When I was nineteen, I didn’t have any gigantic teddy bears or rapey duet partners dressed as Beetlejuice. But the apartment did have a Target floor lamp.
“Put on some stripper music!” I said. I mean, maybe I said that. I can only remember that night in movie snippets, probably imagined up from bits of recollection and what I was told the next morning. It was a typical night at the Evergreen State College campus, where my high school best friend Jeanne was a freshman. I had enrolled at Concordia in Portland, a small Lutheran college I’d failed to make connections at. As the future ministers of America and soccer guys cliqued off, I was the odd girl out.
“You can come visit us,” Jeanne offered, a month after our lives as high school conjoined twins had severed. “It’s a party every night here.”
The two hour drive up to Olympia was a chance at the college life I dreamed of. Drinks, drugs, friends, boys. Four years of being a straight-A virgin would pay off, I told myself every day in high school. It was penance for the chance to actually live and be dangerous and interesting.
Evergreen, with its lack of grading system and socialist knitting circles, was much closer to my dream than the dowdy school I ended up in. But even with Jeanne inviting me into her world, I was terrified of losing my welcome. She was surrounded in all these newer, cooler people than we’d ever known in our rural mountain high school—puppetry majors, handfasting pagans, reincarnated unicorns. What if I became boring? I was desperate to stay in this new circle, so I tried to be as fun and sexy as I possibly could be.
That night in Jeanne’s apartment started out like most. Me, prepping to be the most fun and sexy girl on campus. As many shots of vodka as I could take, chased by screwdrivers. Maybe I forced one or two many ounces of bottom shelf, nail polish remover-style vodka down my throat that night. Maybe I hadn’t eaten much that day. But for whatever reason, it was a blackout.
When, or if, the stripper music started, I stripped down to my underwear. I’m pretty sure “Yellow Submarine” was playing as I humped the lamp, trying to pole dance. Jeanne was there, and so was her boyfriend, another couple, and a few guys who always brought the weed. They were the ones who saw me grope myself and assault a lamp, which crashed and broke in the process.
“You ended up in the bathtub,” Jeanne recounted the next day as I promised over and over to replace the decimated lamp. “We thought you were going to pull a Hendrix.” I was sorry to her, and her boyfriend, but not myself. I had no self-awareness to see how pathetic and hopeless I looked to anyone else with eyes. I wanted to be accepted and loved by everyone else, but had no idea how to grant such validation to myself.
I haven’t seen or spoken to any of them, including Jeanne, in over eight years. No one in my life remembers that night but me. I was granted the blessing of growing up and out of my self-loathing without the eyes and scrutiny of an entire planet.
I was one of the ten million eyes watching Miley Cyrus’s unavoidable VMA performance last week. Although most of the reaction I’ve read since ranges from idiotic (OMG! She has no ass!) to indignant (quit slut-shaming!), mine falls into the small “god damn this seems familiar” category. As soon as that foam finger came out, I realized I had done the same dance. Claimed that I didn’t give a shit what anyone thought about me. Thought I was the queen of fun/fierce/sexiness.
But just like my lamp dance, Miley’s wasn’t a sultry show. There wasn’t any sexuality about it, except in the most anatomical sense. Yes, ass and tits, you are present. But being seductive is a whole other world from loudspeaker announcing that you’re fuckable. It’s why her stage partner Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” video wasn’t sexy either—it lacked the respect and control necessary for any man or woman to be attractive. Without that level of confidence, provocation reeks of desperation.
I don’t think that Cyrus is “deeply disturbed” or “probably has an eating disorder” as this oft-cited reaction on Morning Joe proclaims. I don’t think she’s mentally ill or a whore. I think she’s like many of us in our late teens and early twenties, with a terribly warped view of what being attractive means. Every pundit crawling out of the woodwork to offer their “expert” analysis of “what went wrong with Hannah Montana” should wonder what our culture is feeding our own sisters and daughters about what is sexy and how to find love. I’d like to see acceptance in their own hearts before trying to dry-hump it out of a college party or a music award show. Cyrus may be an exceptionally famous and privileged 19-year-old, but we all have to find our place between the double-standards and catch-22s of what it means to be accepted as a woman in our culture. Most of us have the gift of working out our path in front of a smaller, more forgiving audience.
No one Tweeted my white girl twerk ten years ago. The memory and shame are my own, and I’m sad for who I was; someone who didn’t like herself enough to think anyone else would either. I hope Miley and every other girl clawing for a sense of being finds it, and that if ten thousand articles written on one bad dance number can amount to something, they come to this: that every young woman is worth more than cheesy costumes and cheap tricks. We are not a division of good and bad girls. No one who takes you for less than you are is worth knowing. And be kind to lamps.