before I was a star girl I was a child wearing plaid, floral, stripes and polka dotes at once. one day vogue said skinny girls with wide eyes and milky skin are in. suddenly I was a lolita, awkwardly trying to make my long limbs move in time with the rest of my body. being stared at and asked for sex by men twice my age before I even knew what blow jobs were. I was thrown into the galaxy, held only by a string tied around my wrists with a label that said, will likely die.
I’m mostly still in this head space of, “I’m allowed to be in school?” not to mention art school, and ‘sexuality studies’ school? in Montreal? and then add to that that sometimes I do really well on projects and stuff? This all still seems like someone might be playing some sort of prank on me, and if you are, like it’s not funny guys!
But since, contrary to instinct, it still all appears to be real, I’m just going with it.
I wrote this essay for my ‘Intro to Sexuality Research’ class, which I got a little bit obsessed with (read ‘totally obsessed’) and it was kind of super hard because I’m pretty sure the last time I wrote a research paper it was on ‘Flying Squirrels’ in like grade 8. So, I was really paranoid about everything, like I HATE SCARY PLAGIARISM LAWS and does anything I write make sense? Also because I felt like I should have picked a way simple-er topic and like I was basically trying to fit an entire thesis into around 3000 words. BUT! you know what? I got an A+ on it! So, chicken butt! Also because I started it with this sentence:
“I once had a therapist, who when I said I’d never really dated during high school, told me that this was highly unusual.”
Which I love, but I was paranoid about it being some sort of huge academic faux pas (which it probably is, but apparently taking the chance paid off). If you’d like to read the entire essay, (with all of my current most favorite quotes and all) you can see it here. I realize it’s in a strange format, but the prof said the outline should be: ‘intro to topic-3 questions-discussing 5 sources-conclusion’, so I just followed that. In case you don’t want to read the whole thing I’ve included the most important parts (with the most most important parts in bold, obviously):
—– “I once had a therapist, who when I said I’d never really dated during high school, told me that this was highly unusual. She explained that normally, girls who are stereotypically attractive are likely to subconsciously find themselves in long term relationships, particularly during adolescence, as a form of protection. Protection, one can assume, from taunting, teasing, sexual abuse and rumors that she’s a slut, because even in our contemporary society, as women we are still questioned and treated like a threat if our sexuality isn’t serving a man.
From before we even enter puberty, before we even have a concept for what sexuality is, we’re sexualized, we’re taught that we serve a sexual purpose, and it is so common place that it goes almost unquestioned. Yet, we’re not allowed to own that? To enjoy it, to understand it, to challenge it, or to take pride in it?
What we’re taught as women, as girls, as female adolescents; is that our sexuality is the most important factor in our lives and relationships, but that we should be nothing but ashamed of it. We’re taught that we shouldn’t flirt back, fight back, use sex to get what we want, or desire sex much at all. That we are only meant to be enjoyed, not enjoy, experienced but not experience, that our sexuality is nothing but for the desire of men. Women have the capacity to be incredibly sexual, but are taught otherwise. We’re just thrown blindly into this web of mens desires with very few resources for how to navigate within them.
Instead, we’re just paraded with these sparkly ideals of romance, monogamy and marriage, particularly during adolescence and early adulthood, while we’re establishing our sexualities and trying to build an understanding for our sexual selves and overall identities. If we do not understand what it means to be sexual beings, than how can we articulate our needs, our desires, or our rights? How can we say that women and men are equal when we’re taught to be fundamentally out of balance?
The institutions at the foundation of our contemporary society do not in any way want us to have this awareness, they never have. The Catholic church, for example, has placed fear of female sexuality and independent thought at the heart of their creation of humans existence. Eve did wrong by Adam, and we’re forever paying for the freedom allotted to such a careless and curious woman.” —— (the intro)
—– “The truth is that we do live in a patriarchal society, and so as a woman, isn’t the manipulation of that institution and male gaze for our own gain a feminist act in itself? Male industries have been using the female image as a tool in business probably for as long as there’s been money to be made. In her articles, White asks “Why not subvert the system and use it for your own gain, your own art? Why can’t that be a woman’s choice?” and quotes feminist writer Chris Kraus on his interpretation of the nude self portraits by artist Hannah Wilke, “As if the only possible reason for a woman to publicly reveal herself could be self-therapeutic. As if the point was not to reveal the circumstances of one’s own objectification.”
As a female artist, I am particularly inspired and comforted by these sentiments, especially since a lot of what I’m interested in is performance and self portrait based. I find it personally helpful to think of myself and my work this way. Beauty, sexual appeal and femininity are clearly very powerful, in many ways. I have often wondered if beauty and esthetic appeal can be a resource in activism, since they have such an effective impact in attracting attention, and the Femen movement demonstrates this wonderfully. For women to own what it means to live in a world where our appearances are so highly discussed, valued and scrutinized, both negatively and in more admiring ways, seems essential in order to move foreword”—– (important personal chunk)
—– “For as long as modern society functions as it does, built on the bones of an agricultural idealism; obsessed with worth and possessions, equality between the sexes will be impossible because women will always have something men don’t but want desperately, the ability to control the ambiguous and endless possibilities of female sexuality. Our society as it stands would never function in a world where every women were sexually empowered and “equal” to men because our sexualities would no longer be a commodity, no longer so rare and taboo enough that they could be sold and bought at the rate they are, both as an object of desire for men, and as a goal to attain, by women themselves.
Without the manipulation of female sexuality that presently exists over all, women may act, expect from and treat their lives and choices very differently, and this is why it’s seen as incredibly dangerous, because it’s literally a danger to society as we know it. Therefore, the patriarch will do everything within it’s means to keep women scared, self conscious and compliant to men. We are taught to feel ashamed of our sexualities from childhood, in so many different ways, from schoolyard slut bashing to the fairy tales we’re read to from at night. We’re taught to doubt ourselves, and our instincts constantly, in pursuit of some sort of moral rightness and idealistic romance, all because of a centuries old fear. The irony, to me, seems to be that if women are able to recognize these societal factors, and examine themselves truthfully, they may just make a mockery of the patriarch by using this over emphasis on female sexuality to their own advantage.“—- (conclusion)
“I have never stopped being reminded of my there-for-men status. I am reminded when I am violated in my sleep, or groped in a bar, or held down by a longtime friend. I am reminded when I refuse conversation with a strange man and he spits in my direction, or calls me a “bitch.” I am reminded when I am asked why I wore such a pretty dress if I wasn’t trying to “pick up.” I am reminded when I am told to be less angry and more agreeable. I am reminded when I talk about my lived experience and am told to “stop being so negative about everything.” I am reminded when young girls are bullied so severely by men who wanted to see their bodies that they commit suicide.”
What it’s like being a teen girl. by Emma M. Woolley
Especially interesting exerts from ‘Am I Normal? The Questions of Sex’
– which I just read for my ‘Intro to Sexuality Research’ class…
A couple of weeks later I was at a friends ‘favorite fictional character’ themed house party, camera in hand while I went to the bathroom and decided to take this picture:
(I was dressed as the Queen of Hearts, naturally.)
Taking these pictures unknowingly started and inspired my “Panties Project.”
I was initially struck by how much I liked their imagery and connection to the “What I wore today” internet phenomenon. Then the more I thought about them, the more they made sense for me to do as a series, encompassing some very poignant aspects of my life and strange lifelong “quirks”.
As a child, I became easily obsessive and frightened, particularly about forgetting my past thoughts, feelings and experiences. So as what I thought would be a grounding factor, I made it a habit of thinking to myself, “I will remember this moment, I will remember this moment.” whenever I used the public washrooms at school. Starting probably around age 5-6 until I was at least 10, but maybe longer.
Ironically, instead of a collection of memories, this resulted in more of a general memory that spans years and blurs what other thoughts or feelings I had at any specific time. The memory is just of myself evolving in this fairly unchanged physical setting, as well as the fear and anxiety I felt originally about the inevitable inability to remember everything that you live.
Which, is a fear that has unsurprisingly lasted well into the rest of my life. So much so that it’s probably at the root of my interest in photography and self portraiture overall, and that from the time I was 15 to 19 I wrote down everything I did every day. (On top of that I have boxes filled with journals of additional experiences, accompanied by drawing and diagrams.) Eventually I found this exhausting and too time consuming so I have since lightened up quite a bit on the everyday aspect. Although my writing, drawings, photographs and self portraits obviously still continue.
Separately, (or so I thought before starting this project) around the same age (5-6) is the first time I remember having what have become chronic nightmares, about toilets, public washrooms and having to use them in unusual situations.
The first one I remember took place in my childhood home, we were having a house party and some “evil people” were shoving all of my friends down the toilet. Since then they’ve included everything from two toilets side by side with no wall in between (or walls that are too short), two toilets in a corner that touch just a little bit, public washrooms unmarked according to sex, toilets in the line up at sarcan, mirrored or brightly colored bathroom walls, over-flowing or clogged toilets, forgetting my belongings in the bathroom, toilets that are strangely shaped (like tall aqua squishy cylinders or red boards that sort of look like a picnic table) and most recently porta-potties at a music festival that are actually a series of dark blue lockers with miniature toilets on chains locked up inside.
There are I’m sure many interpretations of these dreams, (a friend of mine thinks I was traumatized by having to sit on a bidet when I didn’t want to) but I’m not actually afraid of toilets “in real life”, except when they look like the ones in my dreams:
I took this at a pick stop in Chamberlain Sk,
and this in Regina Beach Sk this summer at an arts festival.
The connection that my nightmares surround the place where my fear of forgetting was so focused, is incredibly interesting to me. This connection didn’t even occur to me until recently, but I feel like these photos are the advanced version of me sitting on the toilet trying to freeze myself in time.
The reason I think this is the scenario when I’m most struck by this fear is because I’m forced to constantly encounter it. Going to the bathroom is a daily necessity, sure, but it’s also often the only time we have to ourselves in between the rest of our lives.
It’s where you are when you have the crushing realization of last nights drunk sex. It’s where you breakdown, when you have a moment to think, time to process, to calm down, to cry, to talk yourself into putting on a brave face. It’s where you go to send sneaky texts, to bide time, to journal, to tell secrets, to skip class and draw instead.
This christmas I ran into a friend and fellow artist, Tanya, at a house party on my way home by way of the back yard and the fire. She said something really interesting, well a lot of interesting things about this project, particularly that we as women spend a lot of time looking at ourselves this way, that we spend a lot of time there.
She said that she identified with the photos immensely and immediately. Saying that she used to live in a house with the same tiles (as my “Lady Hearts” photo) in Ottawa, that when she saw it, she was instantly herself, in Ottawa.
We talked about self portraits, and about how that term isn’t very accurate. She said that she sees these photos as an expression of myself, they’re me, but also as the viewer, they’re her in ottowa and they’re women. (I‘m tempted to say that it’s entirely a ‘womens project’ except that a male friend took a picture like this to show me, a girlfriend of mine took one too, each made me so happy!)
Interestingly though, this project has often been perceived as erotic even though I never intended it to be and our converstation got me thinking that that’s kind of how all of female sexuality is precieved. Just the thought and the suggestion, the fact that the photographs are so close to something scandalous, makes the picture itself also so. Just the suggestion that women could be sexualy empowered, that our sexualities are not what we’ve been told they are for thousands of years, that is scandalous in itself.
She was incredibly encouraging and inspiring, saying that she thinks I should travel with this project, which I intend to do. I’m amazed by how much has come from something that started out, and could initially be perceived as, so frivolous but has led to so many interesting personal and creative discoveries, on my own and in conversation.
So I’m celebrating it’s one year anniversary with this very long post, whew.
Here are the latest:
To see the entire project, click here.