Baring body and soul: is Doña Quixote still rational enough to consent to being interviewed in her Spanx?
Featured image: Four Older Women, Aleah Chapin.
Peter and I recently received a request from Utah’s PBS Channel, that is, Channel 7, to combine the videos RadioWest has made of us over the years into an hour-long film, which will first be aired in Utah in January 2022 and possibly later be distributed nationwide. Since the only form of activism I can still somewhat manage is being an advocate for people with dementia, and given that Peter has been equally involved as my technical manager and graph explainer during conference presentations, we both felt that participating in the making of the PBS video was something we wanted to do. Besides, filming meant that we would get to spend more time with RadioWest’s videographer Kelsie Moore, whom we’ve known for a long time and have come to love a lot. After we said YES, Kelsie has come over for two separate days of filming in order to capture up-to-date post-vaccination-Covid footage of our daily lives.
Kelsie Moore, Austen Diamond Photography.
In addition to seeing Kelsie again, we also got to meet PBS Utah Producer & Director Sally Shaum and audio engineer Brent Winegar.
One of the issues the filmmakers are interested in is how I see my body related to my identity. And isn’t that a question all of us—I imagine— deals with every day, for me at least once in the mornings as I get the first glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror with my bedhead hair and sleep-creased face looking a lot like my mother when she visited from South Africa and lived with us for months at at time when she was in her seventies and—I thought then—really old…never mind the mornings when I look like my father, dead before my children were born…
A piece from Francien Krieg’s Precious Bodies series, female figures painted over a period of 10 years and depicting various aspects of the aging female body.
Despite nursing a few grievances about my body—my lifelong tendency to love food so much that I constantly have to watch my weight; the sparseness of my hair, which in late adulthood I have dealt with by admitting I do not have the volume for a long style and accordingly kept it very short; and my genetic inheritance of the family jowls, the collar of fat-filled folds much in evidence since my forties (and especially in the times I was overweight), for which my solution was spending a ridiculous sum of money on liposuction, the most worthwhile indulgence in shallowness of my life. Decades later, when the year my surgeon had advised for “a tightening up” had come and gone, I had settled into acceptance of my re-emerged jowls, and self-centeredly pursued other luxurious body-related whims such as the purchase of two or three pieces of designer jeans and other pieces of consignment clothing for which I have no outlet in my life other than wearing them grocery shopping. While settling for clothes in colors and styles that I like instead of resorting to more surgery is admittedly still an attempt to remedy bodily flaws, that is, a practice that signals a not-total-acceptance of my body, my self-justification is that I chose these items not so much for the effect they might have on other people but just because I love handling the fabrics and colors and they fit well and feel so good when I have them on. At a time of my life when dementia has taken away so many of my former ways of expressing my identity, the privilege of acquiring and the brazenness of wearing clothes I love that are, in Utah a least, not considered age-appropriate, make me feel like me.
From Francien Krieg’s Precious Bodies
My bathroom-mirror morning-thoughts turned out to be particularly a propos to the shoot PBS planned: as in a previous RadioWest film, Dementia Field Notes, they wanted to film me coming out of the shower and getting dressed.
Francien-Krieg, Watching the Sunset from Precious Bodies
In light of the role clothing plays in my expression of my identity, the filming at our house on the day of the “shower scene” turned out not quite in the way I had expected: while I had not anticipated it to be uncomfortable, I did not imagine it to be quite as much fun as it was. Having left Peter and Brent at the kitchen table deep in talk about their respective beloved techie toys, Kelsie, Sally, and I went to the bathroom and bedroom to get on with the showering and dressing. It felt like when I was at boarding school in high school or living at the university dorms and everyone hung around while some of us got dressed for a dance. (Given my social ineptness at the time, I was often in the role of observer rather than among those getting dressed—was I now making up for those days by consenting to this shoot?) While I was still in my bra and Spanx, Sally started asking me about my body and identity and before I knew it, the whole interview was over—since I cannot talk and do something else at the same time, the dressing stalled as I settled in my underwear on the bed to bare my soul. It’s not as though Sally had not asked me ahead of time and asked me again during the filming whether continuing was okay—she did, more than once—but it never felt as though I made a conscious decision to give permission at any time. It just felt right. I also knew that Peter and I would have veto power in the final clips used, but it would have been irrational and inconsiderate of me to let the whole interview happen and then later decide that I did not like my state of undress. No, I haven’t changed my mind some weeks later, but in writing this post I was just thinking back on the process through which I arrived at permission—my body decided, not my head.
And We Were Birds, also by Aleah Chapin, whose Four Women is the featured painting at the start of this blog. All of the Chapin pieces I show in this post come from a series of oil paintings called the Aunties Project, in which she uses as models women she has known from childhood and loves. The series consists of huge, hyperreal paintings that do not flinch at the the wrinkles, sagging skin, cellulite, scars, and grey hair of older women’s bodies. At the same time, they capture her subjects’ joy, caring, support, humor, and “take me as I am” attitude.
So what does it mean for me to be “rational?” To be rational I must have accurate information about the world around me, remember that information for the duration of a task, and and also have the ability to judge my actions according to my principles. Today I failed on both counts more than once, but this is the latest one: after our midday meal, I decided to walk to Smith’s to buy breakfast cereal for the next day, since mine had run out. Since Peter was at that time planning to drive to the wine store, I could have gone with him and we could have added my errand to his. I chose to walk, however, in order to complete the second half of my quota of 10,000 steps per day. The temperature was in the 70s and when I left home it was beautiful outside and the sun felt good on me. The north-south street near our apartment is 1100 East, Smiths on 900E, so two longish blocks to walk there and the same back. In order not to get lost, I walk along the light rail line that starts at 1100 and follow it until I have to turn right on 900E. When I got to 900E, though, my mind had flipped and I was absolutely sure that Smith’s was on 700 E. It’s not that I doubted the information with which I had left the house, but I just knew in my bones—without any self-questioning—that I had to walk 2 additional long blocks. My courage, my energy, my wherewithal just faded all at once. Believing that I had set out under the wrong perception of how far I would have to walk, I suddenly felt defeated, hot, and so tired I wondered how I would even get home. I could not fulfill my goal. Calming myself that it was okay to follow my latter-day principle of listening to my body and “heart” rather than doggedly pursue a goal, I turned around and went home. Peter was back too. I sat down on our bed despondently and told him I hoped his errand had gone better than mine. I told him my story. After listening and comforting me, he gently told me that Smith’s was actually on 900E and that I had come to within half a block of it.
And It Caught Fire, from Aleah Chapin’s Aunties Project.
I had already started writing this piece and, after my failure to reach Smith’s for my cereal this afternoon, I was thinking about the “rationality” of my decision making in relation to my feeling in my walk of being lost in the world. In retrospect I now know that one of my sudden confusions had make me mistake the location of Smith’s and that my courage had failed based on the wrong “knowledge” that I still had far to go. Nevertheless, in the middle of being lost, it had seemed all the time that I was acting “rationally” at every step of my decision making. If I could be this wrong about where a well-known supermarket is while feeling all the time that I was “right,” how can I be sure I can rationally make a decision to be filmed in my Spanx? Is “feeling” that something is right adequate grounds for a decision?
Splitting the Silence, from Aleah Chapin’s Aunties Project.
Fortunately, the Spanx decision is not something I have to make alone. Also, I have lots of time to make it. Here is who and what helped. First, the context the photo of myself in Spanx during the photo shoot that I post below: during a break in the interview, Kelsie was standing by me and I just gave her a hug. (We’ve both been vaccinated.) Sally asked if she could take a photo and I said of course. On the day after the interview, Sally sent the photo to Kelsie and me, and Kelsie wrote asking if she could publish it on her Instagram. Peter and I both loved the photo and thought that would be fine. Second, we have people in our lives to talk to about possibly contentions issues like this. I forwarded the photo to my family with a note: “I just wanted you all to know that—should you spot me naked-appearing somewhere on the internet—just know that Dad and I have agreed to having this photo published on Instagram. If any of you want to object, please let me know. Even if I still go ahead and give permission, I’d love to have your thoughts on this. The interview in the movie is going to have more of this—and me talking in my underwear as well!” I also sent the photo and note to the women in my life with whom I would like to romp naked on a grassy beach: the “Aunties” in my life.
Title not known, from Aleah Chapin’s Aunties Project
Our kids and their spouses all wrote back that they were fine with having the photo published. Our pre-teen and teenage grandkids had qualms, though. The next night we got together with them and their parents and had a long discussion about nudity, nakedness, our American prudery, art, and the beauty of bodies. It was of course not the first time we’d had this kind of discussion, just the first time Ouma was the model… Afterward they felt okay about the photo, but said they would NOT be showing it to their friends! As for my friends, while they did not (all) volunteer for any naked outdoor romping, they all thought the photo was beautiful.
Kelsie with Gerda “koala-baring” it, as my friend Kirstin put it.
While Peter and I will still have the opportunity to decide if the sight of me pontificating about my identity on film while wearing only my underwear is one we want to stand by, I then felt good and still feel good now about the rightness of baring my soul with just a thin garment of spandex between me and nakedness.