‘There is no need for arms, physical violence, material constraints. Just a gaze. An inspecting gaze, a gaze which each individual under its weight will end by interiorising to the point that he [sic] is his own overseer, each individual thus exercising this surveillance over, and against himself.’ Foucault, ‘The Eye of Power’, Power/Knowledge
My facebook status this morning was something along the lines of ‘Sasha Garwood wonders whether her work’s focus on the female body as a means of communication, however accurate in terms of historical moment and contemporary assumption, is an entirely good idea..’, and it started me thinking. Because it’s true. I do feel a lot of the time like my body is being read and evaluated as a visual language, the basis of assumptions great and small and judged on its appeal, apparell, appearance. And that bothers me. There are a few, specific, kinds of pain that I can’t feel without feeling my only effective means of articulating them is to carve them into my skin, whether I choose do so or not. (And the only reason there are so few is because almost three decades of various kinds of emotional trauma, angst and attendant dysfunction means there’s relatively little along those lines I encounter without some form of vaguely functional psychological coping mechanism already in place.) And then I started thinking about why. Why, when I’m so verbally competent, use blood and scarring to speak for me, for my pain? What’s wrong with attempting a verbal articulation? how would such a verbal articulation be received? (Who would I address it to?) Could it even be attempted? Would I expect people to ‘listen’ in the same way? (I think not.) If I was older, would I expect to feel the same? I doubt it, not exactly, and this matters. If my body wasn’t that of a woman still young enough to be perceived as vaguely attractive in cultural terms I’d be articulating something rather different. (I may still need to do it, I don’t know, but that’s one for another time I think.) It works because I’m young, and prettyish, and habitually sexually objectifiable. On some level, because of the world i inhabit (and I spend far too much time in the gym, with its parade of ultra-toned, bikini-clad lack of flesh, so I know I’m partly to blame for exposing myself to it to such an extent) I’m used to feeling my body being assessed for its attractiveness in contemporary cultural terms. Often found wanting (note phrase), but that’s what the eyes I feel on me all the time, however cursory, are saying. I’m sure they frequently find me wanting (too short, too ugly, too pudgy, tits too small, thighs too big, whatever), but sometimes they don’t. Sometimes it’s nice. I was walking along the other day and some boy cycled past, stopped, said ‘Sorry, but you’re really beautiful’ and cycled on, which was lovely. (I tend not to mind compliments actually addressed *to* me, if they’re not too anatomically specific, and even then I’d rather someone said ‘nice arse’ to me than to their friend as if I wasn’t there. There’s something really belittling about such an obvious disregard for my personhood. But I digress.) So I’ve come to anticipate a cetain degree of objectification, like many women to impose it upon myself, and despite my (self-) awareness abt this, I still find it uncomfortable, both the appreciation and the dismissal. I don’t want my ultimate value to the majority of people I see every day to reside in those terms. I don’t want to be flesh that isn’t quite good enough. I want love, understanding, compassion extended to my emotional and intellectual core, not the projections that can be imposed on my more, or less, attractive exterior.And my cutting these days is almost inevitably about the *lack* of instinctive emotional intimacy, understanding, communication, I used to share with the boy, or the pain of losing it.
So in a way cutting is articulating that desire. By marking my flesh, particularly in patterns I find beautiful or pleasing or with symbols that mean something if you can read the code, what I’m saying is that this pain, my feeling, my *self*, are more important than my value in the terms of the imperfect objectification to which I am otherwise subject and to which I subject myself. Cutting thwarts the gaze. It forces the viewer to acknowledge not just the shape of my flesh but the pain on its surface and underneath its skin. It says ‘my pain means more to me than your approval’. It says ‘want me with my pain, or don’t want me at all, and if you can’t appreciate that I’ll be better off without you.’ It says ‘want me for the pain that speaks, not the imperfect body that doesn’t.’ I suppose if I didn’t feel I could be found on some level sexually attractive, if I didn’t feel that sexual terms were by and large the only wider cultural terms on which I’m assessed and rejected (‘found wanting’), ‘spoiling’ my body with scars wouldn’t work. And there are situations in which I’m more comfortable covering them (around children I want to protect, or professionally).
But by and large, I feel that cutting is my way of articulating that what I value about myself is my ability to take pain and emotional suffering and shape it into something beautiful, into understanding, into the capacities for empathy and love and forgiveness and grace. Cutting speaks the volumes the world won’t let me say. It rejects my assessment on the same terms as the gyrating bodies at the gym, and the consequent inevitable feelings of inadequacy, and says ‘look at this instead, because it means more.’ I want scars and I want to choose them because those scars, and the pain they represent, is what defines me, the same way (I felt that) my thinness used to do and my imperfect words always struggle for. (The trouble with language is that it’s always subject to interpretation. The sentence spoken is not always the sentence heard, let alone the sentence understood. What I miss, or long for, is somebody for whom all three are the same and none of them or the feelings they express are an issue or a reason to reject me. But again, I digress.) *I* want to be found beautiful, me, not my outer shell.
Of course, I want my body to be found beautiful too, and that’s where the conflicts come in. I don’t want to lose my ability to be at least accepted and valued in cultural terms. I dread the famed invisibility of the older woman, because I fear that my voice will no longer be heard. I’m aware that the visual attention I attract enables both my speech and its dismissal. Culture is a paradox, and of course I want success and acceptance on its terms. But more than that, I want to be valued on personal as well as cultural levels, and so when you look at my breasts you see –hopefully –not just the curves and pretty nipples but the half-enhancing, half-distorting heart-shaped scar that says ‘Love hurts, I know that, and I’ll choose to be this vulnerable, to let you get this close to me anyway.’ It asks for a respect that I no longer feel – never felt? – was accorded to the simple emotional vulnerability that comes entwined with sexual vulnerability and nakedness with me, because sexuality is no longer of necessity intimate or personal but a commercialised cultural product, whose visual characteristics are endlessly reproduced and judged around us all every day. I cut because it prevents my reduction to that, to a pair of tits on a billboard, to just another girl who isn’t skinny or pretty enough to count. (And even if you are, by all accounts that brings its own troubles, as people can’t see you as anything other than surface, but again, I digress.) I cut because it enables my body to say what *I* want it to say, not articulate the values my sexualised culture imposes on it. I cut because it hurts to feel not quite good enough, every single fucking day, unless I want to impose the same damaging cultural criteria on others. (I sometimes do that unconsciously. But I’ll always call myself on it.) I cut because *I* cut, I hurt, and I want you to see that. It may not be healthy. But it’s the best I can do.