My name was Renee.
What a pretty name it is.
But it was never my name. I had no say in it. I didn’t choose it. I am Little Bear, and was Little Bear, long before I had the papers to legally back it up.
I was a bright kid who loved to read.
Maybe she’ll grow up to be a teacher.
Nope. I am part of a modern sideshow troupe called Wreckless Freeks, where I sing opera and staple things to, drop things on, and break things against my body.
I was a loving, affectionate child.
Maybe she’ll grow up, get married to a nice man, and have lots of children.
Nope. I live with my boyfriend in Seattle in a polyamorous relationship, with no plan for kids. I would like a cat, though.
I was a beautiful baby.
Ok, this one is a little tougher to tackle. I am still beautiful. But being considered beautiful was never the journey I was meant to fulfill. I created my own definition of beautiful. At 4’11” and 230lbs, with bright green hair, 9 tattoos, a septum ring, and a hairy body punctuated by a thick, curly goatee sprouting from my chin, I am not pretty in a way sonnets or pop ballads would describe.[As for “girl,” I would later grow up to discover that that was only part of the equation. I am girl, boy, man, woman, and a swirl of everything between & otherwise.]
In fact, most people would have quicker described me as “brave” for “being able to leave the house looking the way I look” (which can easily come off as back-handed), “interesting,” which is such a vague term that it often means nothing, and “adorable” for my height (or lack thereof).
And once puberty hit (less “hit” and more “pummeled like a sack full of nickels”), bringing with it the hair that currently adorns my fleshy frame, I was not quick to describe myself as pretty either.
I had to work for it.
Stephen Sondheim has a wonderful quote on the expectation of beauty + gender, in his musical, Passion: “As long as you’re a man, you’re what the world will make of you. Whereas if you’re a woman, you’re only what it sees.”
Well, I feared what people saw. I feared what I was. I feared I would never blossom.
But I did blossom. It was just a type of flower I had never seen before.
And I’m getting to a point & place in my life where I can appreciate the pot of shit from where the flower grew.
People ask me, “How did you learn to sing like that?” and “Wow, how are you so good with words?” I cultivated singing & writing because as a kid I had a terrible stammer that made speaking in public (or sometimes at all) a dreadful experience. When I tried to seek help for it at home, I was accused of seeking attention. So, I sang and wrote because that was the only way words came out with any confidence.
People ask me how I got my sense of style – such colorful clothes and makeup. When hair began to creep onto my developing body like moss on a tree, I was desperate to hide and detract. The only way I knew how to draw eyes away from stubble, razor rash, and hair was by wearing as many colors and baubles as I could. If people read “strange” sooner than “gross,” I could live with that.
People ask me where/how I learned to cook. When I was a teenager, a boy said to me, “a fat chick with no tits? I hope you know how to cook.” I went home and started teaching myself how to cook because I thought it was the only way I would ever get anyone to want me. I thought it was my ticket to “usefulness” in love, were it ever to happen.
To tie that all together, I later honed being funny, clever, and eloquent, because if I couldn’t be pretty or sexy, I could at least be the sassy snarky friend (once I fought tooth & nail through my stammer). The one that cracks jokes on the sidelines while their friends fall in love.
At almost 32, I still sing and write, but damn, do I talk a lot. I am still colorful, but also openly hairy. I cook hot and hearty, and I can make love with the same deftness. I am funny, clever, eloquent, and very much happy in love.
More recently, in a photo shoot by the talented and lovely Natasha Komoda, I learned that my body isn’t just beautiful still life. My body can move. I had long been conditioned, like many women, that I had the “wrong body” for dancing. Apple shaped and clumsy, what could I possibly hope to achieve? Yet, when we put on my chosen mix of my favorite tunes by Saint-Saëns, Philip Glass, Bach, Bizet, Delibes, and Verdi, movement was achieved quite naturally. I fluttered and flitted around before the camera as if I had no weight – and no shame – at all.
It was freeing in a way I had never known.
The shaming, the insecurity, the need to hide and detract? Perhaps for a while they did keep me repressed, but they made bursting from my chains all the more glorious.
I’ve been throwing this Mexican proverb around a lot lately – I’m a little obsessed with it – because it’s become more and more potent in my life:
“They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.”
The fact is, repugnant as the root of the art may be (to belabor the metaphor), look at the art that arose nonetheless. I sing. I cook. I write. I wit. I enjoy it. No, I LOVE it. And because I love it, I’m good at it. And because I’m good at it, I love it more. And so forth.
And the most refreshing part of all of this is when I learned I didn’t NEED to do these things to compensate for a lack of beauty. They ADD to the beauty that was already always there.
The flower has many, many colors.
-Little Bear Schwarz