I sit in the sun on this chaotic courtyard that will take time to fix. The storm has passed. Supporting my notebook on “The Second Sex”, Simone de Beauvoir, to which I return after some years. We’ve got a few days until the 14th February, the V-Day – not only Valentine’s, it’s also the day the world claims for the rights of girls and women. The first thought I propose on this V-rights week is about the body.
I believe it might be universal to acknowledge that the body is a right – from the divine assignment to an earthly existence until the consideration of the body as the locus of prints from time; the body that materialises life, the body that moves, the body gets tattooed, the body that dies by nature or purpose. The question is not whether the body is a right; it is more: the body is the right of whom?
The verbal answer might be more immediate than the answer of experience. The right of the body is held by itself, by the person-mind-body-spirit living within it. The doubt arrises in retrospective: did I always trust that right of mine and never disrespect it while lending it to the voice and action of others? No, I did not always assume that right.
I don’t think it is only a female problem, but rather an issue that might be generalised to different potentially more vulnerable groups. When we think about the problem of the right to the body, my first thought is of the experience of children. What rights do collective structures attribute to children in regard to body safeguard? In the Portuguese case, by laws, many rights are assigned and recognised. Some years ago I had the opportunity to observe it in the laws on social services, care and education for children. But from the legal spectrum to reality there is always some space to travel, and the trip can become particularly tortuous in the most hidden places: the child inside the school room, inside the house, in the places in which he/she can’t be seen. In those places there is no law that can save us. I believe that the only salvation is to review what is or is not legitimate in our action.
Violence is still legitimate. The rebuke over those who have no physical structure to answer, albeit currently having fewer acceptance, it still has a lot. Training respect is still very confused with creating fear, whether physically or verbally. Education is vital, but its respectful, assertive and nonviolent version is not yet mastered. Family and school are generally the guardians of the right over children’s body and often do not know how to safeguard this right, even disregarding the voice of the child. Their body, through which they learn while exploring the world, becomes the first container through which the children doubt about the dignity of their own person.
The shameful body arrises very early. Children quickly realise that if they say skinny, fat, box of glasses, tall, short, marked, disheveled, lion’s mane, crooked eyes, strange teeth [and so on] it has an impact on others. From there they act and react, being more or less legitimised and reinforced by the adults around them, resolving or failing to resolve a number of issues. But, while children, they tend to remain in a partial version of the resolution – if they don’t hold and dominate the right over their body, these dilemmas (especially if they arise in a context of low confidence and self esteem) are perpetuated in the allocation of resolution to somebody else. A person is beautiful, intelligent and pleasant if others recognise him/her as such.
“Pleasant” was put on purpose to address the female question. Women are not big kids, but their “pleasant role” many times turns them similar in regard to the soft emotional childish that is legitimised on women. Simone De Beauvoir said about Stendhal: “This tender friend of women, and precisely because he loves them in their truth, does not believe in the feminine mystery; no essence defines women once and for all, the idea of an “eternal feminine” seems to him pedantic and ridiculous. Pedantic repeat for two thousand years now that women have a loudest spirit, and that men are more solid; that women have more delicacy in the ideas and men a greater attention span. Then a gaper in Paris who once walked through Versailles concluded, for what he saw, that trees are born pruned.” The pleasant pruned woman is responsive to the feminine myths: she is the meat of nature, both humus and sensitive beauty, she holds the keys of poetry, mediating between the natural and the supernatural, doomed to the immanence of the passive distribution of peace and harmony; she is the other that serves to the achievement of man (words adapted from Beauvoir). Besides these versions of women, there is also the female.
I wanted to talk about the body. I believe that body reflects the same categories of the pleasant woman. The pleasant body passes by different standards, it has already been more round, now it is slimmed, relatively high and under the ethnic fashion the blond white Barbie is not the only one anymore, she can also be African or Asian and have variable shades. But either way, the woman has to be conscious about her meat: revealing it or hiding it with the notion that this may cause actions of achievement by men. Taming the body to say “sensitive” or even “transcendent”. Passing from female to feminine.
The shame began with the non-compliance to the symmetrical standard, with the bowl that didn’t fit in the desired shape to the hips, the difficulty of achieving some physical activities and the exposure derived therefrom. We should add up some scars tattooing many moments, as also wild hormonal activities. I’m speaking about my shame. About the fact that I was only able to buy a short skirt in 2007 and that I’m still only capable of using it with compact tights, “so that nobody sees it”. I speak about the difficulty of going out with a plunging neckline, “because it is tempting” – and when someone expresses temptation I feel so disoriented that the body breaks down, I come back home, change my clothes and go out with my eyes on the ground. In these moments, I don’t respect the right to my body. I contribute to the violent peace, that in which somebody else’s eyes control us and then everything may calm down. I contribute to the poetry of unproductive silence, that poetry which in fact is summarised by crossed consonant rhymes.
I live in one of the 200 countries that in the 14th will say “we rise up for women”, not “such a shame of women”. If we could all understand that the body is part of a wider and autonomous set, and not a vegetable looking for external action, perhaps the realised difference between man and woman would become not much beyond a set of bodily differences – and on this regard, as in personality or in the active spirit, we are free. When individual sovereignty over the body gets real, sexual abuse will be a distant mirage. Legitimacy is something constructed and temporally relevant; I suggest to make violence inexcusable and to legitimate the self sovereignty over the body. We have already lost too much time.