Panel Participants: Janice Gary, Dixie King, Lisa Freedman, Arielle Silver, Tabitha Blankenbiller
“We’ll fix you,” writes Tabitha Blankenbiller in her essay “Fangs,” which recounts a trip to the orthodontist’s office to fix a continually uncooperative tooth.
Blankenbiller’s essay, which uses her teeth as an entrypoint into thinking about the female body and how writers write – and do not write – about the female body, was a part of one of many AWP 2018 panels discussing writing and representation.
Members of the International Women’s Writing Guild joined Blankenbiller for this presentation on the various ways in which women write about their bodies.
Writer Arielle Silver discussed how literature at large has lacked writings and narratives about motherhood, pregnancy, and about loss by women. Men have controlled the narrative of women’s bodies and motherhood, which further reinforces our misconceptions and misidentifications of our leaky bodies as bad or evil. “The invention of women has been by men,” Silver said, arguing that the way womanhood has been constructed in the past has been in opposition to masculinity. These ideas have continued for too long, due in part to motherhood as a theme missing from our literature. Famous female writers, Silver said, were often childless and further support the idea that women can be writers or mothers but not both.
But this “new literature of femaleness,” as Silver quotes Audre Lorde, gives a “name to the nameless.” Through the rise of women writing about their bodies and their femaleness in all genres, women have begun the work of reclaiming their bodies from literature that was concerned with the mind – the man’s mind – writers can begin to unite women in a “community of non-male bodies.”
Cultural anthropologist Dixie King discussed her journey to make her body visible. As someone who has written about the body for over twenty years, she stated that, for many women and men, having a non-normative body completely changed the ways in which they are viewed by others. “I used to be fat,” King said, explaining that, for years, King was overweight or obese. After a diagnosis of a stress-related immune disorder, she took the steps to lose the weight and change her body.
King argued that it isn’t what we say about bodies that do not conform to societal expectations, but it is how we talk about those bodies that gets readers to take notice. The past tense sells writing about fatness. “I was fat” versus “I am fat” gets audiences to pay attention, because losing the weight is something that other people can point to as an accomplishment or the satisfying of a cultural expectation. The present tense – “I am fat” – renders bodies, especially women’s bodies, invisible.
Writing about the body has become a way for King to become visible again. She is writing her way to a new identity, thinking about the ways in which the body, which is the physical place that one’s womanhood exists, is also the site of betrayal. King further complicates this when asking the audience to consider age, because “fat and age is lethal.”
Lisa Freedman, a professor at The New School, discussed consent and cultural change. Using the etymology of the word “consent,” Freedman explains that consent is not just about ourselves, but is also about our partner’s experiences and sensations. The problem with consent we don’t discuss is, as Freedman stated, that the United States as a country has a problem with feeling deeply, and because we are so far removed from what that means, we shame our bodies for not looking like other women’s bodies and sometimes will consent because having sex, in Freedman’s experiences, causing women to think they are closer to exhibiting womanhood. When it comes to writing about the body, or any kind of cultural change such as #metoo, it is best to go slow, then slowly, because effective change does not happen quickly.
Professor Janice Gary discussed menstruation and blood. “Our blood has become the instrument of our undoing,” Gary said, citing evidence throughout history where menstruation has become the reason for cultural taboos, demonization, and the stripping of power from goddesses and priestesses.
But, Gary noted, we are experiencing a change in the views of women’s leaky bodies. Women are beginning to use their blood as a source of political power, organizing in relation to political candidates and building coalitions on social media to channel the power of communities based on a shared bodily experience. “Our blood is scary powerful now,” said Gary. “What if we owned that power?”
Later in her essay, Blankenbiller makes a simple but resounding statement. “I am worthy.” It seems like a simply statement to make in writing in the company of fellow writers, but as these panelists have shown, it is not always easy to write about bodies that leak, defy, are invisible, fear feeling, and have been stripped of their power. The change is coming, and that change is giving voice to women’s experiences, adding to a conversation about the woman’s body by women – an addition that has been long overdue.
Ashley Anderson is a Ph.D. student and Creative Writing Fellow at the University of Missouri, studying creative nonfiction. Her creative and critical work has appeared or is forthcoming in Peripheral Surveys, SFWP Quarterly, Newfound: An Inquiry of Place, Badlands Literary Journal, and Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. Ashley has MA degrees in creative writing from the University of Cincinnati and in literature, cultural/critical theory, and social practice from Kent State University. A Northeast Ohio native, Ashley can usually be found trying out a new recipe in the kitchen when she isn’t writing or studying.