My Body As Changing Object
In the late nineties, I worked as a waitress and pole dancer in one of Calgary’s many bikini bars. My job was equal parts slinging drinks, remembering orders, staying fit, looking “sexy” and connecting to customers. My work uniform was one of many bikinis, except on Lingerie Saturday when the sky was the limit in our wardrobe choices — as long as it was skimpy. Even today,nearly twenty years later, I can’t see a bottle of body glitter without remembering the smell of spilled beer, the aching feet pinched in heels, the subtle scraping of twenty dollar bills held against my hip by the waistband of a bikini, the sound of Santana playing on the jukebox as I dangled from the pole.
I remember the first time it was pointed out to me that I was “objectifying” myself for my job. The bikini bar I worked in was of the blue-collar sort, with regular customers that came just as much for the cheap and filling Italian food and familiar faces as they did for looking at nearly naked women. One of our regulars ate supper nearly every working day, filling up on fettuccini alfredo before he had even changed out of his work clothes or washed the grease off his hands. He changed his routine one weekend, coming in for lunch instead, cleaned up with his girlfriend in tow.
He cheerfully ordered food, telling his girlfriend I was his favorite waitress because we had such great conversations. He was pointing out items on the menu. She was staring at my body, seeming to focus on my nipples. I was wearing a see-through blue babydoll with a thong and no bra underneath. The feeling of her stare was palpable in a way I hadn’t experienced with any of the customers.
Later, I came with the food. He was enthusiastically digging in, asking her if she liked it. She didn’t answer him. Instead she addressed me.
“So why do you work in a place like this?” she asked.
“It’s a good job for me. I can work it around my day job, and we have great customers,” I answered, smiling at her boyfriend for a moment, “What do you do for work?”
“I’m an administrative assistant,” she answered. Then she continued,“Don’t you mind being nothing more than a sex object like this?”
At this point, I felt the heat radiating from my cheeks. My heart pounded as I tried to manage my emotions while being polite.
“It’s still a waitress job. I used to work in fine dining, and it wasn’t really much different, other than for what I wore. Actually, the customers here treat me better. And I’m a great dancer. The pole gives me a chance to show off,” I joked, trying to lighten the mood.
“You pole dance? You should be ashamed of yourself! You’re encouraging the objectification of women!” she huffed, storming out, leaving her boyfriend to pay the bill.
I cleared the table, wondering if anybody could feel the shaking I felt in my body, wondering if anyone could see the tears I didn’t let come out.
“Are you okay?” my co-worker asked, “ You know, it could be way worse. You could be a prostitute.”
This particular woman was one of the loveliest people I have met in my life. She really did care about the people she worked with. Most of the staff were like I was, holding other “day jobs” or going to school. I worked in home healthcare at the time. One of the girls was an engineering student, another an apprentice mechanic. But this girl was on her first job that wasn’t sex work. She had run away from home at fifteen and ended up living and working on the streets soon after. She was starting a new life at twenty-two, having bravely come in with a truthful resume. The manager appreciated her honesty and gave her the job. She was a great waitress, attentive and polite with the customers. She made me laugh one day when she told me she thought I was so brave to pole dance as she could never do something like that. She was too shy.
I told my husband all about the customer’s girlfriend when I got home from work. “There she was saying I was encouraging the objectification of women when I bet her job as a corporate secretary isn’t much different. Probably fetches her boss coffee wearing her tight little business suit,” I said angrily, “Besides, so what if I’m making money because of my body. Guys with no education get to work as roughnecks on the oil rigs over nothing more than being a strong guy and make great money. I just want to make good money, too. It’s not like I’d get hired on an oil rig, even though I am strong enough for the job.”
The customer’s girlfriend equated “objectification” with being an object of sexual desire. I’m sure she would have included sex work as promoting objectification by making a woman’s body nothing more than a sex toy. When I made my frustrated comparison between pole dancers and roughnecks, I was starting to glimpse the complexity of this concept we have of humans as objects versus subjects. As I write twenty years later, I see so many different ways in which my body and those of others have been objectified.
Body as the ultimate incubator: My doctor is taking my weight at the prenatal checkup.
“What’s this? You lost two pounds? Are you depressed? You must not be eating enough,” my doctor interrogates.
I had already gained twenty five pounds over the pregnancy. It was the middle of a hot summer. I always lost a little weight over the summer. What was two pounds, really?
“I’m fine. I don’t tend to keep weight on in the heat,” I answered.
“Well you need to keep your weight up for the baby.”
Body as punching bag: One of the patients at the hospital where my husband works has been violent. After the first few women were hurt, he’s been sent to work with “Fisty” (as he’s affectionately nicknamed the patient) nearly every day. “I’ve got broad shoulders to take the hit,” he says.
Body as teddy bear: “Aren’t you the sweetest little thing?”oozing out of a strange adult patting my daughter’s head, not watching as she cringes.
Body as machine: Two steps. Bend over as shovel plunges into the ground and my other hand scrapes the earth as I plant a tree. Repeat this thousands of times.
Body as advertising: “You really need to try getting on YouTube. You’re so photogenic. The way you look just screams wellness. It really suits your brand,” says my marketing person.
Then, there is this type of objectification that once left me so conflicted. Body as possession. I belong to my husband. Not in a women as chattel, passed from the father to the husband kind of way. Not in a women are less and must obey kind of way. I am much too freedom oriented to believe in that sort of ownership. And yet, there is a cozy happiness in being out with him, his arm slung around my shoulder, being his wife. And I like being the owner in a sense, introducing “my husband”. In the privacy of the bedroom, I enjoy being the “Yes Girl”.
“Do what you want with this body. It’s yours,” I say, knowing he would never really do something with it I don’t like. Only I can own myself. My thoughts, feelings and actions are mine. And yet, there is this delicious sense of belonging to being my husband’s wife. A sense of being my own person and yet never being truly alone.
In honesty, I think we are all the subjects and objects of each other’s lives, even our own. We take action with our bodies. As subjects we work and suffer and comfort and love. But by virtue of these verbs, we are also workers and lovers. We are objects of suffering and comfort. We can choose to allow ourselves to be objects of beauty or of defiance. What matters is that we uphold every individual’s freedom to negotiate how they will use their bodies.
It was okay being paid to be “eye candy” for the customers as my choice. And it was also the right thing to leave when I felt done with the sparkles and heels. I own my being. Subject and object.