"Why do you care what people think of you?"
This was the question that started a downward spiral. It came at the end of a long day socializing with friends, enjoying good food and good wine, and my partner and I were talking excitedly about our planned post-holiday vacation. In preparation, my partner had quipped that she needed to diet; I laughed and countered, "I'm going to eat cookies." But our friend ascribed the diet plans to me (a cis-femme), and so it was to me she directed her question: "Why do you care what people think of you?"
"I don't; cookies," I chuckled, pointing to the treat in my hand. But our friend wouldn't accept my answer. "Then why are you going on a diet? You're never going to see those people again! Why do you care?" And no matter how many times I laughed it off, said I wasn't dieting, expressed my undying love of Christmas cookies, she continued, urging me not to care, asking why I was dieting, and arguing. "Why don't you just let it all hang out?" she asked as she pushed her own belly forward in exaggeration. I accused her of projecting (not necessarily herself, but my partner's diet onto me), which lead nowhere.
And then the tears started. Hers, not mine.
"Don't you know what men think of you?"
"I'm just so worried about you." This, while wiping tears from her cheeks. What followed wasn't much of a discussion. I did my best to assure her that, despite her "worry," I'm doing quite well, and I set off for home shortly thereafter. But her words came with me, first during an irate reflection with my (likewise put-off) partner, and again as I discussed the altercation with friends over the next several days. My partner was furious. "Does she know what men think of you? How? Did she survey them all? Did she ask? Or is she just making assumptions, based on what she thinks of you?" I couldn't even pinpoint my own anger until a close friend said, "My feelings would be really hurt, too."
And it did hurt my feelings, that she would offer so critical a remark of my appearance. But more than that I was incensed at the removal of agency, the critical reading of my performativity, and the assertion that my choices were wrong - most specifically, that I wasn't doing my job or making the appropriate choices, that I needed to think what men might think of me, and alter my behavior and dress accordingly.
When I returned home that evening I took this photo of myself. I had been quite pleased with my outfit that day, and thought I looked rather festive; this is one of my favorite sweaters, and I'm fond of wearing the pearls I once "borrowed" from my mother, and never intend to return. This skirt earns me countless compliments as part of my regular summer wardrobe, and I was pleased it translated so well to the winter holiday. But my friends tried to shame me for my choices that day, suggesting that I attracted too much attention from Santa at brunch, that he "leered" at me, and that I got him "excited." In the moment I doubted myself, especially when I realized that despite three layers of covering you can tell, well, that I have nipples. Maybe I should have been more careful in my choices? Worn something else? And then the critical-normativity descended in the form of that challenging question, forwarding notions that are harmful to all people, and I was no longer sorry. No, I don't know what "men" think of me; I've never stopped to consider that the opinions of a broad and diverse gender category should enter into my daily routine, impact my daily presentation. My ultimate response to this exchange is a reflection on what I think of as a social economy - specifically, the social economy of dressing well.
I argue that there should be no shame in looking, or being looked at, and that the negative consequences of the social gaze come from the purposeful misreading of the dressed body for the benefit of the reader, and his/her agenda.
When I dress I am inviting attention for something I have purposefully created. Even when I have not made my clothes I have still made thoughtful purchases, specific choices in assembly, constructed hair and done makeup, and overall created an aesthetic that is a form of performance art. I do this first and foremost because it makes me happy - I like it, and feel that my dress reflects a side of me that is most public and joyful. I recognize that the unusual nature of my performance invites a curious gaze, and that I will be looked at. I also recognize that in celebrating the body that brings me joy and pride that my performance encourages appreciation of that body and art by secondary audiences. We all watch other people; many will look, some will appreciate my performance, and others will not.
What I am not doing is inviting dehumanization by those who disagree with my choices or dislike my aesthetic - by those who read the female body as a strict commodity, by those who seek autonomy through the degradation of others, by those who read confidence as something to dismantle to reify a hierarchical social structure. I am not offended when people look, and I am grateful for the compliments I receive; I am offended by the assumption of desperate desire on my part, by the suggestion that my performance is only undertaken for the consumption of an unknown (or gender-specific) public, by dehumanizing for the dismissal of my other attributes for the sake of my performance art. I am not a walking surface. I am offended by the projection of critical "values" that debases my performance, and tries to shame me into normative anonymity.
Of course, no creator can control the interpretation of their work; once it is offered to a public it is exposed to a spectrum of readings, and experiences which impact those readings. And this is why I've decided to start a blog: to add context and reflection to my material performativity. This is intended to serve as a companion to my performances, reflecting on both the material (how I put it together), and the intellectual (what I think this all means).
So here goes.