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the false self is sometimes developed in early infancy, when a parent (usually the mother) is depressed or otherwise withdrawn from the child and so the infant learns it must cater to the parent if it is to receive attention, care, and safety.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.

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.