tw: eating disorder/body dysmorphia
In the poem “The Line” from Belly Songs: in Celebration of Fat Women by Susan Stinson, she writes “’if he pulls me, the sack will rip. / if he pulls and I don’t move, / the earth stops, too, / hung with us, solid, breathing, / me a weight, unfit / to slide on grocery sacks / to God and Love.’” (7). When I first read this poem, I had to take a break from the rest of the poems before rereading it and reflecting on my own similar childhood experiences. Although I was not fat as a child and was in fact underweight for most of my life, I related so much to this last stanza of the poem because of the internalization of this thought process about how other people perceive my body. grew up in a household where diet culture and body shaming were prevalent things, which has affected how I view my body for as long as I can remember. For as long as I can remember I have been afraid of my weight and how I am seen by others, often seeing myself far differently in the mirror than I am told that I look by others. Although I still struggle with my body dysmorphia as an adult, I had forgotten how vicious and anxious my thought processes as a child were – in games like the one Stinson is describing, I was terrified to be perceived by others, especially by the boys in my class (as I found they were often the most critical).
A lot of my body image issues have also been affected by my sexuality – before realizing I was a lesbian, I based a lot of my gender expression off of how men perceive me because I had seen so many women in my life do that. However, now that my life is not only influenced on my attraction to women but also my lack of attraction to men, I realize that a lot of my body issues had been tied into the ideas of the male gaze and very heteronormative thought processes. This in a way also relates to my alienation of womanhood because of this lack of relationship with men that defines what womanhood is to so many women. “The Line” has made me consider not only how early very harmful thought processes were instilled in my life but has also given me the space to feel able to explore the interconnectedness of my eating disorder and body dysmorphia with my identity as a queer person.
Alison Bechdel created the comic Dykes to Watch Out For and in the process created queer joy in a time of devastation for the queer community because of the AIDS epidemic. She does so while also sharing relatable experiences for queer people in this time period, including bringing up the sexual history of someone’s past partners to try and safeguard from contracting HIV/AIDS. However, she also shares moments of joy and solidarity within the community during these years – most notably in the comic strip titled “Bringing it Home.” In this comic, Mo is sharing her experiences from the March on Washington. One panel includes her saying that “for one weekend we had a glimpse of real freedom. It was like being 100% queer and proud of it, but at the same time not being queer at all anymore…y’know?” (Bechdel 18). In this moment she is sharing the joy and freedom that she felt by being surrounded by other queer people and how freeing the solidarity of this was – but it is also important to note the overshadowing sadness in this joy as well. This feeling of freedom and solidarity is present in so many queer spaces and can feel so empowering and freeing, but underneath this is the acknowledgement that so many spaces are not safe and liberating like this and that the feelings experienced in these spaces are often rare.
Furthermore, the quote that it was like being queer and proud but “also not being queer at all anymore” stood out because of the idea that queerness is something that sets community members apart from other people but would not be present if everybody was queer. This feeling can only be experienced by members of a minority community in the sense that people who are not oppressed or separated by their identity will never know the feeling of not fitting in in most places, whereas when there are these spaces for queer people it is a rare thing that is appreciated and not taken for granted. This speaks to the bigger idea that most queer people learn to accept and celebrate their identities because with that identity comes the community of people who share similar experiences. Finding these spaces brings joy and comfort into the lives of queer people, and it is incredibly important that Bechdel chose to share these moments of queer celebration and joy rather than only sharing moments of anxiety and fear in a time where queer communities were being torn apart by both the epidemic and the homophobia that came with it.
The novella Brokeback Mountain contains themes of homophobia in rural America and the consequences of being openly queer in a society where this is not accepted. The themes of being queer in a rural area are also shared in Eli Clare’s Exile and Pride, in which Clare shares about being queer and disabled within a poor working-class community.
Although Brokeback Mountain is a novel about the experience of being queer in a rural American setting, it rarely actually talks about queer identity. In fact, the only time it is ever really brought up using language about queerness is when Ennis said that he “ain’t no queer” and Jack responded with “me neither” (Proulx 15). However, was also a scene in which Ennis states that he and Jack cannot live together through sharing that a gay man in his childhood town was beat to death with a tire iron. He used this story to portray his fear for the violent and rampant homophobia in working-class rural communities. Throughout the entire story it is made very clear that they could be killed for being openly queer.
Exile and Pride relates to Brokeback Mountain through its discussions of being openly queer in rural areas. Although Clare also speaks of feeling as though he was exiled from his hometown community for being a “dyke in a straight world” several times throughout his book, there was one specific example of queerness in a rural setting that seemed different than the other stories he shared. Clare reflected on attending his grandfather’s funeral and seeing his aunt’s partner considered as a part of their family. He says that “I am quite sure that my aunt has never introduced Barb to Uncle John or Aunt Esther, Uncle Henry or Aunt Lillian as her partner, lover, girlfriend. Yet Barb is unquestionably family, sitting with my grandfather’s immediate relatives near the coffin, openly comforting my aunt” (Clare 33). By sharing this, Clare was explaining the complexities of racism and homophobia within the white working-class community – a community similar to those in Brokeback Mountain. Clare continues that “in this extended working-class family, unspoken lesbianism balanced against tacit acceptance means that Barb is family, that Aunt Margaret and she are treated as a couple, and that the overt racism Barb would otherwise experience from these people is muffled. Not ideal, but better than frigid denial, better than polite manners and backhanded snubs” (34). However, Clare later shares in the chapter that he would be concerned for the safety of a queer person in his town who had not known the residents for decades.
The example of Clare’s aunt and her partner shows the delicate balance of what will be tolerated by that community. However, it also shows a lot about how queerness is only tolerated if it is never spoken of as an explicit thing. His family was only okay with his aunt’s relationship because she had never shared the nature of the relationship overtly but rather allowed to be an assumed thing. In the same nature, Jack and Ennis refused to call themselves queer because of the consequences of being overtly queer, even though they were having this conversation while discussing their sexual relationship. The ideas reflected in both stories is that rural queerness is something that can only be handled in small amounts and if it follows the idea of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of keeping something ambiguous – although even this does not always stop the violence of homophobia that is seen both in Brokeback Mountain and other works as well as in tragic real-life instances.
The Psychoanalysis of Edward the Dyke features the main character Edward, who is a woman in therapy with Dr. Merlin Knox following her problems with using public bathrooms. Her problem was something that is still a common occurrence with gender nonconforming people today – she did not feel as though she could use the men’s bathroom because she was not a man, but did not feel safe in the women’s bathroom because other women viewed her as too masculine to be there. The ideas of gender in this poem are interesting to look at when considering chapter two of Susan Stryker’s Transgender History. On page 48, Stryker shares that crossdressing became a controversial issue in the mid-nineteenth century after the urbanization that made queer communities more popular. Crossdressing became a topic in first-wave feminism when feminists began arguing that their gender presentation of dressing in long skirts was a form of oppression; antifeminists countered this because of how it represented “threatened loss of distinction between men and women” and could be seen as “tantamount to cross-dressing” (51).
The Work of a Common Woman by Judy Grahn was not written until about a hundred years after the regulation of crossdressing began, but the treatment of Edward because of her wardrobe is strikingly similar to that of the 1850s. In the introduction to her poetry collection, Grahn states that she wrote The Psychoanalysis of Edward the Dyke to criticize the “mistreatment of women in the hands of medical professionals” (24). This alone is a very feminist argument to show how women were treated as hysterical under so many circumstances in this time period. However, Edward’s gender presentation provides an interesting look into the problems faced by women who did not conform to normalized gender expression. At one point in Edward’s session with Dr. Knox, she is speaking of dressing up in a highly feminine manner. When he asks if this made her feel truly feminine, she responded with “I felt truly immobilized. I could no longer run, walk bend stoop move my arms of spread my feet apart,” (Grahn 29). Following this, Edward tells about how she was physically stuck in place by her shoe going through the carpet when she wore heels. This idea of immobilization through feminine clothing relates back to Stryker’s analysis of first wave feminism and how women argued that pants were a way to “free them” of the oppression of dresses in which it made it harder to move or even breathe for them. In this poem Dr. Knox also echoes the idea of antifeminists at the time who compared gender nonconformity to cross-dressing through deciding that Edward was hysterical and had “penis envy” and wanted to “possess her father” (Grahn 30). When it is considered through the lens of first wave feminism, The Psychoanalysis of Edward the Dyke goes from being a bizarre poem that explores problems in the medical field at the time to showing how queer people have been oppressed through noncompliance with gender expression. Although gender nonconformity and cross dressing are not the same thing and are done by people for very different reasons, they have been equated as being the same for centuries to further stigmatize people who do not follow gender roles – in some cases even to the point of oppressing them or convincing them they are crazy, as was the case in this poem.
In Adrienne Rich’s 1991 poem “In Those Years,” she often repeats the words “I” and “we.” This is seen in the first stanza of the poem when she writes “in those years, people will say, we lost track / of the meaning of we, of you / we found ourselves reduced to I / and the whole thing became / silly, ironic, terrible.” The shift of going from “we” to “I” signifies a shift away from people working together as a collective unit to being separated individuals. The second verse continues the shift between this collective life and a personal one through the lines “but the great dark birds of history screamed and plunged / into our personal weather.” The birds seem to represent unrest within their personal lives, and the use of the term “personal weather” represents personal problems or turmoil. The poem continues with “they were headed somewhere else but their beaks and pinons drove / along the shore, through the rags of fog / where we stood, saying I.” The use of a flock of birds attacking separated people signifies a united force against a fragmented one. The last line stands out because it shows Rich reflecting on this individualism of “saying I” while reflecting on it from the once again united “we.” Throughout the poem, Rich is describing this personal life while using the word “we” when talking about the separated people during the poem – this seems to mean that at some point between “those years” that she is reflecting on and when she is writing the poem, the personal life of these people has once again moved together as they use “we,” giving the poem two timelines.
In relation to queer studies, this writing can represent the danger of queer people not working as a collective community against different forms of oppression. At the time that this poem was published the AIDs epidemic was raging, and so was blatant homophobia from both the public as well as the government as research and treatment went underfunded and queer people were openly attacked. This poem could be a reflection on an oppressed group of people who had been fragmented and shows how separating from being a community caused more harm than good. When they are attacked by the “dark birds of history,” this could possibly be a reminder of the long history of horrific treatment to queer people, and it shows that they were unable to face this problem alone and at some point once again needed each other. The birds could also be the larger danger of oppression or violence against queer people and serves as an external danger rather than the internal one of fragmentation. When she is reflecting in the first stanza and calls the years of separation “silly and ironic,” it may be because she has reflected on how important unity is and how ironic it was for a community of people bound by sexuality and gender identity to be separated even though so much of sexuality is based on relations with other queer people. This is a poem seems to represent the importance of community especially when people within it are being threatened.