Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Revelations from the Spa

This is a short piece I submitted for publication. It was not acceptedbut upon further reflection, I agree that it wasn't ready and perhaps should eventually be turned into a longer piece. However, I thought I'd share it here because it touches on two topics that are important to me: female empowerment and boats as a metaphor for freedom and empowerment.

I didn’t expect to learn much from an hour at the spa, but revelations often begin while we’re busy getting stuff done. I like the spa, but this appointment was for a leg and bikini wax--not a luxurious massage. I was there because I believed a leg and bikini wax was an obligation, and I was about to leave for a vacation where I just might end up in a bathing suit. So, I sat, sipping the spa’s herbal comfort tea, and I waited to have the dark course hairs ripped from my pale legs and soft inner thighs.

My name was called, and a young woman showed me to the room. She offered me a small plastic roll, which held the gauzy, disposable panties I’d wear for the session, and she left to let me undress. When she knocked to reenter, I was self-consciously wearing the small, single-use panties and had draped the small modesty towel over my midsection.

She urged me to relax and lean back on the table as she mixed the hot, dark green, sticky wax. Ambient music brought to mind jungle sounds and waterfalls, and I noticed that the hints of mint and citrus-based aromatherapy oils I could smell contrasted starkly with the painful purpose of my appointment.

“So, is there a special occasion that brought you in today”? The young aesthetician asked, as she prepared for the waxing.

“Actually, yes. I’m going on vacation.” I replied.

“Wonderful,” she said, using a wooden stick shaped like an old-fashioned tongue depressor to smear green wax down my shin. “Where are you going”?

“I have a small sailboat, so my partner, Brian, and I are sailing up to the San Juan Islands.”

“How, great,” she said absentmindedly. “So, he has a boat”?

“No, I have a boat,” I corrected, calmly.

“Oh, so, is he the captain”? She asked, seemingly confused.

“No, I am.” I said, and then there was silence.

Moments later, she was ripping strips of hair from my legs, so I let it drop. I remember feeling a tired disappointment, and it saddened me that I actually felt more defeated than shocked. The young woman waxing my legs couldn’t envision a world where women owned and operated boats—something that really shouldn’t have required a tremendous amount of imagination.

I’ve owned two boats, and having captained them ranks in the top ten of my life’s achievements thus far. Neither boat was large, nor complicated. The first was a 14-foot, mini-runabout with a 10-horse Evinrude for power. I purchased it at age 14, with my parent’s consent, using funds from liquidated pearls that had been given to me by a great uncle before he died. The second vessel was a 21 foot pocket-cruiser sailboat, which I defiantly bought while I could little afford the modest purchase price—let alone the moorage and upkeep.   

I suppose what was so special about boat ownership as a young woman was that it let me imagine a world without limitations. With my hand on the throttle and the wind full in my hair, it wasn’t hard to do. But, in the spa, I found that instead of burning my bra and shouting loud and proud that I was a woman who could not be caged, I was instead a woman conforming to some conjured need for silky smooth legs, awakening to a world that seemed to be slipping backwards in time. Where had all the feminist energy and action of the 60s and 70s gone? At 14, it didn’t occur to me that buying a boat was a feminist act, but how, here in the 21st century could I have found myself in a world where one small example of female accomplishment and autonomy could not even be conceived?

When I now read about the startling disparity between recognition of female writers and male writers, my disheartening experience at the spa comes to mind. Small, everyday examples of dynamic, empowered women exist, but why are they so few and far too frequently missed?

Have you ever known or seen a woman who was the sole owner and operator of a boat? Can you close your eyes and imagine her, adjusting the main sheet, manning the tiller? If you are a woman, can you imagine the feel and power of the throttle in your hand, and can you see the open water spread out before you all the way to the horizon?

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