by Katharine Blake McFarland
On a trip to New York to visit friends last month—a trip that coincided with the city's first beautiful spring weekend after a grueling, endless winter—I walked four miles uptown to see the Whitney Biennial exhibit. Mostly I found the show to be difficult and pedagogical, but there were a few standout pieces, works I will remember for their ability to open up some previously closed part of the heart. A pencil drawing by Elijah Burgher; a massive series of paintings by Keith Mayerson called My American Dream, which sets iconic images next to the personal moments of the painter's life; a kind of totem by Jimmie Durham called Choose Any Three, made of stacked wood pieces inscribed with names like Malcolm X, Annie Wauneka, and Kafka.
But one of the most unforgettable moments of the exhibit wasn't an installation. It was a conversation I overheard among young girls about an installation.
In a small dark room, a short film played on a loop. The film, Untitled by Jennifer Bornstein, features a group of naked women dancing. In true modern dance form, the women are barefoot, pushing and pulling their bodies across the barren backdrop, dragging and circling, arching and caving in. At one point, two of the dancers seem to be in struggle, gripping each other's bodies like wrestlers; other times, the movements are languid, more peaceful and maybe even sad. The dancers themselves are beautiful—capable bodies, confident movements, their long brown hair falling in front of their faces.
As I stood with my back to the wall, just about to leave, three little girls scurried into the room, full of secrets, followed by a bedraggled-looking father. They couldn't have been more than six or seven years old.
“Eeeewwww” the tallest girl whispered loudly.
“They're JUST NAKED!” gasped another, which prompted a general chorus of audible, enraptured disgust (that kind of disgust, so familiar to childhood, that prohibits the possibility of looking away).
“Girls,” whispered the father, “if you don't like it, let's move along.” The girls reacted to this suggestion by taking a seat on the front-most bench, closest to the screen, and continued their chorus. The father tried a different approach: “What do you find so gross about it?”
“Their vaginas!” said the tallest girl. At this, the father glanced around the room embarrassedly, caught my eye, and I smiled.
“What about them?” the father asked, turning back to the girls.
“They're hairy!”—and then, after a reflective pause, “They look like men pretending to be women.”
As I left the dark room and walked into the bright white hallways of the museum, I immediately thought of Barbie. Her impossible proportions, gravity-defying and devoid of muscle; her smooth, and (of course) hairless, plastic skin.
The day I got my first Barbie was momentous because it was hard-won. My parents were artists, former hippies, and they were against it from the start. They declined the first several thousand times I pleaded, but eventually I wore them down, and my first Barbie was a figure skater. She came with a blue leotard, a tutu, and perfect white ice skates. It was all too pretty to believe, and I wanted to save the plastic packaging because it smelled sweet, like perfume and candy.
But Barbie's body never became my reference point for female anatomy. Being the child of hippies also ensured I was completely familiar and unfazed by grown-up nudity. Skinny-dipping was a regular pastime in my early years—in ponds, in the river, in the ocean. I'd seen my mother's body, and her friends'. Nudity was normal. As a baby and a toddler, my little brother was born with an allergy to pants. At any given point, you could find him streaking across our neighbors' lawns, shedding his garments as he tumbled and tottered, a trail of clothes strewn behind him.
But we take privacy seriously in this country, and it has always been more normal to be unnerved by nudity than easy with it. Shame pervades dominant cultural attitudes toward the body (Eve's purported legacy), and children, in particular, express a range of responses to grown-up nudity including intrigue, confusion, and repulsion.
And yet somehow the girls at the Whitney struck a different chord. Something in the specificity of their complaint—”they're hairy”—an aesthetic grievance that vibrates with the imagery of Barbie, yes, but also more sinister influences, like pervasive trends in pornography, or the preferences professed by Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street. For these girls, the aesthetic complaint prompted a problem of recognition. Because the dancers didn't look the way women should look, because their bodies—in motion and in contact with one another—existed outside this narrow scope of recognizable femininity, they looked like men. Men with long brown hair and breasts. Men pretending to be women.
Who knows where the girls got it from. Influences can be direct and indirect, and there’s only so much a parent can control. A year after I got figure skating Barbie, my mother walked into my room to find several naked Barbies bound and tied to the legs of chairs. She was understandably shaken. When she and my father confronted me about it, I explained to her that it had been my friend Liz’s idea but that it was okay, anyway, because they were all going to be rescued by Ken. It never occurred to us to tie Ken to a chair and to have Barbie be the rescuer. Look at their bodies—who looks more capable? Children don’t have to be told or shown, sometimes they just fill in the blanks.
In this case, the girls at the Whitney unwittingly give voice to the narrowness of acceptable options: be like a woman—static, weak, childlike—or deviate from that narrow definition and be like a man. Of course, many women have shattered the false dichotomy and broken through a number of glass ceilings in a number of ways. But a pressure still whispers—I have heard it—be like this, you have to be like this, and this narrowness is the stuff of unhappiness. It is the pressure that leads to anxiety, eating disorders, homophobia, and isolation. It’s a pressure that turns into days of your life and thousands of dollars wasted on waxing, plucking, tanning, toning, fixing, and bleaching—days and dollars you will never get back.
And so in the dark room at the Whitney, I wish someone—maybe me—had told the girls that the dancers’ bodies were beautiful. That some day, if they are lucky, which I hope they are, the girls themselves will grow up to have bodies like this—in motion and sure on their feet—and there is nothing they need to do to be smaller, stiller, or in need of rescue. For some reason I keep thinking of a poem by Richard Wilbur that he wrote for his daughter. The last stanza goes like this:
It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.