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Underwhelmed

Growing Up in Public

By Sandy Asirvatham | Posted 2/7/2001

If I'd given it too much advance thought, I'd have lost the nerve to go through with it.

I was asked to speak at an assembly at an all-girl high school on female sexual expression--clothes, behavior, attitude--and its repercussions. I agreed without really knowing why they wanted to hear from me. I was no credentialed expert on the topic, just a person with some half-formed opinions. The event was arranged months in advance, but I didn't realize what I'd gotten myself into until I arrived at the school and entered what looked like a 400-seat auditorium. Moments later, I was on the stage in front of hundreds of girls and their teachers, actually speaking out loud some of my most private memories and ill-formed thoughts.

The subject of sexual expression is an issue of great interest to girls everywhere, including the many confident, self-possessed, articulate young women of this school. The students had been assigned to read a column I'd written last year about the attacks on women in New York's Central Park (Underwhelmed, 7/5/2000). In that piece, I focused on one TV commentator's suggestion that the "women themselves" were to blame for the frightening mob behavior of the men who groped, stripped, and humiliated them--a dull-witted comment that made no distinction between a few women who, early in the afternoon, seemed to welcome the aggressive, beer-fueled flirtations of men spraying them with water guns and the many, many women later caught in a quasi-gang rape.

The simplistic blame-the-victim implications of a Dateline anchor were dismissible. But something still bugged me on a deep intuitive level--an unanswerable, almost unspeakable question that wouldn't evaporate no matter how much feminist, rationalist perspective I slung at it. It had to do with those few women who actually found it "fun" to be a part of the involuntary wet T-shirt contest in the first place--spiritual sisters, I guess, to the women who show their tits at Preakness and Mardi Gras. I try not to judge their behavior, but I can't really understand their motivations. Even though I was once, sort of, among them.

I limned the issue for my audience with a personal story. When I was 12 or 13, most of my peers considered me a geek and a prude. But by 10th grade I was a hot property: the girl who got the most flowers in her locker on Valentine's Day, the girl whose picture was stolen off a bulletin board, the girl who received mushy, rueful letters from secret admirers ("My girlfriend would kill me if she knew how I felt about you . . ."). The transformation happened when I played Sally Bowles in a school production of Cabaret. I was 15, a virgin, and the daughter of strict parents who didn't let me date. And I was Indian, therefore outside the prescribed range of American female beauty circa 1980. But by donning a tiny black corset and embodying a charismatic slut, I'd become lust-worthy overnight.

I told the girls that, yes, I loved all the sexual attention I got from boys and even from several of the male teachers, whose attentions I found both creepy and exciting. Yes, I felt--to use the horribly overused word--"empowered." But beneath the surface lurked a subtle but definite sense of disempowerment. It had nothing to do with feeling unsafe or threatened. But now "sexiness" had become the most noteworthy thing about me, eclipsing any other qualities I hoped people would see--intelligence, kindness, humor. I'd lost control of how other people perceived me.

So there I was, 20 years later, standing in front of 350 girls and again feeling that sense of empowerment/disempowerment. It was exhilarating; everyone seemed to be paying attention, and I even got a few room-wide laughs at my jokes. At the same time, I felt extremely limited in my ability to communicate. How could I have walked into this minefield of interwoven issues--sex, violence, self-esteem, power, image--without some clear professional mandate to say something practical and definite to these girls? We couldn't seem to get past the issue of clothing and its (non)relationship to physical danger. I kept saying, in effect, No, I don't think a woman who wears a miniskirt is asking to be raped. No, I don't think it's bad to want to look good. Yet the question was posed again and again in different forms. No, I said, I don't think you should blame or judge the Victoria's Secret models who undulate in their underwear on television--they're just making a living. But doesn't it bother you to watch that stuff? Doesn't it make you feel women as a group have been degraded? No, I don't think we should return to the days when women's sexuality was denied or repressed. But don't you think we still end up paying some kind of deep, personal price for the right to sexual self-expression?

Time flew. Dozens of hands were raised. I fielded the students' tough questions and tried not to ramble too badly. Afterward, when several girls came up to me to thank me warmly, I felt good for at least catalyzing their thoughts. But as for actual answers? Practical advice on how to be your sexy self without getting lost in our objectifying, virgin-whore culture? Ask me in another 20 years. Maybe by then I'll have figured out my Cabaret conundrum and will have something genuinely useful to say.

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