Sunday, October 15, 2006

DF Tip #22: The Bare Truth

heelMy wife Heidi takes a stripping class every Tuesday from 8-10 PM. The class she takes is called S Factor, though recently other such classes have popped up in gyms and dance studios across the country. Men aren't allowed in, but Heidi tells me that every week the teacher leads the students through a warm-up, followed by some intense muscle toning and ab work. She'll show them how to do a pole trick or two (there's a stripper's pole in the classroom), and then, one by one, the students perform for each other. The music and costumes vary -- students choose their own -- but they all wear six-inch heels that they acquire -- at a discount -- at a store on one of the seedier blocks of Hollywood Boulevard.

Who are these women (and what are their phone numbers, I hear my male readers ask)? Damaged, abused, man-hating, drug-addicted types? Hardly. In as far as there is an S Factor "type," the clientele appears to be upper-middle class and about as normal as you can get. Career women. Moms. CEOs. Contractors. Homemakers. A smattering of actresses and other industry types, this being LA; tall, short, young, old, skinny, chunky, black, white, fit, not. Your basic cross-section of female Angelenos with a few bucks of disposable income.

Okay, so when Heidi first expressed an interest in stripping, I'll admit I was a tad freaked out. Did she have some deep-seated need to strut her (excellent) stuff in front of strangers? Was she working through some issue I wasn't aware of, and why in the Sam Hill wasn't she happy spending her Tuesday nights with me watching Kiefer Sutherland shoot up the bad guys on "24"?

pole5Once my two main fears about the class were allayed (there are (1) no men and (2) no nudity in the classroom), and sensing in the dull recesses of my brain the possibility -- however remote -- that I might benefit in some peripheral way from Heidi's pursuits -- I decided to encourage Heidi to try it. All right, let's face it, I pretty much shoved her out the door.

Now Heidi's been at it for two years, and continues to love the class. It's a great workout, she loves the way it makes her feel, loves the sensuality and beauty of the movements. I've met some of her classmates (S Factor devotees bond quickly), and they all report new levels of strength, flexibility and endurance from the class. More importantly, however, the women report a greater sense of confidence and ease with themselves. Simply put, it makes them feel beautiful.

And yet, S Factor provokes some pretty extreme responses. When Heidi suggests to friends that they try it, she's often met with wide-eyed terror. One woman I know recently said she thought the class sounded "horrifying." The association of stripping with all things exploitative, objectifying, and degrading makes S Factor a tough sell to some people.

I’ll admit it, it is pretty out there: groups of women of all ages, shapes, colors and creeds getting together, putting on ecstatic music, and stripping off most of their clothes while the other students watch, hooting and hollering in jubilant support. How Sapphic! The right wing shudders (while secretly wishing they could go watch).

msptBut I think that S Factor, and classes like it, are kind of important. I think they're part of a kind of cultural breakthrough. True, I'm totally biased, and maybe I just want to hold onto the fantasy of my wife as a naughty nurse, but let me explain.

No one needs me to say that, as a culture, we're pretty screwed up when it comes to sex. Our religions tell us that sex is wrong and bad. Educators tell us that it's dangerous. The Friday the 13th movies tell teenagers that if they have sex, a mad killer in a hockey mask will come and hack them to pieces. Pop culture tells us that we're not sexy unless we conform to certain laughably unrealistic aesthetic standards, standards we abhor but somehow find ourselves admiring and aspiring to anyway. By adolescence, our sexuality is squashed, titillated, and pummeled to such an extent that we hear reports on a practically daily basis about the horrible ways people go off the skids because of some bizarre, recklessly-channeled sexual urge.

The women at S Factor -- bless their bustier-clad hearts -- are doing their part to undo all that. Short, tall, fat, thin, old, young -- they’re claiming their birthright to their own sexiness, and I think it's long overdue. So much in our culture says that we aren't allowed to feel sexy unless we look a certain way or drive a certain car, that sexy women are stupid and vacuous, and these women are saying NO, anyone can do it. They're an army of lingerie-sporting regular women, screaming at us that, for the love of God, being sexy is a good and fun and harmless part of life. msptAs Steve Martin says to the virginal Lily Tomlin in All of Me, "Sex is one of the things that makes you feel like you're really living, like it's good to be alive!" I for one applaud their efforts. Not because we need more sexuality in our culture, but because we DO need to hear the message, louder and clearer and more often, that sexuality isn't just the domain of the six-feet and six-packed.

There is a fitness tip in all this, and it's this: amongst all the insecurity, guilt and self-loathing we feel about our exercise, we need to find a way to enjoy and celebrate our bodies for how they look and feel now, not just what they may someday become. I see people every day who exercise not to challenge themselves or to feel good but to punish their bodies for failing to live up to some rather arbitrary standard of beauty: they put in a workout that would shame Lance Armstrong, but they can't appreciate their accomplishment because there's still a dimple of cellulite on their right hamstring.

brsw Of course, S Factor may or may not be for you (for one thing, you might be a man). But the larger point stands: fitness has many dimensions, not all of them as straightforward as building flexibility, strength, or endurance. Done correctly, exercise can coax you into places you don't usually allow yourself to go, pushing at limits that are not only physical, but emotional, psychological, and spiritual as well. I have clients who have never felt grounded who suddenly "arrive" in their bodies because of weight training. I once taught a dozen flighty, giggly teenaged girls with string bean bodies how to use broadswords, and I swear they were more confident and assertive by summer's end. Exercising to look great is as good a goal as any, but hunt around enough and you may discover something that nudges you of your comfort zone and gives you a renewed and expanded sense of who you are. Perhaps even more important than finding a type of exercise that can reshape your body is finding one that reshapes your body image.

Have a great week!