Sitting at my desk, typing, I lean in to catch a typo, and feel it: the pinch of my trousers against my flesh. And suddenly I feel monstrous, a great white whale of a thing spilling out over the edges of everything.
In this moment, my actual size isn’t really the issue. It’s that I exist at all, a bodily thing. When I was 103 lbs, I still had that sense that it might be better if pieces of me were simply sliced off. Get thinner, be smaller, dwindle, vanish into a wisp of vapor swathed in swirling fabrics, a stick figure toting a brain on top, with no messy female parts to cause all this trouble.
It’s not exactly anorexia, this feeling I’m talking about, though I have had a bit of that, too. It’s this pressure on me to be less, to exist less. As a woman, I should watch how heavily I’m being. It’s not only the fashion and beauty industry reminding us that an acceptable woman is a woman with as little of body as possible – or, with body only filling out approved curves. It’s the entire culture that tells us to diminish ourselves, to make space for others. Even if one gets thin, or manages to fill out the right shape, we’re still being too much if we’re opinionated – if we try to claim space for ourselves.
And insofar as we have achieved the “correct” shape, it suddenly ceases to be ours. Our bodies become objects to be controlled and commented on. Being a stick-figure can’t save you, then, because people will claim the right to tell you you’re too thin. Go eat a burger, they’ll say.
It gets worse if you’re pregnant. People lay their hands on you; strangers come up with unsolicited commentary. They see you simply as the container for the thing within – not really your own – which is why, briefly, you’re allowed to be big. But not too big. (“Are you having twins?” everyone kept asking me, when I was six months pregnant with my last. I wanted to say, “no, I am bearing the Dragon Foretold,” or something like that, but that feeling of not-owning-myself that comes with pregnancy always made me too timid).
Later, I go outside to cut firewood with a bowsaw. I can cut quickly, smoothly, without even thinking about it, and since I’ve been cutting wood by hand since I was eight years old, that’s thirty-six years of bodily knowledge at work there, stored up and passed on in these living cells. It’s effortless, by now, this action. As the frozen wind beats on my back from the west, I feel strong, happy to be in this body that can do so many things.
Agere sequitur esse, the old scholastic principle goes. Action follows being. When I am thinking of myself as a being obligated to be tiny, to reduce the space I take up, I forget about the joy of possessing myself as a bodily thing, acting in the world. That’s the switch from seeing myself as an object, to inhabiting myself as a subject.
And it’s not just bodily skills. One could easily slip into ableism, rejoicing only in the strength or swiftness of the body, but it’s also our bodies that dream, that love, that compose poems, that denounce injustice. These acts of the affections and the intellect are not acts of some isolated Cartesian ego floating in space, or a brain propped atop a stick-figure.
I have to laugh whenever men get triggered by classes or occasions that give special place to women, because I easily survived four years of undergrad classes, a year and a half of M.A. classes, and three years of doctoral classes in which we read almost exclusively men. Some of the men whom we read had things to say about women that were not very nice. Some of them seemed to think that we were “misbegotten males.” Others thought we were okay, but needed to keep in our place. Still others thought we should be beautiful and interesting, in order to be satisfying playthings for males.
We women scholars were expected not to make a big deal about this, because these guys were so wise and great and holy, what did it matter if they relegated an entire half of the human race, automatically, to second-rate status? Also, trash-talking male academic heroes hurts male feelings. And one realizes, early on, as a female academic, that the male ego must be mollified: okay, so that philosophy professor can’t pronounce German? So he thinks that logical argument actually works? Pretend you didn’t notice. Give him the reverence he deserves. That’s how you get ahead. Or, not exactly ahead. That’s how you get your teensy space in the room. If you can learn to parrot him, even better: women scholars get treats for making the right noises, but for many of us that destroys the entire point of the intellectual life. I didn’t sign up to be Echo to some chap’s Narcissus.
When I taught “Women Writers” for many years, we always discussed why this special class was set aside for women. We noted that most classes in a traditional humanities program emphasize men, and discussed why this is the case. No, Camille Paglia, it is not because men are driven by a greater passion to create and build. There were specific laws in place, as well as hegemonic structures and social norms, that prohibited women from occupying anything beyond a very small space. Did I hear someone complain about a day for women being “forced”?
In order simply to have a sonnet published, a woman needed as much passion and ambition as it might take a man to raise armies. The Bronte sisters writing novels were as dangerous rebels and outliers as any man-poet who set off into the wilderness to drink and do peyote and shoot stuff and shag everything that moves.
Women, for most of history, were kept in small spaces. In order to fit on a pedestal, after all, one must be very slim, and keep very still.
In those small spaces, women often found ways to explore. A room of one’s own might become a whole kingdom. But even now, after one hundred years of formal, active, vocal women’s movements, we’re still being constrained by the voices in our head to make ourselves smaller, take up less space, keep quiet, don’t bruise male ego by daring to disagree or hold our own. Don’t endanger male soul by revealing female body. Tuck yourself up, hide yourself away, so the men can play.
I think I’m going to start ignoring those voices.
image credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:-Woman%27s_Head_on_a_Pedestal-_MET_DP-1098-001.jpg