I remember asking that roommate and another lady friend if they were interested in feminism. It was after a summer spent boozing with queer San Francisco anarchists in Oaxaca, and for once, the shame and anxiety I felt about my relationship with being female had turned to anger. I wanted it to stay like that, and was hungry for advocates. But soon after I returned to campus my blood once again became watery and I would quake at the thought of projecting my voice; needless to say, asking about feminism felt like an embarrassing question. They responded like it was an embarrassing question, or perhaps a dumb one. No, said the aesthete. No, said the Africanist. The gist: feminism had killed herself; there were smarter and sexier theories it had birthed; their mothers worked and they got great grades, so why would they consider feminism? The only self-proclaimed feminists I knew were men, but most of them ended up being interested in queer theory, which sounded nice but was 10 steps ahead of me and not the kind of personal, honest conversation that I sought. I felt too female, too weak, to approach the strangers that I knew called themselves feminists; I figured that they would not like me, that they would think me a bad feminist for being shy, clinging to my boyfriend, being jealous, worrying about my body, being weak. I was probably right. I considered enrolling in a gender theory class but backed off when I heard a rumor that the renowned (female) professor hated most women.
And that is why I wish I wasn’t a woman: words from my ultra-tough super-smart friend when I told her that ladies who entered my store were reduced to middle-schoolers, squealing over cashmere.
Perhaps it is the sorry plight of the privileged girl who gets thrown into a scene hung up on intellectualism: we are too privileged to have explored the feminist bit—our lives are fine, so we don’t “need” tired old feminism. And so we are taught to scorn all the shallow and weak feminine marks that were intaglioed into our bodies some time long, long ago; we scorn, but have yet to erase, these marks. We feel the secrecy of our shame, then we ask ourselves why we scorn, and are shamed, and question that, and question questioning questioning and question questioning questioning questioning questioning and so on and so forth until the weight of the emptiness of the hole that anxiety bores into our being is enough to make us…nothing. Blank. Silent.
My fear of feminine weakness is not satisfied by gnawing away at my own mind; it chomps down the rest of the world. I meet a great girl who is smart and confident, and then I catch a glimpse of her legs: they are grossly skinny; she is weak; she is a liar. I find out that a friend I desperately admire has suffered from an eating disorder, or has been wiped out by a boy—instead of acting like a friend, I feel disgusted and betrayed; I run away. If a girl’s legs are just right and she seems like just the kind of girl I would want to hang around, then I assume that she would not understand me and would hate me, so I keep my distance. I am distrustful of most men for the regular reasons, but mostly I am jealous because they can cook and be weak and vain without it all burning a hole in their head.
One time, after fleeing a masochistic relationship with a false prophet, I did what I tend to do when I am tired of how it always ends: I tried to love Him. I buried myself in Simone Weil and was truly blown away by the passion of her writing and the truth behind her ideas. But when I discovered that she had starved herself to death (and it didn’t matter to me how complex or noble her motives were), her words suddenly lost all value. Simply another weak female with the weak female disease rambling in her soapbox diaries. Even de Beauvoir was unable to escape unscathed. I read her book The Mandarins, and suddenly all her liberating theory seemed like a pretty lie—there she was getting old as her boyfriend, Jean Paul Sartre, went out and fucked younger women, and she has to go all the way to the U.S. to sleep with a scummy jazz musician just so she can prove her theory is right and she is free and equal and all that, but the whole time she hates it and feels old and sad and pathetic.
Fed up with women who come off as having transcended the hellish bodiliness of being female but clearly have not, I turned to Mary Gaitskill, who once slipped the word soul into an interview before correcting herself, claiming that soul was too big a word for her. Her book Two Girls, Fat and Thin is chockfull of vivid descriptions of the two protagonists mistaking their bodies for their beings, and being nauseatingly female. There is Justine, who at the age of 11 begins to learn that the sex of her body grants her access to participate in the outside world:
Sometimes glamorous older boys would follow [Justine and her posse] saying “I’d like to pet your pussy” and other dirty things; this was exciting, like the poem about the crucified man, only it made her feel queasier as it was real and in public. It was horrible to be in front of people having the same feeling that she had while masturbating… She was sure that Edie and Pam didn’t have feelings like that; probably they didn’t even masturbate. They blushed and giggled and said “You guys better stop it” but they swung their purses and arched their backs, their eyes half-closed and their lips set in lewd, malicious smiles. Justine would imitate them, and when she did, sometimes a door would open and she’d step into a world where it was really very chic to walk around in public with wet underpants, giggling while strange boys in leather jackets and pointed shoes called you a slut. The world of Justine alone under the covers with her own smells, her fingers stuck in her wet crotch, was now the world of the mall filled with fat, ugly people walking around eating and staring. It was a huge world without boundaries; the clothes and record and ice cream stores seemed like cardboard houses she could knock down, the waddling mothers and pimple-faced loners like dazed pedestrians she was passing on a motorcycle.
Then there is fat Dotty, who feels fullness and the truth of herself by being swallowed in the hatred of her body, which she finds in the mirror:
I went into the bathroom and turned on the light and took off my shirt to stare at and hate my body. There were pimples on my chest and I welcomed them, wishing they were boils or scars, anything to more fully degrade this body…I had the fleeting thought that my roommate could come home at any minute, and I hoped she would so that I could display the truth of how loathsome I was and feel her contempt as well as my own.
The passion with which I first hated this book was of the variety that I generally reserve for the people closest to me. I jumped up and down, screeching at the boyfriend who had recommended it that the book was trash, utter trash, before he quieted me by asking why I insisted on using that peculiar word, trash?
Trash: to be thrown in the dump and not looked back on. Trash: unironically lowbrow; undeserving of serious attention. Trash: all of my weaknesses and markedly feminine qualities that I have tried desperately to bury because if I am a woman living in an age that has supposedly surpassed feminism and I know better than to fall into traps and am still having weak thoughts that I pin to my femaleness, then I must be weak, and I must not utter these thoughts out loud, for they are undeserving: trash.