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They Burn Men There, Don’t They? Part 3: Pushing Boundaries

November 18, 2010

Burning Man can make you feel dirty in more ways than one. Burning Man has a peculiar kind of social dynamic, where you don’t feel any amount of judgment for doing things that flout social conventions, but you do if you don’t do enough to flout social conventions. There is a period of time where I did get a little overwhelmed with thinking if my costumes were ridiculous enough (I was assured they were), if I was experimenting enough with *ahem* new modes of perception and *cough* new ways of interacting with others, and if I shouldn’t just be naked 24/7.

Social judgment is inescapable, of course, and eventually it seemed infinitely better being judged for not having enough fun than being judged for having too much.

The costumes were most people’s primary form of radical self-expression. My friend Marco and I cadged some costumes from co-ops around Berkeley, which conveniently fill designated ‘free pile’ rooms with discarded clothing and goods. His wardrobe included a purple dress with multicolored sequins, beads and quills, a cowboy hat, a thick Scottish black weaved rope belt appropriate for a kilt, and already-perfect Jesus-length hair. Mine included stockings, pink and purple hot pants, a mesh shirt, a black corset and leather cap and, occasionally, a fake flamboyant German accent.

Our other companions were similarly flamboyant. Johnny usually wore nothing but cut-off jean shorts, though he was usually the most extravagantly lit-up amongst us during nighttime dancing and raving, with two to three LED light halos and 8-12 glow rods attached to him at any given time – this after a stranger called him a ‘dark-wad’, a derogatory term for someone not lit up enough at night. Jess and Ida donned pink and blue tutus, sometimes on their heads, and varieties of spandex, white and yellow sequined shirts, animal spot patterns, fairy wings and furry bug-eye goggles.

Then there were the workshops and theme camps. Many theme camps were fairly innocuous, featuring free food, ice cream and coffee, workshops about things like chakra meditation or making sock poi, or activities like a detective agency game. Others were a bit more edgy. The fellatio and cunnilingus workshops were off-limits to single men. The coffee enema was quickly crossed off of most of our lists. Marco and I attended a bondage workshop where a gregarious dominatrix named Madame Butterfly picked audience members to come up and get tied to the metal supports of the tent – she made sure to always demonstrate what would cause the least pain but provide for the greatest ‘access’. I was later able to practice my skills on willing friends and strangers after finding an unrelated tent that gave away free hemp bondage ropes.

The coup de grace was, however, the “Human Carcass Wash”. A theme tent that, on approach, looked like the start of a mass orgy where everyone is too afraid to make the first move. The Human Carcass Wash was a Burning Man-style communal bath. Participants shed their clothes, stood in line for a few minutes (a necessary period for mental preparation), then joined small groups of about five people who took charge of specific stations – soap spraying, scrubbing, rinsing and squeegeeing (like on a car windshield but without a squeegee tool). My group included an almost bald septuagenarian, a large talkative older woman with curly ginger hair and a short, squat younger guy with a beard and a chest tattoo that said, “Yay!” in rainbow colors. Using only our hands and bottles of water filled with Dr. Bronner’s and water, our group washed several bathers in small kiddie pools, rotating through all the stations at three minute intervals before passing back through and getting bathed ourselves. And, before each group went to work on the naked bather, we asked them: “What are your boundaries?” – i.e., what was off-limits to being touched? Everyone said, with a mix of pride and awkwardness in their voice, “I have no boundaries.”

A girl putting her clothes back on when I arrived pointed out that the naked body in our society is so highly sexualized that an experience like this strikes us as strange and off-putting – we don’t want to touch others, especially those we find ugly, creepy or old. But in many societies, communal bathing is a normal part of the culture, and one that isn’t strange for people because they don’t feel sexually awkward about bodies like we do. After confronting that common but unspoken gut reaction to the Human Carcass Wash – “I have to bathe him? Look at her…” – and taking part in it freely, I realized what she meant – it made no difference, in this setting, if I was bathing someone skinny or fat, old or young, attractive or unattractive, because it wasn’t about that. It was simply about a bunch of Burners coming together who all badly needed a bath.

(Upcoming – Part 4: Leave No Trace)

This post was originally published at Painting the Passports Brown.
One Comment
  1. chris permalink
    November 23, 2010 8:46 am

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