I’ve always been good at hiding in plain sight. Wide, frightened eyes made sharp with black kohl and impenetrable webs of eyelashes. Shame and fear lurking beneath a bored face and raised eyebrow. Insecurity masked by a pointed barb. Attraction unnoticed in eyes that deliberately never land on their point of desire. Burning, shaking rage invisible but for my palms; bleeding from nails forced into them by white-knuckled fists. Angry, purple self-inflicted cuts and scars always concealed under jeans, tights or make up. Prolonged trips to the bathroom after meals explained away by showers, phone calls, allergies, upset stomachs. Weight loss covered by baggy jeans and padded bras. Sexual trauma and fear of men deflected by flirtations they don’t know will go nowhere. Depression paraded as affected apathy. Desperate, clawing need masquerading as untouchable independence.
Sometimes I even fooled myself. Convinced myself that my abusive relationships were loving. Believed my purging was a routine all women secretly engaged in. Understood myself as someone who didn’t need affection. Asserted that if I revealed my body, I was exposing my very self. Felt that if I threw up food, lost pounds and inches, that so too would I lose that immoveable weight that turned my body to anchor. Genuinely thought I was living, not merely surviving the days.
Even if you knew me, even if you loved me, even if you fucked me, I was never naked. I didn’t know how to be.
And so, one day, I volunteered to it. I signed up to dance naked in a feminist play, in front of an audience of a thousand people. I knew that they would all see my body. I never expected to see myself.
And she may also tell herself a lie: that she is concerned with the other’s feelings, not her own.
But the liar is concerned with her own feelings.
The liar lives in fear of losing control. She cannot even desire a relationship without manipulation, since to be vulnerable to another person means to her the loss of control.
The liar has many friends and leads an existence of great loneliness.
~ Adrienne Rich, Women and Honour: Some Notes on Lying.
The project was simple. Directing was Nic Green, a feminist who had worked on a show with eight year old girls, who spoke incessantly about increasingly troubled relationship with their bodies and food. Her new show was called Trilogy; a three part piece that aimed to redefine how society views the female body. Part of Trilogy was based on Town Bloody Hall, a 1971 documentary about the famous New York Town Hall debate between Norman Mailer and four leading feminists, including Germaine Greer. Clips of the film would be shown, interrupted by new footage of Green analysing images of women’s bodies in magazines aimed at both male and female audiences.
Though predictably more sexual in publications for men, the images were all eerily similar. Slim, airbrushed bodies, all big hair, big lashes, big lips, big breasts, small waists, smooth stomachs, long legs, high heels. Hairless, poreless, flawless bodies. Still. Always still. Never in action, never moving, never going anywhere, never doing anything. Just staying, patiently waiting.
Waiting to be looked at, admired, judged, envied, desired, masturbated over, cried over, used as fantasy, used as comparison, stuck on ceilings to arouse, stuck on fridges to dissuade, looked at looked at looked at used used used stuck stuck stuck always stuck static still never moving never doing never leaving these pages never entering life never becoming real never being real never being just waiting waiting waiting.
I had seen these women, of course. Thought of them, dreamed for them. Imagined them as the Twelve Dancing Princesses, those royal beauties who spend their lives waiting in castles for someone to marry, never moving, never doing. Just waiting. But these princesses have a secret. Every night the King locks the door to their bedroom. But every morning, their stunning, lavish shoes are destroyed. The King, unable to understand what his obedient daughters could possibly be doing, issues a proclamation: whomsoever can unearth where his daughters go and what they do at night can choose one of them for a wife and become King after his death. A soldier, wrapped in a cloak that renders him invisible, follows them and discovers a secret island where the princesses dance all night with handsome princes. The men, of course, are the King’s greatest fear; and marrying off one of his daughters is a sacrifice he makes to discover that this fear has been realised.
The King had it wrong, of course. Meeting princes was never the princesses’ rebellion. Meeting princes is what princesses are bred to do. Their rebellion was leaving, dancing, refusing to be held captive, refusing to be controlled, refusing to stay still.
I dreamed of those women in the magazines and hoped for all our sakes that, at night, they too left the confines of those airless pages, took those computer-constructed bodies, and moved. I needed them not to exist just to be looked at and prayed that women’s bodies could be used, not just looked at. That our bodies could take us all somewhere. That they could take us to our lives.
We have been expected to lie with our bodies: to bleach, redden, unkink or curl our hair, pluck eyebrows, shave armpits, wear padding in various places or lace ourselves, take little steps, glaze finger and toe nails, wear clothes that emphasised our helplessness…
We have had the truth of our bodies withheld from us or distorted: we have been kept in ignorance of our most intimate places. Our instincts have been punished: clitoridectomies for “lustful” nuns or for “difficult” wives. It has been believed, too, to know the lies of our complicity from the lies we believed…
And so we must take seriously the question of truthfulness between women, truthfulness among women. As we cease to lie with our bodies, as we cease to take on faith what men have said about us, is a truly womanly idea of honour in the making?
~ Adrienne Rich, Women and Honour: Some Notes on Lying.
In Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, she observes that “photographs objectify: they turn an event or a person into something that can be possessed. And photographs are a species of alchemy, for all that they are prized as a transparent account of reality.” She continues this thought in On Photography, where she speaks of how “photographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal, they also help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure.” It’s a tragedy that sometimes this past becomes the present; that men’s insecurities about women’s agency, their desire to take possession of women’s bodies by making them pose creates a demand for women to eschew their person and instead live up to photographs. To rid themselves of a dimension, become flat, still, easily possessed.
Critic John Berger also addresses the spaces women are allowed to occupy in Ways of Seeing, noting that “to be born, a woman has to be born within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men.” It is under these controls that women must struggle to enact their lives – but as Berger also notes, acting is never what they’re encouraged to do. “Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” To occupy this double space, this role as both person and object, visual but invisible, women become acutely aware of perception, and how they’re seen not as people, but visual objects. They not only become aware of how they look, but how their worth is constantly being gauged. She constantly watches herself: “The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”
One woman acutely aware of this personal dissonance is Francesca Woodman, who occupied two roles; that of photographer and subject. Her photographs, taken before her suicide at age 22, are a haunting, challenging and beguiling exploration of the spaces women occupy, fleeting apparitions on the threshold of visibility and invisibility. Most of her photographs are self-portraits, a way of subverting the usual split dynamic between male observer and female subject-object and occupying both at once.
Woodman becomes visible to us only as the image she has composed, which is by and for herself. She can redefine this image as she pleases – and this definition is often one of defiance. Characterised by constant motions – some seen and some implied – Woodman’s photographs portray her posing in spaces so often deemed as female domains; kitchens, living rooms, in front of mirrors. Woodman, however, refuses to be merely present in these spaces, often manipulating her poses and surroundings so that she seems to be literally becoming part of spaces. She becomes no longer a woman but an image-body-object existing to be observed, and challenging the viewer on why that may be so. Even while still, she is never passive. She will not merely be observed. She will not be enacted upon.
In Woodman’s photographs, these self-fragmented images refuse to arrest a woman’s existence to one image, a static figure designed to please others and be possessed by them. There’s a resistance to the male gaze, but there’s also a resistance to the power felt by the owner of a photograph. Sontag asserts that “to photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge – and therefore, like power … Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or read or acquire.” Although Woodman appears to have a tendency to camouflage herself, seemingly trying to hide in plain sight, there’s a double-bluff at play in her photographs, which she framed and shot. How does one purport to hide when standing in front of a camera? Woodman’s power comes not from any perceived invisibility, but that she refuses to be captured. She refuses to be possessed. Ephemeral, fleeting, transient; her images directly address this performativity that women are so used to; this pressure to transform from material, moving body into pure aesthetic form. The pictures are of elusion, of motion, of shadow, often of literal blur; there was a woman here, is a woman moving through here, there was a woman here – but you cannot have her. You can’t capture me. You can’t contain me in a frame. I will never stop moving just so you can own me.
Amidst Nic Green’s performances –the clips of Town Bloody Hall, the quotes from Germaine Greer, the analysis of ideals – were us. Thirty real women, and at least thirty different reasons for wanting to dance naked on a stage for five nights. There were college students and grandmothers, survivors of rape and cancer, women who only just survived their own births and women who attempted to end their lives.
And there were bodies. Bodies with scars and moles and cellulite and pubic hair. Large breasts, long breasts, one breast, no breasts. Bellies hanging with weight, skin hanging where weight once was. One body round with a new one forming inside it.
Of course, we didn’t know this quite yet. When we met, nervous and laughing and unsure, we were hidden. Hidden behind our clothes, our anxiety, our assertions that if the workshops weren’t for us, we wouldn’t have to go through with it, could keep our clothes on and go home, go back to our lives.
I was hiding too, of course. The inverse of Woodman’s disappearing trick, I made sure people saw me so they wouldn’t look too closely. As we sat together on the floor of an old church, we spoke of our relationships with our bodies and what we wanted from the performance. Young, gorgeous girls spoke of seeking adventure, something new. Striking older women spoke of feminism and empowerment, of embodying a lifetime of self-care and self-love. Mothers spoke of wanting to reclaim their bodies as their own, not merely as vessels. Middle-aged women spoke of becoming invisible, of no longer being noticed, of being looked through. Many women spoke of sexual assault and rape. One spoke of disability. All spoke of wanting something more.
As for me, I spoke of finally feeling comfortable in my own skin, of wanting to celebrate my body, of wanting to express the sense of ownership I had finally attained over my being. I spoke of confidence, of philosophy, of manifesto. I spoke of the body as a cultural and political battleground, and how by disrobing, I was armouring up. I spoke of The Female Eunuch, effortlessly quoting that “whenever we treat women’s bodies as aesthetic objects without function we deform them.” I spoke of revolution, of reclamation, of sisterhood, of solidarity, of self.
I spoke of nothing, loudly.
My words were a diversion, a beautiful magic trick perfected over time. As my throat spewed language and withheld truth, no-one noticed my body. No-one noticed that my knuckles bore teethmarks, a side-effect of purging not an hour before. No-one saw how my eyes scoured the room for all the exits before I entered, a lesson learned from the man who had locked the only door out. No-one saw how my larynx tightened when I was around men, making me quiet, silent. No-one knew that underneath my words of sexual empowerment, I still hadn’t had an orgasm, had taken to freezing during sex, staring at points on the ceiling like a ballerina, terrified of falling off the razor’s edge of my sanity. Everyone watched my performance, and no one saw me, just as I planned. Just as I had practiced.
Maybe I couldn’t make it. Maybe I don’t have a pretty smile, good teeth, nice tits, long legs, a cheeky arse, a sexy voice. Maybe I don’t know how to handle men and increase my market value, so that the rewards due to the feminine will accrue to me. Then again, maybe I’m sick of the masquerade. I’m sick of pretending eternal youth. I’m sick of belying my own intelligence, my own will, my own sex. I’m sick of peering at the world through false eyelashes, so everything I see is mixed with a shadow of bought hairs; I’m sick of weighting my head with a dead mane, unable to move my neck freely, terrified of rain, of wind, of dancing too vigorously in case I sweat into my lacquered curls. I’m sick of the Powder Room. I’m sick of pretending that some fatuous male’s self-important pronouncements are the objects of my undivided attention, I’m sick of going to films and plays when someone else wants to, and sick of having no opinions of my own about either.
~ Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch.
Woodman’s 1976 Untitled series features photographs of the artist and her friends posing naked, panes of glass pressed against portions of their body, flattening breasts and distorting their shapes. One shot, of Woodman’s friend Ana Mendieta, sees one of Mendieta’s breasts pushed up, hanging over the pane of glass, while another is pushed down behind it, creating an asymmetry that beguiles. In this series, glass becomes the shiny pane of objectification that photography of women so often inspires. Here’s what lenses, gazes and photographs do to women: They distort and flatten their bodies under their gaze, while other bodies that do not fit within the narrow confines of this imprisoning space are left to hang, left ignored, outside the frame. In another, Woodman sits naked, a self-constructed mask covering her genitals. The mask is raw, rough, a collapsed drama mask, a weeping Melpomene in the lap of a woman so often held up as a tragic muse. It’s a prop that indicates performance; women’s performance of concealment as an act of deference; as modesty; as desexualisation. As silence.
One photograph sees her sitting coyly upon a chair, knees and hands half concealing her naked body, her hair a messy braid, wearing only childlike shoes. It’s the pose of a nervous subject, unprepared to be photographed, untrusting of he who surveys her, he who will attempt to capture her image. Yet there’s a shadow on the floor; an imprint of her body left in flour, a disobedient shadow that has escaped its owner that plays and causes mischief while the woman appears to stay obediently still. It hints at the hidden life in between frames, that this girl, now so still and fearful, was once taking chances; that despite her performed deference to the authority of the camera and the viewer, she was stealthily moving when we were not looking, she was leaving an imprint on the world.
This was a girl who destroyed her dancing shoes at night.
We met five times before the performance, speaking, moving, learning about the dance and learning about each other. Slowly, layer by layer, clothes were shed until we were practicing nude, laughing and confessing and admiring and empathising. As everyone relaxed, I became more nervous.
I, of course, had volunteered to be the first woman on stage, and began feeling like a poor representation of these women who were genuinely facing their fears, facing down pressures, facing the truth. These women who were gradually standing up straighter, showing their bodies, their souls, draping themselves only in emotional and physical honesty. And there was I, all bravado and lies and eyeliner and hair extensions and scraped knuckles and plucked pubic hair; more actress than girl, more performer than person.
When opening night arrived, as we stood behind the curtain, the other woman whispered and giggled nervously, wished each other luck. I stood ahead of them all, and had never felt more aware of my body in my life. My skin retracting, prickling, hairs everywhere standing up, reaching, as if looking for help, looking for my clothes, looking for cover, looking for my hiding place. Heat in my face, the flushing warmth of shame spreading up from my breasts, my pounding heart, my strangled throat. The tightening in my chest, my shallow breathing causing it to rise and fall unnaturally fast. The shiver of fear, the dryness in my mouth, the constant, echoing pulsing in my wrists, in my heart, in my ears, as if my body was shouting stop into the echo chamber of my mind. The sound of that scream and the reflection of my body bouncing off mazes of mirrors – desperately, frantically looking for an exit that simply wasn’t there.
And then Nic was on stage, jumping, pounding, screaming our cue.
“Almost. Bald. Hairless. Pussy. And perfectfirmbreastsfirmasscutespanishteenfacedownassuphornyslutwithfirmtitssexposesherfirmassandbigroundtitsbigassfirmchestedlesbianloverseighteentightyoungandfirmthreewaypussysuckfestalwaystoobigtoosmalltoofattoothinneverrightperpetuallyselfdevaluedthisisallbullshitletscelebratetherealityofwhowereallyarestartyourownfuckingmovementstartyourownfuckingmovementstartyourownfuckingmovementstartyourownfuckingmovementstartyourownfuckingmovementstartyourownfuckingmovementSTARTYOUROWNFUCKINGMOVEMENTSEEYOUTHERE.”
And we were on.
Exeunt actress stage left, enter me stage right. Just me.
Let’s stop a moment and step into this mental image. Wander around the scene and examine what’s happening.
This all seems cliché, of course. Another woman talking about her troubled relationship with her body, her choose-your-own-misadventure journey that leads to the inevitable endings of sexual assault, eating disorder, self-harm, self-hate. Another girl ticking all the boxes on the form of typical female experiences; another girl turning pain into poetry; another manic pixie pain girl dining out on her struggles. So what if she performs being happy – we all do, at some point. And isn’t writing about these issues an act of performance itself – isn’t it an indulgence, a manipulation, a profiting, a calculated self-presentation?
Maybe it is. But maybe it’s necessary. Maybe we need to present our pain because it’s all too easy to ignore otherwise. Maybe we need to perform pain because you don’t really care enough to ask if we’re feeling it. Maybe what polite society deems women’s oversharing of their pain is actually a response from women told for lifetimes to keep quiet.
Maybe we should ask why presenting pain is looked down upon, why you’d prefer if we suffered in silence.
I had three therapists by the time I was twenty-three. The first I saw in the aftermath of my sexual assault; a middle-aged woman unable penetrate the flippancy with which I described my issues. Yes, the cutting had reached dangerous levels, and my legs were more gaping, weeping wound than skin. Yes, I had been assaulted and penetrated by an older man and now spent an unhealthy amount of time on the floors of bathroom cubicles, shaking and weeping and unable to breathe. But I don’t like wearing skirts anyway, I said. And I’m always eventually able to get off the floor. Lots of girls go through this. This isn’t a unique story. I’m not special. I’m nothing to worry about. After three sessions, the therapist agreed – told me I was probably fine, that I didn’t need to be there.
My depression grew. I started banging my head against shelves and window sills until my head was covered in lumps and bruises that I would press hard during smiling small talk. I lost the ability to get out of bed. I dropped out of college. A deep cut inflicted with a rusty house scissors became infected and started oozing red and yellow pus until I became delirious. When I drove myself to a pharmacy to get antiseptic, a bead-sweating fever made my hands slip on the wheel, and I mounted the kerb, nearly crashing into a bus stop. At home, I explained away my paleness with menstrual cramps, and the conversation immediately stopped. Female pain needs no more attention. It’s dull. It happens so many women. It’ll pass. No need to talk about it.
When I returned to college, my parents, who had watched despairingly as I spent a year in my room, sleeping and breaking out of catatonic silences only to snap at them, demanded I see another therapist. Young and infuriatingly mild-mannered, she never addressed the fact that I would arrive to every session twenty minutes late, that my shrugging offerings of college gossip were painfully obvious deflections. Only once did I emotionally crack; when my best friend, a boy I was desperately trying not to love, a boy who had spent a year telling me I was special, that I was what he wanted, that I was everything his girlfriend wasn’t, finally rejected me outright. I cried in this therapist’s office, begged through mascara-blackened tears to know why I wasn’t good enough, why I was a failure, why men just saw me as something to use and fuck and never love, why I didn’t deserve to be happy. Her own eyes filled with tears – and mine immediately emptied. I didn’t want to be looked at as a tragedy, didn’t want my expression of feeling to initiate a circle of empathy. I didn’t want to be worried about upsetting her with my emotions. I didn’t want to be caretaker. For once, I wanted to be able to express my pain, and have it be the focus. I wiped my face, shrugged, said I’d be fine; it would all work out. I left her office, never went back.
I saw my third therapist on and off for two years; a witty and literate man I had huge respect for – though this respect didn’t necessarily translate into openness. He patiently guided me through my abusive relationship, didn’t remark on my manically upbeat episodes after it ended, let me emotionally crash after the self-preservational high of denial had worn off. He gave out to me whenever I apologised, became exasperated when I kept concealing things from him.
He became genuinely angry three times. The first was a year into treatment when I mentioned that when I was thirteen, a sixteen year old boy had tried to put his hands in my jeans, had slapped me across the face when I pushed him away. “It was nothing,” I protested, surprised at my therapist’s shock. “He was just one asshole. It’s not relevant to anything.” He rolled his eyes, asked me did I not think sharing details like this might help understand my committedly dysfunctional relationship with men and sex; my belief that sex was all I had to offer them and my distrust of men who wanted it from me. I raised an eyebrow at him. “Or maybe stuff just happens, and we get on with it. I’m not defined by one shitty incident. It’s not a big deal.”
The second time he became angry was when I casually dropped into conversation that I had an eating disorder; that it had been an ever-present companion for over a decade. “But whatever,” I said, waving his concern away. “I’ll figure it out eventually. Let’s not turn it into a thing.”
The final tipping point for him was my first session back after being hospitalised for an overdose. Five days after I had waved goodbye to him after a non-eventful session, he had received a call that I was in Tallaght hospital and had spent the last eight hours vomiting up seventy or eighty pills; that I was alive but would have to remain in hospital hooked up to an IV for several days in order to flush out my liver and avoid any permanent damage. After signing myself out of hospital early, answering maybe every third text message he sent me, I finally agreed to come in for a session. I wandered back into his office in a miniskirt, high heels, impeccable make-up, and a colourful scarf covering the cut on my wrist that hadn’t been deep enough. I smiled at him sheepishly. He didn’t smile back.
“Ah, I dunno,” I shrugged. “I’d just been thinking about it for months – every time I got in the car I wanted to drive it into a wall, but I didn’t want to hurt anyone else, and I was scared of being paralysed. Every night I was annoyed I didn’t have sleeping pills so I could just not wake up. Every sharp object became the thing that could end it all. And every fucking day I had to talk myself out of it, go over the pros and cons, convince myself it was a bad idea, tell myself to just make it through today and I could decide tomorrow if I needed to. And then I just got sick of having to convince myself. I just thought, if I finally did it, no matter what way it turned out, at least the conversation would be over. You know?”
He stared at me for a long time before speaking.
“You never said anything. Not once. I had no idea. Months, Roe? You’ve been thinking about this for months? You’ve been here every week, and you never said anything. Why?”
His voice was different. He was speaking slowly, deliberately. I felt a jolt in my chest, realised that he may have actually been hurt, or felt worried, or betrayed, or responsible.
“I just…” I stopped. Shrugged again. Became aware of the ridiculousness of shrugging in a moment like this. Felt the absurdity of my words as they fell out of my mouth; realised how pathetic my default catchphrase really was.
“I didn’t want to seem dramatic.”
To lie habitually, as a way of life, is to lose contact with the unconscious. It is like taking sleeping pills, which confer sleep but blot out dreaming. The unconscious wants truth. It ceases to speak to those who want something else more than truth.
In speaking of lies, we come inevitably to the subject of truth. There is nothing simple or easy about this idea. There is no ‘the truth’, ‘a truth’ – truth is not one thing, or even a system. It is an increasing complexity. The pattern of the carpet is a surface. When we look closely, or when we become weavers, we learn of the tiny multiple threads unseen in the overall pattern, the knots on the underside of the carpet.
~ Adrienne Rich, Women and Honour: Some Notes on Lying.
Let’s admit it; society collectively shrugs at the pain of women, has become numbed to its image and allows it limited space in the grand pantheon of real pain, real emotion, real experience. And that space is now running out; we’re taking more than our allocated share. We’re breaking down the segregation walls, we’re breaking out of quarantine. Careful there boys, you don’t want our pain to break through into real society. Not because you’d catch it – no, women’s pain isn’t contagious to men, only other hysterical women. But you’d have to deal with it. And isn’t that just as sickening?
When women write about their lives, the glorious mix of deep pains and real triumphs that life always is, it’s declared ‘women’s writing’, not just writing. When we begin to tell our stories under our own names, begin analysing and addressing our lives in writing, The New York Times asks ‘Is This a Golden Age For Woman Essayists?’ indicating that it will never be this good again. There will never be this many of us again. They will never let us do this again.
But we revere tragic women! they cry. We worship them, hold them up as invincible; if not in plot, in legacy. And indeed they do. Men have written the most tragic of heroines; Ophelia, Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary. Suffering women who exist for and because of men, who fulfil male fantasies of a woman’s pain being beautiful, romantic, caused by facility and love and the mystical unknown of a woman’s mind. It’s a pain they conceive, construct and control, all the while posturing and prostrating at the alter of the uncontrollable women, and their uncontrollable pain that can only be solved by death.
Historically, men haven’t really liked it when women live through their pain, when they survive. If not a happy ending, give women an unhappy ending – just give them an ending, so these suffering, uncontrollable women don’t just go on indefinitely.
In Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag remarks that “compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question is what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. If one feels that there is nothing ‘we’ can do — but who is that ‘we’? — and nothing ‘they’ can do either – and who are ‘they’ – then one starts to get bored cynical, apathetic.”
The diminishing returns of empathy are well-documented; so much so that charities have to cater for it in their advertising and appeals. Academic research indicates that the more tragic images of starving, emaciated children that a charity presents, long-term charitable donations and involvement actually diminishes. Guilt, it turns out, actually causes people’s empathy reserves to shut down – unless, of course, they get to feel good about themselves for giving. Alan Clayton, a director at the agency Clayton Burnett, a company that works with charities and non-profit NGOs throughout the world, says that charities that push reward emotions, such as pride or belonging, attract more long-term giving that those who use negative, or ‘need’, emotions such as guilt. “The mistake charities make is that they keep going out with the need emotion because it works short-term, but they don’t put enough emphasis on the reward emotions,” he says. “These are important as otherwise people will just give up. We can only go so long without getting a reward.”
For women, who are socially encouraged to be kind, empathetic and giving, the rewards of recognising the pain and vulnerability are obvious and immediate. For men, however, the rewards are much less apparent – and if they’re unwilling or unable to do anything for those in pain, being presented with images of suffering may actually become a source of annoyance and defensiveness.
So, perhaps it’s no surprise that there’s a cultural backlash against these seemingly endless stories about women self-harming, women starving themselves, women being sexually assaulted, women feeling pain. Because these stories aren’t just retellings or statements – they’re artful reflections and edited insights; stories crafted with the intention of moving, of calling to arms. Always a dangerous move. “For the photography of atrocity, people want the weight of witnessing without the taint of artistry, which is equated with insincerity or mere contrivance” notes Sontag. And what could these contrivances be aiming to do that’s so worthy of suspicion, of dismissal? To express real pain? To connect with others because of shared experience or emotion? Or to merely bear witness to the fact that yes, we experienced pain – but we lived. We became writers, artists, storytellers. Our pain was not all we would ever be.
Not that they won’t try to pretend otherwise. Francesca Woodman’s work is easily and often explained by her pain; because she committed suicide, that must be all there is to her photographs. Her seeming fascination with hiding, with disappearing, with becoming unseen – surely these are all products of her depression; surely she could not have had other thoughts, more to say. Pain becomes the definer of women; our lives become compressed into easily explained and easily owned one-dimensional images of emotion that we are never allowed to transcend. We are not allowed to be once hurt; we become forever broken. And there’s nothing to do about these endlessly pained, tragic women; there will no be remedy, and therefore no reward. So sets in cynicism, apathy; so ends compassion.
And people wonder why young women hold our pain like cherished secrets; cradle and protect it like darkly shining gems, turn it inwards so only our cuts and scales and hearts know of our hurt. Little wonder I didn’t want to speak of my repeated experiences of abuse, the hatred I felt for my body, my longing for death; little wonder I feared that voicing this pain would transform me into one of those Pained Women. People claim they want to hear you, to help you, but so often they just want to define you by your pain; explain everything by your suffering; label you a dramatic, tragic woman, dismiss you from the story, and romanticise you in the retelling. Society dismisses our fears and insecurities as predictable, speaks more about but feels less empathy for women who self-harm and starve; turns us into caricatures or cages that we can never escape.
Unless we speak to each other, that is. Unless we share our artful accounts of pain and struggle, these contrivances that are not just frozen images of women trapped forever in expressions of pain; but constantly evolving stories that act as keys; that smash frames and change our labels from “victim” to “survivor.” Through telling our stories, women dare to not merely suffer, but to transform our pain into narrative, into art, into something that deliberately intends to move. These stories aren’t passive – and that’s why they’re threatening. They’re a demand that something be done, that objectification and patriarchy and abuse be stopped, that women be listened to – and that’s a course of action many men are unwilling to embark upon, and so they’re left with the guilt of inaction, and the growing awareness that maybe they’re wrong.
We are not just snapshots of suffering, photographs of pain, not man-made images of the ideal of female suffering. We are our own narrators, which means we are refusing to be controlled, contained. We are the tellers of our own stories, which means we have survived.
And we were on.
Exeunt actress stage left, enter me stage right. Just me.
No, not just me. Us.
Women, real women, all soft flesh and determined faces, moving as one. We emerged on stage, a wall of fury and fight, one hand in the air like a war-rallying salute. There was no hip wiggling or ass swaying. It was a march. We were at once militant, joyful, determined, euphoric. We were here to win the war.
A series of hopping, leaping, head-banging movements shook us, in every way, to our core. We kicked, punched and yelled. We were not there to be static, to be admired. We were not girls to pin on your wall. We were women. Women whose limbs moved, whose joints bent, whose fists clenched, whose feet stomped, whose breasts bounced, whose thighs jiggled, whose asses shook. Women who pounded toward the audience, who held their gaze. We were women who marched in unison, our arms extending above and around us, transforming us into walking clock faces counting the time wasted by staying still, staying silent. Now, we were striking an alarm, announcing this as the moment that all would be different, all would change. That while this is only a moment, only a movement, only a minute that we shared, that will be turned into only a paragraph in remembering, this moment represents lives. Not just mine, not just of these thirty women, but all women forever. This moment contained histories, herstories, years and lifetimes of never believing we were good enough, years of staying still, staying silent, posing, pouting, starving, needing, being stared at, being judged, being groped, being assaulted, being raped, being only our bodies but never in our bodies, never of our bodies, never feeling they were ours to begin with.
Watch me. Watch me move this body that is so often still, posed, frozen. Watch as I forget for a second, the first second in a decade that my thighs don’t look like those women in the photograph’s. Watch as I use them to march, to kick, to jump, to move towards you. Watch as I realise that wherever I go, my body is going to be the vessel that takes me there. That though I abuse it, cut it, starve it, shame it, blame it, it will never leave me, will always support me, will prop me up. This body that not only lets me move, lets me feel, let me touch, lets me be touched, lets me reach towards people and experiences and sex and affection and beauty and experience and my goddamn life – but wants me to do all those things. Craves them as much as I do. No matter how much I abuse and misuse it, no matter how much hurt and pain is inflicted upon it, it will always be there, bringing me to my life. Watch me realise that it deserves a great one. Watch me realise that I do.
Watch me realise that I don’t want to be a woman in a photograph.
Watch me realise I don’t want to be possessed, be limited to an aesthetic object, that I no longer want to be passive.
Watch me realise that I no longer want to perform.
Watch me realise that I want to start one tiny movement, want to move away from the grasp of fear, and shame, and men, and possession, want to reach in the direction of the life I want.
Watch me realise that one tiny movement can be a huge fucking movement.
Watch me realise that photographs will never capture this, are never big enough to contain the rage of a girl, let alone the collective rage of women through time.
Watch me make it. Watch us make it. Watch us.
Watch our arms finally dictate this clock, turn it back, reclaim these moments. Watch our feet march towards you, showing you that we’re present, running back to ourselves, reuniting our minds and molecules for once in our goddamn, glorious lives; lives that are finally ours. Only when the clocks stop, when our arms fall, will we stop, will we let you stop, will we all return to our lives as if nothing had ever happened. But it did, and that knowledge will forever course through our veins and yours, like endorphins, like body heat, like a fever. You won’t be able to explain what you’ve seen, though you’ll try. You’ll bring parts of us with you; descriptions of our bodies, the feel of our gaze, the sound of our march pulsing just inside your ears. You’ll try to form an image of us, try to limit this experience to a mental souvenir, a one-dimensional nostalgic memento that you can carry with you, can understand, can own as your memory and not our experience. You’ll try to explain what you saw, try to tell men and Kings what their daughters do at night; that they dance, without clothes or fear or shame, and for no-one but themselves.
You’ll be wrong.
We dance for each other. We dance for other women. We dance for our bodies, because it’s what they were built to do. They were meant to move, and so we moved, we will move, we will never stop moving. Ourselves, clocks, time, you. One movement stopping our lives lived without ownership of our bodies, restarting them again with a promise, a promise to never stop moving ourselves, to never stop trying to move others. To take this one beautiful unified movement between thirty women in a tiny theatre in Dublin and run with it, carry it like a flaming torch and pass it to other women with a shared battle cry, a subconscious whisper, an embodied manifesto that will ripple and shake through women everywhere, just as our bodies ripple and shake.
Start your own fucking movement, we will yell.
Start your own fucking movement, we will plea.
Start your own fucking movement, we will promise.
See you there.
Roe McDermott is a journalist, arts critic and sex columnist who writes for Hot Press and the Dublin Inquirer. Her writing has also appeared on Fanny.ie and The Rumpus. In 2014, she was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to undertake an MA in Sexuality Studies. Her research topic is an exploration of the experiences of Irish women who have travelled to the UK to have abortions. Roe currently lives in San Francisco, where she’s working on her first collection of essays, applying for PhD programs, indulging her book-buying addiction, and figuring out where home is. She spends too much tweeting from @roemcdermott