Friday, March 19, 2010

In the Nude: The Politics of Stripping (Dedicated to Carol Schmal)

(Above is a photo of the beautiful and free Carol Schmal)

My head is burning. I feel a little dizzy and a lot hot (in the head) right now, and it has something to do with the fact that I had my head shaved three hours ago. It is the first time I've ever done this. I have been thinking about doing it for a couple of years now, but I was trying to plan it out so that the timing would come in handy. Well, I finally decided that the time was right. With post-pregnancy hormones doing their little deeds, I have been losing hair like crazy. Crazy hair, yes. I am not used to pulling out so many hairs, and having to clean up after my long-haired self. I have had to wipe down the walls after showering because of the dozens of hairs that come out during the shampooing and conditioning rituals. Then there are at least a hundred hairs that I pull out while brushing my wet hair. Not to mention the hairs that come out when I blow the hair dry. While we were traveling back from Buffalo a week ago, I kept pulling hairs off of me in the car...they were all over. I knew they were mine, too. To put it bluntly (hairific pun intended), life has become a bit hairy lately. So I decided, about a month ago, to finally follow through with my plan to shave my hair. Today, I did just that. And that's why my head is burning. I don't know the exact reason why my head burns. I'm typically cold so I expected to feel cold. But it's a hot burn. I feel weak and hot.

Aside from the physical sensations of the shaving experience, though, I am greatly interested in its emotional and social repercussions. A woman whose head is shaven is, strangely surprisingly to me, quite a controversial spectacle. Yes, spectacle. Being a spectacle and controversial - why, that's right up my alley. I tested it out early, when years ago I told my parents that I planned to shave my head and dye the stubble purple. Their reactions were fuel to my gay little fire; frankly, they were mildly appalled at the mere suggestion. I would throw it out there, like this: "One of these days, I am going to show up with short, purple hair. Or a bald head." Just a harmless threat. One that I never officially intended to see through. I had other controversial ways of presenting challenges to societal norms, like marrying a woman thirty years my senior, getting impregnated by a Polyamorous sperm donor who retired from his university position at age 35, becoming a mother of two girls, adopting with my wife-partner our daughters (both of whom are biologically mine), posing nude for art classes. In fact, it is that last example of my political transgression against heteronormativity that I most directly relate to my desire to shave my head. I thought, originally, about posing nude for art classes after learning from Sandy that one of the women she loved and dated during her early college years posed - yes, IN THE NUDE. And that was back in the late 1970s. It was probably a form of jealousy and wanting to one-up the lovely and erotically free spirit of Carol Schmal. Carol, from the tiny bit that I have learned about her through Sandy, was comfortable with her body and had a very strong sense of erotic confidence and grace. It is sad that her young love with Sandy was so short-lived and is an unrecorded piece of herstory. Carol, tragically, was raped and murdered in 1978, shortly after she and Sandy had known one another. Her case was controversial and doubly tragic because a group of African American men were wrongly imprisoned for her murder for several years, until a Northwestern University professor and a group of law students reinvestigated the case. When you do a little googling to find out about the case, you'll notice a great lack of personal information about Carol is available. The most biographically specific information about the person, Carol, was vague, at best. The whole side of her that Sandy knew has been lost to the world - only living on in Sandy's mind and heart.

At first, I was envious of Carol's comfort with her body because it reminded me of my own discomforts with my own body. But as I grew and became more whole, I began to admire and respect Carol's sensual spirit and open body. I decided that I wanted to challenge my ego (my psychological insecurities) by posing nude for art classes. Once I decided to do it, that was that. I remember Sandy driving me to Garwood Hall for my first session. I was high - excited and nervous, to say the least. I was cold and sweaty, and I was shaking. She reminded me that I didn't have to do it. But, as I said, I had made up my mind. When I'm determined, I'm determined. It didn't matter if they shined a light on the hair on my ass or if I peed on the floor or had a vaginal fart while taking a warrior stance; I was gonna get naked on the dirty, cold concrete floor surrounded by twenty art students, a bright metal lamp and a portable heater, and give it my all. I brought my robe and a pair of shower sandals. I changed in a dark, concrete backroom while students mingled. The professor, Julie, was an awesome comfort. She had high respect for "models," and she commanded that respect from her students. I felt safe with her. I assumed various poses, whatever felt natural to assume at that given moment. I had to hold certain poses for long periods of time, which was-at times-tremendously physically challenging. My butt fell asleep, my arm fell asleep, my thigh fell asleep. They burned and ached and tingled. I was disciplined and fought through those sensations. I don't have a good sense about how society looks upon people who pose nude for art classes, but I will say this: It's not easy work. It's hard, on multiple levels. I was paid for it. Something in the range of minimum wage. I was glad to be paid, but more than that I was glad for the opportunity to do something so unlike anything I had previously done in my life.

I had a lot of fears that came and went. I knew that all of my fears were irrational, and that's why I acted despite them. I even managed to look students in the face and talk with them during breaks. Music was a huge help. It calmed my nerves and helped me to enter a sensual, calm place. I'll admit, I sometimes felt like a fragile animal in a room with a bunch of hunters, but that was mainly because my humanness - or, animalness (my limbs and bones and organs) - was on display in a context to which I was not accustomed. The only other times I had ever been "that naked" were in a private, intimate, erotic context with Sandy. It was WAY out of my constructed bounds to be naked and alone with my nakedness in a potentially unsafe context. I feared the fragility and vulnerability of it. I feared feeling a strong sense of dehumanizing otherness. And that is precisely why I wanted to do it. I wanted to feel all of those discomforts and come out alive to tell about know better how it is to truly feel otherness and also to know that those feelings are survivable. Now that I have completed my task, I feel less connected to my ego and more connected to my universal self (the self that is life itself, neither separated nor connected to any other life form). Sandy is proud of me for facing and moving through my fears, and I am proud of myself. I have always been a fearful creature, afraid of so many things. At least I no longer have to fear my naked body. Every so often, I will have one of those dreams in which I'm standing naked in a classroom of my peers and I feel horrified. But at least when I wake up, I know -truly- that the fear and humiliation of my uncovered body holds no power over me. I owe, in part, the credit for this transformative experience to a young woman who died before I was born and who was loved by, Sandy, a love of/in my life: Carol Schmal, who inhabited her earthly body without an ego so beaten down by fear that she was able to affect not only those around her at the time but also those many generations ahead of her. I feel, in this respect, Sandy served as a conduit between Carol and myself. She shared Carol's free spirit with me, and because of that I was able to grow in a way I otherwise would not likely have been capable of growing. I honor Carol, and am grateful for the ripple effect that her life has had on my own. If there were another, more official, way of honoring her, I would surely utilize it. Perhaps someday, a building or publication or poem will be named in her honor. She has, surely, affected the political movement that I hold near-and-dear.

Shaving my head is a way of being a part of a feminist-lesbian political movement. Not only am I challenging people to question their traditional (dichotomous) constructions of gender roles, but I am also challenging other constructions: for instance, the sociopolitical role of hair in Western societies and the way in which it affects other roles. What does it mean to be a woman when one of one's most feminizing markers/identifiers are stripped away? If my hair is intended to signify my sexual organs, then without it what fulfills the role of signifier? Perhaps my facial features. If those, too, were changed, then what next? Perhaps my clothing. If those were changed, then what? Once each identifier had been stripped away or transformed or concealed, then I become truly ambiguous. And then the question that matters is: What is threatening about ambiguity? If we have truly moved beyond a primitive form of being in the world in which we seek to find a mate, then why does the ambiguity of ones sexual organs (or even self) matter?

The people with whom I have shared my shaving plans have had an array of reactions. Generally speaking, the act of shaving one's head (if one is female) is quite controversial. The major response I have received is a BIG, fat: WHY? Why are you doing it? To that, I say, WHY NOT? I also wonder why it matters to so many people. I mentioned it at a family dinner a couple of weeks ago to test it out. Yep, I got a reaction. My Nana really gets irritated by it. She started announcing, angrily to the rest of the table: "Oh, yeah. She's the weird one in the family." That was after she let me know she hated the idea. It really repulsed and embarrassed her. I don't know exactly why, but many people seem to feel the same way. Why on earth would you shave your head? Like I would have to be nuts to do so. I don't get it: first off, why do people care what my hair looks like? I am a separate person who does not reflect them or their personage in any way. Secondly, what does it MEAN to people? Am I no longer a woman? Do I now look ugly? And why does it matter if I am no longer a woman and look ugly? One of my aunts got angry and said, "How do you think that makes a woman with cancer who has lost all her hair feel?" Since I've never had cancer, I don't really know. This one really gets me, though, because I find it odd. I think, if anything, it is supportive of and empowering to women who have lost their hair to cancer. I am taking part in an effort to destigmatize baldness so that women who lose their hair don't have to feel afraid or ashamed. I think the whole effort to donate hair for wigs is great, however I don't like the emphasis that women who lose their hair in chemotherapy somehow have to change the way they look to be accepted by society. I think women can support other women by shaving their heads as a way of saying, "You don't have to feel different or ugly because you've lost your hair. You can be bald and be beautiful. It is not your surface looks that matter, anyway." I am glad that women with cancer find support from organizations that help them look "beautiful," but I don't want them to feel like they need wigs or makeup to hide the fact that they have cancer. I think that wigs and makeup tend to send the wrong message: you're not okay as you are, you are not normal as you are - you need to cover up and pretend and blend and appear as if you are not going through a struggle. Even my sister left a message, expressing her moment of horror ("What did you do? I feel sick. What do the girls think of it?"). Perhaps my baldness just makes me look more like a non-human animal. Maybe that's why it makes people so uncomfortable. But, my friends, that is what I am. I AM an animal. I don't want to hide from that fact; I want to embrace it. Make of me what you will, I will be as I am.


erica clark photography said...


Mason McFadden said...

From Julie:

"Wow, Jessica, this is so great. This would be wonderful for future models to read. You describe what a transforming experience it can be perfectly. I just ordered a book about this very subject - if it's good, I'll pass along the information. Thank you so much for this!"

Mason McFadden said...

From Anne:

"Excellent post. I'm so sorry for Sandy's loss. I enjoyed reading about your experiences, and think it's great that you posed, that you lost the hair. I detested the post-preg hair clumps, but I know that this is about so much more than that. Congrats."

Mason McFadden said...

From Sandy:

Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God's sight. For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to make themselves beautiful. (NIV, 1 Peter 3:2-5)

Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head--it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil. For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man. (NRSV, 1 Corinthians 11:4-7)

So, yes, the New Testament of the Christian Bible says that women should cover their heads when they pray, and men should not.

(bottom line: if you pray, put on a hat.)

Mason McFadden said...

From Billy L:

"Great blog Jess! It is a good thing to stand out from the crowd. Conformity is not as simple as "polite society" just following social norms, just being civil. What does it mean to be an individual in our generation? Well, this is a good example if I ever saw one. Good for you!"

Mason McFadden said...

From SM:

"Can I say how much I respect you and appreciate your courage to pose for the art class and for shaving your head? Both of those things took damn serious courage and serious "ovaries" to do! I loved the look on your face as Dan was shaving your head--- happy, mischevious (sp?), and a touch of "Go ahead, mess with me about my head......." You got guts gal! Loved your blog post, too. Very personal and insightful.

You are one incredible soul, and I hope your friends and family know that!

OK, just wanted to put my 0.02$ into the mix. Hope you don't think I'm being too rude or patronizing. You impress me, but then, you always have. Thanks for your example and your willingness to risk for ALL of us!"