Trauma and reclaiming the body

***Trigger warning: some of this content relates to sexual assault and trauma***

As with most of my ideas they emerge in the classroom or at random times. Instagram scrolling is totally work.

One of the modules I lead is SOCI256 Power, Culture and Social Control. This is an innovative and exciting module to teach, with weekly case studies to which we apply concepts and theories of transgression, deviance and social harm.

We have a Beauty Myth week and two of the required readings are:

The Absent Body Project: Cosmetic Surgery as a Response to Bodily Dys-appearance by Debra Gimlin

Buying Myself Back When Does a Model own Her Own Image by Emily Ratajkowski.

I am delighted to see that Emily is publishing her book My Body in October 2021.

Reading these texts together are crucial to understand how our bodies as women are both hyper-visible yet we feel the need to dissolve them, to retreat. I have long spoken about the regulation of women’s bodies, particularly those deemed to be excessive. See here on Aintree Races, here on the body of the stripper, here on my breast explant journey, here on surgery, and here on selfies.

As women we are expected to have bodies that are simultaneously present, yet bodies that can also be made invisible. We are taught to not take up too much space or ‘draw too much attention’ to ourselves. We are berated for looking ‘rough’ but belittled if we get the filler, wear make up, have our chests sliced open and filled with silicone.

We should essentially be nice little dolls who don’t speak back.

Emily Ratajkowski’s article is particularly pertinent. After a paparazzo took a photo of her (without her consent, as is the nature of most paparazzi photography) Emily used the photo on her Instagram account. She was sued for $150,000 for using this image (of herself!).

Emily also had the reverse experience, when photographer Richard Prince took one of her Insta photos to sell in a gallery for $80,000.

The article also depicts Emily’s sexual assault by a photographer who went on to sell books of her photos priced at $80 each. Photos that Emily had not consented to being disseminated outside of their agreed publication.

“My body felt like a superpower. I was confident naked — unafraid and proud. Still, though, the second I dropped my clothes, a part of me disassociated. I began to float outside of myself, watching as I climbed back onto the bed. I arched my back and pursed my lips, fixating on the idea of how I might look through his camera lens. Its flash was so bright and I’d had so much wine that giant black spots were expanding and floating in front of my eyes” (Ratajkowski, 2020).

After the sexual assault Emily writes that:

“My body was sore and fragile, and I kept stroking parts of myself with the back of my hand — my arms, my stomach, my hips — maybe to calm them or maybe to make sure they were still there, attached to the rest of me”.

I have been thinking a lot about disassociation lately. It is something I have experience throughout my life, although as a child I did not realise that ‘floating outside of yourself’ has a name. I thought it was my super power. To not reside in your body when it is too painful to be there anymore.

Recently I have been realizing, and reading, that disassociation can come not only from trauma, but from chronic pain too. It makes sense I guess. Why not float outside of your body when inhabiting it is a hostile place made from barbed wire and a bruising that won’t cease?

For women, our bodies are a battleground. There are the site of much combat and conflict, as well as pleasure and delight. But our bodies are rarely our own. We have to fight to reclaim them.

The wonderful writer and feminist speaker Mona Eltahawy recently wrote about attacking her abuser, knuckles bleeding from punching him relentlessly.

Mona rightly asserts that ““Prisons around the world are full of women who fight back and the streets are full of the men who assaulted them.”

To reclaim our bodies we must reclaim space, both public and private. We must also reintroduce ourselves to our own bodies and to our strength. We need to stop situating alternatives to imprisonment within the prism of women not being ‘vengeful’ and the sanitization of emotion.

Women globally are burning with rage. And we should be.

Gemma x