Sunday, June 1, 2008


(Mae Snyder and friend, unknown date and place, from Isle of Lesbos Vintage Images)

In my early 20’s, I didn’t think people were beautiful. It wasn’t just that I had rejected society’s rigid definition of beauty; I didn’t find the appearance of human beings attractive, even people I loved. Until I went to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival for the first time, I never let anyone see me naked, not even my lovers, but this was not modesty or shame – I didn’t want to see anyone else naked, either. This was painful and confusing to me, and I learned after a time or two that trying to talk it over with someone I trusted was not a good idea. (People can be so insecure.)

At 25 I came out as an incest survivor, part of the first wave in this country. My entire personality heaved up to the surface like boulders in a field, broke apart and demanded I walk differently in the world. After this process was launched, one Sunday afternoon I was driving myself and a woman who soon would become my girlfriend up to Mount Tamalpais from Sausalito. Still on the leeward side of Mount Tam, we came up behind a solitary bicyclist struggling with this steep, winding ascent. There were no turnouts on this narrow road within sight, passing was not possible, and we weren’t in a hurry, so I geared down and dropped back a respectful distance to prevent the young man ahead of us from feeling harried.

We drove several minutes this way, in silence. The day was brilliant, and with no ocean wind penetrating even the top of the canyon, sweat was cascading down the biker’s bare torso. His back was brown, his head was bent forward, and as he pushed each pedal arduously down, swiveling his hips from one side to the other, it seemed as if every muscle in his body was being flexed and briefly outlined under a lacquer of oil. Just before we reached a small lay-by where I knew I could safely ease around him, my friend remarked, “He’s really beautiful, isn’t he?”

To my amazement, I had to agree. His body WAS gorgeous. It felt like some kind of rescue, to be able to see this. A minute or two later, I recovered enough to turn my head and look at my friend. She, too, was beautiful. I sucked in air at how perfectly she was formed, her snub nose, the gap in her front teeth, the rolls at her waistline. I stared at her until she laughed with embarrassment and told me to watch the road.

At that time, in the Bay Area and elsewhere, lesbian feminists were exploring and promulgating the theory of looksism: The idea that any kind of opinion based on someone’s appearance was a lie and inherently oppressive. The theory arose partially from the revolution of rejecting gender imprisonment imposed by makeup, tight clothes, bras, and high heels. But it had, I think, an equal genesis in our struggles with how class judgments were linked to clothes and to the racism of all common beauty standards, a racism first brought to public attention with the mind-blowing affirmation of “Black is beautiful”. Looksism tied all these superficialities together and, in a logical extension, also demanded that we find the beauty in fat, in disability, and in age.

It’s hard to realize how revolutionary this concept was. Looksism has been among most attacked and ridiculed positions identified as “PC” in origin. But the backlash, especially from the many industries who profit ceaselessly from our hatred of how we look, is an accurate gauge of how right we were. If we could easily, instantly, see the beauty in every kind of human appearance – or, more to the point, if that ability to recognize this were not systematically stamped out of us very early – justification for all kinds of oppression would melt inside us and be cleansed away by our sifting hearts.

A decade later, I was again on the edge of Mount Tam for a weekend workshop. One of the workshop leaders, Caroline, had been in a wheelchair since a car accident at 20 had left her hemiplegic. I just plain adored Caroline, and despite some serious obstacles (mainly, the fact that she was straight), I often devised scenarios wherein she might come to desire me. It’s likely that these imaginings were not completely concealed by my actions or my expression. But Caroline was generous to me, and liked me for who I was, and kept me in arm’s reach.

That evening, we ended one group session very late for dinner, and everyone rushed out the door toward the cafeteria. I needed something from my dorm room and headed for it by way of the connecting bathroom. When I swung open the door to the bathroom, I heard a voice call “Hello? Who’s there?” It was Caroline, struggling with a stall that was not really wide enough for her chair; this was not the designated disabled bathroom.

She was defensive as soon as she saw me. “I know, but I couldn’t wait, it’s been too long since I changed….” I picked up where her voice trailed off, with a questioning “Catheter bag?” She nodded fiercely, not meeting my eyes, focused on trying to get her pants unzipped.

“What do I do?” I asked.

“Well, you can lift me, right?” I was enormously strong in those days, and could, easily. “Okay, once I get my pants down you can lift me from my chair and put me on the toilet, because I can’t get close enough to make the transfer myself.”


She still wasn’t looking at me. “You’re gonna see my twat.”

Since I had more than once had fantasies about seeing her twat, this was definitely not a hardship for me, but I was pretty sure I shouldn’t reassure her from that angle. Silently I moved her from the chair to the toilet. She interpreted my silence as discomfort, and fumbled as she tried to detach the catheter tubing. Suddenly, it jerked free, spraying an arc of urine over the door of the stall.

Her humiliation was complete. “God fucking DAMMIT” she cried. She looked like she might rip the catheter out of her, and I gently took the bag from her hand. She began pounding on her numb legs, crying and yelling “FUCK” with every blow.

I have raised a child, and seen several animals into decrepit old age. Piss and shit are just a fact of life for me. Further, my particular chore at this workshop was to clean this bathroom every day. There were supplies near at hand, and a drain in the middle of the tile floor.

“Hey” I said, trying to get her attention. She looked at me with fury and grief dripping from her eyes. “Wanna see what it’s like to be a guy?”

I turned the valve on the bulging catheter bag so the tube was open and a vigorous stream of piss splashed out into the floor. Pinching the tube, I could aim at the wall opposite the stall and a satisfying yellow arc cascaded down the tile. Caroline gave out a shriek, then said “Gimme!”

We emptied the bag in all four directions, hitting sinks, mirrors, windows, and, Caroline’s achievement, the light fixture. The only thing I felt like I had to throw away was the toothbrush left behind by a workshop participant. The rest came clean with Pinesol in hot water, and Caroline saved a plate for me in the cafeteria as I mopped up.

(© 2008 Maggie Jochild; originally written 6 February 2001)

1 comment:

letsdance said...

Wonderful, Maggie.... Bless you for your compassion for yourself and others.