Reappearing Act by Cayte Bosler
“Some women get erased a little at a time, some all at once. Some reappear.”
I've always envied mollusks. The octopus for its ability to regenerate an arm; the snail, too, sprouting new tentacles. Distant, magical family members.
When vital parts of humans disappear, they don't automatically grow back. When parts of us break, sometimes we don't crawl back with a lesson learned.
Like most girls growing up in a predominantly patriarchal culture, I was instructed how to dress, how to inhabit my body; taught to view violence against me as normal, to be expected.
Bell Hooks, an author and activist known for her work with the women’s movement, explains the phenomenon this way: “Patriarchy is a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females,” she continues, “endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence.”
The Earth and its creatures continue to disappear because of this belief. Man’s dominion is biblically ordained as boundless.
Daily, I feel heartbreak for the systematic murder of the natural world; the vitality stolen from us due to avarice, hate, denial.
Daily, I am outraged by stories of what a patriarchal society does to my brothers and sisters, to our souls and minds, to our bodies. I am overwhelmed by the rage. It comes to form a part of me, to be me.
Another reason I admire snails: they carry home with them, forming larger and more intricate swirls as their bodies expand. Their selves and shells growing in tandem, balancing needs for both protection and mobility. If only we had the same capacity.
Rising acidity in the oceans means their shells begin to disintegrate before they can solidify. The belief that man is supreme - that His dark animal has dominion - is harming us all. Turning shells into goo. Breaking bodies that can't grow back.
Patriarchy means power for a few and physical or spiritual enslavement for the rest. It comes in many packages: religion, family structures, institutions. If we are lucky, we get gaps to reflect and to challenge the ideas and beliefs pushing toxic attitudes and unwanted behaviors onto our bodies. If we're really lucky, we live in societies supportive of human rights and egalitarianism of the sexes. Supportive of the possibility of shared responsibility.
The end of patriarchy isn't the disempowerment of men (do the men at the top really feel whole and powerful anyway? Do they, too, not suffer?). It is instead an invitation to build a more just and more imaginative world that tolerates diversity and elevates well-being for the many, not the few.
The beginning is always the hardest. How do we endeavor to change something old, widespread and deeply rooted in cultures around the world, in both our institutions and homes?
Hearts and minds must be won over. That is where it must begin and end.
But we walk a dangerous path to do so. The more women appear and speak of their invisible prisons, the more we label them liars, hysterical, irrational; the more we sentence them deeper into the hands of the enslavers: silence, shame and smallness.
In some countries, simply showing your body or expressing desire means death - prison at best. How far we have still to go.
Even on the streets of "progressive" cities, I’m reminded daily my body doesn’t belong to me. The street harassment began at twelve and never stopped. “Smile” and “hey baby” demonstrate to women that public spaces do not belong to us. After the words that land and stick to our chests, is the sanctioned groping, stalking and omnipresent threats of kidnapping, assault, and murder.
“We have an abundance of rape and violence against women in this country and on this Earth, though it's almost never treated as a civil rights or human rights issue, or a crisis, or even a pattern,” notes author and historian Rebecca Solnit in her book Men Explains Things to Me.
We've lost friends, sisters, and mothers to this system. Or parts of our loved ones as they disassociate or disappear themselves to cope. This psychological disappearance, too, massacres cultures. Stifles possibility.
"Given all that women are expected to live with – the leers that start when we've barely begun puberty, the harassment, the violence we survive or are constantly on guard for – I can't help but wonder what it has done to all of us. Not just to how women experience the world, but how we experience ourselves. I started to ask myself: who would I be if I didn't live in a world that hated women? I haven't been able to come up with a satisfactory answer, but I did realize that I've long been mourning this version of myself that never existed." - Sex Object: A Memoir by Jessica Valenti.
To placate men, we teach females to hide their bodies and by extension their beauty, intelligence, and capability. We hide them behind dress codes, at the most extreme, mandated by religious patriarchy. Even in secular schools, girls must obsess over the width of their tank top strap or if they're allowed to wear comfortable yoga pants - lest they "distract" the boys. The implied message that it is the girl’s fault. That the boy cannot control himself, so she must be inhibited.
I tried my best to disappear my body. I worshiped Tim Burton's almost dead girls as the ideal. I began giving away my sack lunches to reach that ephemeral place. I guess I was about twelve when "you are fat," bore into my summer legs, tanned from afternoons roller blading, as I sat to pee. Later, it compounded into “you are too much” and at the same time “you are not enough”.
For women, the desire to be thin ranks higher than a desire for success or happiness. In America, millions of us suffer from anorexia and bulimia, and thousands of us die from related complications each year. Given all we know about the costs of visibility; is it any wonder we wish to disappear?
Anorexia is the only disease I can think of where the person is addicted to the absence of something. It is a disease of the mind that manifests in the body. It is rooted in contradiction. In my climb towards “perfection,” I self-annihilated. To be seen, I shrunk. Hidden in my addiction was a quest for another kind of emptiness. A want for an absence of harm.
Anorexia isn’t glamorous. It’s a slow suicide. It is at once a resistance to violence and a perpetuation of it. But the thing that nobody tells you about eating disorders is this. They are a doorway into darkness from which, if you are lucky, you can emerge ready to fight like hell. If you can internalize abuse, then you can spit it back out. You can separate the good voices from the bad, reject acts of self-mutilation.
Hooks claims this social order sickens us all: “Patriarchy is the single most life-threatening social disease assaulting the body and spirit of our nation."
Patriarchy, like anorexia, requires navigating contradictions. To fight for or against the patriarchy means exposing the body to assault: verbal, mental, emotional. Anorexia is a private intellectualized hallucination. Patriarchy, we collectively hallucinate - its effects corporeal, but its seeds are in the mind. Surely, we can dream of better.
In recovery, you are taught to recognize “disordered thoughts”, trained with skills to remove the pernicious voices hardwired into your mainframe. In early adulthood, for three months, I slogged through the mountains and canyons of Utah - relying on myself and a tight knit group for the basic comforts of life. The wilderness was the antidote to my illusion of control. Nature was at once wondrous and impervious to my existence. I was reminded of Carl Sagan’s pale blue dot. Away from the dominant culture, I was free to discover who I was.
Before I had no language for the pattern. To survive, I starved the parts of myself that didn’t fit within the confines of who I was allowed to be. Most parts. I was successful at emotionally crippling myself for years, but I also know there is a way out of psychological and physical starvation. There is a way to reappear in your own story.
I felt myself begin anew by the Juniper trees, under a stubbornly bright night sky in the spaciousness of the desert.
“Some women get erased a little at a time, some all at once. Some reappear. Every woman who appears wrestles with the forces that would have her disappear. She struggles with the forces that would tell her story for her, or write her out of the story, the genealogy, the rights of man, the rule of law. The ability to tell your own story, in words or images, is already a victory, already a revolt.” -Solnit