Women’s Bodies Over the Twentieth Century

Women’s Bodies Over the Twentieth Century

Women’s Bodies Over the Twentieth Century

‘Civilization is a circle squared . That’s why in civilized societies, women’s lot and Nature’s lot has been such a sorry one. It’s the duty of advanced women to teach men to love the circle again.’
– Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

If ever our bodies held secrets like how and why women menstruate; like where our pleasures are located in square millimetres, like what soft spoken miracle melts an ovum and sperm into foetal life, the twentieth century blabbed them all out like a nosy neighbour with nothing better to do.

Once shrouded in mystery and obscurity, women’s bodies in the course of Western culture were put on pedestals, idealised, veiled, and corsetted. Men swooned over bare ankles. A Victorian author upon discovery that women are not spared the baseness of defecation lamented, ‘Oh how I nearly lost my wits, Celia, Celia, Celia shits!’ In Africa, women have always worn their body parts on the outside, swaggering pendulous breasts white men could only conjure up in their imaginations. Yet they too have been pretty much damned by their biology. In history, women who have been lucky enough to escape being burnt as a witch at the stake or dying in childbirth while their husbands either paced corridors or sat around fires, could only count on the utopia of compulsory domesticity and maternity. Or alternatively, a complete descent into madness. Choice and control were not buzzwords in those days.

But times have changed. Modesty and coyness, once the charms of the female sex are passe. Dead and buried is the etiquette that rendered the ‘Rape of a Lock’ of hair a violation of woman’s chastity. The longing to imagine what delicate curves and crevices are hidden beneath a tent of skirts has long since been sated. This century there was a sale on flesh and anyone could purchase a month’s worth of wanking from the local corner cafe, swelling Hugh Hefner’s empire built on beaver shots. Madonna, once an icon of religious sanctity turned up this century as a lascivious pop star with XX-rated fantasies. Virginity, prized by all self-respecting young women, a ticket into marriage, went stale these past hundred years, becoming a neurotic condition far more feared than sluthood.

In the past, women inhabited their bodies in dimensions defined by male needs. Either as the painter’s model, the poet’s muse, the bearer of the master’s seed, the wet nurse to his child, concubine or whore to the gentleman or tribesman, woman, derived from Adam’s rib, has, throughout time been valued for her parts. Cut up into titbits, dismembered into fractions, woman’s bodies have been subject to a romanticized objectification.

In the twentieth century the forces of feminism and technology have teamed up to form a partnership which has stripped the mechanics of our bodies down to the last proton, and radically altered the imperatives of biology.

Feminist consciousness gained momentum this century as a political force. The isolated voices of ‘disgruntled’ spinsters, madwomen and artists coalesced into a rousing blast, unhushing the codes of secrecy around women’s bodies which had kept them deeply misunderstood. In the 1920’s Georgia O’ Keefe painted flowery fannies, and Sylvia Plath scribbled her poetic torment, revisioning women as something more whole than the sum of Picasso’s cubes. In 1935, Virginia Woolf wrote that it would still be decades before women could tell the truth about their bodies. For the secrets and lies that kept women’s bodies mysterious, also kept them powerless and choiceless.

As the consciousness of sexual inequality brewed, truths began to emerge, like earthworms after a rainstorm. Women started to question the biology is destiny curse and to pose immodest questions, like ‘what the fuck about ME?’ Realisations that there was more to life than unmitigated maternity created a powerful shift in the ways women understood their bodies. In 1970 Shulamith Firestone wrote, ‘Pregnancy is barbaric…the temporary deformation of the body of the individual for the sake of the species. Moreover, childbirth hurts… like shitting a pumpkin.’ (The Dialectic of Sex, 188-9, 1970).

Shere Hite, in the same decade embarked on a campaign to resurrect female sexuality in the wake of the Freudian and Masters and Johnson conspiracy which decreed women as sexually passive and hysterical, imagining molestation by their fathers. One might be forgiven for assuming that the clitoris was the invention of the twentieth century. Nestling in a quiet spot, it could not outbrag the phallus. Shere Hite’s research introduced the possibility of the vaginal orgasm and multiple orgasms which posed a David versus Goliath challenge to the pecker because that sneaky little clitoris could bring down the heavens, again and again and again. However these discoveries have not come to the rescue of girlchildren who, in lesser visited tourist destinations, Alice Walker and Pratibah Parma document in Warrior Marks (1993), are still subject to female genital mutilation.

Though pornography is as ancient as the male response to which it panders, it is only recently that the question of women’s arousal (how, what and where) has been asked. Nancy Friday’s collection of women’s sexual fantasies in Women on Top (1991), reflect that women’s internal worlds teem with a libidinous lust, only vaguely interested in penetration by male organs. Female self-gratification is now very much in vogue, and women these days find joy in private collections that not only refer to a range of perfumes, but to latex and plastic object d’arts with switches that do the internal jitterbug, in search of that elusive G-spot. With the decline of the popularity of the penis this century, came the rise in the celebration of lesbianism as more and more women decided that they needed men like a fish needs a bicycle.

This century unequivocally raised the possibility that women’s sexuality is more advanced, more economically packaged and has a longer endurance than male sexuality. No longer unknown to themselves, women’s bodies are now being experienced not only as object, but as subject too. Annie Sprinkle, a modern day porn performer, in the spirit of reclamation of the female body, invites her audience up onto the stage, to take a peek at her cervix through a speculum, not only to ‘demystify the female body, but because it’s beautiful.’

Menstruation, once a conversational taboo, is now the subject of hundreds of commercials advertising the best and most efficient ways of dealing with light, medium, heavy and ‘oh-boy-am-I-bleeding’ flows. Since the marketing of tampons, ‘specially designed by female gynaecologists,’ which expand every which way and can absorb up to a glass and a half, women do not have to give up swimming, dancing or any other activity that requires a padless crotch. The past hundred years have resoundingly confirmed: not only do we shit, but we fart, we bleed, we ache down here.


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What Nature withheld, technological advances this century found ways to take. The Pill in the 60’s, introduced sex without reproduction, so women no longer had to miss periods, attempt back street abortions or get married just cos an itch needed scratching. But what the pill did for women’s sexual liberation in the 60’s, the AIDS holocaust in the nineties has quickly revoked. As it turns out, women are more susceptible to HIV infection than men due to their risk of unwanted unprotected intercourse and the wide surface area of the vagina which acts like a sponge. Virginity until marriage, once scorned in the era of flower power, has made a dramatic comeback as women grapple with how to have fun and survive at the same time. Technology once again scratched its head and came up with the female condom – a sort of genital raincoat that requires a sense of humour and an indifference to squeaking sounds during lovemaking.

Scientific advances have given us mammograms and cervical smears for early detection of female-specific cancers so women can live even longer. And some Goddess-inspired medical breakthrough in the form of epidurals has neutralized the malicious misogynist Biblical injunction of ‘bringing forth children in pain.’ But more women in the past decades, who possibly due to the influences of feminism, did not rush into maternity at the first erect opportunity, are struggling to bring forth children at all. No problem: it is now entirely possible to take a sperm and an ovum out of their homeground and to place them on a blind date in a petri dish and surgically force a marriage. If it is not the raw DNA that is needed, but rather wombspace, surrogate mothers rent out their uterus’s for the period of gestation for a fee. Procreation in these ways have necessitated revisionist versions of the birds and the bees, such as the test tubes and the pipettes.

Medical ingenuity has allowed us a window into the impermeable space of the womb. Lennart Nilsson’s breathtaking book of the 1980’s, A Child is Born brought a camera nose to nose with mitotic cells, developing moment by moment into a foetus. However, these intrusions which allow us to know far more about the unborn than the Almighty ever determined we should, such as early sex detection, have resulted in the abortion of female foetus’s in some countries where boys are still the first prize.

Whilst far more is known about what lurks and gurgles on the inside of the curves and bulges of our flesh, the beauty myths of this century have left us dumber than ever before. In 1959, the debut of the Barbie doll brainwashed generations of girls that to be beautiful was to be nippleless, hairless except for a mane of blonde head hair and to have feet which can only wear high heels. Designed to be round, women have shrunk and starved themselves into twig-like angularity. Unable to shake the obsession with parts, this century saw us going for the burn and developing ‘buns of steel’ to the dulcet tones of Jane Fonda’s home videos. And if sweat does not do the job, there is always the scalpel. Liposuction and plastic surgery have now given us the options of sculpting a tit, carving a thigh, moulding a belly or aligning a konk. Sagging flesh can be trimmed. Shaggy wrinkles can be smoothed out. The only excuse for ugliness these days, it appears, is poverty. Dolly Parton confesses, that ‘it costs a lot of money to look as cheap as I do.’ The slogan of our era ‘You can never be too rich or too thin’ has meant that women this century spend more time looking in the mirror or the inside of a toilet bowl than they do at literature or computer screens. Princess Di, a tragic icon of humanity, hid her bulimia for years behind a stunning wardrobe while she smiled for the camera. Even Black culture, which always favoured the spherical has assimilated this obsession with wormy androgyny. Audre Lorde in her poem Song for a Thin Sister wrote ‘I was so sure that skinny / was funny or silly / but always / white.’ But white has not, in this instance, as in so many others, been right.

In the twentieth century, feminism and technology have blasted open the vaults of mystery and ostensibly created a universe of infinite possibilities for us, through knowledge, as much and more than we ever wanted. But is it knowledge, in the words of Coleridge, that ‘returns again as power’?

The truths we face are that the majority of female bodies on this planet are ravaged by poverty and are subject to some form of gender abuse, whether it be in the form of foot binding, female genital mutilation, rape, domestic violence, dowry related femicides or other cultural practices. And despite the infinite choices the information age has presented the privileged among us, there is still a weeping – for pregnancies unwanted; for unbudgeable infertility; for bodies too thin or too fat; for children born with HIV. The control we have gained has been offset by fragmentation into new states of enslavement in our lives.
The alienation from our bodies has been replaced with an ambivalence – even a contempt borne from familiarity. We may do well to remember that women still live longer, look better and do 90 per cent of the loving compared with the other homo sapiens species on the planet. A dose of forgiveness for a fat bum, hairy eyebrows or a first-born female may bring us closer to the romance with our bodies that is long overdue.

I am still holding out for a few inventions that might swing the balance of power somewhere closer to mid-field. Firstly, an anti-rape device, called ‘The Bobbit,’ to be worn internally like a tampon, that with a squeeze of those pelvic muscles we are told to exercise in preparation for childbirth, neatly snips off any uninvited protuberance. What about an antidote to Viagra, called, ‘Not Tonight, Dear,’ which only allows men to get erections when women want them? And what if the defence budget could be turned into the maternity budget, so that every time a woman has a child, it would be like winning the lottery?

But in an age in which science and anger have exhausted their energies, we need to find new ways to cherish our womanliness. Because despite what we think we know, there is an elusive something that we cannot get online or see through a microscope. Call it the mystery. Call it self love. Without the plumpness of self-integration where women embrace our bodies as extensions of our minds and spirits, the circle Tom Robbins speaks of, will be filled with an emptiness bred from too much soulless information. I am tired of the barren enclaves of self-pity and dissatisfaction that have characterized our history. We need the kind of power that comes from the certainty that without us, the show does not go on. Before we can teach men to love the circle, we have to fill it with love ourselves.

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It is four years to the day.

The pillow next to mine whispers this in my ear just before I open my eyes to the careless daylight. I wonder if it is a deficiency – perhaps a leak sprung in me after he died – that in all the time that has passed since we lay together in our… this bed, I haven’t dreamed about him. Not even once.

The pillow is restless for an explanation, as if baffled afresh by his persistent absence. The linen creeps up between my thighs with the easy familiarity of a lover’s hand. I rest my palm on his pillowcase which in all this time I have still not washed. If something of him still lingers there, I can’t bring myself to flush it out with Dynamo’s ultra-penetrating wash. I am certain this is why it still talks to me.

I have never taken his suicide as ingratitude. He always said he knew he’d die young. But the epicurean in me riles at the needless violence of it. Would a dignified overdose have been too much to ask? Blowing your brilliant brains out just five days short of your twenty-eighth birthday was gratuitous, burlesque. Why involve cleaners? Despite all the intimacies we trafficked in this bed, he never once let slip that the course he was charting through the jungle of his silences involved ammunition. He lived as a pacifist. Died as a terrorist. I was duped. Even stupid. To be that close, and not to know.

When you share a bed, you share a world. Those were his words, not mine.

Four years down the line, sex has become a vague intangible notion, like marriage and motherhood, limp affectations other people assume, unoriginal and unfortunate. My dreams, though, are pornographic. There I am hunted by wild men on Harleys, woolly with beard and storm. I am caressed noiselessly by bespectacled librarians with French manicures behind the Politics section. My breasts are groped, suckled on by passing strangers. Old men in beige trousers. Pregnant women verdant with limbs. Young boys twitching with testosterone.

As soon as my head touches my pillow, I become everyone’s whore. The hull of the mattress cradles my bones. The bed springs push up beneath me with memories that pester my skin, ripples of the gasps and shudders we let loose under these covers.

In this bed he had touched me alive. My body sang Gregorian chants. My womb shimmied in my belly, my nipples quoted Shakespeare. My hips grew wings. I fed him my flesh. I thought it would keep him from starving.

But in all those years he’d slept side by side next to me, I hadn’t dreamed at all. My friend Trixie had warned me, ‘be careful – he’s stealing your dreams.’

Rob was a thief – not of the petty kind. But I knew that going in. I had no-one but myself to blame.

After he died, I stopped eating meat.


The body needs protein. It is not a whim. It is a practical insistence much like oxygen and water. I am committed to oblige. This is an unspoken understanding between me and my tissues. Without meat, protein becomes a daily pilgrimage and beans offer a degree of deliverance.

Not every deli stocks tofu. Celebrities crooning of the benefits of green tea and the Kabbalah have curbed its status as a culinary idiosyncrasy, but still, tofu isn’t a fling. For one thing, you have to know where to look. And for another, it is entirely anodyne, and surrenders to the flavours of its immersion – soy, sesame, garlic, chili, ginger – without resistance, all too eager to please. Some days I eat it bland. It takes me back to my dreamless state, when Rob seasoned me.

Today, when I arrive at the fridges at the back of the supermarket where they stock ‘slow-moving’ produce, I cannot get to the tofu. There is somewhat of a boy in my way in washed out denims and a white t-shirt, with a lock of black hair wilted over his eyes. He is examining the different types of tofu with the same look of bewildered exile as a father holds his newborn.

‘Excuse me…’ I say, reaching into the fridge and removing Silken Soy.

‘Ummmm,’ he ventures.

I stop and address him with my gaze. It is not clear he is speaking to me.

‘Is …. Is… is this the…. best tofu… ?’ He holds up Greenacres.

‘It depends.’

He looks at me expectantly. I realize he wants me to go on.

‘It depends what you like.’

He nods. ‘I.. uh… don’t know what I like…’

He speaks to the tofu, not to me.

I am encouraged by his ingenuousness to continue. ‘I like this one because it’s mild and silky. But if you prefer it a bit stronger and firmer, then I think the Greenacres is better …’

‘And how do you … eat it?’

‘With my mouth, generally.’

He cannot decide whether I am joking. He wants to smile but all that hesitation gets in the way, and his courtesy weighs him down.

‘Sorry, I…I mean … how do you prepare it? Isn’t it tasteless?’

‘Are you new to tofu?’

He shifts his weight, in an effort to get easy in his body. He comes to some kind of lumbar compromise. I believe he is looking at me through his fringe.

‘I’ve just moved out of home, and I’m cooking for myself for the first time, so… I guess you could say I am new to tofu..’ he gives a small laugh, as if that phrase is enchanting. ‘But I’ve been a vegetarian since I was thirteen.’

‘Why did you give up meat?’ I ask.

He shrugs.

I squeeze the Silken Soy in my hand.

‘I.. uh.. once saw a sheep get knocked over by a car…’ His right fist coils tightly, anemoned in recall.

I release my squeeze on the Silken Soy. ‘You need fresh asparagus,’ I say. ‘You steam the asparagus. Then you toss olive oil and balsamic vinegar over them ..’

He smiles hesitantly. ‘Balzamic?’ he asks.

‘Balsamic,’ I say. ‘You’ve heard of it?’


‘It’s a dark aged vinegar that’s been reduced and thickened over time in oak or chestnut barrels.’


‘Then you dice the tofu and make it into a salad … with some toasted sesame and sunflower seeds….’

‘That sounds … wow …’

‘It’s …very wholesome…’ I say.

‘You know a lot about tofu.’

‘The balsamic’s in Aisle 4, in case you were wondering…’

I am standing paying at the checkout when he bounds up to me.

I stare down at my sandals which need some superglue to fix where the under sole is loose with the indulgence of grief’s neglect. I suddenly feel a little wretched in my tracksuit and ponytail. I haven’t been looked at in so long.

I am aware of his eyes on me, but it isn’t the kind of looking that makes you edgy. It is very soft. As if he is opening and closing all around me, the way flowers do for the sun.

‘Ummm…’ he starts.

I look up at him.

He panics for a second. He fidgets with his right hand on the counter. But he proceeds. There is courage there.

‘Would you … be interested….’

‘Thirty-nine, sixty’ the checkout lady says to me. I hand her a fifty.

‘… um… in initiating a…. virgin to the whole tofu experience… like … would you show me… how to prepare it…’

I inhale. I don’t know men anymore. Rob took that with him too. He clutches the counter. He is bracing for disappointment.

‘Can I just see your eyes…’ I ask.

He lifts his fringe impishly. They are dark and green and delicate. But they don’t flinch in the looking when the hair is out of the way.

I glance at the checkout lady. She looks at me and shrugs. ‘Yeah, why not? He looks like a harmless kid…’

‘I’m twenty-two,’ he says earnestly. ‘I’m not a kid anymore.’


His name is Finn (short for Finnegan, but that sounds weak, like ‘whiskers on a chin –igan’ which couldn’t even withstand the wind) and he is an architecture student. Seven years younger than me. Chinese year of the dragon. Perhaps it is the tofu, perhaps it is the Chardonnay, that gives him courage. That night in my kitchen, over a huge salad of asparagus and tofu, I let him talk.

An only child. Mum worshipped him, and thought he was the ‘greatest thing since sliced bread.’ Funny phrase that, he notices, what’s so special about sliced bread or is it meant ironically?

‘Dad left when I was three, so it was just mum and me until I was six. Then she met George. He was an architect which in mum’s eyes was like being a brain surgeon. Things have a way of getting exaggerated, by contrast – my real dad never finished school. The first present George ever bought me was a Lego set. He figured the best way to get to my mum was to make out like I was the special one, the one he was interested in.’

People are like buildings,’ he always said. ‘‘There’s always a doorway, always a way in,’ He was big on doorways. He had this way of filling up space. Charisma, my mother called it. It made me feel stunted. He’d always get a table in a fully booked restaurant, or the window seat in flights. People were always offering him their holiday homes. My mother got rid of everything she owned, even things she and my dad got for their wedding, when George moved in. It’s amazing what a statement like, ‘what does your stuff say about you?’ can do to a person who was perfectly at ease in herself for thirty-five years before it was uttered.’

‘He read me books on Frank Lloyd Wright and Andrea Palladio at bedtime.’

‘He let me sit up front. He liked to drive fast. I was in the car when he did a hit and run on a sheep.’

‘Dragons are supposed to leave a legacy.’

‘George left when I was thirteen. ‘

‘My mother’s back plays up in the winter. I think she’s lonely.’

Four hours pass. Finn asks for the bathroom.

‘Second on the left after the bedroom.’

My eyes follow him down the hall. At my bedroom door, he slows down and turns to look into my room. I wonder what his architect eyes discern in the mess of linen, and whether he reads the unraveled history of my flesh there. The thought of date rape passes through my mind like a stray cat, but it does not stay. I feel indicted by my own torturous conditioning. He’s just a boy.

When he returns, he has moved his fringe away from his eyes. It looks like he has applied some water to keep it in place behind his ear.

‘Can we… can we take a walk..?’

‘A walk?’

‘Along the beachfront?’

He recognizes my distrust of shadows.

‘If you don’t want to, it’s okay…’

I haven’t walked on the beach after dark since the night before Rob died, his wiry arm around my shoulders, holding me firm, with promises of the earth and gravity.

I have replayed that night over and over in my head. I think I nattered on about children someday. He had just kept still, misleading me into a labyrinth of complacency with his quiet. He pointed out Orion. I thought it was an observation. Now I see it was a forwarding address. A destination.

I grab my coat and a hip flask.

‘Let’s go,’ I say.

We walk in an uncontested silence. The seagulls are haggling on the sand. We take turns sipping from the flask. I am dreamless. I don’t know how these things go anymore. Does he try to take my hand? And what then?

But he doesn’t. He keeps his hands deep in his pockets after returning the flask to me. He doesn’t mind sand in his shoes. I take mine off.

We walk all the way to the end of the beach and back. I get my feet wet. He watches me, but he makes no move to join me.

I look for Orion. I can’t make it out. I was never good at joining the dots.

‘What are you looking for?’ he asks me.

‘Anything,’ I say.

He does not press me. My obscurity suffices. I can’t make out whether this is communication or dislocation.

Suddenly, I start to laugh. He watches me laughing.

I laugh ridiculously.

Finn doesn’t push his way into my laugh. And then after a while, my laugh disintegrates and becomes part of the tender night and perhaps Rob is here and perhaps he is not but for now, endlessly in this moment, I feel unstolen from.


The 7 Day Writing Challenge

WINGS: Words Inspire, Nourish and Grow the Spirit


He calls me the next day. As if tofu requires a thank you.

The following day he invites me to walk on the pier where the boats nod to one another.

The next to sit in a cathedral to watch the afternoon light bleed through the stained glass windows.

Then a museum, where the conceptual manifests spatially.

I let him dream for me.

He escorts me through artifacts, sculptures, landscapes.

He loves to talk, mostly about composition. I give myself over to this new language, with an abstracted fascination. I watch his mouth move in curlicues of description, the way the ear swoons at the sounds of words in French or Spanish, unrecognizable, but irresistible nonetheless.

In bookshops, we steal ideas from the Architecture and Travel books, enormous photographic books open on our knees as Finn talks in spirals. Could one design a four dimensional building? Why don’t windows frame existing landscapes? Crop circles must be evidence of a divine architecture. I agree mindlessly, question nothing. I learn names of new things. Baroque. Neoclassical. Bauhaus.

He leaves an urgent message on my answering machine about a rainbow he can see from his desk. I teach him how to cook a Moroccan vegetarian curry. We experiment with different curry pastes. We drink cranberry juice with vodka. We lose the vodka, add chili. He watches movies with subtitles with me.

We are amazed each in our own way – he, at how I eat spaghetti one strand at a time; at the design of my furrowed brow before I sneeze; at my irrational disdain for eggplant. I, at the fact that in three months of accumulated intimacies, Finn does not attempt to hold my hand, sneak a kiss or reach for my breasts. I have lost my co-ordinates. In my dreams it is Finn who roams my body. I wake beached in a parched bed, scrawny with hunger.

I start to crave meat again.

I am unsure in my skin, which insists, with depleting adamancy, that he is not gay. Perhaps I am incapable of producing an erection in a heterosexual male who isn’t actually contemplating suicide and therefore does not have the luxury of time on his hands. Trixie tells me to ditch him. ‘You’re wasting your time.’

But I don’t have anywhere else to be.


It is now almost four months to the day since we met at the tofu fridge. In a bookshop, I am paging through Life in Tibet.

The strong face of a Tibetan nomad wrapped in a dazzlingly woven blanket smiles from the page, gloriously beckoning. Around his neck he wears a chain of irregular beads and charms. It is a fully told story in one face. I close my eyes. I try to remember Rob’s face and which parts were keeping secrets. I want to ask the Tibetan nomad if the stars at night change with the seasons. And how to keep warm when the snow comes. I wonder how Tibetans speak things of emotional bearing. Or if the language of beads does all the work. Perhaps covering someone with your blanket is a declaration of undying devotion, and words a surfeit of inconsequence.

When I open my eyes Finn is standing next to me. He looks at the photograph I am holding open.

‘Are you crying?’ he asks.

‘Not really,’ I say, wiping my eyes.

‘A hamburger?’ He is incredulous.

‘I’ll go insane if I don’t have one,’ I say. ‘But I don’t expect you….’


‘To hang around.’

‘Why wouldn’t I?’

‘The dead sheep? Remember?’

‘All that blood,’ he says.


I am not choosing. But my body is taking charge now.

‘Can I … watch?’

He watches me eat my double hamburger with pineapple and bacon and cheese. The sauce drips down my chin. Finn swallows. He reaches out his hand to my face. He stops before he touches me.

‘It’s okay, I’ve got it,’ I say, dabbing it with a serviette.

Back in my apartment, I am heavy with flesh.

Finn paces carnivorously, his hands deep in his pockets. And then, it is sudden and he is close, so close I can smell the briny trepidation in his breath. He unsheathes his hands and summons mine.

He leads me down the hallway to my bedroom door. He surveys the treacherous estuary of the bed. He drops onto the mattress and reels me in to sit beside him. In his hand, he holds mine like a pansy shell, catastrophically breakable despite faultless care. We are at the edge of something.

I wish I had an amulet to give him to spare him the torture of verbalization.

‘I want to….’ he says, ‘…. to…’

The trembling in his body moves first into my fingers, my palm, my wrist, and up my radius as he labours to cross the rickety bridge of things unspoken.

In the shallows, he gasps for breath with heaving gills.

‘…I’ve never…’

‘That’s okay,’ I say. ‘I haven’t in … a lifetime of four years … ‘

I lower my lips to his hand. He closes his eyes and sighs. I move my mouth to his lips and draw in his exhalation.

Beneath my fingers on his chest, his heart drum-rolls. I lead him to the water, and lay him down.

‘I … can’t….’

‘Float,’ I say.

He opens his mouth.

‘You can float.’

Finn clasps his hand on top of mine, a double shield on his heart.

‘I… I…… George…’ he begins. I offer my ears like tightly-laced fishnets, to catch his slippery words which dart out of his mouth, a spew of trussed and mangled innocence, of everything that should have been de-hooked and thrown back to grow into adulthood.

When I strip off my clothes, I do so as a recuperative reconnaissance. The bed opens up for us, a harbour. My breasts welcome him like lighthouses, my limbs enfold him like seaweed. I steer him through the rocks, whispering what I am going to do before I do it. I ask him if it is okay, and wait for his nod. I touch him in all his places, first with my fingers and then with my mouth, that have been snatched from him before he had a chance to discover what felt good and right.

He trembles like sea grass, as his body fights off the memories and they sink, like shipwrecks, deep into the ocean of the bed.

‘I Want to Write… Bbbut Where Should I Start?’

Ah, of course, where should you start? Not knowing where to begin is another reason many of us don't start writing, combined with ‘it’s too overwhelming’ and 'I don't have the time.' So say you want to write your lifestory. A memoir. Something about who you have...

One Story in an Immeasurable Community

Some years back, when I had half the number of children I do now and half the ache in my heart, I found my first writing community. It was at the Centre for the Book, a historically solid structure in the middle of Cape Town, close to the austere buildings which...

9 Spiritual Principles to Boost Your Creativity

So many people tell me, 'I'd love to write, but I'm just not creative.' They speak as if creativity is an innate IQ or EQ or an extra nipple some people are born with which precludes the possibility of acquiring it. I think of creativity as a way of seeing, a...

How to Teach Boys to Respect Girls

Before my son was born, I didn’t think it was my problem to raise good men. I’d been working with raped and battered women as a women’s rights advocate for many years, and had seen my share of sexist atrocities by men-gone-wrong. My aim was to get justice for women –...

How Do You Say the Thing You Are Not Allowed to Say?

“What is the source of our first suffering? It lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak....it was born in the moments when we accumulated silent things within us.” - Gaston Bachelard There are things we are allowed to say and things we are not allowed to say. We...

In Search of Words about Writing

What is it like to write? When I first discovered Dylan Thomas in my early teens, it unbolted a mayhem of yearning inside me. I knew only that I wanted to do that with language, to cause a rousing inside another, simply by the laying down of words in a particular...

Without Self-Compassion, Why Should Anyone Trust Us?

Without Self-Compassion, Why Should Anyone Trust Us?

Without Self-Compassion, Why Should Anyone Trust Us?

Celebrity drag queen Ru Paul sings, ‘If you don’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?’

Amen to this when it comes to the act of writing.

All writing begins with self-compassion.

To write, we have to own our voice and our right to write. I sometimes think that writing is the act of dynamic empathy – for ourselves and for others.

In life, we’re often caught up in opinions, judgments and criticisms. Our culture teaches us to analyse, disparage, bring others down to size. We ridicule people who make mistakes and vilify people on social media who disagree with us.

Satire and journalism are built on the impulse to destroy. This energy, as much as it is powerful and necessary in propaganda and in persuasive writing, is belittling and at its core, arrogant. It is built on the idea of ‘them’ and ‘us.’ The subtext is, ‘you are so stupid, and look how clever I am.’ Its impulse is to destroy.

This judgmental outlook is especially unhelpful when we’re writing memoir.

When we write memoir, we’re looking at ourselves and our lives as if we were watching ourselves in the mirror. But those are the same eyes that silently judge: ‘I’m so fat,’ ‘are those new wrinkles?’ ‘I wish I was prettier,’ ‘I wish my teeth were straighter, my nose were smaller, my eyes less slanty…’

While these voices inside our head may be difficult to tame, and may be the soundtrack to our lives, what is certain is that no-one – other than us – is interested in reading this kind of self-directed hate speech.


The 7 Day Writing Challenge

WINGS: Words Inspire, Nourish and Grow the Spirit

An African American friend of mine once said it to me like this: ‘no-one trusts self-hating politics,’ when I expressed to him my shame at being a white South African Jewish woman who came from privilege. What he meant was ‘get over it – do the work you have to do to come to some place of peace with who you are – and then you are ready to do political work.’

Writing requires of us to do the same – whether we’re writing about ourselves, or about other characters. To write complex character (where the character is not a cliché), we have to see all their facets – the heroic and the cowardly; the loyal and the lustful. The way I teach this is to tell my students, we don’t have to write about our pain, but we have to write from it. In memoir in particular, we may choose not to expose our self-loathing, shame, guilt, anger, resentment and fear, but we have to know them intimately to write authentically about ourselves – and any other fictional characters we may conjure up.

If we want to write – about ourselves or other characters – in a way that connects us to our readers, we have to be connected to ourselves. This means dropping the judgement, and replacing it with compassion.

Think about it: if we write about ourselves with condemnation and criticism, or alternatively we skim over difficulties with platitudes, we almost render ourselves an unreliable narrator – readers will feel our sense of discomfort with who we are, and will find it hard to connect with us emotionally. Whereas if we look at our wounded places with a soft gaze, and write about what we find difficult about being ourselves with tenderness, readers cannot help but connect with us. The upside too is that we give others permission to look at their own wounds with that same gentle regard.

Now, isn’t that a gift?


My heart unsteady in my throat I wake my son, curls and squinty eyes shield his face Five more minutes becomes 10 or 15 Mornings sting for the strong-willed night owl His shoulders stiff with ire Wednesdays are heavy He packs for his dad’s I tread carefully I hold my...

This Is Not the Story I Wanted to Write

This is not the story I was planning to write.But sometimes the stories we don’t intend to tell are the ones that most need to be shared.It begins with a typical night out: drinking and dancing at a club. Except the drink a guy handed me was spiked. I have no...

‘I Want to Write… Bbbut Where Should I Start?’

Ah, of course, where should you start? Not knowing where to begin is another reason many of us don't start writing, combined with ‘it’s too overwhelming’ and 'I don't have the time.' So say you want to write your lifestory. A memoir. Something about who you have...

The Biggest Birthday Yet

Good lord, it is two days to my 50th birthday. I am not ready to own such a majestic number, never mind have to blow out that many birthday candles. Also, it means I have to stop ‘turning’ 50 and just be 50. I have literally devoted my entire 49th year to getting to...

Song to Myself

She who always knew that she was destined – destined, mind you – for more than domesticity never suspected that perhaps her knowing might be nothing more than the soul’s delusion holding imprints of hopeful mystery. This knowing comes now to bother her in the hubble...


Men are good for a great number of jobs, I’m thinking specifically of killing spiders and changing tyres, but they are useless when it comes to a second opinion when shopping for a new outfit and repeating the conversation they just had on the phone which you know...

How to Make ‘I’ Contact

How to Make ‘I’ Contact

How to Make ‘I’ Contact

One of the first rules of public speaking is to make eye contact with the audience. That’s how we connect and earn trust.

In writing, our challenge is to make ‘I’ contact.

We have to be connected in with our own story in order to connect people in to our story. Who we are and why we have written our story has to come across in our writing. That’s partly what it means to have an authentic writing voice. We create trust and credibility by speaking about real things in a real way.


The 7 Day Writing Challenge

WINGS: Words Inspire, Nourish and Grow the Spirit

So we have to know who we are. At the very least, writing should teach us something about ourselves. We can’t trick readers into believing we’re authentic if we’re not. Just spending time working on that will take us into a place where people will trust us – we are solid in our writing, solid in what we’re doing and saying.

Knowing who we are and what we want to say is about noticing where we are. It’s about location – in time, space, emotion and character arc (our own).

We need to locate ourselves. So, who are you? Where are you? What do you have to say? How will you say it? And how can you say it better? What do you care about? What do you really truly deeply care about? Hiding somewhere inside the answer to these questions is not only our writing voice, but sometimes our deeper sense of purpose. Worth going in there, don’t you reckon?

How to Become a Writer Publishers Want

How to Become a Writer Publishers Want I often get asked, 'How do you get published?' The better question is 'how do we become the kind of writers publishers are looking for?' Here are my thoughts: Write the best goddamed book you can – live what you’ve written. Don’t...

That Dear Little Smear

When that big spunk of a Phys Ed teacher broke my virginity at eighteen, my mother did two things: she put me on the pill and sent me for a pap smear. I didn’t like the sound of that. (Who gets smeared? What is ‘pap’?) Next thing, I was on my back, feet in stirrups...

The Long View of Creativity

How long is my vision? Does it have a depth that can rival oceans? Has it curiosity akin to a child’s? Will its manifestation mean something even if I never get to see those results? These are questions I ask as I embark on a new writing project. Queries exploring the...

How’s That Cynicism Working for You?

I went to law school. I got not one, but two law degrees – one at Yale. Yippee for me, right? Actually, my entire life since then has been a recovery from legal thinking. Not that I don’t value logic, clarity, causation and an understanding of what it means to think...

Grabbing the Reins of Creativity

I remember as a kid thinking creativity was this wild, carefree, easy-going emotion that you just got into, rather like finger-painting. But as I have started using the innovative side of my brain as an adult, I realise what a fragile, ethereal thing creativity really...

I Know What Stops You from Writing

    I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic And she said yes I asked her if it was okay to be short And she said it sure is I asked her if I could wear nail polish Or not wear nail polish And she said honey She calls me that sometimes She said you can...

What Every Writer Needs on Her Shelf

What Every Writer Needs on Her Shelf

What Every Writer Needs on Her Shelf

Finding the right word may take more than just a click of a mouse…

I inherited a Roget’s Thesaurus from my late grandfather. It has one of those hard-covers made from cloth. My grandfather’s signature is on the front page with the date 10-3-36. A few pages in is a replication of ‘the facsimile of the first page of the MS. Classified catalogue of words completed by Dr. P. M. Roget in 1805, which was the germ of the Thesaurus.’ It shows the word Existence written in fountain pen with Dr. Roget’s enumerations of the meaning beneath.

I love this old book despite the fact that I hardly ever use it. Most of my writing takes place on my computer, so all I have to do is right click for synonyms. This function saves me heaps of time – no more paging through the index of the thesaurus, finding the corresponding meaning and number and then turning to the right page and wading through long lists of words.

There’s no doubt that being able to look up Serbian for ‘We have run out of pickled onions,’ if one happens to be writing a story about Serbian cocktail waitresses in under three minutes saves us writers a lot of time. But sometimes speed isn’t what a writer needs.


The 7 Day Writing Challenge

WINGS: Words Inspire, Nourish and Grow the Spirit

In Steve Tolt’z new book Quicksand (2015), the character Aldo says, ‘… in our lifetimes we’ll see the actual end of patience.’ Not that I had a whole heap to begin with, but I’ve noticed the erosion of the smidgeon of patience I had for working things out manually, or researching a topic by actually going to a library or doing field work. When something isn’t instant (like internet speed), I get annoyed, it’s not working properly. Even opening the thesaurus these days feels like too
much of an effort. Sometimes I scramble around in my brain, but can’t quite grab the phrase I’m feeling for. Right click and Microsoft Office fails me with it’s shortlist of synonyms.

And there it is – the sign I’m waiting for to stop. Reach for the thesaurus. Pause into the word territory. Take my time. Sometimes I get lost in the pages sniffing out the perfect word, being drawn down new word paths and language lanes.

On those ‘can’t-write-a-thing’ days, a stroll through through its pages squares me back to my true north – to why I write – because I love words, their tiny tweaks and their fragile nuances. So I keep mine on my desk, a talisman to hold me to my joy, a patient friend who has the answers to all my writing questions if only I slow down enough to ask.

For the Brave Ones

When I was asked to curate a series of blog posts for 16 days of activism against gender violence, I quickly discovered I was unprepared. I had to approach these stories like a child on the shoreline of a cold, dark ocean. I was scared to rush into the immensity of...

Creating a Vision for Writing

Close your eyes to see. When my heart beckons me to write I find a quiet place to meditate and I ask my heart, “What do you want me to say?” This simple act of sitting in silence with my eyes closed allows me to hear the stories living inside my body. I tune into the...

Writing About Writing About Writing

I have recommitted to writing. This is the anthem I have been singing for the last two-thirds of a year—a requiem for wasted time, claimed during the approach of my son’s first birthday. I was in a place of relative peace as this promise to myself was made, and I...

Joanne Fedler Media Spotlight: Jess Zlotnick

'The purpose of freedom is to free someone else.’ -Toni Morrison   I started mentoring writers ten years ago to save myself from starvation as an author in a climate of declining advances and book sales. But something happened in the teaching that saved me from...

Without Self-Compassion, Why Should Anyone Trust Us?

Celebrity drag queen Ru Paul sings, ‘If you don’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?’ Amen to this when it comes to the act of writing. All writing begins with self-compassion. To write, we have to own our voice and our right to write. I...

My Triumvirate: Meditation, Mantra and Memoir

I’m in the early stages of writing my memoir. At this point, I’m hunting, gathering, pulling things out and looking to see if and how they fit. I’m reliving scenes, moments, memories. Some are painful. Some are lighthearted. I smile as I write about the lighthearted...