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.

Solitude and Fear

This weekend, I went on a one-woman writer’s retreat. There’s a cabin on Whidbey Island that I found listed on Airbnb a few years ago. It’s a single-occupancy dwelling nestled in the woods, complete with a strong wifi signal and three thesauruses. It’s designed specifically for writers. I bookmarked it and periodically came back to it, thinking, one day, I would go there.  Not today, though. Not this month.

I told myself it was because of my toddler. Wouldn’t it be cruel to leave her behind for three whole days? How could I explain my absence to her?  It seemed a luxury I couldn’t afford. But truthfully: I was afraid. I was afraid of being alone, for vast stretches of time. I thought I might die of boredom, or of missing my daughter. More realistically, I thought I might have a mental breakdown being alone with my thoughts. The more I thought about it, the more I began to dread the specter of my own company. So I avoided it for many months.

My husband kept bringing it up, every so often, but I always had a good reason why now wasn’t a good time. Eventually, my sister told me I’d be crazy to pass up an opportunity like that. Of course, she was right. It was a little counterproductive, me standing in my own way. So, I booked it, even though the decision itself was made with much trepidation. Even, at times, regret. But the cabin had a very strict no refund policy, and so it was decided.

I cooked three day’s worth of food ahead of time and braced myself for solitude. If I was going to do this, I was really going to do it.  I didn’t want any distractions. (I didn’t even pack wine.) Instead, I packed several notebooks and several more books. I wanted to brainstorm my next writing project, journal, and read. Maybe do some yoga and meditation. And I did all those things. But mostly, I just sat around and thought.

I thought a lot about fear and how difficult it can be to express when you are afraid. It feels somehow humiliating, an infantilizing admission. I also felt a bit unreasonable in my fear, like I didn’t deserve the opportunity if I was only going to be angsty about it. (Funny how the mental admonitions of adult-me sound like echoes of emotionally neglectful parents.) Of course, it’s not patently unreasonable to be unnerved at spending three nights alone in an unfamiliar cabin in the woods, away from everyone you know, without so much as a car or reliable phone service.

Regardless.

I was able to parse through my thought processes and really analyze the fear that I hold inside of me. The fear wasn’t the problem so much as the denial of it was. The avoidance, the minimalizing. That’s what people have been doing to me my whole life, but it’s weirdly terrifying to realize that I do it to myself.

But fear is so human. When we avoid our fear, when we attempt to will it out of existence, we only succeed in diminishing our own humanness.

There are a lot of things I fear, many of them I don’t even think I can acknowledge properly. Some of these feelings have been forced down for so long that I no longer recognize them for what they are. It’s a long process to unravel the knotty threads that kink and bind your perception. Solitude helps. Facing yourself–your true, human form–honestly and gently, is perhaps the best antidote for fear.