The Space of a Woman

Don’t apologize to him.

These words run through my mind as I pant and sweat my way through a workout of my own design. I’ve set myself up at the gym in front of a couple of pull up bars in a small square of a relatively large room. There’s only one other person working out in the space, a guy, and plenty of other pull up bars, but nonetheless, I’m worried I might be in his way.

I’m not sure whether it’s Midwestern politeness or a wariness of making territorial claims I’ve internalized as a woman, but the question “sorry, am I in your way?” is desperate to escape my lips.

Instead, I repeat this to myself: you’re allowed to take up space.

It worked at the time. I avoided apologizing! But in retrospect, my use of the word allowed is suspect. Who exactly is allowing me space? Me? Society? Whose rules am I trying to follow?

I’m using a new productivity journal that has a daily affirmation section. You write one each day for yourself, and I’ve discovered this is a tough task for me. While I believe in the power of positive thinking for other people, I feel like I should already be good enough without practicing it.

I shouldn’t need to repeat to myself in the morning, “I am productive and motivated to crush my goals.” The evidence should be there. The goals should be accomplished. What’s all this magical froufrou change-your-mind, change-your-life stuff anyway? (Sidenote: it’s worked wonders for me so I shouldn’t knock it.)

There was another time recently I was afraid to take up space. Again I was working out–running on the BeltLine, Atlanta’s major mixed use path. I was using a timer to go back and forth between running and walking, and at the start of each interval, the timer would make a loud beep.

There were a lot of people out on the BeltLine, and I was tempted to turn the timer off. Who was I to occupy their aural space for my workout? Forget that the people I passed were talking and skateboarders were rolling by and dogs were barking and bikers were calling out, “on your left.” Who was I to make a beep that would contribute to the BeltLine cacophony?

A woman who requires space.

Maybe that’s the affirmation. More factual than inspirational except in its truth.

Becoming Fagin

As an eighth grade girl, I was cast as Fagin, a 19th century old man leader of a gang of pickpocketing British boys, in my grade school’s production of Oliver! To this day, it remains one of my favorite roles of all time.

This weekend I went to see Becoming Nancy, a new musical at The Alliance about a fictional high school boy in a London suburb in 1979 who is cast as Nancy in his school’s production of Oliver Twist even though the role he wants is Fagin.

The premise of the musical captured my attention because on the surface my situation seemed to neatly transpose that of the protagonist. But while my casting as a man caused nary a stir in my Catholic community in Cincinnati in the mid-1990s, the musical’s protagonist being cast as a woman–and the love interest of Bill Sikes, a character played by a boy–results in far more controversy.

There was the fear of homosexuality in the musical’s plot that wasn’t an issue in my school’s production. Things might have been different if I’d been cast as Bill Sikes opposite my friend Kelly’s spectacular Nancy. (Despite being only fourteen at the time, she’d been preparing the role for years.)

There was the fact that I’d already broken the gender barrier the year before in the Wizard of Oz by playing the Tin Man, a role so blatantly for a man that it’s in the character’s name.

Whatever the reason, I was able to play these roles without encountering any criticism or pushback. And I had fun portraying men. Sure, I thought maybe it would make the many, many boys I had a crush on less likely to like me. But it meant I got to play these tough, protective, and funny characters, which was the kind of kid I was.

What interests me looking back now is how normal it seemed for me to play a male character while it seems impossible that a boy in my grade school would have played a female character (and not just because the pool of girl talent was STACKED). A girl playing a boy was to be expected while a boy playing a girl would have undercut his masculinity.

When I think of the patriarchy and all it denies women, it makes me upset. But I’m also upset by what it denies men. As a girl, I was given free reign to explore what it meant to be a man, right up on stage in front of everyone–finding my heart as the Tin Man and steering little boys toward crime as Fagin. The boys in my class never would have had the chance to experience the compassion of Nancy, who takes Oliver under her wing, or Dorothy’s sense of longing for home and her courage in the face of the Wicked Witch.

You could say boys could find these traits in other male characters–they don’t need to play women–but there’s something to the freedom of being allowed to play the opposite gender. I’m grateful for all the things becoming Fagin taught me. Like how to tie a tie (which I’ve since forgotten, but thankfully now we have the Internet).

I feel it should be noted that my friend Kelly also rocked the role of Dorothy, and I was proud to be her Tin Man. Also, I’m pretty sure Nancy was not murdered by Bill Sikes in our production of Oliver! 

Lost Texts

My grandmother wrote a poem once that was published in her high school yearbook. I remember reading it with her when I was young–from a hard bound volume with old fashioned script embossed on the cover (it would have been published around 1930). As I recall, the poem was about the changing of the seasons–winter to spring. And my grandmother’s name appeared alongside it–her maiden name which was strange to see in print.

She was as proud of writing the poem as she was of having studied Latin. I studied Latin in high school to be like her, and there was one year that I failed to capture the Latin award at my school’s honor ceremony. The next day I told her about the other awards I’d won, Chemistry, Creative Writing, top student in my class, and then my grandmother asked, “What about the Latin award?”

Unlike the Romans whose texts I studied in high school, this summer at the Louvre I learned about the Phoenicians, who were instrumental the development of the alphabet, but whose writings we have barely any record of because their papyrus manuscripts did not survive the perils of time.

This summer I also read Virginia Woolf’s essay “A Room of One’s Own” about the historical plight of women writers and women who might have been writers if circumstances had allowed them. The essay ends with Woolf encouraging modern women writers to write for the women who came before them who did not have the opportunity so that these women could live on in them.

My grandmother wrote her poem within a few years of the 1929 publication of Woolf’s essay. I’m not sure if my grandmother wrote any more poems after the one that was published in the yearbook. Or how many she wrote before. I don’t know when she might have started writing or when she stopped. If she had any other poems or manuscripts, my guess is they’ve gone the way of Phoenician papyrus.

Which is too bad because I would have liked to have read more of her writing. Or what she would have written if circumstances allowed.

On Striving to be an Object of Men’s Desire

“Hey!” a man shouted to me as he leaned out the passenger window of a white van.

I was standing on the sidewalk trying to take a picture of a mural on the other side of the road. His words took me by surprise, and I barely had the chance to say “hey” in response before the van drove along.

I’m usually friendly to men who call out to me on the street. I trace my accommodating behavior back to the first time this happened to me. I was probably about eight and walking down the street with a teenage neighbor. A man (possibly a friend of hers) driving by called out to us from his moving car. She responded by waving and yelling back to him.

“This is how it’s done,” she told me.

It’s cool to be called out on the street, I thought, and stored the idea away.

In the years since, while I’ve come to recognize this behavior as harassment, there’s still a part of me that enjoys it. Because it means a man desires me. And I want to be desired by men. Even though I’m married. Even though I’ve achieved a lot of other things in my life unrelated to men. Even though the men who desire me might not be men who I desire.

Around the same age I was first called to on the street, I occasionally played pool with a boy about my age who was my neighbor. I don’t remember much about playing pool, but I do remember the walls of the room where we played. They were lined with Playboy style posters of nearly naked women with huge breasts.

While it was an awkward setting for a kids pool match, I liked playing there and having access to this secret part of the adult world. I didn’t think I would ever be like the women I saw on the walls, but part of me wanted to be.

Over the years, I’ve defined myself in a series of identities–Christian, feminist, academic–that have challenged this want to be like the women on the walls, but I’ve never quite let go of my hope to be thin and voluptuous and beautiful–to be the object of men’s desires.

At 35, I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been. While I’ve pursued fitness for a host of reasons, one of the results of my considerable efforts is now I finally resemble the women I admired as a child. I watch myself change in the mirror at night and think, Yes, good job. Men will want to have sex with you.

It’s not a particularly useful thought at this stage in my life.

I’ve been with my husband for thirteen years. Sure, I want him to desire me, but it’s not just his approval I seek as I look in the mirror. It’s also the men who might call out to me on the street. And the men who might put posters of me on their walls. The men who might look me up on the Internet in this day and age.

As a child, I was taught to seek out this approval while playing pool and while walking down the street. I learned this in the same places that boys learned that they could call out to me when they wanted and put naked pictures of me up on their walls.

We’re experiencing a cultural shift now that’s challenging the traditional heteronormative gender dichotomy of women as objects of desire and men as handlers of these objects. Even as a Women’s Studies major, this shift has been hard for me to navigate. How exactly am I supposed to think about my sexuality if it’s not in relation to a man’s approval?

I’m not sure I have the answer, but I know where I’m starting. I’m pulling down the poster of myself I stare at every night (i.e. I’m covering up my mirror). At least for awhile. At least until I can look into it and not have my first thought be a man would definitely approve of this.