Becoming a teenage girl is a process of petrification.
When my body was made up of straight lines it felt boyish and uninteresting, and when those lines finally bent, they felt uncontrollable. It was all about bending the right way. But it was also about learning to move in the right way, to stop slouching, running and sprawling. Growing up meant growing into containment or learning to ‘play the girl’, a creature that crosses their legs, shuffles when they walk and chews with their mouth closed.
Iris Marion Young in Throwing Like a Girl addresses a woman’s recession into objecthood. Her account goes beyond the sexualisation of our figures by men or the personal reduction of our own bodies to attractive or unattractive. She argues that over time we tend to internalise the presumptions of our own fragility, which has a very real effect on our gestures and interactions. We could be taking larger bites out of our sandwiches or twisting the lids of jars with more aggression, but we are brought up with the limiting idea that our bodies are only capable of certain things. This lie comes to determine our reality and extends beyond the confines of our figures into our spatial awareness, as we are encouraged to take up as little space as possible. The effect, she claims, is that we are tethered to the spot, using less room than is realistically available. This means that we may not end up leaning into our throws or diving to make that catch. And so begins our transformation into something inanimate.
The goal at school was to be a sentient mannequin but the mannequin was ever-changing: butts were ‘in’, boobs were ‘out’, thigh gaps were desirable and hair should be long, but only on your head. The mannequin was stretched in a hundred directions. Then there was the question of visibility: show your legs or your arms but not both, make sure you always leave something to the imagination but don’t be too prudish. The mannequin was cut into pieces. Most of all remember confidence is sexy.
It was somewhere in this tangle of contradictions that I lost my sense of self-awareness. I lost the ability to view my body as not just mine, but me. I had repressed it into the status of an unwanted chaperone for my mind. It was something I maintained through scrubbing, brushing and doctors’ appointments, but also something I tried my best to ignore.
It is easy to lose something when you are not taught to keep it or do not know its value. This is a lesson that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie draws on in the tenth suggestion of her feminist manifesto: ‘be deliberate with how you engage with her and her appearance.’ This is to say that a positive conception of the self is not a given but something to be learnt over time. She stresses the power of alternatives. In this case she is referring to role models, people that challenge the essentialist definitions of ‘woman’ and ‘man’, but she also seems to be talking about beauty, and the need for a conception of it that excludes whiteness and skinniness. Likewise, alongside the subversion of beauty standards we need alternative sources of body confidence. When reclaiming our bodies from dormancy, we need a set of values that appreciates them as constantly changing and ever-moving.
When you misplace something, the general advice is to look in the place you last left it. For me, this meant looking back to a time when I didn’t police my body, to engage with it as I once had.
We begin our lives within a slosh of senses.
A starfish palm fumbles towards a thing. The thing is taken into a sticky grip, pushed and prodded to see what happens. A dripping nose inhales and a drooling mouth sucks it up. It is forced through shining gums and into the pouches of chubby cheeks. A whirling tongue throws it from side to side but the lips still fumble. In a wave of spit, the thing rolls down a chin, over kicking legs and into the abyss at the bottom of the high chair.
I imagine the abyss as an undulating plain of colours and shapes. In its depths, it harbours a thick fog, from which people and things walk in and out of definition. Not until the second month of their lives will the baby begin to understand their hands as their own. Prior to this, the boundary between their body and the world is mysterious. Slowly, the outline of their figure is illustrated into consciousness and gradually they will realise the limitations of having such a body; they will need to cry to get at objects out of reach or need assistance in getting where they want to go.
Through a sequence of trips and tumbles I began to understand these boundaries and the rest of my childhood was spent in an effort to overcome them. It is one thing to know what any human is capable of but something altogether different to know the potential of your specific body.
As a kid, I conceded my limitations. Unlike my dad, I did not have the kind of figure that made a good splash in the swimming pool, but it could fit into small spaces, scale kitchen countertops and jump pretty high, so it suited me well. When it wasn’t a vehicle for speed, I used my body as a weapon against my brother. I became a contortion of joints, a sum of acute angles; knee meets groin, elbow meets stomach and jaw meets neck. Where my body could not go, I could always transcend through my imagination. I was mostly a horse, a part-time golem and occasionally a nose-picking Angel Gabriel in the Nativity.
I had come to appreciate the full breadth of an amazing body, from the softness of an earlobe to an armpits’ ability to fart. This is probably because I never reduced it to something static. Adichie encourages mothers to involve their daughters in sport. If they know that their body can ascend a climbing wall, run, swim or dribble a ball, they will be less likely to resent what they have. Similarly, we can imagine a case being made for the body as a constructive and creative thing, capable of designing buildings or sculpting art; farming land and building cities. Beyond this, it needn’t be purely functional. It can dance and move in its own way without being shown how. It even sings uniquely, for better or for worse.
Regardless of growing up as a woman, adulthood made it difficult to understand my body as anything but ornamental. Unintentionally I have aspired to a sedentary lifestyle. With the exception of perhaps my café job, every life decision seems to have put me in a chair, whether as a student, applying to office jobs or living in a city, where I fight for a tube seat every morning. There is also a difficulty in having an active lifestyle that does not feed a motionless sense of attractiveness; running just to ‘get in shape’ or look healthier. Learning to value your body in its own right is an infinitely complex task, so I decided to try and start with something simple.
I started by feeling myself.
If you lay your left hand on the table in front of you and touch it with your right hand, you can experience yourself as both a subject and an object. The left hand feels like dead weight. You can feel the firmness of your wrist and how the skin seems to feel more brittle around the knuckles. You can see how your flesh gets baggier over your joints and slips over the bones when pushed. You may notice that the top of the hand is seemingly softer and that your nails have a similar texture to glazed wood. I can feel that the smoothest part of my hand is over my dog bite scar. I can also feel the callouses I have from climbing and the roughness of a healing coffee-burn from work. My right hand is in motion. It traces the contours of my flesh, searching for softness and dipping into the crevices between my fingers. I chose to favour my right-hand, to side with the animate and began to feel the life back into my body.
I thought about the parts that I liked the sensation of. The faint softness of my unibrow against the tip of my finger. The way my large hands and long fingers resemble a claw crane at an arcade. The sensation of my thighs squishing against wood in tight denim shorts or the feel of my hair brushing my shoulders and upper back. I thought about the clenching of my body before a sneeze and the relief after. The way my jaw clicks when I eat and the plasticky feel of my filling on my left molar. The feeling of my feet kicking through water and of my toes curling within my boots.
I am not a merely a sack of blood and bones
or a network of veins, arteries and interwoven tendons.
Nor am I just a pulse rate or a BMI.
I am not a visual composition, made up of parts that work or don’t work.
I am not in need of amendment and omission.
I am more than that.
Through the simple act of feeling myself, I am shaken into animation and take a bolder leap to believing it.
Dolly Church is a recent Philosophy MA graduate and London-based freelancer. Her work has appeared in Prospect Magazine, The New Statesman’s Citymetric, Ploughshare’s Blog, among others.