It goes without saying that the patriarchy wants a whole lot from us — and sometimes it’s not too sure what exactly it wants at all. Be feminine but don’t try too hard. Be available but not desperate, conversational but not opinionated, demure but not “frigid.”
But in its fumbling, bumbling quest to keep us insecurely on our toes, it’s made one thing glaringly apparent: pretty girls = sex. And it doesn’t matter what those pretty girls say or do or think or create.
Woman kills someone? “But she’s got a great ass!”
Woman creates new kind of medicine? “She’s cute, but would be hotter with longer hair.”
Woman saves her son from drowning? “But look at that “nip slip!”
Even in the sideshow community, of which I am a proud member, lady sword swallowers are often subject to “deep throat” and “swallow” jokes. Contortionists get creepy messages about positions and questions about “how far down they can reach” (you know what I mean).
It doesn’t matter what a woman does — if she’s deemed pretty, there’s at (the very) least one guy out there wanting to add his unsolicited erection to the equation.
This gets talked about a lot — and hell, it should be talked about a lot. It’s a continual problem that many have faced and continue to face.
But there’s a flip side to that coin which, sadly, doesn’t get much in the way of exposure. The flip side is that there are those of us women who, through our weight, age, physical or mental ability, or even ethnicity, race, or spirituality, aren’t sexualized at all.
“What’s the complaint?” you might think. “To not be reduced to a sexual object? To be talked to without being mentally undressed? Must be nice!”
“Must be nice,” however (and I am guilty of it, too) is the rallying cry of the passive-aggressive pissing contest, which one-downs any experience they don’t personally experience as “ideal,” borne of the internalized message that women need to compete — and suffer — the loudest to be heard.
There are those of us women who, through our weight, age, physical or mental ability, or even ethnicity, race, or spirituality, aren’t sexualized at all.
Must be nice? Well, no, actually, it isn’t. Because we who are deemed too old, too fat, too dark, too disabled, too modest, too religious, too depressed, too anxious, too oily, too curly, too scarred, too lumpy, too flat, too tall, too short, too shorn, too pierced, too inked, too queer, too saggy, too colorful, too gray, too bald, or too hairy to be sexy? It’s not because we are seen and respected as dimensional, thoughtful beings. It’s because, “no one wants to see that.” It’s because “that’s not what people like.” “That’s not what sells.”
Therefore, our low “market value” (a phrase neo-masculinists actually use free of irony) doesn’t elevate us.
It neuters us.
It doesn’t help when there are, from within the feminist community, cries (often of the second wave “Male gaze!!! MALE GAZE!!!” timbre) of, “Well, why are you so obsessed with being sexy anyway? Is that all women can be? Sexy? It’s ok to be ugly! It’s ok to not be pretty!”
Yes. Yes, of course it’s ok. The problem is that terms like “pretty” and “ugly” have been dropped on us, like rigid, rubric lead weights, without our having any say in what defines them. Being pretty isn’t the best thing a person can be, nor is ugly the worst. But who gets to decide what pretty is? Who gets to decide if I’m pretty?
Isn’t pretty for me to define?
Some of you might know who I am, and will therefore understand the point of view from which I am writing. If not, some context: thanks to Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, I’m chubby and middle-heavy, with a face and body full of coarse, dark, curly fuzz. I’m 32, and 4’11” with a shock of neon teal hair, tattoos, and the prominent, aquiline nose of my Sicilian and Jewish forebears (pun semi-intended). I’m in therapy for anxiety and depression, and a lifetime of emotional abuse and eating disorders.
In other words, I’m not any successful casting agency’s image of a leading lady. If anything, I’m the “funny friend” or “clumsy sidekick.”
And that’s ok. For the most part, I’ve owned it — to varying degrees of success. My infamous fuzz has launched a pretty bitchin’ sideshow career and I use my life experiences as fuel for a lot of spoken-word performances and articles (case in point).
My lumpy, oily, chubby, saggy, stretch-marked body, on the other hand? Well, that’s taken a little more effort for me to love, and this the perfect example of what this article is about.
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About a year ago, I was a regular musical performer in variety shows, coming out onstage to sing a few arias to break up a run of six or seven burlesque acts at a time. It never occurred to me that burlesque was something I could do myself. First of all, I can’t sew a thong, craft a headdress, or hot glue a rhinestone to save my life.
More so, I didn’t like my body. After all, I thought, didn’t I have learn to love myself before I could expect anyone else to? (This was before I understood the gas-lighting, ableist implications of this axiom). But over the next few months, my thick, layered walls of doubt were slowly broken down by the sheer inspiration I gained from the confidence, kindness, and diversity of the performers shaking their asses of various size, shape, and color around me.
All that shaking got me to thinking: Why shouldn’t I? Why didn’t I?
I knew why. Because all my life I was told that I don’t have the body to be sexy. That, if I was lucky, my “beautiful heart,” “cute face,” and “fascinating mind” might make up for my “mess” of a figure. That not only should I keep my clothes on, but I should look for clothes that “slim,” “detract,” and “give the illusion” of curvature and contour.
All my life I was told I had to compensate.
That’s when I had my “lightbulb” moment: I was afraid to do burlesque because “no one wants to see that (take its clothes off)” — and that’s exactly why I was going to start.
In the year since, I’ve gotten bolder with my choices. I’m learning to find my sexiness in what I am, vs. what I should aspire to be. I didn’t wait to love my body to strip. I began stripping to slowly learn to love my body. In doing so, I am being sexy not by “retaining a mystique” or showing you “flattering” shapes. I am showing you my shape — in all its soft, chubby, hairy, sweaty glory. I have told “mystique” to go fuck itself.
I’m learning to find my sexiness in what I am, vs. what I should aspire to be.
Still, in droves, they ask, “Why do you need to take off your clothes? How is that empowerment? You WANT to be objectified? You want to be sexualized?”
No. But I want people to know that sexiness is not a privilege, saved for those who earn it. Sexiness is for anyone that wants it.
Just as “the pretty ones” have a right to be more than sexy, the rest of us have the right to BE sexy.
“No wants to see that?” Tell that to the audiences who cheer for every pastie I pop and stocking I pull.
Do I still get neutered by my appearance? Of course. For every “sexy,” “hot,” and “beautiful” a woman 10 years younger and 50lbs lighter than me receives, I get “adorable,” “cute,” and “brave.” There are people who give me the deeply-coded, “Oh, you don’t look like a burlesque performer” when I tell them what I do. And I get why. These people were given the same messages I was growing up.
But then there are those who see me perform, and hate themselves a little less. I know because I’ve been told so. They were also dictated that they don’t have the body to do what I do, and then they see someone with a similar body doing it.
If the same dudes who think my market value is too low to strip come see me and are rendered nauseous by me? Good. Get sick.
Our sex and sexuality doesn’t belong to the oppressors. It’s ours to wield, shape, and define. It’s ours to declare, and if that’s not empowering, then I don’t know what is.
“Adorable?” No thanks. I’m 32 years old.