FREEING THE FEMALE BODY
★ ★ ★ ★
By Kusi Okamura
A woman sits on a train in New York city. She is dressed unremarkably, conservatively even. A handbag sits in her lap. People look indirectly at her, out of the corner of their eyes but try and avoid eye contact with her. She has a white cloth stuffed in her mouth. Stuffed. So that her cheeks bulge, balloon out, Satchmo-style. Part of the cloth hangs out. Like a mouse’s tail in a cat’s mouth. Her eyes are wide, deer-like, as if she is just as surprised as the people who ride the train with her to find her mouth full with cloth. She sits, and she waits.
I remember seeing this photograph for the first time. It is from a series of works by conceptual artist Adrian Piper called Catalysis. Piper’s work addresses themes of otherness, ostracism and racism. In Catalysis she wanted to question the social order through a series of confronting street performances which she enacted herself. I remember finding it as I flicked through art books during a lunch break and laughing out loud. Not only did it work as social comedy for me, but there was an audaciousness to it. I felt, and feel, that women are expected not to draw attention to themselves in public. We get messages about codes of behaviour for a woman. In how she dressed and sat demurely, Piper was doing nearly everything right. But then there was the matter of the cloth.
I remember afterwards thinking about Piper’s work a lot. It brought up deeper questions for me about race and sexism, as I’m sure it was meant to do. Was she putting up a mirror to the world of her experience as a black woman in America? Did she feel stoppered? Was she reflecting a madness? Was she testing our madness?
Somehow it brought to mind the children’s story by Hans Christian Anderson ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. A favourite when I was small, it is about a vain king who employs two weavers who promise a new suit of clothes that is invisible to those who are stupid and incompetent. On the day when the Emperor decides to parade before his subjects in his new clothes, no one dares to say that the king is actually stark naked until a child cries out, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”
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There was a time when women’s bodies were seen as sacred and blessed. I thought about this in relation to this month’s theme ‘Our Bodies’. I thought about that wonderful Irish fertility symbol, the Síle na Gig. This stone statue of a woman with an engorged vulva with her legs spread can be found on some medieval churches in Ireland (and around Europe). There are many theories behind the Síle na Gig, but my favourite is that it was derived from a pagan goddess and was a celebration of fertility.
I’ll say this again because it feels almost revolutionary to say—there was a time when women’s bodies were seen as sacred and blessed. Because as women, we get negative messages about our bodies from a very young age. That we need to be careful of being overweight, being too thin. We need to be conscious of our breast size, where we have hair. That our bodies need to be monitored and control. But that control ultimately can belong to someone else—a man, a government. We get messages that our bodies are dangerous, sexual. That they can make people wild, make people hurt us. That our bodies are unclean.
Even menstruation, a biological function that affects every woman, is still viewed with squeamishness in a lot of places and shame and fear in other places. This fact has made menstruation a major human rights issue. For many girls in parts of the world, having no sanitary products can have a direct effect on their education.
And this is not just in an issue for developing countries. Suzannah Hunt is a young Irish woman who has launched an Instagram campaign #FreetheP to get sanitary products made available free to all women. She has a following of over 34,000 and growing.
How heartening it is that there is this new enlightened, dynamic generation of women that are using the internet to develop effective movements and to fight sexism.
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Women are tired. We are tired of being shamed for being women. Tired of being shamed for having periods. For having breasts. For using their breasts to feed their babies (oh, don’t get me started on this issue. Shame on anyone who dares try and humiliate a mother for feeding and calming a crying baby!)
Women are tired of being oppressed. It’s even leaked into celebrity culture with Jennifer Aniston writing an open letter in the Huffington Post last week. My favourite quote was ‘we are complete with or without a mate, with or without a child. We get to decide for ourselves what is beautiful when it comes to our bodies.’
Women are tired of having our bodies objectified, governed and subjugated. We are tired of our bodies being controlled. We are tired of our bodies being dismissed, used, abused, attacked and violated.
There is no coincidence that so many self-help books which talk about empowerment are aimed at women, because women have been disempowered for so long.
But positive thinking and affirmations are not enough. Leaning in is not enough.
It will take a whole society to change the rules, both men and women. And this happening.
People are now calling out the madness.
Because it’s all one big massive ball of wax. Because what oppresses women, also defines men. As activist and educator Tony Porter says in his now famous TED talk ‘A Call to Men’, ‘My liberation as a man is tied to your liberation as a woman.’ Amen.
It’s time to be free.
Kusi Okamura is a writer and the founder and editor of The Wild Word. She lives in Berlin, Germany.