Women and Anger: The Psychology of False Bodies

I’m currently reading “Fat Is a Feminist Issue” by Susie Orbach–a wonderful book first published in 1978 that remains tragically relevant today. Orbach talks about how our cultural obsession with obesity and thinness is a mask for more complex psychological phenomena. That is, it’s about more than how much you weigh, instead it’s about what your weight signifies. This is practically common knowledge these days, as people talk about how their food intake (or lack thereof) makes them feel “in control,” or of body image as a way to take up more or less space.

One particularly compelling idea is what Orbach calls the “false body.” This is an extension of David Winnicott’s concept of the “false self.” Winnicott posited that the false self is sometimes developed in early infancy, when a parent (usually the mother) is depressed or otherwise withdrawn from the child and so the infant learns it must cater to the parent if it is to receive attention, care, and safety. The child internalizes the needs of the caretaker and becomes separated from and eventually unable to access its own needs and desires. Growing up they might feel this sense of emptiness that they can’t place. It’s a mask you might wear, but remain completely unaware that you’re wearing it.

Orbach says that this happens, not just with the mind, but also with the body. A woman might internalize a false body image that is based on external expectations. The practical result being a separation from the body, an inability to feel and live in the body authentically. The false body is a barrier that disconnections us from our feelings and our true sense of self.

Image by ernie from Pixabay

Of course, this is all bound up in cultural attitudes towards women. We are taught to take up less space, physically and emotionally. We repress or channel our emotions into societally acceptable venues, maybe we re-direct it at ourselves. In particular this line about women and anger struck me: “When we rebel or show dissatisfaction, we learn we are nasty and greedy. ” To be dissatisfied as a women is to be selfish. And to be selfish is almost anti-woman, isn’t it? It’s antithetical from the nurturing, other-focused mother, wife, community member. Whenever a man calls me selfish, it sounds like a slur. It sounds condemning, unnatural, disgusting. It’s meant to put you in your place. It’s meant to secure your compliance.

Culturally, we don’t handle angry women very well. To be angry as a woman is to be bitchy or shrewish or nagging. Women are shamed out of their anger, talked out of it, bullied out of it. To be angry as a woman is to be unattractive. So what do we do with the repressed anger? We take it out on ourselves and our bodies–through the violence of extreme diets, through outright starvation, through the “selfless” focus on others at the expense of our well-being.

Today, do the opposite of what you’ve been told. Express your anger. Take up space. Be selfish.

11 Rules for Writing

Inspired by the Art and Craft of Novel Writing by Oakley Hall.

  1. Write every day, no matter what. When you don’t write, write the next day.
  2. Fill your life with inspiration, and know that everything is inspiration. Keep it close to you.
  3. Write with bravery and confidence (write what you want and how you want). Don’t stop for anyone.
  4. Write happily, even though writing is work, it is also joyful. Work with pleasure only.
  5. Have a space set aside for writing, but don’t be bound to it. Writing is everywhere.
  6. Write the Truth, not the facts. Authenticity is everything.
  7. Be precise.
  8. Finish one story before beginning another. But horde story ideas like gold.
  9. Don’t be afraid of anything, nothing is off limits. Don’t censor, but do write spaciously, leaving for symbolism and metaphor.
  10. Relaxing is invaluable. Use your unconscious mind, do things that appear mindless to find solutions when stuck.
  11. Don’t focus on finishing, just take it one day at a time. That’s how work gets finished.

Female Bodies

In my last post, I talked about dissociation and my own fraught relationship with my body. This post is related; it’s about why being in a body, especially a female body, is so challenging. Though this is not an exclusively female experience, it’s absolutely gendered. Being a woman means having a body that is always on display. Always commented on. Public property. And it starts at birth. I have a three-year-old daughter, and nearly every time we go out some well-meaning stranger compliments her appearance. Gushes: She’s so cute! I love her hair! What a darling smile! It’s an ingrained cultural response, but I can’t imagine that it isn’t racking up in her brain already, an ongoing tally, this cultural fixation on appearance. And what happens when those compliments stop coming so easily? When the compliments come laced with layers of expectation? Will she turn on herself? Will she feel somehow not enough, somehow lacking?

I’ve never had an eating disorder, but I’ve known many, many women that have. Still more women suffer from disordered eating stemming from a poor body image. I’m in this latter category. I am angry about the amount of time I’ve spent feeling bad about the way I look. It feels nearly impossible not to feel this way. Is feeling comfortable in one’s skin is more the exception than the rule?

When I grew up, my mom was always, always on a diet. I think diet culture is especially insidious because it masquerades as “health.” I can’t speak for other people, but that hasn’t been my experience of dieting. A truly healthy practice would involve compassion instead of self loathing. It would involve understanding instead of punishment. Not just because that is the kindest path, but also because that is the path that promotes lasting lifestyle changes. Most of the diets I’ve experienced seem like attempts to sell desperate people products that promote quick fixes. It’s no consequence that such quick fixes discourage any sort of critical thinking or self reflection. They don’t want you to ask: why am I really unhappy? If people started looking hard at what was triggering their feelings of inadequacy, they’d probably look beyond a supplement for fulfillment.

In the world we live in, it’s hard not to feel inadequate. I have put my body though so much because of these feelings of not being enough. I’ve muted it with drugs and alcohol. Tried to silence it through overwork, through inertia or even violence. I think the first step in recovery is recognizing that the system is rigged. A patriarchal system benefits from women feeling less than, from feeling unattractive, from being separated from their true authentic selves. The second step is compassion. It’s hard to break free of ideas that have followed you around since before you can remember. You will probably feel unattractive sometimes or treat yourself poorly. When you already feel like shit, you might tell yourself horrible, soul-defeating things, things that you’d never say out loud to another human being. It’s okay. It’s hard. Eventually you can return to a place of acceptance, welcome yourself back to yourself. Every time you do, it will be that much easier to come back the next time.

How Not to Disassociate

Something I’ve been thinking about lately is how I view my body, how I engage with it, how I treat it. I’m guilty of forgetting about my body most of the time. I think this is very common for survivors of sexual abuse. We dissociate. Because the experience of actually being in your body is so uncomfortable, you remove yourself from it completely. It’s a useful skill in the midst of trauma, but it can become problematic if it becomes your default way of being.

You can end up ignoring a lot of things if you’re not present in your physical body–things like pain and sickness, which often leads to more pain and more sickness. Even basic states of being, like hunger or exhaustion. You just keep going on, for example, unaware that you haven’t eaten all day, in fact, you only notice when your hands are wildly shaking and you can’t type anymore.

Feelings are sourced in the body. I might feel fear as a widening pit in my stomach, or sadness as a heavy weight on my chest. Of course, if I’m divorced from my body, I don’t feel these things very well or at all. In fact, that’s probably the point: to be numb. But if you do this enough then over the years you grow up into someone who legitimately doesn’t know what they feel, much less how to express it. That’s what happened to me anyway.

Also, I wonder if there’s something basically comforting about staying in the mind, about not having to worry about the body.  Bodies get sick, they get old, they’re fallible, they remind us of how fragile and impermanent our existence is. For women especially, bodies can seem to be more of a liability than anything else. A target for violence, a public commodity (more on that in a later post!). So, there’s this theme of the body as a vulnerability.

Also, related, there’s the body as an oppositional force. I felt this way acutely during my pregnancy and the birth of my daughter. I treated my body like a defective machine. I felt like it had failed me, I felt betrayed. Or when I was recently diagnosed with hemochromatosis, a genetic disease where your body doesn’t properly process iron, and eventually it stores in your vital organs. Your body effectively poisons itself. Again, feelings of anger and betrayal. Must I always be at war with my body?  (Do I even have a right to be mad, after ignoring it for so long? Whose fault even is it? Why do these things happen in the first place? I don’t know!)

When I find myself resisting my physical experiences, I try to turn to my body with compassion.  I ask, what is it trying to tell me. There’s so much that our bodies do for us. Things that are beyond our comprehension, beyond what even science can explain. Mysterious things that keep us alive. So many things that have gone unappreciated by me for far too long. Maybe that sort of understanding and appreciation is a way forward towards, if nothing else, a more harmonious coexistence.

Relics from the Past: Ghosts and Haunted Houses

I just got a short story published in a local online journal, Hamlit. It’s actually a story I wrote several years ago, before my daughter was born and I still lived in DC. My life was a lot different back then.

I wrote it for a class on Ghost Stories that I took at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda. It’s more of a thought experiment than a story. I re-imagined my honeymoon as if it were populated by ghosts.

The story is set in Saguenay, a beautifully remote part of Quebec where I went for my actual honeymoon. The amalgamation of cultures, the stark beauty of the fjords, the weird art installations (for more see: Wikipedia) all had an otherworldly feel to them.

This was written during a phase where I was particularly interested in domestic horror: haunted houses, invaded bodies, suffocating marriages. And especially, the idea of secret lives: Who lived in your house before you did? Who was your partner before you knew them? Who were your parents before you were born? Or even, what parts of you remain hidden from your own view?

I even started writing a NaNo novel around these sorts of themes: A pregnant woman finds a pair of children’s shoes buried in the fireplace of the old victorian home she and her husband recently moved into. She becomes convinced that the house is haunted, marred by some unspeakable event. Then I got pregnant and never finished it. 

Still today, the symbolism of the haunted house fascinates me. So do ghosts. Sometimes I feel like we live in a world made of ghosts. Trauma is a kind of ghost. Family secrets are a kind of ghost. Even my stories become ghosts.

Why I’m Writing a Romance Novel

I’ve been busy all November working on my NaNoWriMo project. I’ve decided to move away from what I normally write (a subgenre I like to call “Domestic Horror” or “Horror of the Everyday,” with its dark brooding imagery and existential questions, like how do we know anyone, really? How safe are we in our homes, with our loved ones?).

So, this November, I wrote a romance novel (!!!). Prior to this project, I hadn’t read any romances, at least not in the genre-specific way that a Romance novel typically suggests, so that was a challenge. But I binged read as much as I could, a sort of Romance 101. There are some really interesting things that the genre has going for it–at least as I see it, from an outsider’s perspective. It’s a rather reviled genre and one that is primarily populated by women writers and readers. Consequence? Ha. It’s also a genre that, historically (though I’m sure not wholly), has played fast and loose with problematic tropes, like rape, stalking, and general disregard for consent. Yet, many of the modern romances I’ve read over the past month seem to turn these tropes on their head, albeit in sometimes subtle ways. By being woman-centric, these stories offer a vital space for the female perspective, one that is routinely minimized or stamped out altogether in common discourse. 

I think it’s important to have space for women to explore topics like sexuality, fantasy, and societal roles and expectations. Today, romance as a genre runs the gamut across all spectrums, in terms of sexuality, gender roles, and graphic content. The genre is increasingly diversifying. Ultimately, the one consistent thing about romance is: these are books about relationships and sexuality. Two subjects I am very much interested in. I grew up in the age of the heyday of the Victoria’s Secret fashion show. Internet pornography was exploding on the internet. I got my cues on what it means to be a woman from an unabashedly male lens. It’s limiting and it’s inauthentic. Could romance novels have offered a window into a different reality, a more nuanced and expansive one? I hope so.

National Novel Writing Month: Empowerment through Stories

[N.B.: This is a post I started writing in October and then promptly forgot about posting until now! Better late than never!]

It’s National Novel Writing Month! It’s my absolute favorite time of the year. It’s crazy, it’s hectic, but it’s such a mainstay of my writing life I think I’d be lost without it. This will be my 10th year as a NaNo Participant, and my first year as Municipal Liaison for the wonderful Skagit Valley region.

I don’t typically relish public leadership roles (social anxiety, nagging self doubt, existential dread, etc.), but I felt so strongly about NaNo that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. My first NaNo, back in 2007, came at a time of my life when everything was in flux: I had just graduated college and found my first full-time job in all its soul-sucking glory, started dating my first girlfriend and so came out as queer in an awkward, bumbling sort of way. I didn’t know what I was doing with my life and I felt out of control of it. I don’t even remember how I found out about NaNo (I think I saw a book in a bookstore by Chris Baty?), but it sounded like a great distraction and sufficiently impressed my girlfriend, so I was all in.

I didn’t make it to 50K that year (it would take about 5 years of trying to do so) but I found that I could write, I found the pleasure in telling a story. I wrote a sci-fi novel about a lowly office assistant who has an Alice-in-Wonderland-type journey to another planet where she discovers her true powers. It was a really meaningful story for me, about the powerless finding power, about hope in darkness, about the suffocation of roles and binaries and how to free yourself from that. Most of all, the actual act of writing gave me hope and purpose. I had something meaningful to say and I was saying it. That’s a kind of power I didn’t know I had access to.

And I was hooked. Ten years later and I haven’t regretted a single hectic November. And it’s wild to me that I’m now an ML and my job is to cheer on other novelists, people who love what I love and value what I value: personal narratives, freedom of expression, stories of all kinds. For me, it’s never been about the word count, it’s always been about the community. Through our stories, we reach out to others and share the deep, undiscovered parts of ourselves.

My poetry in fws: a journal of literature and art

Happy late October! It’s almost Halloween and that means it’s almost my favorite month of the year (More on that in the next post…)

In the meantime, I’ve got some exciting news. Two of my poems, Untitled and Salome, have been published by Moon Shadow Sanctuary Press in fws: a journal of literature and art. View issue 2 here! All of the pieces in this issue are on the theme of skin. I am so proud to be a part of such a wonderful publication alongside many talented artists and poets. Please check it out.

Antidote for Rejection

This is a topic that’s near and dear to my heart right now. If you write, and you want other people to read what you write, then you know about rejection. The deflating feeling of inadequacy, of lack, of not being good enough. 

It’s funny that a profession overwhelmingly comprised of sensitive introverts requires them to put themselves out there in such a deeply personal way.  Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, but I’ve stopped pandering–so much–to my ego. It’s not that I don’t care if I get published or that it doesn’t hurt to get those formulaic thanks but no thanks letters back from lit mags–I do, and it does. It’s just that I’ve decided I’ve got to have faith in myself, and faith in the transformative powers of the writing process. The rest will come, or it won’t.

Believe me, I’d love the outside affirmation. I’d love the recognition, the accolades, but I also know from hard-won experience that those things are insubstantial. There’s a Buddhist saying, “Praise and blame, gain and loss, pleasure and sorrow come and go like the wind. To be happy, rest like a giant tree in the midst of them all.” Success and rejection are just two sides of the same coin. If you are unmoored and grasping, they’re both problematic. The praise itself doesn’t make your work valuable. And in fact, it just sets up further expectations and opportunities for self-doubt. Do I deserve this? Am I a fraud?

Further, I think as writers we would be better served by reframing our personal stances on success and failure. Consider: It’s not you against the world. We writers are all in this together.  Instead of stalling over rejections, let’s work towards creating a community with other writers, supporting them in spite of their own rejections, and (trying) not to be envious in the face of their successes. A generous spirit is expansive, creative, transformative. It’s something to work towards because that’s where the magic happens.