The Thread: Object Lessons

By

 

 

 

Next to the mirror, in the tiny hotel bathroom, above the toilet, there was this wallpaper: white background with black text, kerned and spaced artistically. The disjointed phrases popped out at me as I was brushing my teeth:

Swell
Long legs
Good working order
Pink
Black dress that hugged
Hair more or less blonde
Breasts
“Independent”

There was a woman in the wallpaper. Or bits of one, anyway. I wanted to pull out the pieces, stitch her back whole, but my husband and three-year-old daughter were waiting for me to check out. So I spit in the sink and wiped my mouth.

In the car, as we left the hotel behind us, I told myself it was nothing. I take everything too seriously. I’m too angry. So angry. This is a man’s world. (Sometimes I forget.) I looked at my daughter as she held a mermaid doll to her chest. Not The Little Mermaid (though we have one of those; she’s a bath toy), but a knitted, soft-stuffed, round-bodied mermaid with a bright orange ponytail that she got as a birthday present.

*

When I was in fourth grade, Kim Donovan and I played Barbie. Long afternoons in the bathroom, filling the sink with water and soap, making a “spa” with hand towels and our dolls. Kim brought her bag of dolls over at least once a week, and the two of us could get lost for hours in the long stories we made up for them.

I was jealous of Kim’s Barbie clothes—she had everything! Meanwhile, my mother’s disapproval of all things Barbie meant I had to rely on the generosity of strangers, my  allowance, or my own meager crafting skills to get my Barbie anything different to wear.

Mostly, what this meant was my Barbies were dressed from the remnants bin. I didn’t know how to sew, really, but I could use scissors. I would wrap Barbie in the cloth remnant and cut out arm- and leg-holes where she needed them. I then “sewed” the garments together with a lot of tape and string, and the occasional well-placed safety pin.

Real Barbie clothes were tailored to her strange, top-heavy shape. My clothes always hung like sacks from her expanded chest, in a column to the floor, her long legs lost under fraying fabric.

When Kim would spend the night, we’d whisper in the dark in my queen bed. Stories about Barbie and Ken, or her other boyfriends. We imagined a day in the life of any one of Barbie’s many careers. We whispered about things we’d seen women do in movies. (Kim told me that men peed inside women to make babies.) We imagined the boyfriends we’d have one day when we grew up, and told each other about who we would be (a famous Broadway actress, a teacher), who our grownup friends would be, and what our rules would be. (I planned to eat “junky cereal” every day.) We were girls and womanhood still meant potential.

*

When Hugh Hefner died, I shrugged. He embodied everything I wish would die. He was entitlement wrapped in silk pajamas, a man who made money printing photos of women without their consent. He sold the fantasy of women as paper dolls, disposable, garbage. He took the breathing body and made it two-dimensional, flat, a catchment for cum and condescension. I imagined his death rattle: not a prayer, not a prophecy, but another sleazy line.

The surprise came the next morning. The chorus of (mostly white) dudes rhapsodizing about what Playboy meant to them as young scamps, and (mostly white) women talking about Playboy’s importance to their development as young girls. I suppose the magazine gave women a glimpse of a certain kind of power, but I always felt it held outside our grasp. Keep away. It surprised me that other people saw liberation. “Independence.”

I thought about the way I learned to hate my own body. The physical measure of my worth is an ever-moving bar. Curvy is the new skinny; strong is the new sexy; big boobs, little boobs, waif models, Anna Nicole Smith, blondeness, whiteness, barely legal, “no makeup,” makeup, no wrinkles, but never looking “done,” no hair and no stubble. So much effort to look so effortless.

*

As my family and I continued our road trip, I couldn’t let the wallpaper go. Who was it for? Why does a hotel bathroom need a sexualized body inside it? I put a picture of the wallpaper on my Instagram. I wanted an explanation.

Zoe Fisher, a librarian friend of mine, did some research. The words on the wallpaper were from a poem by Ernest Farrés. The poet looks at a girl on a train reading a book. He describes her hair, her eyes, her pink skin, her attitude, her black dress, her breasts, her long legs and her swell, and sure enough, he’s unhappy that she missed the sunset out the train car window, a view he no doubt hoped would make her gasp audibly, as if shaken by a delicate orgasm.

It was, we agreed, the poetry version of “Smile, girl!”

This is not the first time I have felt objectified by a hotel. I mentioned this to my husband as we were driving.

What is it about hotels?

The last time this happened, before the wallpaper, I was in LA with my girlfriends attending a writer’s conference. We stayed at The Standard. Inside it looked like a Wes Anderson set. Twee vintage dress; the boy whose record collection is never played, only kept in dust jackets and admired.

Words on the room key said: Slip It In. The shower was all glass, with a view to—or from—the bed. There was a self-playing organ in the lobby; elsewhere the central piece of art was a huge mural of women’s body parts.

Because I was with bold, broad, feminist women, this hotel’s leering murals and carefully cultivated, hipster-dude image felt especially out of place. All of our jokes were bawdy and menstrual. Our femininity was under attack. Our personhood. Our right to sleep without having something slipped inside us.

*

Originally, my mother forbade them. Barbies weren’t good role models, she told me. But for my sixth birthday, someone gifted me one, and the floodgates opened. I don’t remember my parents ever buying me a Barbie doll, but other people did.

Barbie was getting away with something I didn’t understand. Barbie meant breaking mom’s rules, rebellion in a plastic, pink and frilly dresses, painted-on makeup where my mom had none. Barbie was the decadent, clothes-loving, made-up-for-bedtime older sister I didn’t have. Where my mom wore hiking boots, Barbie’s feet were literally arched permanently for heels. She was off-limits. She was an ambitious, high femme personality I wanted, but didn’t understand. I only knew she was not my mother.

I can still hear my mom’s warnings in my head. They’ve played there occasionally for years, but never more than they do now, as my own daughter has become obsessed with a Barbie cartoon on Netflix. I bite back the words, “Real women don’t look like Barbie,” resisting the impulse to channel my mother’s voice.

I don’t say this to my daughter because I remember feeling like the point was rather obvious. When I played with Barbies, I didn’t think at all about her body compared to my own. She was a doll. I looked at her and expected nothing. She wasn’t an aspiration to me; she was a toy. My skin would never be her tan plastic color, and my hair would never be acrylic. I didn’t expect that I would swell like that.

I also don’t believe that I can simply turn off a conversation with my daughter by turning off the TV. And, to be honest, something about this current version of Barbie seems alright: she’s a doll with a million careers, and the endless dress-up wardrobe to accomplish anything she sets her mind to. She’s not perfect, but since when do we require perfection in our toys?

*

I see women mourning the loss of Hef, and my belly tingles and burns. How many years of dehumanization is enough? The answer depends on who you ask. For some, the object lesson lasts forever. They think he freed them, somehow, as though women’s bodies weren’t hatching on their own, in shapes and sizes that rebelled, painfully, against the ones he tried to prescribe. As though we needed a man to save us, or make us, when we were our own creators. We have always been the creators.

*

My grandpa kept a stack of Playboy next to the toilet at their vacation condo on the south shore of Lake Tahoe. I lived on the north side from age one to fourteen. Every year, my grandparents spent the month of August in their condo, and we would come around the lake to swim in the pool. I think I was seven or eight when I discovered his magazines. He kept a single People magazine on the top of the stack, or maybe that was my grandma, trying to cover for him.

The magazine stack was impressive, two feet tall, as high as the toilet, and up to my waist. Once I moved that top magazine, that stack was Playboy all the way down. Half my height in flat naked women. Nobody ever told me that I wasn’t allowed to look, though I intuited that the magazines were not for me because they were dealing in sex or something like it. But it didn’t stop me.

There is no sex in the pages of a Playboy. There is only the invitation to imagine sex with the flat body on the page. Tear it out, put the picture up in your shop if you like her. Paper the walls with her. Take her down and crumple her up, toss her in the wastebasket when you move on to a different picture or a different girl. There is always another picture and another girl. Ceci n’est pas une femme.

*

It was a long road trip, with time to stare out the window, to watch the vibrant greens, old growth trees, and mysterious shorelines of Puget Sound and its islands pass by. I thought about the chain of events that lead to the wallpaper being there, the eyes of the “poet” judging me while I brushed my teeth. Once upon a time, there was a wallpaper manufacturer who thought poetry on wallpaper would be an excellent idea. And instead of choosing, say, Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman,” the manufacturer chose a poem about a girl being looked at across a train aisle, for the viewer-poet’s pleasure, and judged, as all female bodies are in public. An interior designer for the hotel looked through a hundred samples before choosing a few options, including the one that contained the words “breasts” and “long legs,” one that mocked independence with a single set of quotation marks. Maybe he thought he was sly. The interior designer showed this smaller set of samples to the owner of the hotel, the owner picked the one with the sexy body words. Edgy. He thought himself artsy, maybe even a poet. This is Seattle. Even hoteliers are aspiring poets. Someone approved the bathroom design. Someone hung the wallpaper. And they all lived happily ever after, until one morning, a bitchy feminist took a picture.

Traveling can be exhausting. By the time you check in, you need to relax. Turn your brain off. Sleep while the walls judge you coming up short, always coming up short, unwelcome, ungainly, unruly. A body that you haven’t curated right. Remember you’re neither swollen in the right places nor lean enough to qualify as long. Even your blonde hair is more or less failing.

I fail spectacularly at being object beauty all the time. I’m flawed. Too short, too thick, my belly that hangs funny from a C-section, not perky, not young, too smart for my own good, too dumb to run away. I don’t work out as much as I could. I eat what I want. Too angry. So angry.

In the room where you’re supposed to take your lover into your hands, your mouth, your body, opening long legs, stretching wide, fully there in the hush and the way bodies come together. Good working order. Are you thinking about the cellulite on your ass right now? Are you worried you’re not good enough?

Horizontal. But not enough.

*

Some man explained to me that young women needed to stop being duped. Sexuality isn’t power, he scoffed. It’s sad that young women are constantly believing that it is.

But from where will these young women learn their worth? From whose stack of magazines does a girl pick up her first impression? What girl child, just learning to read, spots the words on the wall of a hotel room, on the road with her parents?

Even the walls are judging us, hiding a black dress that hugs beneath the hairdryer hook. Now, take a sexy shower so he can watch from the bed. Come out, dripping wet. Be Phoebe Cates, walk steady, dripping wet, droplets of water leaving footprints on the floor, running down bodies, get on your knees, yeah right there, honey, and open your mouth.

*

Kim Donovan and I played Barbies. But really we played Barbie sex.

I didn’t have a Ken.

I cut all the hair off an early Barbie, down to short spikes, almost like a shaved head. Her yellow doll hair stuck out of her plastic skull in clumps. Patchy. I saved my allowance, bought her some Ken clothes: a pair of khaki slacks and a square-collared shirt. Her giant plastic boobs made the shirt tent funny, and they got in the way when I made her kiss the femme Barbies. One set of hard plastic tits was an obstacle, but two of them made the kissing acrobatic. I had to leverage their faces together at the expense of their legs. My Barbies had mouth sex more than anything else.

My Barbies’ sex was all strange shapes, or pushing them together sideways. There was a lot of boob navigation to be done. But I already knew there was supposed to be a man in the room, even if it was a Barbie in boy clothes. Even if the man had a Barbie-shaped body. I already knew that sex needed someone who wasn’t in a dress. Dresses, I thought, brought subservience in their sashes. Women were supposed to run, Daphne-like, from those khaki propositions until there was no other option except to give him what he’s after, or become unyielding, a Laurel with no point of penetration. The paper mother: wood.

*

There was a woman in that wallpaper. Or parts of one anyway. I looked for her, stringing together the bits I could find. Maybe she was a runner. Maybe she liked to sing. Maybe she painted sunsets in neon. Her black dress because maybe she had lost her father. Maybe she was sad so deep but she couldn’t stop running long enough to reach it.

Finding a woman in the wallpaper is enough to make an English major pause and breathe. Was I being too sensitive? Aren’t I always? It’s just a picture, just a joke, just a suggestion. It’s just the wallpaper in a hotel bathroom. Why is everything about feminism? Don’t I ever just enjoy anything? Why shouldn’t we celebrate women’s sex appeal? Isn’t this about prudishness, and aren’t we all better off with this flat, glossy fantasy of sex than with the repression of sex that came before?

*

On summer afternoons, while everyone was at the pool, I would go upstairs to my grandparents’ condo alone and walk past the main bathroom, even though it was in good working order. I marched down the hall and into my grandparents’ bathroom. While I peed, legs swinging above the floor, I looked through the magazines, got lost in the images of naked women posed, their mouths open, their bodies smooth like Barbie.

I remember the swelling, the rush of blood between my legs as my body responded to something I didn’t have language for. Doll bodies come to life, my grandpa’s magazines, sneaking away from the pool and into his bathroom to look at them. It was bad. Maybe it was the fear of getting caught or the secret hope that one day, when puberty was done with me, I’d be sexy enough to live in the pages of a Playboy. That objecthood would happen to me, too.

There was a tight squeeze, friction, and I rocked convulsively against my hand until the muscles in my thighs and butt clenched hard and then released in a sweet, slow shudder. I left the bathroom for a moment, stars. Then back in my body, my hair stuck to my neck with perspiration, I tucked that magazine back under the People on top.

I wasn’t ashamed of what I had done with my own two hands, but I wanted to cover the centerfold.

Did my grandma cover the stack because she was ashamed of sex? There was no sex in the magazine, only objectification, and they’re not the same thing. Sex doesn’t need to be shameful. Objectification should be.

***

Rumpus original logo and art by Aubrey Nolan.

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The Thread is a monthly literary conversation, developed for The Rumpus and edited by Julie Greicius. Send us what you’re reading that you can’t stop thinking or talking about to [email protected], or reach out to Marissa on Twitter or Facebook, and she just might pull the threads of it apart for you in a future column.


Marissa Korbel’s award-winning essays have appeared in The Manifest Station, Under the Gum Tree, Nailed Magazine, and other publications. She recently completed a hybrid memoir, and is working on an essay collection. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her partner and their toddler, and writes with Lidia Yuknavitch at Corporeal Writing. More from this author →