Notes on My Own Commodification

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I’ve been spending some time looking at my own internal paradoxes lately— and yes, it’s quite the rabbit hole. But there’s one that keeps bubbling to the surface, and it’s still a little shameful for me to say aloud, but here goes:

I want to be physically desirable to most people, on some level, by default— even those I may not desire myself. I still want the option.

I know. I hear how hollow and ridiculous it is. I know it’s petty and doesn’t make sense. But no matter how much I’ve told myself this… I can’t seem to fully shake this.

I am an empowered feminist woman who knows that my worth is deeper than my body. And I don’t believe in the Western standard of conventional beauty. I believe that beauty is so much richer and complex and life-giving than the tiny physical rubric given by the culture in which I live. I believe that this real beauty is only accessed by slowing down, looking deeper, sensing our souls and the souls of others.

I don’t believe in their bar. But… some part of me still wants to pass it. Why?

Maybe it’s power. Choices that I feel are so often never-mine, always defaulting to the men in my periphery. He determines the going-forward, almost always. Maybe it’s just human, trying to control my life.

But no… it runs deeper than that.

Maybe it’s because I want to be loved. Can that be it? That if I’m not desirable by their metric, my chances of a loving relationship wear thin?

But no… because the moments I have had of being desired in that way, by someone like that— quickly expose the truth. If that’s all they can see, they have passed over the deeper multitudes of me that I hold dear, the real me in fact. And in those moments I know with unmarred clarity that I could never love someone who only wants a woman that fits the mold.

Everything about me values individuality, values making my own damn mold. So why do I give any weight to their mold at all?

Clearly, two halves of me are at war. And I’m hoping some answer to these questions will bring peace.

Maybe it’s worth noting that some of these questions may only be coming to the surface now as a result of my much-delayed sexual liberation.

It can take a while to wake up to the dilemma of desire and objectification when you’ve spent most of your formative years in a bubbled haven that copes with this problem by saying “You’re beautiful as you are. Also by the way, women don’t really have a sex drive, so if you do, you should get that checked out.” Bubbles like these evade the messy addition of all the paradoxes that owning your sexuality without shame entail. Hell, it took me a while to enter a dating sphere where you do something besides read silent signals across a sanctuary, wondering what it all might mean until finally you work yourself up into an ulcer that you decide to call “being in love.”

Clearly, two halves of me are at war. And I’m hoping some answer to these questions will bring peace.

Another piece of it is that I thought I got a free pass on all this confusion by avoiding situations where I was going to be overly physically evaluated. I by default avoid the “basic”, popular, conventionally attractive folk who seem to prioritize fitting in to unhealthy levels. I like my own drummer just fine; the pod people can march elsewhere.

That, and I avoided a career where my body would play a necessary role. I don’t have to be photographed for a living, and aging only stands to improve my writing.

I also thought I’d escaped this by the relatively positive body image I’ve been able to maintain over the last three years or so. When I finally started dating, it didn’t take me long to find out that all the stuff they feed you in high school about how skinny you need to be for a man to find you attractive is a whole lot of bullshit. Not that it doesn’t come from a real and horrible place, but I can at least say that attraction is so much more complex than they ever tell you as you’re coming up in the world (especially since I’m only covering the cis-hetero side of it all).

And anyway, attraction aside, the point is, I find myself beautiful. Without apology. And I won’t minimize the relief that brings. But I guess what I’m realizing is— that relief didn’t end up being the end of the ordeal.

I say it aloud and it sounds absurd, but I always thought feeling beautiful would be the end of these troubles. That this, along with freedom from sexual shame, would neatly dovetail together and create a world where I could enjoy romance with a modicum of abandon.

It hasn’t really worked out that way.

To some degree because, as this article demonstrates firsthand, human beings are a whole mess of contradictions, and when two become one it can be damn beautiful… but I doubt it could ever be described as uncomplicated.

And to another— even if I love my body for how it is… somehow this has not freed me from in some way defining myself by how much someone wants me.

I want to be physically desired, but my body is a limited resource. As my sensei Carrie Fisher famously remarked, “Youth and beauty are not accomplishments,”— they are borrowed time, only there for a fleeting moment. So trading on either is not only false advertising, it’s increasing the likelihood of a moment down the road when I realize I was only desired for a part, not the whole.

So if I know all this intellectually, if I lay all this out and I can see reason clearly… why do I so often revert to measuring and valuing myself by their rubric? Why do I secretly still want to be the enlightened feminist world-changer who also passes some standard baseline desirability test?

Because no matter how much I can articulate the truth to you now, I have to remember— everywhere I go, every message I receive in this patriarchal culture is laden with undertones of this:

You are only valuable in this world as long as you are sexually desirable.

I have been taught to see myself as a product of depreciating value. Like a car. Only drivable for so long. I have been so long hot-steeped in this scarcity mentality that I forgot what clean water looks and feels like. I’ve been drinking just enough poison to keep me alive and feeling crazy, because that’s how they hand it to you. It’s a very careful dosage.

And though my conscious mind fights it with truth, my unconscious can’t help but absorb. It’s in advertising, film, television, the basic structure of storytelling, our workplaces, what we wear and consume… my unconscious hears the clock ticking and the mold I need to fit to survive.

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So some part of me goes to war with my heart for what is precious and extraordinary, and I am torn in half by this unconscious attempt at survival by commodification: the wider my appeal, the longer I get to stay here, be alive, fully participating in the world.

But if I get there playing their games— was I ever free to begin with?

It makes me think of Joan on Mad Men— Joan Holloway starts the show in 1960 as a secretary doing the work of an office manager and playing by all the rules, using her drop-dead gorgeous looks strategically to gain power in the office. And it works for her for a while— basically until she realizes that she’s tired of that being the limit of how she is seen. Fourteen years later, she ends the show quitting her job because of sexual harassment and striking out on her own as a producer.

She learned the rules of survival, made them work for her until she realized that those rules were never made with her well-being in mind— so she essentially said, “Fuck those rules, I’m making my own.” I wonder if all women eventually arrive at a similar crossroads.

So what can be done? I don’t think it’s simple, but all I know is that I’m extending some serious grace to my unconscious mind, given the poison it’s been forced to ingest. It’s okay that I get sucked into their game sometimes. I am hardly immune to two thousand some-odd years of patriarchal messaging.

But now that I know the source of the poison— I can work on the antidote.

And right now, in every day life, it looks like reading feminist critique— particularly Carina Chocano’s You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Trainwrecks, & Other Mixed Messages— understanding new ways to tell stories from the female gaze, feeling validated that I’m not crazy, radicalizing me in the absolute best way.

It looks like filling my car stereo with the voices of women telling their stories, desires, experiences, building each other up, validating each other’s “internal howl of passion” (lookin’ at you, She is Called Podcast).

It looks like supporting the work of countless female filmmakers and authors so I can find comfort in their diversity and freedom. It looks like writing some of those stories myself, putting work in the world that is truthful to my story and as empowering to women as I can possibly make it— and collaborating with formidable females like my best friend and writing partner Skylar Harrison, who aim to do the same.

It looks like taking intentional time, among all this anxiety of being desired, to stop and value a little more highly who and what I desire.

And finally, most importantly— it looks like just spending time with women.

I am so stupid-blessed with female friendships in my life that on International Women’s Day I just got overwhelmed and frustrated because I had so much to say that no social media post would cover it. But it’s true. Talking through all sides of process with the badass women of all ages in my life, hearing how these messages have affected them in and out of relationship, rallying and strategizing on how to get our voices out there, encouraging and empathizing with each other at every stage… this is the stuff that breathes life back into my objectified bones.

Slowly, together, we are writing a new narrative. Where no one has to be watered down, quieted or simplified for the masses. Where time only makes us wiser and deeper and full of life and capacity for whatever comes next.

And that starts with me taking myself off the shelf. There’s only one of me. And I’m not for sale.

Photos by Jaz Persing

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About the Author

Jaz is a writer, singer, and human living in Los Angeles. She works in television when she can. The rest of the time she’s just looking for a dare-to-be-great situation, hoping she can put a good dent in the world with the mess of broken love, vulnerability, and words she has—all the while grateful to God and the massively good people around her that make it all seem feasible.

Her blog appears at ohyouwantgoodjaz.com