Trading Places, or: Why Are You Looking at Me? (h2so4 17)

Anne Senhal reflects on the ways of the gaze and on resistance to categories.

For reasons unknowable to me Mother Nature chose to give me a real “woman’s” body at the age of thirty instead of at the age of, say, seventeen, twenty-four, or, for the horrified few (though I hear their numbers are increasing), thirteen. Up until the big Three-Oh I was a skinny girl, with more of a boy’s body than a girl’s, really. No waist or hips to speak of, smallish breasts, flatish stomach, lean and lanky limbs—all this with no effort on my part to maintain it. Not that I was a tomboy. No, I have always dressed very girl-y (and this—though I resist the tendency we all have to blame our parents for everything—you can blame on my mom, who treated me like a doll for the first three to five years of my life, clothing-wise).

Then, in the space of a year or two, I became hourglass-y, breast-y, “of average size,” and more of a big girl than a skinny girl.

That fast and relatively late transformation has given me insight into a number of our cultural conniptions.

First, and this is no revelation: How sick is it that I am a “big” girl, at 5’5" and 130 pounds? I wear a size large at Betsey Johnson, the original close-to-my-heart designer for the hourglass girl, and some of her dresses, at size large, no longer button across my breasts! And many European designers’ lines (and the trendy New York-ish rip-offs thereof) are cut and sewn with the presumption that people my size must shop at Old Navy or a tent shop.

Second, and this, too, is no revelation: Women still can’t win. A skinny girl is assumed to have an eating disorder and thus is treated as sick, sad, duped by the fashion industry, or too weak to think for herself. A non-skinny girl is assumed to want to be skinny and therefore must be unskinny only because she simply cannot control her eating habits and/or is too lazy to exercise. Or, the story goes, she exercises and diets and nothing works and oh how sad she must be! In sum, we are always “supposed” to be—or are supposed to be wanting to be—other than we are. A skinny girl must want larger breasts. A larger girl must want to be thinner. Oh, if only we could all trade places so that we could want to trade places again!

Third: Did you know that breasts = slut? The body I have now seems to send out messages to other women that I must be out to steal their mate, and to men that I must want to be looked at differently than that skinny girl next to me. If I weren’t scheming at stealing or hoping to be catscanned by strangers’ eyes, I would surely be wearing a tent, would I not? The presence of breasts, after all, creates a force that cannot be resisted, and she who would dare to acknowledge breast-presence must be willing to use that force for evil.

(This schema, of course, is modified when dealing with the lesbian rather than the “straight” world. Still, even amongst the sisters, breasts “say” something about a person, something she can only “not say” by hiding them under a tent, man’s T-shirt, or flattening (as opposed to flattering) “bra of denial.”)

These are things you might rightly be thinking about me just now: This chick is crazy! She thinks everyone is looking at her! Or: she must have some penchant for being on display and needs to be taught how to dress with subtlety! But get this: I don’t like cleavage. I don’t display mine. Post growth-spurt, I modified my wardrobe to include dresses, tank-tops and the like cut straight-across rather than in a V-neck or other more revealing style, have all but given over wearing the fabulous Betsey Johnson Hollywood-style cross-over bra-top dresses and tops, and, though I love clothes and love to dress well, do not dress in a style that one might call “sexpot” (more power to the sisters that do, I must say, given that I, too, love to look at them—and this is where the complaint turns into more of a question, the “why?”, about cultural presuppositions. More on that later...). No, I wear boatnecks, cotton blouses, zip-up hooded cardigans, the aforementioned straight-across cut, and I keep my breasts housed in minimum-jiggle, nipple-dissimulating shield-of-armor bras (not as “punishment” but rather because they are comfortable. They keep it all in place, supported, well-regulated). And still, the looks, the assumptions, the treatment—all different looks, assumptions, treatments from when I was “skinny girl.” Now we can return to the “why?”.

So why do we get the different treatments, and why do we subject others to such treatments, based on something as largely uncontrollable as breast size or body-type? I ask myself why I, too, love to look at the women who display their cleavage, and the answer is: because it is on display. Why not look? But what about when it is not on display but merely just is, a fact of life for that woman, there in her clothes, with friends, or alone, wanting to jog down the street unhindered and devoid of commentary from the outside world, or perhaps wanting to sit at a café and read a book, maybe even to be noticed for her eclectic outfit or the glimmer of intelligence in her eye? What then? Is there no way I can “silence” these breasts you’re reading so that they will not skew the transmission I might otherwise send to you, the outside world? Are they, these breasts, really all it takes to place me into the category which you might label: object?

I look at a beautiful woman and see a beautiful woman, no difference between the hourglass and the lean-n-lanky, except that there are different things about each person that make them beautiful (and different reasons why different people find these different things beautiful, of course). Same as when I see a man who is beautiful and muscular, or beautiful and lean-n-lanky, or beautiful and kinda chubby. Do I think the muscular one is vain and spends too much time in the gym, whereas the chubby one is lazy and tends to overeat? What do I think about Mr. Lean-n-lanky? Perhaps we can’t control what our first thoughts are (perhaps they aren’t even thoughts), or perhaps we can slowly train ourselves to make our thoughts better.... But at any rate I know we can remind ourselves to re-think our “thoughts” after those first “categorical” ideas. We can remember how oppressive all those singular and impossible bodily standards and ideals are, call to mind how much we appreciate the variety offered us by nature, and laugh at ourselves for falling, if only briefly, for the narrow categories offered by prevalent standards and stereotypes.

Because standards and stereotypes are categorizations. They are ways in which we narrow the field of reality in order to allow us to compare similar but not identical things, for the sake of classification, communication, theorization. Not everything about such activity is bad. It is, for instance, a necessary component of language and therefore of communication. But comparisons are, as I said, of similar but not identical things. When it comes down to it, you could start here: I, Anne Senhal, am female. I am caucasian. I have blonde hair and blue eyes. As you know, I’m 5’5”, 130 lbs, in my thirties, with what some would call an ample bozom. I’m a writer, I get paid for copy editing, I’m a member of various professional organizations, and part of the middle class of this so-called classless society. You could spiral out all these categories in which I comfortably might sit, draw your complex Ven diagrams for their overlap, get more and more particular in your classification, but none of it would get you any closer to me, Anne Senhal, at least not in any way I would find valuable. In order to get to me, you’d have to look at me, not the diagram. And you’d have to talk to me, not your idea of me. And you’d have to want me to know you, not the diagram of you, and not the idea you have of yourself, nor the one I might have of you. It’s so much harder that way! you say. But why would you bother with the easy way? (And if you want to do it the easy way, there’s no way I’m trading places with you!)

Here’s another never-ending categorical question: is she straight or gay? Would the answer to that let you “figure out” what I’m saying more than what I’m saying would? Does my sexual orientation matter when it comes to me seeing beauty? I don’t think so, but I know some of you do. So keep on wondering. It is the drive to think in categories that makes all this stuff I’m criticizing happen in the first place—and that is what we ought to resist. Just ask yourself: when you look, do you try to see me? END