Last May, a friend invited me out to an event around the corner from his apartment: a strip spelling bee. Yes, you read that right. An event that appeals to so many levels of my brain: it’s sexy, it’s nerdy, it’s competitive smart nakedness. Could there be a more fun way to spend an evening than being an audience member at such an event?
As it happens, there is totally more fun to be had than simply watching. At the May Bee, I was chosen to be the secret striptease judge. This meant that I had to carefully watch each of the spellers’ performances, and choose the one stand-out stripper of the evening. Honestly, my life can be so difficult sometimes. I got to announce the winner from the stage, and when I was up there, I knew what had to happen: at some point, I would take the stage to compete.
When I got the notice that the event was returning to Toronto in October, I immediately started my plan:
1) Secure child care.
2) Determine my schtick.
3) Convince at least one friend to attend with me to provide me with moral support.
4) Practice breathing deeply to avoid poorly-timed future anxiety attack.
Fast forward to this week. My lover, who’d already agreed to attend to hold my hand through my venture into public spelling with the likely end result of at least partial nudity, asked if I’d like him to participate/compete as well. HELL YES, I said. The more the merrier. He came over last night, and we prepared for our date. I donned a friend’s Girl Guide uniform, with a pretty matched bra and panty set underneath. Just in case. I finished off my ensemble with navy above-the-knee socks and knee-high red boots. And cookies. His outfit was its own level of spectacular, with many camouflaging layers of sweater vest and tie over PVC and silver spandex.
We arrived a bit early, signed up for our spots, and waited. With gin. We weren’t the only two who dressed for the event: the pirate and the beaver were standouts, for sure. Then we started, and I was first. I got my first word correct! (Fartlek, for the curious). In total, 5 or so out of the 12ish contestants got their first words right. I managed to make it through the first round with my intellectual reputation and my outfit intact.
That luck, however, did not hold out. First one up for second word. Nope. Didn’t get it. Off came the all-round cord, the neckercheif, and the boots. I returned to my seat (after having slipped on the stairs from the stage, in my socks), only to be told that I couldn’t possibly have just removed a third of my clothes. I returned to the stage, unbuttoned and removed my shirt, leaving on the badge sash.
Most of the contestants got words wrong in this round, as the words got increasingly brutal (or perhaps the gin made them moreso). I was by no means alone in showing skin. I think the thing I love the most about this event is the diversity in body shape.* Tall, short, really thin, curvy, fat, twink, bear (and I’m talking appearance while making no assumptions about orientation when I use those words), girly, femmey, and “gold star dyke.”
A few minutes before the beginning of round three, my lover had passed me a drink. A few sips in, during a conversation, it slid out of my hand and shattered on the floor. Hello, transient weakness! My goodness, you seem adversely affected by alcohol! I decided at that point (not even halfway through my third drink over as many hours) that I’d had enough.
Round three began, and the organizer decided we weren’t not showing nearly enough flesh. An offer was made: Anyone who’s already gotten a word correct will be offered three free drink tickets if they go all or nothing on the last word, thereby forfeiting the first win.
I was up at bat. I was asked if I would like to exchange fartlek for three drink tickets. Having just made the choice to stop drinking, I had no issue with turning down the offer. I got the word wrong anyway, and left the stage wearing only socks, polkadot panties, and a badge sash, having peeled the rest to the Beastie Boys. So much flesh was exposed during that round, as only one person got their word correct, and all who’d gotten correct words traded them in for more free booze.
Sitting there, shivering in the cold as I was mostly naked, I was shocked as hell to find out that because I hadn’t sold myself for more gin, I WON the bee. With only one correct word, and nipples that could have cut glass, I was the lucky winner of two cans of Grolsch, a CD of an hour’s worth of cat purring, and a Scrabble tile with the letter of my choice (on a pin).
I had an incredible experience. I suspected my social anxiety would get in the way, but apparently, I don’t have any problem taking my clothes off on a stage in front of 150 cheering 20-40somethings. In spite of my total lack of physical grace, I had no body shame at all, nor did I feel like anyone wanted me to feel as much.
There was one regrettable moment when someone yelled out “keep it all on!” to an audience-engaging fat woman who stripped down entirely. She was fantastic and full of grace and confidence, and I’m sad that someone would be cruel enough to call out like that to her during her demonstration of sheer bravery (brave not because she’s a bigger woman, but she, like the rest of us, bravely stripped down, though she was was the only one who had to deal with that bullshit). She had no more fat on her body (and arguably significantly less) than some of the male contestants, but stereotypes seem to still posit fat men as jolly and hilarious and fat women as shameful and secretive about their rolls and curves. Fuck that shit, and I’m so glad her actions said exactly that.
Would I compete again? Definitely, though I wouldn’t want to take the opportunity from someone else. Amazingly, in spite of a full house, we were still short of the 15 maximum spellers that could have registered. There have to be more than a dozen exhibitionist hipsters in the city of Toronto. If you’re interested in participating when next the show comes to the big city, and you’re nervous about performing/competing, please drop me a line. I’ll happily hold your hand. Or your bra. I’m not picky.
* The colour scheme of the participants was uniformly pale, which I found interesting from the perspective of what would make this space welcoming vs threatening to participants of colour. The first bee I attended was also very white.