Art / Feminism / Lit / Society & Culture

[LIT] In Conversation With Writer Sarah Gerard

Things I Told My Mother
Things I Told My Mother

I read Sarah Gerard’s new book, Things I Told My Mother, in one sitting. The writing is clean, welcoming and vulnerable. My palms were sweating when I read it. The book tells the story of Sarah’s topless walk through New York City in August 2013. You can purchase the book from Von Zos and in select bookstores.

LISA MARIE BASILE: You wrote, “While it is not a campaign for gender equality, my own feelings about gender equality unavoidably will influence my observations during the action. It is legal for women to be topless in New York State and I believe this to be a fair law. I do not believe that, just because I’m topless, people who would objectify me and reduce me to a pair of breasts have the right to do so, just as I don’t believe that, if I wear shorts, a construction worker, to use a real example, has the right to catcall me, thereby reducing me to a pair of legs.

Those people want to strip me of my personhood; I am no more to them than a body upon which to project their uninvited sexual desires. With that said, this kind of behavior is bound to happen during the action and I invite it; I’ll do nothing to stop it, but simply record it in my notebook.”

This passage really struck me. We are constantly objectified and stared at: the slit between our legs, our thighs, our faces, our breasts. Most contexts don’t prevent it, and it is a daily occurrence. For me, I’ve cried against a pillar in the street before.

It is hard to be a woman in a world where confidence, self-love and even the embracing/displaying of one’s own beauty is recognized as a reason for harassment. I can’t imagine what you felt. What was your initial reaction?

SARAH GERARD: Honestly, my first reaction was shock. I didn’t know what I was feeling until almost two weeks after the event, when I could finally bring myself to sit down and write the essay. Then it all came pouring out of me: the anger, the confusion, the embarrassment, the self-doubt, the sadness.

Several events following the march suddenly seemed to be related to my feelings during the march, or I saw them as existing within the same realm, as having the same concerns, but I couldn’t have explained how they were related unless I sat down and wrote them out. Writing is how I know what I’m feeling.

While we were at the march, the activity was so constant and jarring that I didn’t have time to process it — kind of like when someone catcalls you and catches you off-guard, and for a moment you continue walking, wondering whether to respond, and eventually you don’t.

Later, on the train, you wish you had said all the things that it suddenly occurs to you to say.

I wonder how many women at the march simply weren’t equipped to deal with the kind of response they got: the jeers, the whistles, the hungry stares, the iPhone cameras. From what I could tell, many of the women just accepted this kind of attention as an inevitability. But acquiescence is not the same as consent, now is it?

LISA MARIE BASILE: I was really interested in this passage as well: “Once or twice, when a man has catcalled me in public, or asked Me on a date, I have used the excuse that I’m married as a way of gently putting him down. In the same way, the fact that I’m married will have an effect on this project in the sense that members of the public may feel less inclined to engage me in conversation if they notice that I’m wearing a wedding ring.”

Luna Luna recently published an article that went completely viral; it focuses on romantic ownership and agency. Have you read it? It’s called Stop Saying ‘I Have A Boyfriend’ and it argues that we shouldn’t have to use another man to thwart folks who harass, bother or want to talk to us.

You say you are just performing as you, as a woman who happens to be married, as if that somehow objectifies you less, or redacts the you that is naked and, thus, “available.” Do you think your wedding ring had an affect on the topless journey?

SARAH GERARD: It’s an interesting question and a great article. I suppose it’s impossible to know for sure because I’ve never done this not married, but I felt it was something I should address in case it were to come up. What I can say is that the essay grapples directly with the objectification of women’s bodies and their treatment as private property, and that those same attitudes can exist just as easily within a marriage as outside of one.

I can also say that, as an art model, I’ve often had to draw a line in the sand, and the fact that I’m married often seemed to make no difference in the way I was viewed. I was nude, or I got nude for a living, and therefore was available. Just the other day, a photographer sent me an email.

The subject was, “Had,” and the body said, “A dream last night I was taking a shower with you. Strange it was.” Setting aside the embarrassing grammar of the thing, I’ve worked with this person before but have been putting distance between us for quite some time — since the summer.

Why would he now think that I wanted to know about his dream? I think either it didn’t matter whether or not I wanted to know, or he was hoping it would inspire the same feelings in me. And then, why would he share such a sexual dream with a married person unless he thought the marriage was of no consequence?
So, if I had to guess one way or the other whether my wedding ring made a difference during the march, I would have to say no.
Sarah Gerard, captured by Tam Nguyen.
Sarah Gerard, captured by Tam Nguyen.

LISA MARIE BASILE: Later, you write, “I confessed to my manager at the bookstore that I had started modeling nude. He was unsurprised: ‘I’ve worked at a lot of bookstores in my day. There’s always someone who’s modeling,’ he said. This seemed encouraging. I used the word ‘confess’ just now. It’s an interesting word in this context because of its religious overtones. A confession is not the same as a divulgence.”

Did you find, in that moment, that you did actually feel ashamed? Did/do you believe nude modeling to be different from, say, stripping? In your book you talk about being friends with strippers and sex workers. Most of society has been, without a doubt, taught to view the body/economy relationship as a Bad Thing. Did you feel this? Did you feel bad about yourself?

SARAH GERARD: Actually, I think the order of events was kind of opposite: I was hoping my manager would take more of an interest because I was finding the work very interesting and wanted to talk with someone about it.His reaction colored the work as common, in the sense of “commoners” — lower-class, trashy. Mind you, he didn’t mean this intentionally. But it did make me feel differently about modeling. My feelings about modeling nude varied widely all the time I was doing it.

Nude modeling is not the same as sex work, although there’s nothing wrong with sex work, and sometimes, admittedly, the line can be blurry. The difference is that I always hoped, and I expected the photographer to hope, that something artful would result from our working together.

Sometimes what they thought was art and what I thought was art was not the same. And that’s okay — I’m not a critic, and they hired me for a service. But when the service I’m providing involves the direct use of my naked body, I don’t want to bargain, and I don’t want to compromise.

I also found that, if I told someone that I modeled nude and they didn’t respond positively, it’s usually because they were concerned. They worried that someone would take advantage of me, overpower me physically. And I’ve felt this fear, too, and felt unsafe. My husband usually waited for me somewhere nearby for this reason. Most photographers don’t allow escorts to accompany models because having a third person in the room changes the dynamic.

LISA MARIE BASILE: You write, “I was taught that I should scrutinize my body in parts, like an animal for butcher: legs, arms, tummy, ass, breasts. I should think of my body in terms of its weight and fat content. I should be passive like an animal; delicious like an animal. My body was only valuable if fit for consumption.”

We know that song and dance. I haven’t had a day go by without questioning it. Atrocious. I’ve been told I don’t have the right to feel those ways, because I’m not X or Y. When people think of beauty they often think of privilege.

Do you ever feel or recognize your own privilege when modeling?I’ve unfortunately been taught to associate “modeling” with the industry itself–an industry that has profited from proliferating the significance of skinny, traditionally beautiful bodies. Do you encounter photographers and models that break these expectations? Is it rare? Am I wrong? I often am.

SARAH GERARD: Absolutely, I encounter art models all of the time who break these rules, and I’m really grateful that they’re doing the work that they do. They are some of the most body-positive women I’ve ever met, and they’re all beautiful, not because they’re whitewashed and rail thin, but because they’re all, each of them, different, and courageous.

I know art models who are 5’0 and white, 6’3 and black, curvy, skinny, red-headed, bald, ultra-femme, androgynous, tattooed, pierced, scarred, you name it. Three teeth, gold teeth. They’re all over the place. And to the photographers’ credit: the ones who are doing this because they love it really appreciate these differences and look for models who have presence in front of the camera above all other qualities. It doesn’t matter what they look like.

LISA MARIE BASILE: You say, “Modeling has taught me to be more courageous with my body. It has helped me to redefine my boundaries and has helped me to define boundaries I didn’t know I had. It has helped me to feel less ashamed.”

I love this. I am so happy you feel this way! It is an important we often do not hear–except when it has to do with simply being beautiful. What are some real ways you think women can feel proud of their bodies?
SARAH GERARD: When was the last time you heard a man ask another man how he thinks men can feel proud of their bodies? Never. Men never think about this.
Women can be proud that their bodies are healthy and that they’re theirs. They can be proud that their bodies are strong and can withstand extreme pain. We can be proud that we have bodies to use in whatever way we want to use them, period. Your body is yours and it’s the only one you’ll ever have. Congratulations!
LISA MARIE BASILE: That is an excellent point. Moving on back to the book, you listed some reactionary comments that popped up after your topless walk. I obviously just feel a GIANT pumping hole in my chest when I read these. It seems people consistently and almost purposefully miss the point:
  • get the hot chicks on the street with big boobs to show their stuff
  • Looks like a bunch of really ugly girls trying to get some attention.
  • The human body is a beautiful work of art in all shapes and sizes. NOT.
  • It takes a ‘certain’ kind of woman to show her breasts. Nobody half decent would bother with such an exhibition…
I can’t say it shocks me. How did this make you feel?
The Walk took place August 2013.
The Walk took place August 2013. Photo by David Formentin.

SARAH GERARD: I’ve talked to a lot of people about these comments and they’ve pretty much all said that it’s useless to argue with internet trolls, and I tend to agree. But, have you been following the events on HTML Giant recently, involving Kate Zambreno?

A whole conversation has erupted out of peoples’ responses to an internet troll, and it’s been so successful at getting people to talk about things like objectification, violence, ownership, and so on.

I actually think that internet comments provide an informative sampling of the public’s opinion, and by looking at them we can address, and work to change, public opinion. Clearly we’re not as evolved as we thought we were if we think that only a “certain kind of woman” would take pride in her body, that she couldn’t possibly be “half-decent”, whatever decency means. Is decency shrinking before sexual aggression? Then I am certainly not decent.

LISA MARIE BASILE: Agreed. And yes! Luna Luna published a reactionary piece (by Dena Rash Guzman) to the reactionary piece (by Leigh Stein) about the Kate Zambreno doll incident at HTML Giant. Definitely a topic that needed to be discussed.

So. You also write about an experience in which you told a photographer who wanted to shoot you that you wouldn’t do spread-open shots. Then you said yes, you would. When you got to the shoot, you then said no. You thought he felt guilty. You wanted him to feel pathetic.

What happened here? Do you think you left him with the understanding that he should not have pressured you? Do you often enter into modeling situations that make you feel objectified, or was this a rare case?

SARAH GERARD: I think he was used to women doing whatever he asked them to do. I left this out of the book (because, really, I could write a whole book about this person, and there is only so much room for him in Things I Told My Mother), but: while we were shooting, he told me about “accidentally” hiring sex workers several times, and oh-my-God-the-things-they-wanted-to-do! as if I would be amazed.

He told me that a sex worker showed up to his apartment with her boyfriend/escort/pimp, and that this man stole several thousands of dollars’ worth of construction equipment from his basement while they were shooting.

At one point, he left me alone in his apartment and went down the street to buy me cigarettes. When he gave them to me, he also tried to give me a bottle of wine from his personal collection. He complimented my body several times. The whole experience left me feeling very unsettled, like I had stumbled into a part of his computer I’d rather not have found, the dark corners of his hard drive.
I don’t know if I left him with an understanding of anything, but he never did contact me about delivering the photos. And that’s fine with me.
The thing is, I’m only one woman. It’s unlikely that this man learned much from our brief encounter about how to treat people in general. Now, if he went on to have the same experience with several other women, he might begin to learn something. That’s why it’s important for women to keep having these conversations, and sharing these stories with each other. I think sometimes even we forget what is and isn’t acceptable, and what we should be resisting.
LISA MARIE BASILE: If you could tell me one thing about that march that made you a better person, what would it be?
SARAH GERARD: All of the conversations I’ve been able to have with people afterward, about the book. I’m glad it’s inspiring people to talk. That’s exactly what should happen.
LISA MARIE BASILE: Tell me about your writing projects right now. What are you proud of? (I’m proud of you).
SARAH GERARD: I just sold my first novel, Binary Star, to Two Dollar Radio, actually! It’ll be on shelves January 2015. I also recently began working with an agent, Adriann Ranta at Wolf Literary Services, and will be writing a nonfiction proposal this year, in the same vein as Things I Told My Mother. Of course, it doesn’t have a title, yet. And in the meantime, I’m putting together a collection of short stories.
What am I proud of? Not much. But I feel incredibly lucky, and incredibly inspired by my contemporaries. I just finished Masha Tupitsyn’s amazing book Love Dog, which I think every single person in the world, but especially every woman, and every film lover, and every lover of any kind should read. It totally knocked me on my ass.
I feel lucky because, every day, I get to read, and I get to write, and I get to talk to people who also love reading and writing, which is living. That is the most important thing in the world, to me.
Sarah Gerard’s novel Binary Star is forthcoming from Two Dollar Radio in Winter 2014/2015. Her essay chapbook Things I Told My Mother was published by Von Zos in November 2013. Other fiction, criticism, and personal essays have appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Paris Review Daily, BOMB, Bookforum, Slice Magazine, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Brooklyn Rail, as well as other journals. Her journalism has appeared in The Tampa Bay Times. She holds an MFA from The New School and lives in Brooklyn.
Tam Nguyen is a photographer mainly interested in portraiture. He is formally trained as a biologist, but caught the photography bug in his early teens. His past experience includes photography of the insect and amber collections of a natural history museum. He is currently based in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. His work can be seen at

David Formentin is a filmmaker.

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One thought on “[LIT] In Conversation With Writer Sarah Gerard

  1. Pingback: Vol. 1 Brooklyn | Afternoon Bites: Alexander Chee on “Downton Abbey,” Scott McClanahan, Verlaines Reissued, “Flowers in the Attic” Revisited, and More

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