by Catriona Mitchell

As it did for most people, the #metoo social media campaign got me thinking about women’s bodies, and women’s sexuality, and the vulnerabilities that seem to be inherent in living inside a female form*, no matter where on the planet you happen to live.

Since the Weinstein furore began, I’ve been asking myself:

How safe we, as women, can feel inside our own skin, when multiple forms of harassment are so commonplace?

How do we protect ourselves from harm, without shutting down our life force or overly censoring ourselves?

Does sexual trauma affect our IQ? What about our EQ? If the body is home to our instinct, our intuition, if it’s the place from which we feel, sense, and make our best decisions (“listen to your heart. What is your gut telling you?” etc.) What happens if these all-important forms of internal ‘knowing’ and communication are ruptured by violence, fear, or simply become frayed over time as a casualty of ‘everyday patriarchy’?

What if you’re tired of silencing yourself and want to tune into your inner ‘knowing’, but all you feel is numb?

I suspect that most of us block feelings of being hurt or unsafe, at least to some extent; we numb ourselves, rather than feeling pain or discomfort as it naturally arises. We think we’ll come back to deal with it later, at a more ‘convenient’ time. What’s more, this state of emotional numbness becomes so familiar, we don’t even recognize it for what it is any more.

Why is this dangerous?

Insight into the mind-body connection is commonplace these days. Chinese medicine, for example, tells us that our body-parts are storehouses of different emotions and memories – the liver holds anger, the kidneys fear, the lungs sadness, and so on. Stuck energy leads to an imbalance in the body, which can manifest as illness.

So even if ‘shutting down’ our feelings may feel like self-protection, is that really effective? Surely, when we become disconnected from our feelings, we not only jeopardise our energy and arguably our physical health, but become disconnected from the truth about our lives? And the more disconnected from our truth we become, the less present we are, in body and in voice?

I’d go so far as to say that a woman experiences the profundities of life above all through the body. That’s the feminine way. And that’s not something we want to miss out on.

Contemplating all this made me grateful, for the umpteenth time, to my dance teacher Gabrielle Roth, whose 5Rhythms moving meditation practice has helped me heal my relationship with my own body. I’ve been dancing since 1999, and on the dance floor, I’ve learned beyond any doubt (through my own experiences, and other people’s) that emotional and psychological trauma is stored in the body; and without an effective method to clear this trauma out of the body through movement, such as yoga or dance, it can stay stuck for years, even a whole lifetime.

In a state of stuckness, we can’t be truly free from painful memory, and it continues to limit us, drain our energy, and/or keep us in fear.

Countless times, I have seen women (and men, and me) fall apart, sob deeply, shake, howl, and release old, old stories from their bodies on the dance floor, only to put themselves together again in an entirely more empowered and vital way before the end of the session.

About a decade into my dance practice, however, I was shocked to realise that I had been failing to move my pelvis the entire time. My habit was to carefully hold my whole pelvic area static, as a kind of still-point amid the movement (sometimes gentle, sometimes wild) of the rest of my body… and I hadn’t even been aware of this.

When I asked myself why this was so, I realized – crazy as it may sound – that I didn’t feel that my pelvis belonged to me. It didn’t feel like mine to move.

If it didn’t belong to me, then to whom did it belong?

Did it belong to the man I was partnered with at the time, only to be stirred into life when he decided it? Did it belong to any person who wanted to stake a claim on it?

Of course not. But somehow, the physical manifestation of stuckness betrayed a darkly held psychological reality: I believed that to move my pelvic area – and hence my genitals – in a public context was to call attention to that area of my body, and to call attention to that area was to invite negative attention, unwanted approaches, harassment, even attack. Put simply, that part of my body was a liability.

Let me be clear: I wasn’t going around life in a state of paranoia, thinking these thoughts. I don’t consider myself to be held back in life, sexually or otherwise. These beliefs were quite unconscious. But once I’d become aware of this frozen part of my body, and started moving my pelvic area quite deliberately on the dance floor, I felt unsafe moving it. Even within the haven of a dance class where people were only there to do their own thing, no one cared anyway, and the real danger level was, well, nil.

I am not the survivor of sexual assault. I have been harassed more times than I care to count, and have narrowly escaped serious assault by strangers twice – but this belief wasn’t the haunting memory of a violent incident. It wasn’t specific in nature; it was general.

How to explain that?

I believed that to move my pelvic area – and hence my genitals – outside of the bedroom was to call attention to that area of my body, and to call attention to that area was to invite negative attention, unwanted approaches, harassment, even attack.

I can only guess that this relates to a kind of ‘collective experience’ in the female psyche. Which brings me full circle to the #metoo campaign. If I found myself so shut down in my pelvic area, well, how many other women was this true for, too? How often do we psychologically disown our female body-parts because they might (or do) “get us into trouble”?

If this is the case, how does this impact our daily lives, and our way of showing up – and working – in the world? How does it affect our voices, our sense of aliveness, our agency?

I decided to do some reading, and discovered some revolutionary thinking coming out of the US (the country that Eve Ensler told me last year has the highest incidence of sexual violence of any country in the world).

One of the titles I’ve been spending time with is Feminine Genius (2017), by LiYana Silver. In this book, the author talks about the all-important role the pelvic bowl plays in a woman’s body. This is what she has to say:

The geographical area… below your belly button and above your tailbone, is also known as your pelvic bowl, and holds most (but not all) of our female sexual organs, specifically your vulva, vagina, clitoris, uterus, ovaries, and pelvic nerve. These lovely bits distinguish you as female and endow you with physical and metaphysical superpowers.

Superpowers, you might ask?

Yes, superpowers.

She goes on to say:

Your lady parts have a pulse, which a scientific instrument can detect and gauge, that fluctuates when you feel deeply connected, intensely alive, and divinely motivated. Your vagina knows.

….There in your pelvis is the location of your knowing, your clarity, your confidence, your full-body yes… What are you truly passionate about? What is your purpose? What is meaningful to you? What moves you? What are your favoured forms of self-expression? Why are you here? What is your calling, your mission, your contribution…?

LiYana goes so far as to call the pelvic area of a woman’s body her ‘GPS’, or an in-built ‘oracle.’ If we’re attuned to subtle sensations in that area of our body through daily life, she says, this is how we access our truth, and find our right way forward in life.

The body doesn’t lie.

Another title I discovered is Naomi Wolf’s Vagina: A New Biography (published in September 2012 – how did I miss it?) Wolf explores the connection between the vagina and the brain through new neuroscience; and how the vagina affects female courage, assertiveness and consciousness itself. She suggests that sexist language alone can create stress in a woman, ‘directing a kind of pressure at women that is not consciously understood, but may be widely intuited.’

She writes:

Sexually threatening stress releases cortisol into the bloodstream…. If you sexually stress a woman enough, over time, other parts of her life are likely to go awry; she will have difficulty relaxing in bed, as well as in the classroom or in the office. This in turn will inhibit the dopamine boost she might otherwise receive, which would in turn prevent the release of the chemicals in her brain that otherwise would make her confident, creative, hopeful, focused – and effective, especially relevant if she is competing academically or professionally with you. With this dynamic in mind, the phrase “fuck her up” takes on new meaning.

Regardless of what you make of this (and I understand that it’s important to refer to these books in fuller form), I invite you to consider: have we ever really stopped to explore the full intelligence, beyond the sexual or reproductive implications, of this area of our own bodies?

It’s all up for investigation, but to me, these questionings around the intelligence of the body, and more specifically our “lady parts,” are some of the most important questions that we, as women, can be asking right now.**

Instead of shutting down our internal systems of communication, surely we need to be opening them up.

And if you’re still feeling skeptical about my thoughts on this, how about allowing Cate Blanchett to open the question up instead? In an episode of Stephen Colbert’s Late Late Show in March 2017, Cate was asked:

“Cate Blanchett, what is your moral compass? Where does kindness and humanity sit in a brutal world? Because those are important questions right now.”

“In my vagina,” Blanchett responded.

 

Books referred to here:

  1. Feminine Genius, by LiYana Silver. See here for details.
  2. Vagina: A New Biography, by Naomi Wolf. It’s available on Amazon here.

 

*This is not to exclude men from the conversation, or to deny or undermine the trauma that men also suffer at the hands of sexual abusers. However, for the purposes of this article, I am writing about women’s experience for a female readership.

**Do I believe that dance is the solution to re-inhabiting the body in a powerful way? You bet! But in fact any kind of regular movement healing practice will work, I think. I certainly know women who have had cellular memory/emotional release through yoga.

About the Writer

Author

CATRIONA MITCHELL is the creator of BRAVA, and the editor of Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories (HarperCollins India, and Hardie Grant Books Australia & UK, 2016), a non-fiction anthology exploring what it means to be a woman in India today. She has an M Phil in Creative Writing from Trinity College Dublin (Ireland).

 

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