Vanity has got a really bad rap. It also has a wonderful song associated with it so there's that. I associate it with selfishness. Selfish--bad; selfless--good... right? I believe this thought is shifting, or at least making room for contradictions. But this basic idea remains: this shit is engrained friends. At least still in my brain.
I've started to notice the nuance in selfishness lately. There are some unspoken rules to achieve the desirable strain of selfishness. I'm gonna sum it up to say selfish is good if it includes respect. This distinction is by no means groundbreaking, it's rudimentary at best. I have such a distaste for selfish people but I also many selfish bones in my body, so I have to find the silver lining somewhere. I think when respect is first in general, good things happen. Specifically when you respect yourself. Be selfish when you need to be, put your *needs first. Take care of yourself. Feed yourself. Bathe yourself. Tell people when you are uncomfortable. Disagree honestly and value your own opinions. This kind of selfishness is crucial. I know the kind of selflessness that makes us think we aren't worth basic self care. Wash your damm hair, Carol. That stink is not doing anyone any favors.
I feel its when we put our wants first consistently that gives selfishness a bad rap. Completely and consistently disregarding everyone around you is not going to make you many friends, Joe. And thinking you walk on water is not coming from a place of respect. It's just falsely boosting your ego so you can justify acting like a Jack ass. Or maybe you've been so privileged in your life you haven't had to factor anyone in before so you don't even realize you're obtuse. OR MAYBE you spent so much time taking care of others that you've finally found your voice and goddammit you will be heard. I don't know your life. But I do know that I don't care what happened to you to make you like this, no one gets a pass for being an asshole. So let's continue to make this distinction between respectful selfishness and egotistical selfishness. At least for this thought. Troubleshoot this for yourself, there are too many conditions and special circumstances for me to go into, and I need to make a few generalizations to make a point. Okay, Joe?
Now that I've tangented into an unnecessary distinction between selfishness-es, let's move on to why we're really here.
I recently picked up this book from the wonderful Quimby's Books in Williamsburg. It is exactly 200 pages, it's a satisfying plain pearly white matte cover (like touching Suede, mm!), no title, and no author. I was so intrigued I had to buy it. I started reading it and quickly realized it was a stream of consciousness kind of journal. It was so personal yet so vague. So much anonymous wisdom muddled with unimportant but beautiful details. I started to think about legacy, and fame, and why claiming our successes are so important. I love my name, and I love getting credit when credit is due. But I was so interested in why this author decided to anonymously publish their story. Art still exists if you only share it with yourself. I guess it still works when you share it with the world but nobody knows it was you. Annonymity is kind of an attractive idea to consider... Whatever. Most importantly though, reading this author's story made this thought come to my head: "Write about yourself more so you can talk about yourself less." Like maybe putting their story into the world made room for them to listen more... Well it made me want to write about myself some more so. Vanity, am I right?
I am learning to accept and embrace my vanity more and more. I have to unlearn a lot of things I was taught and ideas I've come to create and embody in response to what I was taught. For example: The expectation to look perfect leads to becoming obsessed with looks, but being obsessed with looks make you vain, and being vain is not ladylike, and being ladylike is looking like a lady, and ladies are pretty, and like... hmph. It's this vicious cycle that goes on in many variations all the time. Sometimes we do this to ourselves more than others do it to us but again, this shit is engrained. We've got a lot to thumb through here.
I'm understanding my vanity to look like this: I love talking about myself. I love having exciting ideas that make people legitimately say "hmm" or "wow." I like to be smart. I hate when people don't take me seriously because I need to come off like I have my shit together. When I don't have it together, I need people to know that it was supposed to be like that. I love being told my outfits are unique. I like when people say good things about me and I hear about it through the grapevine. I love when someone tells me they have a crush on me. I am totally into so many of the "vain" things I spend so much time trying to pretend don't matter to me. I am getting to be okay with that. And I also dont think there is anything wrong with enjoying these "vain" things. I think young Allison decided there was for some reason she would hate all beauty related "basic" vain things, and now grownish Allison is trying to forget she learned that.
But I am realizing that bottling up all this vanity is making me more vain. Denial is turning me from respectful selfish to egotistical selfish, and it's my own damm fault! I go to my mom to talk endlessly about myself because I can be my most vain self around her and she will still love me. She is also good about telling me when I'm being stupid so that's just important. But because I'm only letting this Allison out every so often, it makes me a bad listener sometimes. Especially with my loved ones. I dont ask enough of the important questions. I rattle off my ideas and I get mad and sometimes I turn my ears off. Sometimes I can be a terrible terrible listener. I hold a brave face but retention is low.
This means I can only remember 2 stories my grandfather has told me about his life before me. He is almost 93. And I am so selfish in thinking that he needs to be the one to come to me with his stories! When really I need to be the one asking. It means I finally started reading the journal my mother gave me years ago that she wrote for my sister and I before we were born. I'm getting to the caring party pretty late friends. It's okay, but I'm happy to be admitting it to a computer that some folks might eventually read and as such learn about me.
So. I've determined that my vanity needs to exist and I need to give it an outlet. I need to talk about myself. I need people to hear and know that it came from me (anonymity was a flighty affair but at least I entertained it). But I also know I want to listen more. I want to know stories that color my family members in more. I want to hear what other people think about things. I want to try and see what other people see. I want to start really listening. But first, I need to talk.
I'm gonna write so I can listen. Besides, writing it out makes me forget I didn't talk it out already. It makes it so when I call my mom I can ask her questions for a change. As opposed to her half listening to me excitedly harp on about half baked ideas, and then saying goodbye because "sorry mom gotta run! love you!" before she even gets a word in. Yea, I need to get that under control.
About a week ago, I went to the Museum of Sex. It was the most amazing amalgamation of the "lowest" and "highest" brow art I've ever experienced. I am still giddy about it.
Upon entering, you walk directly into a sex shop. There are dildos and vibrators right by the doors. You go in further to see lollipop tits and penis shaped Runts, and the Kama Sutra and all its sex book friends. I found it incredible, but I will also say I had brief thoughts of *scoff* *such overt sexuality is trashy* *I came to a museum for christ's sake* etc. These thoughts were coming from a defensive place--my very personal struggle becoming comfortable with my sexuality fighting with my deep desire to feel sexually liberated (I'm using the word sexuality to describe simply having a sex life as a woman, not sexual orientation...*yet*). But I was so willing to learn that I let these thought bubbles pass and I walked right in acting like a pro. I bought my ticket and my wristband to Jump for Joy (bouncing on inflatable tits), thought mildly about getting an alcoholic beverage, then proceeded to the second floor to get my sex education on.
I am in serious need of sex education. I am constantly renegotiating my relationship to sex: understanding my many (mostly) consensual yet incredibly mediocre sexual experiences, the several terrible not consensual sexual experiences, the guilt I was taught to feel about my sexuality from a young age, etc. I know that my inability to fully grasp my right to consent and decipher how consent feels comes from a (taught) disrespect for my body and a rude misunderstanding of what sex is. There are many reasons for this, but I believe one major one is the lack of sexual education taught in school. ABSTINENCE. Talk to a boy you'll get pregnant! STDs. Touch a penis you will get Chlamydia! And of course, my personal favorite, the (ridiculous) concept of VIRGINITY. Your worth directly correlates to how many people you've slept with! (whaaaaat)
*True Story* In the 8th grade, all the girls sat in a room and a "sex educator" handed us a PINK Paper Heart. She told us to rip it up as many times as we wanted, then told us to put it back together. Once we had a fragile heart shaped puzzle on our desks, she told us to tape it up, try to make it look like it was before we ripped it. Okay great. We've all got fucked up looking PINK hearts in our hands. Now what? "Think of this heart as your virginity, girls. And think of all these rips as sexual partners. The more times you have sex, the more partners you have, the more you rip up your 'heart.' And no matter how hard you try, it won't return to its original pristine state. Is this the heart you want to give your husband?" Of course everyone was like, "Uhm.. No?" And that was that. She then showed us pictures of STDs, warned us about (not) getting pregnant, and we went about our teenage lives thinking of our bodies as something that can be given away.
Never mind the fact that there were undoubtedly young women who were sitting in that classroom whose bodies had been taken from them, be it through sexual harassment, assault, or rape. Being indirectly told you already have a damaged body before you realize your body does not exist to be given and certainly not taken, is a whole other kind of abuse. But this was the extent of my sex education. No body autonomy, no understanding of how sex works, no discussion of rape or consent, no acknowledgement of what a healthy partnership looks like. Abstinence, STDs, and Virginity. That's what we got in Phoenix, AZ. I won't get started on how this is a direct result of sexism and a contributing factor in rape culture, unwanted pregnancies, unhappy relationships, the list goes on. I mean... it would be just a small tangent, but I'll save it for another day. Here's to hoping you read that sarcasm like a billboard.
Back to the Museum.
First, I was introduced to the wonder that is Leonor Fini. It was a more traditional exhibition, she was primarily a painter, so the sections were organized much the way you're used to seeing in a museum. The first floor is her earlier work: realistic, inverting the Gaze, female subjectivity, male body as the object.... Her later work: the corporeal and the mystical, human and animal, obscurity, women as transcendental... There were her costume designs, articles about how blasphemous she was, other artifacts belonging to her and her legacy if you will. It all felt very familiar and beautifully radical. The second floor was more Fini, her much later work: pornographic sketches, film projects, costumes, self motivated illustrations to plays and poems she liked. I was so moved by the way she saw the world. It made me think of a line from a movie (I hate--details reserved for another Thought) A Star Is Born, "There are only 12 notes between any octave, and then the octave repeats. All any artist can offer this world is how they see those 12 notes. That's it." And then there was some bit about Bradley Cooper's character loved the way Gaga's character heard those notes. As cheesy as it is, it's true. And I was so fucking jazzed about the way Fini saw the world and how she used her art to share it with us. She saw it through so many different styles and mediums. Ugh. DONE GUSHING.
BACK TO THE MUSEUM.
So ANYWAY. I walk up to the third floor and there was diorama of robot people fucking at the top of the stairs. Delightful. Then it was into the Punk Exhibit. There were more vibrant colors, varied texture, the lights were on brighter, especially compared to the softer colors and dimmed lights of the Fini exhibition. There were TVs with headphones playing 70s Punk Propaganda videos, there were T-shirts on the wall in plexiglass casing, porn magazines, records and song lyrics, it was a punk overload. I was here for it. Finally it was the Jump For Joy room and the Stag exhibit: like 12 TVs each playing a different genre of early porn films with a bench in front of each TV to watch while you wait to bounce on some titties. I learned about how it was standard for straight white college boys to meet up and watch porn together, hence the "Stag" name (leads me to yet ANOTHER Thought for another time). So I watched some archival porn, bounced on some titties, got embarrassingly out of breath after a 2 minute jump, and then proceeded to the sexy gift shop.
Reflecting on how comfortable I felt in the gift shop compared to when I first arrived was a dramaturgical dream come true. I was impressed with the museum curators--These people know their shit. They took me on a damn roller coaster. They thwarted me immediately, forcing me to enter directly into a sex shop, buttered me up with artistically depicted vaginas and penises and the "high brow" version of exploring sexuality and gender, gave me what I thought I was looking for. Then they punked me out, kept teaching me of sex and culture and training my eye to be less concerned with seeing sexual organs in all their glory. And then of course they went deeeeeep and gave me my own (public) peep show and interactive museum, arguably with the "lowest brow:" porn. By the end, I felt somehow more comfortable with my own body, less afraid of others, and like I did something respectable (museum going) and taboo (sex and porn) all at the same time. IN CRED I BLE.
After the many trials and tribulations I went through to actually start accepting and advocating for my body (which I hope one day is not a right of passage for young women), I seek every experience to get more comfortable with her. I also seek every opportunity to participate in the demystification and desexualization of the female body (human body too but I feel it's particularly pertinent to the female). This museum is a critical lens to view how sex impacts our culture and how culture impacts our sex lives, it's a welcoming way to put yourself in a *SAFE* uncomfortable situation, it is a celebration of the human sex and the many facets of life it affects, and it is just fucking exhilarating.
Our bodies are important. They are not objects, they are not taboo, and they are not intrinsically sexy. I think sexiness comes from everything but a naked body. Because honestly, if you can't handle your thoughts or control your actions around a naked body, you are a fucking pig. Simple as that. We NEED to see more naked bodies in American society. We have to normalize bodies, because their purpose is so much deeper than that of a sex object, or something that can be damaged by consensual sex or be given as a damn gift. Fuck that.
I have loved discovering the kind of sexy a body can be when you understand the person inside of that body, when you get the chance to learn what they want to do in that body, and then when you are given permission to touch that body. Respect is sexy. Asking for consent is sexy. Getting consent is sexy. Advocating for your body is just fucking sexy. And feeling sexy is okay. Having SAFE CONSENSUAL sex with as many partners as you trust is fabulous. Enjoying sex is NECESSARY. I wish they taught that in schools. Alright... any middle school teachers down to take their kids on a field trip to the Museum of Sex??
New York City has the incredible power of making you feel so insignificant in the most important ways.
The need to feel "significant" is so engrained in American culture. The concept of legacy, fame, popularity.... it all feeds off this need to validate our own existence based on how others interact with us. Though it pains me to say, I certainly seek that validation. Something I'm learning to relearn. I didn't realize how important it was to me until I moved here though. No one in New York is going to validate you. In fact, everyone here is entirely concerned with themselves. In the most beautiful ways.
People could care less what the hell you're doing, as long as you don't stop walking in the middle of 9am train traffic. Fine, whatever, give us your pole dancing show to Beyonce's "Formation," just don't kick me while you do it and we won't have a problem. In fact, I probably won't even pay you any mind because that's just another Tuesday around here. Keep asking for a dollar on the train, most of us will duck our heads and hope you don't approach us. We all know that if we gave everyone a dollar that asked, we would then be unable to afford rent ourselves.
At first I thought everyone was just rude, but I realized that it is the ultimate form of self care that we all should practice. I have learned from my fellow New Yorker's, whose names I will never know, that what I am doing is just as important as what you are doing. I can take up the amount of space I take up. I can say the things I need to say. I can do things the way I do them and I don't need to explain it. Just don't bug anyone and no one will give a flying fuck. Perhaps even more important for some (myself included) is the reverse: It also reminds me that what I am doing is not the most important thing in the room. It is in fact so unimportant that no one even noticed. So stop acting like you run the place.
New York says, "Get off your pedestal. Mind your own. Find your own validation. Make your own rules. And most importantly... make sure you always remember that the G is a short train and the driver doesn't care that you didn't know. He's not gonna wait for you when he sees you walking to catch up. He's got a whole train of people who were there on time whose plans are just as important as yours. Sorry not sorry about it."