If you asked me whether I enjoyed my body while I was in my 20s, I would have said yes. I would have thought about the times I met men and enjoyed being with them physically. I would have bypassed the disagreements about condoms, the cavalier attitudes around STDs and pregnancy, and the general frustration of men who think their pleasure is the only thing that matters when it comes to having sex. I would have focused on all the ways I learned to work around these limitations rather than focusing on the multiple failures I experienced with consent, possessiveness, and assumptions by men that they are some prize I was trying to trick into staying in my life. I would talk about the various things I got to try and the confidence I built in myself as I became better at navigating the fuckery that is cishet dating.
If you asked me whether I enjoyed my body while I was in my 30s, I would have said yes because by then I knew what I liked. I actively engaged in and appreciated masturbation and found partners who appreciated the same things in bed I did. I was infinitely more confident with experimentation and centering my needs in sexual encounters. I would downplay the variety of mind-games men tried to play or the ways they tried to circumvent my consent. I wouldn’t focus on how different partners tried to shame my body or my arousal because it fell outside the scope of what they felt was acceptable. I would talk about the ease with which I could orgasm and how I met the man who wanted to be a part of my life in every way.
If you ask me now whether I enjoyed my body during both of those decades, I’d say not really because now I know how much I moderated my behavior to avoid conflict. Now I can see how much thought I put into conforming to people’s perceptions of me. Now I am aware of how often I modified my clothing and behavior to be invisible to predators because anytime I didn’t, I experienced emotional and physical violence. Now I can see how carefully I cultivated an undesirable image so that I could have better control over whether people would approach me. I dressed and acted in ways that were intentionally unfeminine because they provided a level of protection that being feminine in any way seemed to negate.
It is not safe to be feminine. That lack of safety touches every aspect of my life, from my ability to be employed and attend social events alone. There is a risk with being found attractive in a society that encourages its male-identified counterparts to feel entitled to the attention and access to any individuals who catch their eye. There is a permissible violence embedded in our society that allows them to be predatory in public and private, that assumes their actions are innocent misunderstandings regardless of its impact on their victims. There is an implied consent assigned to almost every aspect of femininity, that makes every choice, from the decision to wear makeup to the choice of attending a party, a consent that is weaponized to silence victims of physical and sexual violence, accusing us of inviting harm because our very existence ignites the flames of dominance and rage in the male-identified portion of the population. We are blamed for the horrors enacted upon us because those who inflict the horror have used laws and social norms to shield them from the consequences of their violence.
At age 45, I’m still identifying the myriad of safety mechanisms I’ve incorporated into my life, the various ways I’ve chosen to minimize the possibility of gaining the interest of someone who has zero regard for my autonomy. I’m still recognizing the ways I’ve shrunk myself because the violence experienced by feminine-identified people is rarely acknowledged, much less addressed or rectified. The feelings of white male-identified people remain the center of that conversation and my fat, Black, feminine body continues to be the marginalized scapegoat. I have a voice that people actively ignore, and so my role as receptacle to multi-layered, societally acceptable violence continues, unchecked.
So, like many feminine-identified womxn, I protected myself. I hid in plain sight. I moderated what I said and what I did in an attempt to avoid appearing overtly sexual and adjusting when somehow, despite my best efforts, I failed. As I did this, I told myself that I was playing it safe. That I was living in the world that is, not the world to which I aspired. I justified my actions by prioritizing my physical and emotional safety and if others asked what I thought of their choices, I would advise the same behaviors. I don’t regret these choices because I choose not to judge how feminine-identified people navigate a violent environment with no good options. What I regret is that my choices did not make a better world, it just made me a less desirable target…and left others to experience the violence I managed to avoid.
The pandemic has made it easier for me to avoid some of the violence I could experience by embracing my physical beauty and my sexuality. The social limitations put into place because of Covid-19 have created a space where the ramifications of appreciating and enjoying my sexuality have changed. My marriage provides one sexist shield that deters predators, but the extremely limited access people have to me makes it safer to openly appreciate myself physically. It’s amazing to me that I am only now reaching this layer of the self-imposed, protective limitations I’ve placed on myself because I’m a cosplayer who loves being seen. And yet, I still tread carefully when decided what and how I wanted people to see me — and I ensured that it would be difficult to uncouple my physical self from my voice. While I did wear things that were formfitting and somewhat revealing, I usually tempered that effect with make-up or props that would add a barrier to my approachability. My outfit would say “sexy” but my makeup would say “threat” and that juxtaposition became an inherent part of who and how I choose to cosplay.
Yet, now we find ourselves in a landscape where there are no in-person convention. Where meet-ups need to be small and socially distant if they are happening at all. We are in a reality where physical access to me is extremely limited, which creates a space where I don’t need as strong a barrier to protect myself from physical harm. I can revel in my femininity and sexuality without necessarily being threatening. I can now explore myself in a way that I’d always felt too vulnerable to do in the past. I freely admit to being excited by the possibilities, especially as I am realizing how much of myself I’d closed off — it’s illuminating realizing just how much the external affected my internal. I am a person who lives out loud and when I quiet parts of myself to feel safe, it impacts how I am in private and this year I’ve realized yet another way I’ve been affected. I hate seeing all the ways I’ve shrunk myself to fit into a role I never wanted but it’s both cathartic and liberating to reach a point where I don’t necessarily have to live that way. This latter part of 2020 has been a virtual playground of me re-learning my body and my needs and figuring out how to meet them now that I have a lowered threat of physical violence.
That’s not to say that the threat isn’t still there because it’s always there in some way. This trash ass society makes it so, but the lack of physical access to me makes a significant difference. Now I have the space to play around and figure out how I feel about enjoying my body and embracing my sexuality openly. It is humanizing to have fun. It is humanizing to look at myself and say, “You are gorgeous. Look at this pose! Look at your face! Look at your eyes and smile and belly and butt… you are fucking glowing in these pictures! And, most importantly, you look like you are having fun.”
I am having fun. This work provides me with multiple moments in which I look and feel great. There is also a level of pampering that goes into taking these pictures. I have to stretch, moisturize, take better care of my skin, nails, and hair. I have to pay attention to what my body can do which has given me a new appreciation for it, rather than the anger and disappointment I would feel for what it couldn’t do. This is a new era for me — enjoying who and how I am, as I am, without feeling the constant pressure to improve myself. I feel like I have more space to just be and to pursue the things that interest me.
I am learning to approach my body from a place of love and care rather than frustration and penalization. I choose to nourish rather than starve; to pamper rather than punish; to coddle rather than neglect and to appreciate rather than condemn. In this moment, at this time, trusting myself, caring for myself, and choosing myself over others is my path. It is ironic that this was made possible by a fucking pandemic, but I will take and appreciate that privilege because less than that will continue to break me until there is nothing left of me to reassemble.
Protect your peace and find joy where you can. Shit is terrible but we still find our ways to survive and thrive.
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Originally published at https://talynnkel.com on October 11, 2020.