First-prize winner (tie) - non-fiction
I am being danced with. Alcohol takes my fear away, and the loud music lets us avoid talking. I let myself acknowledge my attraction to this boy I have only just met, and for a few moments, I allow myself to give in, encourage the interest he has taken in me. As the base of the music thumps we twist toward the floor, legs intertwined, arms around each other's bodies, faces dangerously close. He nuzzles my cheek, my ear, my hair, and I don't pull away. I feel the hairs on my arms and the back of my neck rise, my stomach clench, my heart speed up. I feel his mouth moving toward mine and I pull away quickly, evading his kiss by a millisecond. My lips sting, knowing they've been teased, cheated. I don't dance with anyone for a long time after that.
* * *
* * *
For years I was afraid to talk to boys. I knew that by laughing and conversing with them, by letting them into my life and myself into theirs, I could be easily tempted toward them. I knew how curious I could be, can be, how certain people could draw me into their world until I craved them. I was like this with both sexes, but girls were safe, platonic. I felt no temptation to seduce them, to test the potential of the power of my gender on them. So I filled my world with friends who were girls and stayed away from boys, collectively, except for one boy, singular, whom I depended upon to keep all of my temptations under control.
Talking to boys was not the only control fear I had. At age seventeen, my mother and I had absurd arguments about food in the middle of the grocery store. "I don't want that in the house because I'll eat it," I seethed. My friends all admired the control I had over my appetite. Little did they know that, really, it had nothing to do with self-control, but rather with avoiding temptation altogether.
Control. How much time did I waste on it? I controlled my weight, my desires, my time, my money, my temper, my emotions - I even bought control-top pantyhose. It took me years to recognize that my compulsion to control my surroundings was, like the pantyhose, in fact controlling me. Yet I could not imagine just letting go and allowing everything to hang out for the world to see. It all had to be controlled.
"That girl is a slut," my boyfriend, the one boy I depended upon to keep my temptations under control, said as a girl passed us in the mall.
We were both seventeen.
"Do you know her?" I asked, silently comparing myself to her. She was dressed in dark, form-fitting jeans and a tight, low-cut top - clothes similar to mine.
"No, but I can tell just by looking at her."
"She looks like me. Do I look like a slut?"
"No, but you're different. You're not a slut."
"But if I walked by you and you didn't know me, would you say the same about me?"
"No - why are you making such a big deal out of this? Can't you drop it?"
He quickly dropped the subject. I wondered if he was beginning to calculate the potential repercussions of his words. We walked in silence.
In her book, Promiscuities, Naomi Wolf points out that the fear of being out of control - of food or money or sex - is typical of contemporary women, and she suggests that we view loss of control as something that could turn a woman into a monster. "We understand from books and movies that something terrible must happen to the slut," she says (p. 73), and then asks, "Where do we get our sense that our past must be immaculate, that our "promiscuity," our being in any way out of control, can lead us, if discovered, into symbolic or actual annihilation?"
Didn't my seventeen-year-old boyfriend give me the answer to Wolf's question when he spoke disdainfully of the girl who had unleashed her curves, the visual evidence of her assumed sexuality? If we relinquish control, quit locking our curves down under control top nylons that keep us safely compact, do we risk leaving ourselves open to the title that my boyfriend and so many other people like him threw at this girl?
* * *
"Remember, no sex until marriage," my mom told me. I was thirteen and had just gotten my first period. As a parent, that was what she was supposed to tell me. It fit with concurrent lessons to be in control of my life, my career, my relationships. But where did it fit with her equally vehement admonition to "flaunt what you've got," to enjoy my body and the power of female sexuality? Where, in her lessons of empowerment, did sex and seduction fit? What would happen if I gave in to the power of feminine sexuality, if I came to that moment when I would abandon control? Would everything else that I had so stringently controlled fall to pieces?
"Don't do anything you may regret later, don't risk your future," my mom told me before the prom. "At this age, boys aren't worth it. It only lasts a second anyway, so wait until you're older."
Lesson learned: Wait, and one day, it will be worth it.
The simple fact that my mom could tell me this both taught me and led me to hope that sex would be a fun part of life, that it need not be controlled, dirty, taboo, destructive.
* * *
My seventeen-year-old boyfriend wanted to wait until marriage.
"They started having sex last summer, I can't believe they're so dirty," he said of our friends. How I envied our friends.
"Would you have dated me if I weren't a virgin?" I asked.
"No," he responded, not realizing that it wouldn't have made me a different person, only believing that I would have been sullied.
In a society where boys are supposed to be the ones luring their partners into sex, I wondered why he resisted, wondered if there was something wrong with me for wanting it more than he did. Could I be dirty like "them"? I wondered.
A year later, after he had finally given in to temptation, he still said the same thing abou tother friends who lost their virginity to their steady partners.
"How come it's dirty when they do it, but not when we do?" I asked.
"Because it's different when it's us," he said. That was the extent of his argument, and it was never strong enough to fully convince me that he didn't think sex with me was dirty, too. That fear kept control always there, in my mind. I latched on to it, and feigned passion, knowing that truly feeling it could lead to my being dirty, my annihilation.
After three years of listening to the person I lost my virginity to talking about sex as if it were something to be feared and avoided, I finally left him and stopped being afraid. Within months I let go of my thin frame as I let go of constant control over other temptations. I ate chocolate and giggled with boys; I drank beer and kissed boys....boys and boys and boys.
* * *
The thought of all the fun, the freedom from control, that I missed out on for so many years made me wonder, why do women cling so desperately to control? Why did I live in such fear of giving in to temptation, of letting my body curve the way it wanted to, of loosening the grip I had on myself, of not caring that I could potentially open myself up to the title of slut like the girl in the mall just by the mere act of doing so? If we are physiologically equipped to be as sexual as males, then what is restraining so many women?
In The Mismeasure of Woman, Carol Tavris points out that some people still hold the Victorian view that "naturally lustful males need naturally chaste women to control male sexuality and keep it within family bounds."
Is this my answer? That in this modern day, we still haven't been weaned off this Victorian view? I feel so useful, so betrayed, so controlling.
* * *
During the time when I would argue with my mother in the grocery store over junk food in the house, I never liked my body despite its trendy thinness. I yearned for beautiful, feminine curves, for rounded hips and a full bust much like those my mother had, not the boring, narrow hips and the barely-B bust I had. Yet the way I looked was the way a girl is supposed to look. We are supposed to have the bodies, and the pasts, of innocent little girls. Everyone tells us so. Movies, television, even boyfriends.
* * *
The first time a boy kisses me on the dance floor of a bar, I feel like I've accomplished something. Like driving a car alone for the first time or losing my virginity, I've finally become a person who isn't controlled by a compulsion to control herself but rather is empowered by an ability to let go of the things she chooses to let go.
I am not just being danced with. I am dancing with someone. I wrap myself around him and we move to the beat of the thumping music. Sometimes I am the first to express my interest in a boy - no longer afraid that I won't be able to resist temptation, because I don't have to hold back.
I've gained weight and my body feels relieved. Though still a B, I finally fill my bra out, my hips curve, and I waste little energy counting calories and fantasizing about how I would look with five fewer pounds of me. I want to flaunt giving in, eat a large meal in public.
"I've never seen anyone eat a hamburger like that," my new boyfriend says, after many months of practicing my new habits, of not forcing myself to avoid anything that may tempt me. What he doesn't know is that through my years of controlling every aspect of myself, I wouldn't eat hamburgers or any red meat, not for moral reasons, but because I considered it too fattening.
"You certainly aren't one of those girls who's afraid to eat in front of her boyfriend," he says, laughing at me while I pick food off of his plate as I offer him some of mine. What he doesn't know is that it took me years to get over that. The seventeen year old me would ask her seventeen year old boyfriend if she could eat more dessert.
Since relinquishing that control, I have lived out fantasies of the girl I always thought I should be - the one who flirts and kisses, the one who isn't afraid to eat a large meal, or argue to get her way. We argue and we laugh, we debate and make love, but none of it is controlled - not my appetite, not my sexuality, not my humor, and not my temper.
Now I have answers to my questions. Now I realize that everything I so stringently controlled will not fall to pieces if I stretched the boundaries of any one part of my life. I've taken a chance and tested it, and learned that my life will not fall apart if I show off my curves, if I eat a large meal, if I enjoy sex, if I argue for what I want. Now, instead of clinging to control, I keep this experience by my side to remind myself when I get scared that letting go a little, that taking a chance, will not break me or do me in.
© Jillian Heffron
Jillian graduated from the University of Iowa in 2002. She is currently working as a receptionist while trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life - the very thing Moxie was created to do.
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