Some mornings I wake up with a buzz of desire fluttering around my nerve endings. When our enthusiasm matches up and time allows, my partner and I indulge our pleasure. Inevitably though, there are mornings when that is just not possible. Until very recently, my response would be to shelve the buzz in corner, so that I could focus on the practical to-do list for the day.
Or, less productively, I’d be grumpy.
Until three weeks ago. That’s when I started taking an online course on the history and practices of tantric sexuality from the Centre Summum. I’ve been intrigued by tantra practices for more than a decade, but could never work up the courage to actually sign up for anything.
A brief and necessarily incomplete description is that tantra is a spiritual practice (across many traditions) of gathering and harmonizing our feminine and masculine energy. So, yes, tantra is about so much more than sex. And, it’s about sex.
Thanks to the pandemic, the class about sex is online. Thank you zoom for the ability to enroll in classes that would be logistically complicated or psychologically daunting, if they were in person. How much easier is it to show up from home? No one can really see when I blush, nor are there those awkward moments before and after class where we talk about … our sex lives?
We get homework. The first and second week (the third class is tonight, after this piece posts) one of our assignments was to notice those buzzy moments that I mentioned earlier (the class is in French and I love the French word for the buzz—frissons). Instead of setting the frissons aside, as I used to do, we learned to pause and simply savor the sensation of our life force energy. That’s what tantrism calls our sexual energy—our life force, the root flame of our vitality. Well, that was fun homework. Enlivening.
Another delightful assignment is practicing Kumbhaka breathing to cultivate our vital energy. Breath practices are key in tantra. As explained in the class, Kumbhaka breath is to cultivate our life force energy. It goes like this:
Ideally (but not necessarily!) done in seated meditation position. Take a deep breath in, moving the breath down from your heart into your pelvic floor. Hold the in-breath for a moment and then breathe out, moving the breath through your root chakra at the base of your spine. Allow the out-breath to continue up your spine, flow over the crown of your head and back down to rejoin the in-breath at your heart. Hold your breath at empty until you feel the urge to breathe. Repeat the breath pattern. Repeat again. You may set yourself a breath count or an amount of time, or you may just do it until your vitality is buzzing.
An online search yields a variety of slightly different descriptions, with prescriptive advice on when and how long to do the breathing. Our teacher, Stéphane, has a permissive spirit, much more about flow than structure. My personal approach is to try out different ways of doing the breath and feel into what works for me. In that spirit, I have a visualization that manifested with the practice. The in-breath is to anchor my life force (my power). The out-breath straightens my spine and as the breath flows over my head and past my face, I imagine putting on a warrior’s helmet. That’s my courage. Finally, as the breath reaches my heart, I tap into love. I’ve been doing Kumbhaka during my meditation, where it feels energizing and helps me focus (not on sex, but on what I need to focus on for the day).
Where I’ve really noticed a difference is when I do the breathing in bed, as I’m waking up on those buzzy mornings when I have to get up and start the day, no time for dalliance. When I go for my workout, which is cross-country skiing these days, I feel extra strong. The first time I felt this abundant energy during my ski, I just chalked it up to feeling happy. After all, spending a few extra moments to breathe into the frissons is happiness-inducing. The second and third times I felt the kick of vitality on my skis, I thought—hey, there’s a pattern. First, I searched around online to see if there was anything specific about my experience. While there is lots about tantric yoga and about other breathing practices and sports performance, there wasn’t anything specific about the particular connection I am experiencing. So, I asked Stéphane, if I was imagining the connection or if the Special K-effect (as I think of it, a reference to the breakfast cereal, not the drug) was a known result? He wrote me back (oh, right; because I did not have the courage to ask the question in class, live on zoom, I waited to ask in writing!): “Yes, whenever we channel our sexual energy there will be a tendency to increase all of our internal energies. It (*our sexual energy) is the source of all our strength.”
Yes! I’ll have what she’s having. Oh wait, I’m the she who is already having. That sentence may have been nonsense, but you get the picture. I’m grooving to this class, even on my skis.
Interestingly, at the risk of over-sharing, but hey, I’m already in pretty deep here: when I actually have sex in the morning, that does not make me feel stronger for my workout. The more likely result is that I am more at ease with however the workout goes. That’s an equally great outcome, since I can get caught up in performance-busting narratives in my head.
And, in case it isn’t super obvious, these practices are intended for all people with sexual energy, whether or not you are in a relationship or solo and whatever gender creates the sparks.
There’s more personal, anecdotal research to be done on this front. I plan to be very diligent about my homework. And if you’ve been wanting a new kick of energy to supplement your morning coffee, check out the Special K-effect for yourself. You can’t fake the deliciousness.
CW: This post addresses trauma, flashbacks and PTSD, although it does not directly describe traumatic events. Sex and personal anatomy are referenced.
Six weeks after my hysterectomy, my gynecologist gave me the OK to return to all physical activities–including sex. And a few weeks after that, my husband and I found an opportunity to explore what that meant. I was eager to enjoy a regular sex life again. Before the surgery, while I hadn’t had any pain associated with intercourse specifically, I was afraid of potentially magnifying the pain I was already experiencing. I also felt increasingly alienated from my reproductive system as the months dragged on before the surgery–like my uterus and the surrounding architecture were fighting against me, forcing this mutant litter of fibroids upon me, despite my lifelong disinclination to ever becoming pregnant.
But instead of easing our way back into a regular sex life, I found myself heading into becoming frozen–stuck in place, nearly nonverbal, unresponsive as a possum hoping you won’t drive over it in the middle of the road. I managed to softly say, “no, no, no, no, no,” and everything stopped.
This was the first sign I had that something about the hysterectomy had been emotionally traumatic for me.
I recognized the feeling. My therapist and I had identified that I had many of the markers of PTSD long before the hysterectomy. I can be jumpy for no reason, startled by everyday noises. I can experience emotions disconnected from the present moment–overwhelming dread being the most common. I get heightened into fight or flight at the grocery store, or walking down the street, or driving, and have to work my way back down into my emotional window of tolerance. In these moments of panic or dread or rage, I know that they don’t make sense. I’m aware that they aren’t a true response to something in the present, but a ghost of terrible moments in the past.
But while I knew this about myself, I was not prepared for it to get worse with surgery. Nowhere did I read that this can be a risk, and it seems especially surprising given my past traumas are not sexual. Many of the resources I found as I prepared for the surgery mentioned that many women mourn the loss of their womb, that connection to motherhood in their bodies. I get that, but I wasn’t concerned about it for me. I have never wanted to be a mother, and I’ve always viewed my reproductive system as a sort of vestigial set of organs, that maybe protects my heart and definitely inconveniences me one week out of every month.
My surgeon knew of my PTSD symptoms as well–she got a firsthand look at them on our very first appointment. Her office is unfortunately located in a hospital associated with some of my past trauma, and from about two blocks away, through the entire hour-plus visit, and until I was able to leave, I was in a full-on panic attack flashback. I hyperventilated, found myself crying, and felt totally overwhelmed by the emotions flooding over me. Honestly, I felt completely ridiculous trying to explain to the nurses why I was so clearly struggling with self-control. For the next visit, they prescribed me some Xanax to take before I arrived.
Past traumas increase our risk of future trauma. Our nervous system remembers the feelings of threat, hopelessness, dread and loss of control. It is not a surprise that I was at increased risk of new trauma, but I am surprised that a procedure performed completely under anesthesia can result in trauma. According to my therapist, our bodies can remember what our conscious minds cannot. She equated it to the feelings you have when a tooth is extracted at the dentist–thanks to the novocaine, you don’t feel pain, but your body registers the pressure and physical trauma of the loss of a tooth. And so, apparently, my body registered the hysterectomy as a threat, and now I am finding myself urgently needing to protect myself from future perceived threats.
Now I am startled by simple, intimate experiences. I’ve had to ask my husband to ask permission before he reaches out to stroke my back or leans in for a kiss. Without the “warning,” I can’t breathe through my startle response and reorient to the present moment. Sex scares me. Even the thought of a nonsexual item like a tampon entering my vagina makes me feel anxious–my breathing becomes shallow, my heart starts to race. I am increasingly on edge, so much closer to fight-or-flight than I was before.
You might be asking yourself how common this is. In an admittedly cursory search, I didn’t find a lot of information, but this very recent study found 16.4% of participants experienced multiple symptoms of PTSD 2-3 months after hysterectomy. This older study from the Mayo clinic found a smaller, but robust, increase in the number of people showing signs of anxiety and depression after hysterectomy than compared to a similar population who had not had a hysterectomy. Now, neither of these studies can show us causation–does getting a hysterectomy make people more likely to develop these mental health concerns? Or is it that certain mental health conditions or predispositions make it more likely that someone gets a hysterectomy? Since we can’t do placebo hysterectomies on half of a cohort and then see if there’s a difference in prevalence of PTSD symptoms, I’m not sure how we can suss that out.
Regardless, I can’t help but believe that people would benefit from knowing about these risks in advance. At a minimum, people like me with a history of trauma could potentially work with their mental health professionals in advance to develop a treatment plan, should it be necessary. That is why I’ve decided to write about it, even though it feels very personal. It would be my hope that more patients and doctors can be aware of these risks and be encouraged to talk about them.
It has been a year since I first wrote about my hysterectomy here. At that time, all I was concerned about was my physical health and fitness afterwards–I wanted to stay as strong and physically resilient as I could as I healed. Those physical concerns are in the past now. I can lift however I want. I can run without pain. But I’m still dealing with the consequences of my hysterectomy, and I can’t help but wonder how long these new ghosts will haunt me.
Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found reorienting to the present, picking up heavy things and putting them back down again in Portland, Oregon. You can now read her at Progressive-Strength.com .
I know you might have been watching the game. But me, the only bit I’ve watched was the amazing halftime show put on by J. Lo and and Shakira. Did you see it? So good. They performed a medley of their music along with some amazing choreography and wore gorgeous costumes. It was fun and beautiful and I loved it.
But no sooner had I enjoyed it than the commentary began. Do you know that J. Lo and Shakira are 50 and 43, respectively? There was a lot of commenting about that. There was also a lot of commenting about their “sinful” costumes. And should they really be wearing so little clothing? (Sometimes said, sometimes implied, “at their age.”) Isn’t this just the objectification of women’s bodies?
A friend said on Facebook, earlier in the day, about football, that it was a good principle in general to “let people enjoy things.” I think the same thing is true about the halftime entertainment.
There was an awful lot of critical commentary. So many words about women’s bodies. A conservative Christian mother of three took to Twitter to liken the halftime show to pornography and Twitter responded about as expected.
To give you a flavour of the anti-halftime show Christian comments, here’s Rev. Franklin Graham, “I don’t expect the world to act like the church, but our country has had a sense of moral decency on prime time television in order to protect children. We see that disappearing before our eyes. It was demonstrated tonight in the Pepsi Super Bowl Halftime Show — with millions of children watching. This exhibition was Pepsi showing young girls that sexual exploitation of women is okay. With the exploitation of women on the rise worldwide, instead of lowering the standard, we as a society should be raising it.”
This blog’s frequent guest Sarah Skwire had the best response. I laughed during a university meeting reading it.
Sarah wrote. “I gather some women had bodies on television last night. This, of course, never happened when I was a child. Certainly not during prime time, when we watched clean and healthy shows like Wonder Woman, Buck Rodgers, Logan’s Run, Three’s Company, Baywatch, and Love Boat which never sexualized women’s bodies, or made scanty outfits a central point of their plots, or exposed young children to sexual situations..
When I was a child, women in entertainment all dressed like Edith Bunker.”
Why so much policing of women’s bodies? Did it make a difference do you think the women’s bodies in question weren’t white? Did it seem especially sinful/sexy and in need of control because they were brown women dancing? Was race a factor?
“White people: I see your posts about how their bodies and their dancing made you uncomfortable.
Did you notice the Latinx kids in cages singing BORN IN THE USA and LETS GET LOUD surrounded by an illumined Venus symbol? Did you notice the foot work? Did you notice the rope Shakira tied around her body while belly dancing? Can you think more deeply about what that image meant? Did you notice bilingual songs and two of the hottest Raggaeton artists as guests? Did you notice the 🇵🇷? Did you notice that sex work is legitimate work and the pole wasn’t about you?
Y’all save your righteous anger for the weirdest stuff. I wish y’all were as uncomfortable about kids in cages as you are about brown bodies.
STOP POLICING BROWN BODIES.”
So there’s sex and there’s race, but there’s also an age angle. So much talk of their age. Did you know J.Lo is 50? Did you know Shakira is 43?
The New York Times had this to say: “Well, on Sunday Ms. Lopez showed the world what 50 looks like — at least her version of it.” Read The Power of 50.
But that prompted a lot more spilt ink about being 50 and looking like J. Lo.
From the New Yorker article THE SUPER BOWL HALFTIME SHOW, AND THE AGELESS COMFORTS OF J. LO : “Magazines and Web sites regularly publish articles that promise to reveal the secrets to Lopez’s continued youthfulness (how does she look so good at fifty?), and her ability to maintain a firm-skinned foxiness is a key part of our fascination with her. (I can’t purport to guess how she does this, though I would imagine that a punishing exercise regimen and diet, and access to top dermatologists and perhaps plastic surgeons, form at least part of the answer.) But Lopez’s still-point-of-the-turning-world quality goes beyond her physical appearance. There is something reassuringly unchanging about her presence, too. “
A friend lamented that J. Lo’s existence, looking that amazing, puts pressure on the rest of us 50 somethings to look like that too. It’s not realistic, said the friend, to expect the rest of us who aren’t J. Lo to chase that standard.
That’s the worry, right. If she can do it, why can’t I? It didn’t help that a personal trainer chimed in and commented on my friend’s status said yes, we could all do that if we wanted to. It wouldn’t even take much time or money. He said we just needed dedication, commitment, a gym membership, and an hour a day. I remain skeptical about the hour a day part. I’m also skeptical that any amount of exercise would do it.
Tracy asked then, “Is there not an age where we can stop thinking about whether men think we look hot in a bikini? It may be that the Christie Brinkley photo shoot, rather than addressing ageism, just raises the bar for older women (like: why don’t you look like Christie Brinkley in a bikini?).”
Do you you find J. Lo’s looks at 50 inspiring or worrying? If the former, you’ll want to watch the video below.
Catherine wrote a blog post about Brittany Runs a Marathon without watching it. That was definitely the wiser choice. See her commentary here.
She writes, “So why I am writing about a movie I haven’t seen? Because I think the movie/advertising/fashion/fitness industries have (sort of) taken in the message that it’s not okay to blatantly fat-shame people or overtly identify lower body weights with fitness, success and happiness in life. Notice, I said “overtly” and “blatantly”.”
Catherine goes on to identify “some strong fitspo messages buried (not too deeply) in this film:
Health problems should first be addressed by losing weight
Weight loss is possible to achieve through physical activity
Weight loss makes physical activity possible and easier and better and more fun
Some deep-seated emotional problems will resolve through weight loss and physical activity”
So why did I end up watching it? I sometimes watch “bad” TV or fluffy shows while cleaning. Easy to follow rom-coms? Sign me up! I hadn’t seen the floor of my room in weeks. There were Christmas gifts I still hadn’t put away, clean laundry, bags of gym clothes, yoga mats etc all over the floor, the bed needed making, the socks needed sorting and so on. I needed something longer than a regular half hour show to deal with all of the mess. I needed a movie length thing at least. I thought I could handle the fat shaming and enjoy BRAM for its redeeming features. The trailer looked, as a friend put it, cute. The Guardian called it a fluffy feel good flick. It is not that. By the end, I did not feel good at all.
Friends, it was not mostly cute with a side of fat shaming, which I expected. Instead it was a dumpster fire of stereotypes and it was also super sex shaming. All of this was lumped into criticism of Brittany’s self-destructive lifestyle. At one point in the movie someone opines–in a line that was supposed to save the movie, “Brittany, it was never about the weight.” Instead, “weight” is just a stand in for all of Brittany’s problems. Before fat-Brittany is taking drugs and giving men blow jobs in night clubs and by the end of the movie, thin Brittany isn’t just thin. She’s also turning down casual sex. The friends-with-benefits/boyfriend proposes. There was way too much moralizing about sex and drugs. And I say that as someone who is no fan of drugs or alcohol and is often accused of moralizing in this area.
This happens because Brittany isn’t just a fat girl. She’s a fat girl with low self -esteem. She could have just gotten some self-esteem. But no, she gets thin and then gets self-esteem. She could have gotten self-esteem and demanded equal pleasure in the casual sex. She could have started using drugs and alcohol in a responsible manner. Instead, no. She gets self-esteem, says no to drugs, and holds out for a real relationship.
Not surprisingly, it doesn’t manage the weight-loss plot line well at all.
The Guardian reviewer writes, “The film struggles to square its protagonist’s weight loss with the pressure to present a body-positive position and ensure it doesn’t alienate the very female audience it courts. One minute it’s wryly poking fun at the expense and inaccessibility of gyms, the next it’s fetishistically cataloguing the shrinking number on Brittany’s scales. Indeed, as her body transforms, so does her life. She finds a new job, and supportive friends in her running club; men begin to notice her. Yet Brittany still battles with her body issues, unable to shed her identity as “a fat girl”. There’s a note of truth in Bell’s finely tuned performance as a character whose insecurities have calcified over the years, hardening her to genuine goodwill, which she frequently misreads as pity.”
For the record, fat Brittany is smaller than me. She starts out weighing 197 pounds. Her goal weight is 167. And we can track it because never in movie history has a person stepped on a scale so often.
(A blog reader pointed out a more charitable interpretation of why we see her stepping on the scale so often: “She steps on the scale a lot because she trades in her addictions to drugs and alcohol for an addiction to scale weight loss, which the movie portrays as an unhealthy obsession. What starts out as a good “oh look, I lost this many pounds now!” thing quickly escalates into a dangerous “go for a run, jump on the scale, dislike the number displayed, so go back out to run in the mistaken belief that it will make the number change” cycle. That’s why she steps on a scale so often. Because it’s NOT good that she does it.)
Forget the weight loss and the sex, even the running themes aren’t handled well. Friends tease Brittany when she first starts running because she isn’t a real runner. The longest she’s run is 5 km. Rather than tackling the “real runner” thing head on instead the film has Brittany run a marathon and become a real runner by the friend’s standards. Even her triumphant marathon finish is marred by Brittany’s continuing to run on her (spoiler alert) injured and possibly still stress fractured leg. We don’t know that but we do know she’s holding her leg and crying, running and not able to put much weight on it, and her first attempt to run the marathon was derailed by a stress fracture.
There is nothing to love here. Nothing cute or funny or feel good or fluffy.
I’ve since seen my dentist, who I just love as we’ve had the most amazing discussions over the years, and gotten a night guard (aka bite plate aka mouth guard). I’m very privileged that my extended dental benefits covered the multiple visits and the appliance.
I immediately thought about how unsexy I felt. This was echoed by many folks who decided that this alone was enough to not wear a dental appliance.
That sat really poorly with me. This night guard is a minor thing, easily removed when needed. My muscles are relaxing as the appliance does its job. But yet it felt like such a big thing to myself and other people because of concerns around losing sex appeal.
Not rational and, for myself, not terribly examined.
The night guard is to alleviate numbness in my face caused my clenching of my jaw. Scarring on the inside of my cheeks and scalloping along the edges of my tongue were signs I was indeed a clencher. So is my sister Anj and my father. It’s likely gotten worse because of a change in my paid work that has increased my stress.
The benefits of wearing this little clear appliance are less headaches and a return of feeling to my face.
I think, at the heart of all this sex appeal talk, is a nugget of ableism. The idea that only bodies that don’t need assistive devices, dental appliances or any other supports are less sexy than able/unassisted bodies is deeply problematic and I need to fight that impulse.
The other part is our old frenemy, sexism and the idea that women must constantly strive to be sexy to all people, especially men, at all times.
You know what is sexy? Someone who has had a good night’s sleep instead of clenching their jaw into spasms. Self care is sexy AF.
Basically if someone dares tell you or me that our self care, dental appliances, accessibility supports or anything else we need to be well are somehow making us less sexy we need to flip those people the bird.
I was 26 when I realized I was unhappy with how I looked, and always had been, and that my unhappiness had been normalized by me (and by some of those who love me). Things hit a tipping point one autumn day at the Gap: I realized I couldn’t fit into the maroon corduroys (a size up from my already-plus-size) I’d brought sheepishly into the change room with me. I decided that was it: I wanted to look – but especially to feel – differently about my body.
Fast forward 17 years, and I weigh only marginally less than I did that day. Though my body is now fitter, stronger, and – most importantly – makes me feel proud and strong and happy every day. I celebrate regularly by buying clothes that I think look amazing, no longer believing they are not “for me.” ALL the clothes are for me, and for my beautiful body, yo.
But lingerie. Man, oh man, lingerie. The final frontier.
(An image of a thin white female torso and upper thighs, wearing low-rise panties with an image of Deadpool giving the thumbs-up and a word bubble that says “approved!” Basically all lingerie trauma in one handy meme.)
To be honest, I hadn’t much considered lingerie, ever. Once I’d become more fit and shifted my body image, I bought dresses of all kinds and enjoyed admiring myself in mirrors everywhere; I embraced versions of the feminine that fit me and that felt like me. But lingerie: well, it felt like a thing you buy so you can get sexy with someone you also find sexy, and I didn’t have that in my life. For a while I pretended that was totally fine, until I just couldn’t anymore.
Some of you may remember my adventures in online dating – a challenging place for a feminist to seek satisfaction. I’m pleased to report, though, that I met a really wonderful human on Tinder, of all places; I marvel every day at what it feels like to be treated with tender, supportive respect by someone who also really fancies your body and wants to see you in lingerie.
Wait… say what?
D told me early on that he was very keen on lingerie, if I was into it; I was flattered but also daunted by the prospect of purchasing the goods, so I let it drop for a while. Then, as our relationship progressed, and as we got more invested in one another, our sexual connection became more intense. I realized that, yes, I didreallywant to buy some lingerie: for him to celebrate and enjoy my body, but also for me to celebrate and enjoy it with him.
But lingerie shopping! Man oh man, the shopping.
Here’s what happened when I dove into the lacy capitalist fray.
(A vintage, sepia-toned, “western”-style poster featuring a white woman sporting a cowboy hat, tassled black gloves, a gun in a holster, and a bra with seriously pointy boobs. She gives us a sly, full-on look as she reaches for her weapon. The poster reads: “I dreamed I was WANTED in my Maidenform bra.”)
Take one: the pressure cooker
I was having lunch at my favourite grungy diner with a good friend and his son, in an upscale shopping area in downtown Toronto. I trust P and know his queer sensibility jives with my feminist one, so I asked him about good places to buy fun, sexy, lingerie. He had lots of advice, but it was more involved than I’d hoped: it included a trip across town, some recon in the gay village, and perhaps more conversation about preferences with (admittedly amazing and sensitive) staffers than I imagined I’d want to have. (I felt like I was in a hurry, though maybe I was just scared.)
After we parted, I remembered a shop I’d been to in the neighbourhood with another friend, years before. She was practiced at the lingerie thing and it seemed to work for her, so I headed over on a bit of a whim.
This was my first mistake.
The shop had a kind of “foyer,” with stairs leading up to the main retail area; there were a number of older, well dressed, white women milling about, and I could tell quickly that they were staff – and that they outnumbered customers, most likely on purpose. I smiled but tried not to make eye contact with any of them; I was immediately and completely uncomfortable. I felt myself trying to make myself shrink a bit, sort of disappear. I should have run for the exit, but my feet felt like lead. I didn’t want to be rude.
Just as I began fingering a few lovely-looking slips, discovering to my horror how expensive they were, one of the well dressed women approached me.
Did I know the majority of their selection was in drawers? She asked. What was I looking for? How much time did I have?
Anxious, I mumbled maybe 20 minutes, half an hour. (A lie: I had, like T-minus-get-me-out-of-here.)
Oh, that’s plenty of time! my WDW cooed. She began locating more slip options for me. (I have no idea why I told her I was interested in slips. I wasn’t. I was interested in sexy, hot, amazingly bodacious shit. Yet telling her this seemed, somehow, both impossible and gross.) Before I knew it I was in a change room.
I put on the first slip – a beautiful sky-blue number that was, admittedly, elegant and fell prettily over my waist and hips. WDW asked if she could have a look; I opened my change room door awkwardly, just a bit. Oh, we’ve cracked it! she cried. It was made for you! (NB: this is WDW-speak for “spend $300 on this now.”)
Other WDWs then crowded around to look at me, up and down from head to toe, as my mortified soul left my body and slid between the floorboards.
Now you need panties, my WDW told me, and she was off; she returned moments later with a thong made of polyester with a funny little flower at the back, right at the top of the butt crack bit. It seemed SO TYRA BANKS, but without the RuPaul irony. I could not imagine myself in it. It was $95.
Try them on over your own, go ahead, she instructed. I did what I was told.
(Another vintage magazine image: this is from a French publication circa 1950, and shows a white woman from behind. She is dressed in netted stockings and a corset, lacy panties and evening gloves. She has curly shoulder-length blond hair and a neutral expression. Though she appears to be posing with hands on hips for effect, the image is structured to suggest she is dressing, or being dressed, and has only just reached the part with all the trussing.)
Then, something odd happened.
I realized that I did not want to buy these two items – even though part of me actually kind of liked these two items – but that I was definitely about to buy these two items. I would purchase them for reasons I could not quite fathom in the moment, but which had a very clear and firm hold on me nevertheless.
The feeling was overwhelming. It was not rational. I thought a lot about it afterward, as I clutched my shopping bag sadly on the train ride home.
Reflecting on the whole episode a few days later, with Cate and with my friend Natalie, I tried to get to the bottom of why I seemed to have lost all of my agency in that funny bi-level store, among those well-dressed older white women.
I realized that the entire experience had reminded me of the shame I used to feel when shopping for what felt like my bad, wrong, ugly body.
Of how I would find it easier just to be swept along by the maternal figures throwing fabric at me. Of how my mom – bless my mom, and all her own tricky body issues, and her best of intentions –would begin every one of our visits to clothing stores when I was a teen by demanding of staffers, “do you have this in an extra large?”
That feeling of being judged – it cascaded over me, got into my pores and seams, began to crush me.
That feeling of being looked at, constantly looked at, but not being seen. Not being even remotely seen as the woman I want to be.
The WDW was not my mom, but she might as well have been; she might as well have been all of the well-meaning women in all of the stores that litter my ugly-body history. I realized I would have done anything, anything, both to please her and to get away from her, as quickly as I could.
Take two: the feminist local
Natalie said: that experience sounds horrible! Did you know, though, that R’s friend’s wife runs a great lingerie shop just up the road from here?
We were having coffee in her neighbourhood, and I put two and two together: the shop I’d passed on my way to meet her – the one with the hot mesh body suit in the window, the one that seemed so welcoming and warm from the street – was the shop she was talking about.
(This is a photo of a sexy black mesh body suit on a mannequin in the window of Stole My Heart, an amazing west-Toronto feminist lingerie store. I took it through the glass storefront window on a cloudy afternoon, and we can see an apartment building, some trees, and sky reflected in the window, as well as some big red peonies. I have no idea where they came from, but they totally rock the shot.)
Let’s go together, Natalie said. And one Saturday afternoon in March we did. This time, the experience was remarkably different for me, in every way. For one thing, it felt safe. Natalie is loving and supportive and I knew she had my back. But also: the shop was small and all on one level; there were sexy, fun, come-what-may pieces on mannequins and hangers all over the place. Ashley was tending shop on her own, and greeted us right away as friends (and, I suspect, not just because she knows Natalie.) Instantly I felt at home. In fact, I felt protected.
The shop is called Stole My Heart; co-founders Amy Pearson and Ashley Holden opened it precisely in order to counteract the kinds of experiences I had with the WDW. They write:
Lingerie has the ability to make women feel confident, beautiful and unique, but those aren’t often the feelings we experience while shopping for underwear. Having braved many a lingerie store together, we’ve been pushed up and sucked in, all the while struggling to find flattering pieces that we could get excited about trying on. We decided that we all deserve better and Stole My Heart was born. (Click here for more.)
Amy and Ashley’s aim in building the space and curating its collection was to celebrate body diversity, to support women designers and sustainable brands, and (this is my favourite bit) to “speak to the many definitions of femininity” that women inhabit daily.
(Stole My Heart from the back looking at the window: lingerie on hangers, a brown wicker light fixture, black and white furniture signalling laid-back Victoriana. The writing on the wall literally says: “take your own breath away.”)
I knew none of this going in, note: I had not looked online, not Googled a thing. I had Natalie’s word and a glance through a window to go on. And yet instantly I could feel how different this vibe was: I was ok to be myself, to be honest and to be awkward if I needed to be. It was all good.
Emboldened, I said to Ashley: I want something sexy, for me and my partner to play in. But I’d like it to be comfortable, something I can wear and enjoy anytime.
Nat and I grabbed change rooms, and Ashley brought us all manner of things: stuff I’d picked out with her on a go-round the shop, stuff she’d remembered she had in a drawer, stuff from up high and down low. (The body suit, natch.) She thought I should start with mediums, but instantly I knew those were too small. I called out: could I have the mesh body suit in large? from behind the curtain; Yup! she hollered cheerfully back. And try this one, too!
She measured me and confirmed my bra size, then presented me with an array of gorgeous options I’d never have looked at myself. The one I least expected to want stole my heart.
I bought it for me, and I bought the body suit for me and D. (Bonus: it’s made of recycled fabric! It’s eco-lingerie!) Nat bought herself her first-ever proper nightgown, to celebrate an amazing new job.
As we paid (no sales counter – just an iPad along the wall, next to a comfy sofa and a table laden with chocolates, to which I helped myself, OF COURSE), we chatted about the experience I’d had with the WDW. Ashley commiserated. I mentioned what an utter delight this experience had been, the polar opposite – enough of a pleasure to make me want to come back, again and again, kind of just to hang out, actually.
Neither Nat nor I wanted boxes for our purchases; instead, Ashley wrapped them beautifully in tissue paper, and then put them into bespoke cloth bags, with “Stole My Heart” on one side, and a strong-ass bitch in a body suit on the other. (I like it almost as much as I like the new bra.)
(Best. Tote. Ever. This image is of my Stole My Heart cloth tote bag, which is black and features a white drawing of an ordinary-sized female body with long hair. She is flexing a bicep and looking at it admiringly.)
Shopping is hard, my friends; we know this. But it’s not hard because there’s anything wrong with our bodies, or anything wrong with being firmly, proudly, openly sexual – even in public. It’s hard because of the structures that shape our consumption. As women, we’ve long been coached to hide our bodies, demure about things sexual, even despise ourselves for spending money on ourselves. Lingerie shops often reproduce this vibe – because they are usually heteronormative spaces that institutionalize a particular kind of femininity-under-patriarchy, but also because they know that shame sells. Once caught in the net, I’d spend anything to be free.
So let’s seek out spaces that resist this vibe, that challenge our received body norms by making structural changes to curate a different kind of shopping feeling. Not shame but joy. Not fear but pride. Not the long, judging look of the matriarch, but the supportive and generous vision of the friend, the peer, the equal.
The look you give yourself, when you take your own breath away.
I don’t love Walmart. I don’t love Cosmo Magazine. I really don’t love what Walmart has done with Cosmo Magazine in 5000 locations in the good ole’ USA. Sam brought this article to our attention on our contributor discussion page and said, “Blog fodder. Do feminists agree with conservatives on this one?” I swear sometimes she says stuff just to get me riled up enough to write a blog. . .oh. . .wait.
So in a nutshell, Cosmo will not be available at the checkout where all the precious minds of little girls might get polluted with its sordid sexual content. Dawn Hawkins of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (Formerly known as Morality in the Media) claimed it as a victory of her organization’s own making, referencing #metoo as the inspiration for this action. Walmart made a vague statement about it being a “business decision” in which it “consulted” with unnamed entities. Cosmo isn’t being banned. It’s just being moved.
Honestly, do I care? I hate Cosmo. I mostly hate it because it over promises on the sex tips. Here’s an example, “7 Best Sex Positions for Female Orgasm“. It says these tips will “guarantee to help you orgasm”. But you know what? That’s bullshit. I’ve tried every one of them. I want my guarantee! They get me every time and dash my hopes. But you know what else is in there? This gem about the fight to include women’s choice into Obamacare. There’s also this one about my current favourite teen that isn’t related to me, Emma Gonzales, and the photoshopped picture of her ripping up the bill of rights.
When Sam asked if feminists agreed with conservatives, I will confess to having a trauma trigger. It all goes back to a time in 1990. I was a young impressionable law student and I read Catharine MacKinnon. For those who are too young to remember, these were troubled times in the feminist movement (I mean, when aren’t there troubled times). There was a general agreement that pornography, as conceptualized by the patriarchy, was not great for women. It was not about our pleasure, it was not about our agency, it was not about our actual bodies. It was about our function and that function was to arouse and get off men. That’s objectifying. That’s an impoverished view of women and women’s sexuality. But in the hopes of doing something about it, feminists teamed up with the “moral majority” of conservative evangelical politics. They argued for an end to the scourge using legal tools and in the process, did a terrible disservice to a lot of women, including me. In this discourse, sexuality became even more of a source of shame and, as happens, marginalized sexuality took the brunt of it. Somehow the mainstream porn industry continued to thrive while it was harder for alternate voices to get in there and change any of these narratives. Things didn’t get better for women as a result of this unholy alliance because it got hijacked by the more powerful partner in the endeavour. (This is an admittedly uncomplicated summary).
Meanwhile I wasted 10 years of my life not doing fun sexy things that I wanted to do because I thought it would make me a bad feminist. Did those well meaning white lady anti-porn feminists mean for any of this to happen? Of course not. But you can be sure that the folks like Ms. Hawkins would be pretty pleased that I stayed away from all that perverted hanky panky I was trying not to think about.
So, back to beleaguered Cosmo. I wish it was not such a trashy mag. I wish it portrayed more real bodies. I wish the sex advice was better. But other than that, it’s not the worst. They have stopped putting diet advice on the cover. There is a lot in the magazine that speaks to women’s agency. That it reports on celebrity gossip is not a thing that should banish it to the back shelves. I’m curious if that trashiest of trash piles the National Enquirer can still be found eye level with the kidletts? Likely. The hypocrisy is beyond the pale.
A brief perusal of the website of the NCOSE indicates that its main focus is on enforcing and strengthening obscenity law, educating young people about the dangers of overconsumption of porn, prohibiting the exchange of sex for money and somehow “stopping the demand for purchased sex”, I guess through the punishment of being caught (?). While their goals are around the protection of women and vulnerable young people, their tools involve repressing the material, not educating or empowering the victims in the ways I think are helpful. Their aims are also decidedly not sex or sex work positive. I guess that’s where we differ, me and Ms. Hawkins. Cosmo is imperfect, but it is somewhat educational. It reflects reality. NCOSE targeted Cosmo because it is a somewhat sex positive liberal trash mag. I will take that over a sex negative conservative mouth piece of a shameful president any day of the week.
But, yay! The new study looked at the experiences of more than three thousand women and found only good news. Here’s this snippet from the Bicycling magazine story.
Two months after the biggest study to date assured men that, contrary to decades of misinformation, cycling won’t kill their erections, women can welcome some good news of their own. The largest study of its kind just reported that cycling had no negative impact on the sexual and urinary function of even the most active women riders. What’s more, women who clocked the highest mileage showed better sexual function than their non-cycling peers.
“Turns out the women who biked more frequently tended to report better experiences in the bedroom. “We found that lifetime miles ridden was associated with better sexual function, as measured by a common, validated questionnaire,” researcher Thomas W. Gaither, a UCSF medical student, said in a press release.
Good news for women who ride.
One question for Bicycling magazine: Why this image? First, not exactly an image of woman who rides her bikes a lot. Second, it looks like she hopped off her bike to pleasure herself in the field. Am I the only person this thought occurred to? (I actually know that’s not true since a Guelph faculty member and friend came up to me in a meeting and said that she hasn’t stopped laughing since she saw the photo with the story. She says she’s going to look at women laying bedside their bikes differently from now on.)
Also, also, the caption: “Women who ride bikes tend to have better experiences riding, well, other things.”
*Trigger warning: this post discusses issues around sexual violence and consent.
Regular readers of FFI know I’m an avid cyclist and sometime internet dater; what you may or may not know is that in my work life I’m a theatre scholar – I teach, write about, and regularly attend live shows of all kinds. It’s a huge privilege to be able to say, as I did on a recent Friday afternoon, “I have to leave my desk and take the train into town to see a play!”
That particular play is called Asking For It; is a piece of “verbatim” theatre – that is, theatre composed of interview material gathered, with full consent of participants, by the author and star of the show, Ellie Moon. Its jumping-off point was the media storm surrounding the now-disgraced CBC Radio host and popular member of Toronto’s arts community, Jian Ghomeshi, who between 2014 and 2016 was tried both in a court of law, and in the court of public opinion, for physical violence against women during sexual encounters. (I won’t go over the details of the case here, except to say that it turned out to be a textbook example of how the law treats women in situations like this one; if I had to send you to some sources for a primer, I would choose this one, and this one.)
The promotional image for Asking For It, by Ellie Moon (Nightwood Theatre at Streetcar Crowsnest in Toronto). The image shows a white woman (Ellie), both alluring and fierce, looking into the camera. Her long hair blows gently in the wind. Her neck bears a tattoo that reads “shocking to some”. The background is a sepia tone.
Moon was living in England when the scandal around Ghomeshi broke, but she was back in Canada as a jobbing actor when he went to trial. She found herself, as a result of the issues in the air, wondering about her own sexual preferences, those of others, and why we are not good at talking openly with one another about either sexual pleasure or sexual consent. The show asks: “How do we convey, and experience, sexual consent in 2017?” Using her interview material, transcripts from social media, and her own reflections (as a sexually active woman and a performer in the show) Moon creates a complex image of the ambiguities and ambivalences that shadow what we do and do not want to happen in private sexual encounters, and what we do and do not want to talk about afterward.
It’s a superb show, but why am I talking about it here?
For me, fitness isn’t just about building muscle, climbing hills on my bike, or stretching my aching hamstrings in yoga. It’s not only about eating yummy green things (and yummy chocolate things), getting proper sleep, and trying to drink less. It’s also about feeling safe, feeling joy, and feeling cared for in bed, when I’m not in bed alone. So while, as a theatre scholar, I was struck by the skill evident in Moon’s production and her adept use of the verbatim genre, as a woman interested in fitness and wellness (my own and that of others), I found the show struck some deeper chords.
Social messages these days try to make consent appear very clear-cut: no means no. And it absolutely does. But feeling consent, conveying consent, and expressing the shift from consent to non-consent when you’re deep into it can be a great deal more murky than the prevailing winds want to suggest – which can lead in turn to feelings of confusion and shame for men, women, and those who identify as non-binary alike. This is a large part of what Moon and her co-performers get into during Asking For It, and I found the labour of their honest reflection useful, moving, and also a bit of a relief.
A pink button against a denim jacket reads: “Ask First. Make it Sexy. Consent is sexy. consentissexy.net.”
What happens, for example, when we’ve having loads of fun, but then suddenly, for one partner, something shifts? Whose responsibility is it to stop? How do we stop and not make things “weird”? Why do some of us (usually, women) feel such a need to keep things “light” (rather than “weird”) – and at what cost?
I had this experience not too long ago: I found myself crying into my pillow while my partner was behind me. We had been having fun, and then, suddenly, I was not. I felt such shame; the tears followed. He was unaware of the tears; I was fighting them because I didn’t know whether or not I was still consenting to what was going on, and that was making me even more anxious. (Note: he did not do anything for which he did not have my permission.) I cared about his experience and I didn’t want to hurt him; I also knew he didn’t want to hurt me. Eventually I told him to stop and went into the bathroom; when I returned, we sat and talked it through. After that, everything was absolutely fine.
This is an example of consensual sex working very well indeed – we talked it through; everything was absolutely fine – but it’s also an example of the complexities consent always presents in the moment-to-moment-ness of sexual encounters in the real world. Was it my job to tell him to stop? His to check in with me? Mine to give him signs that problems were surfacing? I have no solid answers to these questions. I think ideally he would have checked when I stopped being responsive, and I would have demonstrated more openly that I was starting to experience discomfort. But I know for certain that neither of us wanted to hurt the other – both of us wanted to consent to pleasure in one another, and we had / we did.
I also have no doubt that I was able to express my growing non-consent, eventually though imperfectly, because I am in my 40s and I now have a strong sense of myself as an independent sexual subject. Had I been in my 20s, and especially myself in my 20s, I’m pretty sure it would not have gone as well.
Which makes me worry a lot about my students.
Then there’s the question of where each partner’s responsibility lies in the acts of asking for, giving, and receiving consent before we even get going. Yes, in heterosexual situations men typically hold the balance of power, and so should always ask to make sure consent is intended (rather than simply assumed on their part). After all, violence in relation to sex is about power: social, historical, and physical.
But power does not always break down along expected gender lines, even in heterosexual situations.
In the sexual relationship I have with the man in the anecdote above, power is surprisingly balanced; we weigh similar amounts and are similarly strong, and our personal identifications (based on gender, ethnicity, race, and class) mean that in some key ways I am culturally more privileged than he is. Further, I initiate our sexual encounters at least as often, if not more often, than he does. Given these factors, I consider it my responsibility to ask his consent before I move too far forward; we do this playfully, thanks to a rapport built up over time (and thanks to our mutually compatible senses of humour).
About three quarters of the way through Asking For It, Moon and fellow actor Christine Horne recreate, for the audience, an encounter from Moon’s research between her and a friend: after a boozy dinner they are on a Toronto bus. Horne’s character tells Moon she should be approaching strangers as well as friends for her project of collecting material for the play, and so Moon goes over (rather reluctantly, and bashfully) to the only other passenger on the bus, a man played by Steve McCarthy. She asks him to talk into her phone about his experiences of asking for and receiving consent; he asks her if she is coming onto him. She says no; she explains the play project and asks again for his feedback. He becomes angry, though not hostile; he is obviously frustrated and feels blindsided. Moon then admits she’s “a little bit drunk”, and he says, “can you imagine if the situations were reversed?” If he approached her on the bus, asked to talk about sex, and admitted to being tipsy? Moon is taken aback; she gets it – that image represents the opposite of the safe situation they are currently in, and they both know it – but she also, at least a little bit, gets the difference. “But I asked you,” she says quietly.
She opened with a request for consent.
I find myself thinking about these issues as a 43-year-old woman who wants to enjoy sex but also to stay safe and healthy and happy in my sexual life. I also find myself thinking about these issues as a feminist, and as a feminist teacher.
I am often asked to explain feminism to others; I don’t mind doing it, because I’ve had a lot of practice. To me, feminism means appreciating and recognizing the privilege our sex and gender identities afford in relation to others, and in conjunction with other forms of privilege or non-privilege our bodies bear.
For me, as for Moon, “feminism” is a word that means “equality”‘; sadly, “equality” is a complex concept, and we seem to be living in a moment that jettisons complexity, too frequently, in favour of the superficial. A lot of the talk around consent is actually fairly superficial: no means no, dammit! Just follow that mantra and you’ll be fine. A lot of the men in Moon’s play know this mantra, but are struggling: they think that checking in, or making sure to ask, is the sum total of their responsibility. OR, they are angry and frustrated that, in the consent game, girls seem to be getting all the joy and none of the struggle.
Yes, no means no. But can everyone say no, really?
What these guys (and, frankly, what a lot of us) miss is that it’s really not that easy, for any of us. Understanding consent as more than a word or two – understanding it as a factor of power imbalances, historical privilege, and the challenges and joys that have arisen as women have become more culturally and economically powerful players in the public sphere – means coming to grips with consent as something that needs to be constantly negotiated between sexual partners, and something that needs to be fulsomely (not superficially) expressed by both parties.
It means recognizing that some of us have more vocal power than others. That some of us feel more free than others to express what it is we want. That some of us fear speaking out, ever, about sexual feeling, because the consequences can be catastrophic.
It means talking through power and privilege, even as we talk about consent.
My last post was about my online dating travails; it tells the story of me learning to cope with the badness of online dating, while finding the goodness in online dating (including the freedom to be many versions of my sexual self – exciting and healthy, though also quite daunting at times).
This post is going to be about something related but very different: finding the time and the space to make new female friends in middle age.
Now, before we go any further, I want to be clear: for me, this issue is intimately related (just like the online dating issue) to my health and wellness, as well as to my fitness. When I think about how I might be fit for purpose in this world – able to carry on in my job, to carry on caring for my parents and my dog, to carry on managing the expectations placed on me by all the stakeholders in my world, and ALSO, FIRST, to carry on taking good care of ME – I think about a lot more than riding my bike or rowing or yoga. All those things matter. But so much more matters, too.
This past weekend was the Women’s March all over the world, and especially in Washington. My colleague (and sometime-contributor here) Alison went to Washington; she filled me in and I was filled with envy. Catherine blogged on the weekend about not going; like her, I made an alternative choice. It wasn’t without conflict, but it was absolutely for me about self-care. I realised I couldn’t march, because I wasn’t in a place to give that much at that moment. So instead I made a joyously selfish and entirely feminist choice: to take care of myself, by reaching out to another, wonderful woman in my life.
I was incredibly moved by Susan’s last post here on the blog, about her daughter and their recent experience shopping for clothes. I decided, after reading it, to send Susan an email thanking her for it and describing how I’d connected to it. Susan and I have been riding a few times before, thanks to Sam, but we’ve not hung out. A few times I have wished we could: Susan’s canoe trips sound TDF, and her dog Shelby is a sweetheart. So this time I was bold: I told Susan what her post had meant to me, and I asked if we could maybe hang out some time.
Susan wrote the kindest email back. In it, she said (and I’m going to take a chance here and say she would not mind me quoting this to you!):
This is just the loveliest thing. I mean, how often do middle age women get emails from other women saying “I want to be your friend?” Possibly never until right now.
And you know, she’s right. We hit a certain age (for me it was my early 20s) and realise that we’re growing apart from the community of young women we’ve (if we are lucky – and I know not all of us are) become attached to and reliant on. Some of us get long-term boyfriends or girlfriends, and our dynamics shift. Then we go to college or uni, sometimes far from one another. Babies come. Or careers blossom. We move around, away. We connect online a bit, see each other sometimes. In the process, of course, we make other friends, but if we are in long-term relationships or have families at home to care for, it becomes harder and less of a priority to connect with those close friends from our past, or even those new friends around the corner. Nuclear family-think sets in – another word for (hetero)normativity.
When I left Canada for a new job in England in 2012, I left a clutch of wonderful female friends behind. I missed them like hell! And when I came back, in late 2014, I left an equally fabulous posse of wonderful women once more. I ache with the loss of them in my daily life. We connect on Skype, but it’s not the same. Even with my best girls just up the highway in Toronto now, it’s hard to stay connected. There are loads of demands on our time, many children now among us, and a two hour drive is a two hour drive…
Last Sunday, I made that drive – to meet up with Susan and walk our dogs along the glorious trails near her house on the Niagara escarpment. We shared a bit about our pasts – partners, experiences, losses – that we didn’t know about one another before. We talked about work and kids. We talked about mental health struggles. We talked about the fog, the sumac, the gorgeous spaces all around us. We shared the pleasures of ambulatory, sensory therapy. We kept on top of the dogs! We got home and Susan gave me a cup of green tea in the most hilarious mug I have ever seen. Then Shelby did some genuinely wicked canine tricks for me.
We agreed we needed to do it again.
I’ve realised recently that I’ve been in the process, for 18 months or so now, of remaking my life. Returning from abroad to an old job and a much-loved house but a very new living and working situation has been at turns familiar and shattering. I’ve not got my bearings yet. I’m still figuring stuff out: who I want to be in the second half of my life; who I’d like to have around me as I grow old; what I want to give my body now, and what I want it to give me in return; who I’d like to have sex with, and who I’d like to spend my nights with; where I want to live – REALLY live. At a distance from some of the people and places that have deeply mattered to me thus far in my life, I’ve at times felt helpless and bereft in the face of these questions.
But I don’t need to be. Because there are so many amazing, strong, compassionate, loving – and did I mention STRONG? – women around me. Like Susan.