My Body, My Bear Suit

This is all too close to the truth.

One day when I was about eleven years old, my mother and I were standing in the kitchen, squared off in a battle of the wills. She believed that I needed to become more firmly acquainted with the feminine arts, and I secretly railed against the idea that I would become a woman or ever marry or have children. I cannot remember if she wanted me to chop onions or add spices, but there was a pot of soup to be made, and I was to learn how to do it. I protested that I was not in the least interested in learning how to make macaroni vegetable soup, and my mother replied, You will never be able to find a good husband if you don't know how to cook. I was shocked that future husbands even factored into this hateful cooking thing, and I answered back, I will just have to find someone that can cook for himself, then. Years later, after biology had taken over and turned my body into that of an adult woman, I went against type and married, and the husband I wed did indeed cook. In fact, the Palinode does up a mean batch of curried cauliflower with very little provocation.

I was given clear messages throughout my childhood that, because I was female, I was to be sweet and accommodating and friendly and agreeable and smiling at all times. If I disagreed with another person's ideas or had a different viewpoint to offer, I was seen as argumentative. If I was too sad to put on a smile for guests, I was told that I should hide myself in my room until I could put the appropriate expression on my face, because no one would like me otherwise. Friends outside our church circles were judged more harshly, and my friendships with them were openly frowned upon on occasion well into my twenties, as though I needed to be protected.

Part of the legacy of this narrow and quiet path to feminine desirability that was impressed upon me is that I learned to hide my thoughts and emotions behind a veil of smiles and I'm-fines. To do otherwise meant a trip to my room, and I suspect that it was the same for a good number of other young females out there. I took offense to this, though, on another deeply personal level that no one would have discerned at the time: I felt that I was being forced into a mode of behaviour based on the configuration of the flesh between my thighs, and my sense of self was not predicated on my biological particulars. It was deeply insulting that people based their knowledge of me not on me but on the shape of my genitals. They were much more interested in what the shape of my crotch meant my life should be than they were in who I actually was as an individual person. My parts were girl-shaped, and my vagina meant that I should be nicey-nice and know how to make soup, and making babies one day was a given.

kid in a bear suit

Not surprisingly, I became a deeply angry individual who squashed her thoughts and feelings on the subject down into the deepest part of her. Imagine, if you will, back to a time when you were a little girl or boy or birl or whathaveyou, and that you were well aware of your girlness/boyness/birlness/whathaveyouness. Now imagine that whatever community/family situation you were a part of insisted that the bear suit you were stuck inside when the zipper broke after trick-or-treating meant that you were actually a bear. You know you are not a bear but a child inside a stuffy bear suit with scratchy seams, but no one will acknowledge that you are inside the suit. They will only acknowledge you as though you are the mungy smelling bear that you appear to be. It's more than a touch ridiculous, but there you are, stuck with having to growl for your supper and sleep under the deck. The humour in the situation, no doubt, is lost on you, especially when they chide you for being unable to catch fish with your paws and for refusing to eat the annoying brat next door.

So, I was that whathaveyou, and I often forget how angry I used to feel all the time back then, but things like this video bring it all out again. The more I watch it, the more my anger turns from an uneasy annoyance to feeling completely livid.

Put almost any other minority in place of the woman at the table. Imagine her as a man from Mexico being told to mind his place. Watch the video again with this in mind, and it is not nearly so funny. If the line of difference at the table were one of colour, it would feel embarrassing to laugh at such nakedly racist statements, even if we did know it wasn't meant to be taken seriously.

Mexicans, Know Your Limits

Look at the effect of education on a [white person's] mind. Education passes into the mind of a [white person]. See how the information is easily and tidily stored. Now see the same thing on a [mexican]. At first, we see a similar result. But now look! Still at a reasonably low level of education, [the mexican's] brain suddenly overloads. [He] cannot take in complicated information. [He] becomes frantically and absurdly deranged.

The humour in this video revolves around demeaning women, though, and we are more comfortable with this stark sexism, because we see this kind of dismissive sexism all the time. It is allowed all the time. If you are a woman, your opinions have more than likely been dismissed in a group conversation with men based on nothing more than your genitals and your secondary sex characteristics. I have watched women leave conversations simply because there was no space for them to be heard.

Being female should not put a person in such a position that their femaleness becomes that aforementioned bear suit, but it does. Femaleness is loaded with expectations from all sexes, and I have felt shut up and stifled by it all my life. I am the things I am. Some of the things I am are traditionally seen as stemming from my femaleness, and some of the things I am are traditionally seen as being distinctly male, and therefore either less natural and/or acts of rebellion, but there you go. I am argumentative. I am gentle with the small and the fuzzy. I grow a certain amount of facial hair. I have breasts. I like wearing men's footwear and pin-striped suits. I am a sucker for nice rings. I have a thing for round, bouncy lady bums.

Despite the fact that my body has become my bear suit, I will not be dismissed for it. It alone does not define my abilities or desires, which seems so elementary when written down, but is a reality of which most people I run into seem unaware. We are whittled down to our more obvious secondary sex characteristics; who we are is lost in the obsessive identification of that facial hair (male, aggressive), that pair of breasts (female, passive), that strong gait (male, aggressive), and those hips (female, passive). We are inventoried, our physical and behavioral characteristics are categorized, and we are identified as persons having certain kinds of interests and objectives and as deserving of this or that kind of treatment before we even open our mouths to speak.

Let me tell you, the novelty of this bear suit of mine wore off a long time ago, but there you go. We are all of us, in all our shades of male and female, in bear suits to one extent or another. I just wish that this particular suit had been put together by a better tailor with an eye to comfort and better ventilation. Would it hurt to throw in a second suit for when the first one needs a laundering? Or how about a silk lining or better arch support? Do you think that Jean Paul Gaultier could cook up one with better drape and a less menacing head for those black tie affairs?

UPDATE: I realize that because I did not explicitly state that I like the above video, "Look Listen & Take Heed", it has been misunderstood that I think this video is an example of patriarchal hogwash. It is not. I LOVE this video. I like that it brings to the forefront issues that many people would prefer to believe are no longer with us. It brought old anger out in me, but that, my friends, is good fortune. It keeps me fiery.