Donning Costumes and Shedding Stereotypes in the Desert


I'm probably the last person anyone would expect to say this, but this year I went to Burning Man. Friends had been trying to get me to go for years -- ever since I moved to San Francisco, honestly -- but I'd been avoiding it because I never really "got" it.

I do now.

While Burning Man is a bit of a phenomenon in the Bay area (having been born there), my limited knowledge of the event had me thinking it was mostly about drugs and drinking and partying, and so, not being into any of those things, I had no interest in going.

Once I made the decision to go, I vowed to be open-minded, curious, and to "embrace" the experience for whatever it was, be it dust storms, heat, extremes of emotion, being out of my comfort zone or anything else. I decided I would have the word "embrace" be my mantra for my adventure.

And what was one of the first things I saw, riding my bike across the playa in Black Rock Desert, Nevada? A giant sculpture titled Embrace. Serendipity defined.


It is a hard experience to put into words, there is nothing like BEING at Burning Man and each time you go, it will be very unique. That's the essence and beauty of it. Here's what I observed and experienced:

There's a big culture of giving. In fact, nothing is for sale except coffee and ice. People bring hand-made items ranging from the practical to the fun to the experiential -- like dance, yoga, and foot massages. A lot of time and energy is spent to offer meaningful gifts to make others' experience better, which moves receivers to then give as well.

There's also a culture of beautiful acceptance. In our everyday lives, how often do we look upon gifts as imperfect, not what we asked for or wanted? We say thank you out of courtesy, then toss them aside, unused. At Burning Man, gifts -- even if imperfect and inexpensive -- have enormous impact because of the spirit surrounding the gesture. The driving motivation behind most gifts I received was to give something meaningful and something that made life in the desert easier for the receiver. Shouldn't it always be that way?

It's about connecting, not networking. Everyone I met was open, friendly, giving, but there was no commercial aspect like "How can we benefit each other?" We didn't know who was who or who did what. It was all about art, creativity, and acceptance.

There was a deep sense of belonging. Because there was room for everyone's weirdness, for lack of a better word, no one was weird. In a sea of various activities and attitudes, states of dress and undress, I never felt out of place. I was simply one in the midst of a wide variety of people in a wide variety of evolution of being a burning man. There was no judgment of outward appearance -- whether it be costume or body type.

I had an epiphany about costumes. Costumes were everywhere, part of the culture, readily accepted. And even though in the 15 years I've been in this country I've never dressed up for Halloween or anything else, I wore one for the first time (actually two costumes each day!). And I realized:

• They allow you to detach from your perception of who you are, and to step into other roles
• They allow you to laugh at yourself and not take yourself too seriously -- something I was never comfortable with until this experience (I took myself way too seriously!) Now I dream of speaking at one of my conferences dressed as a tree or perhaps half tux and pink tutu to signify masculine and feminine together
• We wear costumes every day, but they are expected, appropriate, and limiting (like the severe suits I wore as a banker)
• There's nothing wrong with dressing the part in our daily lives. But just as my Burning Man costume reveals only a small part of me, so do my daily costumes. We are all more than our superficial trappings.

And the costumes we wear define us as male or female, and THAT is limiting in itself. When I arrived at Burning Man I ran into a man in a pink tutu, extremely comfortable in his skin and I didn't see it as "feminine" -- just beautiful. Would I have thought that if I'd seen him elsewhere? I'm pretty sure the answer is no.

We all have the option to draw on both masculine and feminine energy, but often limit ourselves to the one that matches our outward appearance. What if we didn't?

I have always projected as feminine, minimizing the appearance of masculine energy because it is what is expected. But I have, at times, been as tough or gutsy (often more so) as any man I know. And shouldn't we be able to express and embrace both energies without fear of judgment or of being rejected -- even beyond the world of Burning Man?

I felt the urge to create. As an adult, I've never really expressed myself artistically. The love of sewing I had as a child making doll clothes was abandoned somewhere along the way, but this experience inspired me to make sewing a hobby again, and to speak through art. (The idea of creating large silk screens with intricate henna designs -- a mix of beauty and impermanence -- is suddenly consuming me.)

My perception of acceptance changed. I am a perfectionist, an inclination I am not proud of and one that is a source of pain and suffering. This might be part of why I never delved into creative pursuits -- I subconsciously knew deep down nothing I made would likely pass my own muster, let alone anyone else's. To celebrate and commemorate my epiphany, I hope to make several tutus in different types of fabrics and give them as gifts next time I go!

But NOTHING IS PERFECT. Not even Burning Man, and yet... I never saw it as imperfect. I went into it expecting certain imperfections. I expected heat, I expected dust storms, I expected to be outside of my comfort zone, and to embrace it. That is something I really don't want to lose. Embracing imperfection and life as it appears in front of us is incredibly freeing.

The value of radical inclusion. The tech sector has always been part of Burning Man, yet there has been a lot of criticism recently about the techies participating in overly lavish ways. Which seems a bit unfair.

Radical inclusion -- one of the ten principles of Burning Man - has to allow for all personalities and means of self-expression, or it's kind of hypocritical. The word "radical" is key here.

Too often we place limits on inclusion, with a "birds of a feather flock together" mentality, isolating ourselves with ideologies, unwilling to enter into a dialogue with the opposing side. But it's not a useful stance.

Besides, if you drive out the techies you might miss having a conversation with Mark Zuckerberg as he's handing out sandwiches. When else could you catch him so out of his element and accessible?

It's one moment in time. For the duration of Burning Man your only job is to be whoever you are. To express yourself however you choose, in whatever costume your heart desires. To sing, dance, play, meditate, explore and create, and then leave it all behind.

Because it's not about being that forever. It's about experiencing it so you can take it back with you, and integrate the experience in whatever way you can.

I'm still working on that integration, but I look forward to seeing how my perception of my daily life has been changed, and to embracing all that comes along the way.

I'd love to hear your experiences and perceptions of Burning Man in the comments!