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The Beheld
By Autumn Whitefield-Madrano
Examining questions surrounding personal appearance: What does it mean to be seen? What is the relationship between "beauty labor" and cultural visibility? And why do two lipstick shades combined always look better than one?
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Interview: Tizz Wall, Domme, Oakland

Interviewing Tizz Wall under her guise as a professional domme was a delight, but she actually has a panoply of guises that would have made for excellent beauty chat. A speaker (she’ll be speaking at the upcoming Catalyst Con on how to ally with sex workers), sex educator (she assisted sexuality author Jamye Waxman with her most recent book), writer (including her Mistress Manners column at Playpen Report), and erstwhile advocate for survivors of domestic violence, Wall’s working lives appear diverse but all surge toward the larger goal of making the world a better place for women of all walks of life. In fact, she’s currently completing her San Francisco Sex Information Sex Education certification. She currently does her domme work independently (though when this interview took place she worked out of a BDSM house). We talked about assimilating to—and literally blinding—the male gaze, the pressures of being a physical worker, and the similarity between BDSM houses and slumber parties. In her own words:

Photo by Lydia Hudgens

 

On Looking the Part
Some of the women show up for work looking cute, but most of the time everybody shows up in their sweatpants and don’t have makeup on, or they biked there so they’re all sweaty. No one’s showered. They’re in states of comfort, almost like, “Oh, did I manage to put on pants today?” In the morning we have kind of a ritual—there’s opening chores to get things going for the day, and then we’ll sit down at the kitchen table. There are a bunch of mirrors we pull up and put on the table, we’ll have our computers out, listening to music and talking and gabbing about whatever. That’s when we’ll all put on our makeup and do our hair. If we’re struggling and can’t get our hair right it’ll be like, “Can you please do the back?” It’s the female bonding over grooming at its max, I guess. Almost every day that you’re there, it’s part of the process. It’s like having the slumber party makeover every morning. It turns into one of those tip-sharing things that happens at slumber parties: “I got this new concealer, do you want to try it?” or “This color doesn’t work for me but I think it’d look great on you, do you want it?” We’ll do that, cook breakfast, make coffee. You all want to get ready in the morning because you want to have someone available in just a few minutes. If I need to, I can put on full makeup in probably 20 minutes tops, 10 if I’m really hustling.

I’m very aware of my looks, specifically as a sex worker. Personally, I’ve wondered if I’m attractive enough—I can get very self-conscious. I feel confident in myself, and I did when I first started too, but back then I was like, I’m definitely not the tall, thin, blonde, model-esque type, and obviously you have to be that to be in this line of work, right? So I wasn’t sure I’d get hired. Then, it’s funny—being there, there’s kind of a transformation that happens. So it’s particularly interesting to see the getting-ready process in the morning, because everybody is gorgeous—and the particular house I work in has a wide variety of body types and ethnicities and different types of beauty, it’s really varied—but you see everybody show up in their normal-person outfits, and then you see them do all this and it’s a whole transformation that happens.

I had no idea what this world was like when I got into it. I remember asking, “How much makeup should I put on?” My boss said, “Whatever is going to make you feel comfortable and make you feel like you’re going to personify this character”—which is an extension of yourself but also still a character. You’re kind of amplifying a certain part of your personality. Whatever will make you feel like that character, that’s how much makeup you need to put on.

On Bodily Labor
A lot of our client base is older straight men, and that means on some level we are catering to the male gaze. We keep that in mind a lot. The people who have tattoos will hide them; I have a septum piercing, and I tuck it in my nose. I have a coworker who has a mohawk, but she has long, pretty hair in the middle; if you’re not paying close attention when she wears it down, it passes for long hair. When I first started, I’d been dyeing my hair blonde. I changed it because when I was at work I couldn’t have big old roots.

You show off your body in a certain way. One of women has lost a ton of weight since she began working, and that has helped her get more work. I know I’ll get more work if I do certain things that are more traditionally feminine. It becomes a business decision. There are definitely sex workers who don’t cater to that. But our particular community, the particular house that I’m in, that’s something the person running it gears toward. That’s what our advertising is geared toward. So that regulates a lot of our choices for our physical presentation.

I’ve actually gained weight since starting this work; when I first started I was doing roller derby, skating 10 to 12 hours week, and I’m not anymore. So now when I’m not getting work, I’ll be like, Oh my god, is this because I’ve gained weight? And I know that’s not it—I mean, I fluctuated just one size, it’s not this massive difference. But this feeling of the possibility that my looks are tied to my income can really hurt my self-esteem. Being financially independent is really important to me. In this work, everybody has slow weeks, and then you’ll get a rush with lots of work; it’s a back-and-forth. But when that happens, I can start to think that I’m actually putting myself at risk by gaining weight. Rationally I know that’s not the case—even if I were a supermodel, there would be an ebb and flow no matter what I do. But when I gain weight it’s more than just, “Oh, I’m having a bad day and feel so ugly and bloated.” Body stuff takes on a different tone. It’s less destructive in my personal relationships and my personal interactions and personal self-esteem, but with this financial angle there’s this feeling of, If I don’t lose this weight, I’m not going to work again. 

On Being Seen—or Not
When I first started I had a lot of self-consciousness about leading a session by myself. I wasn’t yet 100% on my domme persona, so I would use a blindfold. When I was really new I had a three-hour session booked, and I just hadn’t gotten the timing down and I still didn’t really know what I was doing. One of the things we learn to do is negotiate what to say and how to elicit what the clients want to do, and match that up with what our interests are. What I want to do is, you give me your money and leave, because really what I want is to just read my book and still have the money, you know? So it’s not really what you want, but they say that, so you have to be good at asking the right questions and proposing things. So during this three-hour session I kept getting bored and not really knowing what to do and needing time to think, particularly because at that time I was so green—I had no clue what I was doing. I’m very expressive, so if I’m confused or thinking about what I’m going to do next, it’s all over my face. Blindfolding him was great, because then when I was sitting there thinking, What am I going to do next, he’s not really being responsive and I don’t know what to do, I didn’t have to pretend like I wasn’t having those thoughts. Now that I’ve been doing it a while and feel like I’ve hit my stride, that amount of time would be a great session and it would be fun.

Clients will often request that I have them only look at me when I give permission. I mean, that’s very submissive! In a playspace, not making eye contact can represent submission and reverence. It can become about asking for permission, or earning that privilege in some way. If a client is coming to see a domme rather than going to a strip club or going to see an escort, they’re going to a domme for a reason. They’re seeking out that dominance. Saying “Don’t look at me” is a subtle, effective way of establishing dominance, of making it clear that this is my room, this is my space, and you need to respect that.

That applies outside of work in some ways—not to that extreme, of course, but in terms of self-presentation. It makes the argument of how you present yourself in a certain way to control how people look at you in a fair or appropriate way where you have some degree of control over it. Women are so judged by their appearance that making certain choices about how I present myself becomes a way of controlling how people view me.

On Commanding Attention
Being a sex worker has made me recognize power I can have in everyday interactions. Before, I was much more self-conscious about things, even if I was dressed up or whatever. Everybody talks about how confidence is something you can do, but I don’t think I understood that until I started this work. I mean, I’m incredibly clumsy, so I’ve fallen in front of clients. But being a domme is a lot like theater in many ways, where the show just keeps going. You drop something, you trip over your words, you trip over your feet, your garter comes undone—whatever, you play it off. And when you’re a domme, you can play it off like, “That’s not even my fault. Why did you do that?” I’ve had the CD skip and I’ll be like, “Why did you make my CD skip? It wasn’t doing that before you got here.” “I didn’t touch it.” “It’s still your fault!” “I’m sorry.” One of the stories that gets told around the house is that this woman had a client who basically wanted humiliation; he wanted her to punish him. He was very tall, and she was a shorter woman. So the minute they got into the room she said, “How dare you be taller than me?! Get on your knees.”

It’s amazing what can happen once you stop having the expected male-female interaction, since women are so socialized to be nice and really cater to men—even if you’re a staunch feminist, even if you’re really mouthy, like myself, before this job. I still have some of that tendency to apologize profusely if something goes wrong. I’m gonna be like, “I’m so sorry, I messed it up, I’m so sorry.” But I think having this job made me really realize the power I can have over a situation. I mean, personal accountability is important, and you should apologize when you mess up. It’s a matter of not overdoing it, not feeling really bad about it. Something went wrong? It’s fine, we’re moving on. Having that sort of presentation has a lot of power.

Doing the “I’m pretty but I have no brains” thing is not my goal. I don’t present that way, even as a sex worker when I’m trying to appeal to that male attraction, even though the presentation is definitely vampy and really conventionally feminine. And we definitely have clients who come in and think we must be stupid. My goal is that my presentation will command your attention—but now that I’ve got your attention I’m going to use all the other things in my arsenal. My brain, my sense of humor, being okay with myself and with what happens in that situation, communication skills. That definitely crossed over into dating: I’m going to use a certain presentation, and it will command your attention, but the other things are what’s going to hold it together.

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One Response to “Interview: Tizz Wall, Domme, Oakland”

  1. Shybiker says:

    Nice interview. The dynamics of this work often reverse those in modern culture, so that’s interesting to explore.

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