Me in a Nutshell, part 1

I’m a stay-at-home mom. I used to be a lawyer, though not a particularly good one, and not for very long. I quit because I found it to be an intolerable combination of boring and stressful. I’ve experienced some side eye and, a few times, outright judgment for leaving my “career,” and I never know how to answer questions about when I’m going back to work. Truth is, I don’t want to go back. I’ve never felt like the workforce, that monolithic, sinister entity, did me any favors. Its frequent attempts to thicken my skin never really took. I’m still too sensitive. I don’t bounce back. All it ever did was wear me down, fuel my depression and anxiety. I don’t know how to explain my experience adaquately, so that you would understand. It felt like choking. Even when the work itself was meaningful, even perhaps important, I was always, essentially, separate from it. It was never, ever about me, and if I wasn’t there, someone else would do it. It was a powerless, impotent feeling. I think this is by design. If you’re broken down and tired, you’re less likely to fight back.

So, I bowed out as soon as I could, or rather, after I felt I had a good enough reason. I had a baby. Yet I still feel weird about cashing in on our gendered institutions to procure my freedom. Now, if I were a man, I could stay at home easily, without judgment or regret. In fact, I’d be a trendsetter, I’d be sticking it to the Capital-M Man. As it stands, I sort of work for him instead. I’m fulfilling the dismal promise of the 1950s, taking care of children and shiny appliances. Still, I try to be subversive when I can.

One of my main goals as a mother is to shield my daughter from the destructive influence of gender essentialism. Our society has a vested interest in accentuating any inherent differences between men and women to reinforce the gender binary. I think many people underestimate how deeply and tightly held these sorts of gendered beliefs are. Gendered gifts, gendered comments and observations, started for my daughter in her infancy. Well-intentioned (I suppose?) strangers continue to comment on her cute clothes, call her princess, tell her to smile. It’s inundating. From her earliest moments, she’s received these not-so-subtle hints from society about how she should be and what she should focus on. I try to balance the scales by giving her options and alternatives. And I try to create the space for her to forge her own path. This feels, to me, productive and powerful, even in its small scope.

But sometimes I wonder, will my daughter think less of me, when she grows up? Because of the decisions I’ve made? Because of how I spent my life?

The Mistresses of Minos: Misplaced Rage in Mythology

This week, I registered for a writing class at the Hugo House in Seattle. Because of Coronavirus, they’ve moved all their classes online, which is great because now they’re more accessible to people like me, who live further away and/or prefer not to leave the house.

The class is “Phantasmagoria: Writing Monsters & Myths.” I’m so excited! I’ve been working on a few poems inspired by Greek mythology, but I’ve been having a hard time pulling them together, so I hope this class will be a good motivator.

One myth I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is Theseus and the Minotaur.

Actually, let’s forget about Theseus: A garden-variety “hero,” who only escapes the labyrinth by lying to Ariadne–promising to marry her in return for her help, only to leave her stranded and brokenhearted on the next remote island as he continues his victorious voyage home. No thanks.

Instead, I want to talk about the Minotaur’s mother, Pasiphaë. She was daughter of Helios, the sun god, worshipped by some as a full-fledged lunar goddess herself. She was also the queen of Crete, married to King Minos. Now, the Minotaur was created because Minos offended Poseidon by keeping a special bull that he was instead suppose to sacrifice. As punishment, Poseidon made Pasiphaë fall in love with that very bull … and the result of that unholy union was the Minotaur.

First off, can we recognize how supremely unfair this curse was for Pasiphaë? How she was forced to bear the brunt of the humiliation, not to mention the considerable physical pain of birthing a bull, because of her husband’s greed?

An example of the larger male drama at stake in Greek mythology.

And greed wasn’t the only vice Minos had. Hence, the curse of Pasiphaë (who in addition to near-divinity was also a master herbalist): She placed a fidelity charm on Minos, which caused him to ejaculate serpents, scorpions, and centipedes whenever he was unfaithful. Unfortunately, the effect of that was to kill the mistress (another spectacular instance of misplaced aggression), but still it’s a pretty badass curse.

Mythology is full of stories like this: Misplaced rage and women who primarily act as receptacles to the larger male drama. Many times, they aren’t even named (e.g., the many stung and snake-bitten mistresses of King Minos). Clearly, these stories reflect a particular male-oriented (and often downright misogynistic) lens. But, luckily, they’re also ripe for refocusing, reinvention, and maybe even a little revenge.

How to Be an Antiracist

I just read How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. It’s an insightful book that defines and catalogs racist and antiracist thought in clear and unwavering terms.

One of the most tangible things I took from this book was a renewed desire to examine my own life and what I believe in. Early on, Kendi makes it very clear that there is a big different between being “not a racist” and being “antiracist”:

” ‘Not racist’ signifies neutrality. But there is no neutrality in the racism struggle…one either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist. There is no in-between safe space of “not racist.” The claim of ‘not racist’ neutrality is a mask for racism.”

How to Be an Antiracist, p. 9

For years, I’ve taken some comfort in the fact that I am not a racist. I don’t believe in a racial hierarchy and I recognize privilege that I have as a white person in America. However, this attitude has been a shield that I’ve worn around myself to avoid venturing out into uncomfortable territory. It’s stopped me from doing more, from thinking more about the existing power structures at play around me. Safe in being “not racist,” I had inadvertently absolved myself from the racism all around me.

One example: Years ago, I was offered admission to Temple Law, in Philadelphia, a city I wasn’t (and still am not!) very familiar with. I hadn’t ever been to the campus. I don’t remember why I applied there, but there was some reason. After I was accepted, my dad told me that a colleague of his, originally from Philly, was adamant that I shouldn’t go to school there because it was located in a really rough, high-crime neighborhood. (Read: low-income, Black).

Guess what? I didn’t go there. I didn’t even look into it further. There were a lot of factors at play in the decision, but I can’t deny that fear was one of them. And it’s pretty ridiculous because I never looked into it, I never visited the campus. Most of all, I never really even thought twice about it. It’s in a “bad neighborhood?” Well, okay, that’s not for me. That was the beginning and end of my analysis. I never stopped to ask why, what does that mean, exactly? A bad neighborhood, how? Who lives there? What’s really going on? What am I avoiding? I wish I had asked a few more questions. I wish I had looked into it, head on. I wish I could say that I based my decision solely on the merits of the place, on what was truly best for me, not some shot-gun, fear-based approach that was absolutely rooted in racist underpinnings and avoidance. I don’t know that a deeper analysis would have changed where I went to law school, but it might have. At least, it would have made me a more self-aware person.

How many times has this happened in my life? How many times I have chosen the path of avoidance, of denial?

Kendi’s book is a clear call to action. It starts with identifying and labeling racist thoughts and actions, especially our own. This is difficult, as racist thought is so deeply embedded in our culture. How do we overcome our bias? For starters: Read and learn. Listen. Make a commitment to doing better. Confront racism where you see it, in yourself, in your family, in your communities. We all have a responsibility fight racism and to move forward.

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.

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.