January 1, 2020: Night One of the Experiment at La Glorieta. Photo: fellow tanguera Geneviève Allard
It’s the first day of 2020. I decided to start this year with a bang of new year’s energy.
I am beginning a new Challenge: 31 Days of Asking Men to Dance. A new decade merits a new experiment!
In truth, my idea was a recycle of an idea from last year, but reduce, reuse, recycle, right?
In January 2019 I decided to do a research project after another conversation with a fellow tanguera about my frustration with going out to dance, and often spending much of the night or afternoon waiting for a cabeceo (the nod of the head a man uses when he asks a woman to dance).
My plan was to go out dancing tango 31 nights in a row with the express intention of asking men to dance.
My rule for myself was: if you go to a milonga or practica, you must ask at least one man to dance with a mirada (the look of desire used by a woman in her eyes to show she wants to dance), a cabeceo (a head nod usually used by men to invite) or verbally (which would be OK to do in more casual milongas but not so much in formal, elegant milongas).
No matter how I needed to challenge myself to go outside my comfort zone to be the initiator of the dance. (In the end, I challenged myself by asking verbally because that was more direct than using the mirada [the look of desire].)
Now what’s the big deal with asking men to dance? We do live in the 21st century. I’m in my forties, not in seventh grade going to a junior high school dance! Wouldn’t I be over all these insecurities by now? Ummm, not totally.
Well, we teach what we need to learn. I have often struggled with the confidence to ask a man to dance–thus the Challenge.
Deep down for me, and I suspect for many of us women, we feel more attractive if we are chosen. It’s the same old Cinderella complex, waiting for a man to come, wake us from a passive slumber to validate us as worthy. But that’s the old way, or is it? Some men seem to like the idea of women asking them to dance to take the constant pressure of initiation off them. But I’ve also heard from men say they didn’t want women to ask them to dance because that would be taking away the last clear domain of power that men had.
I would have shared last year’s results with you but I lost the phone, so I lost the data recorded in audio messages each time I left the milonga.
So my dears, if at first you do not succeed then try try again. This year we start fresh. I’m going to attempt to do 31 whole nights.
That’s an intense goal since I am also working to complete my memoir but I’m thinking all this dancing will be good for my writing because I need a balance of mental and physical activity to inspire my creativity.
So I am going to try the experiment this year and live-blog it as I go along on this post, adding a new entry with data and emotional observations each night after I go out.
Here we go…
Day 1: January 1, 2020
Milonga: La Glorieta, an outdoor gazebo in Belgrano where people gather to dance nightly.
Results: 7 asks, 7 yesses
The first night of the campaign was spectacular. Often new campaigns (like a diet) start on a high and the Asking Men to Dance campaign was no different. I asked 7 men to dance, verbally each time. All seven said yes. At least one was someone who I have danced with once before years ago, but I’m sure he thinks he is much higher level than me. Because he was standing alone looking rather glum I asked him anyway.
Me and one of my targets! He said yes. 😉
How did I ask the men to dance? My language of choice for all the men was “Bailas?” (“Do you dance?”), “Quer bailar?” (“Do you want to dance?” or “Bailamos” (“Let’s dance.”) I used “Bailamos” only with someone I know socially. Using a verbal invitation works at La Glorieta and other more casual milongas. I don’t know if inviting verbally would work well at a formal milonga like Canning. I may have to lean more on a heavy mirada or cabeceo. We’ll see over the next 31 days.
My mood was much better because I was asking the men and choosing who I wanted to dance with rather than standing around hoping someone I wanted to dance with would ask me. I felt like a bubblier version of myself than the passive me who stands around waiting to be chosen.
I asked one man to dance whom I have often danced with. He seemed a bit taken aback that I asked him. He was used to inviting me, not the other way around. I had flipped the gender roles, but he got over it. We danced a lovely tanda (in tango we dance four songs [a tanda]).
All of the other guys seemed quite fine with invitation. “Dale,” or “Dale si” was the usual response.
Overall this experiment started off winning.
Day 2: January 2, 2020
I was planning to go to De Querusa but I was too tired. I’ll make up for it tomorrow by asking EXTRA men to dance.
The Friday afternoon practica Cheek to Cheek is not a traditional milonga where men and women sit on opposite sides of the dance floor but it’s definitely more of an elite milonga than La Glorieta so I was feeling nervous about taking my “31 Days of Asking Men to Dance” Challenge to Cheek to Cheek.
La Glorieta is a “friendly milonga”–Cheek to Cheek not so much.
The last time I went to Cheek to Cheek a few months ago there was poca gente (very few people) and they were all ridiculously high-level. I danced with the organizer, which I feared was a pity tanda because I had been sitting for over an hour. I was plancharing. Planchar is the Argentine verb meaning “to iron.” In tango language, to planchar means sitting for hours, not dancing.
So how did it go? I saw a familiar face, a sweet dancer Max from La Plata. La Plata is about an hour south of Buenos Aires. I greeted him with a kiss on the cheek which is probably not what I would have done if it were not for the Challenge. Asking men to dance is making me more outgoing and less timido in general. After I changed my shoes he invited me with a cabeceo, but I really believe that my being friendlier with the kiss paved the way for the invitation.
My first dance. I didn’t ask him but I may have made it happen by being friendly.
Then my friend Jorge showed up. Jorge is part of my Solo Chica Tango Adventure team. If you come to Buenos Aires as part of our program you might dance with him too. I asked Jorge “Bailas?” just as he said “Bailamos.” It seems like “Bailamos” (“Let’s dance”) is a much more normal thing to say to a friend. “Bailas?” (“Do you dance?”) makes more sense to say to someone new. I’m still working out this verbal invitation language since I have spent most of my tango career following the rules of showing my interest with a mirada (look of desire).
Jorge one of our taxi dancers for the Solo Chica Tango Adventure–and moi! It’s always nice to run into a friend at the milonga.
After I am happy to say I invited two men! They both said yes. One was a Polish man living in Italy who seemed to be a beginnerish dancer. Very sweet. He seemed happy I invited him.
The other was a wonderful dancer that I went on a date with once. It can be kind of awkward to see someone that you don’t wind up dating at the milonga. This time because I had my Challenge fueling me I forced myself to creep up behind him and tap him lightly on the shoulder. He turned his head around and said, “Quer bailar?” with a friendly smile. We danced a magical tanda. I missed dancing with him. We dance together so well.
I am getting more and better tandas than I would have been dancing otherwise. Going to the milonga with the intention of asking at least one man to dance is definitely working. I’m feeling more present, less passive. No rejections so far, but I’m sure that will change when I ask more people.
I am quite pleased with the experiment so far.
Day 4: January 4, 2020
Practica: La Maria, an afternoon practica
Results: 7 asks, 4 yesses, 3 nos
La Maria is an afternoon practica on Saturdays.
On day four I received my first nos at La Maria. Three nos to be exact.
I was glad about the first “no” because I didn’t want men to be saying yes to me out of obligation or pity. His no proved that a man could say no. The Challenge is now real. Of course I had gotten “no” many times in the past! I wasn’t surprised because this guy seemed to be one of the high-level dancers who barely danced at all–he only dances with a chosen few.
The second “no” came from a guy who appeared to be a foreigner. I was surprised he said no, because usually foreigners, who don’t have automatic dance partners, are happy to be asked.
At first I felt energized and happy with the “nos,” because I knew this project really hadn’t gotten started until I got a “no.” The “nos” felt good because I survived them, and then went on to ask other men to dance who said yes. This Challenge is for sure about building resilience, just as men have to suffer nos, why shouldn’t I? Doesn’t that make me a stronger, less delicate flower?
I danced a milonga tanda with a Brazilian who ran a tango school in Porto Alegre, and a German man who had been dancing tango in Buenos Aires since the 80s. That’s really something. Tango was coming out of obscurity after the dictatorships in the 80s.
I’m dancing better because I am dancing more. On average I have been dancing 7-10 tandas since I started this Challenge, compared to the 2-3 tandas per milonga I was dancing before. Going out with the intention of asking men to dance has definitely generated far more tandas. It’s also made me feel more in control of my afternoon or night. I identify men I want to dance with and scheme about how I will ask them rather than sitting in a chair, eyeing men, fruitfully or not.
I must admit after two “nos” I felt tired. Three “nos” may be the limit of what my ego can take.
Happily though I had four yesses, plus the three men who invited me without any work on my part.
I call Day Four a continued success.
Here’s a spontaneous little video I recorded sitting on a stoop on the street after leaving La Maria.
Day 5: Another rest day!
Wow, this asking men to dance thing is intense! I’m taking another rest day.
Day 6: Tango in Tigre
I wasn’t able to go to a milonga because I went to to this Tango in Tigre Day Trip to check it out as an option for Solo Chicas who come on our Tango Adventures. The day was marvellous: maravilloso! Beautiful people, home-made food by Hugo Satorre, a world-known bandoneonist, yoga, swimming, kayak, and a bit of tango to live music on the pier before we took the boat back to Tigre. Tigre is a small city with a river community just outside Buenos Aires. It’s the easiest place to get a nature fix on a day trip.
On the way back Sole Viladrich, another woman who had come on the day trip, and I discovered that we had massive amounts in common. Sole just released her documentary “Esto No Es El Tango: El Abrazo Dissidente” all about women, queer people, trans people, and other rule-breakers challenging rigid notions of tango.
We talked about the distinct challenge of asking men to dance in traditional milongas such as Cachirulo, which are run by a kind of ten commandments of tango. You can read more about the ultra-traditional Cachirulo in this New York Times piece “A Caricature of the Patriarchy: Argentine Feminists Remake Tango”. Sole said that she had seen a woman denunciado (denounced) in Cachirulo for asking men to dance. Wow. It will be a dare on a whole other level to break the codes in a traditional milonga.
Day 7: January 7, 2020
Oh my god, what was I thinking? 31 days in a row? Over the last couple of years I usually only go out twice a week! It was a night of rest to prepare for Day 8.
Day 8: January 8, 2020
Milonga: Maldita Milonga with Orchestra Affronte, an afternoon practica 4-8
Results: 1 ask, 1 yes
A night out with Sue Aikens and Wanda Abramor, Tango Fairygodmother in the Tango Adventure buenos airs
I asked one man to dance, a total stranger, and he said yes. No drama whatsoever.
Day 9: January 9, 2020
Milonga: De Querusa
Results: 2 asks, 2 nos
Officially both of my verbal invitations were refused by foreign dancers. That would be two nos.
However, from the moment I arrived I interacted in friendly, easy ways with men I have been dancing with recently, which resulted in three rather magical rapid-fire tandas that left me feeling like a dancing queen.
I’m starting to feel verbally asking men to dance is not hard. The sting of the no is not bothering me as much. However, it still holds true that I can only tolerate two nos. Any more than two nos starts to feel like a downer.
I’m also reaping the benefits of going out more often. It’s definitely true that it’s easier to get dances when you are going out to dance regularly in the tango scene. Frequency is rewarded.
Day 24: De Querusa and Canning
Results: 4 asks, 4 yesses (3 at De Querusa, 1 at Canning)
Well, we can see there is a large gap here between Days 9 and 24.
I really must laugh at my ambition Day 1 of going out every night. What delusional New Year’s energy!
Actually I have gone out to dance six times in the last two weeks but I didn’t focus on asking men to dance. We had clients with us for Tango Adventures, so when I went out to meet them, my attention was more on supporting those women than on asking men to dance.
That said, at at least one time in one of those milongas I did invite a man to dance verbally. He said yes.
The other nights quite frankly I was tired. Since this is not a normal behavior for me, and I’m breaking gender codes, let’s face it: Asking men to dance requires a lot of energy. First, I have to pick out a man to invite, then I need to screw up my courage to break gender codes and face the risk of rejection–well, it’s a lot. I’ve learned that my energy needs to be good to ask men to dance! I expect and accept there will be plenty of milongas when I simply don’t feel the strength. I’m trying to not beat myself up when my shy nights happen. When I have energy, I invite!
Last night I went back to De Querusa, a moderately friendly milonga where I have some nice regular partners.
I invited two men heavy miradas with a slight dash of an head nod (slightly cabeceo-like toward two men, somewhat regular partners, or at least men I had danced with before). Both resulted in dances.
I made one verbal invitation to a French beginner. I asked him “Bailas?” and he didn’t know what that meant, which resulted in an awkward exchange in English, and then a lovely dance.
Then at Canning, I used a delicate tap on the back and a head nod toward the floor with a man where I know for sure we enjoy dancing with each other–our musical sensitivities and embrace are compatible.
The Challenge helped me to initiate the dance quickly because I knew I wanted to go to bed by 2 am. Tapping him on the back was much better than sitting there passively waiting for him to invite me. We might not have danced because I turn into a pumpkin before many other tangueros.
Day 25: January 25, 2020
Milongas: La Maria and La Carretta
Results: 4 asks, 3 yesses, 1 no
At the afternoon practica La Maria I asked two men to dance. Both said yes.
The second man was someone that I danced with many times in the past but we have not danced in about 9 months.
Well, I was sitting there bored, not dancing, and neither was he, so I decided to ask him to dance because of the Challenge. I had already been acting friendlier to him and kissed him on the cheek when I arrived. I sidled up to him at the bar and asked “Queres bailar?” He either didn’t understand me or possibly he needed to be the one to ask “Queres bailar?” Again, sometimes I get the feeling that the men need to feel they are the inviter, even if I already invited them. Or maybe I mumble?
Did he want to dance with me or was he saying yes out of obligation? A number of women have asked me this question since I started the Challenge. Many women fear dancing with someone who doesn’t really want to dance with them–as if that would be unpleasant or even humiliating. I say most men I invite are happy to dance with me when I ask.
With this particular guy… I’m not so sure. I didn’t feel him inject his full heart and soul in the dance, but I don’t think he’s my ideal dance parter anyway. He’s a little machista, at least in tango classes. I like the more sensitive, open-minded, kind and egalitarian men. But that’s OK. We can do a tanda together when I don’t have anyone else to dance with. Ha! See how I flipped that around? It’s about what I prefer, not him.
I went on to a late-night milonga La Carreta after dinner with a new tango friend.
I asked two men who were sitting next to me on the couch. A man of Asian origin dressed in elegant wide-legged dark pants and a white shirt seemed disoriented that I invited him. He said, “No,” and looked away confused.
The second was an Argentine sitting to my left, also elegantly dressed–a serious tanguero. I asked on the third song of the tanda. He said “dale.” (OK.) We danced a lovely two songs.
I left happy to go to bed at 1:15 am.
TOTALS from the 31-Day of Asking Men to Dance Challenge, Buenos Aires Tango, January 2020
Total Asks: 29. I asked 29 men to dance in a month!!!!
Total Nos: 6 men said NO!
Total Yesses 23 said YES!!!
Pretty good ratio, right? Over 79% said yes!
The data says it pays to ask men to dance.
Postscript: This Challenge was an experiment in new-habit-formation as well as building courage and resilience. During this month, the new habit of inviting men to dance becomes integrated and less dramatic to practice. Did it stick in February? Sort of. I would say inviting men to dance in February met with less resistance in me than December but it wasn’t as easy as in January when I was in full swing. I think this Challenge may become an annual thing.
Want to come away to Buenos Aires and learn how to invite men to dance, or to attract invitations to dance? Come away with Sasha’s Tango Adventure program for a 7-Day community-based, transformative dance immersion vacation in Buenos Aires and you will learn that and way more. Solo Chica means this program is designed to make it easy for you to come as a woman alone. Solo Chico Adventures for men are available.
“There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”–Toni Morrison
I wrote this post for my American readers but it equally applies to Brazilians who have an important election coming up . . . and really all of you. Forgive the U.S. references if you are not from the U.S. but I also want to address my fellow American readers.
What we just experienced in the Dr. Christine Blasey Ford/Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings in the U.S. was enough to make any sentient/sensitive human being want to crawl into a hole for a very long time. That and the bad news any given day could flatten you.
In my coaching practice I have noticed the word “flat” has come up a number of times with a number of clients. Not all my clients have used the word but I also sense it myself. How could all this division, fear, and horrible-ness not affect us on a personal level? How much bad news to absorb? What to do in response? There is anger and what do you do with that anger?
When we feel overwhelmed we switch off our emotions to avoid being inundated. In the overwhelm there comes a numbness, a checking-out, a zoning-out as a kind of self-protection.
I notice more people complaining that they are watching too much Netflix at night. Escape. This is not true for everyone I talk to but I also feel it in the air–the moment has a powerful demotivating quality. I find myself fending off numbness when scrolling through my Facebook feed. I felt the flatness encroach. The flatness is that feeling of defeat. That feeling of why bother?
I also hear about people activating. Friends are volunteering who have never volunteered before. People are canvassing – going door to door – for local candidates who never canvassed before.
The best way I know for how to spring out of flatness is to connect with others and get into action taking a stand for something you believe in. Whether that’s registering to vote, volunteering, or doing your own good work for the world, whatever that may be.
Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher who powerfully yelled at Jeff Flake as he was standing in the elevator shows us how individuals matter. Those women should be remembered in this history books. When they yelled at Jeff Flake, “Look at me when I’m talking to you” they were demanding that he SEE us. They likely moved him to vote for an investigation of sexual assault charges against Kavanaugh.
Even if that investigation didn’t turn out to be as deep as it should have been the image of a sexual assault survivor screaming to a senator saying “Look at me, don’t look away!” was powerful. That image will be one I’ll remember for a long time.
Ana and Maria reminded us that individuals really can make a difference.
For my male readers. I have talked to a number of men about #metoo. These are men who I consider quirky, sensitive, and supportive of women. They too were more immediately worried about being falsely accused of sexual assault than of our culture normalizing the abuse and harassment of women. I invite you all, ladies and gentlemen, and especially the men, to watch this brilliant talk by Trevor Noah. He cops to secretly feeling worried about being accused for something he didn’t do and about why it’s important to stay focused on the larger story unfolding here.
One of my guy friends wrote me this week, “OMG, you really put yourself out there! Nicely produced I might add!” Well, he was right. This was a big week for me when I overcame a huge block of fear by releasing the pussywalking videos I’ve been working on for more than a year.
I wrote Jeff back, “Thanks for noticing that! It took me months to get up the courage to share this in Facebook!” He said, “Don’t blame you!” And I said, “Somewhere in this there was a point of no return feeling. Like I am just not a normal person anymore.”
Now I am that woman who launches online pussywalking campaigns, and believe me, that’s a far distance to come for the girl who grew up in Rhode Island, a state where most people never talked about sex out loud. Now I’m publicly associated with using the word “pussy” online and coining the term “pussywalking.”
But hey, if 45 can talk about pussygrabbing, I can talk about pussywalking, right?
So here I am sharing “pussywalking” with you and if we were together in the same room you would see both how uncomfortable and excited I would be to have this conversation.
My own discovery of pussywalking has changed how I walk in the world and now that I am sharing online I hear more diverse and amazing stories about how this helps many different women.
In fact, pussywalking has deep connections with mindfulness, and ancient practices such as yoga, tantra, Chinese medicine, and kundalini. People have long known that the womb region is a huge source of energetic power.
The #metoo movement has now been going on for over a year so this feels like the perfect time to release the pussywalking concept. Pussywalking is a modern way to reclaim your sexual power.
Where Did Pussywalking Come From?
The full story of my discovery of pussywalking is in my memoir-in-progress Wet (in fact there is currently a chapter called “Pussywalking”).
I started my own pussywalking practice back in 2012 and for a long time I used pussywalking in my everyday life when walking around my neighborhood for a mood lift. I started to share the idea here and there with individual women I met at entrepreneurship and storytelling conferences and then with my coaching clients. If I heard a woman’s story and felt she could use the confidence boost of pussywalking I would tell her, “I want to share something with you.”
In the following years I left the Bay Area tech world and transitioned to Buenos Aires to focus on writing my next book, coaching, and the Tango Adventure. Teaching pussywalking in the Tango Adventure felt like a no-brainer (pussywalking is definitely what the best female tango dancers do!) but it still took courage to teach.
In the Tango Goddess workshops, some of the women looked eager, some of them looked deeply uncomfortable as if I had brought up a word we are not supposed to say out loud. It’s not quite acceptable in middle-class culture to speak the word “vagina’–let alone “pussy”!
I took a deep breath and told them my story of discovering the power of the pussywalk on the way to a job interview, and how I found that putting attention on my pussy gave me a confident glow and helped me nail the negotiation and get the job.
“This pussywalk is something any woman can do,” I would explain. “It’s simple. You walk, and put your attention on your center point and see how that affects your walk. Men have their cocky walk. We say that cocky means confident, right? What do women have? We have our pussywalk. But no one tells you to walk with your attention on your vagina.”
Pussywalking–it’s like feminism but you feel it in your body! Every single woman who has learned pussywalking with me looks different to some extent when she does her pussywalk. Some walk slower. Some have better posture. Some of them look softer, a bit more present. They look more proud of being women.
From Bashful Teacher to Pussywalking-Evangelist
I was content to share pussywalking in a personal, one-on-one way with those who work with me as clients because hey, I was born in New England. I wasn’t that keen to get on the Internet to talk about pussy-anything. But then along came Cinthia Pacheco.
Cinthia organizes a Women in Business Buenos Aires Meetup and helps women entrepreneurs with marketing. Cinthia came to a Tango Goddess Workshop and she loved pussywalking. She started sending me audio messages on Facebook the next day about how she had shared it with her best friend who lives in Texas and the best friend asked for a YouTube video link, assuming there was one.
Cinthia encouraged me to make a few simple pussywalking videos talking to my iPhone. She really wanted me to spread the gospel of pussywalking to more women. Maybe I would have made the simple videos that but at the time I was getting to know Tan Kurttekin, a brilliant Turkish cinematographer. Tan told me he wanted to do a project with me and we set out to do something more ambitious together.
Tan and I made two pussywalking videos for you over the last year.
What’s the Reception So Far?
In a word, incredible.
I am loving the diversity of the responses so far.
Here’s what one woman Monica wrote me this week, “It’s really good timing Sasha. I have decided to get my breast implants removed hopefully in December. I got them when I was 31 because I felt so self-conscious and unfeminine. Now I am feeling strongly to go back to my small flat chest again.
It’s been a total mindshift and there is part of me that knows I may experience a feeling of loss in some way, however practicing pussywalking before/after surgery may help with this transition. I want to focus on my health and well-being this year. When I was walking by windows on my profile I was focusing on my breasts. Now I can shift that focus elsewhere.”
photo by Natalia Brasil / Cura Fotagrafia / taken at our Self-Love and Sensuality Women’s Retreat in Florianopolis, Brazil, November 2017
Today is International Women’s Day and I want to take this opportunity to recognize the fierceness of women who don’t settle.
–The women who left relationships that offered security but didn’t allow them to be who they are and won’t tolerate anything less
— The women who want a big love with a true equal and are willing to wait for it beyond the socially marked “expiration dates” of 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, on
— The women who prioritize their own self-development
— The women who slog through online dating and stay positive! (And/or take breaks knowing Tinder, GreenSingles, and Happn will be there when you come back.)
— The women who want hot sex and aren’t afraid to own or explore their sexuality
— The women who want respect and equal pay at the workplace, who negotiate for themselves, and support other women to get fairplay too
— The women who are speaking up in the #metoo movement about sexual violation and the women who are working on their own healing privately and quietly
— The women who dare to create their own #happilyeverafter whether they are with a man or not
Not settling is not just about not settling for less than what you really want in love or in bed. Not settling is also not settling for a president or a legislator who disrespects women or a boss who routinely harasses women on the team. Not settling is about being in alignment with yourself and your own principles. . . it’s also about not settling in your relationship with yourself!
So it’s with a special bow to this non-settling spirit that I wish you a happy International Women’s Day!
A big shoutout to the men who truly support this kind of questioning, open-minded, needle-pushing women. We need you. I hope you men get that feminism is a big tent. Feminism is a movement to liberate all of us from confining gender roles and any residual idea that women are inferior to men.
PS. A little bit of levity about not settling: A very dear male quirkyalone friend shared this link with me. If you want some inspiration about not settling in online dating, follow this Instagram account idratherdiealone.
this alluring bra shop got my attention in Paris. Soldes means Sales!
I couldn’t help but take notice of the store windows on my first morning in Belleville, the friendly neighborhood in Paris where I was staying for a week in early July.
The signs on the bra shop screamed, “GRANDES TAILLES, MEILLEURES PRIX”! “BIG SIZES, BEST PRICES”!
For a woman with an ample chest a good bra–and a good bra store–is hard to find.
With the promise of BIG SIZES, BEST PRICES, I felt a need, even an obligation, to enter. I actually even need bras. In Buenos Aires, where I’m living in 2017, there don’t seem to be any bra stores with sizes above DDD. I sometimes feel excluded when I pass lingerie stores in Buenos Aires and even a low-grade panic, what if all my bras break at once? Sometimes underwires pop out, or bras get damaged in the wash.
But the store looked mysterious. Signs covered the windows. The shop didn’t look like your average bra boutique. For days I delayed.
On Saturday after four days in the neighborhood I finally ventured outside with a mission: check out the bra store.
I opened the door and stepped inside, finding myself in a small, disorganized, square-shaped shop, the walls covered by little white cardboard boxes, presumably with bras inside, and bins full of merchandise on sale: bras and underwear. The shop was a mess, a far cry from the feminine, carefully decorated boutiques I’m used to in the States. It was not what you would call aesthetic.
A short bald man with a paunch belly stepped out from the back room and greeted me, “Bonjour.” He was the only one working at the shop, and there were no other customers. I froze. Who was this guy? Why was he the only one in the bra shop?
How could I exit gracefully? I didn’t want to be trapped in a bra store with this little bald pervert. When I go bra shopping in the States, a woman often comes into the dressing room with me to measure me and assess whether the bras fit. Would he want to go in the dressing room with me?
It was a long thirty seconds before I uttered the words, “I’m looking for a bra” in French. Those words took all my courage in the world in that moment to say.
“36G,” he said, naming my size.
“Yes,” I said, astonished that he had hit the mark. He was such a bra expert he could judge my size just from my appearance. It took me a long time, until years ago, to admit that I wasn’t a D and get a bra that actually fit properly.
He went in the back and pulled out two black and nude bras and handed them to me.
“Is that all you have in my size?” I asked. These bras looked matronly. A few years ago I made a commitment to myself, I will wear bras I find attractive and sexy, that don’t make me feel like a grandmother.
“Don’t worry, I have many options.” he said.
“I’m looking for a pretty bra,” I said in French. “Jolie.”
He smiled, “Pretty? You don’t think my bras are pretty? I only sell pretty bras!”
I started to laugh too, and then pointed out the styles I found appealing, including a peach and gray leopard print a mannequin was wearing.
32 euros! amazing sale price!
Another woman came in at this point, and he started to service her giving her options to try. She and I alternated using the sole small dressing room while he found bras for us. She seemed to love him. “This store is a gem of the neighborhood,” she said. “And he has great sales.”
She came out of the dressing room with her top on to get our opinion.
I gave her a thumbs up; so did he. I also tried on bras, then putting on my shirt to let them assess the bra fit.
In fact, I found an unusual abundance of options. I settled on two cute bras. The peach and grey one I adored and it was on sale for 32 euros, a fantastic price since the same brand would cost $80 in the U.S. The gray pinstriped one was 56 euros, an average price, still cheaper than what I paid in Oakland last year.
While he was ringing me up, I explained that I’m American but live in Buenos Aires where there are not many bra options for “full-sized” women. He laughed, “Oh, you’re American. You must stay in Buenos Aires far away from Trump!”
I left laughing and feeling uniquely uplifted (pun intended) by the encounter.
We question gendered assumptions about women’s roles. What about questioning roles for men? Can a man sell bras? Apparently.
I tried to ask if it was common for men to run bra shops in Paris but the question got lost in the shuffle and I didn’t get an answer. If I could go back in time, I would also ask, What made you open this shop? How did it happen that you’re a man running a bra shop?
Life is full of surprises when I breathe past my fear and find the courage to buy a bra from a man in Paris.
Here’s our guy!
Want to find the magical bra shop? Go looking on Rue de Belleville just a block from the Metro Jourdain in Paris.
“You’re not getting the lead,” he tells me. Gruff, mid-fifties, beady eyes, a ponytail dwindling halfway down his back, Ponytail Man chose me as his partner for this advanced tango class at Floreal, a traditional milonga in Buenos Aires. It’s nice to be chosen, but now I’m not sure. Two famous teachers, los Totis, are teaching an unusual sequence. We’ve danced three songs and aren’t getting it. (A milonga, for those who do not dance, is the sacred place where where people gather to dance tango.)
“You have a vicio (a bad habit) with your elbow that is breaking the lead,” he barks, clearly blaming me. I narrow my eyes and stay silent to keep the peace.
After two songs I escape his clutches and try the move with the teacher. No problem. I try the sequence with another man, a sweet twentysomething in a gray suit with a pink handkerchief who is trying with all the women in the room. With him the move works fluidly.
Ratty Ponytail Man, standing in the corner, beckons me to try again.
“I will try if it’s in the spirit of being partners,” I tell him. “I got it fine with the others.” This time I’m not letting him walk all over me.
Time stops, and the room goes fuzzy.
“You don’t want me to tell you things?” he says, his eyes incredulous. “You need to know you are in tango and tango is machista. Tango is the creation of men, that’s the way it is and you need to accept it, you are in Buenos Aires.” He looks around the room, as if I don’t know where I am. “You can go to milongas with the pibes (boys) where it’s 50-50 but in a traditional milonga it’s machista and that’s the way it is.”
To be “macho” could be a male aspiration, to be manly, strong, protective, and even nurturing. But in Argentina machista has come to mean “chauvinist,” a male desire for control and domination.
“So what does that mean? I don’t get a voice?” I ask in disbelief.
“If you want to become a professional dancer then you can have something to say. You need to work on your turns.”
“Oh, right. My turns. So I need to be a professional to say something. I’m here to enjoy myself.”
He extends his hand to me. Does he really think I’m going to dance with him now? Is blatant sexism attractive to other women?
“You tire me. I’m tired,” I say.
He stalks off. I sink into a chair on the periphery and watch him invite his new partner. . . err, victim. His bluntness shocks me. This is a man’s world so shut up and accept it? Really? I grew up in Rhode Island in the 80s listening to Annie and Free to Be You and Me, believing that the world belonged equally to all of us.
The milonga starts. I join three friends over a bottle of Malbec. My three friends and I met in 2012 at Dinzel Studio, a hippie tango school that teaches the dance as a dialogue between equals. I tell them about Ponytail’s comments as I pour myself a glass of wine.
Elyse, a French physicist who switched careers to become a tango teacher, says, “You should have recorded it. It’s such a caricature.”
Linda, a physical therapist from Idaho, tells me, “He’s a jerk, let it go.”
I can’t seem to let it go. I change out of my tango shoes and into street shoes and on the way out I pass the male Toti smoking a cigarette in the vestibule. I tell him what happened.
He says, “You shouldn’t put up with that.”
“I tried and got a machista speech.”
“Mala suerte (bad luck),” he says with sympathetic eyes that say, “Move on.”
Easy for you to say, dude, I think, as I head out to find a cab. Perhaps I’m being dramatic. Perhaps not. Perhaps this is a moment of seeing reality for what it is. Tango reflects society, and brings up many of the familiar struggles of womanhood. The older I get, the more clearly I see that sexism shapes our world. I didn’t notice sexism as much when I was younger and the beneficiary of youth’s privileges. But now I can’t deny that arrogant men will mansplain on the dance floor and there’s far more pressure on women to look decorative, young and thin than there is on men.
Why would I accept sexist rules in the world I love? I flag down a cab and get in. These are my spinning thoughts on the cab ride home, through Buenos Aires’ graffiti- and street-art-marked streets of European buildings and Latin chaos. You’re supposed to be a good girl and smile and pretend that sexism doesn’t exist. I don’t feel like pretending. When I get home I slam the cab door.
Is tango macho?
The next day I call Miles on Skype. Miles is my Argentine ex, and ever since we broke up, he’s remained a close friend and interpreter of Argentine culture and men. Miles is a sensitive Argentine man, intellectual, kind, very unlike the stereotype of the arrogant Porteño (resident of Buenos Aires). Back when we were getting to know each other in 2013, Miles would come over to drink mate–the ultimate Argentine ritual, a way of relaxing and doing nothing together–and listen to tango songs. He shared explicitly macho songs with me, like the classic “Porque Canto Asi,” “Why I Sing as I Do.” The lyrics radiate macho feeling:
And I was made in tangos
Because … Because tango is macho!
Because tango is strong!
It has something of life,
It has something of death.
After playing that song for me, Miles asked me, “How can you be a feminist and like tango?”
I laughed. Why not? “Of course I can,” I said. “Feminism is about freedom. It’s about seeing women as human beings. A feminist can enjoy dancing.”
Everyone who knows me knows I am a feminist. I have never hesitated to use the f-word to describe myself; it’s always seemed like the most common-sense thing in the world. I’m a woman, why wouldn’t I support women?
Everyone who knows me also knows I love tango. I rearranged my life to live in Buenos Aires, the birthplace of tango, back in 2012.
Nothing has ever given me more mind-cleansing pleasure (or revelation) than tango. I like being seen as a woman. and I don’t mean dresses or high heels. I mean being a woman in the deepest sense: embodying femininity, receiving a masculine energy and sending something feminine back. I love being embraced by men with puffed-out chests that invite me to puff my chest out too. I enjoy the gender play: being a woman and dancing with a man, or even, being a woman and dancing with a woman who adopts the masculine, assertive lead role.
As a tango follower, I close my eyes, surrender to the music and the moment and let go in a way that I don’t do in any other part of my life. Tango has also made me taller. In six years, tango molded me into a queen in a way no therapy or physical therapy ever could have. Tango trained me to stand up straight with a more powerful physical presence.
Why should there be any contradiction at all between tango and feminist? Tango is a lead-follow dance. Men lead. Women follow.
Do we see the dance as a dance of equals?
Do men see followers as equals?
Do we women see ourselves as equals?
After last night with Ponytail, I wonder if Miles was right. I tell him the story of Ponytail and now it’s Miles’s turn to laugh.
“Obviously your feminism is stronger than your love for tango.”
“You’re right,” I tell him. “I refuse to stay in an environment that degrades me.”
“Tango is very macho,” he said. “And Buenos Aires tango is more macho.”
“I know,” I said.
What am I supposed to do, stop dancing? If we’re honest, tango in Buenos Aires is not the only male-dominated arena. What about Congress, Uber, Fox-news, or the streets? If most of the world is male-dominated, how do women keep dancing within it?
A couple at Bar Laureles, a nostalgic tango restaurant in Buenos AIres
Ponytail man was right about one thing. Tango’s origins are definitely history: the dance was born primarily among men. Tango’s roots come from Africa, the Caribbean, and the pampas (the plains of Argentina), but most agree that the dance crystallized in Buenos Aires and Rosario, Argentina and Uruguay, in port cities among waves of immigration from Europe in the late 19th century.
In the late 19th century Buenos Aires was male-dominant. More men than women sailed from Spain and Italy to Argentina, hoping to make their fortune and return to Europe. Most stayed in Argentina and Uruguay, where there were few women. Men practiced tango together in crowded conventillos (like the teeming tenements on New York’s Lower East Side) with the hope of getting good enough to dance with a woman. Tango was the lonely man’s chance to embrace a woman. Some would say that tango was always an homage to the woman, to the mother, to the desire for a hug.
Fast forward 120 years. Tango went dark under Argentina’s repressive dictatorship and bounced back going global in Europe, the U.S., and Asia in the 90s. The gender situation has reversed. Globally and in Buenos Aires, more women than men dance.
Even though women are now the majority in tango a macho vibe persists. Sexism dies hard out of respect for the traditional codes.
The only way for a woman to escape the sexism seems to be to learn to lead. A leader, male or female, can ask anyone to dance. Women leaders are now enjoying an in-vogue status in Buenos Aires where they had to fight for respect in the past. I enjoy leading. Dancing the lead allows me to fully express my musicality. While following taught me about surrendering to the moment and pleasure, leading helps me develop qualities of decisiveness and assertion.
But my first love is undeniably following.
Finding myself as a follower
But I can’t help but ask, if tango is macho, or machista, does the feminine energy in the follower role get a fifty percent equal role in the dance?
I have been to many tango classes where tango teachers teach passivity in the female role. I’ll never forget the women’s technique class I took from a well-known Argentine woman teacher who told a group of women, “Technique is all you need. You don’t need any style. If you had a style, that would actually hurt because you would be less malleable.” I wondered if she thought a woman’s job was to be malleable off the dance floor as well as on it. She was married to her dance partner. I thought of a woman adopting all the preferences and personality of her husband. You like that wine, I love that wine. You love that neighborhood, I love that neighborhood. She was a beautiful dancer but there was something generic about her dance. It was technically perfect but soulless. Boring. She seemed too malleable.
I love the female role in tango. But I also want a voice. I want to be a full partner, not a sexy rag doll being danced by a man. Following is boring if don’t make it your own. I want to feel like I’m dancing.
After five years of dancing, my discontent with boring following welled up within me. I decided to do something about it by August 2015. I stop taking classes from that woman and return to DNI, a tango school founded by Dana Frigoli, a woman who teaches an active female role based in technical precision. If you want to be a strong woman, you need the inspiration of other strong women.
When truly expressive women dance there is a higher order to the game. You speak with your own voice in your follower response; you make your personality apparent. This is the active follower who speaks.
I book a lesson with Vicky Cutillo, a teacher who often wears cargo pants and Converse sneakers. She doesn’t seem worried about dressing traditionally hot (after all, there’s nothing less sexy than feeling obliged to dress sexy) and when she gives performances with her husband Jose, you can see her daring and teasing him before connecting with him. She’s ridiculously sexy, never boring.
“What do you want to learn today?” Vicky asks as she queues up songs on her iPod.
“Aesthetics. I want to dance more beautifully. Expression.”
“Bueníssimo,” she says with a sparkle of excitement. “Great. Learning aesthetics is the most exciting part of the learning process.”
We dance two songs. The lesson takes an unexpected turn. “The first thing to learn is how to brake the man,” Vicky explains. “This is how you show him that it’s your time. You squeeze his hand this way, at the same time grip his back put energy into your own back muscles to say, STOP. This is my moment.” I find this fascinating, and I listen to her carefully.
“It’s also important to be aware of the music at the same time,” she explains, “because you are choosing to decorate a moment. You don’t randomly stop your partner at a moment when it doesn’t make sense.”
“Tomar espacio?” I ask. “To take up space?” I expected her to teach me technical things about how to make embellishments with my feet, but she is teaching me the technique of the follower’s assertion within the couple. To make our voices heard, we have to make space for them.
“Yes, to take up space.” Vicky looks delighted that I had used these words, as if she knows there is a feminist trajectory in learning tango. A beginner starts out simply following, but as you advance you learn how to express yourself too within the lead-follow dynamic.
Tango already had unlocked so many things for me: the ability to live in the moment, let go, stop thinking, feel pleasure and stand up straighter. But this lesson felt like the cherry on top of all the other lessons. In a very physical way, tango was teaching me how to shine as a woman in a male-led dance. I could use my body to speak. To use braking body language, “Mi amor, mi vida, this is my time.”
Tango lessons have always translated for me as a reference point for life off the dance floor. The world de facto tells women to take up less space: to cross our legs while men spread theirs on the subway; to diet; to smile when a man interrupts us; to slouch to make ourselves invisible on the street. Tango, by contrast, teaches a woman to be bigger. To stand tall and proud in the encounter with a man.
When I learn something through my body I remember it. Movement anchors the lesson throughout my whole body, not just in my head.
The true meaning of “it takes two to tango”
For my final session that month, I booked a session with JuanPi, one of my favorite teachers. “What do you want from this class?” he asks. “Expression,” I say. “I’m working on being more expressive.”
After the first few dances, JuanPi says, “Show me you. Be more you. I don’t feel you. You need to have confidence that what you are doing is good. You will be playing a game to see who likes that and who doesn’t. What would you say to those men who don’t want it?”
“I’m a person, too,” I say, suppressing a laugh.
The music comes on, a strong beat from Di Sarli’s “Champagne Tango.” JuanPi wraps me in an embrace and I do the same. He walks and pivots slowly, giving me the time to feel the music. I make rhythmic taps with my feet. I pause when I feel the music calls for it to heighten the drama in our connection. I caress my own leg and his with my calf and heel. Between dances we slap five. We feel like a team. JuanPi is clearly still leading, but he’s also listening—and following me. I feel a joy in tango that I had not felt in a long time because I feel like I am actually dancing
After giving JuanPi multiple hugs at the end of our lesson, I bounce down the streets of Almagro, one of the Buenos Aires’ traditional tango neighborhoods to an antique Café Notable, Nostalgia. We took a video of our final songs. I order a cortado (coffee with a bit of milk) and after I order, I press play. I am eager to see if the dance looks as it felt. In the video, I see something I have never seen from myself before: a dialogue, a woman contributing half of the conversation. Suddenly, the cliché “it takes two to tango” makes sense in a new way. The dance is better with two fully formed individuals adding their own flourishes, pauses, interjections. You don’t follow, you dance; one person inspires the other.
Suddenly, the cliché “it takes two to tango” makes sense in a new way. The dance is better with two fully formed individuals adding their own flourishes, pauses, interjections. You don’t follow, you dance; one person inspires the other.
It’s been a year since the run-in with Ponytail. I haven’t left the milongas. I am clear about what I’m dealing with. When I go out to dance tango, I look for the men who want equal participation from women and screen out those who do not. I study only with teachers who value the female role.
Miles and I continue to talk about the uphill battle of changing a machista culture. He warns me not to have any illusions. I don’t. The macho nature of Porteño tango culture is strong. I spend time in other communities like yoga and tantra where people share more explicitly feminist values.
Men like Ponytail are still out there, as are women who want to follow passively, as are men who find those women dancers boring. What I’ve discovered as a feminist in tango is that male allies are critical. If I dance as an active follower with someone who wants passivity, we will be in a battle of the sexes. When I dance with a man who welcomes equal participation, we can dance.
Ponytail and much of his generation will never get it. But culture evolves as the dance evolves. It’s also important to work on how I see myself. It’s easy to fall into my own potholes of inferiority. Sometimes, when I’m getting ready to dance, after I spray on my perfume, I give myself a one-sentence pep talk, “I will see myself as an equal.” Then I go out to dance.
Note: To go deep into the gender dynamics of traditional tango invitation, watch the brilliant feminist anthropologist Marta E. Savigliano break down the “active passivity” of the milonguera in this video on the Wallflower and the Femme Fatale.
Sasha currently lives in Buenos Aires where she has created the Solo Chica Tango Adventure, 7 days of curated bliss in tango for solo female travelers with a transformative course designed to teach you Confidence, Boundaries and Sensuality Through Tango.
a photo from the day I married myself in the Japanese Gardens of Buenos Aires
Marriage itself is evolving: First we had straight marriage as business arrangement, then we had the soulmate marriage, gay marriage, and now self-marriage. Two years ago the media got fascinated with the mini-trend of self-marriage. Since then I have emerged as one of the foremost experts on self-marriage. Certainly not anything I ever predicted I would be when people asked me what I wanted to be when I was in high school. I’ve been quoted in Cosmopolitan, Self, Vice, ATTN, New York Times, and on Nightline/ABC . I’ve given a million soundbites in the media about why women are saying I do to themselves, but I never really feel like I’m getting at the essence of why—at least for me. It’s easier to talk about the societal trends, but the societal trends are not as deeply true as the personal reasons. So I figured, I would tell my own self-marriage story in the truest way possible. The universal can be found in the particular and the particular is rarely found in a media soundbite. So here goes.
It still startles me to see in print: I married myself. It seems odd. It is odd. I never would have predicted that I would marry myself even though I was an early observer of the self-marriage trend.
Quirkyalone is a word I created to describe people who prefer to be single rather than settle. When I first heard about women marrying themselves, I thought it sounded like a way to ritualize the core principles of being quirkyalone: to love yourself and not settle in your relationship to yourself or with another person. I interviewed two Bay Area artists Remi Rubel and Aya de Leon who had married themselves. Remi and Aya drew on traditional wedding rituals: shower, wedding, reception, and honeymoon. They both went on to marry men and considered the self-marriage foundational, to help them not lose touch with their own needs within marriage.
At the time, I was 30. The self-marriage concept impressed me but I certainly never expected to do it myself. They had worn white wedding dresses and declared their love to themselves in front of an audience of friends. I could not imagine making vows to myself in such a spectacle. Really? I’m a relatively private native New Englander at the core: a writer, and a coach, not a performance artist. Couldn’t you love yourself privately without declaring your self-love publicly?
At 39, my feelings about self-marriage changed
Ten years later, why did I warm to the idea of marrying myself? There were many reasons, in retrospect, that map with the reasons more women are turning to this latest initially odd-sounding twist on marriage. As Rebecca Traister has pointed out in her book All the Single Ladies, women are not consciously rejecting marriage so much as they have more options to not settle out of economic obligation and social pressure. Today only 20 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 are married, compared to 60 percent in 1960. According to the Pew Research Center, millenials are much more likely than older adults to say society is just as well off if people have priorities other than marriage and children.
But it’s not as if I wasn’t looking for a partner. Like increasing numbers of women I hadn’t find a man to marry between 30 and 40. When I was in my twenties, I thought he was magically going to appear when I was 30. But he hadn’t. And he still hadn’t. Was that because I wasn’t ready? Was it bad luck? Who knows?
Many friends had married. We feted them with gifts, toasts, and photo slideshows celebrating them from infancy on. I didn’t begrudge them these celebrations, but when you get to 40 and haven’t had a wedding, you realize marriage is the only coming-of-age ritual our society provides. Some would call all that marital attention “couple privilege.” Where’s the coming-of-age ritual for me, or any adult, if she hasn’t found a spouse or doesn’t want to marry?
The pressure of the so-called “expiration date” had been weighing me too. All that pressure I felt at 30 or 35: that was nothing in comparison to the inner panic about being single at 40. I knew it was crazy to worry about whether men would still want to date me when I was no longer thirty-something, but I worried.
Something even deeper was tugging me to marry myself that was I wasn’t even able to fully articulate my reasons at the beginning. I just had the impulse. There is a quote from the memoirist Rayya Elias that I like: “The truth has legs; it always stands. When everything else in the room has blown up or dissolved away, the only thing left standing will always be the truth. Since that’s where you’re gonna end up anyway, you might as well just start there.”
I like the idea of starting with the truth, but sometimes you don’t know the truth when you start. You can only grope toward the truth via instinct and the actual living.
But how to do it?
I wanted to marry myself with no clue on how to proceed. Even though I had written about self-marriage, I felt lost. It’s not like there is a set of instructions to follow handed down by generations. There is no self-wedding industry. (Or if there is one, it’s tiny.)
When in doubt, I turn to Google. I did a search on “self-marriage” and that led me to Dominique Youkhehpaz, a “self-marriage minister and counselor” with a B.A. from Stanford University in Cultural and Social Anthropology with a focus in Love, Ritual, and Religion. Dominique married herself in 2008 at 22 and helped others do the same since. I emailed her and we set up a time to talk.
Dominique explained the introspective, creative nature of self-marriage: “You can’t marry yourself without thinking about it deeply.” That was reassuring; I was on the right track if I needed time to find answers. She gave me examples: a Polish woman took 30 days to celebrate herself for 30th birthday. A guy married himself in a musical in his backyard. Another woman married herself alone in her bedroom with a candlelit ceremony. Talking to Dominique brought a huge feeling of relief; I could marry myself my own way. No white wedding dress or big audience required.
Dominique underscored the power of ritual, emphasizing that I could create my own ritual, private or public. “Ritual in itself has the power of transformation,” she said, and that made sense. I also thought, ritual somehow seals the deal. I would create a ritual. I hung up the phone feeling relieved, but like I had a gigantic creative question to answer: how was I going to marry myself in a way that felt true to me?
Who to tell
I also didn’t know whom to tell. Telling even my closest friends felt vulnerable. I didn’t know anyone else who had married herself, and the act of self-marriage still seemed unusual, verging on pathetic. Let’s get real: most of my friends had married men, and I was talking about marrying myself?
Later I would talk about my self-wedding ring at parties in Buenos Aires and a woman ten years my junior would ask me, “Why did you marry yourself and not the earth?” Suffice to way that kind of conversation was not happening for me in the Bay Area in 2014.
I texted my best friend my intention: “I’m going to marry myself, will you help?” Jenny had married an alien in a performance art ceremony in the 90s in which I was a bridesmaid, so I’m not sure why I was worried about telling her. But now Jenny had a partner. Her alien wedding was art, my self-wedding was sincere. She responded supportively.
Who knows why, I told my mother. Why did I think my practical New England mother, who has been married most of her life, would understand self-marriage? When I told my mother, “I think I’m going to marry myself for my fortieth birthday,” she laughed and said, “Whatever’s good for you is good by me.” I was sure she was thinking, My nutty California daughter. I wonder if she will ever get married to a man?
I also told the guy I was dating. He was the closest I had to a boyfriend at that time. He said, “Sure if you want to jump out of a cake for your birthday I will support you.” I took a sip of my wine and said nothing, feeling inwardly self-righteous, and thinking, You don’t get it. Marrying myself is not nothing like me jumping out of a cake! Marrying myself is about taking a stand for my own self-worth and the self-worth of all women, married or not. I decided to tell fewer people.
There was one last person I told in those quaking moments, right before I turned 40: my best friend in Buenos Aires, Alexandra. (Though I lived in Oakland, California I was spending time in Buenos Aires because of my Tango Adventure business.)
“I think I’m going to marry myself,” I told her in Spanish on Skype. Ale is Colombian, but we met in Argentina through tango.
“I married myself!” she said. What a surprise. Ale had married herself already! She told me the story that day.
She had woken up from an anxiety dream. The dream said, “You’re past 30, who are you going to marry? Who are you going to marry? You better do it now.” She decided the answer to the expiration date anxiety was: I will marry myself. She went to a fair that Sunday and bought a ring, declared herself married and instantly felt calmer.
A friend told her, “This is good but don’t close yourself off from others.” She said, “Of course.” Ale felt the same way as I did: self-marriage is something you do to honor yourself, and to calm the panic about not being married in a society that still puts pressure on women to marry by a certain age, but it doesn’t shut off relationship possibilities.
When Ale told me her story I felt like I was stepping into a small sisterhood: the sisterhood of women who had married themselves. I wasn’t so alone in this anymore.
A time of reflection
I had started therapy a year before I decided to marry myself in order to look at any blocks in my own capacity for intimacy and commitment. For a person who wanted to marry herself, I’ve actually been focused on my relationships. I had struggled in a lot of my romantic relationships with abandonment fears, and I had what I would later call “single shame”—a fear that none of my long-term relationships had been long enough, and thus, no one was going to want to be with me.
There had been one therapy session when my therapist looked at me and said, “There’s a lot of shame here.” That had been a hard thing to hear because it was true. Even though I have professionally taken a role as an author and coach who helps others with their shame about being single I was still plagued by a lot of those demons myself. Later I would realize that a lot of that fear came from the fact that I held a secret for twelve years of my childhood: a secret about having been sexually abused once. The secret itself had left a deep mark on my psyche. The secret had imprinted corrosive messages: if you ever tell anyone the truth they will leave you.
My self-marriage, it seemed to me, was about working through that shame, owning all of me, and learning how to be vulnerable enough to share my feelings and my full story. As Brene Brown teaches in her TED Talk on vulnerability, the path to joy and connection runs through sharing the stuff that’s hard to share. Sharing that stuff brings us closer. Somehow I felt that marrying myself would help me get closer with others.
Two questions came out of that therapy session; “What are you marrying?” and “Why call this marriage rather than a self-love ritual?”
I didn’t have the answers to those questions at the time but I kept them with me. I started reading about what Jung calls “the shadow,” the parts that we disown in ourselves. My therapist defined “the shadow” as the stuff you don’t walk to talk about even in therapy. I started to think I would marry my light—the things about me that are fantastic (I can be cheerful, fun, brilliant, helpful, caring) and the dark that I hide from others (I can be moody, messy, angry, bitter, negative, revenge-prone, and neurotic). I wanted my ritual to say: you are lovable, all of you. Even the parts you find difficult.
For my entire life people have told me I am very hard on myself. So I thought, marrying myself would help me with self-acceptance. The essence of love is acceptance.
As far as why call it marriage, I decided that was a semantic strategy. We consider marriage to be deep and important. So is loving yourself. If you called self-marriage a self-love ritual, the ritual wouldn’t have the same weight or importance.
the charms we found at the gas station
So then how did it happen in the end? How did I actually pop the question, and make vows to myself?
I got engaged spontaneously at a gas station on the way back from my 40th birthday hot springs trip to the desert. I had been shy to ask for attention about the self-wedding during that birthday weekend because it was a joint birthday with two friends. I didn’t want to make it all about me, but then I fell silent, moody and sullen in the car, because actually I did want attention.
On the drive out of the desert I finally got up my courage and asked my friends Liz, Sonya, and Jenny for help. We had stopped at a gas station selling Elvis paraphernalia, stuffed animals and jewelry. That’s where I broke down and told them why I had gotten silent in the car. They were enthusiastic about helping me. I just had to ask for help.
We found the perfect charm necklace with two charms: love and Alexandra (my formal name) and did a photo shoot outside the gas station in front of a red and yellow sign for “Premium Gasoline.” I was engaged, and it was just my style, spontaneous. Kind of like eloping with myself—and three friends.
Getting over my cold feet
Nine months later I got married in Buenos Aires. My Colombian friend Alexandra helped me plan the event. I very much needed her as wedding planner to move the process along. I was starting to procrastinate. Ale and I chose a date, June 15, and a place, the Japanese Gardens in Buenos Aires. The guest list: short. Me, Ale and our close friend Nele. (We all met through a seminar called psicotango, which is all about finding yourself through tango.)
The night before Ale came over to help me pick out the outfit. The forecast predicted cool and drizzle. I didn’t want to be cold at my own self-wedding. We settled on my favorite red pants, a blue tank top and black sweater with a lace back. Red pants make me feel like a superhero. A necklace that belonged to the woman I was subletting from—something borrowed! The shoes and tank top: something blue.
“It’s your last night as a single woman,” Ale told me, as she put on her jacket to leave. “Take a bath, light candles, pamper yourself.” I took a bath by candlelight after she left, something I had never done in my life. It’s hard to describe the happiness of that night. It was a little like being a kid on Christmas Eve, the feeling that something very special was going to happen the next day.
When Ale showed up at my apartment the next morning we both felt giddy. We walked over together to meet Nele.
On the way to the Japanese Gardens
My plan for the ritual was simple. I would say something, ask each of my friends to offer a reflection, and then read my vows. Thus began the ceremony, up on the balcony of the sushi restaurant next to the Japanese Gardens so we would be away from the crowds.
“Today I am here with two of my best friends in the world to marry myself.” I explained at the beginning of my ceremony at noon on the balcony of a sushi restaurant so we would be away from the crowds. “By marrying myself, I marry my light and my dark. I bring together all parts of myself, including the parts I do not find easy: my insecurities, anger, and moodiness.”
Ale spoke, “The decision to marry yourself is to become conscious of who you are and accept yourself. When I married myself, I had a symbol, and I want you to have a symbol too. I bought this ring for you a long time ago. I liked it so much I thought I might keep it. I didn’t imagine that I would give it to you as a symbol from one woman who married herself to another.”
Ale handed me a black, brown and red ring she had bought in Colombia. I almost cried. We had unexpectedly created a new ritual: a self-married woman giving another woman a ring.
Putting on the ring
I read my vows. There were 18 of them. I’ve never particularly had the ability to edit myself when I get going. Here were three of them: “I vow to create intimacy in my life by making myself vulnerable, revealing how I really feel.” “I vow to fall in love with others’ imperfections as I fall in love with my own.” “I vow to see myself as beautiful.”
Post-wedding photos with Nele and Ale
Here is the video where you can see my ceremony:
As we walked home, Ale said, “Your ceremony reminded me of how I felt when I married myself, a happy place, Que lindo, How nice, I don’t have to be with a man to make myself happy.” I could tell Ale and Nele got a sympathetic high from my own ritual.
She also joked, “I’ve already forgotten my anniversary, but that’s okay. Self-marriage is like marriage, you forget your anniversary, you lose your ring. But the important thing is we know we are married.”
How is the marriage going? Are we happy together?
A lot of people will comment “how sad” when they encounter self-marriage. I suppose they are saying: “How sad these women have not found men to marry.” Or society is breaking down. Maybe they are thinking we are narcissistic, or any of the other knee-jerk responses people have to self-marriage. Do I sometimes feel sad because I’m single? Sometimes. Do I feel sad about having married myself? Never. My self-wedding was one of the best days of my life.
What difference does it make that I’ve married myself? It’s now been three years so I have plenty of time to reflect on whether this made any difference in my life. First the truth. I didn’t go on a honeymoon. I lost my wedding ring and the engagement necklace. I do not have wedding photos of myself splattered around my apartment.
Self-marriage is not legal. I don’t get any tax benefits from the state, and being married to myself doesn’t give me companionship: someone to have sex with, help me when I’m sick or talk to when I’m lonely.
Marrying myself also did not turn me into a Buddha who embodies perfect self-care and perpetual self-compassion.
Clearly, it’s not as if self-marriage is the end point.
But self-marriage has changed me. There’s no doubt in my mind about that. Marrying myself was a moment in time when I took a stand for my worthiness as a human being. When you marry yourself, you are saying, I am worthy of being married to—by myself or anyone else. The symbols from the ritual—the ring and engagement necklace—have consistently grounded me, especially in moments when I have felt shaky (like a break-up). Wearing my replacement ring gives me the same feeling of calm that the first one did. The self-marriage ring disrupts the idea that you can only be happy when you are married.
The ritual has affected me in many ways. The most profound has to do with the depth of relationship I’ve been able to have with another person. My boyfriend after the self-marriage was the first one who knew that I had a trauma of childhood sexual abuse–and that it still affected me as an adult. I was never able to even contemplate sharing that part of my life story with a partner before.
In the past when I would have reactions to conflict and criticism—some might say overreactions, and men would leave me. They would find me difficult. Ben was the first boyfriend who knew about my story, and therefore he could love and understand me. I had to be comfortable enough with sharing my story for that depth of connection to be possible. I had to work through that shame to get to self-acceptance. My self-marriage was a milestone in that process. When I told him my story I was upholding my vows to myself.
That man and I are no longer together, but it was the most loving relationship I have been in.
At the moment, I am dating. As I said, self-marriage, for me, was never about the commitment to be single. It’s about a commitment to self-love. I am infinitely aware that when I date and find someone that I like a lot of my shit comes up: my fears of abandonment, intimacy, commitment. The poet Adrienne Rich nails it here for me. Getting to love, and not infatuation, is no small thing: “An honorable human relationship … in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’ is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.”
Love, actually, is not for the faint of heart. The act of laying ourselves bare to another human being, to be seen for all of who we are, lovely and not obviously lovely, tests us. We can have anxiety attacks, sabotage relationships, or give up. Self-marriage helps me hold my own heart. My ring is a reminder: Of course I am lovable, I love myself.
Sasha Cagen is the author of Quirkyalone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics. She lives in Buenos Aires, where she sometimes help women marry themselves (remotely or in person) and teaches tango in 7-day tango holidays that bring together women and use tango as a metaphor for life and relationships. She is at work on a memoir called Wet, a journey of healing through sensuality in South America that goes even further deeper into these topics of shame, self-love, relationships and healing.
Unclassified Woman is a wonderful podcast about combatting “limiting female narratives”:
“With almost 25% of women over 40 child-free by choice or childless through circumstance, it seems absurd that women still have to justify their decisions or endure pity about why they’re not mothers. Motherhood is not a mandate and yet so many women are made to feel ‘less than’ or viewed suspiciously or disparagingly, if they are creating a life of meaning beyond biological mothering.
All of these outdated stereotypes lead to one dangerous assumption: what’s your value beyond being a mother? As mainstream society still tends to over-celebrate mothers juggling ‘it all’, and under-celebrate women who, whilst not mothers, have created lives of purpose and service – Unclassified Woman is the perfect antidote to limiting female narratives.”
Michelle Marie McGrath, the creator of Unclassified Woman, and I recorded an intimate conversation last year.
I remember the conversation being so personal that I was afraid to listen to it when she sent it to me. I summoned the courage, pressed play and found the conversation very nourishing.
I hope you will find the realness nourishing too.
In our Unclassified Woman conversation, we go into:
– the messy truth about why I haven’t had children, and many women today do not
– social infertility and circumstantial infertility (our choices are not always entirely choices)
– a near-death experience I had that helped me see I can’t put myself through so much pain around comparing myself and the value of my life to friends who are mothers
– the process of grieving not having a child even though I was never sure I wanted to be a biological mother
– the delicious moment when you figure out who you are and stand for your own value
There have been times in my life when I have doubted, are there really liberated guys out there who want to date liberated women? Sometimes, when you are swiping on Tinder, you lose faith. (Perhaps Tinder is not the best place to look for feminist men!)
Now, after the historic Women’s Marches, now being called the largest demonstrations in U.S. history, with more than 3.3 million attending more marches in more than 500 cities across the country, I can say with more confidence that you are out there. To all the feminist men at the Women’s Marches, whether you came out to join us or you were home watching the kids so your partners could come. We see you. We heart you. We want you. Men supporting female quality is hot!
The Women’s Marches on January 21 showed that when women lead, they bring out the soul of a country.
But it wasn’t just women at the Women’s Marches. There were also lots of men at the march in DC–of all ages, races, and sexualities. (As well as trans people.) A lot of men watched kids so women could go.
The Women’s March was a great reminder that millions of people believe in female equality, but also that there are lots of feminist men out there.
So for a moment, I want to pay tribute to the men. The men who support nasty women!
We don’t need male approval but it’s great to have male allies. We feminist women need you feminist men now more than ever now that we have a pussy-grabbing president until we don’t.
At one point, I was meandering through the crowd in the Women’s March in DC with my friends and I overheard a guy use the words “male privilege.” Where in my life did I ever hear men talk about their male privilege? I didn’t hear the context of what he was talking about, but I could imagine the privilege to negotiate more bluntly at work without fear of being viewed as a bitch, to be single without being called a spinster, to go out at night without fear.
Here’s a guy who acknowledges male privilege and speaks of it. Right on.
I whispered to my friend Sara, “There are so many cute feminist boys here. Awwww.”
A few minutes later I saw a guy with a sign “END LOCKER ROOM TALK.” Again, awesome. A man who wants to challenge the idea that pussy-grabbing without consent is a joke. Swoon again.
For those of us who are single, the feminist men at the march are a great reminder that there are liberated men who want to date a strong woman. I definitely was not thinking of the Women’s March in DC as a place to pick up a guy but by the end of the march, I was thinking, wow, the world is full of way more feminist men than I knew.
The next morning I held a quirkybrunch for single women who had attended the march. We discussed the men at the march and agreed they were awesome. “I want to meet a man like that,” one of the women said.
I told them, “I’m going to put a new picture on my online dating profile: a photo of myself in my pink pussyhat. With the caption, at the Women’s March in DC.” (I can’t let them think it’s a fashion statement devoid of feminist context!)
For my male readers, I’m not telling you to call yourself as a feminist as a come-on. But if you do support women openly and embody feminism you are going to win with great women. Wouldn’t any self-respecting heterosexual or bisexual woman want a woman-supporting man in her bed?
For married women the feminist men at the Women’s Marches are a reminder of all the men out there who want equal relationships.
I was talking with my friend’s husband who stayed home with their two kids, young boys under the age of 6 so she could come out and not spend all her time tracking down the kids. He said, “A lot of it doesn’t affect me personally as a white guy, but I think expecting that people are treated fairly with compassion and dignity is what we all expect. There’s this American idea of fairness. The American dream is about fairness, even if it’s not true we should strive for it.”
At the end of the day, we got our tired selves home to my friend’s neighborhood on the metro. Crowds were streaming off the metro into Takoma Park just outside DC and when we emerged onto the plaza by the metro entrance we passed a sweet, nerdy-looking guy in his thirties with a baby stroller. He was holding a sign scrawled on 8.5 x 11 paper written in blue-ball-point pen that simply said, “THANK YOU.” He must have been there to wait for his wife as she came home and to thank all the others who had gone to the Women’s March.
We said, “Thank you!” to him as we walked by. Really moved by him.
He said, “This is what a feminist looks like,” pointing to the baby inside the stroller. I couldn’t tell if the baby was a girl or a boy.
My friend Sara said, “You too.”
Here are some more of the men from the marches in DC and NY. NY photos supplied by my hottie feminist male friend in Brooklyn.
I'm the author of the cult hit book Quirkyalone and To-Do List and a life coach who helps quirky, creative women and self-aware men. I'm also the founder of the Tango Adventure in Buenos Aires.
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Sasha Cagen is the author of the cult favorite Quirkyalone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics and To-Do List: From Buying Milk to Finding a Soul Mate, What Our Lists Reveal About Us. Her work as an author, life coach for women and entrepreneur has been featured everywhere from NPR and the New York Times to CNN and Vogue.
In her well-loved newsletter going to thousands of women and men who identify with "quirkyalone," Sasha is the voice for people who don't want to settle--in any area of life.
In her coaching practice, Sasha helps smart, successful women (and a few self-aware men) get clear on their goals and achieve them while always helping her clients focus on core issues such as self-worth.
Through Solo Chica, Sasha is creating a whole new way for women to travel solo with confidence and local contacts to support them for transformative cultural experiences.
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