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the false self is sometimes developed in early infancy, when a parent (usually the mother) is depressed or otherwise withdrawn from the child and so the infant learns it must cater to the parent if it is to receive attention, care, and safety.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

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.

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.

Finding the Words: Where Fact and Fiction Meet

One thing I’ve noticed recently is that I don’t always know what I feel. I may feel it fully, but my throat closes in on itself when I try to name the feeling. This happened to me all the time as a kid. Sometimes–and it can be years after the fact–I’ll be reading something and come across a word describing someone else’s experience, and it’ll hit me like a slap in the face. Oh, that’s the word for it.

I remember reading a book last year in which the author detailed a woman’s response to her husband leaving her for their teenaged babysitter. She felt humiliated. That’s never a word I had used or thought to use to describe myself, but I realized then that’s how I’ve felt so many times. Before, I might have said I was “embarrassed” or “anxious,” but that’s not quite right. Those words lacked, glossing over the full terror of the experience and the deep, abiding shame that lingers long after the original event has faded.

As terribly as the feeling is, I’m glad to have that word to hold on to. To give meaning to what might otherwise seem a futile experience in powerlessness. Still, even now, I feel the sting of rebuke: Can I actually talk about this? Can I bear it? Can others? I think maybe that’s why these words, true meaningful words, evaded me for as long as they did. They are almost, it seems, unspeakable when applied to the self and everyday lived experiences, especially the domestic. No one wants to hear about how bad you felt, especially not at the hands of those who were supposed to protect you. Instead, you get over it. Move on. Become resilient. But there’s a fine line between moving on and denial, which only serves to cement the shame in your psyche.

I read an article recently about a Norweigian novelist. She wrote a fictional novel about a woman who was abused by her father as a child. However, the novel so conspicuously paralleled her own life that it has led many people to believe it is autobiographical. And she’s not the first writer to (allegedly) fuse fiction and fact. I think most writers do this to some extent. And I can certainly understand how trauma can seem a better fit for fiction. Not just for the consumption of the general public, but also for one’s own sake. Maybe some distance is helpful to cut beyond the culture of silence, of “just move on.” Hopefully, the fiction becomes the catalyst for that forward movement. The first step is simple: Find the right word.

Writing Routines, Odd Research, and NaNo Update

First update of the week! I got a little behind this weekend on my word count, not really by doing anything fancy, but just throwing away the little bit of routine I have during the weekday does make for more of a challenge. I finally just got caught up today and am days away from making it halfway through!

As for my story, I’m essentially in the same boat I was before. Very little plot. It almost seems like I am writing the backstory for my characters, like the actual action starts long after the parts that I’m writing. Does anyone else do this? While definitely not a useless exercise, it’s a little discouraging. If the whole month goes by and I haven’t made any progress in terms of plot, then I suppose I will try my hand at outlining a plot in great detail and see how that shapes up. But no time to think about that until November is through!

Also since I made it back on track with my word count, I have some spare time to do my favorite thing: Wikipedia research! Look what I’ve found: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linda_Hazzard. Linda Hazzard started a sanatorium in a small town in Washington State where people from all over would go for her fasting remedies. She went to prison after over 10 people died in her care, due to starvation, over a period of four years. This has sparked a bit of inspiration regarding alternative medicine and quack doctors. An interesting read and definitely relevant today.

My story is set in a sort of alternative wellness center in middle-of-nowhere Washington, so this’ll be good inspiration.

I’ve also been on the NaNoWriMo subreddit, which has had some interested conversations that I hope to later turn into posts, such as revision plans after November, time management (e.g., what to do when you fall behind), and how to schedule the time to write, for example, with a toddler. Stay tuned for future posts!

Nano: Eventual update

Despite all odds, I’ve been keeping up with my word count. I’m now at 13K and counting! Though my story is in tragic shape, the actual part about putting the words on paper (normally very hard!) is coming much easier than usual. So I suppose I can’t complain…but I’m going to anyway.

My story itself is a mess. It’s just a collection of shorter stories about a variety of women and their various problems (all could be individual stand-alone stories in the own right, if I wasn’t so set on something else). As of yet, they are not related, so I need to think of a way to connect the stories (you know, a plot or whatever). Ugh. I am so worried that I am going to get to the end of November with 50,000 words, and think, “what the hell was I doing?” Well, too late now.

Today I wrote a little piece that was basically this retelling of a kabuki play that I learned about on NHK’s Kabuki Kool.  (By the way, one of my favorite shows). It’s called the Zen Substitute, I think, and it really resonated with me because it concerns deceptions, broken promises, promiscuity, and all sorts of fun relationship stuff. But mostly, it struck me because the husband never calls his wife by her name, he calls her this not-so-flattering pet name, “the mountain god.” Actually, it sounds kind of flattering, but I think he’s basically saying she is terrifying. And he goes to great lengths to avoid her wrath. It doesn’t stop him from keeping a mistress, but, whatever. I’m not completely sure why that stuck with me, but it did. Something about how female rage can be elevated into a sort of godlike status, almost mythic proportions. I want to make strong female characters in my story, but I also want them to have depth. Through their own shortcomings, through their own missteps and failings, they emerge into their full, dangerous potential. That’s the gist of what I’m going for, at least.  More on mountain gods later, I’m sure!