Laser Tag and Pole Dancing as gendered behavior

By , February 22, 2010 7:30 pm

This past weekend was pretty busy. I saw a friend’s dance recital, another friend’s show, had my final high school class (finally!) and, of course, went to play laser tag and went to an introductory pole dancing class. (What, you didn’t do laser tag and pole dancing this weekend?) Both were a lot of fun, but both were interesting examples of gendered behavior and – more surprisingly – brought up some unexpected gendered expectations I have for myself.

Laser tag brought up feelings of inadequacy as a man, even though I don’t want to be a man or to think of myself as ‘one of the boys.’

Pole dancing brought up major feelings of inadequacy as a woman, coupled with an unexpected desire to be sexy and eagerness to go along with instructions toward that end.

On Saturday night, some friends and I went to Chicago Whirlyball, which also has laser tag. I went with a group of five others, with the intent of playing either whirlyball or laser tag. The Whirlyball location is pretty ridiculous – a pretty standard bar with pool tables and some arcade games, surrounded by whirlyball ‘arenas’ and a laser tag stadium(?). Whirlyball was booked for the night, sadly, so we made due with laser tag.

All six of us played, and we did two games: one free-for-all and one 3-v-3 game. The games were pretty ridiculous, appropriately so, and we were in a two-level hall with lots of things to hide behind and get lost within. Six people weren’t quite enough to fill the space, so we were able to have brief moments of reprieve before venturing out again into the battle; it wasn’t like we were constantly seeing people or being shot (although it sometimes felt that way). The 3-v-3 was a little less crazy (and a bit more fun), since we had specific teams and were able to plan and coordinate a bit more. That said, because we had infinite lives and no stakes other than ‘score more than the other team,’ we never really developed any good strategies. Oh well.

However, my background in video games and being (relatively) active made me feel like I should be damn good at laser tag. And that I should be able to keep up with the best of my friends.

I was very bad at laser tag, and could not really keep up. I ended the night friggin’ exhausted.

I’m not gonna lie: this bruised my pride quite a bit. Because I wasn’t really judging myself against the one other girl there (who still did better than I did) but was very much judging myself against the four male friends of mine. I still think of my strength and endurance in terms of when I was at my pre-transitioning and pre-hormones peak, which just isn’t true any more.

Likewise, there was a ‘strength testing’ boxing arcade game in the main lobby. A friend and I were joking about who could take the other one, and I challenged him to the boxing game. I honestly expected him to be stronger than me, but not (according to the arcade game) to score an 800 ‘strength score’ to my 500.

Why do I judge myself against ‘the boys,’ when I’m working so hard to not be one of them? I’m not super-competitive, but I do like to win. And I’m so used to including myself near the top of whatever physical activity is being done – biking, laser tag, even just carrying in groceries – that it’s been a big adjustment to think of myself as one of the girls when it comes to athletics.

Even more strange, I know I would like to be shorter and less bulky, both things that would mean I’d be even weaker. (Some of my badass spindly circus friends aside.)

Thinking back, I was in competition mode before we even left the apartment. I changed into clothing that was all dark blue or black, took out my earrings, and got ready to rock. In contrast, my roommate put on some thigh-high boots and changed in to an outfit for going tut to a bar. I got to Whirlyball and sort of felt out of place, since I wasn’t really dress for going out. I was dress for laser tag. (I ended up taking off my sweatshirt and showing off my not-totally-disappointing figure in the tank top I was wearing.)

Then, on Sunday, I went to an introductory pole-dancing class at S Factor. My roommate had found a cheap, $20 intro class on GroupOn and talked me into going with her. So in less than 24 hours, I went from one gender performance extreme (super-competitive laser tag) to a very different end of the spectrum.

The classes were actually impressively thought out, although they consistently straddled (no pun intended) the line between women’s empowerment and objectification. The rooms had no mirrors, and the instructors noted that this was a choice, and the lights for the warm0-up were intentionally kept low to keep people from feeling so self-conscious.

The instructors also led the warm-up – and, indeed, the entire class – with the focus on “unlocking sensuality” and finding a place of comfort and sexiness in one’s own body. For example, one of the warm-up exercises we did was a straddle, with squaring your body over one leg, and then switching to the other. Something I’ve done many times at circus classes, but the focus at S Factor was, in addition to stretching, to trail your hands in a graceful and curvey fashion.

Every other warm-up component was similarly dual-focused: exercise, and sensuality. Bicycle kicks weren’t described as such, they were ‘unzipping and zipping your legs.’ Half-bridges were ‘hip thrusts.’ And so on.

During the course of the class, and thinking about it more today, I realized two things about my experience. First, I feel pretty inadequate as a woman. Teacher instructions to ‘feel your curves’ or to move your legs to ‘show and reveal your secret place’ (i.e. your crotch) left me feeling curveless and awkward. Likewise, and more broadly, I’m still surprised to be included with calls for ‘all you ladies’ to do anything, let alone thrusting my hips to entice ‘my man.’

At the same time, the class was successful in making me feel more feminine and more sexy, even if I was wildly swinging between that sensation, on the one end, and feeling inadequately unfeminine and unsexy, on the other. And I’m not thrilled with that, because I don’t totally buy into the idea that pole dancing classes (for example) are empowering rather than objectifying. But damn if it didn’t feel good to think that I could be the subject of objectification, of being viewed as a sex object.

In contrast to the circus classes I’ve been taking, that slight tweak in focus made a really powerful difference. Because, ultimately, pole dancing could easily be a circus skill; the pole a circus apparatus. And the result of both classes would undoubtedly be increased strength, flexibility, and awareness of one’s body. But the circus classes I’ve been taking don’t hit those ideas quite so hard. They’re incidental bonuses toward the goal of mastering specific skills. Meanwhile, the pole dancing class was placing feelings of sensuality and sexiness on equal footing with the ability to actually do specific tricks or routines.

And I found myself buying into it, even as I consciously want to like the other skill-based approach more.

Because the instructions on how to move sexually or sensually resonated with my desire for someone to tell me how to be a woman. Even though I know the things they were instructing are steeped in a culture of objectification, even though I would love to proudly say none of that matters to me, even though I would not like to hold myself to the standard that I do. It was really attractive to have someone say, “This activity will make you sexier, and this is how you’ll get there.” To say that I, as a woman, have curves and am a sexual being, even when a lot of what I hear says that I, as a trans woman, am manly and repugnant.

And to have an environment where that sort of thinking – “I’m sexy and I enjoy my sexiness” – is encouraged. I’m sure I could tap into that at circus, and will think about how to do so in a comfortable way, but that isn’t really the focus of what we’re doing. And I feel silly with the idea of bringing it up, since bringing it up sort of inherently means it’s something I don’t feel right now.

My initial takeaway from this weekend is that I’d like to be in better shape, regardless of how I get there. I am taking a circus class every week, but don’t think once a week is really good, consistent, exercise. I’m thinking about taking another class during the week, but today my coworker suggested she and I come in early on Mondays and Fridays to work out together.

This seems like a great step in the right direction: I’d be doing self-directed workouts for 45 minutes or an hour twice a week, with a teacher-directed circus class in the middle. I’m waiting to hear from my bosses about whether they’re OK with us using the space before the office opens, but I’m pretty sure it’ll be fine.

But I also need to mull over how to feel better in my body, and sexier. Being in better shape will only help that, but maybe I need to give in to my inner 13-year-old and schedule some makeup practice sessions every week, or find more excuses to go out, or get my eyebrows plucked (something I’ve been meaning to do “next weekend” since November).

How about y’all in blogger land? What do you do to make yourself feel better about your body?

9 Responses to “Laser Tag and Pole Dancing as gendered behavior”

  1. Jonah says:

    I sketch my body. And I walk, which, at least before my tendonitis, always made me feel like I had a competant body.

  2. Mym says:

    I know one of my (also trans) friends does aerial silks, which seems like it could be similar to pole dancing in sexiness without feeling so exploitative? I don’t know that much about it, though. Personally I love to dance and feel great doing it, but I don’t do it as much as I would like and actual classes would be actual money.

    Also I’ve been thinking lately about plucking my eyebrows, so I went out looking for help and found

    • Rebecca says:

      Yeah, silks are one of the skills covered in the circus classes I’m taking. It’s tons of fun, and definitely has a lot of similar movement/motion components. It was just a really new experience being in a class where part of the stated goal was ‘sexiness,’ as opposed to that just being an incidental effect.

      And thanks for the link! It looks really useful. 🙂

    • violet says:

      Oh hey Mym!

      Yeah, I do silks, in a way that feels pretty similar to what Rebecca was describing. I still feel really weird about the gendered-movement aspects of it, though. I feel very self-conscious about femme gendered movement, as if no matter what I do I’ll be doing it inelegantly, because I don’t have all the ingrained movement training that the cis women (and the ballet-trained cis man) that I train with do.

      I’ve been thinking about looking for a dance class or something to help with that (not necessarily “move more femme-ly” but “move more elegantly”), but I am kind of afraid of whatever gender dynamics might come along with that.

      • Rebecca says:

        I feel very self-conscious about femme gendered movement, as if no matter what I do I’ll be doing it inelegantly, because I don’t have all the ingrained movement training that the cis women (and the ballet-trained cis man) that I train with do.

        Exactly! I’m trying to get out of that head-space, but it’s been a slow process. I’d be interested to hear if/when you try some other classes, and I’ll certainly post if I do the same.

        As for clothing (which I think we discussed a while back) I’ve been wearing yoga pants with short-but-not-tight running shorts over them. It looks kind of silly, but I’d rather be thought to have poor fashion sense than be uncomfortable about ‘showing’ in class.

      • Mym says:


        Sorry for talking about you like you’re not here! I didn’t know! It’s only happenstance that I came back to this comments page anyway.

        My dancing is really just a few years of martial arts filtered through more years of goth clubs, though I actually do feel like I am fairly elegant (in that and most things, but I maybe need to do something about my walk, I don’t know what). Though, martial arts are ingrained movement training, just of a different flavour.

  3. M says:

    I played laser tag when I was in Omaha for a friends wedding this past fall and it was SUPER awesome. I would totally love to play again if you would like to. I also, thought I did awesome when in fact I did the worst. There was also only one other girl, 3 boys and it was just us in this 2 floor expansive place (sounds similar to your experience). However, I am super competitive, and also really like to think of myself “as one of the boys.”

    I don’t think you have to be a girl and align yourself stereotypically with girls. In fact, I’m going to argue that girls are not always weaker than boys (watch the Olympics!)and that you can be strong physcially/athletically and be a girl. I hope my train of thought made sense.

    Have you considered continue to take the pole dancing classes? It seems like it was a positive experience all in all for you and overtime could continue to be more positive.

    Also, I can’t believe A owns thigh high boots, ridiculous. (I’m jealous)

    • Rebecca says:

      don’t think you have to be a girl and align yourself stereotypically with girls. In fact, I’m going to argue that girls are not always weaker than boys (watch the Olympics!)and that you can be strong physcially/athletically and be a girl. I hope my train of thought made sense.

      I do agree, but it’s hard to find a balance my own sense of how masculine or feminine I’m presenting. That is, how masculine or feminine I feel I’m presenting. And, as much as I’m not thrilled about the impulse, there is something tempting about going way overboard to the femme end of the spectrum, since I felt unable to do so for so many years.

      That isn’t an unheard of phenomena in the trans community: trans women swinging wildly to girly-girl femme after transitioning, only to find a bit more balance after they’re more sure of themselves as women. I’d like to avoid having such a dramatic pendulum swing, but I do think experiences like laser tag and pole dancing are sort of great metaphors for the tug in opposite directions.

      And I agree, that taking a pole dancing class could actually be really good for me, it’s just SUPER expensive. I get free circus classes through work, but even if I were paying for ’em it’d be $215 for 9 weeks of 1.5 hrs/week (about $16/hr) for circus versus $400 for 8 weeks of 2 hrs/week (about $25/hr) for pole dancing. I don’t think I’m willing to drop that kind of money, or potentially be getting into a hobby where I’d need to be spending that much money every 2 months.

      (And I misspoke in the post – A was wearing knee high boots…)

  4. […] made me think about my experiences pole dancing. In talking about it with my therapist, I said that I felt this inadequacy as a woman, and linked […]

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