The Woman Taking Her Clothes Off on the Flying Trapeze

Two views of a woman with very defined muscles, shown from the back with naked backs, arms in the air, and circus panties

Laurie and Debbie say:

Betsy Golden Kellem’s “The Trapeze Disrobing Act,” showcases a captivating little-known byway of feminist history.

… when Thomas Edison was testing motion picture technology in the early twentieth century, he figured a striptease would be the ideal subject.

But there’s a lot more going on in the resulting film than just erotic motion. Edison’s 1901 short featured the strongwoman Laverie Vallee, known professionally as Charmion, performing her “Trapeze Disrobing Act.” Edison may have intended to titillate, but Charmion, who combined extraordinary strength and a bodybuilder’s aesthetic with an expert sense of public tastes and emerging media, used her act to encourage turn-of-the-century women to embrace strength and action.

Implicit here is that Edison thought he was using Charmion, and almost certainly had no idea that she was also using him: she was getting paid to do what she was good at, with the bonus of being able to promote what she cared about–women’s physical power.

Kellem notes that this was the age of the “strongman,” the embodiment of both physical and moral strength; while strongmen were soon followed by strongwomen, the men were idolized and the women were freaks:

… unusually strong women were regarded as aberrant curiosities, described with wonder in the same breath as bearded ladies and living skeletons. (Strongwomen and the “singing strong lady,” who supported a piano and accompanist on a tabletop laid across her chest and legs, were listed in George Gould and Walter Pyle’s “Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine” at the turn into the twentieth century.)

Strongwomen found employment and increasing notoriety in circus and its allied arts, particularly as a combination of factors … made the circus tent an acceptable family destination. This not only destabilized the white-male basis of physical culture, it challenged popular ideas about female ability, all while showing a discomfiting amount of skin and startling muscle mass.

The amount of skin was discomfiting for the time; the muscle mass would still be somewhat startling today, but less so than it was 120 years ago.

Charmion seems to have been one of the most prominent strongwomen, and an extremely clever entertainer:

[In] 1897, Charmion astounded and delighted audiences with an unconventional aerial act in which she stripped from a full-skirted outfit down to her leotard and tights. In bringing together strength training, striptease, and aerialism in middle-class entertainment, Charmion was poking at a number of social hot-buttons. As physical culture scholar Bieke Gils points out, in a single act Charmion managed to argue for “women’s liberation from restrictive clothing, women’s ability to develop muscular strength like men, and the benefits of such ideas for their health and well-being.” A lot of people were suddenly nervous, confused, excited, or all of the above.

Kellem also quotes the inimitable Maria Popova:

“When women first began to work out with weights, it was considered dangerous to have them lift anything heavy and so they were given only two- or four-pound wooden dumbbells. The fact that women lifted much heavier objects in the home seems to have escaped most of the men who designed the exercise.”

Kellem’s concise, well-written article (and the Popova quotation) don’t address one important issue: whether or not women “lifted much heavier objects in the home” would depend entirely on the woman’s class status. Rich and affluent women lifted nothing in the home, though they may have cuddled and even picked up the occasional baby. Working-class women cleaned middle-class people’s homes and servants (often live-in servants) cleaned rich people’s homes, in a period when there were effectively no labor-saving devices: they washed every dish and every floor, washed, dried and pressed every piece of clothing, lifted and moved all the furniture, and so on. But Kellem’s and Popova’s point is still well-taken: it never occurred to men that women of their class could, should, or did do physical labor … but the women knew.

The ultimate delight of this essay lies in imagining the women in the audience for the live performance or Edison’s film, watching Charmion strip and suddenly visualizing their own bodies as they could be … and going home to find a private place to lift weights and change their shapes and self-images.

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Body Impolitic’s 2022 Guide to Sane(r) Holidays

Laurie and Debbie say:

We’ve been putting up versions of this post since 2006. As we have said for the last two years, there is nothing sane about pandemic life. All of us are experiencing pandemic fatigue, pandemic brain, and the never-ending uncertainty roller-coaster. Many are experiencing worse. Denying that to ourselves just makes things even rougher.

The suggestions here are (mostly) for folks who are planning to celebrate the upcoming holidays in some way, and are fortunate enough to have people and resources to celebrate with. If that’s not you, skip to the bottom. If that is you, then even if your family are your favorite people and you look forward all year to the holidays, you still may find useful hints here.

We hope most of you are staying safe, however you define that. Both of us have traveled recently, so we know how stressful traveling can be. If you are traveling or socializing locally, please be cautious and thoughtful, to protect your own health (including your mental health) and that of others.

IF YOU ARE SPENDING TIME WITH PEOPLE YOU DON’T SEE ALL THE TIME:

1 – You have a right to set your own boundaries around health protections, including COVID, flu, and everything else. That includes telling your family (chosen and blood) you can’t see them if they don’t respect your protocols. It also includes deciding that for your own mental health you need to see your closest people even if you don’t agree with their pandemic decisions. Do what is right for you and trust your gut.

2 – You have a right to enjoy things in your own way. To the extent possible, do as much or as little holiday stuff as you want; it’s supposed to be a celebration, not an obligation.

3 – If you are spending time with people, try to choose some who know how awesome you are. If you have to be with toxic people, remind yourself three times (out loud) in your last alone moments before seeing them that they are toxic. As soon as you can get away from them, do something really nice for yourself.

4 – Eat what you enjoy. Corollary: don’t eat what you don’t enjoy. Desserts are not sinful, they’re just desserts. Making people feel bad about themselves is sinful. Relatives who push you to eat (or not to eat) may want to be in charge of your choices, but you don’t have to let them take over. If you currently struggle with eating disorders, or have a history with them, we hope this helps.

5 – Wear what you think you look terrific in; if you don’t think you ever look terrific (we disagree) wear something that makes you feel comfortable, with colors or textures you like. Accept compliments and ignore digs about your clothes.

6 – Plan your responses to inevitable comments beforehand. If you have family members who don’t share your politics, you do not have to put up with hateful comments, whether they are anti-science, anti-democratic, anti-trans, anti-Semitic, otherwise racist or in other ways repulsive. Make a plan in advance: if you want to actively disagree with them, have your facts ready. If you want to cut off the conversation, try “We disagree, and I’m not willing to discuss it here,” or just walk away. Or keep all three options in your toolbox and use the one that feels best in the moment. Make a promise to yourself in advance that you’ll engage or not engage on your terms. Whatever you do, don’t spend too much energy on those ideas or the people who express them.

7 – Not spending too much energy applies to the personal digs too. For example, if you know that your uncle is going to tell you, “for your own good,” what he thinks of your recent life decisions, practice saying, “I appreciate your concern. Excuse me, I really want to catch up with my niece.”

8 – If you enjoy time with kids, they can be a great way to escape from the adult toxicity. If kids drive you crazy, keep your distance when you can, and try to keep your patience otherwise: they didn’t overstimulate themselves with sugar and toys.

9 – Be effusive about every gift you get; then be discreetly rude about the awful ones later to your friends. If they’re really awful, throw them off a bridge in the middle of the night.

10 – If you hate the holidays, or they make you sad, you are not the least bit alone. Participate as little as possible. They’ll be over soon. If you’re wishing you had someone (someone particular or folks in general) to spend the holidays with, treat yourself with special care. If you’re a volunteering type, safe and protected volunteering can work, and so can staying at home and taking a long hot bubble bath.

IF YOU ARE STAYING HOME AND MIGHT FEEL LONELY

If you have enough (time and/or money) to give to someone who has less, doing that often really helps when you’re feeling attacked. If you know someone who is having a crappy holiday, even — maybe especially — if you are too, consider taking a moment to do something for them (a quick text, a social media hello) that they will appreciate.

If you love and miss your family, this is a hard time to be away from people you care about. Stay in touch by phone and internet, make little rituals with each other to minimize the distance, and look forward to better holidays someday.

If your family is difficult for whatever reason, connect with people who help you feel comfortable, and enjoy the break!

We will see you in January 2023. No one knows what is coming; we will get through it together.

Stay safe and well!

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Follow Debbie on Twitter.

Follow Laurie’s  Pandemic Shadows photos on Instagram.

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