Consume Me, Please: Objectified Bodies as Art
I love being watched.
Writing that, I feel embarrassed.
I love being watched? Who says that?
There’s something so thrilling about having another person's attention on me. I love being in the spotlight. (I even love public speaking…) And although it often scares the shit of out of me, it feels amazing to be in front of an audience.
But I don’t let myself do it very often. In fact, I avoid it. Live performance (even just dancing or singing for my partner) is often layered with embarrassment and shame.
I hear a voice in my head, I should not be enjoying this so much. It feels narcissistic. It feels shallow.
. . .
I’ve been on display most of my adult life. I’ve been followed, stared at, sexually harassed, and assaulted. I’ve been objectified by the media, by the medical industry, by the government, by total strangers.
I have been viewed not as a complete person, but simply as a tool or an ornament or a thing for someone else’s utilization. As if my body were available for public consumption, just because I am in public.
But I remember hearing a quote by Glennon Doyle Melton, "If you're not at the table, you're on the menu.” And my immediate thought was, “Of course I want to be at the table. I want to be the subject of my life. To feel safe and empowered. To feel free from this system that is objectifying every body. But I also want to be on the menu.”
I also want to be on the menu?
Yes. I want to be consumed. Ravaged. Devoured. Taken in by others and absorbed like nutrients.
Wait, what? I want to be used as fodder?
. . .
When I was preparing to record this week's podcast episode (which is about approaching new experiences with childlike curiosity), I had a series of very clear memories of myself as a child…
I am 7 years old, in my backyard, listening to Debbie Gibson on my yellow cassette player, lip syncing and dancing my tiny heart out in an unselfconscious display of emotion.
I twirl and shimmy across the grass. I feel alive, building up energy and sharing my excitement with an audience of absolutely no one.
But I pretend my neighbors are watching, peering out of their windows, witnessing my dance, and a thrill goes through my little body. The song comes to an end and I do a huge finale — the energy unleashing through me and out into the atmosphere, like my gift to the world.
As if I’m screaming, “Here! Take this!”
It feels like magic. It IS magic.
I love this.
. . .
I am 10 years old, in my family room, listening to Loreena McKennitt on my parents' stereo system, singing "The Mystic's Dream" with deep passion.
I am obsessed with Mediterranean mythology and I imagine myself as a Greek priestess singing in an ancient temple in the forest. I am gesturing my hands to an empty couch, conjuring music for an audience of gods and goddesses. They are listening, enraptured.
I craft an offering of devotion and love and I release it on my breath.
This is definitely magic.
I later tell my sister that I'm going to sing the song for the next talent show at my school. I’ve already performed several songs in school over the past few years. (Including “Part of Your World” from the Little Mermaid, which I publicly dedicated on stage to my crush…haha! So bold…).
But my sister — whom I see as older and wiser — warns me that everyone will make fun of me. She tells me I should pick a different song.
I feel devastated and ashamed, but, on some level, not surprised. I add the song to the long list of things about myself that I am learning to keep a secret.
. . .
I am 13 years old, alone in my bedroom, listening to Tori Amos on my new cd player, belting "Precious Things" as if my heart is going to explode out of my pelvis. Puberty has arrived and I have no idea how to make sense of my body.
Performing on a stage, which had once been so natural for me as both a ballerina and a singer, has suddenly become just another weapon against my self-esteem. Being watched has become something dangerous.
Instead of being a storyteller or a conjurer of magic, I am becoming an object of scrutiny. In stead of offering art to others, I am folding in on myself.
I am bullied at school. I am thinking about killing myself. I spend most of my time obsessing about my desirability, believing that if I am more attractive to look at, if I am more beautiful, then maybe they will stop being so mean to me.
I will spare you the long list that followed, all the times in the next twenty years that being expressive or emotionally open or simply being a body in public was suddenly interpreted as an invitation for verbal or physical shaming by strangers, peers, and even family members.
Am I that surprised that being watched now feels shameful? That sharing feels dangerous?
Somewhere between seven and thirty-two, expressing myself stopped being about the magic of offering a story and became layered with the need to be beautiful and valuable. It got all tangled with a loss of power and with a fear for my emotional and physical safety.
. . .
Many of the artists I know feel the same way. There’s a conflict inside them between wanting to create and share their art with others, and feeling ashamed of being seen. They are afraid of being judged. Afraid of being misinterpreted. Afraid of being objectified. Afraid of losing power.
But here’s the thing: I think all of us are artists. We are all meant to be storytellers. And whether we tell stories through novels or dance or music or paintings or textiles or just over dinner with our friends, we are wired to share our stories.
Our stories are the way we connect, create meaning, and find belonging. (In Greek, story and history is the same word: ιστορία.) To hold them inside of us is to deny the core wildness of ourselves, the thing that makes us human.
And stories are meant to be consumed. They are meant to be taken into the body, metabolized, and utlized as nutrients for our lives.
The nature of dance especially (or music or acting or modeling for photography) means that my body is part of the piece. It is my breath, my voice, my limbs, my face that are telling the story.
I become the story. And if stories are to be consumed, then that means my body is to be consumed as well. I become both the subject of my life and an object of art.
. . .
I think we are totally capable of holding space for nuance and paradox. I think we can be both an empowered subject and an art object at the same time.
An audience can view me as a whole person when I perform a story. They can be watching me dance or sing just as a friend would listen to a secret or a confession. They can hold a non-judgmental space for my self-expression.
I call this witnessing. It’s therapeutic. It’s deep healing. That is how I first started pole dancing and it is how I learned to start witnessing my own shadows.
But sometimes it’s important that the audience doesn’t see me as me. The whole point is that they see me as a character in a story that I’m trying to tell. My body becomes something else, something Other, something that is to be consumed, imbibed for their own utilization.
They will take the story and they will make it their own. They will see themselves or people they know reflected in it, or they will ignore it. They will love it, hate it, or be indifferent about it. They will use it as inspiration or avoidance. They will critique it, adore it, or abuse it.
And that means, of course, that they will be doing all of those things to my body, as well.
None of that is in my control. When I share a story, it is no longer up to me how it will be experienced by the consumer. My only job is to be the best storyteller I can be.
. . .
Whether it is dance or music or poetry or photography or these essays, I want to tell more stories. I want to make more art. And that means opening myself up to the dangers of being consumed by people who are unwilling to hold space for me as a subject.
They will only see me as an object and forget that I am also a whole person.
But I cannot hold those stories inside of myself any more than I can constantly hold my breath and expect to be a healthy and functioning human. Telling stories is inevitable, just like breathing is inevitable. It is wasted energy to hold them in.
They will both only stop when I'm dead.
And even then, my stories will hopefully continue on like compost — feeding the roots of another person’s story — which is fodder for another person’s story — which is nutrients for someone else’s story — on and on and on and on...