Tongue First: Adventures in Physical Culture

Tongue First: Adventures in Physical Culture

by Emily Jenkins

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A smart, humorous exploration of bodily thrills and paranoia from aerobics to acupuncture, strip shows to sensory deprivation.

Your perception of your body will change when you read this book. You will be pulling on your boxer shorts or your black lace bra, and suddenly consider why you decorate yourself the way you do. You will shake up your martini, kiss your

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A smart, humorous exploration of bodily thrills and paranoia from aerobics to acupuncture, strip shows to sensory deprivation.

Your perception of your body will change when you read this book. You will be pulling on your boxer shorts or your black lace bra, and suddenly consider why you decorate yourself the way you do. You will shake up your martini, kiss your beloved, read a dirty magazine, go for a jog, and think about what your bodily behavior says about your soul. And what it is doing to your soul. You will notice the defenses you erect for yourself. Perhaps a tube of lipstick. Perhaps an addiction.

Testing the boundaries between fear and temptation, Emily Jenkins takes us on a journey from ordinary physical experiences (going to the dentist, putting on stockings) to extreme ones (snorting heroin, shaving her head). She interviews people whose bodies are radically different from hers and enters communities where people share unusual ideas about physicality. Sometimes you will recognize your own habits. Other times you'll be shocked or repulsed. Always you will find yourself questioning the ordinary things you do, rethinking your relationship to your body.

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Editorial Reviews

Clarissa Cruz
Jenkins' zippy writing style and shrewd eye for sensual detail make for a spirited kiss-and-tell. -- Entertainment Weekly
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"Adventures" is not a misnomer: trying everything from sleep deprivation to sniffing heroin, Jenkins, a graduate student and author of a children's novel titled The Secret Life of Billy's Uncle Myron, serves as her own lab rat, all in the interest of exploring "how the body is both a prison and a vehicle for adventure." Can it be escaped, or at least briefly transcended? An unpretentious guide who doesn't indulge in fashionable bad-girl posturing or pat herself on the back for her daring, the author explores posh spas and grimy strip joints with sharp wit and a good dose of common sense. She tries to follow sex manuals, gets a tattoo, gets Rolfed, goes to a nude beach--she draws a line, however, at colonic irrigation. Strangely, Jenkins finds one of the simplest experiments--shaving her head--proves to be the most disturbing: it forces her to "look down in shame when an acquaintance passes me on the street, to hesitate going to a party because I feel so ugly, to choose clothes that render me invisible." While the book comes to no conclusions and settles on no single method of self-knowledge ("I am no convert, only a dabbler," the author admits), it closes with a wry--and characteristically ambiguous--vision of everyone's ultimate destiny at a Florida retirement community: "the invisible scarring caused by the sun reminds me of its presence with a persistent itch. Here is a taste of the physical changes that will come with age. My tan is telling me the future." (Aug.)
Etelka Lehoczky
Bodies are so stubborn. No matter how we peer at and probe them, assail their limits and bully them into submission, they ultimately control us, not the other way around. They lock each of us into, and others out of, our own gnarled, prelingual realm of need and sensation. Anyone who proffers a map to this inner world -- or simply agrees to share their adventures there -- compels our attention. In recent decades it's often been women who have taken on the adventurer's role.

Even in the wake of feminism, anti-feminism and post-feminism, women's bodies still seem more mysterious and hazardous than men's -- both to those on the outside and to those within. And so a series of women writers, from Linda Lovelace and Gloria Steinem to Annie Sprinkle and Susie Bright, have descended into embodiment and returned to tell the tale.

The latest bedraggled explorer to come limping out of the jungle is Columbia University Ph.D. student Emily Jenkins. In Tongue First, she describes various bodily experiences, some bizarre, some banal. Like her predecessors, Jenkins has made a point of doing things that don't come naturally, at least not to most people. Unlike them, she's also done things that do -- but done them more attentively, and with a notebook along. In Tongue First she snorts, strips, tattoos and Rolfs; she also sleeps, bathes, barfs and shops.

Jenkins possesses the nuanced attention to her own feelings that's de rigueur for this form. Her descriptions of sensation make the book pleasurable, but it's her nose for sudden clarity that makes it surprising and memorable. It's all too easy, even (or especially) in our era of determined sexual sophistication, to spin tales of physical derring-do. Countless journalists sell lifestyle magazines their stories of tripping, fasting, abstaining and overdoing -- basically, brazening through any experience we'd like to understand without enduring. Jenkins does far more. In a tone that's both precise and swollen with subterranean emotion, she picks her way delicately to the anxious heart of each exploit. And she drops piquant little aphorisms along the way: "Tacit blindness in nudist settings is ... a rule that is constantly being broken."

Unlike some writers on the body, Jenkins husbands her emotions. Deeply aware of the dangers of self-exposure, she sets firm limits on how much she's willing to tell. Though she fearlessly relates her awkwardness at a Madison Avenue spa and her regressive response to heroin, she's surprisingly reticent about other topics. In Sex Lessons, a chapter on unspoken sexual rules and rituals, she hews firmly to the universal, describing feelings rather than evoking them. The same prescription applies when she discusses the physical fitness cult; she relates her years of aerobics, but keeps her own motivations for this regimen, and her thoughts about its role in her life, close to her chest.

Remarkably, this restraint works. Jenkins has seen other self-revelatory authors turn exhibitionism into its own defense, and she offers the reader more than a peeping-Tom's view of her soul. She honestly tells what she can, and when she can't, her reserve is its own kind of revelation. In a world so thoroughly explored as this one, silence may be the only secret left. --Salon Aug. 20, 1998

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Product Details

Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.44(w) x 8.26(h) x 0.68(d)

Read an Excerpt

Tongue First

Adventures in Physical Culture

By Emily Jenkins

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 1998 Emily Jenkins
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-8240-9


stick out your tongue

My first kiss, sex kiss, the kiss that felt like a first kiss, was donated to me at a pitifully late age by a tall boy named Ace. He was wearing nothing but a toga made out of the American flag. We frenched each other in a yard littered with beer cans, the sounds of frat rock thumping from the party inside. The red, white, and blue draped over his skinny white arms, his spiky punk-rock haircut, his near-naked body shivering in the moonlight — that Marlboro-tasting kiss has lasted me for years.

Truth is, it was a pretty bad performance all around. I had almost no idea what I was doing, and Ace went about the whole procedure tongue first. Too much drool, too dizzy drunk. But it marked in me a liberation, a reevaluation of my body and how it functioned in the world. I began to think of myself as a girl who kissed boys. I had a body with desires that might get fulfilled. That's cool, I thought. Who else can I kiss?

Your body is the vehicle for your wildest adventures. It will speed you through fondlings in the backseat, jumps off the high dive, orgasms, and tequila shots, hurtle you through three-point baskets, chocolate mousse cakes, and surges of adrenaline. Stick out your tongue and taste the wind as it goes past.

Of course, you can't get out if the motion starts to sicken you. You can't even brake. None of us can, because the body is also a prison in which we are forced to live out our days. You are captive forever in your skin. It will wrinkle, scar, blemish, and bleed. It will rebel against you and defy your attempts to control it. When your mind is still buzzing with kinetic restlessness, your body will be sagging with age or disease. You are trapped by your sex, trapped by your pain, trapped by your physical limitations.

There are many books about the prison of the body — books about child abuse and eating disorders and drug addiction and AIDS — and they have been extremely valuable and interesting to me, but this is not one of them. I am too interested in dressing up, getting off, and getting high to rattle my chains for long. Nor is this a book of personal growth. I am not here to tell you what I've learned, how accepting and understanding I've become now that I've had some new experiences and abandoned all my preconceptions about body and mind. And soul. I haven't abandoned them at all. What I am doing is identifying those preconceptions, interrogating them, and situating them in a cultural context.

What fascinates me is the contradiction — how the body is both a prison and a vehicle for adventure. That contradiction shapes our culture and our behavior. Think of the weirdest bodily practices, but also of the most ordinary daily physical rituals. Both are worth investigating. I want to understand nudist colonies. Bald women. Women who are really men. Sensory deprivation. Heroin addicts. Leather underwear. Also plucked eyebrows. Afternoon naps. Boxer shorts. Good-bye kisses. Happy hour. Aerobics class. Here we are, squeezing blobs of congealed oil from our pores and reading Dr. Ruth, or tying our lovers to the bedposts and shooting up, but never looking any closer at what we're doing unless it's with the help of a twelve-step program. What is really going on?

Our sense of our bodies is shaped by various social institutions. In school, we learn sex education and sportsmanship. In the family, we learn about toilet training, table manners, and taboos. In hospitals, we learn a very particular way of analyzing and treating illness. Reading magazines and watching movies, we learn what appearances are socially acceptable. But that doesn't mean we swallow our lessons without protest, and it doesn't mean there aren't many smaller institutions that might offer alternatives. What it does mean is that we are taught to live by a lot of invisible institutional rules, and whether we rebel against them or adhere to them rigidly, we are defining ourselves in relation to them.

Everyone is living in and negotiating through a network of these rules. My aim is to identify some of them, and the functions they serve in our society. We walk a twisted middle road between extremes that both frighten and fascinate us. In a way, we are building defenses, protecting ourselves from exposure, illness, sexual rejection, rape, failure, or simply from difference in ourselves or in others. Fear can be a major factor in creating culture. But with one turn in the road we find ourselves flirting with those same risks from which we used to protect ourselves. Thrills, conquests, achievement, and enlightenment beckon. A tattoo, for example, can be either a violation or a reclaiming of the body. The same cosmetics that bring a woman in line with social norms of beauty can also catapult her into an extreme glamour that borders on parody. An altered state of consciousness can lead to psychotic delusions or to spiritual understanding.

Working on this project, I went into things tongue first. To see how they tasted. So the title doesn't refer only to an inept brand of kissing practiced by Ace and various other make-out artists I've encountered — it tells you my approach to writing about culture. I confronted many of my own fears, and did more than flirt with the beckoning thrills. I explored a range of physical experiences, as you can see from the table of contents. From "Flying" through altered states to "Decorating" my body and "Fucking" as much as possible, from "Revealing" myself in public to trying alternative "Healing" practices and finally to investigating people's fear of their bodies "Rebelling," I paid microscopic attention to my sensations and my environments. I was Rolfed. I went to strip shows. I went to freak shows. I got a tattoo. I tried out techniques I read about in sex manuals, and I shaved my head. I also pushed myself up against others whose relationships to their bodies fascinated me: octogenarians, an out-of-body healer, heroin users, drag queens, a blue man. Inevitably, their attitudes about physicality taught me something about my own.

My body and its experiences are probably pretty average. I'm not a drug addict or an anorexic or a prostitute, and I never have been. My vices are of the beer and Oreo variety. My traumas have been limited to a broken thumb, some boring sex, and a distressing quantity of orthodontic work involving headgear and rubber bands. I bite my fingernails. I teach aerobics, but not so often as I used to now that I'm nearing thirty. I am white. My hair is blond (but it wasn't always). I don't floss. I say I do, but I don't. My medicine cabinet has four different smelly lotions for muscle aches in it. I sleep with men, when I can find a nice one with high cheekbones and an IQ to match.

But as I write this, trying to define my body to an outsider, I know it is much more complicated than that. I haven't explained or admitted what elements my behavior shares with drug addiction, anorexia, and prostitution — how walking along the borders of those experiences holds a fascination and repulsion for me. I haven't told you what I mean by "sleep with men" or how often it happens. I haven't told you why those lotions are in my medicine cabinet, why their eucalyptus smell makes me feel safe, why I put them on when I do. I haven't told you why I prance around in aerobics class when Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee is my hero. So when I say I sleep with men, or I drink too much beer, I have not yet explained what is really going on with my body. There is so much more to say.

Magazines are always talking about how each person has a body image, but they don't make sense to me. They say anorexics see cellulite at ninety-eight pounds. Bodybuilders who were scrawny as children never get over feeling like weaklings. Perfectly normal men are sure their penises are smaller than everyone else's. I understand the distorted images these people are talking about. I just don't see why they limit themselves to one.

Some days my body is matronly, shelter to a housewife in slacks who spends her afternoons making Jell-O molds in Far Rockaway. My belly rounds out in expectation of childbirth and my shoulders curve forward with years of scrubbing. Other days it is frail: I can see the bones in my hands and feet; my shins are sharp; my back aches; blue veins ooze across my skin like a grandmother's. Still others find me feeling like a superhero: thighs bulging with muscles, shoulders spread broad, the swollen veins becoming part of my athlete's physique.

My body is not the same from day to day. Not even from minute to minute. I look at myself in the mirror and think, "This lump of flesh and fluids, this is where I live." Sometimes it seems like home, sometimes more like a cheap motel near Pittsburgh.

The body is the single place no one can ever leave. It is permanent, yet fragile and mercurial. Its distortions, anxieties, ecstasies, and discomforts all influence a person's interaction with the people who service it. Contact with my dentist is markedly different from contact with a manicurist, masseuse, acupuncturist, drug dealer, prostitute, or exercise instructor. The substances and products we put into our bodies also reveal our attitudes toward our corporeal selves. Beer says one thing, mai-tais another, smack something else entirely. The clothes and cosmetics we wear — lipstick, wigs, old clothes, the fake breasts of a female impersonator — can shift our perceptions of ourselves. Bodily rites reveal our hidden assumptions about ourselves and our physiques: Why do we walk with our arms around our lovers? Why do we fuck in the missionary position? Are all those people taking up yoga reliving their childhoods? Why do men like striptease more than women? And what happens if we take everything off and run around naked?

Oscar Wilde once said, "Those who see any difference between soul and body have neither." Although I've used several metaphors here to talk about the way the soul inhabits the body, in essence I agree with Wilde. Body and soul are one, but it's more like the slippery union of oil and vinegar than any ultimate fusion. Certain experiences I've had while writing this book made me feel I could pour the vinegar off the top and into a different jar. Others shook the ingredients together so hard it felt like they couldn't possibly separate.

When I was small I used to draw all over my face with colored markers. My mother let me, because, really, there was nothing she could do. I could not be stopped. I would do it after preschool until she'd plunk me into a hot bath before dinner. Drawing on my cheeks in the mirror was very difficult, and the pictures never came out quite how I meant them to, but somehow I was getting what was in my head onto my body. I was trying to make myself look the way I felt inside, reconciling the physical with the mental, and vice versa. Tongue First is an extension of those ink-stained afternoons.



craving oblivion

Sleep is my archenemy. My Uriah Heep. It calls me, pulls me in, embraces me, and will not let me go. It wastes my time and casts its soporific thrall over my groggy mornings and woozy afternoons. My need for it slows my work, dampens my sex drive, and drags me home from lunch meetings to fall into its arms. "I'll nourish you," it whispers to me, "rejuvenate you, heal you." My two warm cats, my four fat pillows, and that old patchwork next to an open window, curtains floating on a cool breeze: "Come here!" they hiss together, voices carrying softly to my kitchen. "Come to bed with us. Come, come. You've worn yourself out. You might have the flu. Doesn't your throat feel sore and swollen? Didn't you write two pages today? You deserve some rest. You do, you do."

My head feels heavy and my breathing is shallow and thick. It's two in the afternoon. I succumb under protest, turn off the phone, and bring my work to bed: book, glasses, pencil, Post-it notes, and paper clips.

"At last!" cries my body as it sinks into the downy pile: cozy, stress-free. I'm asleep in minutes, I stay so for hours. A liquid state, sweet and soft, feet tangled in the covers, clothes crushed. Then I stagger awake, dizzy, sorry. Time wasted. Stumble about, smoky brain. Lie down again for a minute. Roll over and look out the window. It's getting dark.

I fumble for my glasses, bent out of shape under the pillow. Propped up in front of my computer in sleep-rumpled clothing, I dig for buried thoughts. When I find them, they are sticky, thickly coated by an oily, oozing residue left behind by my nap. I stumble to the kitchen and stare into the fridge, then the cupboard. Not hungry. I curl up on the couch.

"Come back!" calls my comforter, agent of my nemesis. "Isn't it cold out there in the living room? Lie down for just a little longer."

"Back off!" I cry from my fetal position on the love seat, but my brain aches to shut down again, to sink back into the comfort tempting me from the bedroom.

I fear the seductive, time-sucker sleep and I fear my sleeping self, the alter ego created by the pleasures of rest. I become slothful, unproductive, antisocial. It is a daily fight, and the enemy is winning. My standard weapons are feeble: caffeine, exercise, a well-rounded diet. They fail me again and again. Three cups of coffee and the nap still calls me. Cold air and activity only make me happier to sink into the haven of my bed when I finally get home. Yesterday, I got up at eight, went back to bed at ten; woke at noon, went back to bed for another hour at one-thirty; was asleep again by eleven and slept through the alarm this morning.

People across the country swallow daily melatonin to combat insomnia, but there's no legal drug that will keep me awake. I test negative for everything: anemia, hepatitis, mononucleosis. This is not chronic fatigue syndrome. It is not depression. I don't have a diagnosis. And I'm not alone. Forty percent of healthy young adults in one survey met the criteria for "excessive daytime sleepiness." They performed poorly on tests designed to measure alertness, and the cause was thought to be chronic sleep deprivation. But why must that be the case? Perhaps those healthy young adults, like me, have a craving that doesn't go away even when they get their eight hours right on schedule. Perhaps some of them, too, have a nemesis and no medicine with which to poison him.

If conscious perception is the norm, sleep certainly qualifies as an altered state. J. G. Ballard calls it "an eight-hour peep show of infantile erotica." Like booze or drugs, sleep offers relief from the tyranny of consciousness and the boredom of reality. Like cigarettes and caffeine, its pleasures are part of our daily routine. And like most altered states, it exerts an insidious pull on the susceptible among us. It is easy to abuse. Going up against sleep is a fight against temptation, against an addictive activity that I cannot live without, even if I kick the habit. The lure of the nap is like the call of the binge for the bulimic; she cannot quit altogether because she has to eat to live. Once she tastes, she cannot stop.

* * *

I set out to stay awake for two nights or more. Cold turkey. I'll weaken sleep's hold on me by eluding it completely, though temporarily, and replace the altered state I crave with its opposite — the high of sleep deprivation. I outfit myself: one pound of Ethiopian coffee, a borrowed CD collection, three videos, a pile of work, my tax forms, and a computer game. Also a sex partner, my beloved younger man, who insists on leaving at 2:00 A.M. although I beg him to stay.

The night is speedy. I'm eating candy and drinking the coffee and building simulated cities that are under attack by giant spider-monsters and hurricanes. I'm ignoring my taxes. I've got some rock music, and a little television in the background, and I'll get to my work pretty soon, but first I just want to build a marina and see if that improves citizen satisfaction. It doesn't. I shower three or four times, starting the day repeatedly. "I've got it now!" cries my internal clock each time. "It's morning!"

Almost before I know it, and certainly before my citizens vote to give a parade in my honor, a hazy blue creeps into the sky, turns orange, and I realize I am seeing the sun rise. How zippy. I go outside for a minute to watch, but I'm too edgy to pay attention. All I can think about is whether there are any chocolate-espresso cordials left, whether the residents of my city will object to my recent tax increase, whether there's anything on TV at this hour, whether my skin will dry out from so many washings. I feel dirty, sort of clammy and sour, even though I know I'm clean.


Excerpted from Tongue First by Emily Jenkins. Copyright © 1998 Emily Jenkins. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Emily Jenkins is earning a Ph.D. in English literature at Columbia University and is co-author of a novel for children, The Secret Life of Billy's Uncle Myron. She lives in New York City and writes for Swing and Feed.

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