Friday, November 5, 1999

Our Autobodies, Ourselves

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #116, November 5, 1999)

PHOTO SUGGESTIONS: Need a picture of a hot rod to compare to a picture of a tattoo. You’ve got tattoo pictures from last issue, I’ll see what kind of hot rod pix I can come up with.

At the end of last issue’s column I asked the question: Why, after so many thousands of years of getting no respect, has body modification suddenly become so acceptable? What follows is certainly not the total answer to that question, but rather one facet of the answer.

When you were a kid, did you build model cars? I did. If you remember, most of these model cars came in kits that could be built in various ways: “stock” (as originally manufactured and seen on the dealer’s showroom floor), “custom” (customized with a different grill, wheels, taillights, etc.) or drag-racing (oversize slick tires, mag wheels, and a supercharger sticking out of a hole in the hood). And every model car kit came with a sheet of decals, so you could decorate it in your own unique way.

I always built mine stock and never used the decals—I wanted authenticity. One friend of mine, however, plastered the decals all over every car he built. For another friend, simply putting the model together and applying decals wasn’t enough—he had a heated X-acto knife with which he could cut plastic like butter. He did radical modifications to those kits and constructed some one-of-a-kind creations.

If the three of us guys got together today, and found we were all into “alternative sexualities,” I predict that the guy who loved applying decals would be tattooed from head to toe, and the guy with the hot knife would be into piercing/cutting/branding. And me? True to pattern, I have no piercings and no tattoos—not yet, anyway.

Almost since automobiles, trucks and motorcycles were invented, the American male has been carrying on a love affair with them. Sometimes the vehicles themselves are the “mistress,” the object of desire, while at other times they serve as “chick magnets,” an advertisement and declaration of a man’s masculinity. Despite efforts by the major auto manufacturers to build cars which are seductive to women, car culture has for the most part remained a “guy thing” over the years.

Whether it’s young boys with model cars or grown men with real ones, many of us tend to project a lot of ourselves onto our vehicles, and we want our wheels to make a statement about who we are, or at least who we wish we could be. A recent ad for a new sports car challenges the reader to “be the person the chat room thinks you are.” The Jaguar XK-E and the Corvette Sting Ray are two of the most unabashedly phallic cars ever built. It’s no coincidence that the colloquial term for a customized, sporty car is a “hot rod.” We wash them, we polish them, we decorate them with flames coming out of the hood as an advertisement for the power that’s in there. Come to think of it, there’s not that much difference between the bulge of many car hoods of the 1950s and the bulge in a pair of briefs in a Calvin Klein ad.

Well, maybe there’s one difference. The automotive stylists of the 1950’s knew there was an element of sexuality in their designs—Cadillac was famous for “Dagmars,” bumper guards which looked like female breasts and which got their nickname from a buxom female beauty of the day. (And Freudian psychiatrists had a field day analyzing the myriad ways Detroit decorated the rear ends of its cars, especially the way the exhaust pipe openings were enshrined—can you say “anal compulsive”?) But it was all very furtive and very hetero. By contrast, the Calvin Klein ads are purposely and unabashedly erotic and, more specifically, homoerotic. And they feature a real, albeit covered, human body—they don’t displace their sexuality onto a motor vehicle.

For centuries western civilization has been an environment where the human body has been viewed simultanously as a temple (which must be kept pure) and as a cesspool (so dirty we’re ashamed of it). For most of that time the human body has been hidden from view under huge amounts of clothing. As Cole Porter wrote in the 1930’s, “In olden days a glimpse of stocking/Was looked on as something shocking.” Since it wasn’t proper to publicly acknowledge that we had bodies, or that those bodies had a sexual component, sexual feelings and imagery were projected elsewhere. A few examples: automobiles, airplanes, skyscrapers, and even space missiles and bombs.

Of course, the next two lines of that Cole Porter song are “But now God knows/Anything goes.” Nowadays it’s hard to think of anything of which a glimpse would be shocking. One popular countercultural motto from the 1960s was “Let it all hang out.” The free-thinking, pioneering members of the early leather/SM community took that idea and expanded it to include not only letting it all hang out but decorating it as well. Thanks to their efforts, it’s becoming more permissible to use our own bodies to make the statement that formerly had to be displaced onto our cars. Instead of resculpting the sheet metal on our vehicles using acetylene torches, arc welders and body putty, we remold ourselves using liposuction, weight lifting, and plastic surgery. Instead of decorating our motorcycles with custom pinstriping, we decorate ourselves with custom pinstriping. Instead of driving chrome-laden cars, today our brightwork is the body jewelry in our piercings.

Is this healthy? Unhealthy? It can be both. Increased body-consciousness can be liberating for one person and enslaving for another. But the leather community has always valued authenticity, and it seems to me admirably straightforward to make one’s personal statements using one’s person, rather than through more oblique means.

One of the characteristics of the Aquarian Age (1960s counterculture again) is that humanity won’t require mediators to make contact with divinity. Some people think of this as not needing popes or priests or shamans to act as middlemen between us and God. But perhaps, on a more mundane but practical level, it also means that we won’t need to go through the convolution of making our cars act as stand-ins for our real selves.

Upcoming Leather Events (for Calendar section)

Friday, November 5

Minnesota Olympus Leather Contest Fundraiser
7-10 PM, The Minneapolis Eagle
Fantasy entertainment, a leather auction and drink specials. $2 at the door.

Saturday, November 13

Atons Leather/Levi Night
Drinks at 7 PM, dinner at 7:30 PM, Backstage @ Bravo (9th & Hennepin, Minneapolis)
Presented by the Atons, open to all. For information and reservations call the Atons Hotline.

Friday, November 12

AIDS Ride Fundraiser—Leather/Levi Night at the Theatre
Enjoy “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead” at Theatre in the Round and help sponsor David Coral, representing the Leather/Levi/BDSM community in next summer’s Twin Cities-Wisconsin-Chicago AIDS Ride. (Coral plays the part of Guildenstern in TRP’s production of the show.) November 12 is Leather/Levi Night, but if you can’t make it that night you can attend any other performance of the show and benefit the AIDS Ride. Advance vouchers ($15) are required.

Friday, November 19

Atons Club Colors Night
7-10 PM, The Minneapolis Eagle
A fundraiser for next summer’s Gopher XIV run. Hors d’oeuvres, drink specials, door prizes, boot polishing available. $3 at the door. See the Atons website at or call for more information.

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