Talkhouse Contributing Writer Mish Way is the frontwoman of the band White Lung. Her freelance work can be found in The Guardian, Dazed & Confused, Salon and VICE, amongst others. She prefers writing about sex over music. You can follow her on Twitter here.
I woke up before my bandmates the morning after our set at Fun Fun Fun Festival in Austin, Texas. The hotel room was still dark as I quietly snuck myself and my laptop into the bathroom so I could start work without waking them. Plus, the coffee machine was in the bathroom. They always do that at hotels.
I spend a lot of time in the bathroom, yet a part of me hates it. I think most women feel this way. Our most intrinsically self-objectifying moments happen there. The bathroom is where we retreat to do our hair and our make-up prior to going out in public. It’s where we stand, examining our stomaches and asses and skin tone in the mirror, perhaps for far too long, before escaping into water to shower our totally normalized body dysfunction away. The bathroom is where we first figured out that, for the rest of our adult lives, we would have to waste money on tampons for an entire week once every month. That blood meant we possessed the power of Motherhood. It’s where we memorized the process of carefully shaving off all the hair on our bodies before baring ourselves in swim suits. It’s where we perfected how to double-take, one last time, in the mirror and ask ourselves if we looked beautiful.
I sat down on the toilet, propped my computer onto the marble counter and opened up my e-mail. I had way too many unread e-mails, most of them work-related. My tired reflection stared back at me: eye mask on my head, hair tangled like straw, dirty skin and bags under my eyes. The only thing saving me was my lacy black night gown, which hung around my body like a safety net. I ignored myself in the mirror and retreated to the computer screen. In an effort to avoid my work, I opened up Tumblr and scrolled. A user named RaspberryCough had posted a quote by Caroline Heldman from her Ted Talk, “The Sexy Lie”:
“We raise our little boys to view their bodies as tools to master their environments. We raise our little girls to view their bodies as projects to constantly be improved.”
I reread the quote over and over. The mirror showed me everything I needed to improve, without me even asking it to. It was subconscious. It was dysmorphic. It was built up from years of comparisons to the computerized bodies I had eaten up on the pages of Seventeen. The mirror was the most important evil in the bathroom.
I found Heldman’s Ted Talk on YouTube. Straddling the toilet with my laptop resting on the tank, I listened to Heldman talk about how a woman’s sense of always looking at herself through the eyes of others, “the male gaze,” has caused us to live blindly in the world. The phenomenon of female self-objectification. Heldman’s lecture closed with a question: What would it be like to live in a world that didn’t require women to spend an hour every goddamn morning fixing our bodies for the outside world? She took a tissue out from her pocket and began rubbing the lipstick from her mouth. She pulled the fake eyelashes off her lids. It was overtly dramatic and campy, but it worked. I sat there and felt sorry for myself and my gender. (And I rarely do this. I think it’s absolute victim-centric bullshit.) But the comedown from tequila and various uppers is ridiculously poignant when you are alone and feeling down in a hotel bathroom.
“I want to get my photo with Coco,” I told my bandmates Anne-Marie and Hether as we watched Body Count perform on the stage we had played on hours earlier.
I could see Ice-T’s infamous wife Coco side stage. Her unnaturally tanned skin glowed off the stage lights. Her hair was tied into a thick side pony, spiraling perfectly like a McDonald’s dip cone. She was fantastic as she leaned over a stage handle case, checking out her ass from behind her shoulder. Larger than life and self-examining, but on her it was powerful. That ass. Coco is a forceful brand of woman. That’s why I like her. She has turned her body into a statement and a source of income.
“Coco,” Hether screamed up, waving. “Coco!”
Coco looked down and saw the three of us waving and cheering. She waved back and gave us a wink. A guy in front us turned around and told us off for yelling. Hether got in his face. I spat in his hair. Then Body Count played “There Goes the Neighborhood” and silenced our potential brawl.
Anne-Marie and Hether agreed we needed a photo with Coco. After Body Count finished and Ice-T’s entourage had shuffled off the Black Stage and into the VIP tent, we took advantage of our “Artist” status and marched inside without a care. Hether pushed her way through the crowd, grabbing onto Anne-Marie and I, drunk and determined to meet Ice-T and Coco. We were little fish in a big fish pond.
Earlier that day, Hether, Anne-Marie and I had to cross through the festival grounds open to the public. We were stopped by fans who wanted to get their picture with us.
“I’m so happy to meet you,” one pretty teenager with shining braces and a yellow tank top blurted to me as I put my arm around her bony shoulders and posed. “I’m teaching myself the bass right now.” She was spilling with excitement.
“That’s great,” I said, because it was. “Keep doing it. You can do it. Do you have friends to play with?”
She nodded at me happily.
When I was eight-years-old I sent a fan letter to Tiffani-Amber Thiessen. Someone in her camp mailed me back an autographed photo which hung proudly on my wall for years. I remember licking my finger, trying to smudge the black ink of her autograph to make sure that she had actually signed the picture herself and that it wasn’t just a copy. At one point, I wanted to be a beautiful actress. Then I found punk rock.
Coco came walking down the stairs of the back of stage.
“Coco,” Hether called in her charming, forceful way. “We were the girls waving. Can we get a picture?”
“Of course,” Coco said as we grouped up and the three of us threw our iPhones into the hand of the nearest person. We all turned around and shoved our butts out to mimic Coco’s fabulous ass. She hugged us and smiled. Ass. Ass. Ass. The camera approved our bodies with her flash.
Heldman stated that body monitoring caused by self-objectification reduces women’s ability to think at high levels because our brains are so preoccupied with the shape of our asses, our tits, our stomachs. We preoccupy ourselves with the wrong things. She theorizes that self-objectification runs so deep that it affects a woman’s ability to be interested in or be taken seriously when participating in politics. I can’t argue here, because a part of this may be true, though I hate this notion. I don’t want to believe it’s real because it places body manicuring in the category of worthless, when this is not true.
Heldman’s idea implies that caring about your looks is vapid and manipulated by nothing other than impressing the male gaze. I reject this notion. Beauty is art. Camille Paglia once famously wrote that all valuable human things come with risk and loss, and that is why we revere beauty and youth, because they are transient. One can achieve great beauty, a beauty that is captured forever in one perfect photograph, and that is an accomplishment. Furthermore, wearing mascara and foundation does not automatically make me incapable of social and political impact.
“Do you guys like festivals? Are you having fun?” I asked from the stage during Fun Fun Fun the day before. I fixated at the buildings popping out of the Austin skyline and not at the crowd below me. “They make me uncomfortable.”
Then the music started again, and uncomfortable meant nothing anymore.
When I am on stage, I do not think about how I look. It hardly crosses my mind. On stage, I am doing my job. I am singing. I am releasing myself. I am performing. It’s where I feel power. Logically, this should be the place where I think the most about what I look like, as there is a sea of people staring at me. And festivals are the worst for this. Thousands of strangers staring from every angle. iPhones and clunky professional cameras pointed up your thighs and into your chin. The thought of beauty on stage comes as an afterthought in the form of digital photographs. I only think about how I looked when I see it in some half-baked “journalism” about our performance.
When I am in the bathroom of our hotel room before our show I have one goal in mind: to perfect my looks. Without the mirror, the bathroom is just a shit and piss station. A shower. A place to get high. The mirror changes everything. The mirror has an opinion and she never keeps her mouth shut.
I don’t think the mirror is void. I respect the conversation she has with my head every time we meet. The mirror turns me into an actor trying to get the Academy Award for Effortless Beauty. Most Interesting. Most Sexual. Most Powerful. I’m my own worst enemy when it comes to the mirror. It’s not her fault. I’m the person. She’s just a piece of glass.