I am at a sports bar waiting for “Skinny Mini Speed Dating” to start. I am here “undercover” as a journalist and should be mingling with the men who are here to meet “women under size 8 only,” but instead I am staring, sort of detachedly, at sports on TV; men are jumping together in a huddle which must create friction, I think, the spandex rubbing together.
I scan the crowd of speed daters but instinctively look down at my phone whenever one of them makes eye contact.
“Oh my god,” the woman running the event says to me — who, maybe it should be noted, is not a size small or whatever – “I almost forgot! I have to put your size on your nametags. What size do you wear?”
I tell her, nervously, that I am a four or sometimes a six and sometimes a two, although that’s in, like, really stretchy things.
She stops each of the women at the bar and does this, putting a number on their chests with red sharpie.
If you are a budding journalist, even a “sex journalist,” an internet journalist who covers speed dating trends, you should know “going undercover” is considered ethically shaky.
I was reminded of this rule, recently:
1. While talking with an editor for this story, who suggested I not go undercover and
2. While out drinking with a group of journalists, at a Mike Daisey monologue.
The topic for Daisey’s show is journalism, magic and lying.
While the waitress takes our — two drink minimum — order, we talk about this. (Later, Daisey would say: “There isn’t a book that tells you what the rules of journalism are…the rules are that a lot of journalists tell each other very loudly…it’s a little bit like Judaism.“)
“People deserve the opportunity to be off the record,” a reporter at the table is saying.
But sometimes thats just not what the story is about.
I am table #7 at speed dating. I put my purse – a vintage fur bag with a slit that makes it double as a muff – on the table, recorder in muff.
I take detailed notes in my phone: “Woman next to me has put her name tag on the table, is touching it, frowning…. Bar is typical…dingy dark wood, red walls.”
The bell rings. The first guy sits in front of me. A white guy with dreads, beachy weathered skin. I tell him that I think doesn’t have the look I was imagining for “Skinny mini speed dating”.
He asks if I am a radical, like he is.
I ask if he is a feminist.
He says that too often, feminism is about separatism. He wants a feminism that is also about men.
His knees are touching mine, and I feel confused. What is my role here again? Am I supposed to flirt and go along with this?
He is saying how sometimes, when his black friends talk about instances of racism, the examples don’t sound all that extreme, though if he were black he might get all radical about it.
“I can get like, you know,” he says and gives the black power sign.
“Is this real fur?” he asks, picking up the muff.
“Yeah, its vintage,” I say, worrying about the recorder and scooting it away.
“There, we have a problem. I am an animal rights activist.”
The next guy has a shaved head and pale blue eyes. He has on a puffy black pleather vest, there is a homemade tattoo on his upper arm.
“So,” I say deciding to go straight to the best questions I’ve written down. “What sort of porn do you watch?”
He doesn’t watch porn, he says a little shy. “Well what do you do when you masturbate,” I ask.
“Just like, watch music videos? Like, maybe a…Beyonce video.” his voice trails off.
Another guy sits down.
“So I’ve been branded as you can see,” I say, pointing to my size on the nametag. “Because, this is my value here. But you didn’t have to meet any requirements to come here, so what value are you bringing to this exchange?”
He is still wearing a brown leather jacket. He frowns, accentuating a second chin.
I try it another way: “Why do you feel you should be with a woman who takes special care of her body?”
“Ah,” he says. “Because I take good care of my brain.”
See how easy it is for a story like this to write itself?
In a story like this, do we assume that because the writer is a woman, she — like all women — has learned that her body is her ultimate value? And that if it doesn’t reach certain standards — is not over exercised, primped, plucked, starved — she becomes unworthy as a human being?
We could get personal, and I could offer a montage: Scenes from my bathroom floor, fingers dangled to the back of the throat, vomit-hand wrung again and again with paper towels, vomit decorating the hair.
A flashback to the entire year I did not menstruate. Did not have adequate flesh between the thighs; could not have snapped a man’s neck with them the way I feel I could now.
But in journalistic circles, the personal essay is to be avoided.
“It’s just so self indulgent,” says Nick, a former party reporter at the table full of journalists. “It’s saying you are interesting, whereas journalism is saying that this thing is interesting…”
I think about how it’s often women who write personal essays, that its a way to tell our stories. And how the personal essay, like sex writing, sells. If you need to make money for your writing, its there.
The next guy at speed dating touches the rabbit-fur purse as he sits down. “Okay,” he says, sipping a drink. “Ask me anything. Anything! I will answer.”
I feel like my eyes light up with the screen as I pick up my phone, scrolling through questions I wrote on the train:
What makes for a good partner?
What makes for a good woman?
Is there a difference between girls you’d have sex with and girls you’d marry?
He blushes at first and then answers honestly:
He is looking for women who “aren’t crazy,” which he says is rare in New York.
The most important thing a woman can be “non aggressive.”
“What is the worst thing a woman can be?” I ask.
“A slut,” he says, smiling a little.
“You hate sluts?” I ask, sort of surprised.
“Yeah” he says. “I think that’s normal.”
After the event, I go to the speed dating website and mark “interested” in everyone, to get their e-mails.
I can’t think about the year of the missing period, without also thinking about its zig-zagging thought patterns.
That to be a woman, a woman who fucks, wears make-up, has hips that jiggle is to be laughed at. That I was attracted to these women, and so I wanted to be more male. That if I starved myself I could disappear from the gaze of men. That if I were thin enough then I could go home with all of the men. That I could escape the thing about femininity that felt like a stain. Something about violence or disgust.
Faced with actual responses from men about my body, I felt lost and infuriated.
There was the guy I went home with who put his arm around where I sat on the sofa and said: “If you gained, like, a pound I would no longer be attracted to you.”
“Do you have anything to eat?” I asked.
I went into the kitchen, not bothering to find a lightswitch, and made sandwiches by the glow of the fridge. I stuffed them into my mouth, a paste of bread and cheese. I took a pint of ice cream from his freezer and left. Folding bony knees, elbows, full belly into a cab.
After marking “interested in all” on the speed dating website, the messages pour in.
“You have a match!” they say and I realize maybe I should have waited to see who picked me.
The speed dating men send me e-mails, one after another, but I don’t want to read them. I shouldn’t have gone undercover, I think. I will tell my editor that there isn’t a story here. I don’t want to think about this anymore.
After the Mike Daisey show, I air-kiss my editor friend as she gets into a cab and walk with Nick, the former party reporter who hates personal writing, to the train. He is talking about Mike Daisey, excitedly, is “fan-boying,” he admits.
“Hey,” he stops in the middle of an intersection. “Let me buy you a beer. Just one. Indulge me.”
I walk to the bar with a two glass of wine floaty-ness, of wading through things not feeling them as you go.
We sit at a table. Nick tells me he isn’t going to hit on me. “I won’t be that guy,” he says. He tells me I am pretty, and I thank him for the compliment.
We start talking about “sex journalism”. Nick points out that it’s always women who write about sex.
“I used to think it was a trickle down of feminism,” I say, as I carve triangles into the wood of the table. “Because feminism opened up this dialogue about sex, women can have that conversation. But I also know that sex stories from female writers sell…”
“Yes,” Nick says. He says that my fuckability has been a large part of successes I’ve had as a writer.
Nick tells me there is no point in writing about sex in the first person, because it hardly ever changes anyone’s views.
“And the writer usually looks genuinely bad in the process,” he says, with what I think are expressive eyebrows.
“My theory,” I say, “is in any story somebody looks bad, someone is vulnerable and open to judgement by the reader. In journalism that person is often the source. In personal essays it’s the writer.”
Nick offers advice. Mostly not to write personal things. To not write for Thought Catalog, which he says is the equivalent of me “hanging out with a bad crowd.”
“Don’t you know that we all feel this way?” he asks, referring to some vague idea of all New York media.
“Oh, I fucking know,” I say.
But why do we click on these first person stories by women? Why do we read them and then call the women who write them vain, call them sluts, call them bad feminists?
One of the guys from speed dating follows me on Twitter: “what’s up Rachel it’s me from the ‘skinny thing’ aka beyonce remember ? Lol?”
Another emails me: “Mmmmmm, I googled your name &; aren’t you the interesting little vixen.what is the topic of your next story?? I apologize for the somewhat invasive googling, but I suspect that I haven’t hurt your feelings. Let’s chat, it might be interesting..Your voyeuristic tendencies & therefore experiences sound facinating[sic].”
I stop reading the e-mails and after a week or two, they stop coming.
But the first guy, the white guy with the dreads, keeps emailing me. I scroll past each one on my phone. Annoyed about something. The story. The entire thing.
I open one with the subject line “parting lesson.”
He was upset that I hadn’t emailed him back and was still upset about my fur bag, and our conversation about feminism.
The e-mail was long. This is one paragraph:
“I wrote one poem which had one theme that if blacks took over society they would become the slave masters and make the whites the slaves. This is not a liberated mindset but one still of a slave.
“Abusing men is not empowering women; it is being an abuser. Gandhi said, ‘An eye for an eye and the whole world is blind.’”
“It seems you seek to snatch some eyes that have never done more than laid their eyes on you and saw an interest.”
“Good luck finding what you are looking for.”
I wish him luck, too, in whatever he is hoping to find…a thin woman, I’m guessing.