Themed Parties Reveal Nuances in Gender Expression
Published: Thursday, October 25, 2012
Updated: Thursday, November 15, 2012 01:11
When I was 12, I was mistaken for a boy in an airport. The airport worker was looking at me and holding my passport, which said Olivia Louise, a name that pretty much screams girl. But she just kept calling me Oliver and referring to me as a he. So a couple of days ago, I was standing in front of a mirror at Goodwill. I looked perfect for Deb Ball, wearing a men’s shirt under an enormous vest with pictures of fruit on it (which was going to be even more perfect with the salt and pepper beard I was going to draw on). But something was missing. I felt this intense fear of looking too much like a man. I felt this need to expose some part of my body — wear a see-through shirt or tight pants, or unbutton the top of my grandpa shirt.
I was taught how you were supposed to look, or how you could improve the way you look. And I think this feeling, this expectation of being, is pretty common. To some extent, we all have an understanding of an ideal body type, whether perpetuated through the media, our families or our social environment. The ways we interact with our bodies when we are children and when we are in high school, and the ways we feel that others perceive our bodies, form the relationship we have with them. Coming to Kenyon expanded my understanding of what body types were “acceptable” to have. But the way we believe others perceive bodies still shapes the way we treat and interact with our bodies. The problem is that we are taught to use our bodies as a form of presentation of ourselves to the outside world. Our understanding of ourselves is shaped by how we believe that others perceive us, and our bodies are the perfect medium for projecting our personalities in the way that we dress ourselves, and are expected to dress, at Kenyon.
In Mary Lambert’s spoken word piece i know girls (body love), she suggests that you should “love your body the way your mother loved your baby feet.” In her beautifully simple style, Lambert suggests loving yourself in an unconditional way that is ignorant of the outside world’s judgment and assessments. We are brought up constantly presenting our bodies for analysis. At Kenyon, for example, we put ourselves on display at the themed parties that are hosted throughout the year. Obviously, I am writing this from my own female perspective, and I don’t mean to imply that body-consciousness does not exist among men; I know it does. But, for whatever reason, when I hear there’s a “costume party,” I cannot just wear a great costume — it has to make me look good. I think this is a pretty normal feeling — the general reaction is to either find an unusually funny costume, or to wear clothing that to some extent sexualizes your body. I don’t mean to say that those parties aren’t fun, or it isn’t fun to dress up in costume; it is just interesting that for women in particular, dressing up does not feel like a personal expression, but instead a chance to be observed in a certain light by others. Moreover, I think that most people only remember these nights in terms of themselves. So, while women in general dress in a certain way, or are at least encouraged to dress a certain way, to “present” themselves, those who notice this cultivated image most are the individuals themselves.
My own personal revelation in the Goodwill mirror: I should dress like a grandpa for Deb Ball because it’s fun, because I want to look like a grandpa and express my true inner grandpa. Deb Ball is probably my favorite themed party, and I love dressing up, but it made me reevaluate how I’m dressing up, and for whom I’m doing it.
Olivia Grabar Sage ’15 is a sociology major who organizes the discussion groups on body image that are led by the Peer Counselors at Kenyon. Her email is email@example.com.