One Word: Loose


One Word

Melissa Febos’s essay “The Mirror Test” appears in our Winter 2020 issue, and this essay grows out of that one.

“She’s tight,” they kept saying with glee about this girl or that. This was before tight meant good or mad and after it meant drunk or cheap. The boys scanned the school cafeteria for girls they deemed chaste, the ones with modest figures and monied homes. “She’s tight,” they’d agree with approval.

“What about me?” Is it possible that I actually asked this? That I was once so plaintive? Of course. I was a child.

“No, you’re loose as a goose.”

I remember exactly what I wore that day: button-fly jeans, short-sleeved shirt with a floral pattern. It must have seemed important.

The Remarkable History of Chicken Little, the 1840 tale by John Greene Chandler (adapted from a 1823 Scandinavian version), is populated by farm birds with rhyming names, including one Goose-Loose (Gaase Paase in the original), who spread their terror of the sky’s alleged falling like a bad game of telephone. Fox-Lox then lures them into his den for supposed protection, and bites off all of their heads.

The moral of this story is that you ought not believe everything you’re told. In the first cut of the original film adaptation, which was requested by the U.S. government and released by Walt Disney Pictures in 1942, the fox is depicted reading Mein Kampf, and then convincing Chicken Little that the sky is falling.

All those birds got so uptight over this fabrication. Tightening is a response to fear. The amygdala engages and our perceived options are reduced to two: fight or flee. Our muscles clench, blood flow to the brain is constricted—we walk straight into the fox’s den. Stay loose as a goose and remain under the intact sky.

“Loose as a goose” originated from the perception that geese have loose bowels. The Canadian geese surely shat all over the town I grew up in, roving in flocks across the athletic fields, ruining them with waste barely distinguishable from the grass. We gave them a wide berth because they were frightening, though beautiful, with their muscular necks and distinctive feathered faces, like arrogant bandits. No one doubted the freedom of a goose to fuck you up simply for jogging through their clique.

I would have liked to be loose as the geese that flew over our wooded road, their wingspans longer than my body head to foot, bellowing as they cast themselves across the sky.

The origins of loose almost always mean free. Across seven centuries and as many languages, it signifies the liberated, unencumbered, wild, unbound. Hang loose, a term adopted by surfers and evolved from the Hawaiian shaka, is read sometimes as a term of respect, and more often as an encouragement to stay loose, not get uptight. Still, men have been intent for almost as long on convincing women that loose is a bad thing, a thing we don’t want to be.

In John Camden Hotten’s 1859 edition of The Slang Dictionary, the term refers to prostitution with the stipulation that it can only apply to women. The 1879 Roget’s Thesaurus offers it as a term for impure or unclean and gives on the loose as a euphemism for prostitution. Prostitutes didn’t wear corsets; they weren’t respectable women, unlike the straitlaced. Their bodies were loose, theirs to give away or to sell if they pleased. Funny that when I was a sex worker, I wore a corset so often. Still, tell me again why I shouldn’t want to be loose, let my organs settle where they ought to be? Every other thing on the loose is free. The only reason we are ever given not to be is to avoid the punishments of men. Like every other bad thing a women can be, they invented it.

The boys in school interpreted the term more crassly: to be loose meant that one had a baggy pussy, presumably from being penetrated so often. Fucking a loose girl was like “throwing a hotdog down a hallway.” Loose girls were “wide as the Callahan Tunnel,” through which we drove under Boston Harbor into the city.

No surprise that a corresponding interpretation exists for hang loose. Loose junk on a man is a good thing; no one denigrates boys for letting their genitals swing. Obviously no one wants uptight balls, shrunk with fear or cold. Meanwhile, women should find a way to retract our meat curtains. The flagrancy of gendered double standards is awe inspiring, even after all these years, brazen as a story about the sky falling.

“Hot dogs are made of lips and assholes,” I once heard one of those same boys claim. I’d never eaten one and I still haven’t. Though I could count on one hand the penises I’ve touched since I stopped doing so for money, I saw a fair number before that, starting when I was an adolescent girl. They were never so big as a hot dog, though I’m not interested in reciprocating shame via the body—there’s no redemption in that.

There was a story about a girl in junior high who rode my school bus. She was a year ahead of me, someone we’d all known from grade school. The story was that she had fucked herself with a frozen hot dog and it got stuck. “That’s a story from time immemorial,” said my beloved. Is there a girl at every school in this country about whom this story is told?

Those raconteurs clearly had never met a pussy. Perhaps they had never met pleasure, either. During middle school, I tried everything—zucchinis and carrots and the leg of an old Barbie, but a frozen hot dog? A frozen anything? Cruelty is so often illogical. Literal nonsense. But if they tell it to us young enough, it needn’t be nuanced.

The hot dog story didn’t even derive from speculation about that girl’s sexual proclivity. It was just that she was tall and fat. At fourteen years old, she looked like a woman in a Renaissance painting. She was gorgeous and could have kicked the ass of any boy on that school bus. Her midsection was loose as a goose and that made their testicles uptight. I don’t know what happened to that girl but I hope she is hanging loose in every way she wants. It was also my body that earned me a sexual reputation, though in my case it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Like so many things, they succeeded at convincing us that loose was a thing we shouldn’t want to be. Penned was better. Into the den, safety. Tight, ideal. Two fingers, one finger, let nothing thicker than a pencil fit inside you. Let your perspective narrow straw-thin with fear of what they might say about you, what else such stories might permit. But you know what? I refuse to cinch myself up. I want to arrange a living room inside me, invite all of my friends over for game night. No hot dogs here. We eat expensive cheese and black licorice. We drink cases of fancy seltzer and laugh until we weep. There’s space for all of us here, or anywhere we please, once we’re on the loose.

Over the years, a surprising number of my college students have confused the spelling of lose and loose. It always startles me to see, but in a good way. I want to loose my mind, loose my marbles all over the floor. Let me loose the thread, unravel all sense that makes no sense. Let all lost things be loosed instead, not gone but freed. Call me a looser, shout it across the school cafeteria, into the cavernous tunnel under the harbor. Looser! This is the one command I will obey, grow looser by the minute, until I am loose as a goose, menacing men with my rebel flock, all of us spreading across the sky—not fallen yet—as we take our freedom.


Read Melissa Febos’s essay “The Mirror Test” in our Winter 2020 issue.

Melissa Febos is the author of Whip Smart and the essay collection Abandon Me. Her second essay collection, Girlhood, will be published by Bloomsbury on March 30, 2021. A craft book, Body Work, will be published by Catapult in 2022.