one of their songs with Paul. Predictably enough, we began with “Tonight, Tonight” (I probably join the population of a small country when I say that this is one of my favorite songs). After the preliminaries, I thought I would woo my beau with one of their more traditional love songs. Barely thirty seconds in, Paul nervously caught my attention–I was, of course, in raptures–and said, “Umm, could we maybe turn this off?” Believe it or not, not everybody enjoys Billy Corgan’s voice (I know, right?). In fact, some find it downright intolerable. Much to my horror, I learned that night that Paul is one of these people. I briefly reconsidered our relationship, but thought that one offense, however grave, was not sufficient reason to call it off.

10. “Portions for Foxes” by Rilo Kiley: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qtNV3pOqcjI

Writing this blog post has made me aware of my apparent affinity for red-headed ladies who sing. And each time I hear this song–or any that they played at their show, really–I can only dwell on the exquisiteness of Jenny Lewis and just how badly I want to braid her silky hair.

Your guess is as good as mine as to how these songs would sound played in succession. I’m curious to see for myself. And because I decided to write about the first ten songs/memories that occurred to me, it is interesting now to think of the bands and songs that did not make it onto the playlist. For instance, the absence of Radiohead, Arcade Fire, and The National feels conspicuous. Surely I have memories that I associate with them, and I know the image-conscious bones in my body tingled as I realized that those bands would not make the (albeit self-imposed) cut. But this was an experiment rather than an attempt to establish myself as the keenest of music aficionados. Seventeen-year-old Rachel will just have to eat that.

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.

I did, and then I didn’t: Being a divorced twenty-something

I have decided that my goal will be to update Positive and Promise by Monday, at least every other week. Originally, I thought Sunday night might make a nice, tidy deadline, but, let’s face it, I am watching “Downton Abbey” on Sunday nights. And, if I can catch up soon enough, I will be watching “Sherlock” as well. One has to manage one’s priorities responsibly.

Generally, I also will do my best to alternate more somber posts, like the one from last week, with pieces that are more light-hearted. But everything that follows has been on my mind for some time now, and I would like to put it into words.

Writing this piece will be simplest if I begin with the absolute basics:

When I was twenty-three years old, I got engaged to my college boyfriend. When I was twenty-five years old, I married him. Ten months later, we legally separated. A little over a year after we married, our divorce became official.

Anyone who has been in my shoes knows that a whirlwind marriage is anything but uncomplicated, even if it is only a brief foray into the world of matrimony. For one thing, like most people who decide to marry, I entered into marriage with the full intention of remaining married. But before long, I realized that I had been ill-equipped to make the promises that accompany marriage – even though I was positively chomping at the bit to make them.

Make no mistake: I wanted to be engaged to my boyfriend, and I made that abundantly clear. I was tremendously excited when he proposed to me. Our wedding was beautiful and happy. But, several months later, when I was supposed to be compiling my wedding photo album and writing thank you notes for all of the lovely gifts we received, I was seized by a horrifying awareness that I had previously ignored, justified, or simply did not understand: getting married had not been the right decision. I did not want to share my life with the person I had chosen and to whom I had committed myself.

When I began this blog, I wrote about my obsession with narrative security. I have always, for as long as I can recall, been made deeply uncomfortable by situations that I could not control or whose outcomes I could not determine. To some degree, I will always struggle with this insecurity. What I did not understand, in the years directly preceding my engagement, was that I had completely succumbed to it. If ever a doubt about my readiness to commit entered my mind, I frantically explained it away or sought another’s reassurance that there was no need to question my relationship. The possibility that my boyfriend might not be the person with whom I would spend the rest of my life was utterly and completely terrifying to me. In fact, I began grappling with this terror when I was still very much in love with him. I can recall looking at him, profoundly aware of my feelings of affection, while simultaneously battling an insidious fear that I would, one day, want to leave him.

Eventually, I trained myself to compartmentalize these fears, rather than to confront them. I went to great lengths to tuck them away as tidily as I could, and developed cognitive mechanisms for assuaging them whenever they reared their ugly heads. And so, over the two years of my engagement, I never once considered the possibility that I should not marry my fiancé – not when I began to question my sexuality or when I sensed the profound ways that I was changing. This is not to say that there was a definitive red flag bearing the words, “DO NOT PROCEED – BIG MISTAKE,” but there were opportunities for me to reflect. I never took advantage of them; I was too afraid to do so. And by the time my wedding was a year or so away, I had worked so diligently to bury and disavow my fears that I only now know all that I was too terrified to confront.

So I married him. I did so happily, optimistically, even confidently. I did not expect that, three months later, I would be blindsided by a slew of emotions that made it very evident I had entered into a commitment that I could not sustain. For much of the year–my first year in my doctoral program, for that matter–I felt lost in a cloud of delirious misery. I made some very poor and hurtful choices. I also tried to remain in the marriage in order to give it the chance that it deserved. By May, I knew fully well that I was only causing more harm by staying. I could not, at age 25, commit to a relationship that I knew would never entirely fulfill and enrich me – or my partner. Finally, with the help of a few people very close to me, I had learned to assess situations without evading the nasty, undesirable parts. Leaving my marriage was going to be an atrocious ordeal (as far as the majority of my family knew, I was happy). Moreover, it was going to cause my partner a world of hurt. I chose to do it all the same. It is one of the only decisions I have ever made that I have never once second-guessed.

This does not mean that I made the decision easily. I did not want to wound anyone with my actions, especially not my husband. But by this time, I had already hurt him–and others–terribly. I knew that if I did not end our marriage, circumstances would only get nastier. I would have to conjure the shitstorm first if there was to be any hope for greener pastures later.

Leaving my infant marriage caused all the tumult that I expected. Many were upset and confused and angry, and I understood why. I wished that there was a way to help everyone achieve the knowledge I finally possessed myself – that this absolutely was for the best. I understood why so many people believed that I had behaved selfishly and rashly – and in some ways, I had. I felt profoundly sorry for every bit of sorrow and pain that I had caused and was causing. While my experience was very different from that of my ex’s, I, too, was in pain. I generally do my utmost not to hurt people, and here, in a matter of days, I had overturned a few worlds. What’s more, I did not understand how I had been such a “blind puppy,” as Jane Eyre would have it. How the hell had I walked down that aisle before I had the bravery and maturity to confront the full extent of my feelings? How could I have been so childish? So…let’s face it…stupid?

Not long ago after the separation, I asked these questions of a wise woman in my life. She responded that we make the best decisions we can at the time that we make them. I want to believe that this reasoning pertains to me. I did not, after all, marry impulsively. I had been with my boyfriend for several years; we had lived together; and we met with the minister multiple times before he agreed to officiate the ceremony. I did think deeply about my relationship, but all of my thoughts were based on the premise that it should continue. I was never able to cross the threshold into more ambiguous territory.

While it will never be easy or comfortable for me to inhabit life’s less secure spaces, I have learned to do it. Two of the many things my first marriage taught me are the importance of mindfulness and that periods of “not knowing” can be some of the most critical and generative that we endure. Unfortunately for Paul, I learned my lesson so well–and was so shell-shocked from my divorce–that I harassed him with a slew of potential catastrophes that I feared could befall us. In fact, it isn’t really fair to refer to some of these catastrophes as “potential” – but I suppose that depends on your definition of “far-fetched.” Mine is pretty loose, and I am fairly certain that my fiction-generator was on overdrive for the first eight months of our relationship.

If you have been reading my blog, then you know that I have made the decision to get married again. I am tremendously happy with this decision. I mentioned earlier that leaving my marriage is one of the only decisions I have ever made without second thoughts. The second decision I have made with that amount of certainty is the decision to share my life with Paul. With Paul, I have found a big, fulfilling, exciting love – a love that sustains me, nourishes me, teaches me, and challenges me. I am so fortunate in my relationship that I feel undeserving of my happiness. I wish this happiness upon everyone, whether or not they have a partner. I wish it upon my ex-husband.

As you might imagine, my experiences over the last several years have caused me to think more critically about the institution of marriage. I remain skeptical, although I have decided to re-marry, and I believe that our society has a long way to go before we have a healthy relationship with matrimony. It might actually be impossible for society as a whole to have a healthy relationship with it. We may have to settle for empowering individuals–especially women–to make healthy choices in their relationships. For some time, I felt very isolated in my new identity as a divorced woman. Whether or not I was being paranoid or self-conscious, I felt judged and socially-inferior. I still prefer to refer to my ex as “my ex” rather than “my ex-husband” – the latter inevitably raises eyebrows and provokes questions (“Twenty-eight and already divorced? Huh.”). Lately, however, I have noticed that a number of friends and acquaintances have recently divorced or ended long-term relationships. One of my motivations for writing this piece is to render our position a bit more visible. Of course, every relationship is different, and the circumstances always vary. But I have the sense that our society does not feel as comfortable with divorce as it purports to – and, really, that makes sense. When divorce rates in America are 50 to 51 percent, it seems reasonable that the topic would incite anxiety. Learning that a couple is getting divorced–especially when the news is a complete surprise–can be quite jarring. I imagine that it has the potential to make others feel unsteady in their own relationships, if only briefly. It is a scary thought to know that you could leave the security of your relationship, even if you have no desire to do so. It was scary for me to do it, even though it was what I wanted to do.

While it should be unnecessary, I still feel compelled to write what follows: There is no shame in being divorced, regardless of your age, regardless of the number of years or, in my case, months, that you were married. There is no shame in leaving a relationship if you know that you cannot love your partner the way s/he deserves to be loved, or vice versa. I find you-centric mantras rather nauseating – I do not think we can live as if we are without responsibilities and commitments. However, I think young women in particular must understand that they are free to make the choices they believe will be for the best. Inevitably, those choices will have consequences, and most likely things will be pretty terrible for a while. But it will be ok.  Because eventually, things won’t be terrible; in fact, there will be the possibility for them to be wonderful instead. And we should all be allowed that possibility.