Years ago, a wise man said to me, of a girlfriend of mine who had recently painted her toes (to my inexplicable disgust), “She painted her toes because she wants to fuck you.”
I was dumbstruck. This seemed absurd to me. She painted her toes, I thought simply, “for aesthetic reasons.” I didn’t interrogate that concept. But today, years later, as I admire the delicately painted toes of a beautiful stranger, I wonder….
I don’t know that my girlfriend aimed at me. But I think the wise man was, in a ham-handed and misogynist way, on to something. Maybe she didn’t want to fuck me. Maybe she didn’t want to fuck. But toe-painting – indeed, all self-presentation – surely has an aim. And that aim, most likely, is sexual. Somehow.
Maybe she wanted to feel fuckable. Maybe she wanted to be seen. Maybe she wanted to be looked at. I can’t know. Nowadays, it’s pretty much an article of faith to me that, if we look deep enough, we almost always can discover a primal motive from which we often need to protect ourselves for nearly every action. A sexual motive. An aggressive motive. A defensive motive.
As I tied my tie this morning, I thought about my own self-presentation, my own attempts to manage what people think, what they feel, when they look at me.
“She was asking for it,” dumb people say when a scantily clad woman is assaulted. “That’s absurd!” smarter, more liberal people say. And yet, lying beneath the truth that no one, ever, is “asking for it” – unless, you know, they ask for it – there lies another, more complex, more confounding truth. Or maybe not a truth, but a difficult question: “What are we saying when we dress, when we present ourselves?”
The answer might be intrapsychic – we might be seeking (to have) a feeling. It might be provocative, in the denotative sense – we might be seeking to provoke (in others) a feeling. It might be defensive – we might be seeking to ward off an undesirable feeling.
The uncomfortable, difficult truth lying beneath my wise man’s facile interpretation? I think, with benefit of hindsight, my girlfriend was saying, “I’m a sexual being.” I imagine she hungered to feel sexual – a feeling I manifestly, blindly, denied her. I imagine, with no right, that she longed to feel her sexual power, a power that threatened me, that I attacked, undermined, at every turn.
But I don’t imagine I was her audience. She was wise enough to know she had to look elsewhere to exert that power, so terrified by it was I.