Exhibitionism & the World Wide Web

Exhibitionist, noun:

A person who behaves in an extravagant way in order to attract attention

(New Oxford American Dictionary)

Where is the line between self-expression and exhibitionism?

Where is the line between simply being and having something to prove?

Where is the line between authenticity and needy desperation?

What is it to put myself out there? What it it to overshare?

Am I an exhibitionist? Would it be “bad” if I was?

Lately, I find myself asking this often. Because, frankly, I’m called this often. It hurts; every time I hear this, I cry. I spiral into paranoia and self-doubt. But, as Tracy Turnblad sings, “Mama, I’m a big girl now.” Now, I’m the words of Frank Sinatra, it’s time to “pick myself up,” “dust myself off,” and use this feedback as an opportunity for personal inventory.

I am learning about boundaries and the difference between attraction and promotion. I am learning to notice when I am asking for love and when I am naturally receiving it. I am learning to notice when I have “something to prove,” as well as times I’ve had something to prove in the past. It is painful and embarrassing sometimes to observe this in myself, and yet I know I am forgiven.

Exhibitionism is a line I walk. It might be a character defect of mine, or at least a mis-direction of energy. But I think it stems from an innocent place. The real question, then, is not whether or not I’m an exhibitionist. The real question is, what are my intentions when I open myself up?

Often I can’t tell the difference between that and self-expression, especially on my blog. I’ll give you a concrete example: when I got my period last year, I posted a picture of my bloody tampon. At the time I took pride in it; now I wonder if that was too much. The doubt, shame, and fear I’m feeling are tempting me to take it down.

However, in recovery, I live by something called the Three A’s: awareness, acceptance, and action. Acceptance is the easiest step to skip. Urgency and fear often trigger me to jump from straight awareness to action.

Right now, I’m aware that showcasing my bloody tampon might have been too much. But I’m also aware that it may not have. That might be my authentic self-expression, a manifestation of a character quirk, rather than a character defect. Odds are, my temptation to take it down stems from fear of my public perception.

There’s another recovery slogan I live by; that slogan is Think:

Is it Thoughtful?

Is it Honest?

It is Insightful?

Is it Necessary?

It is Kind?

If so, then it’s probably safe to say.

It doesn’t matter if my expression is “too much” for other people; it matters if it’s too much for me. That’s my inventory to take, which I’m now gracefully, patiently taking. I will write what I need to write, and I will attract those who need to read it. The law of attraction works in our favor; it connects us with like-minded people.

I will write what I need to write and attract those who need to read it.

In order to find the solution (in this case, to the bloody tampon photo, and whether or not to take it down), what I need to do is wait. I need to wait and meditate. That, for me, is acceptance. To accept a situation is to process it fully, being honest about where I am in the meantime.

I hear from some that I’m vulgar and embarrassing. I hear from others that I’m refreshing and cool.

So which one is it?

That’s for me to decide.

It doesn’t matter what others think, as long as I am secure in myself, and the way to be secure in myself is to be clear in my intentions.

It’s these times if self-doubt when I lean on this tattoo:

The thing is, my self-expression and my exhibitionism often look exactly the same. I might post a photo looking for validation or attention. I then might identify that, take it down, and re-evaluate. Once restored to confidence, I might re-post the same picture. Confidence and neediness can have the exact same manifestation. I need patience to discern between the two. That’s when I lean on my other tattoo:

Confidence and neediness can have the same manifestation.

Sometimes I ask myself, would I do the same thing if I were anonymous? If I were in a recovery meeting where nobody knew my last name, would I express the same way? If the answer is yes, I’m on the right track. I’m being true to myself. That is Recovery for me: it’s being true to myself.

A good parallel is being of service. When I do acts of service, do I expect to get something in return? Do I expect thanks and gratification? Do I crave these things? Is that my motive? Or do I simply want to give? The latter comes from Heart; the former is the work of the Ego. I find gratification much more rewarding when I’m not looking for it – not “fishing for compliments.”

There was a time when I was very sexually repressed and would make inappropriate comments probably looking for attention, though I didn’t consciously know it. I have acted out of exhibition. I’ve done this in my personal life, on my blog, and in my performance work. I’ve struggled with boundaries and with discerning social cues.

But when I strip all that away, I still love a good shock factor. I love originality. I love to have an edge. My work now is shocking with intention. And that’s a process. I have a lot of past actions to look through, and a lot of public work to take inventory of. And if I have to sit with some embarrassment while I do so, I’m okay with that. I’d rather publicly acknowledge my mistakes and grow than erase myself and lapse into shame. That is anorexia. That would be a relapse.

I am okay with embarrassment.

My disease was fear; my recovery is trust. It’s a deep, inner knowing that I’m safe. I know I am loved by the people around me and forgiven by those that I care about. I know I am loved by myself and I confidently embrace all mistakes. Every “overshare” is an opportunity to discover boundaries. Every humbling experience is an opportunity to forgive myself.

My disease was fear; my recovery was trust. It is a deep, inner knowing that I’m safe.

I have the freedom to make mistakes. We all do. We’re supposed to. But the internet has complicated this, especially, if I may, for my generation and younger.

I don’t think fear should motivate us, ever. Especially fear of permanence.

“You WATCH what you say online. It will be there FOREVER!!!”

First of all, that’s bullshit. The only constant in life is change, and the only core truth is impermanence. In my opinion, the internet and its perceived “eternity” is another lame attempt by humans to control. It’s a resistance to mortality, impermanence, and change.

The internet and its perceived “eternity” is another lame attempt by humans to control.

Sure, actions have consequences: but consequences send us in the right direction. Everything in life occurs for our highest good. Detours are detours in the right direction, and every lesson is just that: a lesson.

No boss, no employer, no parent, and no police can ever tell you who you are. To think our fate lies in the hands of a college admissions person or an FBI agent or a potential superior is FEAR: False Evidence Appearing Real. That’s just the game we’re playing in this lifetime. The World Wide Web is the theme of the video game that is this century. It’s challenging, sure: but we all can handle it.

Punishing people for mistakes they made when they were 15 is, in my opinion, bullying. And frankly, the adults who do so didn’t grow up with the internet; thus, they cannot judge.

Where is our freedom to change and grow? We all know what it’s like to carry emotional baggage: why would we force those shackles on somebody else, especially a kid?

Punishing people for mistakes they made when they were 15 is, in my opinion, bullying.

Fear of the permanence of the internet might diminish our boldness and deter us from making mistakes, and that is an attack on humanity. A threat to boldness is a threat to growth and a threat to self-actualization.

How are we to find boundaries if not by crossing them? Especially with the internet, which is a brand new toy?

What we have before us is a beautiful opportunity to collectively discover new territory, as one.

I went to hear Ani DiFranco speak the other week. Ani, for the record is one of my primary artistic influences, along with Jill Sobule and Imani Coppola. I admire them for their prolific body of work, the specificity of their lyrics, and ultimately, their fearlessness. These women are liberated in their humanity and don’t seem to care what other people think of them. Or, if they do, that fear doesn’t stop them.

Another influence is Kimya Dawson, less for her music and more for her principles, as well as my identification with her. In one of her songs, she says, “I write poems about my period, post pictures of my log. If you don’t like body functions, you shouldn’t read my blog.”

When Kimya sings that, my body lights up with the physical feeling that is resonance. This thing, this bloody tampon picture that I am currently obsessing about, has been done by somebody else, and by somebody whom I relate to and admire. I get joy from her lyrics. I don’t find her disgusting, the way I worry people will find me disgusting.

My heart tells me to go where it’s warm, to seek support from the women who do what I do, whose work resonates with my own, as opposed to people who have different tastes and different backgrounds and might not approve of me. This is why it’s important to put ourselves out there; the law of attraction guides us to our crew, and we don’t have to feel “outcasted” or ashamed.

Shame is humanity’s most lethal emotion. On a metaphysical level, it is our lost powerful weapon. We all inevitably experience shame, but as far I’m concerned, to latch on to shame and willfully shame a fellow person should be against the law – a moral law, at least.

Shame is our most lethal emotion.

Shame is abusive psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, and, even, physically. Self-harm, suicide: these are shame’s physical manifestations. My shame manifested as an eating disorder. Anorexia is a disease of shame. You starve yourself to make yourself disappear. The less of you, the better. You are literally hiding from humanity, making yourself invisible.

Want to damage someone badly, using your words? Tell them, “Shame on you.” It is not our place to place shame on anyone. If you think somebody ought to be ashamed of their self, odds are they already are.

Some of my shame still lingers in my body, as amenorrhea and osteoporosis.

We shouldn’t be raised to subscribe to our parents’ values; we should be raised to find our own. Every individual deserves their own understanding of class, modesty, and appropriateness.

Back to Ani DiFranco. I heard her speak in New Orleans on her new memoir, No Walls and the Recurring Dream. She wrote and spoke about all of the “mistakes” she’s made throughout her career.

She shared about her public humiliation, and how she came back from it, including the time she attacked George Bush in a concert following 9/11.

Finally, she launched into a spiel of compassion for young artists today, how she can’t imagine trying to find yourself when your every move could threaten you. “Goddess, bless them all,” she said.

Where is our compassion? Where is our forgiveness? Where is our understanding of the nature of life? To use the internet as a weapon of immortality is unnatural.

If I were an employer, I’d sooner hire someone who had made mistakes online, copped to them, and transformed themselves, than hire someone with a “clean” record. Never trust the perfect ones. They do not exist.

I don’t want the stale pastry in the display case. I want the creamy, gooey, asymmetrical pastry, the one I get to morph in my mouth. I want flakes and ridges and substance. I want to have an experience.

I’ve been warned that my behavior might keep me from getting a job. On the contrary, I’m confident that my behavior will guide me to the right job. If an employer doesn’t want me because I write about my body, then I don’t want to work with them, either. I want to make work that I believe in. That’s the path I’m on.

“Love is patient. Love is kind. Love keeps no record.”

Thats a quote I heard in a recovery meeting.

To keep a record of our fellow humans’ actions is unloving, and love is the right way to live.

My personal exploration of boundaries is what to share with whom. What is mine, what is public, what is for a friend? What’s a journal entry, what’s a performance piece, what’s a text, and what’s a letter? I consistently overshare. But I am able to apologize. Allowing myself to be vulnerable, which apologizing does, allows me to transform my shame.

So, Bella: what do you love about yourself?

I love my openness. I love my voice. I love my confidence. And I love my laugh.

You love them, you say? Then keep all those things.

At the end of the day, we all want acceptance. We all want to be understood. We all want to be seen. We all just want to be loved. As all of my acting teachers have told me, this is a safe space to fail.

The safety of a recovery meeting or a healthy rehearsal studio belongs on the rest of the planet. We need to extend this sense of safety, and I think the way to do so is to fail. Fail big. And fail publicly. Fail open.

When we publicly fail and recover, we give others permission to do so, too.

Let’s liberate ourselves:

The internet is scary. We’ve been thrust into the unknown. To truly “love thy neighbor” requires forgiveness, slack, and the freedom to explore. Let’s find joy in exploration. Let’s let the internet serve us. Let’s support one another as we cross our boundaries, which we simply must do to find them.


In closing, I would like to say that the opinions expressed here are entirely my own; take what you like and leave the rest! If something resonated, I invite you reach out or share it, as Recovery is for all.

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