After we’d dated for a couple of years, my college boyfriend came up with a game for us to play at bars. He’d wait until we’d had a few drinks and then he’d nudge one of his buddies and say, “Hey, watch this.” He’d stand up, offer me his arm, and walk up and down the narrow length of the crowded bar. He did this to watch the heads turn, at least one guy at each table turning to look at me.
What was my reaction to this little parade, this show of desire? Did I feel uncomfortable, awkwardly on display, perhaps taken down a peg? Hell, no. I ate it up. I loved every last head turn, and I especially loved the effect of serial desire. This was power like I’d never known.
But whose power was it? At the time, I believed it was all mine, blind to the implications of being paraded like a show dog. Blind also to my need for male desire—if those heads turned, then I was something, right? I was what every woman is told, in a thousand small and daily ways, that she should be: desirable. If the heads hadn’t turned, I would have been—what? Less of a woman? Power, then, rested with the men who were watching me: their desire defined my womanhood. Not that they thought of it that way—in fact, they may have felt lessened in my presence, as they were also told, in a thousand small ways, that they should be man enough to capture the attention of a desirable woman. So, I had some power, but it was only skin-deep. And they had some power, but they were probably unaware of it.
That was almost twenty years ago. My days of parading up and down a crowded bar are over, and I am not sorry to see them go. However, despite my belief that I had lost all my mojo to motherhood sometime in my mid-thirties, my days of turning heads are not over. And I am still trying to figure out how I feel about that.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m glad I got my groove back after having two kids and being at the mercy of my own body in more ways than one. I’ve worked hard to lose my pregnancy weight, and I’m working even harder to be a truly fit person. I am striving toward fitness in part because I want to know what being that healthy and strong feels like, but of course my conception of beauty plays a role. And part of me loves it when I see a head turn as I walk by. There’s nothing wrong with that—it is part of how men and women relate. Sometimes it is a woman’s head that turns to look at a man—or another woman, with desire or envy or appreciation. We all notice each other. We’re supposed to.
So why does the attention I get from men make me uncomfortable sometimes, as if I am still that young woman on display in a bar? Because female bodies are on display everywhere, mostly as a form of advertising. And it can be confusing—as a woman of any age—to figure out where the line is between possessing yourself, your beauty and confidence and everything else about you, and being part of the cultural insistence on objectifying the female body.
A case in point: this past winter, after a long round of sickness in our house, during which I cared for children and cooked and cleaned and rarely put on makeup, much less left the house, I decided to wear a dress I’d just bought, one that shows my figure more than most. I wore this dress only for me—to feel like a woman again, after feeling like a mom for so long. I went about my usual mom day, including a trip to Kroger. It is important to note that I was alone—my son was in preschool, and my daughter in elementary school. As far as the world knew, I was just me, not a mom.
During my trip to Kroger, one of the cashiers asked me how I was in that “How you doin’” kind of way. He was respectful, but boldly appreciative in a way that women rarely are with men they find attractive. The moment took me by surprise. Suddenly, this dress and these boots and jacket were getting a reaction—one I’d forgotten to factor in when I put them on. I spent the rest of the day in the dress, and was noticed by other men, including, and especially, my husband.
At the end of the day, I did some thinking. Now that I have my mojo back, I wondered, just exactly how am I going to dress? If I wear something that shows my figure and I get attention for it, am I okay with that? Does it mean I’ve regressed to the time when I invested too much self in male desire? Is there a way to wear something that makes me feel powerfully feminine without giving part of myself away to a culture that says feminine, sexy women are mostly here to make sure we all buy enough diet coke and beer?
The answer, I decided, is in how I walk the walk.
If I am that woman walking through a bar—alone or on a man’s arm—looking for messages about who I am and how I fit into this world, then I might be working it, but I’m not owning it. There are two reasons I—or any woman—might look for these messages. The first, which applied to me when I was a young woman, is insecurity. You can’t quite believe that you will turn heads, so you look to the reactions of others to confirm something about your physical self. The second reason is often linked to the first, and I have been guilty of it as well—vanity. When you walk through the world in vanity, you aren’t wondering if you’ll get those looks: You know you will. While this approach might seem more powerful than insecurity at first glance, it is just as damaging—you are still dependent on others to define something about yourself. And physical beauty, as powerful as it might seem and as celebrated as it is in our culture, will not last. If a woman builds her self-perception on the reactions of others—through insecurity, vanity, or a combination of the two—she is not coming from a place of inner strength, and ultimately it will cost her. If, however, a woman walks through this world knowing exactly who she is, and how her physical self plays a part in who she is, then the reactions of others belong to them, not to her.
I must walk with an awareness of how this culture deals with the female body, but I don’t have to concede myself to it. If I get looks from men, and have a fleeting moment of insecurity reassured or vanity affirmed, I can smile at myself—my continuing insecurity and vanity, my awareness of them, and my ability to affirm myself instead of allowing insecurity and vanity to rule the day—and just keep on moving.
Although I think some women are capable of this level of self-possession at twenty, I certainly wasn’t. And I don’t think I was an exception. It is difficult to know yourself when you have just entered adulthood, and even more difficult to own yourself when you live in a culture that sends you messages about your body before it has fully developed. It’s difficult, in fact, to achieve self-possession as a woman—or a man—of any age. I don’t claim to be a fully self-possessed person one hundred percent of the time. But. I am learning to relax about myself, to accept myself, including my body and just how much I love to wear a great dress. I am learning to put on a dress for me in the morning and keep wearing it for me all day. I can work it, take it out for a spin, retire it—I can do any damn thing I want with it, because it’s mine. It always has been.