The blotting papers

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Selections from lipstickeaterJoon Lee* English and Gender Studies, Rhode Island School of Design, RI, USA

I write my blog, www.lipstickeater.blogspot.com, for the same reason that I write anything else in my life: because I was a teenage transsexual. I was not a ‘‘girl,’’ but I needed to be. But as my body was inadequate to the identity of girl, my bravery was inadequate to the scary process of gender reassignment surgery.

In a way, lipstickeater is a performative medium that aestheticizes inadequacies. I can’t get a vagina or breasts or be understood as a woman by boys I fall in love with, but I’m damn good at trying to get read as a girl. My blog is my body fibered with the slapdash photos, drawings, videos, and it fulfills my impossible desire for 125 female pounds of flesh. It utters with regularity: ‘‘I AM A GIRL.’’

One usually thinks about performatives – and also performance – as an outward vector, aimed at an audience that resides outside your body. And of course, the ‘‘I AM A GIRL’’ force of my blog does this also. But more important to me is that the force of the utterance embeds femininity into the flesh I carry around with me, as me. The diaristic quality of the blog gives inappropriate intimacy to my utterances. It’s like taking off all your clothes in public. This is how I think about the function of lipstickeater: a transsexualism operation performed upon my body with the lo-fi laser of prose. I’m not ‘‘expressing’’ myself as a girl here; I am doing the very things that will allow these muscles, bones, fat, hair, juices, to adequately contain the idea of ‘‘girl.’’ The performative forces of ‘‘I AM A GIRL’’ is fired inward, into my own flesh. I become the hollowware filled to the brim with the substance of femininity.

May 9, 2010: http://lipstickeater.blogspot.com/2010/05/big-fat-legs.html

I finally did something to make me feel completely woman: I ran my first half-marathon. I ran in the Providence Rhodes Races last Sunday, and I dressed carefully for my debut: strategically broken-in Nike Air Pegasus with ‘‘JOONY SCHECTER’’ embroidered on the tongues; 70s-style Adidas running shorts that flap out silkily like a half-slip; and my vintage Hole Live Through This T-shirt. Actually, the choice of the Hole T-shirt was a bit of thoughtful impulsiveness. Up until the night before the race, I had planned on wearing one of my favorite Fleetwood Mac Rumours shirt from the 70s, whose cotton was thinned out, as aerodynamic as any athletic microweave polyester. But suddenly, as I was going to bed, I thought: HOLE.

And so I got up the next morning and switched. This wasn’t a practical consideration. The Hole shirt, as thin as it is, is much larger than the Fleetwood Mac shirt, and would weigh more heavily on a running body. But I didn’t care. I’d bear the weight because I had to represent the team I was running for, which was that of grunge femininity: I’m Miss World, watch me break and watch me burn. I had an intuition that running the half-marathon was going to be a bodily operation that was going to give me the Hole, a physical, visceral feeling of the vulva in my brain. I finished the 13.1-mile race. I was going to be happy if I finished under two hours, and joyful if I finished it in 1 hour 45 minutes. I finished in 1 hour, 39 minutes, 26 seconds. I was in ecstasy. ‘‘1:39:26’’ felt like a christening of my body as woman.

Running the race made me feel voluptuous. Not sexual: voluptuous. I’m not talking about being flooded by endorphins I didn’t know I had, nor the cheap dirty chuckling I got out of the pain in my inner thighs and butt the day after. Not sexual: voluptuous. The pain I was feeling in the lower half of my body was not really pain, but a signal of change. If it was pain I was feeling I didn’t know it, because what was more visceral was how exaggerated my legs and butt felt – and now feel – in relation to the rest of my body.

My legs have been feeling fat lately. The seams on my Bettie Page-y APC ‘‘Petite Standard’’ jeans (100% cotton, no elastin or polyester in the denim) have been stretched out close to popping. This was cause for alarm at first: MY LEGS ARE GETTING FAT!! But then I began to give into the fat leg feeling. Because isn’t that what voluptuousness is about? Converting an overextended, hyperbolized asymmetry into a sensuality of feeling and being? Pin-up girls with outsized breasts and hips; plus-size models with rolling thighs: ‘‘voluptuous’’ is the word that articulates their bodily asymmetry rendered in fat as sensual beauty. But why should useless corpulence – the fat of breasts and hips and thighs that don’t lift or carry anything – corner the market on voluptuousness? Why, for instance, aren’t ballet dancers, with their outsized equine flanks, never thought of as ‘‘voluptuous’’? Because they use those thick legs to vault themselves into the air: their asymmetry is functional. Paul Newman once described Elizabeth Taylor as a ‘‘functioning voluptuary,’’ and I take inspiration from that. If these legs carry me through 13.1 miles are the very legs that feel fat, why can’t its very functionality make me voluptuous? I think it does.

I don’t gaze at myself naked very often. The last time I really made a habit of looking at my body in flesh was in my early twenties, when I was obsessed with building muscle to get a specifically masculine look in gender and sensuality: to get not just a hard body, but a hard and symmetrical body, in which the well-developed pecs and biceps and delts balanced out those of the thighs and calves. I stripped and looked at myself this week and I saw total asymmetry. My legs felt like they were huge tree trunks attached to teensy-weensy twigs of torso and arms. But quite unexpectedly, I was pleased. I liked the off-balanced picture I saw. I was a skinny gal. Now I am a grown-ass woman with big fat legs. Of course my legs are not ‘‘big fat legs’’ in the strictly cellular sense. But thinking of my runner’s legs as big and fat, as the stilts of a functioning voluptuary, I am finally rejecting the remnants of the boy’s sense of body that equates perfect symmetry with beauty and sensuality. I have big fat legs, and for once, I like that, the feeling of bottom-heaviness. When my calves force the seams of my jeans to stretch and burst, it’s my own version of a D-cup. Looking in the mirror at my naked body, I feel kind of like a bulimic because I’m seeing that which is not there. But it is a kind of renegade, reverse-bulimia: looking in the mirror, seeing fatness that is only in your mind, but instead of hating it, just loooooving it.

March 14, 2010: http://lipstickeater.blogspot.com/2010/03/it-takes-two.html

A couple Saturdays ago, my buddy Trace observed, ‘‘You’re wearing your favorite shirt!’’ So I was: an original, circa mid-1970s tee-shirt in glorious beige emblazoned with the image of one of my favorite records, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. Or more accurately: so it seemed as though I were wearing my favorite shirt. In fact, I was wearing a copy of my favorite shirt. And when I say ‘‘copy,’’ I don’t mean ‘‘reproduction,’’ an icky knock-off with a computer-scanned image ink-jetted onto an American Apparel shirt. No, I mean a literal copy: I’ve owned a seventies Rumours tee that I bought for $15 in Berkeley back in 1998, but the shirt I was wearing when hanging out with Trace was another seventies original that I recently bought on ebay by sheer dumb luck/fated miracle. Yes, I possess two of the same old and used T-shirt.

In the first photo, I’m wearing my first vintage Rumours shirt, the one bought in 1998. In the second, I’m wearing my new vintage Rumours shirt, bought 2010. The two shirts are almost identical, save the idiosyncrasies of wear-and-tear of the decades. The Berkeley one was already so soft when I bought it that it was my favorite shirt to wear on hangover Sundays, sitting around watching old Joan Crawford movies eating pizza. So now, having logged twelve years of wear on this war-torn body, the shirt has turned silk from cotton and almost transparent. The second copy of the shirt was in much better shape. Judging by the crispness of the tell-tale 70s tag and the intense black of the silk screen, it was worn but hasn’t been washed and dried: it probably spent most of its life in storage.

Yet it has strange black-edged holes all over that look like cigarette burns. And there is one particular hole that punctures the ‘‘O’’ in ‘‘Rumours’’ that Trace said is ‘‘shaped like a heart.’’ Weirdly, the hole goes all the way through the back of the shirt, as if someone really did put out a cigarettes on it. The cigarette hole is, appropriately enough, on the left side, so the hole is literally over my heart – like someone put a cigarette out on my heart.

Some people buy two or three of the same piece of the clothing for practical reasons, to rotate and replace. I buy multiple copies of clothes to protect my heart against loss. As a child, I used to spend half my allowance in dime form, not at a candy or trinket machine but on the Xerox machine at the public library. I made endless black-and-white photocopies of pictures I loved from books I loved, starting with cute doll girls of Dare Wright, moving on to stills of Audrey Hepburn, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Madonna. This was a poor kid’s way of owning books that he couldn’t buy. Xeroxing became fused into my heart as a delusional insurance against loss. If I copied these books that I knew couldn’t be mine, I could always have them with me even when the books got checked out or lost. They were mine to keep, between the pages of the math textbook, in my underwear, as the backside of my own drawings. I’m still a bit copy-crazed. I copy Mary Karr and Sylvia Plath’s poems, passages from Mary Gaitskill because they are words sure to produce feelings that I know I want to keep forever: love.

The copier in the Liberal Arts Division office of Rhode Island School of Design,where I teach, was broken the first week of classes, so I had to hand out course syllabi to my students that had black carbon crud all over them. I apologized, but secretly, I kind of liked it that I was getting all sooty because it was a distilled version of my compulsion to copy. It’s how I want to exist as a human, emotionally speaking: constantly stained by the granules of my feelings. I fear the loss of love like I fear the loss of my Rumours shirt: as an inevitability. If boys can always turn around and leave, so can shirts. I fall in love with boys as not a gay boy but as a girl. This kind of love usually doesn’t take too long to implode because the boy if he is homosexual, wants another male homosexual who was a real boy inside (not me). If the boy is hetero or bisexual, he preferred a real live genetic girl to one whose femaleness was merely emotional-psychological-political (me). This actually did lead to masochism, and a lot of bad behavior in the way of dramatically self-hating girls whose self-hating is often a form of glamour. But then, in 1997, I met a homosexual who truly loved – or rather, and this is an important and beautiful specification, tried with all his might to love – a boy who was really a girl inside. He promised he’d love me forever and the Xerox-crazed kid in my head fought like crazy against the lifeguard, but soon got fatigued and relaxed into his rescue.

We got hitched and went on a real Elizabeth-Taylor-and-Richard-Burton-esque ride that lasted basically a decade. The self-hating and self-laceration at not being a ‘‘real girl’’ stopped, and I fully embraced being a wife. But the marriage itself eventually fell apart. I think it had something to do with what J.L. Austin said, in quite a different context: ‘‘to promise is not to try to do anything.’’1  So now that I am back to being a single girl, once again I find myself falling back into that old feeling of ecstatic disintegration. In my teens and twenties, I thought that my body would hold its outline together and make sense if I just had enough sex with boys. I admit I didn’t have all that much sex, but each perverse action would bring me closer to recognizing this collection of bones as ‘‘my body.’’ Now that I am in my thirties, things are different. While I have a comfortable sense of who I am, I now have a hard time even imagining sex with boys I love. When I try, I can’t see or feel my body.

I think I need two of my favorite T-shirts for this reason: using my feelings to connect with people often makes me feel like I don’t have a body at all. With these copied clothes, it’s like I’m Xeroxing myself over and over, but this time I’m not insuring against the loss of library books but against the loss of myself. I think I’m in love again because this boy whose name I can’t speak here, he makes me feel like nothing. Not in a masochistic way of ‘‘I’m nothing’’ but ‘‘nothing’’ as in ‘‘nothingness.’’ My body rattles with such uncertainty of itself that I’m afraid my cells will rattle right out of their skin and I will dissipate into a pile of sweet, slimy, granular stuff.

Notes on contributor Joon Lee is assistant professor of English and Gender Studies at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he teaches courses covering feminism, performance, object theory, and creative writing. He is working on a book about the ethics and aesthetics of cross-identification, another about femininity, materialism and feminism, as well as a volume of short stories.

Note 1Austin 1962, 126.

Reference Austin, J.L. 1962. How to do things with words. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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