I am a musician with stage fright.
I know it sounds completely contradictory, like a cliff diver with a fear of heights or an agoraphobic tour guide. But all it really means is that I have to try a little bit harder to adapt to being on stage than my more attention-friendly counterparts.
I have to work a little bit more to feel comfortable in my own skin in front of a live audience. Sometimes, it's terrifying. I'll never forget the music festival I played at, in which my boyfriend was seriously concerned I was going to pass out cold from sheer pre-performance anxiety. (I am happy to report that I managed to stay upright and conscious and everything turned out fine.) But I keep doing it because I love playing music, and because I know that every time I get up there and conquer that fear, I have won a battle. And you only have to win so many battles before eventually, you've won the war.
I bring all this up to explain just how uncomfortable I generally feel on stage, in front of a bunch of people who are all looking at me.
Last month, I played a show at a beautiful venue in the Colorado mountains. I've played there dozens of times, but never as a headliner, and I was honored to be there. Perhaps it was because I'm familiar with the stage, or because I knew many of the people in the audience. Whatever the reason, I found that my anxiety level was actually fairly low.
My hands weren't shaking. My palms weren't sweaty. I wasn't seeing black patches scud in front of my vision. When I started playing, I felt calm, collected and confident, which helped boost the quality of my performance. People were paying attention, and the audience as a whole was receptive and appreciative. I relaxed even more.
And that's when it happened.
I had worn a spaghetti strap top to the show, with no bra underneath -- partly because I make it a point to dress as comfortably as I can for an on-stage experience, and partly because I believe that breasts are perfectly socially acceptable whether or not they are encased in padding and wire. I often go without a bra, for reasons of comfort as well as defiance against outdated social norms and gender inequalities. So the fact that I was bra-less on stage was nothing new.
Except that, about 20 seconds into one of my songs, the strap of my shirt slid off my shoulder and began inching its way down my arm.
I tried not to panic. I focused on the chords, the words, the melody. I pretended not to even notice the fact that my shirt was literally falling off my body in front of a group of people. But all the while, I could feel my anxiety level skyrocket.
Oh my god. There's a legitimate chance that my naked breast will be exposed to everyone in this room if I don't stop playing right now.
But I didn't want to stop playing. I didn't want to cut off the song in the middle, just so I could reinforce the patriarchal belief that my breasts are inherently sexual and lewd and inappropriate and, therefore, something to be ashamed of. Moreover, I didn't want the song or the quality of my voice to suffer because I was worried about what people would think if they -- god forbid! -- caught a glimpse of my nipple.
I thought about all those women who go to Free The Nipple rallies and bare it all to fight for gender equality. I thought about the fact that exposed breasts are not illegal in Colorado. And I made the decision to stop worrying and continue on with the song -- impending nakedness be damned.
My shirt sank lower and lower, until finally, the strap was down around my elbow and the neckline was below the swell of my breast. I positioned my guitar a little higher, in an attempt to shield myself as much as I could, but the fact of the matter was that my breast was hanging out while I was singing and playing guitar on a stage in front of a live audience.
I am certain that people saw my nipple that night.
I have also realized that I am okay with that.
Because here's the thing: Nipples are a fact of life. We all have them.
We all see them -- on the bare chests of men who walk around shirtless and don't think twice about it. And the reason -- the only reason -- I have spent my whole life believing that my nipples are inappropriate and need to be kept hidden away like some dirty little secret is because I have been indoctrinated by society to feel that way.
Our very culture teaches women to be ashamed of our nipples -- and when one pays attention to the presence of the female breast in the media and the context in which it almost always appears, it's pretty obvious why. In commercials, print ads, magazines, movies and television, the vast majority of breasts you will be shown are portrayed as monuments to sex and sexual situations.
Contrary to what the media will have you believe, breasts are not sex organs. They exist purely as a means of nourishment for human offspring; yet over the centuries, humankind has sexualized them, effectively turning them into something akin to a couple of sacks of genitalia hanging from our chests.
Be honest, ladies -- haven't you ever tried on a low-cut shirt and decided against it, because the amount of cleavage it displayed would give anyone who laid eyes on you a solid, damning message about your standards of morality?
For most of my life, I've even found myself worrying about my nipples constricting when I'm cold and becoming noticeable through my shirt -- and I've talked to many women who have experienced the same anxiety. Oh my god -- the faintest suggestion of a female nipple beneath her clothing! For shame!
Why is it that, unless we are discussing or displaying breasts in a sexual context, we must otherwise pretend they don't exist? Why is it that breasts are splashed all over the media and used to sell products ranging from clothing to video games to fast food, but that the moment one is taken out in public to feed a baby, everyone gets freaked out and starts insisting the offending teat be covered?
I'm sick of this shit.
I'm sick of the double standards. I'm sick of the slut shaming. I'm sick of the patriarchy.
I'm sick of the insinuation that men's bodies are just bodies and mine is somehow a cesspool of temptation and lust. I'm sick of feeling like I have to apologize because the mere existence of my breasts makes other people uncomfortable.
I'd been feeling frustration and anger about these topics for quite some time leading up to the show that night -- so while I didn't show up there intending to carry out my own Free The Nipple rally on stage in front of a live audience, I found myself not at all minding the fact that I was.
In fact, I'm still smiling about it.
Sorry, patriarchal society that feeds off of marginalizing women into nothing more than objects for your sexual viewing pleasure. I'm done letting you shame me for my body.
And the next time Free The Nipple comes to a metropolitan area near me, you just might see me there. Because I've said it before, and I'll say it again: You only have to win so many battles before, eventually, you've won the war.