I have always had a conflict about writing about my body. It has been a very personal space. Certainly, for someone who thinks and feels about everything under the sun, my body has been a ground for a lot of thought. I have been through a lot of physical pain and torture because of which I tend to detach myself from my bodily needs and look at it objectively. I am beginning to think about how I interact with my body. Also, being a woman, I am not very comfortable with discussing my body in a world of men, most of whom do not have very good intentions for a woman who can openly talk about her physicality.
I was attempting to translate a poem called “Female Author” by Sylvia Plath. When I encountered the word “pink-breasted”, I almost wanted to give up. Then I spent a moment thinking about the consequences of translating this word. Personally, I am more comfortable than most women, with my body. I have been laid bare in laboratories, testing centers, and an operation theater and I learned to understand the perceptions about the female body.
I have also come to understand that the female body is often used as a means of intimidating women into fear and submission. A lot of women are embarrassed of their proportions and spend all their time in trying to change the way they look. I don’t! In fact, I am the big woman who takes the second helping of a chocolate cake because I don’t care! I have one life and I care less about who is watching than about my own desires. Women are embarrassed about the parts of their own body and attempt to tell other women to cover them up without so much as understanding why they are afraid.
I am as comfortable with my breasts as my eyes or nose and I cannot be insecure about them forever. I would certainly like to protect my body from the invasive glances of perverts but I cannot live in constant fear of them and make my own body an inconvenience. While we studied Foucault, we studied about “internalization” and the “gaze”. Women tend to internalize the feeling of being gazed at by men and years of telling them to be ashamed of their own body has made them insecure and inhibited.
I have often seen men on the road who spit at me because they don’t approve of the way I look or dress. Then I begin to analyze the kind of person this ‘spitter’ is. What is his life like? Perhaps he has no life. He must be a loser who has achieved very less in life. He is probably someone who has a complex about his own status. He is most probably not so well-dressed or well-groomed himself. Then, why do women react? Have our self-respect hit rock bottom that we have to react/respond to the man on the street who has no name or address? He is probably a street-cleaner who is there not because of a lack of choice but because he treated people with disrespect all his life. Perhaps, he is a college student who fails all his subjects because he has not begun to understand what learning is. Why should I react to a person who does not have the status to judge me, let alone value me?
I watched a documentary called “SheWrite” at college, and I loved it. It was about a few Tamil women poets who have started exploring the realm of the female body in their stories and poems. A whole lot of controversy has hit them and there are men opposing them everywhere. I have come to believe that a man can never look at the woman’s body the way a woman looks at herself. Then how can they judge what she has to say about herself? Isn’t it too intimate for him to comment about? What does he know?
This poem evokes so much beauty and a tiny chuckle from me because I can identify with it. I nod in understanding. This poem has been written by a woman and translated by a man. It evoked a whole lot of controversy from several Tamil lyricists (yes, the ones who write sleazy verse for movie songs) who wanted to take this to the level of Witch Burnings.
by Kutti Revathi
Breasts are bubbles, rising
In wet marshlands
I wondrously watched — and guarded —
Their gradual swell and blooming
At the edges of my youth’s season
Saying nothing to anyone else,
They sing along
With me alone, always:
To the nurseries of my turning seasons,
They never once failed or forgot
To bring arousal
During penance, they swell, as if straining
To break free; and in the fierce tug of lust,
They soar, recalling the ecstasy of music
From the crush of embrace, they distil
The essence of love; and in the shock
Of childbirth, milk from coursing blood
Like two teardrops from an unfulfilled love
That cannot ever be wiped away,
They well up, as if in grief, and spill over.
(Translated by N.Kalyan Raman)
Click for more poems by Kutti Revathi
I happened to read the article called “Landscapes of the Body” (The Hindu, Sunday, Dec 07, 2003) by C.S. Lakshmi a.k.a Ambai, one of the earliest forward-thinking Tamil writers. She has analyzed the politics of the female body while being cynical and caustic about the fact that men cannot understand the way women feel about their own bodies. I would not blame men. They have also been brought up to believe that the woman’s body is an object of arousal and requires to be covered at other times. Some men cannot appreciate the little moments of loss of self-restraint in a woman, when she is twirling her skirt in joy or lets herself go in laughter. Their first reaction is the need to control her. Many men imagine that a woman who is open about her sexuality is either trying to “titillate” or “seduce” or she needs to be controlled/fixed. I would not blame them because this attitude is not uncommon in older women in the family who have “internalized” the male idea of what is right or wrong for a woman. I have also noticed that men tend to be extremely private about their bodies. They do not want to explicitly express the sensitivities in their bodies because they are afraid of being taken into control. They observe their own physical needs as a weakness.
The body is something we live with day in and day out. While it seems perfectly sane to discuss “breast cancer” or “breastfeeding” without rousing a controversy, a woman is not allowed to talk about her breasts in other contexts. For a writer, it is completely natural to want to express every experience and how is one supposed to categorize these needs and inhibit oneself?
I also think the psychology behind such suppression and repression is the truth that rarefying the body makes it more mysterious and exploration-worthy. Perhaps this is why men try hard to preserve the secrecy about the female body to keep their own libidos working. It is only natural to lose interest in something that becomes commonplace. I cannot help but wonder why pornography and Savita Bhabhi are so welcome but a woman talking about her own body is not. The male psyche is still in denial, of course, but they have got their logic mixed up. It won’t be long before women realize the logical flaws and loopholes in the patriarchal belief systems and discard them.