The Armor We Wear

“I’m sensitive and I’d like to stay that way.” 

Over the years, that line from Jewel’s 1995 “I’m Sensitive” has always bothered me. I was reminded of it again recently when I talked about armor with a friend of mine, Chaz Kirchhoff (follow her on Instagram!), an armor specialist and Curator of European and Decorative Arts at the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA).

By its very nature, armor calls out the frailty of the human body. As Chaz said, “In wearing it you are acknowledging that you are a fragile being, but you’re also creating this impermeable surface.” What a fascinating way of looking at it. I like to play a game sometimes and look for ways I can use symbolism to learn more about myself. There’s nothing particularly mystical about it, but if I push a metaphor enough, sometimes I come out with new insight. Armor – rife with symbolism – is perfect for this type of exercise. 

Like many people, my initial thoughts about armor run to great battles with knights and royalty bashing each other near some medieval fortress. The armor’s main purpose is to keep warriors safe from their enemies. Battle armor is light (well – light in comparison to other types). It averages about 40 pounds and would be comparable to the gear kit a fireman might wear. The relative lightness also lets you run away more easily if things aren’t going your way! It doesn’t cover as much of your face so you can see your surroundings better. Battle armor normally has smooth surfaces and may have creases, similar to the keel of a ship. The idea is to create glancing blows from an attacker, so his weapon would slide right off. 

Infantry Armor, German, Nuremberg, ca. 1600, image courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

But battles weren’t the only place armor was used. Tournaments and pageants also featured armor, especially in jousting and other war games. Tournament armor is actually stronger than battle armor – a counter intuitive idea at first. Wouldn’t you want more protection against your enemies than against your friends? It’s actually the opposite. “You’re wailing on your friends and you want to protect them,” said Chaz. The helmet only allows limited sight since all you really need is to see the other jouster charging at you down the field. This was such an interesting concept for me. Like a knight, do I protect myself more heavily in some instances than I do in others?

I want to be open to the world and to other people. I want to feel great joy and great pain. But what I don’t want is to be overly sensitive to other people in a way that inhibits me from getting close to them. I grew up in a family that was concerned about being sensitive to other’s feelings – an earnest aspiration and a core value for which I continue to be grateful. We didn’t ever “wail on each other” in jest nor did we talk about family behind their backs. 

As I broadened my circles in the world, I encountered some amazing people who sometimes showed their love through insults, or who weren’t afraid to call mine and other’s actions into questions. At first, my armor wasn’t thick enough to withstand this and I took things personally. But I realized I was missing out on some wonderful people because they expressed their love in a sharper way than I. 

Guatemalan artist Luis González Palma’s work explores the gaze of one human at another and how one might react to that gaze. “How do we build, in our internal experience, eyes that stare at us?” he asked in his artist statement. Was I creating a perception of these new friends which wasn’t accurate, taking a negative emotion from a statement said with a positive emotion? One of González Palma’s photographs, also in the DIA’s collection, shows a young man, exuding innocence and purity, armored against the viewer’s gaze. Is that armor the reason he can boldly stare back at us? I’d like to think so. 

Luis González Palma, La Coraza, 1999, image courtesy of the artist

This discussion with Chaz allowed me to think of my own emotional armor as a work of art in itself. If I can use it wisely, it will allow the vulnerable part of me to stand strong and boldly gaze out at the world, safe in the knowledge of the armor’s protection. 

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