Operation Rad Bod is all about feeling good in your body, but in order to get there, it’s important to explore body shame – where we’ve held it in the past, and where it’s being trapped in the body now. So I’m taking you back, way back… to puberty.
A lot of horrifying things happen in puberty, but for some reason, the one that led me to my deepest feelings of body shame was the sudden arrival of hair.
Everywhere. Thick, dark hair, on my arms, legs, underarms, and on a tiny downy trail from my navel to my pubes.
I remember the first time I tried to use a razor. I must have been about 11, and I didn’t know you had to take the cap off. I ran it over my legs the way I’d seen my mom do, taking out the shaving cream I’d richly slathered on. Of course this removed none of the hair I was so loathe to have on my body, but I couldn’t bring myself to ask my family members how to shave my legs. I was already drowning in the shame of it being there in the first place.
For a really long time, I would imagine being like the blonde, lithesome girls whose arm hair glistened so femininely in the sun. In the Euro-centric culture I grew up in, having light hair was synonymous with attractiveness.
“What are you complaining about your body for? You are so skinny!” my friends with thicker thighs would cry. But as the grass is always greener, the body hair always thinner, the butt always cuter on another person. You can never guess what a person is hating about their body, what piece of it is holding all the shame of growing up or growing older.
It didn’t help that the boys in my class were relentless in their teasing. I never let them see that it bothered me, when they called me “Elvis”, because of the sideburn-esque hairs that stayed by my ears when I pulled my hair into a ponytail, when they likened my arm hair to Robin Williams’, or when they noticed the one tiny stray hair on my upper lip. I just came up with a wittier comeback, with a sharper tongue than they could expect. I became too mean to be popular, never playing in their reindeer games. Though my rejoinders were quick and cutting, inwardly I was humiliated. I took to dyeing the hair on my arms, ripping up any upper lip hair with wax, and learned my way around a razor pretty quick.
When I got to college, I was tired of all this body preening. I decided it would be a feminist act to stop covering any acne I had with makeup, and to let all my body hair grow out. After almost a decade of shaving, it grew in coarse, dark, and thicker than any of the boys I knew. I wore skirts and ran around campus feeling the wind in my leg hair, going skinny dipping and enjoying the water flowing through my full underarm hair. I wasn’t actively trying to be “unpretty”, I was attempting to accept the part of my body I hated the most: my virulent hair growth.
During this experimental time, I dressed as Frida Kahlo one Halloween, trying to embody someone who embraced the strength of her unibrow and upper lip hair, rather than rid herself of it. Now, I am embarressed that I ever dressed up as someone from another culture, but as I never did it ironically, rather to see if I could get through an evening accentuating the thing about myself I hated the most in a positive way, I’m forgiving my inner 20 year old.
And at that point, when I had “gross” body hair hanging from everywhere it could possibly grow, is when my husband fell in love with me. I can’t say he wasn’t stoked on the day that I decided to take to shaving again, but it was not the huge disgusting turn-off that it had been for the dudes at my small town high school. He loved me, all of me, hairy or not.
Looking back, I see the hatred for my body hair as transphobia. I was at the very point of having to become something other than a child. I was supposed to be a “woman” — and here I was, with these very un-lady traits. The boys’ shaming tactics were their way of upholding the gender norms, the strict difference between males and females that kept the heterosexist status quo.
As an adult, I celebrate the parts of me that are not completely “femme”. Jung upheld that the highest form of spiritual and psychological growth is a person who can hold within themselves both the male and the female. That is why I believe that transgendered individuals could hold the key to how we can move beyond the patriarchy that is ruining both sexes. Antony Hegarty, in particular, is one of my saints and spiritual teachers. Antony’s song/lecture Future Feminism changed me deeply, helping me to see a new way of being, beyond gendered spirituality.
Sometimes I wonder if all of our body shame is connected to gender shit. I know the shame we ladies feel about our period blood is total misogyny. It is quite incredible that we are able to give birth, and our periods are what make that possible for us. Are they messy, inconvenient, and painful? Yes. But so much of what is meaningful in life is.
Perhaps we could listen to our bodies in this regard, rather than hiding away our “time of the month”, letting it be the brunt of sexist jokes about women in power? Maybe it is the time each month that we are our most animal selves, and this is threatening to our increasingly careful, robotic society.
My friend Kaley said to me recently: “I feel like my life’s work and my biggest art project is the exploration of shame. A lot of my art projects are about shame and my body. I am going through all the things I am told are shameful, the things I have internalized as shameful, the things that don’t feel shameful to me but other people feel shame about, and I face them and see what feelings come up. Last summer I conquered my fear of not shaving my bikini line. This summer I am going underwear-free when I menstruate. I am always exploring my relationship to my cellulite. It’s usually fun stuff when I come at my body as my art project.”
That’s right. You read that correctly. Kaley is bleeding on herself when she menstruates. Going about her business, taking her kid to school, going shopping, driving her car, riding a bike, all without using “feminine hygiene” products.
Photos have been her inspiration for this project. These, by Emma Arvida Bystrom, particularly the person jogging while menstruating, got her “thinking about how we manage bodily fluids. how do we treat snot, spit, ejaculate, blood, pus, and tears differently and why? I know the acceptance i have for my child’s humanness/’messiness’ has definitely affected the acceptance I have for my own humanness.”
While I don’t believe I’m quite ready to join Kaley’s efforts, as I believe she’s at a whole other level of Operation Rad Bod, her experiment (which includes wearing white shorts!) has inspired me.
I’m going to stop being so dang worried about period blood. When I feel that my tampon might be leaking, or that I forgot to put one in, and I might get one drop on the panty liner I’m already wearing just in case, I cannot think of anything else. I become obsessed with remedying the situation, and whether I am in the middle of a bitchin’ dance class, a gratifying adult conversation, or a round of Birdie the Ballerina with my daughter, I rush to the bathroom.
What if I didn’t? What if I explored my horror, sat with it, and considered how embarrassing it would actually be if people knew I was on my period? Blood comes out of clothes. Very few people are staring at my ass and would actually notice. So, I’ve decided to be a bit more zen about my periods, and see what arises.
I got a chance to try this out this past weekend at the Pride Parade. Pride is about gay rights, and here in San Francisco, we were pretty ecstatic about the end of DOMA and the reversal of Prop 8. But Pride is also about letting your freak flag fly, whomever you may be, really being yourself in a way you imagined was shameful or wrong. It’s about the fact that the things you hide away about yourself are probably the most universal, and if you celebrate them instead, you can connect with others.
Anyway, I danced in the Parade, with 90 or so of my favorite dancer friends, on the heaviest day of my period. Anyone who has ever been in a parade knows there is a ton of waiting around and very few bathrooms for a huge amount of people. I was hydrating like crazy because it was a hot day and I had an hour and a half of dancing down Market Street ahead of me. So, I took a couple trips to the Port-a-Potty, but then I decided to put my new Blood Zen into practice, and not worry so much about what was happening in my underwear. There was so much else to see and many dance steps to focus on. In the end, not a drop of blood went astray. There was nothing to worry about, anyway, so I was grateful for this new perspective that didn’t keep me too stressed about my period to participate in such a wonderful expression of life and love for all.
Alright, dear readers, confession time. Let the comments section be the place for each of you to share the part of your body you were most ashamed of in puberty, and where you are at with that today. And if you want to share your thoughts about Kaley’s experiment, feel free, but remember that she is my actual friend so if you just say “Ew, gross”, I am going to ask a bit more of you, to dig a little deeper, into the underlying reasons for your reactions. Body shame is the biggest deterrent to body acceptance, so I’m investigating the sources and rooting them out. It’s a way better use of my time than manic hair removal.