Last night I got into a ridiculous circular argument with my partner about his venture to the strippers earlier this year. I kept finding reasons (excuses) to be upset: the cost of a lap-dance when we’re struggling to make ends meet, the fact that I had just paid and undertaken a lap-dance workshop so I could surprise him with a dance, only to feel completely intimidated and not go through with it (more wasted money), why he felt the need to pay to touch some other girl’s boobs, and so on.
‘If you don’t want me to go to the strippers, I won’t go,’ he said. ‘It’s not that. I don’t have a problem with you going to the strippers,’ I said, and meant it. In fact, the thought of him getting a lap-dance from some sexy girl turns me on.
I kept asking, ‘Would you pay a hundred bucks to touch my boobs? Or to watch me dance?’ He was perplexed by my line of questioning, and to be honest so was I. ‘Why does that matter? What’s this really about?’ he asked. I couldn’t answer because I didn’t know.
All I knew was that it seemed desperately important to know I could be the kind of sexy that guys pay for. ‘Why is that your benchmark? Why isn’t it enough to know that you’re gorgeous, that I find you sexy and I love you?’
‘I’m not blonde and I don’t have big boobs and my waist is too thick and…’ I heard how ridiculous I sounded. I could see his frustration. I was living mine. This was a ghost I thought I’d laid to rest: the ghost of eating disorders past. The teenage me who never felt sexy enough, never felt loved or validated, and felt threatened by everything I wasn’t.
I tried to voice my thoughts and feelings, but they weren’t making a lot of sense. ‘Growing up, it was what my dad was obsessed with: women should look like porn stars. They should have narrow waists and blonde hair and big boobs…’ ‘So you want your dad to find you sexy?’ ‘No…’ I said. But there was also a yes in there. It’s not that I want him to find me sexy and be sexually attracted to me, it’s that I never felt like I was good enough, that I would never be good enough unless I met a particular physical standard. It was this fucked up benchmark women had to meet—girls who didn’t look like porn-stars were beneath notice: invisible.
As a girl, I felt invisible most of the time. My achievements were largely academic and unseen. It wasn’t until recent years that my mother questioned her conscious parenting choice not to praise her children. I doubt my father will ever question his misogyny and the impact it had on his daughters.
In the absence of validation at home, I became a perfectionist at school. I lived for those little scribbles of ‘Good work!’, ‘Excellent!’ or ‘A+’ from my teachers. Later I had to exceed at my job, seeking positive evaluations, praise from bosses, colleagues and clients. It was the only way to feel visible.
But when I stepped outside those arenas, none of my scores or achievements mattered. Venturing to a bar or a party with friends, or posting a dating profile, I was once again competing against skinny blondes with big boobs, and disappeared.
For a few years after my husband and I split, I underwent a physical transformation. I lost a lot of weight, restyled my hair, got new glasses, and a new wardrobe. For the first time in my 30-year life, I was receiving attention from guys and girls. I didn’t care that my body wasn’t perfect, that my breasts were small. I was riding an adventure and actually being seen.
That period helped me gain confidence. I stopped comparing myself to other people. It didn’t matter that there were girls out there who were porn-star sexy. Sexy comes in all varieties. It seemed that the more I accepted the sexy in myself, the more sexy people found me.
Until last night, I thought I was past those old insecurities, and needing to meet some cartoon-like objectified female ideal. So why are those doubts surfacing now? Why can I only see what I’m not, instead of appreciating who I am?
The feminist in me finds the entire notion abhorrent. Logically I know how unrealistic and ridiculous my fears are. Nothing much has changed about me physically from then to now. If anything, my body is stronger and more toned from pole dancing for the last two years.
Perhaps this hiccup stems from the lack of certainty in my life right now. I have moved to a place where I don’t know anybody, which would be frightening on its own, but I’m also starting my own private practice, so have no financial security or regular job to go to. Having lost one of my cats to cancer before the move, shortly after we arrived I learned his brother has cancer too. My partner, the only constant in this brave new world, has a crush on another girl. Everything feels up in the air and out of control.
I wonder if this particular expression of insecurity is the default path my mind takes when faced with similar feelings of uncertainty, of being invisible and not good enough, or simply in the absence of opportunities to receive external validation. Perhaps the groove was carved so deeply and for so long that a part of it will always be there.
It has been years since I have compared myself to other women and to the porn-star ideal. I hate myself for doing it. I am more than my appearance, and my appearance is good enough. But there’s still a niggle there. A part that remembers the validation I received a few years back followed a physical transformation. Before I lost all that weight and underwent a refit, I had been invisible to the people who were suddenly interested in me. I may have come to terms with not meeting the porn-star ideal, but I also learned that how I look is important to how others perceive me and how I feel about myself.
I would love to say what people found attractive was that my exterior reflected how I saw myself, but there is something circular there, too. I was able to feel and project confidence because of the way people saw me.
I can’t change the way we objectify and value physical appearance; I can only change the way I see myself. In the absence of opportunities for external validation and stability in my new world, I need to find a way validate myself. I am more than my appearance, more than my achievements, and I don’t have to be seen to have value. I need to even out that groove finally so that when everything else around me feels unstable, I know my foundations are secure.