I keep reading lately about women and walls. Maria Catt wrote a week or so ago:
The people in my life generally are not great at letting me talk, at length, like an adult, about these experiences. They just mostly don’t get it. They don’t like that my stories are messy and complex and challenging. I sound like a broken record. My sister once told me I was the angriest person she knew.
Oh my gosh, yes I am! And my anger has stuck around because I keep running up, again and again, against the parts of reality the people around me won’t acknowledge. Now that I’m getting some reality confirmation through this blog oh my gosh I feel so much lighter. I feel like, ok, I can start not running up against the same stupid walls. It’s just so much easier to move through anger to action when someone will confirm you’re speaking about reality.
Then this morning, I read on Glosswatch’s blog:
I didn’t realize, at 18, how hard it is for women to tell their stories. By which I don’t mean write a novel or a blog, but just have the simplest utterance absorbed by another person, rather than bounced straight back off an impermeable wall… You won’t find the right words. Even if you can write the most beautiful, passionate books, it won’t be enough to give you the last word on who you are.
These two quotes keep running through me, parallel to each other. On one hand, we know that when our experience of reality is confirmed by another person, things get easier. The walls dissipate and we can move forward. I think this is why therapy, even simple talk therapy, is so helpful and healing – just to be heard and have your reality confirmed.
On the other hand, that confirmation is a rare find. Society is, unfortunately, made up of walls more than anything else. We like to talk about personal freedom these days (maybe because for so many of us with the time and ability to write blogs on the Internet, we don’t have more pressing concerns to worry about) but our society is less like the openness of the natural world and much more like a carefully constructed labyrinth. Even if you’re wandering on your own, choosing your own way, you’re still surrounded by walls.
This comic has been going around tumblr lately, doing a really good job of pointing out the persistence of walls. It can easily be applied to a lot of my usual conversations here. Why should I need a box in order to see over this wall? Why should I need to call myself a man in order to wear men’s clothing? Why don’t we just remove the wall? Why don’t I just wear this comfortable shirt that fits me?
Lately, I’ve been getting reacquainted with my body hair. Last year while doing the trans thing I let it all grow out (getting up on my box as a male) but never really accepted it. On the surface I said oh, I don’t like the way the breeze feels through my leg hair, and oh, it’s hard to apply deodorant through this armpit hair, but really I was self-conscious. I wanted to look “right” again. I wanted to be able to go out in shorts and not feel like a hairy beast. I wanted to see smooth, unhairy armpits in the mirror. So I shaved everything again, and all was right with the world. No bouncing off those walls at least.
I remember when I was twelve going to a lake with a friend and her family where they had a membership and could swim, have picnics and so forth. All the families there were familiar with each other and we found ourselves swimming with a classmate I wasn’t well-acquainted with, just knew from seeing her face in the halls. She was very Italian, had deep olive skin, huge brown eyes, thick black hair and full eyebrows. While we bobbed in the water on a sunny summer day, I caught sight of something else – little wisps of dark hair straggling from her armpit, shocking against her teal-and-pink swimsuit.
I was appalled. I was twelve-years-old and I was appalled. All the walls that had ever been built around me – my mother’s armpits, my grandmother’s armpits, all the women’s armpits I had seen on TV and in movies – were perfectly smooth, or – at worst! – showing a little dark stubble. What even *was* that stubble? Is that what it would grow into? Straggling dark hairs that clung to the skin, that floated in the water?
My own dark stubble has grown into nut-brown wavy hairs that are softer than I expected. I made up a batch of natural deodorant based on coconut oil that rubs in easily and works as well as any chemical stick I’ve bought in a store. The hair on my calves is darker and longer and not as pleasantly dense. I’d almost rather it be denser, in a weird way. I am still unaccustomed to how the breeze feels through it. I still haven’t worn shorts out this year.
I have sat down in the midst of the labyrinth to study the walls.
We, as women, want to define what a woman can be. We want to proclaim our experiences, we want to say yes, we can have body hair – it’s only been a century of razor use, if that! Our voices echo off the walls. And, more frustrating, we see other women – and men, too – grabbing boxes to clamber over, take short cuts, use the walls to get where they want to go. Is there anything more frustrating, after all, than seeing a trans woman in makeup and ultra-feminine dress rewarded for her courage while a butch lesbian in a tuxedo is escorted away from her prom?
We, as women, want to define what a woman can be. But all these walls seek to define us. I recently watched – and highly recommend – the historical documentary The Ascent of Women by Dr. Amanda Foreman (it’s on Netflix.) As she tells the story of important women in history she reiterates time and time again what they were up against – the walls, so often literal, surrounding them. At least once in each of the four episodes she reminds us of the ancient Sumerian law (ca. 2350 B.C.) stating that if a woman should speak out of turn, her teeth should be smashed with a brick.
How many of the walls around us have women’s teeth scattered at their base? Is that not intimidating? How many of us hurt from the bricks we’ve already received?
Returning to Maria Catt again, she left a simple, short list of lifestyle advice for managing dysphoria in her guest post at the very important Youth TransCritical Professionals blog that I just happened to stumble across the other day. The first piece of advice:
Making reducing stress the number one goal of my life- reducing stress about money, reducing stress about bodily safety, reducing stress about accomplishments, reducing stress by separating myself from stressful people
One of my favorite Buddhist stories talks about a man who was afraid to leave his house because the floors inside were worn and smooth and the paths outside full of stones and thorns. A monk said to him, “Would you walk the outside the world if it were all covered with smooth leather?” And the man said, oh yes, he certainly would, but how long would it take to cover the whole world in leather, and where would so much leather even be found? Then the monk said, “Why not simply cover the soles of your own two feet?”
For the past four weeks now I’ve been working with having had my words rebound from a wall like a brick to my teeth. I’ve been trying to figure out how to handle the experience, what to take from it, and I’ve been comforted by learning it is not an uncommon one for many women; it is written into our very history. These walls are only slowly being worn away, and in places, in these times, they’ve been reinforced. What can we do for ourselves? How can we cover our feet?
I used to think there was a way to transcend it all. Listening to Paul Simon the other day I was reminded of lyrics I had printed up and taped to the wall when I was just into my twenties:
I said Take this child Lord,
from Tuscon Arizona
Give her the wings to fly through harmony
and she won’t bother you no more
But I never sprouted wings. I never rose above the society that had made me such a bother, and after years of trying I’m thinking it’s an awful stressful way to go about it. We’re so often encouraged to work with our problems, to find solutions, to put up with people, to keep turning this way and that through the maze as if at some point it will open up into some blissful space where there are no walls, where we can sit and talk and listen and grow out our body hair – maybe that is the haven I hear about when Michfest is invoked. And I find myself trailing back to what I’ve spoken of before and why I titled this blog the way I did – the need for a personally defined space, a space to be, to breathe, to heal, to share. A space where our words don’t bounce back at us because they’re caught by someone else before they strike the walls that still surround us. It isn’t a mythological space that needs to be worked towards – again, this isn’t transcendence. Perhaps it’s just a matter of defining our lives for ourselves within the walls that exist.
Removing stresses. I made a new tumblr over the weekend, a whole new fresh account, simply because I didn’t want to feel the walls of so many people who have watched me for years. I wanted to be able to post lesbian stuff without offending anyone; I wanted to be able to post my art without thinking of how former friends would judge or critique it or how they would tell me they just didn’t like that style. I wanted a fresh start, a stress-free space where I didn’t feel the constant need to edit and censor myself.
It doesn’t remove the walls – for heaven’s sake, it’s tumblr, and I expect to get TERF’ed by the end of the month – but it’s an act of self-love, self-acceptance, of giving myself the space and the right to exist in that space. I’ve tried for years to do it the other way – to conform, to be lenient, to be quiet. When I was a teenager, my dad told me, “There will always be people you don’t like and people who don’t like you.” and I thought I could just grin and bear it. There will always be people appalled at body hair. There will always be bricks and there will always be walls. There will always be stones and thorns in the road, but I have to do more than grin and bear it. The very least I can do is put on some shoes.
The alternative is best described by another popular internet comic:
And that doesn’t work out well at all.