Bad Art Is Fabulous in So Many Ways

Bad Art Is Fabulous in So Many Ways

Bad Art Is Fabulous in So Many Ways

‘Our spiritualities will be found not in what we profess, but in where our energies are most invested most hours of most days.’

James Hollis

Bad art is fabulous in so many ways.

Instead of letting poor writing or bad movies depress you, you can use them to inspire you. They can be a source of deep learning. In talks or on retreats, I bring out two books to prove my point that anyone can write a book – Roundabouts of Great Britain and Images You Should Not Masturbate To, both published by traditional publisher. True.

I’m right in the heart of writing my new book, The Sabbatical, about a group of women in their fifties, in which I want to shatter and refuse to accede to the defeating clichés about midlife, you know – the despair about ageing, sunspots, wrinkles, crowsfeet, the paunch, urinary incontinence, the muffin top, the weight gain, the libido-MIA, senile warts, the onset of all kinds of age-related (age-appropriate) wear ‘n tear, conditions, even diseases. We are worn-down-to-death by these narratives, they offer us nothing but same-old stories; an accession to decrepitude; more of what came before.

The Sabbatical is the third in the trilogy of Secret Mother’s Business, and explores the empty nest, divorce, widowhood, sickness, regret, relationships with adult children and the deep questions of what our responsibility is to the younger generation. I just didn’t want to fall into the bemoaning trap: getting old sucks, we’re invisible, woe are our tired-dried-up bits; let’s have another glass of wine.

So I was excited to see Amy Poehler’s directorial debut in the movie Wine Country, about a group of old friends who go off to Napa Valley to celebrate one of the friend’s 50th birthdays. Finally, a movie about women my age – ’bout time. I settled down to watch this, with huge anticipation thinking it would surely give me inspiration.

Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler

Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?

I am always loathe to take up the role of the critic, it being such an easy, lazy position, generally by people who don’t create themselves. But – and this is a strong opinion – I detested this movie. If that’s what women become in our midlife, we are surely doomed – ridiculous, alcohol-motivated, sex-with-younger-men-seeking ego-maniacs. I wanted to be no-one in that movie. I didn’t want a single one of those women as my friends.

I love the talent of the actresses in that movie, but I wish Amy Poehler had just asked herself: what do women in their fifties need to know about themselves that society doesn’t already push down our throats? What kind of role models are women who are not obsessed with romance, body image, children and getting independently wealthy? What ‘message’ or vision of life is this movie in service to?

James Hollis writes, in Hauntings:

‘The goal of life (these days) is not an afterlife, but apparently to enjoy this one. But the materialistic vision of our time leads to this dilemma: if the numinous is not experienced in the outer world, it will manifest either as somatic illness, internalized pathology, or we will be owned by our search for it among the objects upon which we have projected our existential yearning in the outer world. Thus shiny new objects, seductive technologies, sex and romance, hedonism, self-absorption and most of all, distraction, constitute the chief ‘spiritualities’ of our time.’

Wine Country has been a great inspiration for my new book but not in the way I expected. It has helped me clarify the kind of women, conversations and bigger picture message I want my book to convey by showing me what I surely do NOT want to reflect back to readers. I want readers to finish my book, excited about ageing; their inner wisdom and the strength of their life experience to offer light to the younger generation.

So, I guess, thanks Amy Poehler for the awfulness that is Wine Country which has helped me shape, conceive and give life to my characters – women who are, each in their own way, strong leaders, deep thinkers, and who are taking our responsibility to lives beyond our egos, seriously.

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How’s That Cynicism Working for You?

How’s That Cynicism Working for You?

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 as oppose to entirely emote.

However, I have spent too long amongst cynics and sceptics. Not that I don’t flirt with these energies on occasion. But here’s what I’ve noticed. I am usually cynical and sceptical when my vibration is low. When I’m not focused. When things aren’t going my way. When I allow my ego to be my boss.

I ‘came out’ on social media as a spiritualist – as someone who believes in a higher force, in ‘spirit’ or ‘God’ or whatever name you want to give the mystery. I’ve finally owned that my work is overtly ‘spiritual.’ I risk mockery, not only out there, but in my own family in which my teenagers have said, not so kindly, ‘Mum, we’re just not into all that spiritual shit.’

Spiritual people talk funny. We speak about invisible forces that cannot be measured. We pray -which to the cynic, looks like ‘talking to yourself.’ We don’t know all the answers. We believe in things. Like the power of intention, surrender, service, abundance and other such fluff. We risk being misunderstood as ‘religious.’ Which perhaps some of us are – but I am not.

So here’s my question: where does cynicism and scepticism get you?

Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler

Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?

Let’s think for a moment about the energies of both of these states: they’re ‘I don’t believe in… (God, magic, homeopathy, fairies, angels, life-after-death, organic food… just pick your favourites.) ‘ And that’s fine – we shouldn’t just ‘believe in stuff,’ but by the same measure, we shouldn’t diss everything too.

Scepticism’s synonyms are doubt, uncertainty, distrust, disbelief. Cynicism’s are pessimism, sarcasm, contempt, suspicion, disparagement, scorn.

Yikes.

I, for one, am completely over those energies in my life. And since I’ve given them up, my heart is light, my work feels meaningful, and as a bonus, many of the ‘dreams’ I had when my ego was my boss, have come to fruition. It’s just that I recognize now, that ‘I’ didn’t make it happen. The mystery did. Maybe even Spirit had a hand in it. Who knows?

Not me. And I bow my head and say ‘thank you.’

Ask the universe for help. Give thanks for the blessings in your life. Stay attuned to the wonder around you.

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I Am Well if You Are Well

I Am Well if You Are Well

I Am Well if You Are Well

I was a week away from my due date. I was enormous and uncomfortable as I stood barefoot on the deserted beach. I had survived the past year. Barely. Grief and sadness swirled in me like aurora borealis. Birth demands hope. You have to be an optimist to bring new life into the world.

As I scanned the horizon, my heart heavier than the heft of my unborn son, a whale leapt out of the water, twisted in an air-dance before it disappeared again. I gasped. I have seen many whales breach, but none so completely.

It launched again. And again. Each time, my gasps turned to whoops, and then to laughter. I looked around as people do in the presence of large sea creatures, to say, ‘Check out that crazy backflipping whale!’ but I was alone on that beach, the only witness.

Eighteen years have passed, but the magic of that moment remains unabbreviated in my psyche.

When that whale soared in defiance of gravity, I swear, I felt chosen: to be the eye that sees the tree fall in the forest, so that it can be said, ‘it made a sound.’

Sometimes when we’re unravelling, all it takes is an instant like this to rewire us and bring us back. It’s not every day that we’ll find ourselves the only onlooker to an uncommon sighting in Nature such as this. But there is an equivalent witnessing process we can each draw on whenever we need it. And it happens through writing.

When we put words on the page, two mystical processes are activated. Firstly, we take up our position, no longer as a victim of our lives, but as an attentive survivor. It requires of us new and brave eyes because if no-one else has seen our grief we may have begun to ‘unsee’ it too. When asked ‘how are you?” we may have taught ourselves to say, ‘I’m fine, really,’ and ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’ We may have become sanitation experts of our experiences, with easy, manicured responses to some of our most profound suffering.

There is danger in this wilful un-witnessing. In his beautiful book The Smell of Rain on Dust, Martin Prechtel writes, ‘It is a terrible source of grief not to be able to grieve.’ When we do not tend to ourselves in this deeply present manner, we tolerate illness, loneliness and invisibility. It’s exhausting not to feel the truth of our experiences.

Writing reverses all that. When we write, we volunteer to be the eye that sees. Heartache and loss – which perhaps has felt unshareable – is reshaped. And I would go so far as to say that even if no-one ever reads our words, we have by our own action declared, ‘My life is worth bearing witness to.’ That alone, is deeply healing.

 

Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler

Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?

Secondly, in writing, we summon our own hidden wildlife – it’s always there, just beneath the surface, the way the whales exist in the ocean long before we catch them playing in full sight. As we stitch language to emotion, we invite meaningful, creative conversations with ourselves about what it means to be alive. I believe this is what Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist meant when he said, ‘You have to learn to recognize your own depth.’

We may even fall back in love with ourselves when we receive – as we always do – a sign (the emotional equivalent of a breaching whale) that something powerful and beyond imagination survives within us. I have seen many people come back from the dead through their writing.

So how do we create an environment for this witnessing to flourish?

Martin Prechtel suggests we go down to the ocean to grieve, but never alone. Always with a ‘designated non-griever.’ Someone who ‘knows how to listen’ and who will not try to ‘cure you.’ The role of this person is to witness your grief, and to make sure you don’t drown. Someone to keep you safe, but not restrained.

As a writing mentor, I have started to think of myself as the equivalent of a ‘designated non-griever,’ someone who can remain compassionate and unflinching as people explore the desolations and wounds that have made them who they are.

The Shona tribe of Zimbabwe respond to the greeting ‘Are you well?’ with, ‘I am well if you are well.’

These words are  my invitation to anyone who wants to awaken through their writing. It’s been my dream to create an online community where people who have until now, felt alone in their suffering, can feel like they belong.

We have a shared responsibility to bear witness to one another’s grief, lest, as Cheryl Strayed reminds us, ‘the burden of loss is placed entirely upon the bereaved, while the rest of us avert our eyes and wait for those in mourning to stop being sad, to let go, to move on, to cheer up. And if they don’t — if they have loved too deeply, if they do wake each morning thinking, I cannot continue to live – well, then we pathologize their pain; we call their suffering a disease. We do not help them: we tell them that they need to get help.’

Storytelling is how we share this load with others and as a culture, carry one another forward. In telling our stories we put a call out in the universe, ‘Is anyone there?’ When our story touches another, who calls back, ‘I am here, if you are here,’ it’s as if for a brief moment a whale dances and hope leaps back at us, wildly and unjustifiably.

And we remember who we are and why we are here.

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Bringing Inequality Back into the Bedroom

Bringing Inequality Back into the Bedroom

Bringing Inequality Back into the Bedroom

I came to marriage by a circuitous route. As a radical feminist, I avoided it, certain it was for unintelligent girls who had no aspirations to travel or write books. I was never going to be ‘given away’ or called ‘Mrs’ Someone Else’s Surname. Working with abused women, I witnessed how marriage can do to good women what Chinese foot binding does to a healthy foot. Around me, I saw very few ‘happy marriages,’ between mindfully individuated people who were together because they deeply wanted to be. Even in people who seemed content enough with their spouses, I seldom saw that one ingredient I knew I could never live without: passion. So instead I determined I’d have lovers that came and went, the relationship equivalent of a sushi train, where you can pick what you feel like as it comes past. That way, I’d never get bored, and I’d never be stuck.

But then I grew up. I met a nice guy. We had kids (yes, out of wedlock). And twenty years later, I find myself in what seems to be a very stable and long-term marriage. My husband and I are good friends. He respects me. We are equals in the truest feminist sense of the word. He is non-violent, entirely supportive of my creative and economic development, respectful of my privacy and encouraging of my independence. But I’m starting to understand why good marriages flounder and why no-one is to blame. It’s got to do with a flaw we don’t often talk about in marriage – that love and passion struggle to co-exist.

The closer and more familiar my husband and I are with each other, the less sizzly we get. At times it’s like we’ve become the best room-mates and our raunchiness has puttered into abiding fondness. I don’t want to watch our sexual relationship fizzle out in bed- death, to become an erotic casualty of our familiarity and companionship. I want the person who knows me better than anyone else, to want me in that aching way we want someone we can’t have.

And if there’s any value to monogamy, there are important questions for us to grapple with. Like: is passion is sustainable long-term.? Does all this love, intimacy and equality make for good sex?

In her book Mating in Captivity, the sex therapist Esther Perel explains that love and passion’s agendas are often at loggerheads. Love brings security, respect and commitment, whereas passion invokes adventure, conflict and uncertainty, even domination and power. To reignite the erotic imagination, she says, we have to shelve ‘equality’ and enter the murky shadows of the erotic underworld.

My problem is that my entire identity has been shaped by feminism’s diet of egalitarianism, democracy and women’s rights. Have these starved me of the ingredients for long-term erotic subsistence? Will I have to abandon what I believe to discover something about myself I find confronting to admit?

My husband, bless him, wouldn’t think of taking an envelope out my drawer without asking my permission. But seriously, if he asks in that same considerate voice if I want to have sex tonight, he’ll get a gold medal for thoughtfulness, but a zero on the ‘bonk-me-now-baby-ometer.’

I’m intrigued by this conundrum. Why doesn’t respect translate into the erotic?

Perel says it’s because in love we merge with the other, and the erotic works through separation. We have to be able to see the ‘stranger’ in someone else to desire them. It’s why people have affairs – to keep the erotic charged in their lives. This has given me a new sympathy for adulterers, when I realize that to be truly erotically alive, we have to be imaginary adulterers, seducing our partners like Erica Jong’s nameless stranger in Flying High, to invoke their otherness, their inaccessibility.

 

Your Story - How to write it so others will read it - out now

In this no-excuses book, written for aspiring writers and emerging authors, Joanne Fedler shares her original techniques, frameworks and strategies for life writing to ensure that your story connects with readers and doesn’t bore them to switch to Facebook scrolling.

 

So, I do an experiment one night. When he walks in the door in his business suit, I imagine my husband isn’t the person who strokes my hand when I have a headache or makes me a hot-water bottle when I have my period. No, he’s some strange businessman who’s wandered in and grabs me, pushing me up against the kitchen counter and talking the kind of dirty feminism taught me degrades women. And though the feminist in me fumes: Bingo, baby. Those floodgates open. Hallelujah. There is a monsoon.

I feel ashamed even admitting this, knowing that it’s neither PC nor how it should be. But feminist theory isn’t helping me have orgasms. Even if it’s true that having a man handle me roughly and speak to me like I’m a sex object is a function of my ‘false consciousness’ in which I’m ‘desiring what patriarchy has taught me to desire’, I don’t care. Right now, I want hot sex with my husband. And I’m looking for clues. And here’s one: the hottest sex we have is make-up sex after a nasty fight. When I like him least.

Another clue: once when a divorced friend confessed that my husband was ‘the sexiest man she knew,’ I pounced on him when he walked through the door.

Some of the yummiest sex of my life was with a man I didn’t want to date, wake up next to or even remain friends with. But to deny how turned on I was by our encounter would be disingenuous if I want to truly understand the shape and texture of my own erotic landscape.

If I can be honest with myself, what I desire doesn’t play by the rules of equality. There’s an excitement that comes from a secret place in the body which has no ideology. It’s a complex undisclosed sinew of myth, dream, fantasy, conditioning, upbringing, biology and mystery. What I imagine, in the sacred shadows of my erotic kingdom, is irrational, inexplicable, and a little scary. I don’t really want anyone to tie me up or make lewd comments about my body parts. In the safety of my marriage, I desire experiences that would shock me in real life. If I cannot speak this truth, then it will have to be repressed and tamed into the ever-after of erotically flat-lining marriages. Two thirds of which end up in divorce.

I used to believe good sex was courteous. But back then I was single and I wanted respect. Now I’m married and I want excitement. I want passion. I want it in the place I also come to for love, support and comfort. I’ve fought my political battles and now I want to fight for a passionate marriage. Feminism has made me a strong enough woman to face these strange and disquieting forces that tremble in the darkest forests of desire where the trickster antics of erotic imagination frolic freely.

I’ve protested against inequality all my life. I’ve marched, I’ve signed petitions, I’ve appeared on behalf of women’s organizations in constitutional courts, I’ve debated moralistic right-wingers who degrade women in the name of God and I’ve debated the pornographers who don’t give a damn about real women’s lives. And I will die fighting for the right of every woman to be treated as an equal in the boardroom, in the workplace, in her marriage – I want the safest and most generous world for my teenage daughter and every woman on this planet.

But behind my closed bedroom door, I reserve my rights to be someone’s skanky little slut.

Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler

Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?

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That Dear Little Smear

That Dear Little Smear

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 with a floodlight bearing down on my by-appointment-only parts which prefer the subtlety of dusk, as a man in a white coat and gloves chatted to me about the cricket while inserting a cold metal speculum up there, assuring me (as only he could know) that ‘this won’t hurt at all.’

Since then I’ve always treated pap smears, like dental check-ups and tax returns, an annual nuisance on my to-do list, an inconvenience wrapped in an indignity. Frankly, I wouldn’t know a cervix from a pancreas, having never actually seen mine. All I knew about my cervix is that mine refused to dilate during labour in my first pregnancy, getting to three centimetres and stopping in mid-stride like it suddenly remembered something and lost concentration.

The cervix is a shy little spot of the female anatomy, tucked inside us, like the toe of a sock with a hole in it, if the vagina were a sock, yet is rather important in our anatomy, connecting the uterus to the vagina, allowing menstrual fluids to pass and stretching during childbirth with staggering generosity to the size of a baby’s head.

The covert identity of the cervix is partly what drove women in the 1970’s, in groups, mind you, armed with torches, mirrors and a speculum to lie back and examine their insides. Annie Sprinkle, a porn star in the US invites the audience to come up and have a look at her cervix, ‘because it’s beautiful,’ which is true if mini glazed donuts do it for you.

Recently I got a call from my doctor to ‘come-and-discuss-my-pap-smear-results.’ On my way there, I made a mental note to tell my husband to marry our babysitter if I died, the kids really like her.

The doctor told me I had CIN III.

Was that good? Bad? Fatal?

I learned that on the cervix is a small patch of unstable cells known as the ‘transformation zone’ (TZ), where changes occur frequently but relatively slowly. It is a sample of these cells that is collected in a pap smear revealing normal, abnormal, CIN I, CIN II, and CIN III or cancerous changes. Cervical cancer is most often caused by infection with the sexually acquired Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). Many of us become infected with the virus without knowing it. The virus can sit dormant for a long time before cellular changes show on a Pap smear.

The best news is that unlike many kinds of cancers, cervical cancer is easily preventable because of the Pap smear in which a layer of cells is scraped off the TZ and examined for changes.

The Pap smear is the invention of a Greek doctor, George Papanicolau in the 1940’s who studied the sex differences in the water flea. He and his wife emigrated to the US, with no English and very little money and worked at Gimbels Department store selling rugs before finding a job at Cornell University in a department researching the effects of alcohol on guinea pigs. Borrowing a few spare female guinea pigs to further his study of sex differentiation, Dr Pap figured that to obtain their eggs before ovulation, he needed to extract their vaginal discharge, (I mean, that’s obvious, right?) Using a small nasal speculum, he scraped off guinea pig vaginal cells, smearing them onto a glass slide (hence the name Pap Smear) to examine under a microscope. Because of the expertise he had gained by working with the water flea for many years, he detected patterns in these vaginal cells.

Here’s where it gets interesting. At some point in all this study of the vaginal cells of guinea pigs, a version of the following conversation must have taken place with his wife:

‘My dear, I wonder if I could prevail upon you for a small favour after dinner.’

‘Certainly, George, what is it?’

‘I was wondering if I might scrape some cells off your cervix?’

 

Your Story - How to write it so others will read it - out now

In this no-excuses book, written for aspiring writers and emerging authors, Joanne Fedler shares her original techniques, frameworks and strategies for life writing to ensure that your story connects with readers and doesn’t bore them to switch to Facebook scrolling.

Mrs P. agreed. Not once. Not twice. For twenty years, almost daily, she submitted to these examinations, as a result of which Dr Pap observed normal changes in the cells in different parts of the vagina through a menstrual cycle and then from one menstrual cycle to the next. This research was the beginning of a scientific journey into examining the abnormal changes in cells. What began with a water flea has led to the most successful pathology test to prevent cervical cancer, a disease with which approximately 1000 women in Australia are diagnosed annually.

When it comes to taking responsibility for our health, these days we are fortunate to have a range of options. Regular check-ups – mammograms, pap smears and colonoscopies can literally be the difference between us living to see our grandchildren or not.

Using condoms in sex is still the best way to avoid contracting HPV. The yardstick is that if it’s not sterilized, it shouldn’t be going up there in the first place. Most tampons are not sterilized, though a new sterilized tampon (Pureste) has recently come onto the market which is lovely and all, but remember you can’t catch HPV from a tampon.

Secondly, cancer research has yielded some miraculous breakthroughs including the world’s first cancer vaccine against cervical cancer involving three doses over a six month period, recently introduced in Australian schools for girls from the age of 12 as part of the federally funded National Immunization Programme. In November 2006, the government offered those who had already left school (up to the age of 26) a two year ‘catch-up’ period which ends on 30th June 2009 (unless the first vaccine has been administered in which case the remaining boosters will be available until 31 December 2009). This vaccine immunizes young women before they become sexually active against HPV types 16 and 18, the two strains associated with 70% of all cervical cancers. Interestingly, a third of the female school going population has elected not to have the vaccine. Some parents perceive it promotes sexual promiscuity by giving the impression the vaccine makes unprotected sex safe and are anxious about the side-effects of the vaccine.

Because HPV causes cervical cancer, it makes sense for us to know whether or not we are carriers. Recently a new test kit called Tampap (in similar style to home-pregnancy tests) makes it possible for women to test themselves at home for HPV by inserting an ordinary tampon, and sending it off to a lab where it is tested for the presence of the virus.

Despite all these latest developments, the pap smear is still the best and most effective way of detecting cervical cancer (sorry, girls) and we’re all advised to have one every two years, unless we’ve had a bad result before, in which case we should go annually.

Now if ever I wince at the prospect of discussing cricket while pretending I don’t have a salad server in my delicates, I spare a thought for good old Mrs Pap, that great unsung heroine of women’s health who offered up her cervix to science and who, in her generosity, saved my life and the lives of countless other lucky women.  

Published in Vogue, Australia, July 2009

Joanne Fedler

Joanne Fedler

Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?

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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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