From cat calls to criticisms: Storytellers on the complexities of living in a female body
Images of the perfect female form are all around us, on social media, in movies and in advertisements for products from liquor to luxury cars. It’s hard not to feel inferior no matter what kind of body you have.
Fox Smith of Shrewsbury has complicated feelings about her appearance.
"Somewhere between loving and hating [my] body," Smith said.
Smith is one of eight people who will talk about perceptions of women’s bodies during a “Picturing Women” event Tuesday night at the Contemporary Art Museum, 3750 Washington Blvd. The gathering is connected to CAM’s current exhibition of work by Lisa Yuskavage, which features the female form. It’s a presentation of a group called Second Tuesdays, which holds a storytelling event once a month at various locations.
Smith is a 31-year-old graphic designer who also works as an actor. She likes to experiment with her look and participates in cosplay, which involves wearing a costume, usually that of an anime or video-game character, and acting the part.
No matter how women behave or what they wear, society judges them, according to Smith.
"[Society says] be a lady, be exciting, but don’t be too exciting," Fox said. "And show just enough, but don’t show too much or people are going to think badly of you."
Smith has received a lot of positive attention for her appearance. But that puts pressure on her to be more critical of herself. The mirror is like a microscope for her imperfections.
"If I haven’t worked out enough, I’ll tell myself, 'Oh, man, that little squishy part has got to go,'" she said.
‘My body no longer belonged to me’
Marylyn Sue Warren of South County will also talk about her body Tuesday night at CAM. She’ll start with her childhood, a "magic" time in her life.
"That’s when I knew I owned by body," Warren said.
But when she hit puberty, her mother told her something that dramatically changed her perception.
"[She said] that the way I used my body could cause men and boys to have immoral thoughts and therefore I needed to be really careful," Warren remembered.
She felt it was up to her to ward off male attention and yet …
"I didn’t feel like I had the right to say 'no.' I felt like my body no longer belonged to me," she recalled.
Warren said she was date-raped at 15, and became pregnant with her first daughter. She married the father but it didn’t last. She had another daughter and worried that her stomach wasn’t flat enough.
I am 70 years old and I am at ease with my age and my body. - Marylyn Sue Warren
Men continued to cat-call and whistle at Warren into her 40s. But in her 50s, "not so much." It was a shift that left her confused. She missed the validation but was happy she no longer had to worry about unwanted attention.
Then the retired nurse attended a clothing-optional women’s retreat, and was surprised by the experience of being surrounded by naked women of all different sizes and shapes.
"They were each and every one, beautiful," Warren said.
Today, she’s come full-circle, back to a feeling of owning her own physical self.
"I am 70 years old and I am at ease with my age and my body," Warren said.
‘Better put on a shirt’
Not all the storytellers at "Picturing Women" identify as women. Sayer Johnson is a transgender man who founded the Metro Trans Umbrella Group, an organization benefiting from any proceeds from the Tuesday night event.
Johnson, 43, grew up labeled as a girl and treated that way. What "girl" meant kicked in at the age of 8.
"It was a hot New Orleans summer and my daddy said, 'You’d better put on a shirt. Girls have to wear shirts,'" Johnson said.
His cousin called him a "tomboy," but meant it in a good way, and Johnson accepted that label. The next label he heard was "butch." But it, too, eventually had a sweet sound, coming from the lips of a lover.
Now, as a trans man, Johnson is aware of the male privilege he experiences in the world. He was asked to speak at the CAM event but feels almost apologetic about it.
"I don’t want to take up too much space," he said. "I want to hold that space for women who are still navigating their lives now, as women."
Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL