Friday, 25 June 2010

Bodies of Trust

I've been ill for the past two weeks, which is why my blogging has been minimal. The illness I've been dealing with was an infection. To be more specific, it was a gigantic boil on that area of my body which, in 'street' lingo is called 'the taint.' Said boil swelled up until it became painful for me to do, well, anything, really: I was given antibiotics and told to go away, then, when those antibiotics ran out, I was given more of the same, told the thing looked ready to burst but not yet ready to be surgically excised, and told to give it three days and, if the thing hadn't burst, to go to A&E and demand an excision.

It finally burst on Wednesday evening. And it was foul. Blood and pus and internal gunk completely destroyed my pants. It's been leaking out, at a steadily-slowing rate, since that night, though I've been minimising the effect on my underwear by inserting wadded-up kitchen roll between the draining infection and the cloth, and I've been taking extremely frequent showers to keep the area as clean as I can.

None of this is the worst of it, though. The worst bit was having to phone work and ring in sick. Because as soon as I had to do that - even though there was no way I was going to be able to get to work, even though the gunk was still staining my pants as I picked up the phone - I was a schoolkid again, telling the teacher I didn't feel too good and would like to be sent home, and afraid that I might be told not to be stupid and to go back to my seat. So there was this fear of being told I wasn't ill; but there was also this fear that if someone said I wasn't ill enough to stay off then maybe I wasn't, really. Despite all the evidence of my senses, the guilt over asking for time off because my body had failed and the fear that maybe I wasn't qualified to interpret those signals of failure had my stomach doing somersaults. They scarcely calmed down even after my team leader had told me that yes, they'd seen how much pain I was in on Wednesday, they understood, it was fine etc. Where does all this guilt and fear come from?

Well, to put it pretty bluntly - it's the kyriarchy, stupid. Or to be more specific, it goes back to an experience I'm sure most of us had as kids, which functions to keep us scared of and alienated from our bodies. Here's (one of) my version(s) of the experience, you probably have your own.

I'm at school, in a maths lesson. My stomach is feeling bad and I feel dizzy. I make my way, tentatively, to the front of the class and explain this to the teacher. 'Nonsense,' she barks, 'you're not ill at all. Sit down and get back to work.'

I'm sure that's happened to you countless times at school. It happened to me too. And sometimes, sure, I was trying it on. But there were a lot of occassions when I did feel ill, genuinely, but was told by an authority figure that I didn't. What effect does that have, cumulatively, over time? And what does this have to do with the kyriarchy?

Well, one of the ways the kyriarchy controls people is by estranging us from our bodies. If you want an example, consider how you probably felt reading the start of this blog. You probably felt a little disgusted, a little embarassed, and had a strong sense that these are not the kind of things we should be talking about. But why? Illness is a natural part of bodily experience, even illnesses which occur in 'personal' areas.  I'm not saying it's A-OK to have a giant pulsating pustule on your perineum (clearly it isn't, which is why I went to the doctor as soon as I found it, and why you should do the same should it happen to you), I'm just saying it falls within the normal gamut of human bodily experience.

The thing is, from an early age we're conditioned not to regard our bodies as normal or, rather, we aren't allowed the authority to define what is normal for our bodies. Right around the time I was learning that my maths teacher knew better than me what my state of health was, I was also going through puberty, and growing hairs on parts of my body which had previously been hairless. And I hated it. So I tried to fight back, at first by trying to cut the hairs back with scissors and, years later - when I looked old enough to smoke - burning the hairs away with a cigarette lighter. It never occurred to me that I could just get rid of the hair by, y'know, shaving - because shaving your body hair wasn't a man thing. Women shaved their legs, men didn't. Male bodies were hairy, womens' bodies were smooth. I surrendered my bodily autonomy to the gender police, and resigned myself to years of looking like George 'The Animal' Steele's gay cousin.

Of course around about the same time a lot of girls at school were facing up to exactly the opposite problem: the constant pressure to keep every inch of their bodies hair-free, and to stay thin, and to be desirable objects to the boys around them. All of us were learning that we didn't actually have any authority over our own bodies, that our experience of those bodies would be dictated by other people: teachers, fashion experts, diet gurus, athletes, magazine editors, TV stars and, perhaps most horribly of all, our own peers. When you feel like that, you can go a little crazy. I know I did. I developed anorexia in my late teens, and spent years struggling to develop a normal relationship with food. I can't help but wonder how many other people I was at school with went through similar issues. I knew a lot of people who were self-mutilating, in  one way or another. I can't speak for all those people, but I can speak for myself when I say that a lot of my problems stemmed from a feeling that the body I had, in some way, did not measure up to a thousand impossible standards.

The last paragraph of any piece like this is supposed to be the inspiring bit. This is supposed to be the bit about how I finally wrestled my bodily autonomy away from every other fucker who tried to limit it and became comfortable in my own skin. But, as my nervousness over speaking to my boss on the phone indicates, I'm not there yet. I'm getting there, though.

These days, I'm not anorexic. I'm also not as fat as I used to be either. I'm still quite fat, it's true; but I work out and I'm steadily getting fitter. I've lost a lot of weight in the course of the last year not through crash dieting, but by simply relating more normally to food, and to alcohol for that matter. I don't drink as much as I used to. And I don't think it's a coincidence that this new healthier lifestyle coincided with me deciding to finally do something about my body hair. Nowadays, I shave (and occassionally use creams) to get rid of the mat of black fur on my arms, chest and legs, and I feel better for it. I have accepted that I like to do a lot of other non-boy things with my appearance: I wear make-up (well, nail polish mainly, and occassionally mascara), I use feminine body language, I accessorise somewhat more freely than the average XY-person my age. I've accepted that while I don't necessarily want to have an actually female body, I like to be as femme as I can get away with, and I'm okay with that.

And yet...every single day, I still come up against the idea that I shouldn't do this. That I don't have a right to decide what to do with my body. I worry that people will think I look stupid, that people might be offended, that people might laugh. I worry that people will think that because I'm such a girl,  I automatically don't deserve to be taken seriously, that the vast reserves of knowledge and education I've accumulated will be rendered null-and-void because I choose to wear pink, flower-pattern arm-warmers rather than a tweed jacket. I worry that people will think that, just because I'm frivolous, they don't have to take me seriously. 

I worry. And then I do it anyway. Because I know that, even if I can't yet shut up the maths teacher in my head, every time I allow myself to deal with my body on my terms, her voice gets quieter and quieter and quieter...

And maybe one day, I won't hear that voice at all.

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