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Embodied Enfleshed

I have been in the grip of an "addiction to perfection" in relation to this blog - consuming more and more (books), throwing ideas and paragraphs into the textual pot, but postponing the moment of finishing, publishing. Recent posts have become increasingly dense with revisions, this has been stuck in a draft state for months but now I am going to rush and finish it. There will be dropped stitches in the mesh and the holes may pull. There will be clutter and muddle but maybe new rhythms and energy too.

Writing this now (deciding to risk more spontaneous writing) is perhaps propelled by having finally dared to go to a 5-Rhythms dance session. Forays into "dance-movement therapy" have always been stressful, and yet I yearn for something i sense it can offer: gestural freedom, pleasure in inhabiting my body, taking up space, being seen. I enjoyed it, once I had set aside my fears of being outcast, the one not chosen in partner work, being conspicuously clumsy or off beat, or exuding a bad smell. There was an incredible energy in being part of the shoal, surrendering individuality to the evolving beat. My body instinctively moved into some rhythms and struggled with others and I risked some smiles and eye contact with the other dancers.

The distant origin of this blog was reading Fat is a Feminist Issue (FIFI!) last year, as a group read with art therapy peers. I was really surprised at my strong connection with it. I have always been slim and thought I was approaching the theme of compulsive eating dispassionately, but it brought up my own past relationships to food. In my 20s the withstanding of hunger/deferring satisfaction bordered on obsession, even though I never owned a set of scales or came near anorexia/bulima. It also taps into themes from earlier blogs about hunger.

FIFI is based on anecdotal evidence from eating disorder groups, it makes shocking reading, and Orbach's unpicking of the meaning of fatness and thin-ness can symbolize for women is fascinating. it was first published 30 years ago and it is depressing feeling how little has changed; how much has surely got worse.

Some symbolism relating to fatness and thinness in Fifi:

  • Your mouth is both the place into which you put food and out of which words come.

  • The process of eating can be instead of saying.

  • The process of eating can replace thinking.

  • Fat can speak: it can say no!

  • A layer of fat is a layer of protection.

  • Fatness can be a concretisation of a gendered social pressure that a woman (especially a mother) should contain abundance: have a surfeit of sufficiency to give to others (give away, not keep for oneself).

  • The act of feeding someone else can be instead of saying or listening.

  • Having an appetite is shameful – think of that recent shaming social media fad – posting images women eating in public.

  • A full in-breath distends one's belly into a "repulsive" bulge: therefore breathe shallowly, the physical corset may be long gone but an emotional one remains!

  • Women often experience a greater feeling of sexuality when they are slimmer.

  • Thin-ness means having no room for feelings.

  • Experiencing ones own angularity conflicts with cultural pressure to be soft and giving.

  • To be on a diet is to be infantilised: giving power to an external authority which decrees what and when you eat and which foods are good and bad.

  • Dieting this severs you from your own appetite – what your body actually craves.

  • Obsessing over weight displaces anger about why one feels at odds with the world. How will I be, who do I wish to be if I look as I am supposed to look? p88

  • Boundary issues are such a big deal for many women – where do I end and you begin.

  • Fat puts a space between "me and you", between me and the world.

Words Will Out, 2015, Fabric, nylon tubing, handwritten text, sand

I showed “Words Will Out” again in my February exhibition and FIFI made me reconsider her. I was struck by her soft expansiveness: her fatness. She only exists as flesh and the absence of skeleton means there is no possibility of moving herself. She expands on a horizontal plane; boundaries shifting as her sand innards strain against jersey skin. Sand grains leak through her porous surfaces so she forever diminishes. At some point she will need to be replenished (fed her grainy meal). There is no mouth orifice from which words can exit – instead they rupture from holes in her body. The words are handwritten but illegible, they inhabit a net, circulating in a loop and reaching no-one else, never leaving the vicinity of her body. But don't accept her apparent defeat at face value: sand is weighty and insists on taking up space. It resists being moved.

A creative life takes a spiral form – I revisit, re-find, rework the same preoccupations, materials and forms even where I thought I was doing something new, when I thought I was a different person. Orbach quotes that rhyme from childhood:

"what are little girls made of?

sugar and spice and all things nice"

Untitled, 1992, Sugar, nylon tights

My first sagging sculptures were sugar in nylon tights. I had little understanding of psychoanalysis when I made those serpentine fragments in 1992. Why sugar; was its saccharinity an unconscious metaphor of a desire to please? Did I choose sweet sugar to make myself palatable; encrust my sharp edges, substitute for lack of prettiness, dissolve my anger? Or did its grocery cupboard ubiquity make choosing it mere mere expedience? I rooted out two old images; funny to look at them now: intestinal, labyrinthine fragments. How often "guts" feature in my work - or are they "brains"? Both of these small pieces involve two elements journeying together - two swollen, full, lines. A hand "not waving but drowning"? They are lowly objects positioned on the skirting board boundary of the horizontal and vertical.

Untitled, 1992, Sugar, nylon tights, MDF

In the next circuit of sagging forms twenty years later (the abject women dolls) I replaced sugar with sand. Sand is so reliably granular, although it is massively heavy. If sand gets damp it quickly dries back into soft homogeneity, whereas sugar forms lumpy rocks and crystals There is a box of my old sugar filled sculptures in the attic that have probably long since been eaten by ants.

As an art therapist I once worked with a little boy who used sand trays exclusively. I had two sand boxes - one for wet and one for dry sand. The wet sand oscillated over a wide symbolic spectrum - it could either be bad shitty stuff or else lovely good chocolatey food. Nothing in between. In contrast the dry sand was blandly and seductively "good". Handling it seemed to induce a hypnotic tranquility.

There is a companion piece to Words will Out, the words are absent this time, or suppressed. The holes are plugged with cork stoppers and sealed with wax, but the “feeling” seeps through the cloth skin. I have always felt uncomfortable with it, it is too raw, too bloody.

Words Will In, 2016, Fabric, cork, wax, sand

I have been writing this often at the same time as the Fitcher's Bird blog - I remembered Marie Cardinal's autobiographical novel The Word's To Say it. The heroine/narrator endures a permanent continuous menstruation before she goes into therapy and excavates her traumatic memories. As Estes says - "the blood which visibly screams the secret which once known, must not be forgotten". Cardinal replaces the torrents of blood with memories and words and ultimately an articulate narrative.

Reading the Orbach reminded me of my excitement when I first encountered Freud’s hysterics – I must have collided with aspects of myself in those stories of women suffering conflict between what they wanted and what self-censure denied. Anna O, Elisabeth Von R, Dora; their desires repressed and diverted into somatic symptoms – coughs, paralysis, anorexia. I was intrigued by that idea of a tendency in each individual's body which can be amplified, possessed by an imperative to not be silent: to find a way out even if can only through a painful, debilitating, shaming hysterical symptom. Freud writes about memory maps in the body and about bodies joining in the analytic conversation with crescendos of pain as secrets finally surface in words.

Following this eating disorder thread I went on to read a couple of books by Marion Woodman. Jungian. Very much about reclaiming female experience from patriarchy. I enjoyed them but find them hard to write about and remember, the imagery and style is It hyperbolic with vivid dramatizations of archetypes. Her thesis is that the feminine has been repressed and denigrated - we are obsessed by perfection, image, work. But the suppressed matriarchal (mater/matter) erupts in overemphasis on materialism and concretisation of symbols. We identify with archetypes of power, too afraid of giving up our own rigid identities to accept the ebb and flow of archetypal energy. But often symptoms take shape in addictions; in violent oscillations between self deprivation and excessive consumption. Addiction forces you back into the body that you deny or denigrate, and probing the gaping wound is the way back to soul.

The Mourning Pod holds the reviled/mourned couple in its stomach.

Mourning Pod, 2007-13, fabric sculpture

After the goddess workshop and my little offering doll, moss filled body and sexual – I have thought a lot about doll bodies as surrogate selves – how one feels one's emotions so bodily: a clutching at the throat, a churning stomach, a broken heart. Images of digestion – loom in my imagery and I often think of this blog as being a digesting annex: noticing what I am reading and thinking, processing ideas and excreting them. For Marion Milner our attitude to our own creativity (how we approach bestowing the gift of what we have made and anticipate how it will be received and valued) begins in infancy with fecal matter and the discrepancy between the pleasure and power of making it and the indifference or displeasure (surely never delight!) with which it is received.

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