Tag: Wicked Wednesday

How Do I Love Thee: On Comparing Relationships

Sepia historical photograph of a woman dressed as cupid next to a lion for Post How Do You Love Me by Malin James

Woman with Lion, courtesy of the Getty Museum

Every so often, my daughter asks me if I love her best.**

This is a tricky moment as a parent, because my impulse is to say, Yes! Of course, I love you best. It’s the answer she’s looking for and by far the simplest to give. But as much as my love for her is one of the most overwhelming things I’ve ever felt, to say that I love her best does something that I’m not quite comfortable with – it accidentally reinforces a way of thinking about love that can lead to insecurity later on.

I realize that I might be overthinking this. Is there really any harm in telling her that I love her best?  There are so many things I don’t bother worrying about, like Santa’s existence or whether or not she believes in god. But reinforcing emotional comparisons feels oddly dangerous to me. It implies that love is a zero-sum game.

Love, like so many things, is contextually unique. For example, a person’s love for their child can be catastrophically powerful, but what if you have two or more children? Who do you love best then? That question is almost impossible to answer (without screwing up one of more of your kids), which is why “I love you all differently” is such a great response. It reinforces the love while avoiding the comparison.

Why is avoiding comparison important for all relationships (not just those involving multiple kids)? Because when you start to comparing the different loves you feel, you risk diminishing all of them. Love isn’t measurable or quantifiable, but comparing relationships with the intention of weighing who is loved best imposes finite limits on an emotion that is naturally infinite.

The real question is what underlies the comparison. Not to get all cold and pragmatic about it, but what it really comes down to is resource distribution. We’re a fundamentally competitive species because our survival depends on it. We commodify resources because resources, whether emotional or physical, have a value rooted in survival. That’s about as fundamental as it gets.

So where does love fit into that? Love is a resource too, or rather, the safety love signifies is. As a species, we evolved through dark nights full of predators that wanted to eat us. Abandonment = death. We are literally hardwired to fear being cast aside, and one of the best guarantors of that not happening is love.

When my daughter asks me if I love her best, she’s expressing a really basic concern: If a lion grabbed Daddy and me, would you save me, even if it meant not saving Daddy? (For what it’s worth, the answer is yes. Her dad’s okay with that). The anxiety that underlies the question is instinctively human – so much so that it shows up in all kinds of relationships, not just those between a parent and child, but friendships, business partnerships and romantic relationships.

While love is definitely not a zero-sum game, survival is, and at a very basic level, we have tied security to love and pain to exclusion. That’s why, in poly relationships, it’s important to be patient with a partner’s fears and insecurities. That sort of status anxiety is hardwired into us and, for most people, it takes a bit of effort to work through.

The impulse to compare is an instinctive attempt to see if our position in the relationship is safe. Unfortunately, it’s also a great way to torture yourself into fearing that it’s not. In the end, it’s about security. The surest way to avoid the trap of comparison is to address the underlying concern. If a person is secure in your love for them, they are less likely to be worried about your love for others.

In the end, it’s not about who is loved best, but how you are loved. Are you  loved well? Is your person’s love a revelation? A homecoming? A whetstone? Is it a soft blanket on a rainy night or a delicate porcelain vase? The how says so much more than any comparison could. The how is about the two of you. The how is solid ground.

**NB: Chunks of Browning’s Sonnet 43 are the answer I give my daughter when she asks me how I love her…that and “I love you bigger than the galaxy and 9 million stars”, which is really pretty big. 

 

On Virginity, or A Case For Not Throwing It Away

Image of a man and woman sitting on a fence. His hand is going up her skirt while she looks away.

A Voyage of Discovery by Jack Vettriano

I would love to say that the loss of my maidenhead* was a magical experience. I’d love to say that it set a healthy tone for the whole of my sexual career. In reality, it went more like this:

I was nineteen and deeply frustrated. I’d had boyfriends but none who would go past second base with me, (I dated a couple of Irish Catholics. Confession was a thing). I was sexually aware to the point of discomfort, but I’d never gotten close to do anything about the live wires beneath my skin. I was massively frustrated and burdened with this thing that I didn’t want anymore. So, one night I decided to get it over with.

I met the guy through an acquaintance. I knew him just enough about him to feel relatively sure that he wasn’t going to kill me and dump my body in a lake. I say “the guy” because I don’t remember his name…Jason maybe? I’m not sure. I was sober, so I assume that I must’ve blocked it out. In fact, I’m fairly certain I did – not because anything terrible happened, but because, even at the time, I knew I was making a subtle but serious mistake. It was the start of a pattern that would do me no favors. But more on that in a second. For now, let’s stay with “the guy”….

In the end, his name doesn’t matter because it wasn’t about him. It was about me and the fact that I was approaching twenty and the only virgin left in the city (not really but it felt like it). So, there we were in the back of his mom’s minivan in a mall parking lot. The foreplay was minimal and consisted mostly of my going down on him briefly while he held my head. After that, we moved to the back seat where I gave it up to the age old rhythm of my head whacking against his baby brother’s car seat.

I lost my virginity with less care than some people give to cutting their hair. At the time, I remember feeling a grim satisfaction, one that I now recognize as a defense mechanism. I knew even before he dropped me off (in the minivan) that I wasn’t going to see him again, even if I wanted to (I didn’t). The fact that I’d been a virgin had thrown him. I literally saw him panic the second his cock hit my hymen.

Holy shit! A virgin! They get hella clingy! Finish this and get out of there!

So, the grim satisfaction was both for a job well done (I was no longer a virgin – Ha! Take that, virginity!) but it was also because I needed to own what I’d just done. I knew that wasn’t how it could have been.  I knew it wasn’t a good start.

Now, looking back with roughly eighteen years of sexual experience to call on, I can see that I set a pattern for myself that night – one in which I disregarded the rounded whole of my needs in favor of satisfying temporary dissatisfactions. That pattern is pretty much broken now, but not without effort and a nice collection of regrets.

Should I have taken more time and given myself a positive, even loving, first time? Ideally speaking, of course. I should’ve. But the truth is that I was wired for sex and self-injury. I can’t pretend that a different decision would’ve saved me from years of mistakes. That said, if I had waited and not pushed, I might have developed a sense of myself sooner, and that would have made a difference. Who can say….

Virginity is not a magical thing, nor is it a marker of moral, spiritual or physical worth. The loss of it is, however, a pivotal event in a person’s life. Your first sexual experiences set a tone, even if only subconsciously. Would my sexual development have been different were it not for the minivan and the parking lot and the goddamn car seat? I don’t know. I honestly don’t. And that’s the thing that stays with me. I will never know.

I have wanted to write that phrase into something for ages.

On Breaking Down

Picasso abstract nude. Image for On Being Broken - Malin James

Reclining Nude and Woman Washing Her Feet by Picasso (1944)

“We are all broken, that’s how the light gets in.” – Ernest Hemingway

I’ve never liked that Hemingway quote. I’m not sure if it’s because I don’t like the idea of everyone being broken, or if it’s just a touch too pithy to give me a real sense of perspective. Whatever the reason, I’ve always felt a resistance to it. And yet, when it popped up as the Wicked Wednesday prompt this week, I couldn’t stop pulling it apart. Why don’t I like it? What was he saying? How are people broken and why would it be such a universal thing?

I don’t have answers to those questions. Maybe being broken is universal because we are transient, flawed creatures that are formed (and informed) by our environments.  What I mean is that we are affected. People are easily affected. And when you’re easily affected, it means you get touched, nudged, toppled, broken and rebuilt. It’s part of life.

I’ve been broken. I’ve been plenty broken. I was ragged with fault lines, all of which stemmed from a big one that I acquired early in life. The fault lines got bigger as I got older, widened by pressure I put on myself and the pressure of growing up. By the time I was in my early twenties, I was smoking too much, drinking too much and having a lot of casual sex with partners I don’t remember. Everything was a struggle, and the harder I struggled, the harder it got.

The strange thing is that I knew I was writing checks I couldn’t cash. I remember knowing that, sooner or later, the bill would come due and that when it did I was going to be screwed. I also remember, very distinctly, the grimy, helpless feeling of not being able to stop. I could feel myself breaking down, but rather than caution me, it made me go at it harder. I was inviting it. I wanted the thing that would run me off the rails. It came, but not in the form I expected.

When I was 24, I met J, the man I would eventually marry. I was already in a casual relationship, but J was different. He was very serious and he took me very seriously. Not far into dating him, I had a miscarriage. I didn’t know I was pregnant, nor did it occur to me that I might be because I was on the pill and I always used condoms. The timing of the miscarriage put the conception a month before I met J, which meant that the baby would have been my other partner’s. Without getting into details, it’s safe to say that, had I not miscarried, the situation would have been a nightmare. My other partner was lovely in many ways, but he was also a drug addict with bi-polar disorder and he wanted to have kids. Having a child with him was not an option, but he would have made terminating the pregnancy, (or giving the baby up), as difficult as humanly possible.

Given all of that, I should have been relieved when the doctor told me that I had been roughly 3 months pregnant but was not any more. I should have been relieved. But that was the thing that finally broke me. All of the fault lines caved at once and I had a proper breakdown. The depression and panic disorder that I’d been struggling with swamped me and I didn’t know what to do. I was in pieces, struggling with the compulsion to glue myself back together, but I couldn’t. The bits of a broken cup can’t sweep themselves up.

So, I went into therapy and J stayed with me. I’m not overstating it when I say that it was heroic of him. My structural integrity (emotionally speaking) had never been strong, but the breakdown dismantled it completely. As my recovery progressed, reasons that all of those cracks had developed became clear. It also became obvious that the abuse I put my body through was more than a way to escape. It was a way to punish myself.

I began to meditate, I started running, I stopped smoking, I controlled my drinking. I dusted off each piece and decided whether or not to keep it as part of my new whole. I laid aside a lot of old pieces in that process, which made room for new ones to grow in their place. In the end, if I hadn’t broken down so thoroughly, I never would have had a reason to help myself. And if I hadn’t had so much unwavering support, I don’t think I could have done it, even if I’d tried.

I had a very close call. I could easily have ended up in a dark place with a dramatically shortened life span. When I broke, it was the start of my becoming who I am and I’m grateful for it. What’s more, I know that I’m not alone in this sort of experience. You can’t get through life untouched. Some people just crack harder than others. Some people recover and some don’t.

Which is why I suspect I don’t like the Hemingway quote. It implies that everything will be all right for everyone. I applaud the idea that there is hope in being broken. I am an example for the fact that there is. But I got close enough to the edge to know that mending yourself isn’t a given. That being scarred but full of light is not a guarantee. It takes so much work, and support and LUCK, and some people never make it. Some people stay in pieces, lost the dark.

That feels important to acknowledge. That feels critical. Because you aren’t guaranteed a recovery, regardless of how  much you deserve it. People slip through the cracks. People, good people, are lost all the time. For those of us who came close to not coming out whole, the light Hemingway talks about is not a given, but a gift. It’s a gift, and I wish that everyone could feel it. Because too many people don’t.

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On Depression, Need & Difficult Things

Lotus by Bahman Farzad

Lotus by Bahman Farzad

There are things that I haven’t written about because they’re too personal. Depression is one of them. For me, writing about depression is harder than writing about sex because, regardless of how much I love it, sex is something separate from myself. It’s something I do and enjoy. It doesn’t form my foundation. Depression does.

Depression made me who I am. It put me on different paths than I might otherwise have taken. It made me grow in crooked, creative ways. I don’t know who I’d be if depression hadn’t forced me to struggle with myself but, in the end, I like who I’ve become…most of the time.

I’ve avoided writing about depression for a lot of reasons, all of them hazy and complicated. Then, last week, I received an email from someone in response to a few of my posts. It was a good email – a lot of time and thought had clearly gone into it, but one part, in particular, stayed with me. Towards the end of the final paragraph, the person wrote:

“You have so much perspective. You must come from a very emotionally privileged place. I wish I did.” (Quoted with permission)

Reading that saddened me because the emailer seemed to be saying that they lacked a quality they could not have. It also made me call into question how I’ve presented myself in my writing. I know that depression (and the skills I use to manage it) inform everything I write. It even effects my style – I’ve learned to distill my emotions and I try to do the same with my thoughts when I write – but that doesn’t mean any of this is apparent to anyone else.

In a bit of comic timing, that email came just as I was tipping into a depressive episode that I am still enjoying (and by “enjoying” I mean dealing with) now, even as I write this. The timing made the subject inescapable, so I decided to write about it because that’s what I do.

In one way, the emailer was right – I do have a lot of perspective, but it’s not because I come from a place of emotional privilege. It’s because I don’t. I had my first anxiety attack when I was six and continued to have them into my twenties for reasons I won’t get into here. My parents didn’t know what anxiety attacks were, let alone that a child could have them, so once it was established that I didn’t have asthma, they encouraged me to stop worrying and left me to my own devices. Though well-intentioned, I internalized this as a rejection. Get enough of that as a kid and you get fantastically depressed. Which I was.

Fast forward to university. I started my first semester strong, but by the time the holidays came around, I was deep into my first depressive episode. When I came home for winter break I was way too thin and I slept ALL the time. My parents were worried (because they really did care), but when the doctor said I was anemic, they got me iron pills and ended the conversation.

I flew back to New York and the depression got worse. Eventually, I saw a counselor who diagnosed me in one session, which was a relief because I finally had a name for what I was trying to deal with. I was so relieved that I called my parents to tell them, but they glossed over it. They didn’t know what to do with “my problems”, so they acted like I had the flu and hoped I’d “feel better soon”. I didn’t – not for a really long time.

What surprises me even now is that I didn’t feel ashamed, despite my parents’ reaction. I felt anger, hurt and frustration, but never shame. What developed instead was the conviction that this was my problem to deal with. The worst thing I could do is need someone’s support. Needing became a dangerous thing.

As a result, I built an emotional scaffold that allowed me to function superficially while limiting access to my real (depressed and messed up) self. I dismantled that scaffolding a few years ago, but the impulse to withdraw is still something I struggle with because needing is uncomfortable for me. It is an awful thing to need something desperately and have that need denied. As a result, I made myself into the kind of person that other people need, rather than allowing my own needs to have a voice. Even now, needing someone or something does not fit my self-image.

The other reason I learned to withdraw was that, for a long time, I felt out of control. There are different kinds of depression. Mine is chronic, which means that sometimes my neuro-chemistry get wonky and I get depressed, even when everything is situationally great. The fact that depression is at least 60% physiological for me was difficult. I would get irrational, unreasonable and short-tempered, even on medication. I suffered, so I made everyone around me suffer too. Finally, I got tired of being bad for people, so I hid through episodes until I could put on my public face.

Now, at 37, I have an easier time of it. There are a handful of people I talk to when I’m heading into the depths but, for the most part, my depression is under control, even when it’s bad. I run 5-6 days a week and have done for years, and I have a mindfulness practice that keeps me balanced even when I’m in rough emotional shape. That doesn’t mean it isn’t hard, but I’ve spent so much time cultivating rationality, reason and calm, that those things are reflexive to me now. Which brings me back to the emailer….

The perspective I have is hard won, which is really good news. Because it’s the result of work and not luck or privilege, it’s attainable, even if you’re a hot mess (and baby, I was a hot fucking mess). That said, maintaining my equilibrium is active, daily work – work that I’ll have to do for the rest of my life. No matter how much I achieve, my greatest accomplishment will be getting and keeping my shit together. It is, hand’s down, the hardest thing I have ever done, and the most valuable thing I will ever manage.

So please, please understand that when I write about difficult things, it’s not from a pedestal. It’s from down in the muck. My roots are in mud and depression and self-loathing and disgust, and it took an act of will and a concrete reason for me to grow up out of that. Buddhists use the lotus flower to symbolize that process of digging your roots into the blackest parts of yourself, and allowing something beautiful and resilient to grow out of it. That is what I’m trying to do. If I’m successful, that will be the metaphor for my life.

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Notes to My Younger Self

Good Time Girls by Jack Vettriano

Good Time Girls by Jack Vettriano

Last week, I wrote a post about a relationship that, even now, I struggle to admit was abusive (I usually just call it “toxic”). A few days later, someone asked me if I would go back in time and avoid the whole thing. Surprisingly, I said no. While there are things I wish I’d known or understood, that experience was a pivotal one. It’s quite possible that, if I did change something, I wouldn’t end up being the person I am today, and I like that person a lot.

That said, I do like the idea of going back in time to have a little chat with myself. In fact, I keep a list of things I’d probably tell myself over drinks, and not just regarding that relationship. Maybe it’s just that I loved The Time Traveler’s Wife but even if younger me ended up doing everything exactly as I already had, it would still be nice to have my future self’s perspective on certain things. Plus, I’d kind of like to hang out with me (pretty narcissistic, but true).

So, here’s my list of 15 Things I Would Tell My Younger Self:

1. Try not to drink quite so much (she says, sipping a G&T). You don’t have to stop, but you’re using alcohol to numb things you need to pay attention to.

2. Don’t smoke. Like ever. Yeah, I know, this one’s a drag. But here’s the thing – we quit ten years ago and I still miss it. And it’s so bad for you. So don’t start. Don’t bum that first cigarette from Theresa Flynn sophomore year, okay? Just don’t do it, because you’re going to love it and it’s going to suck when you have to stop.

3. Write more. Right now. Write more. Worry about getting good later. Right now, you just need to write. Get it all out of your head. Writing will help you think, and honey, you’ve got so many big, messy feelings, you need to make some space to think. Plus, it’ll give us something bittersweet / poignant to read down the line.

4. Sex. You’re going to love it. LOVE IT. You’re going to gobble it up. But, it’s also going to make you vulnerable, and that’s ok. In fact, that’s good. Just try not to confuse sex with love. Sex and love go together like chocolate and peanut butter, but they don’t have to. You’re not a bad person if you just want to fuck. And you’re not unworthy of love if that’s all he (or she, because you’re totally bi) wants too.

5. Don’t cut your hair short. I know it’s shallow but seriously, that Audrey Hepburn pixie thing you want so much? Don’t do it. And if you ignore me (because you probably will) and you hate it (because you’re totally going to), don’t spend two years growing it out just to cut it again because “maybe you’ll like it better this time.” You won’t, okay? I promise.

6. It’s fine that you have small breasts. I know you hate them. I know you’re hung up, but no one, and I mean NO ONE, cares. Meanwhile, you have no idea how good they can feel, and that’s a freaking crime.

7. You will love him but he will never love you. He’ll want you. In fact, he’ll want you so much it makes him sick, but he’ll never love you. (See #4). There is no way to make that not hurt and it’s going to fuck you up. But it’s also going to be ok. You will get yourself out. You always do…just, maybe, try to do it a little sooner this time around.

8. Don’t move to Texas. (No offense, Texas. We’re just not a good match).

9. Eating a jar of almond butter with a spoon* is not a solution. You know that. That said, stop beating yourself up about it. If it bothers you so much, put the fucking spoon down. C’mon, girl. Either own what you’re doing or change it. <3

*Also applies to wine, bourbon and gin. And cigarettes. And casual sex. Fuck, you’re vice ridden…

10.  There is a difference between testing your limits and disregarding them. You can take a fantastic amount of damage. That doesn’t mean you should inflict it on yourself.

11. Museum studies. It’s a thing. Look into it while you’re at NYU. Also, acting will never make you happy the way writing and academia do. I know your ego wants it and I even know you’re good, but try to channel that energy into your real passions and not a glamorous fantasy.

12. Your self-image and your reality very often don’t match. When that happens, one of them has to change. Either adjust the way you see yourself, or work to become what you wish you were.

13. You’re going to do what you do. It’ll be easier and you’ll suffer less if you follow your instincts, worry less about what other people expect and own your choices.

14. When you first start to write, you’re going to obsess about details. You’re going to strive for perfection in tiny, precious works. You need to. I get it. Here’s the thing: you’re going to suck. It takes years not to suck. Just lay off the impulse to grind every story down and keep cranking out the words. They’ll get better and so will you…And maybe try erotica sooner.

15. Stop faking orgasms. I now you’re nervous, but it’s keeping you from feeling real pleasure. Spend some time with a vibe and your hand because you can come, honey. Oh my god, can you come. Your body can do things you can’t even image. Just take your time and learn yourself.

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Erotic Fiction: Should You Stay Or Should You Go

Oil painting by Serge Marshennikov.

Oil painting by Serge Marshennikov.

She can’t sleep. She isn’t used to having someone else in her bed, but there he is beside her, hand draped over her hip.

The gray area they occupy is not at all safe. She wants to fit her body around him so badly she nearly rolls away, turns her back, curls up into a ball at the edge of her own bed. She stares at the ceiling, paralyzed, afraid his hand will move. She wants him to stay. She wants him to leave. She wishes she knew if he’d meant to fall asleep. He never has before. He always goes. They had agreed he would.

But she loves that he is there, sleeping in her bed…it would all be so much simpler if he hadn’t drifted off in her pretty, white room.

She stares at the ceiling, feeling anxious and sick. She wants one or the other – mean to stay or mean to go. She does not like the question mark hanging over her bed. He could wake up embarrassed. Brittle, bright and false. Oh, fuck. I’m sorry. I hadn’t meant…. Or he could smile and hold her. They could see where this will go.

She doesn’t know how to play this and she can’t sleep, not with his hand burning heavy on her hip. She wants him. She wants to sleep. She wants to be safe. She doesn’t want to play the fool. She doesn’t know which way to go.

The clock on her nightstand sheds a soft red light over her tortoise shell glasses, her journal, and her books, her usual companions in her pretty, wrought iron bed. She listens to his breathing, times hers to his, calms herself, lulls herself, pulls herself back. There is time for her journal and time for her books. This is now. He is here. For now, he is here. Her hand drifts over her stomach, past his hand on her hip, a soft feather-light touch.

Her body is tender and restless, despite having spent the better part of the evening with his head between her legs.  She wants him. She knows that. It’s why she isn’t safe. But her body wants him too, and that’s simple enough. She makes a decision and shifts, gently moving his heavy hand before pulling back the sheets.

He mumbles, annoyed by the chill, but not enough to wake up as she moves down the bed. She doesn’t touch him. She just looks, soaking him in, so out of place among the shams and pillows, the empty mug, the small box of tissues besides her bed. This is her room and her life. He is surrounded by her minutia. That means he is her guest.

She hovers over him, still watching as he dreams, struggling through some imaginary place. Then she moves lower, fingers skimming, barely touching the hair on his chest, his stomach, the tops of his thighs, as she settles between his legs. He shifts, as if he can sense her, and she smiles. His cock begins to stir, though it remains soft for the moment, limp against his leg. She inhales, catching the scent of him combined with a hint of her own. Then, very delicately, she takes it between her lips.

He shifts again, still dreaming, but not so deeply now. Gathering her long hair off to one side, she cradles his cock with her tongue and starts to suck. She feels his fingers in her hair as he hardens, nudging the back of her throat. She moans. He moans. It thrills her. The raw, unguarded sound of him makes her wet.

She stops thinking about the alarm she’d forgotten to set, or how she’ll get her hair washed, or catch the train to work. His hips rise up to meet her. The question mark is gone. He’s balanced right on the edge where she holds him, saying her name in his pleasure-thick voice.

She cups his balls with one hand and slides the other between her legs. She wants to come from sucking him off, but her clit is so hard and slippery that she can’t get the friction she needs as her mouth continues to move, guided by instinct more than art. She becomes her tongue, her skin, her cunt and her mouth, straddling his leg and rubbing herself while she works his cock.

He pushes up to meet her coiled frame, and she moves with him, barely aware. She is bent on the way he fills her mouth, his taste, the hitch of his breath. His balls tighten as she drags her lips over his length, suckling his head, teasing his slit, before sliding her tongue back down. It’s enough. She wants him to come. He groans and jerks as she swallows, sucking hard as she rubs her orgasm out.

Her crisp, fresh covers are everywhere; her soft, scarlet blanket has fallen to the floor, but she’s feels peaceful and good, resting her head on his thigh as he softens in her mouth.

“It’s late,” she murmurs, looking up at his face, which is lit by the numbers on her bedside clock. “Do you want to stay?”

A pause and she feels something in him relax.

“Yeah,” he says. “I would…if you don’t mind.”

She sets the alarm and pulls up the covers.

“No. I’d like you to stay.”

 

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On Corsets

Vogue 1939. Corset by Detolle for Mainbocher

Vogue 1939. Corset by Detolle for Mainbocher

It’s no secret that I love corsets, both for their aesthetic value and for the sheer pleasure of wearing them. I’ve worn cinchers, under-busts, Sweethearts and Victorians but none of them have felt so right or so comfortable as the custom corset I had made last year by the brilliant modistes at Dark Garden in San Francisco. It took three fittings to get my black brocade beauty to fit like a glove, but it does. It’s perfect and I would wear it every day if I could.

Someone once asked me why I love corsets so much – they’re commonly thought of as anti-feminist and uncomfortable (they really aren’t, if you’re wearing the right one). Plus, lets be serious here, I don’t exactly have full, swelling breasts to showcase. In fact, if anything, my figure is quite spare, or “minimalistic” as one lover once put it. What could a modern woman who wears yoga pants and workout gear most of the time possibly get out of something so lush and apparently torturous as a corset? Well, I’ll tell you. Power.

I didn’t wear my first corset until I was in a stage production of The Seagull in my early twenties. I’d done quite a lot of Shakespeare, but it wasn’t until I landed a role with an deeply funded, very established company in San Francisco that I got to wear proper period costumes. At the first fitting for a dress that would involve layers of petticoats and skirts, I was laced into a corset for the first time. The other actresses made a show of complaining about how hard it was to breathe, but I didn’t. I was quiet, because I’d never been so relaxed wearing anything in my life.

That corset was a plain, steel-boned muslin thing – there was nothing sexy or elegant about it, but I felt beautiful. My tightly compressed body felt  efficient and spare – strong, for lack of a better word. I walked more gracefully, laughed more spontaneously and held my own in conversations that would have intimidated me had I not been wearing that old-fashioned, arcane thing.

Custom corset by Dark Garden

Custom corset by Dark Garden

A different part of me emerged. Suddenly, I was confident and socially nimble because, for some reason, wearing the corset made me feel like I could get away with it. I hadn’t yet realized that being myself was not something to get away with, but my natural right. For the first time in my life, I felt comfortable in my own skin.

After the production ended, I saved my money to buy my own corset. I didn’t want a one of the pretty fashion corsets I saw in clubs. I wanted the real thing, which would cost me more than $300 at a time when I could barely pay my rent. The scrimping was worth it though. After six months of austere living, I bought a rose and gold pinstriped silk over-bust that I wore with everything from slacks and suit jackets to white oxford shirts and pencil skirts.

The thing I’d been taught to think of as a torture tool of the patriarchy had, very ironically, given me access to the social autonomy that my young, insecure self so desperately craved. If I could find strength in something that had, historically, been seen as an oppression, maybe my love of red lipstick and high heels wasn’t such a cop-out either. Maybe real power came from pleasing myself, rather than worrying about the male gaze and what my fellow feminists thought.

A woman’s relationships with make-up, lingerie, high heels – all those things we think of as commercially “feminine” – are intensely personal; it’s too easy to dismiss them as simple bids for sex appeal. While it’s true, corsets have been fetishized, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, so long as the woman wearing it feels genuinely happy. Corsets are sexy, and I feel sexy when I wear them, but the reason I feel sexy is very specific to me.

Note: This isn’t meant to imply that not liking corsets (or make-up or heels or any of the rest of it) is a feminine failure. It just means that every woman should feel free to pursue the things that make her feel goodwhether it’s Nike’s or FMP’s.

To me, corsets feel good, like very comfortable armor. When I’m wearing one, I relax and when I relax I am fully myself. My energy concentrates and drops into my hips and my dominant, predatory impulses rapid fire. I feel sharp an subtle. Far from being restrictive, corsets unlock me. I breathe more easily when I wear them. I stand taller. I let myself occupy all the space I want, which is generally quite a lot. For me, corsets have less to do with their effect on other people, and everything to do with their effect on me. They are a kind of second skin, one I no longer need to wear to feel like myself, but which I value and always will.

 

 

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