Out of State
Last night, I had drinks with an old friend, and we talked about not quitting smoking, not leaving New York, and still not making enough money but living like we did. Going to the gym is in itself a strange concept, like running on a wheel, but what’s worse is that there are too many gyms now; their presence is becoming a burden. Instead of a nice old deli you never went to (but maybe would have) getting torn down for a new Sweetgreen or Starbucks, it’s being torn down for a Soulcycle. Kids these days, with their Snaps and their Scooters!
And of course we should all go, but it’s the talking about going that bothers me. I don’t tell everyone that I do have a Blink membership and sometimes go there for a run, usually as a distraction, because it’s not a flattering portrait of myself, in my mind. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but describing one’s fitness and beauty routine is the most boring flirtation. It’s describing a method of looking better, which suggests you think you look good. In fact, it’s usually a comparison of activities and goals, a display of both arrogance and desperation. I always interrupt conversations about workouts to ask if one would be just as inclined to describe the amount of Botox one gets, and then detail the process.
But it’s such a common conversation, and it shouldn’t be shameful, since, you know, the health part. Plus it’s a way people meet each other. Dating profiles are often all about extreme fitness and looking for partners who share those interests. Looking at my friends’ gay hookup apps, half the selfies are in gyms, and many more are on mountain hikes (the rest are in tiny bathrooms or fancy fitting rooms). But if what you’re working towards is, primarily, a sexy physique, then wouldn’t you assume it would be sexier if you made the steps you’re taking a secret? I’m not saying anything should be hidden because it’s ugly, just that the concept of broadcasting a need for acceptance so strong it requires hours of struggle seems inherently unattractive.
My friend agreed with me about this, but most people don’t, and so I think I’m bad at explaining myself. This question is more about what constitutes sexiness now, seeing as most of the ideal-shaped celebrities shrink their waists using Photoshop before posting a paparazzi or runway picture on Instagram (there’s proof: I follow a private account that makes before-and-after gifs of famous people photos found on Getty or Vogue and their own filtered, finessed versions). I have the same mini existential crisis when I hear a celebrity say, “I’ve always been passionate about makeup.”
Makeup, as a thing to be passionate about, outwardly. A conversation about a way to look enhanced. Admitting this: not only that the pressure from a misogynistic and image-obsessed society has flattened you (it has, come on), but that you’d rather become a spokesperson for image alteration than to be called a phony. We respect shape shifters. That’s easy to understand: Madonna-level transformations, drag queen contouring, costumes of any kind are welcome escapes from the self. It’s fun to watch performers do it, and it’s fun to do it ourselves, to see what it’s like to get a different type of attention. I’m just amazed that so many people go out as someone else in search of anonymous sex, when all of that stuff comes off on a pillow. Have you ever seen the brownish skull shape a lot of makeup makes, when one falls asleep before washing her face? It’s the best when there are false eyelashes stuck somewhere, too. I once saw one with blue eyes and pink lips, a smirking little mask.
The more we’re accepting of progressive ideas about identification, of course, the more I have to be okay with any decision a woman makes about carving out her shoulder fat in a photo she posts for her millions of insecure fans. You gain some, you lose some. Anyway, I’m getting into dangerous territory, maybe. I just wish my friends liked that they’re aging, and that I didn’t have this fear about very young people trying to stay home so that a bigger audience could appreciate a more constructed image. I know that they must be thinking that what their high school classmates think of them will never matter. The truth is, it would be great if one didn’t have to think about what kids in your neighborhood thought of you, but you do, because those brats will expose your secrets for no apparent reason. Kids these days, really!
There’s also this phobia I have that has nothing to do with technology or the post-truth era or identity politics or that annoying term, “body confidence.” I’m scared of injections of any kind. Not necessarily needles themselves, since I can watch a tattoo get drawn, but seeing varicose veins or a tick burrowing into the skin makes me lightheaded. If someone suggests I get my blood drawn, or even a B-12 shot, it’s over.
I’m walking around in fear of running into imagery that could make me faint: a storefront suggesting treatments for your spider-webbed legs, a PSA about Lyme disease, a junkie shooting up, insurance ads that are supposed to be comforting but include imagery of IVs. I can’t believe I could even write any of that just now. I try to never talk about this phobia, since people tend to roll their eyes about it and then describe a time when a doctor couldn’t find a vein when they had to get blood drawn and I have to leave the room and put my head between my knees.
It’s another reason, maybe, I can’t talk about health in general for too long. The conversation is a reminder that I’ll one day have to confront my own deficiencies in ways I find horrifyingly invasive. How, if we are we all just sacks of fluid, am I afraid of my own? “Wouldn’t you just love to transfer into an artificial body?” asked my friend, last night. We were still on the topic of gyms, standards for women and gay men, my recent trip to Provincetown, Cape Cod (a gay enclave where many tourists go shirtless for a whole weekend), the pressure to keep up with a body trend, like you owe it to the culture or something. But becoming part AI was the opposite of my point, I thought—that we’re all too obsessed with looking artificial. “So,” he asked, “you want to live in a human body forever?”
I guess I don’t, no. I hate my human body, all of its blemishes and reactions, that I have to protect it from so much and feed it and poke into it with tools of torture, and that candy isn’t actually food, it’s a non-thing, an ad for itself, but I eat it. We were eating burritos from a truck on a stoop in the West Village, a block away from his apartment and across the street from Anna Wintour’s. Richard Gere used to live in this building, too, and on the roof was some shrine for the Dalai Lama.
Just after writing this, I happened to read a post about the model Tyson Beckford commenting on Kim Kardashian’s Instagram account that “She’s not real,” and that her surgeon “fucked up” one of her hips. For context, this was on an image from the time Kim went on a talk show and said she doesn’t have anything bad to say about Donald Trump. Kim’s reply to Tyson was, “Sis we all know why you don’t care for it,” which implies that he’s gay if he’s not attracted to her. Tyson’s response was “My opinion on plastic surgery stays the same, not for me! I personally don’t care for it! Done end of story!”
My first thought was that it’s nice to see a straight man attack her for creating an unrealistic image, which I guess is a pretty vicious way to feel. My next thought was: What would have changed if Kim’s comment had been, “Cis we all know why you don’t care for it,” opening up a conversation about her body modifications in the context of transitioning. It obviously wouldn’t fly, but it’s where my mind went: we’re all transitioning into some avatar of our own creation, anyway. None of this is real, so calling her “not real” seems beside the point. Still, she didn’t say cis, she said sis, which is stupid.
Anyway, the more I think about it, the more I understand that the body trend for the twenty-teens is “in transition,” or “work in progress,” which totally makes sense for a lot of reasons. And I have to admit that if everyone was altering their physical selves in secret, I’d probably be more upset.
Meaning, it’s better than the alternative that people addicted to public validation are more inclined to show their work, and that there’s a gym in Provincetown called Mussel Beach, and that we know how impossible certain beauty goals are without so much money. More importantly, it’s heartbreakingly fantastic that non-binary and transitioning identities have a way to find community, and this fact outweighs the outcomes of body shaming forums, I suspect. I mean, obviously the real problem with unattainable beauty standards is that they’re rooted in gender constructs imagined by white people millenniums ago. So now, maybe we as a society are accepting the step of slicing everyone up to see if we can create a new set of expectations.
On my way home last night, my other friend called me and we got into a discussion about green washing: when companies make one good deed look so important, you can ignore all the bad deeds they must be up to, in order to be a company thriving today. A clothing brand that accepts donations of used clothing for the purpose of recycling, but who mostly sells synthetic stuff and can’t accept anything that isn’t organic. A magazine about saving the environment that’s printed on paper. A festival promoting sustainable practices with food trucks and a bar serving drinks in plastic cups. An organization that petitions for political change to protect the environment while handing out bottled water. We wandered to the subject of a punk band whose songs sounded suspiciously elitist, comedians who were too angry to be funny. “People always tell me I’m too negative,” I said.
“But what’s worse than that is if you become the type of person who says, ‘I’m trying to be really positive now,’ and shuts down every conversation,” he said.
“Well, that will never happen.” I complained about everything being unavoidably awful, but I didn’t want to quit smoking, was the thing.
“I don’t either, I love it,” my friend said into the phone at one in the morning. So I guess we really can’t say anything about anything.
In 1980 the French newspaper Libération asked Marguerite Duras to write a chronicle for them over one year. The pieces could be as long or short as she liked, so long as she wrote every day. Duras said a year was far too long and proposed three months instead. "Why three months?” her editor asked. "Three months is one summer long,” she replied.
"Agreed, three months, but every day!" the editor insisted. Duras didn't have anything planned for the summer and almost gave in. But then she suddenly became terrified that she couldn't plan her days as she wished. So she said: "No, once a week, about whatever I want." The editor agreed.
Last year Spike invited Natasha Stagg to do the same: one text a week, of any length, on whatever she liked. One summer long. For 2018 we wanted to it again, this is her fourth report.
NATASHA STAGG is a writer based in New York. Her first novel Surveys was published with Semiotext(e) in 2016 and is coming out in German from Edition Nautilus later this year. A new installment of Out of State will be published online every Thursday for ten weeks. Last week she wrote about the conflicting worlds of the art scene and her garbage man boyfriend.