Tuesday, August 27, 2013

bodies without maps

1. nudity of abundance

Sunday afternoon, AK and I went to a potluck for all the participants in Bodies Mapping Time, the photo project I’d posed for a few months back. J Michael Walker, the artist/photographer, had snagged a room at the Flintridge Foundation, a tree-flanked compound in Pasadena.

The room was institutional, with desks arranged in a square donut and a projection screen. I plopped my couscous down among the lentils and zucchini and scones that other people had brought. J Michael had roasted tomatillos from his garden and made a hot, smoky, delicious salsa.

As far as I could tell, he was a Latina woman trapped in a white man’s body. But moving through the world in a white man’s body shapes you. That’s the nature of the body, and the people who witness it.

It wasn’t my nature to trust men who were too quick to idealize women as goddesses. But the shoot had been fun, cozy, intimate but simple. So I trusted J Michael’s sincerity. 

Flashback to the baldy days.
Later, AK reflected on what he said that day about preferring to be in a roomful of women—who would be instantly laughing and crying together, even if they’d started out as strangers—than in a group of men who were all, “So…the Lakers….”

“It was so nice that he said that, but I was like, Oh, he doesn’t know about the weird competition women have, and all the subtle ways they undermine each other and size each other up. And he doesn’t know the pleasures of talking sports—all the things that can happen in those conversations.

Anyway, J Michael was right about one thing: This roomful of women was beautiful. The thirty-one-year-old black girl who’d recently become a life coach and gotten the words I am tattooed on her inner wrists in English and Hebrew. The fifty-year-old white woman who worked as a personal trainer and was trying to deal with the fact that no amount of training could preserve a twenty-year-old body forever. The intense-eyed black woman who’d done her photo shoot ten days after her husband died of cancer.

“I emailed J Michael and said, ‘We better do this now,’” she recalled. “Because you fall into that pit, you know?” She illustrated with her hand—the movement toward a cliff, the falling off.

The thick-limbed Latina woman who’d brought her own Big Gulp to this place of quinoa, who said, somewhat self-consciously, “I’m healthy as a horse.” The two women who introduced themselves before her, whose collective surgeries numbered almost a hundred.

When I say they were beautiful, I mean on the outside. This seemed important: They looked like a roomful of artists, in great jewelry, with cool haircuts and cobalt blue sweaters and billowy peasant skirts. I get why nudity is empowering, but for me clothes are where it’s at. I’ve been known to use the phrase “dressing her with my eyes.” I liked that J Michael had encouraged his naked ladies to wear jewelry. His photos were anything but stark—this was a nudity of abundance, of Navajo rings and African necklaces and, in one case, bright orange strappy sandals.

One woman had agreed to do his warm, goddess-y nude thing, but only if he also photographed her as an armed Armenian warrior. She was very pregnant at the time.

The testimonies were raw, glowing, open—more touchy-feely than I might have been into if I hadn’t also been made raw and open by the experience. It was simple and wonderful to see that women who’d been molested, who’d had forty-six surgeries, who’d lost their soul mates could be so cool. None of them seemed like they’d been relegated to the permanent role of The Bummer At The Party.

In this way, I was eager to connect with them. At the same time, when they talked about hating their bodies and then learning to love them via the photo shoot—a narrative J Michael seemed to encourage—I didn’t quite relate.

I’d hated my body when it transitioned from skinny muscular gymnast to gangly-but-with-tits teenager. I’d put a lot of effort into hating it for the next ten years. Then I came out and lost thirty pounds and loved my body in a practical way. I wasn’t a goddess, but I had nice arms and easy orgasms, and that was plenty.

Then I miscarried and hated my body in a new way—not because it was ugly, but because it couldn’t save my babies and it couldn’t save me from myself. And then cancer and a hard-won gratitude for its resiliency, blah, blah, blah. You know this story.

So by the time I arrived at the little studio behind J Michael’s house—crowded with paintings and books and Indonesian furniture—I was already fine with my body. And also not, but the complications were stones rubbed smooth. The shoot wasn’t going to save me from anything my therapists and I hadn’t already saved myself from. But it was still awesome.

2. what i lack in nipples, i make up in narrative

After food and introductions, J Michael showed photos on the big screen, sharing a little story about each woman. The one who’d learned her husband was cheating on her the day before the shoot. The one who kept making him redo the photos because she didn’t like how her hair looked.
There were nipples galore—big and small, pink and brown, tattooed, pierced, slightly cross-eyed. But I was the only one with none, and when J Michael talked about my pictures he said, abstractly and not, “The body is so beautiful, even when it’s missing things.”

Which is a compliment, right? And something I agree with. I mean, the girl who works at the coffee shop around the corner from me is missing half a leg and she’s fucking gorgeous, although she would be gorgeous with two full legs too. But it was still weird feeling like such an amputee. Just a couple of weeks before, my plastic surgeon had mentioned in an offhand way that he didn’t recommend full nipple reconstruction because the radiation I’d had might lead to healing problems, but no worries, I could just tattoo ‘em on.

Fake tattoo of real tattoo of fake nipples. So meta!
As I told my therapist later that day, it was like someone saying that, instead of a prosthetic leg, you’d be getting a picture of a leg. And after my sister gave me some temporary nipple tattoos to try on (because they sell these things, because that’s what sisters are for), I decided the whole thing was kind of silly, and I was going to get non-realistic tattoos—an anchor or a star or something—or nothing at all. But it was fucked up that everyone was so used to me losing body parts, myself included, that this was just added to the list like buying gum at the cash register. Except it was subtracting, not adding.

For so much of my life I identified as The Boring One, The Privileged One. I’m still fairly boring and definitely privileged, but with a lot more loss. I used to hear tragedy narratives, and whether they veered toward victim or empowered activist or rebellious punk, I was envious and skeptical. A part of me thought they were lucky to have so much material to mine, and that people who had to make art out of sheer talent and hard work were the ones who really struggled. In this way, I identified with the Big Gulp woman, although I was also certain that her Big Gulp was a marker of some kind of class struggle that my spoiled couscous-and-figs self needed to honor.

Gulp as economic index.
And you know what? I was a little bit right. Having a bunch of loss under my belt has given me a shitload of material, and I’m mixing it with all my talent and hard work—emotional and intellectual and artistic—to make something, although I don’t know what yet. Maybe just a blog. Maybe just a little more empathy next time someone tells me their own story.

You get what you get and you’re allowed to use it how you want. I know that no one would ever choose molestation or poverty or forty-six surgeries in exchange for artistic street cred. And knowing this deeply makes me feel more okay about exploiting my own story.

So that was the arc of the day—I felt good and proud to be part of such a strong, creative group of women. And then I felt weird and kind of bad and overwhelmed by the knowledge that in a few days I would be ovary-less and nipple-less, ever further away from those long-haired, Buddha-bellied pregnant women in the pictures. A woman only in my own mind, although my trans-positivity forces me to believe that’s the most important place. A woman only because the world had made me feel shitty about my body.

3. polar bears and dead explorers save the day

And then we went to our second slideshow of the day, my friend Colin’s report at Machine Project about his floating fellowship to the Arctic Circle a few months ago. Colin has developed a niche as Reporter Of Odd Facts, someone who mines the weird corners of history and nature and relates what he finds there to human nature. It’s really wonderful to have a friend who writes the exact kind of nonfiction you love to read, as if each book were created especially for you.

There are so many great things I could report, like the fact that there’s an old Norwegian tradition of never saying “polar bear” unless one is charging at you (like not saying “fire” in a crowded theater, basically). Instead people talk about “old bjorn” or “the gentleman in the fur coat” or “the stranger in the white jacket.”

"Polar bears aren't like grizzlies," Colin said. "Polar bears will fuck with you."
But the part that moved me most was his stories of lost nineteenth-century expeditions to the Arctic Circle. Colin had a clear affection for these ballsy, deluded dudes, firm in their belief that there was a temperate sea beyond the ice floes, just because there should be. Sometimes I think there is a god just because there should be, and that that’s enough to conjure one—belief creating reality. My faith is very pomo.

Colin’s slide show opened with a quote from Gravity’s Rainbow, which I’ve never read (I prefer to let my favorite writers read the hard stuff for me), about how we’re wrong to assume that only the explorers who return are successes, and only the ones who don’t are failures. What do the lost ones know? Pynchon wonders. What should we be listening for out there in the ice?

Luckily, Colin did not get lost. In fact, he traveled on an awesome pirate ship and ate great food.
Guided by this quote, I immersed myself in photos of an abandoned Russian mining town (nothing is cooler or lonelier) and stories of people who died in icy vastness. And I’ve said this before, but history feels like church to me. I wasn’t alone. Maybe I had no nipples, but there were people who’d floated on the frozen blue and spotted hovering mirages—the origin of the Flying Dutchman myth—and they were missing things too. They were lost and found too.


Sizzle said...

I just really loved reading this post. xo

Cheryl said...

Thanks, Sizzle. <3

Claire said...

Me too and not just because I'm a sucker for polar bears. :)

Cheryl said...

Don't be fooled, Claire! They will fuck with you.

Peter Varvel said...

Beautiful, yes.

I loved the emotional nudity on artistic display as well.

Because it's real, difficult and real.