29 Augusti 2002

The sickening grunch

In hopes of salvaging something useful out of yesterday’s fiasco, I’m going to talk about the cloud over “sexy.”

Should define my terms first. I am talking about the social construction of female sexual attractiveness and femininity here. I am not talking about individual women’s public expression of sexuality. That understood (it is understood, right?), let me tell a story or two about “sexy.”

Funny thing about the outfit that sicked the two street-corner bozos onto me. A few years earlier, back at Indiana, I was wearing it, walking through the parking lot of the main campus library with a group of—classmates, I think it was. Yes, we were coming from a research-methods-and-resources session. Anyway, I was talking with another young woman about Irish monastic penitentials or something like that when a couple of guys in a big ol’ car started the wolf-whistle-leer-and-comment-suggestively bit, with particular reference to my breasts.

There it was—the sickening grunch as I landed involuntarily back in my body—and not my entire body, either, but specific parts of it. The conversation was ruined. I felt uncomfortable for being targeted. My conversation partner felt uncomfortable on my behalf, and I think a little devalued as well; being targeted is no fun, but being ignored is no fun too, in its way. Sensing that devaluation, I said something about how it was only because of my clothes; if I had dressed the way my conversation partner had (sweatshirt and jeans), I would have passed unnoticed.

Which was probably true. It didn’t make either of us feel any better, I don’t think. Nor did it help us repair our shattered conversation. We weren’t two students any longer; we weren’t two minds looking for common thoughts. We were two bodies. Bodies don’t talk about Irish penitentials.

Note carefully, by the way, that I wasn’t the only woman in that incident to feel the sickening grunch. The woman I was talking with did, too. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if other women walking near us did as well, to a somewhat lesser extent; I have certainly felt grunched when women near me were the overt grunchees. Judging one woman that way turns every woman in earshot into a body.

(In passing, let me mourn the loss of what had been my favorite outfit. It’s a nice one. I was, and am, very fond of it. I’m sad that I don’t feel comfortable in it any more, that it’s languished unworn in my closet for years now. It’s just a white tank top and a handmade openwork lace blouse from Mitla, Mexico over a broomstick skirt whose dominant colors are white, purple, and the same sky-blue as the lace.)

About the same time, my role-playing group switched from a Robotech campaign to a heavily-munchkinified Dungeons and Dragons campaign. I rolled up a gnome illusionist named Fechan. I intended her to be short, squat, frumpy, grumpy—but boy howdy, could she ever sling magic.

It is said, usually by people who want an excuse to laugh at gamers, that gamers use games to try to inhabit the ideals that they themselves fall pitifully short of. Said ideals are usually thought to be shallow, Muscleboy or Superbabe. Well, there’s a grain of truth there—not a few gamers are hunting ideals. I was. I wanted Fechan to earn regard with intelligence and skill. I wanted her to be so secure in her abilities that her ugliness wasn’t even a question, never mind a problem. She was meant to be so good at what she did that sheer ability outshone everything else about her.

And then the (male, natch) GM insisted that Fechan have god-level charisma (only he didn’t like the Charisma stat, so he went ahead and called it “comeliness”).

Grunch.

Not even in a game, an explicitly unreal world, could I get away from the ironclad expectation that women have a place on the sexiness continuum.

I ran with it. I really did. I turned Fechan from a fairy-tale witch into a little china doll. I subverted the living daylights out of the situation, and Fechan became one of my all-time best characters. But from the day I first played her to the day I wrote my last bit of fluff about her (long after the campaign ended), the hallmark of her personality was her utter disregard for her own beauty. It was as close as that GM allowed me to get to my ideal.

This same GM was driving me and two other participants (one male, one female; the female participant was the GM’s girlfriend) somewhere early in the school year when the talk veered to new acquaintances. The other guy in the car mentioned a young Asian woman he’d just met.

“Fuckable?” asked the GM, utterly out of the blue.

“Yeah, I would say so. Not, like, gorgeous or anything, but fuckable,” said the other guy.

GRUNCH.

Multiple experiences of the sickening grunch—not just once, not just twice, but over and over again, as grunchee and as witness—is what makes it so damned hard to take when “sexy” and similar social constructions of femininity haul my body unceremoniously into the conversation when it is utterly irrelevant to what’s going on. And whether I want it to be or not. I don’t control the conversation about my body. I can’t, except perhaps by throwing temper tantrums on the scale of yesterday’s.

Not even on the Internet, where nobody’s supposed to know or care that I’m a dog. All the folks waxing rhapsodic about escaping their bodies on the ’net are men. Without exception (that I’ve found, anyway), women who write on the topic are less rhapsodic, more troubled. They know they can be grunched, driven involuntarily back into the sexual parts of their bodies from what is supposed to be a realm of the mind and spirit. What woman on the ’net hasn’t been?

Much is made of women’s hatred of their bodies, and rightly so. My own track record in this regard is not sterling, Mung knows. I don’t know that I’ve often heard it said, though, that the damage is not just due to impossible standards of attractiveness—it’s due to not being able to escape one’s body, attractive or no. Not being able to escape being judged by one’s body. Not being able to escape being aware of one’s body and how other people react to it.

Yet for me, that inability to escape my body is far more troubling than the actual judgments of others regarding it. Yeah, I’m nobody’s pinup, so what? If that fact could remain unregarded, firmly in the background of my conversations, of my blog, of my work, of my walks down the street, I’d be happy. But it can’t, because the world around me refuses to let it.

As I told Mike in email this morning, I have a couple of Peruvian coworkers who are justifiably wog-boggled by race checkoff boxes on American employment forms and whathaveyou. They just don’t think of race in those terms, and find it borderline insulting to be forced to check off a box when they feel (correctly, IMO) that the whole basis for judgment is ludicrous.

That’s where I am on “sexy,” sometimes even on “female.” I don’t like the checkboxes available; I don’t really want to be judged on that axis at all. Yet I can’t get away from it, any more than my coworkers can escape American concepts of race (since they don’t want to leave).

Makes it hard for men, I know it does. Hard for women trying to reclaim “sexy” for their own purposes, too. What is, say, Gretchen Pirillo supposed to think of me? That I’m jealous? That I hate her because she’s beautiful? I’m not, and I don’t. It’s just that how she constructs herself involuntarily (involuntarily; I want to stress that) makes me vulnerable to judgment on a standard I don’t want any part of.

I don’t have an answer to all this, and after yesterday it would be highly presumptuous of me to get all prescriptivist on folks anyway. All I’m trying to do is offer some data points to explain why I and a lot of other women have a hair trigger when it comes to the word “sexy.”