I’m currently working on an essay about how Nalo Hopkinson uses the (postcolonial, black, queer) body in her short story collection, Skin Folk. The female bodies in particular in her works, both short stories and novels, are very physical; they are pregnant, nursing, menstruating, eating, going though menopause, coming, and they come in all shapes and sizes, lovingly described. This element of her work has always resonated with me. In my research for my current paper, I came across the book Rites of Passage in Postcolonial Women’s Writing from Rodopi. One of the essays deals with the difference between “female” and femininity:
If femininity represents the socially acceptable, aesthetic side of ‘woman-ness’, then femaleness exposes its socially unacceptable, abject underside, the undesirable leftovers of existence. Thus, while abjection deals in the undeniably physical – the messiness of the body’s materiality – so aesthetics traditionally shuns the corporeal in favour of the polished, pretty veneer of femininity. (267)
The essay uses Kristeva and goes through the ways women’s (particularly girls on the cusp of or going through puberty) are policed. Good girls are sugar, spice, and all things nice (but, not allowed to be seen eating those sweet things). We smell good, we look good, we are clean and fresh.
I’ve never had a problem with being “female” so to speak. As a tomboy or growing up as “one of the boys,” I never felt ashamed of the messiness of being female; it was just something that happened, like the messiness of being a male. Growing up with the boys and their locker room talk just meant, to me, that bodies and bodily functions weren’t anything to hide.
Of course, I quickly learned how wrong I was and what the double standard was for me and my female body versus males and their bodies. But being feminine just didn’t fit with my personality or my body. I loved to eat, which I could do when I swam almost 30 hours a week. One might be tempted to discuss eating as a substitute for…something I was missing growing up, but for me eating was a simple pleasure that I would not give up simply because it was “un-lady-like” to stuff my face with the boys after a long practice.
Things got especially difficult once I hit puberty and it became clear that I was, despite my best efforts, not one of the boys. I didn’t and don’t possess a boyish, athletic body. My femaleness became obvious, in fact, it became hard to ignore. It is one thing to be pretty and feminine (think Betty Draper on Mad Men), it is another when your sexuality is on display (think Joan Holloway on Mad Men). I’m a Joan. As the show observes, it is difficult for “Joan” to be taken seriously, and I learned that many, many times over.