“As you know, Mr. Goodwin is not indifferent to those attributes of young women which constitute our chief reliance or our race in our gallant struggle against the menace of the insects. He is especially vulnerable to young women who have a knack for stimulating his love of chivalry and adventure.” -Rex Stout Prisoner’s Base
Believe me when I say you haven’t lived until someone says to you, you know? you’re a very attractive woman but there is nothing sexy about you. For a moment, I felt vindicated. Yes, I thought, I knew it! I was right all along! It really is me! I think I even raised a defiant fist in the air. Were the world populated by women like me, the human race would have lost to the menace of the insects millennia ago and I wouldn’t be sitting here writing and listening the The Heartbreakers I Wanna Be Loved. The more I thought about it, the sadder I felt. Being told there’s nothing sexy about you is like being told there’s nothing human about you, nothing relatable anyway. I realised that everything I’ve ever thought about myself and how men see me was true. At best, I’m one of the guys. At worst, I’m invisible. There is no word to rally around or reclaim. In the thesaurus, the antonyms to sexy are distasteful, disgusting, unattractive, and unsexy. Not exactly terms to build a movement around and rally behind. My friend out in Seattle told me to relish this and take the opportunity to “get my sexy back”. What does that mean, I asked?
Since this episode, I’ve asked countless friends what is sexy? The men in my life told me all of the things I’d heard before: kindness, generosity, intelligence, a sense of humour, confidence, no drama. (The one who said no drama got an earful.) Not one of them told me the obvious things like long hair, great breasts, long legs; because it wasn’t necessary. As one of the guys, I’d heard it all before. What does sexy mean? As for my female friends, one told me sexy is a feeling. Another told me that one morning while in high school she woke up and realised she was “hot”. What’s that like, I asked her? Another told me it was being comfortable in your own skin. I’ve been given all kinds of advice: wear sexy lingerie, wear red, wear clothes that fit, be yourself (because that’s worked so well so far?), make eye contact, wear heels. Once upon a time I was a secure, self-assured woman who didn’t care if men got her or not. The right ones would, I thought. If hope is the triumph of optimism over experience, I have some hope left-some.
When my brother died, my father gravitated to me and my mother gravitated to my sister. I learned how to change a tire, replace a washer in a faucet (when faucets required washers), thread a fishing line through a bobber, put a worm on a hook and take the fish off. He taught me to pitch sidearm and to walk off pain when I was injured in the myriad sports I played. He took me fishing and we went to baseball games. I helped him strip wallpaper and paint the dining room. Measure twice, in more than two places, then cut once. He taught me the metric system. I became, for those years between six and ten, my father’s surrogate son. Then puberty came. My sister told me she envied the attention I got from our father. It’s very easy to romanticise this chapter in my life. I was, for the most part, free of the gender-based restrictions placed on most girls my age. But it wasn’t me he saw, it was his late son. His attention was conditional, based on my ability/willingness to go along with his wishes.
When puberty hit I was handed off to my mother. It was a little like the urchin arriving at the door. My father withdrew almost completely. My life now had rules and boundaries I hadn’t had before. When my mother took me out to by my first bra she told me under no circumstances was my father to see me without a bra. That he could not see me in just my pyjamas, I needed a robe as well. She told me I could not longer sit cross-legged on the couch, particularly around my father. I now had to sit with my legs or ankles crossed. She had me walk up and down the living room with a book on my head. One day when I took the stairs two at a time (something I still do) she had me walk up and down the stairs, one at a time, twenty times. She told me boys, later men, were only after one thing, and it was up to me to be strong and resilient. I needed to be modest and covered. A girl who slept around was damaged goods and was going to end up crazy “like your aunt”. Yet, as I got older the pressure she put on me to be in a relationship was relentless. One day when I was home on break from college, I went to her for a hug and she said I was too old to get love from my mother. I needed a boyfriend. I went in to my father and said, dad mom said I need a boyfriend. He flipped down his newspaper and said, I got along perfectly well without one, flipped up his newspaper and kept reading. Mixed messages. Diametric opposites.
Being dragged into my mother’s feminine world where I wasn’t pretty enough or deferential enough and too independent killed what little self-esteem I had. She gave me a book that may have been called, I Care About Me. On the cover were two very Mormon, blonde, smiling teens. The book talked about nutrition and hygiene and proper conduct and all those things young people are supposed to care about. It didn’t talk about how you are supposed to feel when your parents are trying to force you into diametrically opposing molds. It was at this point that I found two things that probably saved my life: feminism and punk. Feminism and the punk scene allowed me to start getting more comfortable in my own skin. The punk scene was full of misfit toys. And I came of age when Bikini Kill made it OK for me to get up and say I was sexually assaulted AND emotionally abused AND my experience as a young woman was valid. These were the things that gave me the courage to start speaking up and walking away.