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Invisible Beautiful

July 6th, 2011 by

I’m a bit of a clotheshorse for someone on a thrift store budget. Just a few weeks ago, I found myself fretting about what to wear to a party—did I want to go more femme, or masculine? To follow the theme, or not? I got a sexy idea, put it together, tried it on … and frowned. It was exactly the outfit I’d intended, but the image in my head was nothing like the one in the mirror. My body type’s been roughly the same since puberty; why can’t I picture my own clothes on myself?

I am surrounded by examples of how skinny people can choose to look. They’re in magazines and advertisements, shop windows and clothing catalogues. Many of the brands they suggest I wear don’t offer anything in my size; when they do, many stores don’t sell them. And where they are sold, you certainly won’t see a mannequin shaped like me in the window. Plus-size models? Please. According to the LA Times, the average American woman is a size fourteen. From a Huffington Post interview:

At 5’9″ and a size 6, Katie Halchishick was deemed “plus sized” by the modeling industry and asked to “just shave two inches” off her bony hips.

For reference, this is me1. The skirt I’m wearing in that picture is a size twenty-two.

(Size numbering itself is a whole other can of worms, of course. It’s surreal to me that “plus sizes” begin at half my numerical size. Someone half my actual size would be tiny! A friend of mine who is that tiny has the complementary complaint: being labeled a “size 0” as if she were all but incorporeal.)

I’m not just angry about the dearth of sex-positive imagery because it makes clothes shopping a pain. We use our partners as status symbols in this society; if I am never depicted as desirable, I have no social value. That means not only that I’m ignored as a potential partner, but that the very idea that I might have one is a little gross. And of course, anyone who happens to genuinely like fat people is therefore a deviant. The Village Voice described Kevin N.’s experience growing up (emphasis mine):

Meanwhile, his “pretty” girlfriend was an all-state softball player—size 16, five feet nine inches tall, maybe 200 pounds—but could bench more than her scrawny boyfriend. A rumor spread that he was gay, which he didn’t bother to refute. Liking a fat girl was so much more of a preposterous scenario that he worried the truth would “make it snowball even more.”

Living with self-respect while surrounded by this bullshit requires constant attention and willpower. I’m lucky—I have good friends and lovers in my life who make it unambiguously clear how sexy they find my shape. And as much as the BDSM scene marginalizes those who don’t fit its favorite dynamics, it’s pretty size-positive; in a clothing-optional dungeon, there is neither the means nor the incentive to maintain the fiction that stick-thin, unblemished bodies are the norm. I feel confident in the dungeon, and that’s great. I need to, if I want to strut my deviant body proudly in a public space. But I still want something hot to wear while I do it, and then I’m struck once again by the frustrating lack of examples.

I know nobody looks like a mannequin. That’s what the dressing rooms are for. The difference is that I have to actively ignore what I’m seeing in order to imagine myself usefully close to accurately. That’s difficult, and tiring, and having to do it depresses me. If those mental gymnastics sound familiar, it might be because you’ve been listening to maymay.

As a sexually submissive guy myself, I look at a lot of BDSM porn, a lot of women bottoms, and I’ll change the genders around in my head. When I see a woman tied up, I think, “It’s okay, I’ll just imagine them as a guy, someone like me.” […]

And the more I looked at porn the more I realized I really wasn’t interested in seeing images of sexuality that aroused me, I was much more interested in seeing images of sexuality that reflected mine, so I could connect with them and see myself represented in that image and have a validation that I actually exist, that other people are like me there.

He reached it through sexuality, I through fashion, but the longing is the same: we both want to see people who are similar to ourselves portrayed as normal and desirable, and the images just aren’t there.

Neither of us is even holding the shortest end of the stick when it comes to having one’s attractiveness marginalized. Being female-assigned, I benefit from the trope of the curvy girl, and from the BBW and fat admirer communities. BHM appreciators exist, but in the mainstream, the assumption that fat men’s bodies are disgusting is so reliable that it can be used to sell advertising (if they’re acknowledged as objects of desire at all). Maymay’s gender/role identification is underrepresented at best and reviled at worst, but when you do find them in erotic images, most of the models are slender and pretty like him. People who are fat, male, and submissive are both kinds of invisible, no matter how sexy they really are.

I could go on, but a bunch of smart people have already done it for me. Professor Chaos wrote a post in this blog about the invisibility of disabled sexuality. For the 2006 film “A Girl Like Me,” filmmaker Kiri Davis interviewed young black women about their perceived standard of beauty, returning over and over to light skin and straight, fine hair. As the New York Times observed, even those who would reject that standard in favor of a “natural” look might not know how to maintain it—and then may have to endure unwanted rubbernecking and touching. Long, straight, shimmering locks are a mainstay of the beauty-magazine pages. When did you last see a shampoo ad feature someone with naturally kinky black hair?

Our shared concept of what a person looks like comes from the images we see around us—images which have already passed through the very narrow filters of the fashion and entertainment industries. This isn’t just dishonest, it’s dangerous. The link between unrealistic body image and adolescent eating disorders is so strong that the American Medical Association recently adopted policy to discourage digital alteration of advertising models. Such alteration is currently common practice, and its unambiguous message is that even the thinnest few percent of us aren’t thin enough.

When I mentally assembled my outfit for that party, I pictured it unthinkingly on my limited idea of that “normal” human—one who is white, able-bodied, female-assigned, and skinny. The difference between my real body and that image means that when I’m doing my damnedest to disprove the “fat people can’t be sexy” meme, to actively create a better example, I can still try on an outfit, look in the mirror, and for a moment before I catch myself, feel disappointed by what I see.

The day after I tried that outfit on, several hours before the party, I was telling a friend over coffee about my experience with mismatched self-image. We talked about fat-positivity, about frustrating invisibility, and about culture and desire and shame. Finally, she asked,

“… so what was the outfit, anyway?”

I told her: black jeans, a wifebeater, and black suspenders. She stared at me. “What?” I asked.

“Fizz, you have exactly the body type I would imagine that outfit on.”

“Wait, really?”

“Except for having boobs, I guess.”

We compared notes. The image in my head was tall and lanky. She was picturing a “big, working-class punk guy”—my type indeed, but for the boobs and the attitude. That take on it hadn’t occurred to me, but I trust my friend’s judgment; I wore it, chest bound, and packing a strapon. I went to the party, had a good time, and by the time the clothes came off again, it didn’t matter what they’d been; there was nothing to be ashamed of underneath them.

When the next party rolls around, I’ll be fretting once again about what to wear. I want the confidence boost, but I also need to be an example. I am fat. I am sexy. And I won’t let the world keep pretending I don’t exist.

  1. Photo by Myles Boisen. []

A Socratic Gadfly on Public Deviance

June 24th, 2011 by

A friend of mine popped up on IM recently with a news story. It described a man who was allowed to travel on a commercial airline wearing little more than women’s lingerie, despite the complaints of his fellow passengers. It’s notable in the context of another recent incident in which the same airline kicked someone off a flight for not complying with a request to pull up his sagging pants, but I was more interested in my friend’s response to the first passenger’s choice of dress. If my friend were generally oblivious to social deviance issues, I might have dismissed it, but “Robin” is genderqueer and kinky; I was pretty sure that we agreed on the fundamental principles here (and if we didn’t, I wanted to know about it). So I started needling. This is a technique I don’t often use, and I was pleased with the result, so I asked for permission to post the conversation. (It’s edited to remove noise and digressions, and change the names, but little else.) For more examples, see maymay on doing this at play parties, or Rick Garlikov on teaching third graders.

<robin> http://news.yahoo.com…us_saggy_pants_arrest_panties
<robin> US Airways had a black man arrested for wearing his pants too low (you know, it’s a very common style these days), but then a few days later allowed a white man wearing little more than panties to fly
<robin> fucking racist double standards
<robin> I feel kinda sorry for the people who had to sit next to the old man in drag on the plane…. I mean drag is one thing, but he was dressed like a really skanky ho
<robin> I think most people would feel uncomfortable sitting next to a biological female on a plane, if she was dressed like that
<robin> Although not as many people would probably speak up about it
<fizz> and would it be wrong for her to dress that way?
<robin> I think that you need to take other people in to consideration when you’re going to be packed like sardines on a plane with them for a flight
<fizz> sure. but what makes it not okay to dress a certain way?
<robin> Just our uptight society
<robin> Oh, and it gets cold on airplanes.  What the hell was he thinking?
<fizz> haha
<fizz> they have blankets
<fizz> and, okay, but society aside, you said *you* felt sorry for those people
<robin> I feel sorry for them, because they must have been uncomfortable
<fizz> ah.
<robin> He kind of comes across as a pervert.  I mean, people dress usually that way so that people will stare at them, ya know?
<fizz> what’s wrong with wanting to be stared at?
<fizz> (would you think a woman dressing the same way was a pervert?)
<robin> The thought would totally cross my mind
<fizz> okay. but why?
<fizz> what’s perverted about it?
<robin> You got me.  The people who keep staring are probably the bigger perverts
* fizz grins
<fizz> ’cause it’s weird or unnatural to stare at something unusual?
<robin> Well it depends on which part of him they were staring at ;)
<fizz> how are you using the word pervert? just for reference.
<robin> I think a pervert is somebody who’s sexual behavior makes other people uncomfortable, AND who gets off on that discomfort
<robin> I suppose it’s hard to tell if he was getting off on dressing that way, or if he was trying to make some kind of a point
<fizz> or, of course, just likes dressing that way. could be neither. :)
<robin> yeah
<robin> He definitely made people uncomfortable though, and should have seen that coming
<robin> I dunno what to think about it now
<robin> I mean he has a right to dress how he wants, and people should just get over it….
<robin> But at the same time, is forcing it upon people really the right way to handle it?
<fizz> well, as opposed to what?
<fizz> if I’m happier dressing in a nonconforming way, can I express that without “forcing” it on people?
<robin> Well you can go out to a club where it’s accepted, or walk around certain neighborhoods
<robin> But there are all kinds of people with a variety of belief systems in airports
<robin> I wouldn’t dress like that in an airport out of fear for my own safety.  He’s lucky that nobody tried to beat him up.
<fizz> heh, well, yeah. that’s a separate thing.
<fizz> what happens if you only exhibit nonmainstream behavior in places where it’s accepted, though?
<fizz> what effect does that have on the mainstream?
<robin> I suppose nothing would ever change
* fizz nods
<robin> Maybe I’m just not brave enough -_-
<fizz> nobody is *all* the time
<robin> I hope I’m braver some day

Wheelchair Worship

June 20th, 2011 by
Wheelchair Worship

Image: Close-up of legs and feet resting on a footrest and gray wheel of an electric wheelchair. Feet are clad in black patent-leather maryjanes with 4-inch heels, laced with ribbon.

 

When this picture was taken, I had barely begun adulthood and I thought my life was over.  I was twenty-one.  Many of my health conditions were undiagnosed or untreated.  I was sick.  I was tired.  I wanted to think of myself as strong, but I was just a kid who was lost and confused because my body was breaking.  I felt isolated from my friends, who couldn’t understand what I was going through.  I couldn’t take care of myself very well.  I was so tired that getting out of bed took a huge effort.  If I wanted to go somewhere farther than my apartment, I had to use a power chair.

I have never felt less sexy than when I was in my wheelchair.

My chair is not sexy.  It is upholstered in a color I can only describe as “medical gray,” a color that says “I have zero personality.”  It is a color that says “I am functional and not sexy, because why on earth would I need to be sexy?”  The plastic of the chair is red, but not a “fuck me” red.  It is not a red that evokes any sort of lust or hints at any secret desire.  It is a “we needed to make this a customizable, so you have a choice of red or blue, isn’t that nice” red.  The chair as a whole is bulky and not especially well-designed for comfort.  Form, I suspect, was not a factor in its design.  It is simple, but inelegant, minimalist only insofar as it has few features.  It is almost purely designed for the function of getting from point A to point B, and, truthfully, not very well even for that.

Disabled sexuality is virtually erased in our society.  People with disabilities are, at best, considered nonsexual, entirely lacking in sexual identity.  At worst, we are seen as perverts merely for having sexual desires.  And we are, above all, undesirable. The aesthetic of my power chair reflects this–why bother make something sexy when the person using it isn’t going to be having sex?

There is a difference between impairment and disability.  To borrow a definition from Stacey Milbern, “impairment is the reality of what your body is able to do, and disability is what society disallows your body to do because it has an impairment.”  I have a degenerative illness.  Whether I am in a wheelchair or not, my body is impaired.  Pain and fatigue are not perceivable by the naked eye.  But once I sit in my wheelchair, my disability becomes visible and I can no longer  “pass” for able-bodied.  When I sit in my wheelchair, the status of my disability does not change, but the way society views me does.  Suddenly I am an object of pity rather than desire.  When I roll down the street, people avert their eyes.

I don’t want people to see “past” my disability.  I want them to see me as a whole person, including my impairments.  I have fucked someone in my wheelchair.  (I have fucked a couple of someones in my wheelchair, actually, I mean, not to brag or anything.)  It was physically awkward and uncomfortable, and also? incredibly hot, because I was living out this idea, that my illness is a part of who I am, deserving of love, just like the rest of me.  I also tended to dress more provocatively when using my chair for a similar reason–I wanted to forcibly turn people’s eyes toward me, to demand from them the desire that I knew I deserved.

The photo at the beginning of this post is one of the oldest sexy pictures I have of myself.  I took it to make a point.  I wanted to confront people with their preconceptions about disability and desirability.  With this picture, I wanted to do what social norms prevented me from doing, to scream, “Look at me!  SEE me.  Recognize me as who I am, a sexual being!”

I no longer use my powerchair.  I still have it, but I am on a combination of medications that render it unnecessary, at least for the moment.  I do still use a manual wheelchair in certain circumstances.  I dream of the day when pushing my wheelchair is seen as a service, not a chore.  Some day sleek, sexy wheelchairs will be the norm.  Some day someone will worship my wheelchair, and me, in my wheelchair.  When that day comes, I will sit as in a throne, and I will be powerful and broken and beautiful and whole.

 

 

Do It

June 3rd, 2011 by

I had the conversation again today.

A woman passed me on the street and called out, “Man, I wanna do that to my hair!”

Without missing a beat, I called back, “Do it!”

We stopped and talked for a minute. She said she really wants a mohawk, even though her friends think it’ll look weird. I told her what I tell everybody: Do it! It’s the only way to know if you’ll like it. If you don’t, it’ll grow back. You’re a grownup, and it’s your hair! You can do whatever you want with it! We were going opposite ways, but I left her with an enthusiastic smile.

This happens often enough that I’ve had a chance to experiment with different responses. Once, after asking the person if she minded me taking a minute of her time, I actually tried explaining why I’m so encouraging, but I’m still not sure I got through. Here’s the whole story; maybe writing it will help me figure out how to convince people of its point.

There have always been people I admire when I see them in the street–which is to say, like anyone, I have tastes. I enjoy seeing people who are well-dressed and together-looking, people with big smiles or silly hats, people in bright colors or strange combinations of them, short skirts, cool socks, leather jackets, goths, punks, just about anybody who stands out. When I would invent characters or avatars for myself in games, I always tried for interesting-looking, much more than for conventional prettiness. I almost never tried to make them look like me.

In real life I wore shapeless black clothes. I never thought about taking care of myself. I didn’t talk to people who weren’t already good friends. I didn’t get a lot of compliments on my appearance, shockingly, but when I did I didn’t trust them. If you’d asked me then why I didn’t wear the short skirts and other sexy things that I liked, I’d have said “It wouldn’t look good on me,” or “I don’t want the attention,” or “They don’t make those clothes for fat girls.” In short, that I couldn’t pull it off. That’s the key to the underlying feeling–that some people can do it, but I can’t. That we are different things. I wasn’t conscious of this then, but looking back it seems so obvious.

The epiphany was a recent step in a long process of bootstrapping my self-esteem, which ranged from starting to have sex (apparently my body’s not horrifying!) to getting out of a long relationship that had been slowly been drained of respect (I’m worth something!) to mastering my Puppet (I can take control! And I like it!). It was helped along by getting to know some of the sorts of people I admire. (It turns out they’re just regular folks!) Someone lent me a copy of Nonviolent Communication. (I have agency!) And eventually, something clicked:

The only difference between me and the people I admire is that I have not yet chosen to do the things I admire them for.

I started doing them.

I shaved my head. After it grew out a bit, I asked a friend to trim it into a mohawk. I started wearing short skirts, when I felt like it, and at other times a leather jacket with skinny jeans or a vest and tie over a compression tank. It turns out they do make sexy clothes for fat girls, and I look hot in them. I started smiling more. I smile at strangers; a lot of them smile back. I talked to people more. I started learning to play the guitar. I went back to school. I was more open about my feelings, even when it was scary to do so, and I became a better friend.

I learned to take a compliment. I had to learn to take a compliment, because I can barely walk down the street these days without someone telling me I look good, or I’m beautiful, or they love my mohawk, and they’ve always wanted to try it but they can’t–or they’re scared to–or they would, but, well …

And I look them in the eye and say, you can.

Do it.