Sunday, October 26, 2014

Naked on the page

Montaigne shocked everyone when he wrote about the size of his penis.  To his mind, it was small.  

Why, among the many thoughts I have encountered today, does this one stay with me?

 There are other images in my head, too: diamonds from the 1800s that are attached to springs so that when the wearer moves, they tremble, shimmer and dazzle the eye, diamonds en tremblant. 

I tried to have a conversation last night with one of my daughters about a trend that’s come to my attention whereby people post images of their so-called private bits to their lovers. 

It’s not that new, my daughter tells me.  It’s been around for ages.

Apparently, there is a new law that forbids the transmission of such images without a person’s consent. 

Jennifer Wilson, on her wonderful blog, No place for sheep, refers to revenge porn, the business of people taking it out on others by circulating compromising images or photos of the person against whom they want revenge.

A while ago I heard about a young woman in the armed forces who had sex with her boyfriend and unbeknown to her he had organised that the proceedings be videoed and circulated to his friends.  

What’s behind this, I ask myself.  Why do it?  And what is it like for the person so exposed? 

To have a photo of your labia online so that the entire world can see, or a shot of your penis, why so shocking? 

There’s the stuff of exhibitionism, the pleasure we get out of showing off our bodies and the sexual pleasure we get from being on display. 

Then, there’s the opposite: the peeping Tom effect.  The pleasure some might get out of looking, looking in preference to being involved, or being seen. 

I used to think of this as a masculine activity, the Peeping Tom, the flasher, but women can get in on the act, too. 

Women whose bodies have been put on display for centuries. 

When I was a little girl and asked my mother why the bronze Atlas holding a globe of the world on his shoulders in the framed print on the wall of her bedroom was naked, she told me, ‘The human body is beautiful’. 

I had trouble believing her then.  In a strange way I still have trouble.  Bodies can be beautiful but they’re also haunting and troubling and exciting and frightening and all these things rolled into one.  Anything to do with body bits, internal and external seems loaded.

The other day I talked to one of my sisters about prolapses.  In my mind’s eye the image that stays with me is the one that first popped in when I was little. 

One day my mother told me about a cousin in Holland who had suffered a prolapse on the dance floor.  This cannot be, I now know.  You do not suddenly suffer a prolapse.  I imagine they happen gradually, but when I was little I saw it happen on the dance floor.

My mother’s cousin’s insides slip out onto the polished wood floors like glistening red jewels en tremblant.  And my aunt is mortified.  She runs through the room to the toilets dragging her jewels behind her. 

I have since heard that a prolapse as described by my mother, the one that happened to her cousin, was of her cervix.  

This reminds me of other bodily malformations like hernias.  I’ve not seen one of these either.  

Again the idea that your insides slip out of their moorings and appear on the surface of your skin, like a burst bladder, reminds me of pregnancies, late term when it was easy to see the imprint of my baby’s foot on the surface of my skin, the round dome of her head. 

I have dreams where my skin is translucent and I can see inside my body to the unborn baby squashed inside.  And this can only take place when one is naked.  Naked on the page.

There is a YouTube series doing the rounds where a woman is interviewed and during conversation the camera stays on her as she speaks.  She perches on a stool, against a brick wall backdrop in a well lit room and as the interviewer proceeds through a series of questions about the woman and her life, her relationship to herself and her body, the interviewer asks her to take off items of clothing, one by one. 

By the end of the interview the woman sits in her underwear.  We do not see the interviewer. 

There is something strangely non-sexual about this disrobing.  Something that puts us in touch with the woman as a whole person, a woman with a body and mind, not just a sexualised body.  At least that’s how I experience it.  

A slow disrobing rather like entering into a meaningful essay where the writer gradually unfolds ideas, thoughts, images about himself/herself until in the end we are pared back to basics and somehow have much more than just a naked body, and not just any body. 

In the YouTube clip so far I have only seen naked women, and not all of them with ideal bodies. 

There are young bodies and old bodies and even physically disabled bodies.  I’ve yet to see a dark skinned body or a fat body or a hairy body or an amputated body but I imagine there is scope for these and many more. 

One essential ingredient is the capacity to be articulate in the English language in this instance and a preparedness to let it all show.    

And finally, I came across this quote from Anne Patchett: 

‘Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this because it is the key to making art ... I grieve for my own lack of talent and intelligence. Every. Single. Time. .... This grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore is key. I can't write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.’

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Kippers and cake

On my fourteenth birthday I woke up in a strange bed in an even stranger room surrounded by cakes.  They lined the top of the wardrobe and sat cheek by jowl on the dressing table and across the chairs.  There was not a surface that did not hold at least two cakes and even in spaces on the floor Mrs K had stashed a plate filled with iced meringues. 
     My brother had driven me to Moe the night before so that I might be bridesmaid the next day when he and his already pregnant wife to be walked up the altar in the Newtown Catholic church to take their vows.  There was to be a reception in the church hall nearby.              
     It did not take me long to recognise that the cakes in this room were not in honour of my birthday but for the wedding.  Mrs K must have cooked for days. I climbed out of bed.  The floor was covered with a circular coiled rug whose ridges rubbed against my soles. I lifted the covering from one of the cakes. Surely no one would notice one missing flower.  
    One was not enough.  I looked around for more, from cake to cake, undressing each from its wrapper and scratching at the raised chunks of icing.  Then I flopped back onto the bed, guilty.  I wanted someone to find me?  It was my birthday.  I did not want to eat cake alone.
  Finally, I braved the outside corridor where Mrs K greeted me.  She waved a ten shilling note in front of her.
  “For you. Happy birthday.” 
 I took the money and thanked her.
  “Come now.  Breakfast.”  Mrs K led me down the hallway to the stink of fish.
  “We have kippers.”
I had never heard of kippers before but the smell told me I would hate to eat them, more so with a stomach full of icing.  I stared at my plate. 
  My brother arrived, clattering through the back door.  He took one look at my face, another at the plate and accused his mother-in-law to be,
     Mutti.  Don’t force her.”
Mrs K lifted my plate and passed it over to my brother.  He emptied it onto his and then reached for more.

As part of a course in beginning poetry, Earl Livings instructed us to rote learn a poem.  It's good for you, he said.  Poets do it all the time. 

 The poems I learned as a child, even as late as a fourteen year old, I can still remember with ease, but these days it's so much harder to rote learn.  

To commit Emily Dickinson's words to memory.  Words I enjoy reading but remembering them is almost impossible. 
'I cannot dance upon my toes/no man instructed me...'

How I wish I could have the rote learning capacity of my fourteen year old self, but not her predilection to cakes, her aversion to kippers and her timidity.  

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Amputated nipples

‘Speak for yourself.’

Do you ever have the urge to say these words when someone makes a universal pronouncement with which you disagree? 

I wanted to say it the other night to a man whom I met via friends, who had insisted that people in England were concerned that the face of England, its population, will be completely unrecognisable in twenty years time.  Completely taken over by foreigners, he wanted to say but did not, and not foreigners of Greek or European extraction, but mostly from the Middle East.  

You can guess the rest. 

I wanted to say, look at your self.  When your parents arrived in Australia some fifty years ago they would have suffered the same derision for being different, for coming from the Mediterranean.

Why’s it so terrible to be different? Why the pressure to be the same?

I feel the impulse run through me, too.

Take for instance, my latest preoccupation with the female body and why we women do things to ourselves to conform to some perfect ideal, even if it kills us.

In my tenth year of school I spent time as a boarder, which meant for months on end my body barely saw the light of day. 

We boarders dressed in almost darkness with a pitcher of water on our side table and a face cloth with which we swabbed down our more sensitive parts before covering ourselves from top to toe.

In those circumstances it mattered not to me that I could not shave my legs or my underarms, though I had started the practice a year earlier when, at fifteen, I decided to follow in my older sister’s footsteps and turn my legs into the supple, shining silk-like radiant things I had seen in the new advertisements directed at women in 'need of ' shavers for the fairer sex. 

At boarding school no one worried about shaving legs or underarms, until it came time for the school dance.  

My older sister who had left home by then and was studying at teacher’s training college picked me up after school one day and we travelled into the city to Adele Formal Hire where we were able to select a gown for me to wear.  It was in polka dot black chiffon over a satin lining.  The dress covered my legs to the ankles, but was sleeveless in a respectable manner.  The nuns would not tolerate anything less.  No visible cleavage, no plunging back lines, nothing suggestive of the female body underneath, only arms, legs and head visible. 

You could not see my legs, but after five months in boarding school, my underarms had sprouted a fine black layer of growth.  I  took to them with fingernail scissors during the three days each week when it was my turn to take a bath.   Boarders were rostered for separate bath times three times a week, and once a week hair washing on Saturday mornings, lined up at the basins.  

In the bathroom there was daylight or in the early evening an overhead light that enabled me to see my body, at least in bits.  There were no mirrors.  Mirrors were not allowed in the bathrooms, too likely to tempt the bodies that travelled through. 

One of the older nuns had told us that in her day, girls had to bathe in mid ankle length petticoats so that they could not see their naked bodies while bathing so as to resist temptation.  

The things women must do/did to resist, not only their own desires, but the desires of others. 

So my preoccupation at the moment with the nature of women’s bodies - how we preen them, how we attack them, how we strip them of excess, how we try to whittle them into an acceptable and universal shape, how we try to hide them, how we cover them to make them look the way we imagine others might want, the way we want ourselves  - hit me hard when I saw a YouTubeclip of women who had undergone mastectomies, nipplectomies or other forms of surgery that have left massive scars on their otherwise ordinary bodies. 

To see these images is confronting and most of all for me the thought that some of these women may have elected to have their nipples removed.  

Why would they do this?  For health reasons, in the case of cancer I can understand, but the other reasons, I’m at a loss to understand.