Song Of Myself: Recovering Our Bodies From Gender Violence

I’ve come to realize that navigating a world where men regularly lay claim to our bodies means reclaiming those bodies, along with our minds.

If emotional labor were tracked and compensated, then women have put in overtime during the past few weeks. With a nudge from Alyssa Milano, who popularized #MeToo to continue the movement of social activist Tarana Burke, women all over the world have come forward to share their stories of harassment and abuse.

The #MeToo floodgates opened not long after I wrote a piece on healing from trauma through art. A central premise of my article was that activities like painting, acting, and writing open up pathways for communication, allowing those suffering from trauma to better process it. But in the wake of #MeToo, I thought about how healing is bigger than mental health.

I thought about some of the times my boundaries were crossed.

A man approaches me as I walk to my apartment from the bus stop one night. “Hey baby, how about a kiss? Wanna go to the movies?” I say no and fumble for my phone, keep my mom on the line. “Bitch,” he spits, and follows hot on my heels anyway.

A gay man dances with me at a club and proceeds to grab forcefully between my legs. When I step back and tell him not to touch me there, he laughs. “Oh honey, it’s not like I’m interested in you.”

A friend is unable to drive home after drinking too much at a wedding. I let him sleep on my couch. In the middle of the night, I wake to find him in bed with me, his hands pawing under my shirt. I angrily let him have my bed and move to the couch. In the morning, he acts like nothing happened.

What do these stories have in common? In each one, a man is asserting that my body does not belong to me. While walking, while dancing, and even while sleeping in my own bed.

These stories are part of a litany that women recite to ourselves after every Harvey Weinstein or Larry Nassar or Donald Trump is exposed. Me too, me too, we say. And I’ve come to realize that navigating a world where men regularly lay claim to our bodies means reclaiming those bodies, along with our minds.

Methods to cope with uncontrollable events are often focused on what we can control – it’s why we clean our home or tidy up our work area to generate good feelings if we feel stressed or frazzled. I get those same good feelings from an interest in fashion and the deliberate act of creating outfits to express myself. After the onslaught of comments in my teens that ranged from “that skirt is too short” to “that sweater makes you look matronly,” after the parade of men on the street who harassed me whether I was in a winter coat or in a tank top and shorts, I eventually decided that comments be damned, I alone would control my style.

My friend Karen feels the same way. “If I create a shell for myself that I feel comfortable and whole in, I can assert myself in any situation,” she said. “And there might or might not be a level of exhibition in it – my reaction to or manipulation of what other people might see in me – but it has never had anything to do with modesty or things of that nature. They get what they get.”

Women who enjoy sewing and knitting may also feel empowered through creating what they wear from scratch. Lydia Grace, who manages the site Made My Wardrobe, creates pieces that help her work through a brutal sexual assault. “This project was almost a way of me re-stripping myself back, and allowing myself to rebuild my body,” she explained in an interview with Vice.

Other women own their bodies with ink. On September 1, following years of rape and battery allegations toward her former producer, Ke$ha posted a photo to Instagram of her latest tattoo. She captioned the shot of “Live Free” across her fingers with, “Funny how words take on such important meaning once you start living.” Lady Gaga similarly captioned her own tattoo with “1 thing I can tell you is you got to be free” when she unveiled it on social media. The white rose and flame on her left shoulder symbolizes unity with other victims of sexual violence, some of whom have the same tattoo.

Kate*, a friend of mine who sought peace after leaving an abusive relationship, also decided that tattooing was the way to go. Like Gaga, she worked with a designer on a concept that related to strength and resilience after domestic abuse. “I had always loved mermaids because they were such strong female creatures that couldn’t be conquered by men,” she said. The aim of the tattoo was to combat the confusion and helplessness that Kate’s relationship had made her feel, and it worked. “She’s beautiful and vibrant and bold and I feel like I see myself in it, so it makes me feel strong.”

For some women, reclaiming their bodies is more about action than adornment. Activities like kickboxing can help channel anger, fear, and anxiety into sharp physical movements, while yoga can reinforce connection with the body. “Going to the gym and lifting heavy things, sometimes heavier than some of the men, makes me feel strong and empowered,” my friend Rachel noted.

Healthy, consensual experiences with trusted partners are another great way to combat negative experiences, according to my friend Lauren*. “When I’ve been in situations that were icky but not actually traumatic, I tend to reconnect with my body through good, loving sex,” she said. “Being in a consensual [situation] was what I needed to release a lot of the shame surrounding my body. This isn’t being done to me. I choose this.”

When we are violated, be it through a stream of bitter words on the street or a physical act of aggression, dissociation is a common defense mechanism: accurately described as an “out of body” experience. If distance and separation from our bodies is a symptom of violence against them, then a grounding, a comfort, an ease within them is the remedy. We sing the song of ourselves, regardless of who is or is not around us.

I exist as I am, that is enough
If no other in the world be aware I sit content
And if each and all be aware I sit content

— Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.

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