Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Radiant Orchid, the Violated Vagina, and Blooming Once More

By now, anyone interested in fashion or design knows that Pantone's colour of 2014 is Radiant Orchid. It's an unimportant little fact has lead to some fun fashion choices. That's all, right?

Well, not for me. For me, it sparked a rumination on the long term emotional effects of sexual abuse, and the ways that it forever changes a woman's relationship with her body

To put it plainly, it made me think about how being sex trafficked and sexually abused throughout my childhood and teens made me feel about my vagina. Not very many people write and talk about how rape makes women and girls feel about their vaginas. We should.

How did I get from the fun little fact that radiant orchid is the colour of the year, to rape and vaginas? Read on. It will make sense. I promise.

Here, in part, is Pantone's fanfare announcement of their chosen colour for 2014: "Radiant Orchid blooms with confidence and magical warmth that intrigues the eye and sparks the imagination. It is an ... embracing purple -- one that draws you in with its beguiling charm. A captivating harmony of fuchsia, purple and pink undertones, Radiant Orchid emanates great joy, love and health."

Are they talking about a colour? Or a flower? Or...

Happy, welcoming, "embracing purple" vaginas have "magical warmth" and "draw you in with [their] beguiling charm." When treated well, they "emanate great joy [and] love." Don't they?

And, seriously, have you ever really looked at an orchid, or an iris, or at a lot of other flowers for that matter? Have you?

Georgia O'Keefe certainly did when she famously painted them ...

... repeatedly and lovingly.

We can twitter and blush and say, "Oh, don't ruin flowers by looking at them that way! They can be pretty anyway." Or, we can say, "Damned straight they look like vaginas. Aren't they beautiful? Aren't I beautiful?"

There's nothing wrong with glorifying the beauty of women's "flowers." Why shouldn't we? We've got phallic symbols everywhere in our world. Why not a few vulvic ones? 

The Art Nouveau period, with its flowing lines inspired by nature, was particularly keen on its vulvic flower images.

I can't really believe that the makers of the silver bowl and vases above did not know exactly what these irises looked like. This doesn't detract from their beauty. It enhances it.

This imagery repeats itself over and over again throughout the Art Nouveau period, especially in jewelry, but such imagery is not exclusive to that period. This ring, which looks to me like a particularly happy "flower," is more recent.

These happy flowers are from a recent line by Cartier.

Artists and designers are not idiots. They know what they're portraying. 

Commercial artists, like Mucha, above, have long utilized the appeal of the female body to sell everything from tobacco to cars. We know this to be true. The unspoken promise was always: buy our product and you'll get ... laid.

While they couldn't actually portray completely naked women, welcoming vaginas on full display, they could subliminally (though not all that subliminally) suggest nudity and female genitalia. 

This is all kind of cute and fun and tee-hee in retrospect.

But it's not as cute and amusing when we see that it's still going on today.

Calvin Klein's current model for this perfume is eighteen. She's been modeling for four years.

It's a very fraught issue. Yes, it's good and even important to see vaginas as beautiful. But it's not good to commodify them. It's even worse to commodify the vaginas of the very young.

So far, I've been talking about the metaphorical commodification of the vagina: vulvic images of flowers and the subliminal promise of sex used to sell products.

Yet we all know that real women and girls are sold. We all know that real people will pay to enter and violate real vaginas.

Me, at about nine or ten.
Which brings me to my own story. Starting when I was about ten, Smother started pimping me. (Actually, this is just the age I was when I started noticing money being exchanged, but she'd been passing me around to her friends since I was three or younger.) Over and over again, she let men (and sometimes women) rape me and she took money for it.

It is a measure of how badly abused I was that, when the above photo was taken, I thought I looked sexy with my new hair cut and elastic-topped dress covered in little pink roses. Not cute. Not pretty. Sexy.

I can tell you that vaginas are beautiful like flowers but I cannot see my own like that. At best, I see it as tainted, defiled, and sick.

At worst, I see it as dead.

William Blake's own illustration for The Sick Rose
When I was eighteen, I reread William Blake's poem The Sick Rose:

O Rose though are sick
The invisible worm
That flies in the night
In the howling storm

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy
And his dark secret love
Does they life destroy.

To me, the meaning of the poem was unquestionable. I was Rose, my "bed of crimson joy" was my vagina, the worm was a rapist's penis, and my life was destroyed.

I didn't even question it. My life had been destroyed. It was a simple irrefutable fact.

Normal women and girls who had not been raped were clean, healthy, and beautiful, but I was not. They deserved and expected to have lovely things happen to them. I did not.

Far from my body being my own and my vagina being like a beautiful flower, my vagina was a garbage can for depraved men's slimy, seedy emissions. 

I was used, filthy, impure, forever defiled and disgusting.

The fact that I had not chosen to be a garbage can changed nothing. I was one and would forever be one

Far from being a beautiful, delicate flower, my vagina was a receptacle for all that is disgusting and vile.

I was dirty. I would always be dirty. No-one could ever see me as clean.

No-one could ever love me. Nor should they.

Me, around ten or eleven, feeling all grown up in what I thought was a sophisticated outfit.
In fact, my body actually was physically altered by all those violent rapes. My back was permanently injured and I am now disabled by chronic pain. My vagina was sliced with a razor, permanently separating my inner labia from my clitoris. It was repeatedly pried apart by men hasty to violate it; its top and bottom split. It mostly healed, but never completely.

In the photo above, you see me already suffering from back pain, in the midst of months of itching, scabbing, and pain as my outer vulva repeatedly healed and re-split, healed and re-split. I still have a scar, and my perineum still frequently tears and bleeds; it's like having a constant paper cut down there.

Equally bad, though, was the emotional feeling of being filled up with men's seed. This feeling never went away.

I was disgusted in sex education classes when I saw those microscopic sperm, blindly, violently, and insistently wriggling and squirming, not just for entry into the vagina, but for entry into the egg as well. The sperm did not care if the sex was consensual or the vagina that of a girl or a woman. It just pushed and insisted and twisted and invaded.

That's what happened to me.

Seeing it in class made me feel nauseated and outraged. What a hideous trick of nature that I was made this way and men were made that way. Why would God make me like a delicate flower, so easy to violate, so easy to hurt, so vulnerable, and make men like battering rams, so strong and impervious to my pain? Why could I not keep them out? 

I never felt that the sperm in me went away. I still don't feel that way. I feel that, to this day, my body is completely full of filth and decay. I feel like it runs poisonous through my veins. 

Sometimes I even feel that, if I open my mouth, black slime and ooze will escape from it, showing the world what I really am.

Far from my vagina being a lovely flower, I feel that it is full of the stagnant rot of others' depravity.

I didn't choose it, but that doesn't change the fact that I was and am defiled -- forever.

The primacy and value placed on female virginity doesn't help my feelings of defilement at all. In Western culture, white represents virginity and the words "virginity" and "purity" are used interchangeably when people speak of the meaning behind the white wedding dress. 

There are many cultures in which people still insist that a raped woman or girl is shamed, dirty, and impure. They are shunned and unmarriageable. I am horrified that anyone could say this when, clearly, the shame, dirt, and impurity belongs to the rapists, not their victims.

Yet, when I think about myself and my own body, this shaming of the victim seems totally logical to me. How could any lover think I'm clean when clearly I'm not?

And, you know, I am by no means the only person who was thus violated as a child.  

I remember a teenage prostitute telling me about a trick she'd turned. "He asked me to put my hair in pigtails and wear a schoolgirl skirt and call him daddy," she told me. "Whatever," she said, shrugging. "I figure this way maybe he'll stay away from his own daughter. And at least I'm getting paid for it now." 


Like me, she had been sexually abused as as child, and she felt that she was already ruined, already filthy and unworthy of respect. She believed that, at least now, she had some power because she could demand money to be violated. This man's little girl, though, was still clean, or so she hoped, and the teenager hoped to help protect the little girl's purity by fulfilling this man's schoolgirl fantasy. After all, her logic went, he can't defile me because I'm already defiled.

Plenty of men feel this way too. It never occurs to them that what they're doing is rape, but it is, legally and morally. They wouldn't dream of raping their own daughters but they happily go to extremely underage prostitutes -- sex slaves -- thinking, "Well, she's already dirty, so I'm not doing anything wrong."

There may be female prostitutes who were not sexually abused as children, but I've never met one.

How I wish, if my vagina had to be like a flower, it could have been a dangerous one like the Venus flytrap, carnivorous, able to fight back, animated.

Later in life, I heard of the Vagina Dentata, the vagina with teeth, and wished I could have one. I would have been safe. I would have had power.

Even if there were some way I could come to see that I was not made dirty by what had happened to me, I had another problem that made it virtually impossible for me to cherish my vagina.

My primary sexual abuser -- the one who sexually abused me nearly every single morning for years -- was a close female relative. She made me perform "oral sex" on her often. That's why I now call her Smother.

She called it love.

Her vagina was, to me, a thing of terror.

It was horrible, hot, oozing, steaming, suffocating. 

And I had the same anatomy. 

How could anything good come of my own adult female sexuality when sexual desire was obviously something that led adults to hideous acts of selfish cruelty and degradation? Impossible.

Eventually, in my 30s, after years of trying to be okay with my own sexuality, celibacy seemed the only option. It was the only way I could see to escape my feelings of disgust and self-loathing.

I was single for twelve years.

Celibacy was also the only way for me to avoid even acknowledging the deeper feelings beneath the disgust. It was the only way to avoid my fear of intimacy and vulnerability, and the feeling that I was fundamentally tainted and therefore unlovable.

Okay, I thought to myself, I have a great education, a successful career, wonderful friends, good health, a vibrant intellectual life. So I don't have love. I guess that's the one great tragedy of my childhood that I can't repair. (Remember, this is when I was still able-bodied, before my back gave out.) 

I accepted it. I'd be single forever. I was an introvert. I was okay. It was okay.

But somewhere along the line, after I became disabled, I stopped accepting it. I did deserve love. I even deserved a vibrant, healthy, loving sex life. 

But it was going to take a lot of work and require a lot of vulnerability. I was going to have to learn to love my body. I was going to have to learn to be vulnerable. I was going to have to learn what love really is, not what Smother had told me it was.

I began doing the healing work on my own, without much hope, but with the will for change.

Then, two years ago, I met Beau, a kind, gentle man for whom sex is inseparable from gentle and genuine love. I was terrified. Sometimes I still am. 

Before we became lovers, I told him everything about my childhood. He cried. He was horrified. But he never ever thought of me as unclean.

Beau has helped me to be glad I have my very own flower, because, when I'm with him, it can be a source of great pleasure, playfulness, sweetness, and beauty. 

But, even with this kind, attentive lover, my feelings of shame and disgust often return. How can he possibly love me when I'm so dirty? How can I enjoy the very acts that so defiled me when I was a child? What's wrong with me? How can I degrade myself like that? How can I see my body's sexual satisfaction as good when Smother's was so selfish and evil?

I'm working on it. I try to explain to myself that rape and making love are two very different things, like the difference between being force fed poison, and eating a sumptuous feast. I try to explain to myself that pedophilia is sick and evil, but adult sexual desire is healthy and good.

I try to explain to myself that my vagina is no more vile and disgusting because someone once used her own vagina to suffocate me, than Beau's penis is cruel and selfish because pedophiles once used their penises as battering rams on me. Just as a penis can deliver great horror or great pleasure, so too can a vagina. 

Beau and I have banished words like "dirty" and "naughty" from our sexual vocabulary. It helps -- a bit.

Beau says my flower is beautiful, clean, pure, and, above all, special. Beau says being invited to enter and welcomed in is an honour never to be taken for granted. He says he doesn't think of himself as entering me as much as he thinks of me as embracing him.

The language we use for sex is really important.


I'm coming to feel that I am blooming, in many ways for the first time in my life. I still don't feel like an open, happy iris, totally comfortable in my desires.

Maybe my flower and my ability to love are like delicate alpine flowers.

They grow in adversity where flowers have no business growing, let alone flourishing, but grow and flourish they do.

At ten, I believed it was already too late for me. At forty-two, I realized that I was wrong.


It's never too late.

(If you too were sexually abused as a child, you might want to read my post, Healing from Sexual Abuse: 26 Things that Work for Me.)

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Geometry of Fashion: Art Deco in Black and White

I got this skirt for about ten dollars on sale at JQ Clothing a few days ago. It's one of those asymmetrical ones, shorter in the front, longer in the back, not a style I've thought would suit my short frame. But it's slimming, and fun, and very comfortable, so I thought I'd give it a try.

Even for me, the mixing of patterns in this outfit was a bit daring: black and white stripes, with grey and black swirls on a white background. But what the hell? What do the kids say these days? YOLO? Okay, why not?

Skirt: ?; Shirt and blazer: Reitmans; Boots: Ecco
My poses and locations for photos were inspired by the geometry of the prints in this outfit. Though the cut of each piece and the overall ensemble don't really resemble fashions of the 1920s and 30s, the prints on the fabrics do. 

Fashion and glamour photos of the Art Deco period are often about geometry on geometry so I kept posing in front of (or amidst, or behind) interesting lines and angles.

Joan Crawford

Still, I wasn't totally aware of just how inspired I was by Art Deco photography ... 

... until I got the photos I'd taken home and looked and looked at them on the big screen.

It was a time when harsh angles were everywhere in fashion, and backdrops seemed almost as much a part of an outfit as the clothes themselves did.

Large ring: vintage; Top stackable ring and faux eternity band: boutique; Lower stackable band: Etsy
I tried to pick jewelry to match my look and to photograph it too with its own appropriate background.

There was a lot more motion in my outfit and a lot more curve in my body than was common in '20s and '30s fashion ...

Top left ring: Birks; Bottom left diamond ring: heirloom from 1936; Thin silver ring: boutique
 ... and only my grandmother's engagement ring was actually period specific, but it was all somehow very evocative of a period, and became more so with the ways I asked Beau to photograph me.

I think that it was a time of a kind of perfect confluence of fashion, art, design, and black and white photography, each complimenting and enhancing the other. 

And that photography got pretty artsy at times.


Interior design, architecture, clothing ... it all became of a beautiful, stark, angular piece.

So I thought I'd get a little artsy with it too. Here, the lines of the chair reminded me of Art Deco, and I thought they contrast interestingly with my skirt. Regardless of whether it worked, it was a fun experiment.

As I was setting up shots, I kept thinking of the angular lines of Louise Brooks' iconic black bob against her sculpted white face ...

Definitely Busby Berkeley. Which film? Let me know.
 ... and 1930s musicals, especially those choreographed by Busby Berkeley. Women's bodies became a kind of geometry unto themselves. There is something slightly vulgar about it, and offensive, but it's also amazing. 

If you've never seen any of Berkeley's choreography, do look it up. It's ingenuity and symmetry will make your jaw drop.

Eleanor Powell and Robert Taylor (I think), in Broadway Melody of 1938
Vertical lines -- clean and crisp, black and white -- are absolutely everywhere in 1930s musicals.

Ruby Keeler in 42nd Street
The new, urban landscape, with its stepped sky scrapers, was a major inspiration for the aesthetic of the day. This is part of why I'll never understand why people so frequently confuse Art Deco with Art Nouveau. Art Nouveau was known for its flowing, organic lines inspired by nature, whereas Art Deco was known for its harsh, angular lines inspired by new technology and architecture.

Many would have seen it as relatively gritty, a Modernist aesthetic of the machine age.

Brooch: Robert Larin

In this sense, it has far more in common with the later Brutalist movement than with dreamy Art Nouveau.

I got this signed, Robert Larin brooch for about eight dollars. I looked up the artist online and found that his pieces are selling for between one hundred and three hundred dollars. If anyone knows any more about the designer, I'd love to hear from you. It's weirdly, appealingly ugly. Should I sell it?

The harsh angle and vertical line were in, baby, in in in!

In, I tell you, in!

It was simply too divine!

My own figure, with its ample curves, is much more of an Art Nouveau figure than an Art Deco figure. 

And if you think different body types don't go in and out of style just like skirt lengths and lipstick shades, well, you're living under a rock.

I can't really make my own body one more column amongst the others in an Art Deco photo, but I can still have great fun playing with the lines.

And with the dramatic facial expressions and poses.

Like Theda Bara doing her best "exotic" expression as Cleopatra.

Or Louise Brooks' dance partner's expression in Lulu. Oh the intrigue!

Oh, the heady drama of the early, silent movie queen!

Or of Bette Davis' eyes.

Dare I flatter myself and say that, as I get older, I'm getting Bette Davis eyes?

See what I mean? I think Bette and I both had bags under eyes since birth. I choose to use them for drama, and not see them as unattractive.

I think she and I have the same forehead too. May I now formally and for the record make a plug for actresses and women in general choosing to keep their foreheads natural so that they actually, you know, move when they express emotions? No botox, please! All hail the mobile face!

Of course, in the second photo of Bette, her eyebrows are dramatically thicker and darker. This is a clear indication that it was taken in the 40s. That harsh eyebrow came around in the 40s and stuck around through most of the 50s.

And, since we're on the subject of the 40s and 50s, let me mention yet another inspiration for my photos that day: the use of venetian blinds and their shadows in film noir.

Isn't it just the coolest?

It's also a great excuse for me to finally post this wonderful shot of an overwintering hummingbird seen through venetian blinds. It had been a very harsh, stormy night, and I was glad to see she'd come through it okay. She just hung out resting on my balcony for a while. I didn't want to disturb her, so I photographed her through my own venetian blinds rather than opening them for a clear shot.

I've also been waiting for an excuse to post this great shot of a cat having the best of both worlds: in and out, of the world, and, simultaneously, not of it.
And this brings us to, you guessed it, vertical lines. They too were absolutely everywhere in Art Deco design.

The juxtaposition of vertical and horizontal lines together was a particular favourite.

With stairs. Everywhere, dramatic, harshly lit stairs in beautiful, stark black and white.

Like these? Okay, not like these, but KITTY!

Seriously though, these musical sets were phenomenal.

And massive.

Just like the set for this photo, right? Okay, not really.

I told Beau to "sit macho." He looked at me with utter bewilderment. "I don't know how to do that," he quipped. This was what he came up with. 

We got a good laugh out of it anyway.

This fluffy, grey and white dog also obligingly posed for her own Art Deco photo here, though I suppose she too is a little too roundy and fluffy for the Art Deco look.

She's not bothered by it and neither am I.

In the end, artsy or not, we should never take ourselves too seriously in our fashion shoots.

Where's the fun in that?


(I'd like to give a little shout out to 20th Century Decorative Arts, whose Facebook page has helped me learn more about Art Deco and helped to inspire this post. I got some of my photos from their page. I'm also linking up with Visible Mondays over at Not Dead Yet.)