Tag Archives: body image

When I happen to catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror these days, I have the odd sensation of not recognizing myself at first. Then, when I realize the person I am looking at is me, I have this overwhelming sense of disgust. I’ve been struggling with my weight for about four or five years. Actually, when I really think about it, I’ve been struggling with my weight for about a decade, however, I’ve been losing the struggle for about four or five years. At first, I was able to keep my weight down by exercising more. However, when I got to the point that I was exercising an hour and a half a day, I realized that simply adding more exercise was no longer an option. Making matters worse, I don’t actually like exercising. I’d finish exercising feeling like I hated myself, hated the world, hated my life. Why, I would ask myself, I was trying to stay in good health to prolong a life I hated? Anyway, a bout of tendonitis a year ago did prove that I’d reached the point where increasing my exercise was no longer an option.

I should probably add, before I go farther, that I’m not looking for diet or exercise advice. That’s always the danger when you bring up this subject. Every self-righteous asshole wants to lecture you about what to do. Frankly, I’m probably smarter than the people looking to lecture me (Who’s the self-righteous asshole now?), I’m perfectly capable of doing research and have done so in order to maximize my efforts. If I want advice, I’ll ask. And in the past I have. I worked with personal trainers on a couple of occasions to develop exercise routines. I’m not dismissing professional advice. It’s just that I’m not looking for it at the moment. I want to talk about how I feel about my body.

So, it’s taken a long time, but I’ve finally accepted the reality. No matter what anyone says, as I’ve aged my metabolism has slowed down. Thyroid tests come back fine and I’m in pretty good health otherwise, so I’m not really worried. It used to be something of a truism that your metabolism slowed down as you aged. People don’t seem to say that anymore. I don’t know if it’s actually been disproven. However, I have heard people say things like people shouldn’t be told that their metabolism is slow because it will give them and “excuse” to be fat. Oddly, since I’ve come to terms with the idea that my metabolism is not what it used to be, I’ve finally lost some weight. I just said to myself, “Look, you can’t eat like you used to.” I’ve stopped trying to eat in the manner that experts would consider “healthy.” The truth is, I eat a lot less.

As I mentioned, I’m still in reasonably good health. I am officially overweight according to the doctor, but I probably wouldn’t stand out of crowd on account of it. I just come across as a sort of dumpy middle-aged woman. You probably wouldn’t notice me at all. The thing that causes the disgust when I look in the mirror is not so much that I look fat as I look matronly. It’s not simply a matter of attractiveness. It’s a matter of self-image, self-conception.

You see, I’ve always seen myself as being a little bit androgynous. This was long before talk about gender identity was commonplace, and I don’t know quite how this fits into that, if at all. Still, I’ve always felt that I wasn’t a typical girly-girl. I wasn’t a tomboy either. Although I never had a truly boyish figure, I wasn’t really curvy either, and I’d wear a lot of menswear. Actually, my buttocks were too big to fit into things actually cut for men, so I’d look for “menswear” inspired women’s clothes. The seventies had been a heyday for androgynous clothes, but they were usually of the casual sort. I found that I was far more influenced by the figure of the male dandy.

I never tried to pass as a man and it was only rarely that I’d be mistaken for one. When I was younger, it came across as Marlene Dietrich. Now, I’m afraid I look like one of the guests in the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

So, now, I’m somewhat conflicted. I look far better in dresses and more feminine things than I used to. But now, what I look good in, and what my personal taste is are totally different. My sister tells me that I should wear what I like and to hell with trying to look pretty. My mother tells me I look fat.

I was looking at fall 2016 runway photos, trying to get some ideas for future sewing projects, and I saw this:

Animal print suit by Dries van Noten

I would so absolutely love to wear this. Of course I can’t afford it and my sewing skills are not to the point where I can copy it.

After having successfully made my pants and a shirt to go with them, I’m now looking at my next project. I’ve been dying to work with neoprene. It was the trend last summer, but I didn’t quite get it since it seemed too warm to me for summer. Now with fall coming, however, I want to make something out of it. I was going to make a sheath dress. I wanted to put a big black zipper down the front as a sort of nod to scuba suits. However, when I was looking for an appropriate zipper, I came across this:

rhinestone zipperSo, I guess it’s going to be a little less sporty.

Yesterday, I came across a blog post in which someone “as a father” wrote that he was disappointed in Nicki Minaj because, by showing the cheeks of her buttocks on the cover of her new single (Do they even have “covers” for “singles” nowadays?) she is a bad role model for little girls like his own.

Nicki Minaj? A role model? Guy, have you been sleeping under a rock? Forget the buttocks, have you heard the lyrics?

Big dope dealer money, he was getting some coins

Was a shooter with the law, but he live in a palace

Bought me Alexander McQueen, he was keeping me stylish

from “Anaconda” by Nicki Minaj

Now, I don’t want to act like I’m a humorless old lady and pretend that I don’t know that this is art, fiction, creative writing and is not meant to encourage young people to become criminals any more than a Jim Thompson novel, and I take it in a similar vein as adult entertainment. Her foul-mouthed persona is nothing new. Unlike some other current musical stars, she was never on a children’s show. She’s more like a classic case of someone who worked hard for years to become an “overnight sensation.” Meanwhile, one of her most innocuous songs, “Starships”, has a repeating line, “We’re higher than a motherfucker.”

Jump in my hooptie hooptie hoop

I own that

And I ain’t paying my rent this month

I owe that

But fuck who you want, and fuck who you like

That’s our life, there’s no end in sight

– from “Starships” by Nicki Minaj

I confess, if I was still in my club hopping days when this song came out, I would have really enjoyed dancing to this. Another one of her more popular songs had the following line:

He just gotta give me that look, when he give me that look

Then the panties comin’ off, off, uh

– from “Super Bass” by Nicki Minaj

(Just spoke to my mother on the phone. “Oh, Nicki Minaj, I like her. She has some dirty lyrics though.”)

I mean, come on folks, we’re talking about someone who’s known for signing her fans’ tits.

Nicki told The Sun: “I think boobs are very empowering – and signing them is even more empowering. I’ve been doing it for years.”

She then added: “Wherever I go, I sign boobs!”

On the subject of being a role model, she said to Ellen DeGeneres, “I’m not their parents.” She also said that she writes for an adult audience. Where did this notion that every actor, singer and rapper has to be a role model? Did anyone worry that Mick Jagger was not a good role model for young people back in his heyday? Or Frank Sinatra for that matter?

So, why do I care? In her new song, “Anaconda,” we hear a female voice, it doesn’t sound like Minaj, but she’s trained as an actor and is known for doing different characters so I can’t be sure. This catty voice with a valley girl accent says, “Oh my God, look at her butt.” I know that tone and I’ve heard those words. I’m also aware that while women are often telling me that my ass is too big, heterosexual men seem to think it’s fine. However, the apparent approval of heterosexual men has never stopped women from being catty to me about my “big butt.”

We talk so much these days about having a positive body image, so why all the body shaming being tossed at Minaj? A few months ago, when I saw an article about Taryn Brumfitt and her desire to make a documentary that changes the way women feel about their bodies, I thought to myself, “That’s nice, but will it work?” We can say all we want that girls should have a positive body image, but what will actually accomplish that? As a woman with a big butt that has been told many times how I should feel ashamed of it, I think Minaj’s song could do more good than all the lectures. Yes, it’s irreverent, and that’s part of the point. Maybe we all need a song that celebrates the body part the media tells us we’re supposed to be ashamed of, whichever one that might be for us.

Large busted women have discussed the stereotypes and insults thrust on them. The ass is considered such a demeaning part of the body, women with “good” asses are not even allowed to discuss it, even though I’ve had strangers in bars think the size and shape of my ass alone is an invitation to give it hard slap. When I was young, this happened so often I never even really gave it much thought. It was just something you accepted as the price of going out.

So, fathers, the thing you really need to worry about is whether or not your daughters will grow up to hate their bodies, a much more common problem than being a sexy rap star.

(I’ll just add a sour note here that Minaj does men no favors with the “Anaconda” reference.)

A painting of a woman from the back.

I can relate.

Two years ago, a doctor in an emergency room officially diagnosed me with depression. For me, it was hard to say at what point the usual negative feelings we feel all at times slid into what could fairly be characterized as clinically depressed. I was in my mid-forties and I had long before been diagnosed with anxiety, although I didn’t take that too seriously. I had seen psychologists, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals for what had been, for most of my life, mild symptoms. I was an underachiever, easy to anger, low self-esteem… these things were comparatively mild, but I did feel that they were enough beyond average imperfections to hamper me in life. There were days when I wondered if there was really nothing wrong with me but living in an environment where an individual’s self-worth was almost entirely based on achievement. Then again, I had difficulty maintaining relationships. So, I sought professional help. We explored various possibilities, all of which were eventually eliminated except for anxiety and episodes of anhedonia. Although the possibility of clinical depression was raised on several occasions, my symptoms always seem to fall short of being diagnosed with that.

Flash forward a few years…

As some point that’s hard to identify, I began sliding into a depression. Now, I wonder whether or not I have always had a proclivity, but I can confidently state that my recent depression is qualitatively different that previous times when I felt unmotivated. In the past, when I’ve felt myself sliding into a funk, I’d kick myself in the ass, as people like to say. I’d exert my willpower to eat better and exercise more and make sure that I got good quality sleep, some time out in the sun during the day, I would do some meditating, and in general engage in all those good, healthy habits intended to make you feel better. Since I already had a lifestyle most people would consider healthy, during a period like this I’d be a veritable model of clean living. Usually, after a few day, my funk would lift. Was it what I did or just the passage of time? I don’t know.

This time it was different. No amount of kicking myself in the ass was making me feel better. This time, seeking professional help, I knew something was seriously wrong. However, since I had moved, I had to seek out a new therapist. I had a hard time finding one. Once I did, I found I had a hard time convincing him just how serious my problem was. I felt like I wanted to die. I didn’t have a plan to kill myself, but I really, really wanted to somehow just fade from existence. I could barely do the dishes. Always an untidy person, my apartment became shockingly messy and disorganized to the point that I had more and more problems just functioning. I continued to apply my usually de-funking habits, especially the dieting and exercise because now I was beginning to put on weight. I exercised for an hour and a half a day instead of my usual hour. I kept a diary of everything I ate with a goal of twelve hundred calories a day, which I most succeeded in doing, and I never broke down and “binged.” That just isn’t a habit of mine. I was using the same nutrition reference I had used for a number of years. My weight stayed stubborn, my lack of motivation continued, and I still felt like I wanted to lie down and be swallowed by the earth never to be seen again.

If I can judge by what other people have told me about themselves, my normal diet is a bit healthier than the average. Since I was not athletic as a teenager, I started exercising for health at a young age and as an adult I continued, and added to, that routine. In terms of drug use, I tried cocaine once and didn’t like it. I’ve probably smoked pot a good twenty or thirty times. I didn’t drink in high school, nor did I drink regularly in college, but I do recall getting drunk at parties a few times, falling-down drunk only once, usually just thoroughly tipsy. In my twenties, I was something of a weekend drinker, having several beers while listening to bands. Around the time of my depression, I had long since settled into a habit of drinking wine with dinner a couple of nights a week and my social life no longer contained weekends with lots of alcohol. In short, I think my use of mind altering substances has been rather minimal. Alcohol would be the only one I’ve used regularly, and that was never out of control and have never even briefly wondered if I had a problem. If I feel that I’ve been drinking too much, usually due to the calories not the inebriation, I just cut back. It’s never even felt like an effort.

For much of my life, I’ve had people compliment me for my willpower, for my ability to say no to unhealthy foods that taste good, for the regularity with which I exercised, for the fact that I was self-employed and could arrange my own schedule and stick to it without anyone reminding me. So, when I first started seeking help for my depression, which wasn’t yet diagnosed, when I found therapists telling me to exercise, eat well and try to work harder, I was flabbergasted at first. Then I became frustrated when I realized that that was about all the help that was on offer.

What I was feeling was that I had done all the “right” things my whole life, and there I was in my mid-forties, single, back in school for the fourth or fifth time trying to make myself employable, with no social life, and just finding little to enjoy in life. I had already experienced in my attempts at online dating that a failure like me is examined for what I’ve done “wrong.” Now, obviously I’ve made mistakes or I wouldn’t be in this situation, but I haven’t made any of the big, obvious mistakes. Suddenly, I found that I was under suspicion of possible drug use, excessive drinking, loafing, a lack of self-discipline and so on. After all, we live in a meritocracy so I must somehow have been lacking in merit. Throughout my late thirties and early forties, I’d been in a cycle of trying harder and continuing to fail. As I expressed it at the time, “I feel like my wheels are spinning and I’m going nowhere.”

The inherent unfairness in life is not great, but I could live with it and alone it wouldn’t make me depressed. However, the general attitude that if you’re not a success it’s because there’s something wrong with you and the chilling effect that had on my social life was a problem. I began dreading social situations that involved meeting new people because of the question, “What do you do for a living?” It’s a bit old-fashioned these days, but growing up I was told that that was an impolite question. I can understand why it was once seen as rude. Worse yet, I started feeling that I didn’t know what to do. You know what they say about doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results… Well, that was the place I was at. I wanted to improve my social life, my work life, my love life, but I didn’t know how. All the recommendations from other people were things I’d been doing my whole life and which had failed to get results. This is when my lack of motivation started. I had gone back to school, yet again, in hopes of getting something of a career going while I still had enough years left in my life to enjoy it. I found that I no longer had any confidence that this would yield any results. I was doing more of the same and I started to ask myself why I was expecting different results this time.

So when I started to see a therapist and he suggested that I exercise, diet and get myself back in school, it felt like a slap in the face. It felt like an insult to my entire life as a good, clean-living, disciplined person who had done all the right things. Worse yet, I felt as if he wasn’t listening to me. I felt as if I had wasted my entire life doing things I hated in order to please other people, in order to be seen as worthy in this society.

A few months later I would ask some police to take me to the hospital, which they did and where my symptoms were finally taken seriously. (Much thanks to all the helpful people in the emergency room at Bergen Pines.)

Well, all that is the necessary preface to understand what I have to say. A few days ago, in the wake of my more recent crisis, I found myself saying to someone that I hadn’t learned coping skills for living with depression. After I wrote that in an email, I started searching for information on the internet. What I found reminded me that I had done this search two years ago after I got out of the hospital with my diagnosis and I remembered why I abandoned the effort. The advice was mostly diet, exercise, meditate, don’t drink too much, don’t take drugs, get out and socialize, do some creative work, all the damn things I’ve spent my entire life doing from adolescence onwards, and most of which I fucking hate. I’m going on fucking fifty and I feel like I’ve spent my entire life doing what other people have told me I should do. I hate exercising, truly hate it. For much of my adult life I’ve exercised an hour daily, assuming the occasional missed day, realistically that’s about five hours a week or two hundred and sixty hours a year. I spend two hundred and sixty hours a year doing something I truly hate. One of the bit of evidence contributing to my “anhedonia” was when my doctor asked if I enjoy food. Of course I don’t enjoy my food. I’m on a fucking diet. I’ve been on a diet since I was twelve. I could enjoy food, but I don’t eat anything that’s enjoyable to eat. I’ve never not enjoyed a pile of quality french fries, but I almost never ate them. They’re fattening. I don’t actually enjoy meditating either. I can’t say I hate it, but I’ve only ever done it out of a sense of obligation, the idea that meditating might make me a better person. Maybe, but then again who knows. Remember that anxiety I mentioned earlier, well a lot of that is social anxiety. I find socializing with strangers to be very draining. It’s difficult and not enjoyable. As far as the creative work, what can I say, may I laugh in the face of people of the good people who make that suggestion. Not only was I doing all these things during my slide into a depression, I swear that these were the behaviors that made me depressed. When I hear these suggestions, I get a crazy thought in my head I that I want to take an exacto knife and carve into my flesh little hatch marks for each day I spend living someone else’s idea of a good life, like a prisoner in a medieval dungeon. Then I remember that the only person I would be hurting would be myself.

I wish all those well-intentioned people with their good advice would just acknowledge that they don’t have a fucking clue. One thing that irks me is realizing that I could diet and exercise and get thin, find a guy who I don’t really like that much but would be willing to play the role of boyfriend, find a job that still wasn’t a career but at least satisfied other people that I was “trying,” and be not one iota happier, still be wishing that I could die, but if I did all those things no matter what kind of internal pain I was in a therapist would think we were making progress.

Anyway, I’m going to publish this and then put on my sneakers and go for a jog, not because I like jogging but because I desperately don’t want to feel depressed anymore and despite the fact that I believe it doesn’t work I can’t quite bring myself to stop doing it because who am I to disagree with all the supposed experts. That will be about an hour and twenty minutes wasted doing something I hate on the off-chance it will help.

Also, I would like to kindly ask that no one comment unless you feel that you can relate to where I’m coming from, as they used to say back in the seventies.

I’ve been trying to read Eliot Rodger’s, the Santa Barbara shooter’s, 140 page suicide note. In the year following the Newtown Massacre, there were at least 16 mass shootings, defined by the FBI as killings involving four or more people. Since the shootings in Santa Barbara there has been another mass killing in Florida. (H/T Skip Intro at Little Green Footballs.) Only a small portion of these capture the public’s imagination. For that reason, I wanted to write about it, but I felt that before I did so I should do my homework and, among other things, read the long autobiography the killer left behind. Doing the necessary background work has taken more time than I expected and the final result will probably come in two parts, one addressing the autobiography and another addressing the public’s reaction. Interestingly, the event seems to have functioned like a Rorschach test with various commentators projecting their own preconceived notions on the event.

In the meantime, I thought I would put up a few random thoughts.

Needless to say, I have abandoned my attempt to help my mother get into better shape. Her doctor has said that it’s necessary for her health and that was why I was willing to make such a big effort to help her in the first place. Unfortunately, the usually mother/daughter relationship dynamics kicked in and were exacerbated by the fact that we were spending so much time together. She seemed to forget that I was there for her sake, not mine. However, since I got on the exercise and diet kick, I’ve decided to continue it on my own. I guess one good thing came out of those two weeks was that I’ve started going to the gym again. It’s always, for me, the first couple of weeks that are the toughest. My first day back I was barely lifting any weight at all. At my peak I was bench pressing about sixty pounds (slightly more than 27 kg), which was about half of my weight, so doing curls with a twenty pound barbel was a little frustrating. When exercising cardio workouts are only one part of what I do because I really need to feel that it’s about health and overall fitness, not appearance. The looks-weight-health equivalency is something I really try to avoid, although subconsciously I’m subject to the same incorrect assumptions as most people in this culture.

I was looking in the mirror to make sure my form was correct and I couldn’t help notice that I looked like I had a ridiculously little pinhead on top of my body. Most of my adult life, I’ve kept my hair very short, although being a lazy slob it often is an outgrown shaggy mid-length mop. Since I gained weight, I’ve really been struggling, not just with a loss of prettiness, but with a shift in my self-image. For instance, I’ve always seen myself as being somewhat androgynous and have always incorporated lots of menswear, frequently actual men’s clothing picked up in thrift stores, like my favorite red satin smoking jacket, into my wardrobe. Once upon a time I looked kind of cute in that. However, now that I’m heavier, feminine dresses are more flattering to my figure. I feel between a rock and a hard place. What is flattering doesn’t fit my personality, or so I feel. More recently, I felt that it would be mentally healthier to dress in a way that suits my taste and to hell with whether or not I look attractive. For instance, I’ve been wearing more pants even thought I think I look dumpier. So when I was in Paris last year I walked by a salon and saw a photo that looked like the kind of haircut I liked when I was young and could wear anything I chose. I walked in and said, “I want that.” Humorously, I later read some text under it that said that it was a “retro-style” meant to evoke the eighties. Dang.

This morning, when I walked into the bathroom and saw my short hair plastered against my head, I remembered the pinhead look in the mirrors at the gym. I know that once I take a shower and fluff it up it won’t look quite so bad. This led to a bit of musing about my appearance. Short hair like this can actually look stylish when I’m fully made up, however when dressed down I look like someone who doesn’t care. Somehow this put me in mind of dating. For a while, when I had a profile up on a dating site, I got so many emails from men saying that they liked women who wore high heels that I added to my profile that I don’t wear them. After that, I started getting notes from men saying that they liked the “type” of woman that wore jeans and flip-flops. This made me equally frustrated because I’m not a type. Sometimes I dress up and sometimes I dress down. Some days I’m somewhere in between. I’m still the same person. I’ve had boyfriends in the past who have significantly preferred one version of me more than the other. It’s frustrating because I want to have both modes.

So, I’m headed out to the grocery store. I probably won’t put gel in my hair or blow it out, although I’ll probably fluff it a little with my fingers. I’ll put on some causal pants, my sneakers and whatever short-sleeved shirt is clean at the moment and I’ll look like the type of woman that goes to the grocery store, which is inevitable for all of us who are not the type of woman who has a full-time housekeeper. At another moment, I’ll be the type of gal who takes photographs while wearing practical clothes with lots of pockets that I picked up from REI. Sometimes I’m the type of gal who wears gym clothes while lifting weights. Or I’m the type of gal with a full face of make-up, dainty shoes and fashionable dress in a trendy restaurant. All of these things are me. I’m even a blogger in a bathrobe sometimes.

It’s probably inadvisable to keep putting up these diary-like posts, but body image and the shame associated with it are not anything therapists will actually talk to you about. All they will do is give you pills because it must be a “chemical imbalance” because this isn’t a “real” issue. Still, I find the subject almost impossible to escape. At the same time I feel guilt and shame, shame on top of shame, for even being concerned about it. I say to myself, “People are starving in the world how can you possibly worry about being too un-thin.”

I’m going to use the word “un-thin” because it’s important to recognize that I’m not talking about a health issue but an aesthetic one. I haven’t weighed myself in a while because it makes me feel bad, but since my clothes fit the same way I can pretty much assume my weight hasn’t changed much over the past couple of years, which means that I’m just a little bit above the top of the recommended weight on the doctor’s height/weight chart. In fact, I might be an ideal weight in terms of life expectancy. I’ve be criticized in the comments for calling myself “dumpy”, but I think that’s the most accurate description to give readers an idea. I’m not fat and I happen to be short and only have average curves, so I’m not curvy or zaftig.

I’m wondering how much withdrawing from the world is necessary to keep myself on an even keel, at least for a few days until I feel better. Anyway, today I came across an article about an opera singer. I happen to like opera. I can’t sing myself. I have volume, but there’s something about my voice that is just ugly. Too deep for a woman and a little gravely. Actually, I sound a lot like Marianne Faithfull. The first time I went to see an opera I was just amazed that sounds like that can come out of a human body. I was totally and utterly enchanted. I haven’t seen half as many operas as I would like because it’s entertainment for a class to which I wasn’t born, and now I live in a town without an opera company. I used to like the New York City Opera and am incredibly saddened by its closure. Its audience has been driven out of the city by rising rents. On the one hand, it might have been inadvisable to click on an article with “sexism” in the title, but it also had the words “opera singer” in the title.

As anyone who’s read my last few posts knows, I’ve had a great deal of difficulty lately with a low sense of self-worth. I should mention that it is not my own set of values that is the primary problem but the sense of occupying a low space on the social hierarchy. My psychiatrist doesn’t understand why I care what other people think. It seems to me that that’s more than a bit myopic on his part and an easy thing to say for a man who occupies a fairly enviable position in his profession. However, as I see it, human beings are social animals. Our location in the social hierarchy is integral to our sense of well-being. This is a cruel fact, but a fact nonetheless. However, we have multiple, overlapping social environments. We go to work or school, sometimes both. We have lovers and friends. We have our families. Frequently we have other groups to which we belong due to our interests. We may be low in one environment, but high in another. While we may feel devalued by the broader society, we may at the same time feel highly valued by our friends and families which offsets that. I’ve complained quite a lot about my social isolation. Needless to say, I don’t have those friends that can make you feel valued despite feeling devalued by the larger society.

I haven’t had a boyfriend in a few years, but I’ve stopped trying to meet men. Although I know that I’m not so heavy that no men would find me attractive, most ways that I can think of to meet people put me in a position in which I have to open myself to emotionally difficult exchanges. A few years ago, back when I had a profile on a dating site, a man wrote and asked me my weight. I wrote back, “135 pounds.” He was no longer interested. This is of course just one example that happened to be very clear. I got quite a few inquiries that asked about my weight, my body shape, how recent my photos were. In fact, I never put up photos that were more than a year old, however I was accused of lying about that. If these questions were coming from hunky men with whom I had nothing in common, it would be less discouraging. Frequently, these were the obsessions of men older than I was who had put similar interests in their profiles. It all just reinforced the sense that a woman’s only value lies in her appearance.

When I bring up my sense of worthlessness as it relates to my appearance and weight to therapists, they recommend dieting and exercise, as if that wouldn’t have occurred to me. What I would like it to develop a sense of self-worth that isn’t as fragile, that a change of ten pounds in one direction or another can have such a significant effect. Yet, try as I might, my self-esteem seems to be closely linked to my appearance, particularly my weight. For that reason, there was something especially discouraging about seeing the article about Tara Erraught.

A young woman in a sweatsuit.

Tara Erraught

Opera singers are rare people. It requires a combination of both natural abilities and lots of hard work. Acting, to use another performing art as a way of contrast, requires mainly hard work. A great many people have the natural prerequisites, so requiring an actor to be both capable and handsome is not a tall order. Even still, given the chance to see a good-looking bad actor and an ugly good actor, I’ll opt for the latter, however we don’t often have to make that choice. In Opera, frequently we do.

Two photos of Deborah Voigt, one very heavy and another about average.

Deborah Voigt before and after gastric bypass surgery.

There’s been a growing complaint about opera becoming more focused on looks and less concerned with ability since Deborah Voigt was fired by the Royal Opera House in London for not looking the way the director would like in “a little black dress.” At the time, Anthony Tommasini wrote:

The Royal Opera is not just replacing one of the leading dramatic sopranos of the day with a little-known German singer (Anne Schwanewilms). It is replacing the greatest living interpreter of this demanding Strauss role. Ms. Voigt first came to attention in a 1991 production of ”Ariadne auf Naxos” with the Boston Lyric Opera. I was there. Her triumph was total. The audience was awestruck.

Furthermore, as Joshua Kosman wrote in SFGate,

It isn’t just that Voigt is one of the great lyric-dramatic sopranos of our time, and that Ariadne is her signature role — though that alone should have sufficed. San Francisco audiences have to think back no further than the fall of 2002 to recall how stupendous Voigt can be in the part.

It’s that Voigt’s artistry encompasses more than just a magnificent set of pipes. She’s a superb singing actress — expressive, responsive, witty and deeply intelligent. And although she’s overweight, she moves onstage with utter elegance and poise.

However, in that  same article Kosman also says:

Have we really reached the point where only the slim or the beautiful (the two terms are far from synonymous) need apply? Does artistic prowess now count for less than comeliness? Must every other consideration be subsumed to the visual?

Well, no — although some of the rhetoric that has been thrown around recently has tended toward such apocalyptic extremes.

No sudden apocalypse perhaps, but rather a creeping change.

Tomassini, in discussing the implications of Baz Luhrmann’s Broadway production of La Bohème in 2002, traces the beginning of this trend to a much earlier date:

The operating assumption of this [Luhrmann’s] approach is that opera remains an anachronistic performing art, in which tubby singers who can hardly move portray young heroes and tubercular heroines. Even in Ms. Tebaldi’s day, this was an unfair generalization. The visual component of opera has increased in importance since the late 1970’s, when live television broadcasts from the Met started attracting millions of viewers. Today, opera houses routinely recruit bold directors from theater and film (like Mr. Luhrmann), and many younger singers are as beholden to personal trainers as to vocal coaches.

The article is worth reading in its entirety. However, it should be noted that this attempt to make opera appeal to a broader audience in fact lost money, so the notion that audiences actually would prefer beautiful singers and would result in opera becoming a popular art form is not necessarily correct.

Deborah Voigt underwent gastric bypass surgery, lost over one hundred pounds and was allowed to appear before English audiences.

Now, a decade later, a new scandal has erupted over another opera singer and her weight, in another opera by Strauss performed in England, no less. This time it’s Tara Erraught who sang the role of Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier at the Glyndebourne Festival, an opera festival in East Sussex, England. This time, it wasn’t the director who complained of her weight. She did perform. It was the critics who complained. Andrew Clements writing for The Guardian, Michael Church in the Independent, The Telegraph‘s Rupert Christiansen and Andrew Clark in the Financial Times were all far more concerned with her appearance than with her voice. The photograph of Erraught accompanying the Salon article showed only her face. My morbid curiosity immediately made me search for other images of her. Scroll down her Facebook page where she has posted many pictures of herself. It’s not an apocalypse, but it is a creep. Erraught appears to me to be no less thin now than Deborah Voigt after her gastric bypass surgery, possibly thinner. It would seem to me that the standards for women opera singers’ appearance have gotten stricter.

This distresses me on a few different levels, not the least of which is what this could mean for opera if these critics are taken seriously by the people who run opera companies.

In an attempt to be fair to the critics, I did read their actual reviews. The complaint about Erraught’s appearance seemed least jarring in the review in The Guardian, probably because the critic seemed to be unenthused about the production overall, calling it “brittle and sometimes mechanically shallow, with real emotion in short supply.” Also, by using the phrase “this stocky Octavian” it seems less a criticism of Erraught’s body than of the way the overall portrayal of the character, perhaps including the costuming choices as well. I have to say that I was at least as jarred by the compliment paid to Kate Royal’s physique as I was to the criticism of Erraught’s.

A woman in costume sitting in a chair.

Margarethe Siems who first performed the role of the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. “Royal looks very much the 30-something Marschallin that Strauss and Hoffmannstahl envisaged but is too rarely seen onstage.”

Kate Royal

With or without her clothes, Royal looks very much the 30-something Marschallin that Strauss and Hoffmannstahl envisaged but is too rarely seen onstage. And it’s hard to imagine this stocky Octavian as this willowy women’s plausible lover.

Royal’s physique is relevant since the production opens with her full frontal nudity, a bit of staging that was very appreciated by Rupert Christiansen in the Telegraph.

Richard Jones’ staging of Der Rosenkavalier shows us a garishly wallpapered empty room with an alcove, where the Marschallin stands in a cockle-shell bath, tastefully nude and showered by golden rain – a Botticelli goddess of beauty, at once alluring and forbidding, holding Octavian in rapture.

At this point Jones wonderfully encapsulates both the sublimity and vulgarity of the opera: it’s a startling but enchanting moment, charged with the music’s slippy, voyeuristic eroticism as well as a brilliant coup de théâtre.

He notes, in the creepy preceding sentence, that the recently deceased George Christie “was a keen aficionado of the female form.” This is the kind of statement that has made me want to wear nothing but potato sacks ever since I was old enough to understand the intense and disturbing judgement of one’s body made by such “aficionados.” A form is not a person. It also left me wondering why Christie didn’t dump opera for exotic dancing. Christiansen’s criticism of Erraught’s physique seems all the more jarring because he seems to have enjoyed the production.

The other problem is Tara Erraught’s Octavian. There is no doubt of the talent of this young Irish mezzo, based in Germany, who sings with vibrant assurance and proves herself a spirited comedian. But she is dumpy of stature and whether in bedroom déshabille, disguised as Mariandel or in full aristocratic fig, her costuming makes her resemble something between Heidi and Just William. Is Jones simply trying to make the best of her intractable physique or is he trying to say something about the social-sexual dynamic?

How good could the production be if one of the leads is so bad, one wonders.

It would certainly be legitimate for someone to comment if a singer was miscast in a role, yet how much does appearance play in determining whether or not the singer is appropriate? I hope I will be pardoned for turning to Anthony Tomassini again. Regarding the earlier scandal with Deborah Voigt and The Royal Opera House he wrote:

The Royal Opera would seem to have forgotten the most basic truth of the genre. Yes, opera is a form of drama. But drama in opera has never been dependent on literal reality. Great music and great voices take you to the core of the drama and the essence of the characters. Naturally it’s wonderful to hear fine opera singers who also look good and act well, and the new generation who grew up watching opera on television seems increasingly concerned with staying in shape and looking the part.

I remember being unexpectedly overcome by a student production of ”La Bohème” at the New England Conservatory in Boston, sung in English and performed in an intimate theater. The endearing young cast clearly identified with Puccini’s Parisian bohemians. They even looked a little tired and hungry, as haggard students often do.

But my first ever ”La Bohème,” a Met production that I attended as a teenager, starred Renata Tebaldi as Mimi. Ms. Tebaldi did not remotely resemble a consumptive and penniless seamstress. She looked like a pleasant, well-fed Italian lady. But her lustrous and poignantly beautiful singing was the embodiment of youthful desire, of sudden love coupled with a wariness of heartbreak.

Next week the Met introduces a new production of Strauss’s ”Salome” with Karita Mattila in the title role. Ms. Mattila, a strikingly lovely and slender woman, has apparently slimmed down even further for this role. Attractive as she is, Ms. Mattila will probably not resemble the adolescent Salome of the Bible. It won’t matter, though. Opera creates its own kind of reality. What will matter is how well Ms. Mattila sings.


Karita Mattila as Salome


I’ve included all these photos so people can see exactly what we’re talking about. I can’t help wondering, would Karita Mattila be called “strikingly lovely and slender” by English critics if she performed for the first time today? Which brings another question to my mind, it was the English who fired the American Deborah Voigt and it has been the English who have been so harsh on the Irish Tara Erraught who is currently a member of the ensemble of the Bayerische Staatsoper in Germany. I am quickly put in mind of page three girls and the strangely excessive obsession with the bodies of female celebrities running down the right hand edge of the online versions of British tabloids. Is this something specific about British culture, and should the rest of us give a damn?

I feel hesitant to jump to Erraught’s defense since I haven’t seen this production. It will be aired online on June 8, although I must admit that I enjoy opera significantly more in a theatre. Perhaps, she is wrong for the role and would be wrong for the role at any weight. However, a prominent opera singer has achieved more in his or her life than most of us ever will. If it truly comes down to her weight, then women are not valued for anything more than their bodies. A few months ago, I wrote a post about the U.K. making blocking pornographic sites on the internet the default setting. One supposed concern was gender roles. This example, that it matters not in the least what you achieve because you will always be reduced to the desirability of your body, tells girls more about their role in society than a porn flick ever could. Most people understand that a porn film is fiction. This is real. To criticize pornography while giving these critics a pass would be, as my grandfather would say, like wishing in one hand and shitting in the other.

Eva von der Osten as Octavian

Tara Erraught has a career outside of Britain. If it’s only the British who don’t want to see her perform, then I hope she says to herself, “Well, then fuck ’em.”

I’ve been in something of a funny mood for the past few days, peaking with a strange uncomfortable feeling when I woke up this morning. Since I was diagnosed with depression, I’ve found myself engaging in a ritual that I think of as “emotional temperature taking.” Sleepy at an odd hour. Hmm, is this depression or are you just tired. Cranky? Are you just hungry or is this the sign of something worse? Most of the time, it is something more banal and not a sign of a greater problem. Still, it’s a necessary question to ask.

So, my behavior’s been odd for the past several days, irregular sleep, lack of concentration, and it culminated in feeling rather awful when I woke up this morning. There’s a few possible threads feeding into this, but I’ll stick to one for now. I’ve mentioned a few times something I’ve called my “beauty strike.” One day, I’ll have to write about this at length. Except for a couple of emotional outbursts, I’ve avoided discussing body image issues on my blog. It feels so frankly frivolous. Every once in a while, someone writes a post questioning why people would spend an effort worrying about problem B when problem A is so much more serious. Frequently, when I read this, especially as it applies to people other than myself or my own problems, I’m inclined to agree with a post Greta Christina put up, “Whatever Activism Gets them Excited.”

Are there issues in the world that are, by some objective measure if there is such a thing, more important than atheism? Yes. Absolutely. But atheism is what I’m excited about….  Atheism got me deeply involved in social change, in a way that no other issue ever did. I don’t know why that is: I don’t think it’s entirely rational, and I don’t think that decision is entirely rational for a lot of activists, atheist or otherwise. But I would rather have me — and others — getting deeply and passionately involved in atheist activism than getting half-assedly involved in something else… or not involved in anything.

So while I can get pretty excited about issues regarding sex and sexuality and feminism, both of those can intersect with issues of body image, yet that strikes me as frivolous. I know other people out there write about body image, and I would never dismiss their efforts, yet in discussing it I feel uncomfortable on so many different levels, not least of which is because it feels self-indulgent.

So, I’ve been browsing blogs which have listed things under the feminism tag quite a bit over the last few days, and I feel like I have lots of random bits in my mind which are refusing to coalesce into anything coherent, mainly around the subjects of sex, sexuality, women’s bodies and so on.

Maybe I need to paint a bit. Sometimes when I can’t figure something out logically, I turn to painting. In fact, that’s when I like painting best, when it reaches something logic can’t reach. One of the things I came across to today was a sketch that I really liked. It put me in mind of another post I’ve recently read, “Jack Vettriano – The Necessity of Misogyny” by suzimartin. As someone who has done a lot of art work with sexual imagery, which some people describe as erotica, I’m interested in people’s opinions of work which contains sexual content. I don’t know Vetttiano’s work well enough have an opinion on the post.

Anyway, that’s all the mucky stuff that’s been colliding in my head recently.

a nude woman wrapped in a snake floating through space

One of my own paintings.

There was a post recently on the Huffington Post website by Alexis Jane Torre titled “I’m ‘Not Like Most Girls’.”

You probably know those movies and books where there’s a female protagonist who is apparently “not like most girls.” She actually likes sports and isn’t catty. She doesn’t cause drama or stress over her appearance. She is unlike every other female character, and she is unable to befriend most girls.

Her basic point, that this trope serves to discourage women from female friendships and encourages them to not trust one another seems to be valid enough. However, I’m not so sure that many women, at least women I know, actually believe that most girls conform to those negative stereotypes.

And, this then teaches young women that they should strive to be “not like most girls.”

Trying to avoid being like the negative stereotype has inhibiting effects. I had one friend who had no problem asking men out on dates and initiating sexual contact, but once a relationship became serious she couldn’t discuss the future because she was afraid of acting like a “typical” woman who was just angling for a wedding ring. I’ve felt similar pressures. You want to ask a man, “Where do you think this is going,” but you don’t dare because you’re afraid of it being misinterpreted.

For me, talking about my appearance has always been a forbidden topic. People whose main way of knowing me is off-line would probably be shocked by the things I wrote yesterday. I almost never discuss clothes or hair and I’m known for actually scolding other women if they start saying negative things about their bodies. One of the biggest fights I’ve gotten into with my mother occurred following a dance performance. The entire time my mother whispered in my ear about my sister’s roommate, someone we both knew, “She’s gained so much weight. How could she wear those tights. I wouldn’t get on stage if I looked like that.” This was about a dancer! She was energetically jumping about on stage. We’re not talking about weight as health, we’re talking about weight as part of society’s standards of beauty.

I started this blog in part to express things that I normally don’t express, and I’ve never sat around with other women and talked about how I hate my thighs or my neck or whatever. Of course, I don’t actually hate my thighs. The truth of the matter is that I’m painfully aware that my thighs do not conform to current ideal of female beauty, but it’s no less painful for that. I’m not ashamed of my body so much as I am ashamed of my inability to live up to society’s standards. Intellectually, I understand that those standards and the pressure to conform to them are not healthy, but that only leaves me feeling ashamed of my shame. I’ve never really discussed this, not even with my therapists. It seems so superficial, so trivial. How ridiculous that some days I don’t want to leave the house because I don’t look the way society tells me I should look. Does it interfere with my life? Well, I’ve never missed anything like school or work for that reason. On the other hand, I’ve avoided social events. Maybe it’s one of the things that makes it difficult for me to make new friends when I move to a new town. It adds to my social anxiety.

Then I say to myself, “There are so many more important things in the world than this. Starving children, real injustices.” Then I feel like a self-absorbed vain asshole and I shove it all down. However, it doesn’t solve the problem and I still won’t go to that meeting to practice French or join that organization for artists. Telling myself it’s foolish solves nothing and makes me feel like a fool.

This feeling has gotten worse over the years, and I don’t think it’s simply weight and age. It seems to me that there is more pressure for women to be beautiful than there was when I was younger. We used to have pubic hair! We didn’t even know to feel funny about it. It was as normal as having hair on your head. Vagina facials? May I say that that’s just fucking nuts? (May I also so say that vagina is not the correct term, unless they’re stuffing the exfoliating cream inside you. And who the hell has enough money for this crap? Who are you? I would love just to get my gray hair professionally dyed to its old color so I don’t have to make a mess in my bathroom, but I have a hard time swallowing the cost. A facial for my vulva? P. T. Barnum would be proud.) These currents are so strong in the society that they have made their way into my subconscious despite the fact that I don’t own a television, read neither celebrity nor fashion magazines and am generally a high brow snob. Sometimes I have to stop and ask myself how I even know about them. In fact, it’s part of the reason I’ve stopped reading garbage like Salon, the Huffington Post and Alternet. I became tired of getting a dose of body shaming in with my politics.

I’ve said it before, and here I am saying it again, I feel very fortunate to have come of age in the wake of two things, second wave feminism and punk. In terms of fashion, the new wave era was great for young women because there was really no pressure whatsoever to look pretty. In fact, I would say it was quite the opposite. There was an impulse to thumb one’s nose at society’s expectations, and that most certainly included society’s expectations of beauty.

When I told my parents I wanted to attend a different college, I considered myself a radical feminist, was openly dating a woman, wore repurposed thrift store clothes and had my hair cut to the length of a crew cut on one side and shoulder length on the other. They sent me to a psychiatrist. I walked into the office to see a painfully thin woman with carefully highlighted hair and an obvious nose job. She wanted to send me to a residential drug rehab program despite the fact that I told her repeatedly that I didn’t even smoke pot. Ironically, in terms of drugs I was one of the straightest people I knew. I didn’t even drink that much.

At that time, I actually needed a lot of guidance in terms of a career and academic programs, but I wasn’t getting any because everyone was focused on my hair and my clothes. Around that time, some of the styles associated with new wave were rapidly being absorbed into mainstream fashion and women started worrying about being pretty again. I dropped out of school, went to work and started conforming.

We pick our fights. Presumably, we pick them according to our priorities. Politics matters more to me than atheism, feminism matters more to me than other political issues, and sexuality matters more to me than all of the above. A dear friend of mine used to sport a button that bore a quote attributed to Emma Goldman, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” In my case, the quote could be, “If I can’t fuck, I won’t join your revolution, your religion, your social movement….”

Why sex and not something else? It’s hard to say why it’s so important to me, but I speak up about it because I’m always hearing people make broad pronouncements about sex and sexuality that don’t jive with my personal experience.

About a month or so ago, I put up a post that contained a quote from Holly of Love and Heretics.

I think the distinction was made that waiting for sex until you are older and more mature, and the realization that having sex does indeed do things like give an emotional bond between people, and is more than just “causally having a cup of coffee” as sometimes it is tried to be made out to be is an important observation.

There’s at least three incorrect statements in this one sentence. I feel a little bit like I’m picking on Holly and I don’t really mean to. If these weren’t commonplaces, I wouldn’t be addressing them. Holly has just happened to put them in a sentence that’s easy to quote. For now, I’m going to limit myself to the notion that there is something positive about waiting for sex until “you are older and more mature.”

The first problem with this idea is that I’ve never heard anyone give an approximate age that would be a good time to start having sex. In English grammar, “older” is a comparative but Holly uses it without a comparison, which is possible if the comparison is implied. It begs the question, “Older than what?” Should an individual wait for sex until he or she is eighteen, twenty-one, thirty, fifty?

Conveniently for this post, I lost my virginity at fourteen which I am quite sure is younger than most of the people who make statements like that would recommend. We’ll fast forward past the first three or four boys I fucked and move forward a year when I found myself in history class sitting next to an adorable boy. Better yet, he was one of those shy, sensitive types that hadn’t a clue about exactly how adorable he was.

After futile attempts to engage him in conversation, I shoved a piece a paper at him. “What’s this?”

“My phone number, and you had better use it.”

Quite a charmer, wasn’t I? Thus began the relationship with the boy that I believe I can legitimately call “my high school sweetheart.”

Considering his shyness and upbringing in a religion that frowned on extramarital sex, it was clear to me that I was going to have to take the lead, which I did. It wasn’t long, perhaps a month at most, before I led him through the various stages of sexual contact. We were not permitted to be alone in the bedroom he shared with his brother on the third floor of their father’s house. His bed was under the window which faced the street and it wasn’t long before we figured out that in the time it took his father to navigate his bright red car up the street, into the driveway, park, get out and walk to the door, we could go from naked on his bed to fully clothed, sitting on the sofa looking like the two most innocent things in the world. In the hour or two that would remain between walking to his place from school and the moment we sighted that little red car, boy, did we have fun.

Sex was fun, playful and affectionate. We got along well outside of bed. We shared an interest in art. My friends took a strong liking to him, although his friends, who never got girlfriends, seemed to resent me a little bit. In the end, those boys were polite enough and it never erupted into a real problem.

Frankly, we had a ton of sex. We went from buying those little three packs of condoms to getting those big boxes. We took turns buying them.

There was a really good side to starting young that I think few people ever acknowledge, we had few expectations about what sex was supposed to be like. Sure, we each had seen a bit of raunchy material, but at fifteen you just haven’t racked up a whole lot of hours looking at porn, or romance novels and r-rated movies for that matter. We explored one another’s bodies with an openness I don’t think would have been possible at a much later age. Finding out what we liked and didn’t like was a matter of trial and error, and we tried a lot of things.

We did things that, years later, I would find out were supposed to feel degrading to me, but neither of us knew because no one told us. To this day, I don’t feel that there’s anything degrading about them and it blows my mind when men think it is. At some point or another, it seems to me that we tried almost every kink imaginable without even knowing what we were doing was supposed to be kinky. It was fun, joyous, sometimes romantic, sometimes silly, affectionate, tender, wild and even occasionally clumsy. It was different things at different times.

Furthermore, I hadn’t yet entirely internalized being ashamed of my body. I thought nothing of stripping off my clothes and lying in broad daylight fully exposed on his bed. Eventually, men would tell me that my thighs were too full, by ass was too round, my tits too small, my skin to pale, my calves too muscular, my pubic hair too bushy, my body hair too dark… have I missed any body parts… my feet too flat. Although my high school sweetheart had certainly seen softcore porn like Playboy, he hadn’t yet become comfortable critiquing women’s bodies in the manner that makes me want to hide under the covers with the lights off.

Most importantly, I learned, and I believed he learned as well, what I liked and what I didn’t like, where my boundaries were, how to be giving and how to take, how to please and how to make sure I was pleased in turn. Somehow, all that playing and exploring left me feeling confident about communicating what I wanted as well as how to listen to what my partner wanted. Most of all, I developed a notion that sex is meant for mutual pleasure.

I’ve retained the postive attitude I developed about sex at that time. I wish I could be as confident and self-assured about my body as I was then. In any case, I know my life would have been much poorer without the sexual exploration my high school sweetheart and I had done. It’s enough of a shame that some people are simply not fortunate enough to meet the right person at that age. It’s even more of a shame that other people do meet the right person but don’t feel comfortable exploring one another’s bodies because they’ve been told it would be bad for them.