The Woman I Want/To Be

Female mannequin form wearing blue denim fabric jump suit with zipper running from just above the crotch to the top of the garment, just above the breasts. A very wide brimmed straw hat hangs from the neck behind the mannequin.

A woman created the sun

Inside her

And her hands were beautiful

The earth plunged beneath her feet

Assailing her with the fertile breath

Of volcanoes1

I have been photographing women’s clothing displays in shop widows for years. I am in love with womanhood. I am in love with womanhood in two ways. First, and dominantly, I am in love with womanhood in the way you would expect my male lizard brain to be. I am in love with womanhood as a receptive place where my sexual longings can come to repose. Every attractive-to-me vision of womanhood is arousing and provokes those longings. I want to inhabit that womanhood in a very male way. But there is a second way I am in love with womanhood. I am in love with the idea of being woman. When I fantasize sex, I often seek the position of womanhood in making love, having love made to me. When I see women’s clothing presented in the shop window, I fantasize about the woman that would sheathe her body with that clothing, how achingly beautiful she would be, and how wonderful it would be to make love to her. At the same time, I phantasize about being the achingly beautiful woman wearing the clothing, about being the irresistible promise of blooming sexuality. Both ways of loving womanhood are powerful forces in my being.

Shop mannequin wearing a floral, loosely draped, halter top and thinly stripped skirt.

When I began making the female mannequin images, I don’t think I was conscious of this second way of loving womanhood, though I now believe it has been present all along. I suppose I wasn’t ready to let it surface. It was too frightening to be honest with myself about it.

One is not born, but rather one becomes, a woman.2

I have read more than a few books written by women about the experience of being woman. Caliban and the Witch, by Silvia Federici; Three Women, by Lisa Taddeo; Catcalling by Soho Lee; Girlhood by Melissa Febos; The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir; Down Girl, by Kate Manne; Radical Homemakers, by Shannon Hayes. I have more on my Kindle that I have yet to get to. Nothing about manhood interests me nearly so much as everything about womanhood.

In the early days of Instagram, I developed an image series of men’s and women’s fashion posters in store windows with reflections of the city layered over them. I imagined a race of gods and goddesses in the vein of ancient Greek deities. When I moved to Beacon, NY, there weren’t fashion posters, but there were shop windows with mannequins displaying women’s clothing, so I photographed them instead, and began to get more intimate with these fantasies of womanhood.

Mannequin in a pink floral dress in a shop window. Lettering naming the shop and describing it’s contents runs across the bottom.

I have written before that, in the LGBTQ+ spectrum, I am attracted to the trans/cross-dressing part of it. When I stopped working a regular job, I grew my hair down to my shoulders and have had it that way ever since. Years ago, I was getting my hair done at a beauty salon—which I have always preferred to the traditional male barber—and the woman doing my hair asked me if I would like a French braid. Why she thought to ask me that is a mystery, but I thought about it for a moment and said, “why not?” I have gotten my hair done in a French braid at the beauty salon for special occasions ever since. And what do I wear on those special occasions? I have chucked over the suit or sport coat and tie in favor of a tunic that comes down below my knees. In other words, an approximation of a dress. I wore an off-white tunic to my nieces’ wedding, along with a Tom Wolfe inspired white hat. Several of the young women attending the wedding told me I was the most intriguingly dressed man there. My male lizard brain self was grateful for the attention of young womanhood. I wonder if any of them sensed the feminine energy I was channeling?

A bare shouldered floral print dress gathered at the waist on a female mannequin form in a shop window. Barg + Mo stenciled on the window just below the breasts of the mannequin form.

I recently wrote a piece about my attempt to write physical intimacy between two women. That has been and continues to be an interesting journey. I learned that my lizard brain male self is the dominant force. It was difficult to write the scene in a way that wasn’t a male fantasy voyeur proposition. But the experience has helped loosen my heterosexually dominant lizard brain’s grip on things. I am becoming a compassionate witness to all the possibilities of human sexuality.

In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir makes a compelling case that gender is a social construct. The social landscape we are raised in has a profound effect on what womanhood and manhood are conceived to be and how we conceive of ourselves as men and women. We are all degrees of masculine and feminine as far as gender is concerned. The dominant culture tries to shove us into tightly defined heterosexual gender roles, but gender is fluid and many of us shift around the gender spectrum as we move through our lives.

Female mannequin form wearing a tropical leaf print bare shoulder dress gathered at the waist. A purse is slung over the shoulder from right to left. Sunglasses balance precariously on the front edge of the purse.

The lie to which the adolescent girl is condemned is that she must pretend to be an object, and a fascinating one, when she senses herself as an uncertain, dissociated being, well aware of her blemishes.3

As I look through the images I am sharing in this post, I can see that the concept of womanhood they present is very feminine and not just a little sexy. I don’t, however, come to it from the proposition that women who might inhabit these clothes are required to fulfill an idea of womanhood that the dominant heterosexual culture seeks to enforce. The womanhood I imagine would inhabit this clothing with an intelligent, goddess-like presence, full of confidence, self-possession and sexual power.

I will develop this body of work into an edited series called The Woman I Want/To Be. The work will explore the intersection of multiple fantasy perspectives of womanhood generated by shop window displays of women’s clothing. Among them are the male fantasy perspective, trans fantasy perspective, and female fantasy perspective, both straight and gay. In each of these perspectives, there is a fantasy of womanhood that is nuanced by the gender identity approaching it.

  1. From A woman created the sun, Two Poems by Joyce Mansour ‹ Literary Hub ↩︎

  2. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex ↩︎

  3. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex ↩︎

My True Potential

We’ve been watching The Big Door Prize. The premise of the show is the appearance of a vending machine in the local grocery store which promises to tell you what your true potential is. Eventually, everyone tries the machine. Most people get something different from what they are currently doing with their lives. They start pursuing the “true potential” given to them by the machine. This, of course, upsets the routines, rituals and relationships of the small town they live in.

For most of my working life, I was an Architect. In my late 50s I pivoted to art photography, writing, cooking, and cleaning. Now in my late 60s, most people would consider me retired. I tell people I am semi-retired but really, as I see it, I am on to my second career. I spend around 40 hours a week pursuing my art photography practice, reading, and writing in two blogs, this one and another I call Notes On Attention Paid, which is an online micro post journal of what has my attention at a given moment. In addition, I spend considerable time managing our household. I do the grocery shopping, manage the finances, cook, clean, do the laundry, take yoga classes at the health club, and drive my wife, who can’t drive, where she needs to go.

I imagine my younger self going to Morphos, the machine in the grocery store, pushing my bank card into it, punching in my social security number, giving it my palm to scan, and getting a card back telling me my true potential, artist/writer/homemaker. Yup, based on where my bliss seems to lead me these days, that’s what I would get, not architect.

I am one of those few people who actually enjoys homemaking. Certainly, I am one of that even rarer species, a cisgender man who actually enjoys housework. Vacuuming and tidying up is rewarding to me because it makes order out of chaos on a weekly basis. Folding laundry is a mindfulness practice as far as I am concerned. Cooking is a spiritual practice of deep devotion, and feeding someone a profound act of love. Doing it daily is a devotional practice of love.

We didn’t have children, so I don’t know what it is to have to clean up after them, feed them, organize their schedules, etc. The life experience that leads many women of my and adjacent generations to feel that if they never had to cook another family meal for the rest of their lives, it would be just fine. I think I’d have made a good house-husband. And because my true potential may well have been house-husband, I might even have come out of it still enjoying cooking and cleaning. Who knows?

My art photography is a spiritual devotion to seeing. Daily meditative walks are the backbone of it. Insight develops over time. I am about ten years into it as one of my main creative outlets and have not grown tired of it. I have not grown tired of trodding the same sidewalks, streets, trails, and beaches over and over again. Routines are deeply satisfying to me. The god I believe in is the god of routines and daily details.

I read every day. Books and articles. For the most part, I don’t read for entertainment, even though I am certainly entertained by what I read. I read for information and enlightenment. I read books on philosophy, history, women’s issues (a big interest of mine), articles on politics, spirituality, etc.

Little of this makes me money. I made and saved some while I was an architect, but my wife is the breadwinner in our household. Her steady work as a neonatal intensive care nurse kept us stable pre retirement, and her pension is the bulk of our income post retirement.

In my current life I am as happy as I have ever been. I look forward to every day of the week. A day rarely finishes without a feeling of accomplishment. I am doing what I have wanted to do since my 20s, I just didn’t realize it back then. And even if I had, boy would that have been a tough trail to blaze. Homemaking and art? That’s woman’s work as far as my generation is concerned. Progress is being made on that front by each of the generations that are following me, but art and homemaking? That would have branded me a “pussy.” In fact, it still does with men and women closer to my generation. Being taken care of financially by a woman? Pussy!

I have learned from firsthand experience what women have known for generations. The work of my true potential is enormously undervalued. And yet, it’s important and profoundly satisfying work, at least to me.

Not long ago, a conversation was overheard in the extended family, which argued that my wife would be too busy taking care of me to take on whatever task was being discussed. Ouch. In this country, in this and contiguous generations, if you are male and not financially supporting yourself and several others, there is something wrong with you. My wife has been pretty supportive of my true potential endeavors, but she grew up in and surrounded by the same generations I did.

The truth is, my wife may take care of me financially, but in terms of the human care giving that is homemaking and home management, I take care of her. I am fine with that. I love doing it and deeply appreciate her gift to me, the income to keep a roof over our heads, food on the table, and provide a few non-essential but nice-to-have experiences along the way.

It amazes me how good it feels to write this. To say it out loud, yes, my true potential might well have been artist/writer/homemaker. I am so happy to come home to myself.

About The Handmaid’s Tale

File:“Die Mütter” - Käthe Kollwitz ; Felsing (printer). Wikimedia Commons.

_ File:“Die Mütter” - Käthe Kollwitz ; Felsing (printer). Wikimedia Commons

I have had an uneasy relationship with The Handmaid’s Tale from the beginning while my wife has been all in on it. My uneasy relationship has multiple sources. To begin with, I find it unrelentingly bleak. There aren’t that many triumphs of good over evil and they can never be enjoyed for very long before the bleak returns. On some level I suppose it taps into my worst fears about the present moment in the United States. With daily stories of state legislatures passing draconian anti-abortion laws and of the constant threat of Christian Nationalism flooding the zone, life is imitating art a little to directly.

There also isn’t, for me anyway, a likable male character or any place for a relatively enlightened male to lodge himself in the program. Even the relatively good men, Luke and Nick, are hard for me to identify with. It feels to me like the writers don’t want us to get comfortable with any of the male characters because, at the end of the day, they all carry the patriarchy with them.

I am white, male, 6’ 1” tall and, my wife would say, handsome. In the United States of America this means I have been dealt a pretty good hand. I could only have done better if I had been blond and wealthy. Not that it has felt that way to me. I am an outlier, more a poet and artist than a rugged male individualist. I have not enjoyed the “full blessings” of my stature, gender and race, partly because I haven’t seen them as blessings. Still, it’s been a lot better than it would have been without them.

I count myself as one of the good ones in terms of respecting the women in my life. Broadly speaking, I love women. Broadly speaking, I don’t like men. Or perhaps, I should say, I don’t like patriarchal maleness very much. Until the likes of Lauren Bobert and Marjorie Taylor Green showed up in congress, I was fully rooting for a takeover of the levers of power by women, or at least that they should become equal in numbers to the men. And, more than many men, I have a deep appreciation of the patriarchy run amok from my experiences with the family I grew up in.

In both my marriages I have not been the main breadwinner. The first one didn’t handle that very well. There were a lot of things it didn’t handle very well which is why I can label it my first marriage. The present one tolerates it well, though I am not without experience in the power dynamic of not being the main breadwinner. I had flush times in my working life but they didn’t last and my present wife is the one who secured our retirement. As a means of compensating and saying thank you, I willingly take on most of the household work. I do the grocery shopping, meal planning and cooking, weekly laundry, weekly vacuuming and dusting, manage the finances, provide resident handyman services, though rarely with the alacrity my wife would like to see. My wife keeps the cash flow going, handles the dog grooming and care and sometimes helps with the other things. Because she doesn’t drive, I make it possible for her to get where she needs to go, which I am always happy to do though she doesn’t enjoy being dependent on me in that way. I am the one more likely to make a celebration at birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, etc.

So, I suppose I have a right to claim that I am relatively “woke” when it comes to gender roles and not being an oppressive patriarchal son of a bitch. I am sure I have my patriarchally driven elements just as I have my racially prejudiced elements, though I am relatively enlightened in that department too.

When I consider the LGBTQ+ spectrum and wonder if there is any part of it that I am drawn to it would be the transgender part of it. I can imagine myself being a woman and even played a bit at cross dressing in my younger years though I don’t really find myself physically capable of being feminine enough to go all in on it. That’s probably why I struggle with the character of June. To me, feminine is soft, curved and receptive. June is hard, angular and a warrior.

This isn’t to say that I am not attracted to women physically. I am very attracted to women physically. One of the sad things of my life is to have equated sex with love, expressed and received, as many men do, and then grow old. At least I was able to have a few profoundly good sexual communions along the way, especially with the woman I am now married to. They live on vibrantly in my memory.

So. Back to Handmaid’s tale. This past week we were watching episodes 7 and 8 of season 5. The episodes where Serena gives birth with June’s assistance. The episodes where Serena flips from a privileged woman to being a Handmaid. I didn’t like June very much in the scenes following the birth of Noah, Serena’s baby. I had been rooting for their recognition of each other’s humanity. Of course June had every right to hate Serena, but I was into the whole forgiveness turn the other cheek thing and thought they might thenceforward march together as comrades in arms. I guess there is more shit to go through before they can emerge to the other side together.

Serena is the character I identify most fully with right now. She is the soft and receptive one at the moment, though I can see flashes of the warrior surfacing in her. With June, it is the reverse. We see flashes of softness and receptiveness surfacing now and again in her warrior being.

I got really angry with June’s behavior towards Serena after Noah’s birth. She was mean, and not just to Serena, but to her husband Luke as well. When I first watched the eighth episode I got so angry I had to leave the room. I wen’t to bed. I couldn’t even talk about it with my wife the next day. Imagine that, a fictional character in a TV program makes you so mad you have to leave the room. You can’t watch it. Woah, what’s that all about?

In When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chödrön writes:

… no matter what the size, color, or shape is, the point is still to lean toward the discomfort of life and see it clearly rather than to protect ourselves from it.

This is what one of her teachers called “leaning into the pointy bits.” I decided to rewatch episodes 7 and 8, to lean into those pointy bits.

To my surprise, the second time through I hardly got angry at all. There were still moments when I did not like June, where I thought she was gloating, being unkind, letting her anger get the best of her. The Buddhists will tell you that loving kindness is the way. But I suppose when you have the injustices of the patriarchy raging down through the ages at you it is hard to forgive and forget, to turn the other cheek, even at the moment of the birth of enlightenment in a woman who was a part of inflicting great suffering on you.

As I have suggested, it is difficult for me to find a place to lodge myself within the Handmaid’s tale, there isn’t a male character that feels like me. Right now, it’s Serena who most feels like me, though the writers of this show rarely allow you to love a character for very long. They are all human after all, which is, I suppose, high praise for the show. What I realize though, is that I struggle most of all with June. I struggle with her warrior nature. I want her to be soft and receptive which is my (patriarchal) idea of the feminine. To know someone intimately is to know their sharp points as well as their soft curves. To love them is to lean into those points as well as to be received in the bliss of their enfolding arms. I think I have finally come to understand June and myself in a new way. Pema is right. Lean into the pointy bits, don’t run from them. I am looking forward to season 6.