Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Subject/object and the persistence of memory

There are memories that fade, and there are memories that alter the borders of your perception forever.

I used to conduct public history workshops. To introduce the workshop I would ask, “What is the first memory you hold of something that had significance beyond your personal life?” How we remember, what we remember: it becomes who we are.

For the workshop question, my answer is the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. For my husband, who is a couple years older, his clear answer is the assassination attempt on President Reagan. Vaguely, fuzzily, he remembers before that waiting in long lines at the gas station. One of my favorite older gentlemen from the workshop series looked into the ether and filled our room with the afternoon FDR made a campaign stop in his small Ohio hometown.

Here’s a question for the ladies out there (and, I don’t know enough about the male experience, but maybe (and for you, I hope not) the men, too):

When was the first time you were made to feel ashamed of your body?

And follow-ups:

~Did my asking you to relive it still make you shrivel inside, make your heart pause?
~How old were you when it happened?
~How many ways can you think of that it affected you or your subsequent behavior?

And, most importantly:

~If I had been there then, right there with you, and told you that what happened didn’t matter, was no reflection on you, that you’re beautiful and wonderful, that what happened was without question horrible but should in no way affect your views of yourself, would there ever be any way that I could get you to 100% believe me?


My three year old sometimes dances naked around the room. I defend her right to do so because would that we all felt so free in our skins. It’s time, though, several recent moments indicate, to teach her about decorum, about time and place, about the girl version of what my friend says to her son: “penis-holding is for at home only, and only when Grammy’s not over for dinner.”

What a delicate dance this will be. Do you remember on Friends when Monica referred to her virginity as giving a boy “her flower?” That is a door I never want to open. I don’t want her to see her body as some mystical, unknowable, slightly terrifying or at all awe-invoking Thing. Nor, however, do I want my innocent baby to know about shame. Because once that seed of association is planted, can it ever be eradicated?

From The New Our Bodies, Ourselves (1998 edition, p. 34):
We generally begin our lives feeling comfortable in our bodies. As infants and children we learn about and explore ourselves and the world through our bodies. As we grow up we may become less at home on our skin....If we look more masculine than other girls, if our hair is nappy, if our skin is dark, if we have a disability or have problems with our skin, if we are fat, or if we develop too soon or too late, we may begin to shrink from taking up the space we deserve....Too often our experiences living in our bodies make it difficult to accept ourselves.
So feeling happy and carefree, E danced around the room, around the adults who were paying attention to her but not really, and giggling and leaping, she got their attention. She dropped trou and continued spinning, giggling. And someone tsked mild-mannered-ly, "shame, shame" and I've rarely been as grateful in my life as when I looked in my daughter's face to catch her reaction to that admonishment and saw her blank stare at the ignorance of that vocabulary word.

Thank God she doesn't know shame. What would I possibly be able to do to erase the association to her prancing labia? (And here you thought you'd never get to see the words 'prancing' + 'labia' strung together. Silly you.)

I know the day will come when I won't be able to shield her from seeing, suddenly, that she is a body in someone else's eyes. But as long as she cavorts without the taint of awareness, of self-consciousness, her childhood is more vibrant than it will ever be after that fig leaf falls. How long can I keep her unaware? It shouldn't have to end at three.

Underscoring my conviction that I need to protect E from negative associations of her body, and continue building positive ones, is this passage from Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom (1998 edition, p. 39):
At any given time, our state of health reflects the sum total of our beliefs since birth....We can be sure that the events of our childhood set the stage for our beliefs about ourselves and therefore our experience.
How many more months? days? does E have left before she first feels the
humiliation of objectification?

I tickled E and sang with her as I pulled her unders back up over her hips, and she didn't seem to realize that I had re-covered her bare bits. I waited days for her to ask me at bedtime, as she so often asks the things the ponders most at the darkest minute of her day, to explain to her the meaning of the word "shame." But no such question has been forthcoming, and I feel palpable relief every night I leave her room again uninterrogated.

She was dancing because it felt right. I'm grateful for every day that she only knows her body on those terms, on her own terms.

E loves Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom -- because it's very purple. She sees it and asks to hold it. She sits by it. So I think of it as a talisman that I can sustain her confidence, that I can ensure her understanding of the subject/object continuum, that she will have the inner strength to navigate that hyphen without incurring too many scars.

As I stared at this book cover tonight I remembered that when E was first learning how to roll over she treated this book and its vivid purple spine as a beacon, a goal line. And then she used to try to eat it. So let that set the stage for her beliefs about herself.

July 30, 2006
Naked of scalp and of gums, and feeling no shame
Pin It