Anna McConnell

Stuffing Myself with Immanence until I Am Scratching a Hole to...


Illustration by Wesley Clapp

I was laughing when I caught myself playing with my shadow. I was running, and in the long afternoon my shadow looked really good. My upper arms looked wrung out and my shoulders were hunched in that skinny way. I was in jogging stance, my forearms raised and fists balled up, and the position of everything and of the sun made my shadow reveal that she had only two half-arms. And when I caught myself, I was playing with that form—shifting my body to perfect the amputations, pausing mid-stride to cut off a leg—and I was laughing and full with triumph.

What was I doing. I should have been thinking, or at least studying the sky. So I looked at the sky. Still big. Hedges. McMansions. Thump thumpthump: sneakers smack against the concrete. The harder the thump the more calories burned per thump.

I placed myself in isolation this summer in my parents’ empty house on the South Fork of Long Island in order to get serious. I was also working full-time at a clothing boutique, the kind where it is just me in a room full of mirrors and occasionally a super-anorexic 55-year-old would walk in and sneer if I deigned to ask whether she’d like to try it on. (Apparently, when she holds it out like that, one is simply supposed to go fetch and ring it up—why bother trying on five hundred dollars’ worth of cotton?) Anyhow. When I was not fetching, I was placed in front of my laptop, getting serious.

Thump thumpthump. Give in: walk down the hall, up the stairs, down the hall, and right up to the full-length mirror. Bend over. Slip my hands from behind my thighs and pull the meat back. Grab hold of the muffin top and yank it out of sight. Peel away the teacher’s flab. The habit becomes disgustingly obsessive—I begin to do it what, I don’t know, this is awful to admit, every fifteen minutes? Ten?

What did he once tell me? If a woman spent half the time in front of the mirror, she could become fluent in Latin, and French, or something. Virginia Woolf?

* * *

This is not going to become an article on that-kind-of-hunger.

I am not even hungry. I’ll never be ballsy enough for anorexia; I eat; I eat just like a regular person; in fact, aside from the briefest of adolescent flings with bulimia, I probably ate far more than the average female because I was so hung up on not becoming one of those stupid anorexic types; I got off on proving my difference via stuffing my face in front of lovers.

I am not even hungry; I am not a stupid girl. I know what stupid girls look like. I had a loudly anorexic roommate in boarding school who drooled over her homepage, the Coldstone Creamery website. (Kate Moss was her desktop.) She and her anorexic posse would parade around campus trading starvation tips and gnawing dried seaweed: she was a stupid girl. We would laugh at her. I would laugh, before excusing myself to go shimmy my fingers down to heave up Diet Peach Snapple Iced Tea. Whatever. I went to college. I discovered Philosophy. Well... I met truly intelligent girls who were super into higher, intelligent things; they were beautiful, and thin, but their bodies seemed the design of the luck of the draw.

I ate, and read the assigned portions of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex from a used copy I got from a friend-of-a-friend, a well-known misogynist. I remembered his comments more than I remembered the text: he wrote ugh, ugh, hahaha ha ha ha, wtf, et cetera, in the margins. I ate, and refused to exercise because only weak girls who thought about their bodies instead of higher things did that; I continued to think about my body. I would sneak peeks of her; I would hate her; I would focus in on a single feature and feel all right—but this is precisely what the duped woman does: look in the mirror and believe she has discovered herself; even the women who believe themselves to be ugly do that. Simone Weil might have said that “a beautiful woman looking at her image in the mirror may very well believe the image is herself. An ugly woman knows better.” But how can we trust Weil on the matter? Anorexia killed the mystic!

The other Simone knows better. In her section on “The Narcissist” she writes that even the “less advantaged” experience the “ecstasy of the mirror”; “moved by the mere fact of being a thing of flesh, which is there… with a little bad faith they will also endow their generic qualities with an individual charm.” Why the bad faith? De Beauvoir explains the magic of the mirror:

It is above all in woman that the reflection allows itself to be assimilated to the self. Male beauty is a sign of transcendence, that of woman has the passivity of immanence: the latter alone is made to arrest man’s gaze and can thus be caught in the immobile trap of the mirror’s silvering; man who feels and wants himself to be activity and subjectivity does not recognize himself in his immobile image...while the woman, knowing she is and making herself object, really believes she is seeing herself in the mirror: passive and given, the reflection is a thing like herself…

The mirror’s draw moves beyond satiating mere superficiality: gazing into the mirror is gazing into one’s image to puzzle out who one is; it is—despite knowing better—being affected by the smarmy men who whisper as you scurry down the street that you have beautiful windows-to-the-soul; you go home to peer into glass and block out the bad flesh to locate that soul. De Beauvoir elucidated that sixty-odd years ago so bright, educated women like me would not fall into this full-human-being-which-means-nonstop-transcendence-and-constant-becoming-sucking trap that countless women fall into of staring at their reflections to find themselves in all their glorious immanence. And yet there I was, locking myself into the handicapped stall with the bigger mirror to study my appearance when I should have been reading The Second Sex, just to make sure that I was still there, and hating myself for it.

And here I still am. The shame of my compulsion to look into mirrors has grown over years but the shame is not enough to break the habit. Hatred feeds hatred. “Hating my body” barely kisses the surface (I can block out the thighs, the arms, the fat that suffocates the cheekbones; besides, it is difficult for me to imagine sincerely hating flesh): it is hating myself for being such a female, such a bad woman, compulsively drawn to the mirror even though I knew better. And then—burying deeper still—hating myself for hating myself during these moments of entrapment. For I know that this hatred plays the same tricks—is as intoxicating, and provides the same false and human-being-becoming-destroying sense of fullness—as the pure enthrallment of the mirror herself.

And yet.

There is no hunger, simply thoughts about hunger that gnaw away at the place where the mind should be: first, the desire to be hungry so I can look better; then, the desire to be full as punishment for being so stupid as to waste my life thinking about how I look; if I am full enough then perhaps the taste can block out these wasteful thoughts. Next, hating feeling full because now I will get fat and moreover I will be stuffed with silly thoughts like that I’m going to get fat; there is the guilt of feeling full because I was still duped into bad eating habits, which means weak womanhood, because I put the food to my mouth not out of hunger but because of some idea circling around what it means for me to be a woman; the hatred of feeling full because feeling full is like feeling plenitude, immanence, weighed down to the ground and unable to transcend. The desire to be light enough to transcend: the desire for hunger.

Itchy. It feels itchy, like there are ants making an anthill out of the inside of my skull, their infinite tiny pricklish little legs tickling the tender bits of my mind. I see insects where there are none: jumping back at a nonexistent speck on the floor; nightmares of roaches tumbling onto my naked self when I turn on the shower faucet; close my eyes and there is a giant bedbug like a crest stuck on the wall in front of me. I feel like a hysterical woman; I feel like I cannot go on: voices and voices and voices breaking apart and doubling back and shouting and whimpering and apologizing and for every voice there is a new one yanking the other back from behind. They are digging a grave: scratching into the place where the mind should be a giant... deep... hole...

Hole? Like how a woman is a hole? Maybe I am just thinking like a real woman! Why are narratives so linear like a cock anyhow? I will write about it. If I cannot escape this hole then at least I can spit it out of my body by turning it into art! But wait. Aren’t I not supposed to take symbols seriously? And who am I to suppose that other women have this paralyzing, spiraling anxiety? Bad me! A woman is a person who defines herself as such—a woman is not a person desperately trying not to fall into their hole! But what about Grandma? And Grandma? And Grandma? No! You are a bad feminist for your thoughts: women are totally fine! Do not write it. Why put another weak woman out there in the world: you need to create strong women, role models to help out fools like yourself. Feminist art killed itself anyhow. That’s because women are fine. If you are not fine, do not write. What are you doing? Not writing? You are acting just like a woman: unable to finish anything that you start! Awwwww. Pity pitiless me, destined to be a weak woman just like all my forefathers and weaker still for believing such trash. Destined to be a weak woman and a bad feminist in a—what is it called—post-feminist world!

* * *

Destiny has always been an extraordinarily seductive mindfuck. To believe that all one’s schizoid thoughts and ugly feelings weave together into some sense-making noose; that one’s minute, life-altering regrets are drowned beneath the boom of it must be; to believe that there is a guardian so that one’s excruciating anxiety is not useless suffering but is special, and makes one that special, precious little individual that one is—how divine! Destiny is immanence with reason. One need not practice active engagement with the outside world in order to become the person one wants to be because, if one believes in destiny—that is to say, if one is destined, then one already is the person one must become. Stew in your immanence! Dodge the abyss! No wonder my favorite extracurricular of early collegehood was spreading out on the chaise lounge so this boy could practice psychoanalysis. The Sisters Moirae and their spinning machine might have disappeared long ago but we always keep around some office for Destiny. Like God, Destiny is low maintenance: we can forget her when we are feeling good enough to act free but when the schizophrenia hits she is back, the explanation for why we have just spent the last eight hours inert with hysteria, door locked and shades drawn.

So Destiny has always been a good fuck, particularly for women. In de Beauvoir’s dissection of the Narcissist, the Mystic, and the Woman in Love, what ropes the three female “justifications” together is that they are all sown from the same seed: the desire that grows to belief that she is destined, which allows the woman to steep in her immanence. The Narcissist, once a child pampered with attention, realizes one day that she is just a number in an infinite line of faceless women. She falls in love with herself. Nestled in the conviction that she cannot step out of this row, she tries to become an individual nonetheless by making a character out of herself with the material at hand. “She chooses a color. ‘Green is really my color’; she has a favorite flower, perfume, musician, superstitions and fetishes that she treats with respect… Around this heroine, life goes on like a sad or marvelous novel, always somewhat strange.” The Narcissist believes ferociously in her inner life: rather than activities, she has secrets to explain who she is. The girl is a bore to be around: because she must constantly play the character that is already her in order to maintain a sense of self, “she no longer listens, she talks, and when she talks, she recites her lines.”

The Woman in Love is the most obvious example of the female who builds a nest in her immanence, putting aside the activities that once brought her pride and excitement because attaching herself to her lover is enough; what personality she once had falls away. De Beauvoir elucidates the peculiar fervor that brands womanly love:

It is the difference in their situations that is reflected in the conceptions man and woman have of love. The individual who is a subject, who is himself, endeavors to extend his grasp on the world if he has the generous inclination for transcendence: he is ambitious, he acts. But an inessential being cannot discover the absolute in the heart of his subjectivity; a being doomed to immanence could not realize himself in his acts. Closed off in the sphere of the relative, destined for the male from her earliest childhood, used to seeing him as a sovereign, with whom equality is not permitted, the woman who has not suppressed her claim to be human will dream of surpassing her being toward one of those superior beings, of becoming one, of fusing with the sovereign subject; there is no other way out for her than losing her body and soul in the one designated to her as the absolute, as the essential.

Tricking herself into playing the Woman in Love allows the girl to dodge that horrific moment of confronting one’s endless freedom; the role of the Woman in Love allows her to feel full, satiated, purposeful. Even as she immolates herself in order to become one with her lover, she can still maintain the belief that wallowing in her immanence is all that is required to make her life her own, so long as the boy-idol keeps up the lie that he still loves her for who she is, and does not tell her that she has fallen into some badly drawn shadow of his and noon is rapidly approaching:

Love is the revealer that shows up in positive and clear traits the dull negative image as empty as a blank print; the woman’s face, the curves of her body, her childhood memories, her dried tears, her dresses, her habits, her universe, everything she is, everything that belongs to her, escapes contingence and becomes necessary: she is a marvelous gift at the foot of her god’s altar.

The Mystic’s decision to lose herself to God rather than a man-boy is a wise one. God is absent; man is present. If the woman cannot maintain the lie that her man is her god—or if he is good enough to call her out on the fact that she is no longer the person he fell in love with; that it would be difficult, in fact, to even call her a person—then the woman becomes a masochist. Masochism occurs when “the consciousness of the subject turns to the ego to grasp its humiliated situation.”

Hit me. Tie me up, I cried. He split.

* * *

Or the woman will get so crippled by the fear that she is on the verge of becoming the Woman in Love that she will flood with anxiety, thus causing her to cling to her bloated lifeboat of a boyfriend, clinging like she has never clung before, which only confirms and makes realer this fear; and so the water rises again and she clings harder and harder until the two are both sunk. Maybe. Or maybe the Woman in Love was inside of her all along. The locusts return. Destiny appears by the nightstand.

The man from the liquor store barreled into my boutique the other night with a bottle of bubbly for seduction. All women are crazy, he announced. He then enticed me with a tale about how his brainy girlfriend of four years just dumped him because, she claimed, she felt like she was becoming submissive and losing her sense of self. Weak sauce was his verdict, the relationship changed me too—that’s what relationships do. Maybe he had a point: maybe their partnership was solid and it was simply some fear of becoming submissive—of becoming just like all those other infinite, faceless women—that led her to misinterpret any sacrifices or shifts as spelling out doom. Or perhaps the itching insects laid their eggs inside her, too.

I linger on de Beauvoir’s “justifications” because it is shocking, sometimes laugh-out-loud hilarious, how relevant The Second Sex still feels. I have been so sick and tired of hearing the sound of my voice repeat the same threadbare stories and act out the same conviction-less roles that I have been reduced to silence. I have uttered pathetic lines like I would be happy to make you a sandwich every day for the rest of my life and have then punished myself by believing these words. I do not believe that I am alone. It is not necessary for me to repeat anecdotes about women I know who have acted out the Narcissist or the Woman in Love; I am sure that you, reader, can easily round up examples. Certainly, one need not be female to engage in narcissism or self-immolating love but I do believe that the soul-destroying, crazy-making extremity of these games strikes intelligent, independent girls harder than it strikes smart boys. What begins as a healthy diet plunges into that creepy-woman disease, anorexia. To find the person that one is truly in love with breaks the glass between one and the world, one finally honestly cares and loves the world unselfishly and this is a precious gift from God but it is fragile and quickly warps, plummets into a bitter suicide. An invigorating dose of self-doubt morphs into a distracting degree of self-deprecation or crippling bouts of anxiety. I believe that these days the extremity comes—perhaps consciously, perhaps not—from the sensation that whenever a woman has an ugly feeling, there is the guilt of feeling that she is a weak female, and then the double-guilt for feeling that guilt; the shame that accompanies this layering magnifies the initial ugly feeling and leads the woman to punish herself by wallowing in the ugliness.

I say that I do not believe that I am alone although I have yet to speak to other women about the matter. This does not deter me from my suspicions: part of what marks shame as shame (and makes the whole mess messier) is the secrecy involved. Cockroaches, again. My college roommate and I, too jumpy to kill, used to trap a roach in a Mason jar and let it starve slowly on the living room floor. At the worst of it, there would be several jars scattered in that abandoned room—it would take one roach weeks to die. At times, one would lie inert, we would think it dead: perhaps she felt the lonesomeness of dying in a sharp searing, the stomach gnaws at herself. But mostly they continued to scrabble up and down the glass walls as one did the city streets, witnessing the hideous bellies of others. It is shameful to watch but you could not reach if you tried, and you know you look exactly the same but it does not feel like that, and so we continue: gathered together, separated by glass, twitching in our bell jars.

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 towards my relation to 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. And 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? Fair enough. 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 ten 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. I was probably right. I considered enrolling in a gender theory class but backed off when I heard the 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; we, like proper intellectuals-in-training, eagerly pick apart every feeling or fleeting thought that sifts into the mind; we enjoy being spread out onto the chaise lounge so he can practice psycho-analysis. As a result, we know to scorn all the shallow and weak feminine marks that were intaglioed into our bodies some time long, long ago; scorn but have yet to erase these marks; we feel the secrecy of our shame, then we, internally, question 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 _____________.

* * *

Because the fear of feminine weakness is not satisfied gnawing away at one’s own mind but 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 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.

Books will be devoured, too. One time after fleeing from a masochistic relationship with the 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 could not matter how complex or noble were her motives), 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 The Mandarins and suddenly all her liberating theory seemed like a pretty lie; there she was getting old as 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 the female but clearly have not, I turned towards Mary Gaitskill, who once slipped the word soul into an interview before correcting herself, claiming that soul was too big of a word for her. Her Two Girls, Fat and Thin is chock-full of vivid descriptions of the two protagonists mistaking their bodies for their beings and being nauseatingly female. There is Justine, who at eleven 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 and thinking about torture. 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.

And 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 Gaitskill’s novel was of the variety that I generally reserve for those 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: un-ironically low-brow; 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.

I do not want this piece of writing to be unapproachable. I do not want a reader’s reaction to be, this-is-a-touchy-subject-that-I-cannot-understand, so-I-will-approach-it-like-a-train-wreck, with distance. At the same time, I am so fed up of so many contemporary female writers—with females in general, myself included—who fear coming off as untouchable, and so hide their weaknesses or broach them (in their writings, with their friends) from a safe, face-saving distance (employing the very-past tense and/or cutting a weighty line with self-deprecation are two popular methods of creating distance).

It is for this reason that I would like to end with a nod to Mary Gaitskill, who is the first reputable contemporary female author that I have come across who enters into the brutal, painstakingly female psychologies of her subjects and refuses to leave. Her Two Girls, Fat and Thin mimics The Second Sex in this regard: following her women from childhood to adulthood; and the women do not get to cast off all their ugly feelings just because they learn that these feelings are ugly and weak. There is no distance: reading Gaitskill is unbearable; it makes a girl explode.

There is no space to breathe.

Trash: what could that become, creating trash with words?

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