The woman. The devourer. The Other. The Medusa. The scheming fatale. The succubus. The giver of all life. The mother. The whore. The crone. The virgin. The Madonna. The working mother, the single mother. The divorceé, the widow. The murderess. The actress. The sorceress. The lioness. She who writes in white ink.
Beauty in her and outside of her. Soft, like a baby. Sexy when she dances. A redhead who changes her mind more often than her underwear. A lady who reveals nothing. A good girl who keeps her knees together. Diamonds are her best friend.
Rising and rising in you, like a red sea, the fatigue and the fury. You are told who you are and what you do. Over and over and yet over. You are beaten against the shoreline, a broken raft. You are known by all but yourself. You are colonized. Thousands of voices under your skin, whispering in the layers between skull and gray matter. You are what we say you are. You are what we say. You know yourself not. You are the Other. You are a stranger.
Inside you are these voices, the ones who say who you must be. Behind you is the integrated child, she who understood her worth and power. Before you is the Ideal Stranger, she who integrates all the selves, all the multitudes, into someone youthful and attractive and permanently smiling. No voices clamor inside her; there is only one. She who does all, settles all, manages all, knows nothing she shouldn’t. Protests never.
Or before you is someone else. Someone who is not ideal. Someone instead about whom no outside voices form in you. She is the True Animal. You can only find her by closing your shutters and reading the voices like research. No persuasion; cool intake and exhaust. No, you will not listen. You will read. And then you will decide to find her.
Your body is a hand grenade. Your body is the site of the ills done to you and the poisons you have consumed. Your body is asked to be what it should not be; it is corseted by glossy magazines and encircled by cobweb gazes. Your body is public property; it is a lawn to be manicured by greenskeepers remunerated by taxpayers. It is a product of committee thinking.
Your body can be a child’s. It’s likely that your body as a child’s is one of two: either the whippet kind or the pudgy kind. But those are descriptive words based on appearance, and the appearance of your body is unscrutinized by most during this period. Your torso is indistinguishable from a boy’s, and hair grows unheeded on your legs. These are untroubled facts that will become daily struggles later. You run, and climb, and fall down, and bend over, and stretch, without considering eyes on you for the last time in many years. Your body has no rhythm and no pattern: no cycle in tandem with the calendar, no swell of excess weight when winter comes and the days are too short for exercise. It simply is. Continuous and reliable. It carries you like a toy briefcase.
Your body can be a girl’s. They tell you and tell you and tell you that this is the ideal. But it’s not so. It is what everyone wants from you, girlishness, but no girl is a True Animal. She is an amalgam of what the voices ask of her, what she sees paraded by Ideal Strangers, what has been immortalized in art by idolaters.
The girl’s body is supple and hairless, whether because of her endeavors with unguents and razors or because of the uneven passage of hormones. The girl’s body is displayed appropriately, not covered demurely or exposed sluttishly. The girl’s body is unlined, and swollen with puberty, and buzzing with energy. It smells like Teen Spirit.
The girl’s body is an utter object. You are not integrated with it. You are dissociated from it. It has changed from its strength and continuity to something ruled by moods and gazes. You are the same and not the same inside it, never the same, and your attention to it and tension within it is constant.
You modulate the girl-body and its exposure and its gestures to the pleasure of others. You explore it, in episodes terrifying and satisfying. You learn it, and then it changes, and you have learned nothing. You hide it, and they stare and whistle and shout, and you expose it, and more of the same. Nothing is right and nothing works and you are empty of gratitude for this husk of beauty that is not you.
It is possible to live in the girl’s body until old age, tending and reshaping it ceaselessly, but it is the slowest, cruelest, unkindest sort of life.
Your body can be a woman’s. This body comes closer to integration. It is self-certain and settled in its rhythms. It asks for pleasure instead of lapping at dregs. It wobbles and thickens and sags, and it withstands these changes without panic. This body might have ungroomed hair, because this body can distinguish a hill worth dying on. It stretches and bends over in awareness of the Gaze on it, but it neither preens for nor hides from the eyes. It accepts them wearily. You, inside, get angry sometimes, but you no longer think the eyes are about you. Instead, they are about the woman-body, and the ghost of the girl’s against it. You have accepted that the girl-body is the object of gazing, but you have disconnected the gazed-at body from the you that lives inside. The gaze does nothing to you.
Your woman’s body pains you, its cramped distorted feet stuffed in heels and its fleshy waist pinched by pantyhose elastic, and you pass your awareness over it frequently to check on it. You know when something ails it, when it’s time for a bath, when to massage your hands with one another, or when to skip dinner and sleep instead. Its messages shame you occasionally, but you can hear them and understand them instead of dividing yourself from the object that totes you.
Your body can become a mother’s. It can groan and split and give life, like fruit from the mouth of a forked branch. Your body is the concern of everyone during this period: your partner, your parents, your doctors, your employers, your governmental representatives, and strangers who can perceive your condition. (Your “delicate” condition. A woman must be stronger than an oak to give life and that is yet a euphemism.) After you eject the fruit, your body is still the concern of everyone: how long you will breastfeed, and what you consume during this time, because what passes through your breast milk to your infant is of more importance than your health or preferences; how much weight you have gained and lost, and whether that weight alters your appeal, your saleability; when your genitals have returned sufficiently to their normal operations such that you can have sex again, returning to the use of your genitals that is not based on giving life, but instead giving pleasure (and, maybe, taking it). Your diet. Your wounds. Your strength. How often and how well you cradle your child. How often and how well you sleep. How often and how well you apply machinery to your body, often a mere panel of wood away from coworkers or strangers, to relieve the ache of milk.
Among the animals birthed by woman, woman has the most direct relationship with the vessel of body. You cannot avoid the body if you live in the body of a woman. Even if you move beyond awareness of the body for brief periods, you find yourself tethered to it, inevitably, cyclically. Gazed upon, you are in there. Touched, you are in there. Invaded, you are in there. Once the moon’s cycle begins again. Once you encounter the One to your Zero again.
They all tell the girl so violently and repeatedly to protect her body that she hardly knows it. She examines it in mirrors, seeing not what they see, reading blank verse in the lineless skin. They speak in dire tones about strangers and boys who Only Want One Thing and the girl cannot connect this Thing with the child’s glad uses of the body. She lives in her body only until they tell her enough times that she is desirable, until they tell her enough times to be afraid of what desires her, until the fear and the desire write one song in the unlined skin. This body is unsafe now. They tell her, and she believes. She can perform the song, instead, and live somewhere else, until the time comes when she can no longer ignore where she was born.
The woman’s body makes her aware of itself constantly, constantly. Monthly at least: the blood comes, impossible to ignore, difficult to hide, ancient and organic clockwork. The pain comes, and she hides it, she cannot seek sympathy, she must go on with her life. She opens her spaces to others, allows others to come pushing into her own flesh, and she negotiates this however possible. Maybe it is pleasure. Maybe it is necessity. Maybe she inhabits the flesh at this time, and maybe she deserts it. Impossible to know sex in the woman body and not know the integrity of uninvaded flesh. Leave her alone. Please come in, she aches. No, leave, this is mine. No, come in, I crave fullness. In push and pull she makes her own compromises, and forgets, until she must remember.
The mother cannot extract her body from her mission. Her body belongs to her child more than to herself, at first. She is inhabited, split, scarred, milked, yanked, pressed, bled. The mother is her body, leased (leashed) to the child, for years on end. That possession lessens as the child ages into her own body, and it begins again.
The Ideal Stranger is the woman they want you to be. She balances her work life, home life, and passions as a skilled waitress balances appetizers. She possesses a girl body, but she’s buttoned into it as comfortably as if it’s a woman body. She takes catcalls as compliments. She loses the baby weight in six weeks; her belly is otherwise flat. She wears a four or a six, her hair maintains beachy waves, she remembers everyone’s birthday. She doesn’t drink too much, or sweat too much, or fart, or belch. Her legs are consistently smooth and she can run a mile in stilettos. She does not menstruate or defecate.
She is not real. Repeat: she is not real. She is a stranger to you and me and everyone in America, except that we know her specter, from sitcoms and advertising and Cosmo. She is a stranger to our bodies, the Stranger to the Other, a female with all the womanly uncanniness siphoned out of her. What remains is pleasing, but impossible. She is the Ideal, but you have never known her in the flesh.
If the Ideal Stranger is the full realization of culturally fashioned femaleness, the True Animal is the full integration of female self with female body. She menstruates, and is not disgusted. She knows the colors of her body hair. She is sometimes bothered by catcalls, because they reach for her body, but they fail to unseat her from it. She feels her breath, feels her heartbeat. She knows when to allow sleep to overtake labor. No validation comes from worship of her body. Her body is not performative. She writhes when she wants to. She is grateful for her soft, strong, fluctuating body, the body like the moon, like Gibraltar, that houses her.
The True Animal may be beautiful, but she determines that quality for herself. She refuses to allow sweat or piss to invalidate her beauty. She realizes it is silly to wear eyeliner to the gym, or to buy fashionable clothes that fit poorly. She measures her body by what it does, not by how it appears. All else falls away unheeded.
The True Animal is not ideal, and not impossible. She is a flame inside every child-body. She is the tide reaching for the next rim of dry sand. She is the white ink on the skin of a woman and the red cells that pour out of her womb. She is the staccato press, like laughter, that peaks her pleasure into color. The body cannot remain bound and gagged from you forever. You have too long to live for that. Find her. Find the animal. Inhabit her. Leave the girl to glossy falsehood. Inherit womanhood. Zip yourself into it. Breathe.