Who Do You Think You Are?

Chapter 4: Friends with Women

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The experience of gender segregation, the forcible alienation of "the sexes" from each other, from full humanity, is not a string of flashbulb memories. It is simply like air, an omnipresent medium so mundane as to be invisible.

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In high school, my dad notices that my friend group is very touchy and huggy. He tells me you need to be careful with women. You can give them the wrong impression. There are some women at church who really like hugging, he mentions.

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A feminist Jewish girl is my buddy in Digital Imaging class. Somehow the topic comes up and she claims with exasperation, "I don't understand why it's okay for men to be shirtless but not women!" Sensing a trap, I give her a frustrated and noncommital answer like, "Really? You don't know? If you don't know, I don't want to tell you..." I know that men are turned on by seeing women's bodies, while women are not turned on by seeing men's bodies.

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It's midterm break on the South Pacific trip. Two friends on the same day, go to an internet cafe and make up with their boyfriends who they've been complaining about for weeks. I consider the mediocrity of men.

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It's dark out, some of the girls from the group want to go skinny dipping and see the bioluminescent phytoplankton in the sand and water nearby. I decide to not be lazy or prudish and come along. We throw off our clothes in the darkness and run into the ocean. As we tread water together, giggling and "ooh"ing at the glowing water, Kelsey makes a joke about "the Hef" or something about me being a ladies man. It feels so strange, so deeply misrepresentative. As we root about for our clothing back on the beach, she laughs and says, "Oh, I thought you weren't skinny dipping."

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On the trip, I am around women in many different states: hiking, printmaking, hitting the town, lounging, getting ready for bed. I see them navigating clothing, hair, and makeup, choosing form here, function there. As we spend a lot of time outdoors, function rules more often than not.

As we prepare for a hike in the lodge, I happen to glance at Jane, who is facing away and changing her bra. I've never been around a "topless" woman before, and I'm surprised at how little it matters.

I begin to internalize how deeply bodies, and our perceptions of bodies, are mediated and contextual. I think about the work that often goes into feminine presentation, which I had never really considered. I think about the burden of confining a body to inherent sexualization. I feel my entire concept of gender, rumbling, loosening.

What Do You Hope To Gain?