There are many gaps in my formal education. For example, I never took math in college. I haven’t taken math since I was in 11th grade. And I never took one single Psychology class. I swerved Physics like whoa.
I only took one art class (Women in the Visual Arts) and one philosophy class (Artificial Intelligence: What Does It Mean To Think?) in college. I like art okay, but I can’t stand philosophy: not because I don’t think contemplation of meaning is helpful. I just couldn’t stand the kind of students who tended to populate philosophy classes (potheads, self-important white guys who enjoyed the sound of their voices – this includes the professors, btw).
So I guess it makes sense that I’d never encountered John Berger’s book Ways of Seeing. I mean, I’ve heard it referenced and seen other people reading it. I just never needed to read it for any specific reason. But I’m reading it myself as part of research for book #3 and it’s slow-going. It’s very abstract and concept-noun-heavy which makes it hard to absorb. Usually it makes me fall asleep.
But the other night, I read something that kept me up late, thinking about my own life and experience:
According to usage and conventions which are at last being questioned but have by no means been overcome, the social presence of a woman is different in kind from that of a man. A man’s presence is dependent upon the promise of power which he embodies. If the promise is large and credible his presence is striking. If it is small or incredible, he is found to have little presence. The promised power may be moral, physical, temperamental, economic, social, sexual–but its object is always exterior to the man. A man’s presence suggests what he capable of doing to you or for you. His presence may be fabricated, in the sense that he pretends to be capable of what he is not. But the pretence is always towards a power which he exercises on others.
By contrast, a woman’s presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and defines what can and cannot be done to her. Her presence is manifest in her gestures, voice, opinions, expressions, clothes, chosen surroundings, taste–indeed there is nothing she can do which does not contribute to her presence. Presence for a woman is so intrinsic to her person that men tend to think of it as an almost physical emanation, a kind of heat or smell or aura.
To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men. The social presence of women has developed as a result of their ingenuity in living under such tutelage within such a limited space. But this has been at the cost of a woman’s self being split into two. A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.
And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman.
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 by another…
One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object–and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.
Forgive me for coming late to this. But for me, this is everything. It’s kind of awful. It’s fucking infuriating. I’ve wasted so much thought and energy because of the above text and I’m sure I’ll continue to waste even more.
It’s the body I am tired of dragging about. It’s the body that I wish would feel good. It’s the body that never seems to do what I want it to do.
Mostly, I hate it. I hate every single thing about it. I’m sick of scrambling after it, trying to make it presentable. Trying to make ME feel comfortable in it. I’m never unaware of it.
Occasionally, I love it. I love how things feel, sometimes. Sex. Running. Riding my bike with wet hair, letting it dry in the sun. Swimming in a pool, chlorine everywhere. Situations where I can forget a little. Where I’m moving so everything feels a little different. Where people might not be looking, or if they are looking, I can’t see them looking.
It is everything to do with why I lose my mind over what I’m wearing. Why I hate special occasions requiring fancy dress.
Why I must pretend, when speaking in public, that I look differently than I do, because I could not go through with it if I believed the opinion of the surveyor within me.
It is why I hate photographs. Taking them. Posing for them. Seeing them after the fact.
It is why I have the hair stylist turn the chair from the mirror while she cuts my hair.
It is why I felt sorrow when people first told me that my child looks like me: what have I done? what have I replicated? What a horrible thing to admit. My child is beautiful. I know this. I feel this. I do not feel this about myself, though. It’s an intellectual puzzle I’ve put together, based on my sight, based on the words of others. But I can’t feel it about myself, based on sight or the words of others. I can’t believe it; don’t bother telling me it, because it never does any good. This is beyond compliments or kindness. There’s a dial in me that’s rusted shut and can’t be convinced to move. It has always been this way. My surveyor is too powerful and always has the final word.
It’s why I’m afraid to write a girl character. Why boy characters are easier. Boys aren’t as rigorously and wretchedly judgmental as the surveyor that lives in my head. What a relief to know this! But I can’t imagine being in a girl brain that isn’t plagued by the stress of presence.
It is without a doubt why I like writing. Words have nothing to do with this infernal, changeable, traitorous carcass I have to drag around and clothe and bathe and attend to in myriad hopeless ways that make zero difference in how I feel.
Words aren’t confining or insubordinate. Words do what I want them to. Words I can make as beautiful as I want.