Memoir of a Painted Woman
I have done a lot of brave things in my life: I’ve publicly embarrassed myself reading my bad teenage poetry to thousands of people, I’ve traveled to countries where I did not speak the language, I’ve even spun fire (aka poi) but what I did last Saturday night is the bravest thing I’ve done yet.
It started of innocently. I’d been volunteering for the High Performance Rodeo, an International Festival of the Arts in Calgary, mostly to see shows for free. Then Friday afternoon I received an e-mail from my friend, Mark, who worked for the festival looking for volunteers to dress up as sexy Space Girls to sell raffle tickets for their Wine Stage fundraiser the next night.
‘Sure, why not?’ I thought as I had no plans, other than obsessively checking Facebook to see if my sweetie in Vancouver would come online.
Then Friday night I was at the festival bar and I ran into Mark. He asked if I’d be willing to do something else for the fundraiser.
“Would you be willing to be body painted?”
“What does that mean?” I asked, thinking about Demi Moore’s infamous Vanity Fair cover.
“We’ve got someone who’s a great body painter.” Then sensing my apprehension added, “You’ll be wearing a bra and panties.
I exhaled and remembered when I played a burlesque dancer in Pal Joey. I danced and shimmied in a bra and panties, even begged for pasties. That wasn’t such a horrible experience. And prior to seeing Mark at the bar I’d seen a show full of women dancing around in their underwear, if they could do it, so could I (again).
So the next afternoon I bought a set of flesh-toned and paintable undergarments.
I should point out that I’m not the type of woman who’s always felt comfortable in her skin. I was one of the first girls in my class to go through puberty, causing my chest to swell to a C-cup by Jr high. It’s only been recently starting to come to accept my curvy size 6 body. For many years I was the neurotic actress at casting calls comparing the size of her thighs to every woman in the room, especially those that sat next to me as my Bynoe thighs spread out over my chair. ‘Oh, why couldn’t I be a size 2,’ I’d angst. After a few close calls with eating and exercise disorders I stepped back and tried to love my body as it naturally wants to be. But, as with most women, it’s a struggle.
I arrived at the hotel where Wine Stage was being held, at 6 pm and met Whitney, my body painter. She was very friendly and said it was my choice if I wanted to be painted with or without a bra. But, she added, it’s always better without.
In my first year of theatre school I was indoctrinated into two mantras 1) ‘Yes, Lets!’ -where you have to accept every offer given to you and 2) ‘Go big or go home.’ So, without much arm twisting, I let Whitney paint all my skin (well, I wore knickers) besides, when was I ever going to get this opportunity again?
The theme for my look was Pop Art Sushi. The design Whitney showed me was a pink body with maki strategically placed on boobs, hips and thighs. My only concern was having men make fish related jokes at my expense. She didn’t know what to do for my hair, luckily I brought my old raver orange bob wig which Whitney loved.
Being painted was a fairly relaxing ordeal. Except when a guy I barely knew walked into the room. Thank goodness he was an actor, so I knew this wasn’t the first time he’d been in this type of situation. Nevertheless, nerves started to kick in when Whitney tickled me while painting my butt.
The whole process took about an hour and a half. But it didn’t all happen behind closed doors. Around 8 pm I was taken to the stage to have my legs and right arm completed.
As I walked into the room, heads began to turn. I slipped into a persona, a model or someone brave enough to walk amongst $100 ticket holders bare chested. I strut to the stage, then wobbled up the stairs as I came into full view of the room.
There were about 400 people milling around, tasting wine and sampling hors d’oeuvres of sable fish on flax crackers or Alberta beef on cucumber with dill. The room was dimly lit and had a bustle of nicely dressed men and women milling about. Well, everyone except for one guy I saw wearing jeans and a baseball hat, I mean, really?
My hands turned to ice as couples gawked at me. I started playing a game with people who made eye contact. ‘I fucking dare you to look away,’ I thought. I’d smirk. I’d smile. I did not flirt. ‘Do not make this sexy, Sara, this is art.’ My feet went numb while I stood still so Whitney could finish her painting.
Then I noticed that all the boys at one of the catering tables were staring at me. I raised my eyebrows to say, ‘yeah, so what?’ and they snapped their heads away.
I kept reminding myself that every time I’d seen someone naked in a play that they had all the power. I tried to give myself all the power I could muster. At least to create some feeling in my hands and feet.
When I was finished I was told to walk around the crowd. ‘F- that, I wasn’t going without an escort,’ I worried. So I stood on stage while a DJ played funky techno, an artist drew Pegasus and a flying pig on a suspended plastic circle, and a video projection of speeding cars and a city at night. I was a statue in a bizarre tableau.
Mark returned and I told him to get me some alcohol. I can’t believe he let me walk out into a room of people half-naked without any booze in my system. For shame. And why hadn’t I thought of that sooner?
Once half a glass of wine relaxed me I was milling around the crowd careful not to bump into any one with my areola.
“Is that a body suit?” one middle aged woman in pearls asked me.
I politely shook my head no with a small smile on my face.
“Oh!” She gasped and turned back to her friend to whisper like school girls.
I later hooked up with the Space Girls and we ambushed people for raffle tickets. I told a few leering men that they had to buy a ticket for looking at me. Most of them cheaped out – the bastards.
One guy leaned in to us and told the Space Girls that their asses look really good in their pants; “no, I mean it, they look really, really good.” I walked away before he had time to comment on me.
Someone asked to take a photo with me. When they asked what my name was I gave a fake name, fully knowing that it was going to end up on the internet.
A woman came up to me and told me I was beautiful. Over the evening several other women shared her sentiments and I began to stand much straighter.
Sure, I there were moments when I thought about my little stomach pooch, my curves, and I did catch myself comparing my body to fully clothed women, but I’m glad I did it. By the end of the night, just before the big raffle was about to be drawn, I was strutting in my heels like an angel down the Victoria Secret runway.
After the draw I was allowed to go into a hotel room to wash off. I ruined a facecloth scrubbing for 20 min, turning the bleach white cotton a dull grey. I slipped back into my jeans, t-shirt and sweater and looked at myself in the mirror. After an evening of sparkle, colourful paint and a manic panic wig I felt naked.
As I walked back into the function room to say my goodbyes, I feared men approaching me making a comment about how much better I looked before, but no one noticed me. My posture changed from shoulders back and head held high to a slight slump as I was back to normal Sara again.
It was only 11 pm but I was exhausted; the evening had zapped me of all my energy. Driving home I passed SUVs pumping house music, and skids smoking out their windows, on their way to parties and clubs. And I couldn’t help but smile, I was braver than I thought.