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Or - how I got a standing ovation for stripping in front of my class.

In critical theory we only have two projects the whole year. At the end of each semester we are either to give a 20 minute critical theory talk incorporating the theories we have learned that semester, or a "genre bending" presentation in which we combine critical theory with other forms of creative expression. Everybody has to do it but we can chose which one we do and when. This semester, I decided to try my hand at the "genre bending" presentation and do a dramatic monolog.

The basic premise of my presentation was about my identity, how that has changed and what that means to me as an author. I wore different layers of clothes as I went through it; my EC jersey, one of my "large girl" shirts, my "plucky comic relief" shirt, a sexy dress and then, finally, a flesh colored leotard. I removed each layer as I progressed. For those interested, here is the text of my presentation:

This semester in critical theory we began by talking about identity: outwardly identity and inwardly identity. The persona that other people craft for us; on first meetings, by observation, pattern recognition, that’s outwardly identity. Inwardly identity is how we view ourselves and some of this is effected by how others treat us based on that outwardly identity. But then we learned that that doesn’t really matter, the identity of the author, that all that I carry with me, all that I wear on my back, none of it really matters when it comes down to me and the piece of paper.

Recently I’ve been going through an identity crisis. First, you have to understand. I don’t have any memories of ever being a skinny girl. I was a chubby toddler who became a fat kid who became an overweight teenager and then a morbidly obese adult. That’s all I ever knew and that is how I formed my identity. A little over a year ago I decided to change that and went on a doctor monitored fast. For one year I didn’t eat real food and for that whole year I saw my body melt away, years and layers of fat cells shrank away like deflated balloons. I lost one hundred and twenty pounds. That’s an entire person. Right near the end of my diet, I moved myself two thousand miles away from the area I had called home for eight years to a place where I knew almost no one. Now all of a sudden I started noticing the outwardly identity had changed. 

This is my Electric Company jersey. I was in a women’s social independent group all through my four years of college. Since moving, I have only worn it a handful of times. One is because I swim in it. You have to picture this, really, as skin tight, my body pushing the fabric to maximum density, seams almost bursting. That’s how I looked in this, the largest size it came in. The girls in the group named me, and I picked my number. I picked the patches I sewed on the jersey to represent me, my own identity, ideas that I wanted portrayed. But now, out here, there’s no reason for me to wear it. It hangs off me like I was playing dress up in mother’s clothes. No one knows the Electric Company, nobody cares. So it’s time to take it off, it’s not who I am any more.

So much of who we think we are comes from what we show others. I used to pick my clothes with care and camouflage in mind. I didn’t want to stand out, years and years of glances out of the corner of eyes, snickers and mumbled “can you believe she’s wearing that?” or “do you think she knows how fat she is?” I couldn’t take it. This was my uniform that I wore - dark colors, simple, not too large as to make myself look larger, but never anything tight, although it started to get hard to find comfortable clothes after a while. I was visibly invisible when I weighed 300 lbs. Nobody really wanted to talk to me. Now at 180 lbs, people do talk to me, they tell me that I’m clever. Strangers make eye contact, I can pick up guys at bars. But in my mind I still identify with that fat girl, the inwardly identity that I’ve known for 25 years of my life.

We carry around so much of who we are on our backs, in what we wear, how we want people to see us or not to see us, as a reflection of who we are inside. I find that in my writing I try to put that on paper too, as much as I can to stamp this with “Margaret wrote this!” in my own unique style, as much as I can with clothes. But I don’t know how to dress this new body. I don’t know how to write a novel that no one else has written. I look for silly slogans to wear because humor is what I use to deflect. If strangers could laugh at me, I could laugh at my self. When I look at my writing, I find myself censoring myself in the same way I censor myself with clothing, how I’ve always censored myself with clothing. I play things safe, because people never looked at I me physically, I had to create a personality that they wanted to see. I censor my physical details when I write but I forget how important they are to a reader.

And then try to wear something like this I feel like I betray who I really am. When I try to write to impress, with splashes across the page of what I think are epic lyric prose, I feel like I’m just trying to impersonate someone else, some group or image that I know isn’t me but, because I can, I feel I should try to emulate.

So I take it off.

And now I'm naked...and cold...And I’ve just shed all of who I thought I was and what I thought people wanted to see.

And it’s a little scary.

And I’m finally starting to realize why I’m so afraid of the blank sheet of paper when I start writing. It’s because when I look at it, I see all my insecurities, my lack of identity, the fact that who I think I am and who I think others think I am mean nothing when it comes to my writing. All those censors in my head, all those ideas of how people see me and how I see myself, they don’t matter. The page is vulnerable now, instead of daunting. I sympathize with it. Until I put my mark on that page it is nothing but a blank page. Until I put clothes on my body, I am nothing but a naked woman - no false ideas, no false images, just simply who I am. No images, no false pretenses, just me.

Now I can write my novel.

I’ll end with an adulterated quote by Whitman who, I think, would approve. “I bequeath myself to the words I love. If you want me again, look for me under your fingertips”

I performed this in front of both my cohort and the 2nd year students. There were probably about 30 of us total in the room. When I was finished, there was a loud applause. Then, one by one, each of them stood up to applaud me. My own cohort, the men and women who I have shared this semester with, just beamed with pride. The 2nd year students, who we barely ever talk to, were the first to ask questions and give their respect. One of them said that the reason she felt so connected to the piece was we (all in the program) have gone through some form of identity crisis, but she would never have had the courage to address it the way I did, or even combine it with critical theory.

Joyce, from my cohort, brought up an interesting question and asked me if I thought my identity issue came from me not being able to love my self in the bigger body. I admitted that there was some of that involved, how I felt like a "traitor" to the fat acceptance move, but that I really did this for health reasons. I also told her that I couldn't deny the fact that - after a life spent as a social outsider, I wanted to know what it was like to be just normal.

Overall, it was an amazing end to a wonderful semester. It's been hard and rocky at times, not knowing exactly what's going to happen to the college re: accreditation, but we're hoping for the best and doing our hardest to keep it. Next semester should prove interesting as, seeing how there's only nine of us left in the cohort, we're joining ONE writing workshop, all led by Felicia. It's going to be...intense....
 
 
 
 
 
 
That's great and very moving. You raise interesting points about clothing and identity too.
Very beautiful, courageous piece. It really has a lot of depth, even just on the written page.
This is beyond fantastic! Please tell me someone videotaped it.

And belated season's greetings!
Awesome!