Fear and/of Femininity

I’ve had the distinct opportunity and privilege of speaking with fifteen women about their running, their lives, and their bodies (so far), and fifty-two women have graciously shared their running and injury narratives through my online survey. (If you do or have identified as a female runner, have at any point suffered an injury that kept you from running—temporarily or permanently—and would like to share your story, please read this post for more information: http://www.billiertadros.com/blog/2016/5/23/seeking-female-runners-who-have-suffered-injuries-to-participate-in-confidential-interviews-or-in-a-confidential-online-survey.) 

Because I’m maintaining the confidentiality of the study participants, and because I haven’t yet gotten their final approval on the interview transcripts, I’m not going to talk about any specifics from the interviews in this blog, but I do want to share some of the themes that have been emerging in the conversations I’ve been having with these women because I believe they’re critically important well beyond the scope of my study of female runners’ narratives/identities.

As in, I can’t leave well enough alone.

As in, I’m trying to get well. We’re trying

to get well.

In “Theory and Play of the Duende,” his essay on inspiration and poetics, Federico García Lorca explains that the artistic power that is the duende “wounds” and “enjoys fighting the creator on the very rim of the well” (264).

As in, I’m looking down the well.

Well, then.

The “rim of the well” is a useful metaphor for me in thinking about/theorizing female runners’ relationships with their wounds and their bodies (and for some of us, with our bodies-as-wounds and wounds-as-bodies) because it’s a brink, a precipice. A possibility. A tension.

(Think: connective tissue. What gives.)

Many of our stories (mine too) are characterized by rims, by tensions:

Do we narrate what our bodies can do or what they can’t do (anymore)?

Does the violence of injury distance us from our bodies, or force us to feel them, consider them, be (within) them?

Does the violence of injury separate our bodies into parts, or does it fuse those parts into (w)holes?

A few weeks ago my dissertation chair suggested that I might want to read Iris Marion Young’s “Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment Motility and Spatiality.” I finally did so last week, and I’ve found that much of what Young is saying about how women understand and move their bodies in space(s) resonates with the ways that injured female runners discuss their physical and psychical experiences.

Many of the women I’ve talked to talk about fear in the wake of an injury, fear of being injured again, fear of being further injured, fear of failing to achieve goals. Young discusses the femininity of fear and its bodily implications:

Women often approach a physical engagement with things with timidity, uncertainty, and hesitancy. Typically, we lack an entire trust in our bodies to carry us to our aims. There is, I suggest, a double hesitation here. On the one hand, we often lack confidence that we have the capacity to do what must be done….The other side of this tentativeness is, I suggest, a fear of getting hurt, which is greater in women than in men. Our attention is often divided between the aim to be realized in motion and the body that must accomplish it, while at the same time saving itself from harm. We often experience our bodies as a fragile encumberance [sic], rather than the media for the enactment of our aims. We feel as though we must have our attention directed upon our body to make sure it is doing what we wish it to do, rather than paying attention to what we want to do through our bodies. (143-144)

What’s particularly interesting to me is how injury compounds and extends this fear that Young suggests we have already internalized through our socialization as women and as female bodies, how fear becomes a physical hesitation, even outside of consciousness.

Age 16: I’m at the mall with my parents and my sister for the first time since my (first) knee surgery. I walk perfunctorily toward the escalator in their wake. They’re halfway through their descent to the first floor before I realize that I can’t step onto the moving staircase. (Can’t I?) My body doesn’t remember how to do it, or I won’t re-member it—I’m afraid. (Of what, exactly?) I don’t trust my knee. I don’t trust my body.

Young argues that “[n]ot only is there a typical style of throwing like a girl, but there is a more or less typical style of running like a girl, climbing like a girl, swinging like a girl, hitting like a girl,” explaining that these styles “have in common, first, that the whole body is not put into fluid and directed motion, but rather, in swinging and hitting, for example, the motion is concentrated in one body part; and second, that the woman’s [motion] tends not to reach, extend, lean, stretch, and follow through in the direction of her intention” (142). She emphasizes that “[t]here is no inherent, mysterious connection between these sorts of physical comportments and being a female person” (144), that “feminine” movement is discursively constructed, learned behavior. “For many women as they move in sport,” she explains, “a space surrounds them in imagination which we are not free to move beyond; the space available to our movement is a constricted space” (142).

Age 7: It’s Field Day at Bee Meadow Elementary School, and all of the first grade girls are lined up on the white painted line of the terminal boundary of the soccer field. I’m hungry to win this fifty-yard dash, already identifying as a runner, wanting to be the fastest girl.

Wanting to be the fastest.

I’m first to the finish line, but I don’t cross. (I now remember some sort of small, thin wire there. I didn’t read it as a finish line ribbon/tape. Was this obvious to everyone else? I thought it might be an electrical wire. I knew I wasn’t supposed to cross electrical wires. So I stopped.) My gym teacher announces my classmate’s name. (In the microphone? Megaphone? What is the truth of this memory? Who or what was it that limited and bound me?)

Age 18: I’m on vacation in St. Maarten with my friend C and her family, and we’re on the beach renting jet skis. Her brother, older than we are, takes his out and glides gracefully across the waves. (In my memory, he’s graceful. I was in love with him, after all. And the way he moved. I didn’t move that way.) C isn’t eighteen yet, so I have to drive the jet ski while she rides with me. I travel a few hundred feet, slowly turn 180 degrees and carefully retrace the same track of ocean, back and forth, for however many minutes it is we’re allowed—or fewer. When we get back to the beach, the guide is laughing at me. He says he’s never seen anyone stay so close to the shore.

Is injury itself constructed as feminine because it further restricts already restricted feminine motility?

Is the wound feminine?

In “Scarred Narratives and Speaking Wounds: War Poetry and the Body,” Jeffrey Sychterz argues that “the wound/scar dichotomy is clearly structured along gendered lines” (141). He explicates this gendered dichotomy:

Psychoanalytic feminism, particularly as conceived by Jane Gallop, has long theorized a semantic connection in patriarchal cultures between the wound and womb. Physically, the wound is a bleeding orifice marked by penetration. Semantically, it symbolizes the bearer’s lack of authority because the wounded/wombed body lacks a closed corporeal integrity. The scar, alternatively, carries phallic potential, because it closes the wound with a hard, jagged strip of skin. It symbolizes a unified, because closed, subjectivity and thus grants masculine authority. Ironically, to gain the phallic authority invested by the scar, one must first suffer a castrating wound. (141)

Many of the women I’ve talked to say they’re more careful now, even if they’re “recovered” or back to running, that they feel they have to really pause and think about movements that were automatic or “natural” prior to injury.

And I feel this way too. I’m more careful when climbing stairs, for example, especially when mounting a step ladder, gauging my pain and watching my kneecap throughout flexion to be sure that it’s not transgressing—drifting inward, appraising my body and evaluating how confident I am that my joint will move through the necessary range of motion without buckling. And when I get into the passenger seat of a vehicle, I make note of roughly how many inches separate my knees and the dashboard.

                        Yes, I’m more careful now.

                        But I was always careful. Too careful. Not

                        careful enough.

There’s another kind of fear and hesitation I’ve discussed with the runners I’ve talked to. Some of them identify this hesitation self-reflexively; others experience it/embody it subconsciously. There’s a significant hesitation among the women I’ve spoken with—regardless of the types or mechanisms of their injuries—to identify with trauma, both the word itself and what it signifies.

Furthermore, and, I think, more significantly, many of us downplay our injuries. (Well, I survived. Well, it could have been worse. Well, it wasn’t as bad as what happened to so-and-so. I should be grateful. I shouldn’t complain.)  

I want to (keep) unpack(ing) this. [And (un)pack(ing) it?—the wound, I mean.] So here I turn (again) to Leslie Jamison’s “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain”:

I was once called a wound dweller. It was a boyfriend who called me that. I didn’t like how it sounded. It was a few years ago and I’m still not over it. (It was a wound; I dwell.) I wrote to a friend:

I’ve got this double-edged shame and indignation about my bodily ills and ailments—jaw, punched nose, fast heart, broken foot etc. etc. etc. On the one hand, I’m like, Why does this shit happen to me? And on the other hand, I’m like, Why the fuck am I talking about this so much?

            […]

We may have turned the wounded woman into a kind of goddess, romanticized her illness and idealized her suffering, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t happen. Women still have wounds: broken hearts and broken bones and broken lungs. How do we talk about these wounds without glamorizing them? (186-187)

Some of us have minimized our experiences because others have minimized our experiences and our pain (most notably, doctors, and non-running skeptics, but also, and arguably at worst, our own running sisters).

This is another rim/tension. Many of the women I’ve spoken with have found comfort and community in other runners after their injury—and even in (generously) sharing their stories for this project. Others, though, have stories about women (also runners) who distanced themselves from them after injury, who were skeptical of the extent of their pain and injury.

I wonder where this impulse to distance and doubt comes from, but I confess that before my own bout of physical trauma the last two years, I was guilty of it. Friends would tell me that they “couldn’t run,” that it “hurt,” and I would doubt them. (Even the women. Especially the women.)

“Anyone can do it—you just have to want to”—I often said this when friends would complain of knee pain, when they marveled at the mere idea of ever completing a marathon or half-marathon. (After all, I had done it, hadn’t I? I had come back from a surgery and run my best times. Why couldn’t they do it? Why wouldn’t they do it?)

I now realize how damaging the assumptions that underlie that ableist logic I then embodied can be, and how delicate and tenuous the connective (divisive?) tissues are between persistence and denial, between acceptance and defeatism. (Perhaps this is what my psychologist was getting at when he told me “stubborn is not strong.”)

So why do we minimize each other’s pain (and our own)? There’s more than one answer to this question, of course, but one of the things I’ve been asking myself (and others) is this: Do we do this because of fear? Are we afraid when we see someone suffer an injury that we’ll also be injured (again)? Are we afraid when we hear someone say she can’t run anymore that we might also be heading for the same (feminine?) fate?

I don’t know. But thinking about all of this reminded me of a poignant scene in an episode of The L Word I saw years ago. (Mock me if you will, but the series certainly had its moments. I remember that the first time I watched it with a friend I scoffed, saying it was wildly unrealistic, that there was no way that many lesbians hung out together. Then, of course, my junior year of college happened. But that’s another story entirely.)

I don’t remember the context, but in the scene I’m talking about, the character Max, who’s a trans man, says this to a table of women:

I know something interesting about lobsters: you don't have to put a lid on the pot when you cook female lobsters. Does anybody know why? Well, when you cook a pot of male lobsters—when they realize they're in this pot of boiling water—they all start totally freaking out. They're like, “Fuck, we gotta get out of here!” and they start making these little ladders and helping each other get out of the pot, so you have to put a lid on the pot to keep them inside. But female lobsters—you don't have to put a lid on the pot. Because once they realize they're in a pot of boiling water, they all just start grabbing each other and holding each other down. They're like, "If I'm gonna die, everyone’s gonna die." None of them wants to let any of the other ones get out of the pot. It's a real shame, isn't it?

I certainly don’t mean to suggest that this is the overwhelming trend among female runners, or among runners more generally—that we discredit each other by questioning other's wounds.

But it’s a trend. It’s a behavior. It does happen. And why aren’t we helping each other? How can we help each other?

Are we afraid of recognizing or acknowledging (feminine) wounds?

Sychterz warns that “as we hypothesize a link between scars and narrative and stress the link between scars and telling stories, we must be careful not simply to equate the wound with silence,” because “while patriarchal cultures may associate the wound with the womb, the wound also resembles a mouth, and mouths speak” (143).

I don’t know that speaking is the same as ladder-clawing one’s way out of the pot. Language is limited—narrative is limited—but it’s something.

And though it isn’t running, it is embodied, I would argue. (More on this to come, I hope.)

In The Wounded Storyteller, Arthur W. Frank argues that “[t]he wound is a source of stories, as it opens both in and out: in, in order to hear the story of the other’s suffering, and out, in order to tell its own story” (183). He argues further that “[l]istening and telling are phases of healing” and that though “healing may not cure the body….[t]he sufferer is made whole in hearing the other’s story that is also hers, and in having her own story not just be listened to but heard as if it were the listener’s own, which it is” (183).

I feel as though what Frank says next is an apt conclusion to this post: “This chapter has said too much and told too little. In narrative ethics, if the point of a story is not clear, don’t explain, tell another story” (183).

I’m not sure exactly what it is I’m trying to say yet, but I’m telling stories. I’ll tell another story.

And, more importantly, I’ll listen.

 

Works Cited

Frank, Arthur W. The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. Print.

García Lorca, Federico. From “Theory and Play of the Duende.” Trans. Christopher Maurer. Twentieth Century Theatre: A Sourcebook. Ed. Richard Drain. London: Routledge, 2002. Google Books. Web. 12 November 2015.

Jamison, Leslie. “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.” The Empathy Exams.  Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014. Print.

Sychterz, Jeffrey. “Scarred Narratives and Speaking Wounds: War Poetry and the Body.” Pacific Coast Philology 44.2 (2009): 137-147. JSTOR. Web. 18 January 2016.

Van Zeller, Vasco. “The L Word—Lobsters scene.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 2 November 2013. Web. 8 June 2016.

Young, Iris Marion. “Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment Motility and Spatiality.” Human Studies 3.2 (1980): 137-156. JSTOR. Web. 9 April 2016.