What it feels like for a girl
There’s a lot of reasons why people love yoga and on the internet everyone seems to go on about it, and in real life too, and I imagine if I didn’t already do yoga, I would not want to hear any more about it. I am sometimes one of those people who blathers on as such, and when I’ve had a few drinks when I’ve even been known to use the phrase “it changed my life” (then I usually apologise). A lot of people say that their favourite thing about yoga is that it teaches you to change the way you think, so that you are not always getting carried away by a rush of thoughts or to-do lists or focusing on a point in the future when your life will be perfect. You realise, your life is today. This thing, this “living in the moment” as it is probably most clearly described, is the thing which is transformational. The present becomes more gift-like, less burdensome.
I DO love this about yoga. I love this very much, and I also know that there are lots of other non-yogic ways to move towards this way of thinking, if you want to. But what I often think is that I love yoga because it has made me strong in my body. This morning I went to a class then I came back and did the kind of housework that would have previously made my back hurt and my arms ache. I used to be so weak. I’m not, not anymore.
Also, feeling strong detracts me from concentrating on how I look, and most of us knows that if you’re not careful you can spend much time and huge amounts of energy wishing yourself to be prettier. Anyone who has done this knows how exhausting and fruitless it is. We spend so long hearing “it’s what’s inside that counts”; we know that we when we get to know someone funny and clever and interesting of either sex they start to look more beautiful, but we still have trouble believing it and keeping on believing it. What I think when I see women walking across a room, or applying make-up in the mirror in the ladies toilets, is that much of their life is, amongst many other things, a slow coming-to-terms-with not being as beautiful as they would like. It’s almost guilt you can detect in their self-consciousness. The look on their faces is not that far from being an apology.
I’m sure there are lots of women who do not care, who don’t feel like this; good for them. And it’s not just women who we judge on appearances. A new friend wrote this, which I loved for many reasons, but particularly because it acknowledges the variety in how we experience things. But being a girl has themes, of course, which is what much of this blog has been about.
A few nights ago, the night before International Women’s Day, I sat down to have dinner in a restaurant in Hackney with some female friends. At one point in the evening a woman came down the stairs in front of us and all of our jaws dropped; we couldn’t stop staring at her because she was so tall, so thin, so beautiful. For a while we talked about what it would be like to be that beautiful, the up and downsides of people finding it nearly impossible to stop staring at you. I think in the end we stopped discussing it because all that talk of very beautiful girls was making us feel inadequate and a bit depressed. Then we talked about the John Berger book I read recently which discusses the way the world (including women themselves) sees women. He says:
“A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. While she is walking across a room or while she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping … She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself as another.”
When I read that I realised I had been walking across rooms like that for as long as I could remember.
This week I noticed a very attractive young woman on the arm of an older, not so attractive man, and thought, why has this been a cultural pattern in our society? You could posit: because men have traditionally had economic power where women have traditionally not; because men have been seen less as objects of desire than women have, but also I think it’s because they have been busy doing other things which distracts attention from just physical appearance and so we have thought “isn’t Charles Dickens a brilliant writer! Doesn’t he have a wonderful, inquisitive mind?” instead of “Charles Dickens could be more handsome. He is ok but is nose is not right.” Now women in the west get to do more than ever before which you would think would distract us all from how they look, but still we can’t stop seeing them.
What a drag it all is! How good it feels when you can let it all go!
If you look at domestic violence statistics in this country or read about sex trafficking or FGM, it feels frivolous to consider such issues. But anyone who tells you your concerns are not valid just because someone else has it worse is missing the point. In the West, a lot of the work still to do is shaking off how we see each other and are seen by others, and in other places the work is different and of frightening volume.
Eve Ensler, who organises One Billion Rising, did an extraordinary interview in the Guardian recently entitled We should be hysterical about sexual violence. You should read every word of it. Some people talk about compassion fatigue, or not being able to grasp the full horror of an atrocity, and the most effective way of explaining something in this case is to focus on one story (that’s why charities use case studies.) My yoga teacher told me recently about some women she used to teach who had been victims of sex trafficking; when she met them, they were staying in a hostel run by the charity Eaves. They loved yoga because it made them feel strong, because it was a bodily practice which was not about horror and punishment but about control and quietness and being kind to yourself and maybe the yoga, and the other work they were doing with other kind people who were helping them were the things that made them want to live. But she told me that it was a yoga practice very modified from the one she taught most of her students, and that a lot of it was about making your body small and protected, of being in a safe ball or foetal position and that she never, absolutely never, taught poses that involved opening your legs.
I couldn’t take that in for ages. Still, I can barely think about it. If I ever feel like I can’t get my head around something as truly awful as trafficking or rape as a weapon of war, I think about those women and what they can no longer countenance. IWD is supposed to be a celebration, so I hope I haven’t depressed you too much. Human problems could be counted on a scale from one to ten, on a scale to thinking to feeling to seeing to hurting. But Eve Ensler says “Women across the world are in this together”. She also says that we can end violence against women, and you should read the article to find out why this might not be so crazy and idealistic as it sounds. Happy IWD.
All photos by me on Instagram except for Victoria’s
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