Not to involuntarily transport everyone back to the 200Xs, but I’d like to talk about swagger. In the age of Bieber, swagger and its shortening swag acquired, then lost, currency as an aesthetic label in slang. But its original and - I argue - overarching sense is a particular walking gait associated with confidence and (or: ‘in one’s’) sex appeal. Its connotation is inescapably masculine, in both original and slang senses; it is a ‘stance’ which is barred to women. Boys have swag; men have class.
Consider a swaggering scene. Someone in some public arena walks shirtless down center stage, thumbs in belt loops, torso swaying with their steps, smirking and careless. Freeze frame.
By the time ‘shirtless’ and ‘public’ have both been said, in many places in the West, we have already determined that this figure is a man. A woman would be subject to arrest for appearing topless in public. More than that, simultaneously to that, she would be subject to sexual harrassment escalating into sexual violence. In that frame, this scene cannot be parsed if the breasts bared are suspended by the easy, confident swaying of a woman’s shoulders. A woman could not be safe doing a thing like that, let alone confident; she is outright forbidden it.
Men, on the other hand, bare their breasts almost anywhere they please, and decide with their posture and general carriage whether their bare breasts are to be interpreted as sexual - but still suitable for public display - or a mundane concession to weather and comfort. A man can carry his sex appeal in his shoulders and (other factors permitting; it helps to be several of cisgender and heterosexual and skinny and white, for a start) suffer no insult for it.
Women need not be exposed to be punished for our sexual desirability - or our ugliness, for that matter. We are not given the choice which we may be, and on some level the very idea of ‘deciding to be sexy in public’ feels absurd to me. My desirability cannot be turned on and off like a faucet, not by my choice of gait or manner. This is not to say I don’t have choices to make about my desirability: every morning, I pick between clothes which will provoke street harrassment or different clothes which will provoke misgendering, and until I change those clothes again I do not get to change my mind about which I would like to receive next. Moreover, why on the side of the road would I adopt the stance of my own sex appeal? I am honked at enough!
Confidence and sex appeal are, for men, considered something like synonymous. Men’s mythology suggests you can look like almost anyone and be desirable, as long as you have confidence and the power to back it up; you can buy that power with looks, cheaply but with few add-ons, or you can buy it with money, violence, or institutional backup. Swagger says: my image is inalienable from me. My image is of a token with me.
Sex appeal is a metric no woman can opt out of. ‘Confident woman’ is, for men, considered something like a contradiction in terms. Sexy women can only borrow confidence from protective/possessive men. Endogenous, autonomous confidence in a woman can and must be revoked by threats, violence, and sabotage. ‘Insecurity,’ so often read as a flaw in women’s psychology, is much more simply the absence of security: I am uneasy about my appearance, because my appearance is a part of every way in which I am not safe. Misogyny says: your image never belongs to you, and you are never safe. Your image is a stranger, and every stranger carries it away with them.
Like many of my sisters, and to the consternation of many men we meet, I am nonetheless a confident woman. I stride everywhere like I own the place (not exactly an earned habit; this is probably most effective for my fellow white settler-colonists). I’ve picked up the useful habit of conspicuously relaxing in the spotlight and under pressure, prepping a willing audience for a compelling performance and a would-be adversary for a disastrously-lost argument. I speak in public without preparation or hesitation, and I take vicious joy in interrupting men. So my frustration around the swagger is very specific: in no public space can I broadcast confidence in my own sexuality without, realistically, fearing reprisal.
Of course, women - with our indulgently-condoned command of the private sphere - can safely swagger in private space. Alone in my bedroom, as I so often am, in front of the full-length mirror which hangs from my door, I can bare my breasts and wear pants slung along my hips with the loose, unburdened posture of self-assured sexuality. I can smirk into the glass, watch my swaggering mosey, know as self-evident that my body is sensual, relaxed, and at ease.
The autonomic nervous system, governed in the brain by the hypothalamus and extending into the peripheral nervous system, is so named because we have little conscious control or involvement in its functions; most of the time, we breathe and digest and beat our hearts without thinking about the process at all. Those functions are ‘autonomous,’ in the sense of self-governing, or autonomic. We might call ‘knowing as self-evident’ autonomic knowing; similarly, I’d call the confidence I seek in the appeal of my body an autonomic confidence: I seek to be sure that my body is beautiful even - especially - when I am not thinking about it at all.
When I enter a social context; when I leave this room, putting on a shirt or clutching some screen to my breasts; when I so much as pick up my phone to speak to another human being, my self-knowledge as beautiful becomes useless to me. What does it mean for me to know that my body is lovely, for myself, when I am no longer alone? In the public sphere, I am not allowed to carry that knowledge in my gait as if it were power; if and when I do, it is honked and screamed and leered out of me.
Lesbian swagger is famous. Ink spills like femme heartblood over the desirable strut of a quietly-confident butch woman. This lesbian strutting and (importantly) desire, in public spaces, provokes from straight men the kind of fistfights and gaybashings that have become as much a stirring part of butch/femme legend as they are a depressingly-bloody part of lesbian material experience.
In private or demarcated performance venues, drag kings bring this swaggering sexual archetype to particular heights; this was my introduction to the possibility of a swaggering woman. Prior to this, I understood lumbering shoulders and straight hips as an unpleasant affectation of heterosexual men. Drag spaces taught me, first, how desirable a woman could be when she showed her own pride in her walk; and later, that I was a woman. When I came to realize the extent of my attraction to women, this peacocking style of desire that I had desperately rejected in my confused and dysphoric youth became accessible to me as it had never been before.
Possibly there is nothing inherently sapphic about a swaggering woman, though if you can come up with a compelling example of a heterosexual lady-swaggerer I invite you to let me know. I have, once again, been cornered by the obvious into admitting I am not a lesbian; lovely as women are, I cannot pretend that I do not also desire men. But even in a room with no woman in it but me, I can still decide to swagger. It is, patently, a possible stance for a woman to take. A woman can be sexually desirable, can know it, and can draw autonomic confidence and strength from it. And then, in time or in bad luck, she can be punished for it without warning.
A major function of the autonomic system is the fight-or-flight response: a rush of adrenaline, fearful and agitating, to resolve or escape a threat. Fear is something I know without trying. My sex appeal, men ensure that I know, is not mine to hold. My value is not mine to find. It is something which men shove into my body, with their eyes and hands and genitals. To my dismay, admitting my desire for men has brought back my old patterns of seeking to validate my value, my desirability, through men’s desire. When it is denied, it is as if some piece of myself has been ripped away. When was I taught to be autonomically self-insufficient? (Don’t answer that.)
Western art history would tell you that a woman with a mirror is probably named Vanity; common sense would tell you that her name is Madison, probably, or Quanesha, or Maryam. It is absurd to punish women for our reflections - beyond the obvious, which is that reflective surfaces and social functions are everywhere, we aren’t exactly permitted to function without them. Self-consciousness is a survival skill, sitting astride fight and flight. I own a mirror because I need to know what I look like, because I would be punished if I didn’t take very good care over my appearance. I no longer wear makeup, but I still style my hair and think out my outfits and apply clip-on earrings and carefully-chosen necklaces. This function of the mirror for self-regulation, the one that ‘Vanity’ names, is one which men and heterosexuality and society have enforced on us. How could it be our vice, as well?
Awhile back, a quip tripped across my tongue: “Thanks, but I own a mirror.” It is a versatile phrase, just as useful when someone is lying about me to my face as when someone is stating the obvious, as cutting when I am being insulted as when I am being flattered. I have need of it to remind people who try to tell me about myself: thanks, but I know myself already. I don’t need your evaluation, thanks, I have my own. I don’t need your valuation, thanks, I have my own. I can look at myself anytime I like; I own a mirror, you see.
I would suggest that paintings of women named Vanity holding mirrors are intended to censure another, suppressed function of mirrors, which is that a woman with a mirror can decide what she looks like on her own. She needs no lovelorn, scruffy adolescent poet to set her features to meter; she can write the verse herself. She needs no lecherous painter to portray the curves of her flesh; she can admire them herself.
That self-portrait is significant. The modern pop-cultural Vanitas holds a cell phone, because if she would like to immortalize whatever she sees in her own body at that moment, she has that power in the inadequate pocket of her skinny jeans. Hidden alone in her room, as she so often is, she can decide who gets to see her body and how. Ever more scandalous: she can filter it, frame it, facetune it, with no man’s say-so.
No man’s except, of course, those among her social media followers, and those who make decisions about the functions of her apps - apps for social media distribution, for photo-editing, for the very taking of photos.
It is worth noting that by default, my front-facing camera takes pictures in Beauty Mode. (It also takes normal photos, but I have to switch to Photo Mode every time I open it.) ‘Beauty’ in the eyes of the app is that which makes my face narrow, my eyes large, and my skin a smooth gradient of color between two and three shades paler than the already-white reality. It is very clear who is supposed to be beautiful.
No mirror is a portal, an escape, to the world before misogynist and white-supremacist beauty logic; no self-image is self-determined or unconstrained. A woman with a mirror has already had her appearance dictated to her. Her ability to make her own decisions on the matter is mitigated by any means available: the assumptions of her technologies, the marketing of her beauty products, the violence to which her social environment subjects her, the leers and titters and gossip which envelop and suffocate her body.
Parallel to the perfectly-made-up, perfectly-styled action heroine who has no time for frivolous feminine primping, the cinematic swaggering man needs no mirror (we are instructed to believe). He has his money, his gun or goons, his adoring nubile fans to tell him what he looks like. And in fact his confidence needs no proof, is the greater because he does not seek to prove it. He simply knows, autonomically, that he is sexy and unstoppable, and he never checks to make sure - never even thinks much about it. He is especially unself-conscious when he decides, consciously, to swagger: hips held carefully in step with feet, shoulders swaying to counter-balance. He determines for himself what he means; his bare teats signify what it is he does not need from women but which women nevertheless, powerless to resist, lay at his feet in tribute.
And what is left for women? The lyric is much-commented upon: “You don’t know you’re beautiful/That’s what makes you beautiful.” Forgive me for making much of it, as so many commentators have before me, but these lines are exceptionally explicit. What men want, One Direction tells us, is a woman who is perfect in every way, despite having no idea of (read: no opinions about) her appearance at all. She is as regular and blank as a bleached canvas. She means nothing yet, or her meanings have been carefully removed, and she waits only for you - her adoring beholder - to inscribe significance into her body.
People get very anxious about their images, of course, in a world as loud and bright and stressful as late capitalism forces upon us. And the failure of a man’s real life to match the swaggering man’s fictional model - his failure to locate his cinematic soulmate - is, of course, the fault of women broadly in not desiring him. His redress must, of course, be paid in blood and bullets and terror. For sentient beings like us, the cost of all this unself-consciousness is steep.
So what is it that I, a woman, even want from swagger? When my appearance, whether prettily passing or transmisogynistically hideous, is dictated to me by others, when ‘beauty’ is so pervasively violent, why am I wistful to tell other people with my easy step and confident grin that I am lovely, with my breasts and shoulders bare and relaxed? I think it’s something about the relationship between beauty and gaze; it’s something about zero-sum games where one player wins because another player loses, and non-zero-sum games, where no-one has to lose at all.
Must beauty rest in the eye of the beholder, or can I anoint my own body a sign for beauty? Must my beauty come at the cost of someone else’s ugliness?
I know what answers I would prefer. I’d prefer to move through the world fully believing in the worthiness of my skin, to move as one worthy among worthy; to decide, together, with a man or another woman or someone of yet another kind that what we are doing between the two or three or more of us is desire. I’d prefer to hold, and behold, loveliness in myself and in others the same autonomic way I do in poems, in flowers, in cats, in music as in prayer: beauty as a choice I make without thinking very much about it; beauty as something which leaps out of me in sublime interpersonal communion, like laughter and moaning and wordless song.
I’d prefer to own my image, and to trust my community to take good care of it on loan. I’d like to look into the eyes of others and see something of myself reflected in them that I rather like, that I might choose to adopt because it is lovely and not because it is prudent. I’d like my eyes to show them something like that about themselves.
I’d prefer to swagger not because I carry a gun or a wallet or a threat, but because I carry my knowledge of myself and what is good in me in my posture. I would prefer to sway my shoulders because I have just written a great stanza or sung a sweet song or fried a fabulous omelette. And yes, I would prefer to swagger because I think the shoulders I swing are beautiful, and not because some man has given me his permission.
And I’d prefer to go out with my shirt off, dammit, and bathe my breasts in the sun - happy in the knowledge that I am hot and also warm, autonomic and also autonomous, secure and also safe. I really don’t think it’s too much to ask.