When I was a kid I used to pore through my mother’s art books she’d bought for the one term she’d spent as a fine art student at Carnegie Tech, now Carnegie Mellon University. On the bookshelf behind the end table next to the chair lived a red cloth-bound art-history volume that had black-and-white reproductions of great works of art throughout Western European civilization. Because at this time, African and Native American and “oriental” art didn’t count.
Of all the photos I pored over—even more than Michelangelo’s David (which I’m not sure was represented in its entirety, I think they must have cropped the photo at the waist, the way CBS cropped Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show) I think I most closely studied the Venus de Milo.
At 10 or 11 I didn’t understand what I was seeing. I didn’t understand that all cultures formulate their ideas of beauty. I didn’t even half-comprehend the irony that as I was studying this photo, my own culture was coming up with these images of sexual beauty:
And then Karen Carpenter starved herself to death, and the first stories about anorexia started appearing in the Time Magazines that used to come to the house.
Now, I understand, YouTube has videos giving instructions to girls and women about how to do it well. That is, how to starve yourself.
I found this amazing shot of the Venus de Milo today.
At 10 or 11 I didn’t understand how to look at this sculpture, but today here’s what I notice from this shot: Aphrodite has abs. Her strength shows. And she has quite a nice bit of padding underneath her skin. Her belly looks like mine (or, my belly looks like hers).
She’s well-fed. She’s fit. She would not fit into a Size 2, or even into a size 6.
She doesn’t have cleavage. Her collarbones aren’t sticking out.
Her posture is upright. She’s confident. (She’s a goddess, right? But still.)
And her face. Her gaze isn’t seductive. She’s not thinking about what other people think about how she looks.
She’s not trying to sell herself to any bidder. She’s occupying her own body.
The other day my friend Noah, who has 20-some years sober, said to me that he’d been living in his head. “I’m way up in my head these days,” is the way he put it, and he sounded trapped.
“Can you get down into your body?” I blurted, only half-knowing what I was asking.
He fastened his blue eyes on my face. “I don’t know what that means,” he said, surprised, thinking.
When do you live in your head? When do you live in your body?
(Originally published August 30, 2013.)
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I came across this video posted to Facebook by a woman whose journalism and thinking I respect.
In the comments under the post, another woman had written of Amal Clooney, “She’s a great role model.”
So I clicked on the link. I’d seen a lot of pictures of The Movie-Star’s Wife but I had never heard her speak. And I found out a few things about Amal Clooney, and (again) about the problems of growing up as a girl in this society.
I found out that I respect the work Amal Clooney does. Realistically, though, would TIME have run a video clip of her in high-court action if George had decided to marry someone less spectacular to look at?
Within the first minute of this clip, two things crossed my mind:
1) She’s smart!—listen to her marshal the evidence.
2) She’s fucking gorgeous!—it’s easy to continue to watch her.
Subheads under No. 2:
Look at her bone-structure, her black hair, the way the light falls across her cheekbones! She’s hot… Does this make me hear more or less of what she’s saying?
Her high-court robes make her look like a nun.
And in those two sets of conflicting examples lies the tension upon which the publishers rely to get us to watch, as if she were un grand spectacle. An entertainment.
Even the headline is telling: “WATCH Amal Clooney.” Not, “LISTEN to Amal Clooney.” Watch.
I suppose, having chosen to marry a guy with worldwide celebrity, that Amal Clooney has bought into this whole deal. She may be negotiating her new status on something of her own terms, while also giving the press something of what they want. So as for her being held up as a “role model,” I have to think about that one.
I know a 17-year-old, the daughter of someone I care about, who is at this moment in inpatient hospital treatment for anorexia and bulimia—fatal illnesses on the addiction “spectrum.” This girl is every bit as lovely, intelligent, and articulate as Ms. Clooney. She has from earliest childhood been led, by the same culture that manufactured and published this video clip, to watch images of beautiful women being held up in some way as models—fashion models, role models—people after whom she has been led to “form” or “model” herself. She has not been allowed the cultural space to look inside herself and find her own beauty, intelligence, strength. And she’s not yet old enough to claim that space by force.
Aside from this girl I’m also thinking of an extremely intelligent 18-year-old high-school valedictorian/homecoming queen/babe currently in one of my freshman writing classes who couldn’t stop reading her teachers’ minds in order to “succeed.” I asked the class to read Cheryl Strayed’s essay “Heroin/e,” one of the cornerstones upon which Strayed built her blockbuster book Wild, which became a film last year, etc. In the essay, Strayed loses her mother to cancer and herself to heroin use. I asked the students to write about a time when they’d lost themselves. Shortly after I posted the assignment, this student emailed me saying she’d never lost herself. She was panicking: What if everyone else in the class has had a moment of traumatic loss and I haven’t?—I won’t be able to compete. “I cannot stop thinking about how I have never had a moment when I felt truly lost,” she wrote.
I am suddenly wishing that I had been lost.
I told her, Awesome: so you’ve never been lost. I said, Write about the fact that, while all around you, people are losing their way, you have managed to retain possession of yourself. … In fact, two weeks before, she had written about her compulsive perfectionism—classic addictive behavior encouraged in our society. And for the Strayed assignment she was so consumed with reading my mind and Giving Teacher What She Wants that she had abandoned her own experience.
I took a little risk and wrote her,
Perfectionism is a delusion that, in my experience, has taken me away from myself for years. You may not have lost quite so much time, or gone quite so deeply into it as I (and others) have. But even now you confess, “I am suddenly wishing that I had been lost.” That’s the wish of a perfectionistic woman. 🙂
The words “intimacy” and “vulnerability” are bandied about a lot these days, so I’ll use them advisedly. But this is the kind of “intimate” dialogue I enjoy having with writing students. I extend myself a little bit by telling the truth, and I see if they reach back. She wrote an essay that broke a little shard out of my heart. It ended,
My idea of success is currently defined by other people’s expectations. Until I can look past what others think of me, I may never find who I am, but the fear of failing while finding myself is too great of a risk. For now, I am content with being lost.
I sat there trying to stick the shard back into my heart (always an impossible task, but I’m human—I try anyway), and I reminded myself that the longest-lasting change happens in small steps. And always with radical truth-telling.
To the extent that Amal Clooney acts according to her own mind and conscience, I think I can accept her as a “role model” for young women. But I’m afraid most young women won’t see that far. After all, Amal Clooney is a high-court attorney with a thigh-gap.
Most—not all, but many—young women’s eyes have been trained to see only as deeply as the thinness between the surface of the glass on the mirror and the silver-gilt on the back.
Today is “One Plus One” because I have one year and one day of continuous sobriety… yay. More on that later.
Also because I’m reviewing two films I saw over the holiday, both of which illuminate problems and solutions faced by addicts seeking (and sometimes not seeking) recovery.
Natalie Portman in “Black Swan.”
An enjoyable psycho-ballet-thriller. Natalie Portman, who was miscast as Anne Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl because of her lack of voluptuousness (and her inability to shed her American accent), was fine as Nina, the anorexic-bulimic-workaholic ballerina whose body is controlled at home by her mother (Barbara Hershey) and at work by her artistic director (hot Frenchman Vincent Cassel, who was also marvelous as the Duke of Anjou in Elizabeth).
Nina doesn’t own herself.
Trying, like a good little addict, to please everyone, she drives herself, working late nights until even the company’s rehearsal pianist calls it quits and tells her to go home and find a life. But she has no home, because her mother rules her apartment, even crashing in an armchair in her room. … Her body rebels with rashes and adhesions, which she goes to great length to hide. Another more sensuous ballerina in the company (Mila Kunis) tries to befriend her and mentors her in the art of popping pills and seducing dudes in clubs—a kind of false “letting go” which leads to delusions and paranoia, sending Nina past the point of no return. She wills herself through all her obstacles and eventually gets what she wants—professional success, approval, billboards on the side of Lincoln Center, etc.—but at a huge cost, and she never comes close to trusting or connecting with any of the other characters despite their best efforts. Which is the point: her illness drives her to complete isolation.
The King’s Speech
Colin Firth as the stammering King George VI in The King’s Speech.
The King’s Speech and Black Swan are about the same problems, really: childhood abuse and the illness it creates, including illnesses of obsessiveness and compulsiveness comparable to addiction, if not also including addiction; and reclaiming ownership of the body in an effort to reclaim self-expression.
“I have a voice!” shouts Colin Firth as the stammering King George VI. “Yes, you do,” says Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue, his speech therapist cum psychotherapist/sponsor.
I loved The King’s Speech. It was good to see Helena Bonham Carter playing something along the lines of a real human being for once, rather than a demented psycho wiccan, or an animated character. She makes a decent human being.
Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue, cheerfully refusing to co-sign Bertie’s bullshit.
The aspect I liked best was the relationship between Bertie and Lionel. “Bertie” was the pet-name used only by the king’s family for the king himself, and Lionel demanded to use the nickname. The moment I liked best, the one I wrote down, was the moment when Lionel and Bertie negotiate their initial meeting: Lionel tells Bertie not to smoke and makes it clear he is not going to, as it were, “co-sign any bullshit.”
As the film progressed, their relationship began to parallel a sponsor-sponsee relationship. For example, it turns out that Lionel isn’t a “doctor” of speech therapy but rather a former actor who started using his experience in drama to help shell-shocked veterans of the Great War to reclaim their powers of expression: just one guy using his experience in the service of helping other suffering guys. The guy he’s helping now, it turns out, was starved by his nanny, abused by his parents, bullied by his brothers, put into painful leg-splints to correct knock-knees and made to use his right hand when he was naturally left-handed. Isolated as royalty, he could tell no one about his feelings. His fear almost literally choked him.
“My sign doesn’t say ‘doctor,’ and I don’t have any letters after my name,” Logue tells Bertie, after the Archbishop of Canterbury (an always formidable Derek Jacobi) questions his credentials and attempts to replace Logue with his own candidate. The king wavers in the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey, feeling forced to fire the man who has been the only person in the world to whom he could confide any of his fears—the root of his stammering problem: fear.
“Your majesty,” the prelate says imperiously, “your function is to be advised, and I have advised you. My duty is to look after the person on whose head I am to place this crown.”
“Thank you, archbishop,” Bertie says finally, “but it is, after all, my head.”
The ending, naturally, is historic. But the way in which Logue helps the king deliver his first wartime speech, in the film at least, is a brilliant piece of sponsorship. All along the way he lets Bertie make his own hesitations and mistakes and decisions. He allows himself to screw up. He waits stuff out. He cares, but he remembers it’s about the job and not about his own ego. Though he’s dealing with the top dog, he might just as well be helping any schoolboy. And the man heals.
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When in 2008 I decided to recover from addiction, I started writing under the pseudonym "Guinevere." An ancient name meaning "white" or "fair," Guinevere is Welsh for my given name, Jennifer. And Queen Guinevere—though lovely, powerful, and rich—still lied and cheated to satisfy her desires.
A writer by habit and profession, I started this blog to examine issues of addiction in the culture. I'm especially interested in reducing social stigma that prevents people from getting timely help, and in supporting the many people who write to me looking for help in reducing their chemical load in life.
I love books, film, and art, and I review all of these here, along with the ongoing appearance of addiction and recovery in the news ... and of course I tell great stories.
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