We all touch ourselves in different ways. I could tell customers that, with my sex educator hat on, and it could mean that although there are some common themes around erogenous zones and patterns of stimulation, no one person likes to be fucked the exact same way as someone else. So for people learning how to masturbate, mimicking precisely the way I’d suggest you use a toy is less important than being completely checked in with yourself, noting the different sensations you feel as you experiment. What I like and what you turn out to like may not be the same at all, which is great, actually—not a departure point for anxiety but a reminder of a human truth, of our little fingerprints of difference.
We all touch ourselves in different ways, and sometimes those ways can be a form of storytelling. We curl our spines around our fantasies, leaning in as to a campfire in the cold. We tell ourselves stories about ourselves, tall tales that enliven us and torture us and turn us on. And when we masturbate, we root between our legs, playing with the ghosts we have made, even when we know we will be left haunted by the fears that we’ve sexualized, the wishes we cannot fulfill. We fling ourselves off the cliffs of desire, die the little death, and do not die.
We curl our spines around our fantasies, leaning in as to a campfire in the cold.
I don’t always like my stories. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that it’s easier for me to become someone else’s fantasy than to have fantasies of my own. Mine hurt. If I ever fulfill one, it moves from the gossamer realm of fantasy to reality and becomes dull and silly. Meanwhile, my unfulfilled wishes fester and bloom inside of me, nibble away at my viscera, and crowd out any sense of satisfaction. So if I can satisfy someone else’s narrative and experience their full pleasure through them instead, why wouldn’t I do that? It’s cleaner to try to disappear into the imagination of the other. It’s less fraught than dealing with my own humanity.
I was fed this story early, when I was a baby being socialized into but not yet failing at womanhood: that the only women worthy of love were women who could contort themselves into closed ecosystems, who could be completely self-sustaining. These were women who could suck the exhaust out of their own pipes and convert it into clean air to breathe, women with an endless capacity to hold and support their men, women who didn’t like books unless they were the books their boyfriends liked, women without opinions about art, women without opinions about sex, women who only wrote things that were nonthreatening. To be loved I would have to be malleable. To be loved I would have to be nothing at all, until a man thought to come by and create me, to breathe life into my clay. And to be that kind of woman, the right kind of woman, I’d have to be hairless, thin, and frail, like a cat fetus. I learned that from everywhere. I learned that from sitting in the soup we’re all boiling to bits in. I learned that from seeing myself represented nowhere, seeing no one with my body type being happy, loved, accepted, desired. I learned that through the shame that passed into my mouth, mixed with men’s spit and semen.
But this is all preamble to what I would rather say about my body, its pieces and its whole. Loving my body has been a struggle for a long time, since long before burlesque, before I was sexually active, before I had words for gender identity or the experience of gender dysphoria. I just knew that I felt “off,” not the way a woman should, not soft enough in some places and too hopelessly soft in others. I hated my belly; I still have a hard time with it, despite loving the bellies of others with my whole self. I feel like I’m slogging upriver sometimes, the current of my body and hormones telling me how unfeminine and unwomanly, how somewhat in between I am. An androgenic cocktail, the Charybdis that pulls me closer to the center when I am so much more interested in being on one shore. I’m comfortable in femme, in hard femme, the spiked and gold-plated femininity of my everyday presentation. But this daily effort takes hours of work and illusion and it slips. It falls apart too easily. Bleach and razors and corsets and makeup and wigs and drugs—I am not always what I say I am. Proof of my womanhood lies in the work itself, “woman” representing not so much an identity as a set of actions, an expenditure of labor. Haven’t you heard people whispering in scorn about how a woman has “let herself go”? What is hidden in those words? The fear of someone who has given herself permission to set off in the direction she actually prefers?
When I invite someone into my body, it’s like welcoming a guest into my home.
Am I, then, some sort of Frankenstein’s monster, a creation cobbled together from my childhood dreams and fears? Full burlesque drag covers the surgical seams and spackles over the inconsistencies. But I do not feel like a monster, nor a sideshow at a carnival, a bearded lady, a fat body to be gawked at. I am a configuration of bone and blood and skin, firm flesh and soft pillowy fat, and when I invite someone into my body, it’s like welcoming a guest into my home. I want to offer comfort and be comforted by the company.
I am not at war with the body I wake up in. We’ve slowly built up an armistice, even though there are and may always be moments that threaten to rupture the detente. There is no skinny woman inside of me waiting to get out, to be unshackled from cuffs of fat. If there ever was, I have interred her, Cask of Amontillado–style, and left her for dust. There is an effervescence in the unruliness of my body. Feeling fat and ugly has gone from feeling like a tremendous burden to feeling like some kind of inverted superpower. I have learned, as a function of my continued existence and the abject joy I experience, that being beautiful is not the most important thing in the world, and so being ugly is not the worst thing I can be. The best phrase our wretched, commodified vocabulary can come up with to describe this is “body positive,” which I’m not. I stopped believing in those words when an ad parroted them back to me so that I might buy $40 soap. I realized the phrase had been offered in my life as a consolation prize, an individual balm for living in a society that hates fat people. I do not owe the world positivity when it seeks to punish and destroy people who look like I do; the onus is not on me to be relentlessly cheerful about this journey. Moving toward pleasure is only useful if it also moves us toward liberation. Which is why I sometimes say, when I’m feeling contrarian, that no one should have a body. I’ll wave my Jewish hands over this sentiment and say a combination of prayer and curse: may we all become a fine, damp mist. The only beings who have it right when it comes to bodies are caterpillars. A caterpillar does not go into its chrysalis and move its body around until it becomes a butterfly. Rather, it dissolves all of its own tissues by releasing the enzymes it needs to digest itself, to unmake itself completely. That’s self-actualization, baby. Good for them.
From Naked: On Sex, Work, and Other Burlesques by Fancy Feast. Copyright © 2023. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.