Two New Anthologies Look Beyond Body Positivity and Sexism

Amye Barrese Archer and Loren Kleinman
My Body, My Words: A Collection of Bodies
(Big Table Publishing, 2018)

Lexie Bean
Written on the Body: Letters from Trans and Non-Binary Survivors of Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence
(Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2018)

After the #MeToo movement brought long-silenced experiences of women to the forefront, the national lens has been laser-focused on bodies and power. But what stories—and which voices—are left out of our current national discussion? Two new moving and important small-press anthologies seek to broaden the conversation.

In the anthology My Body, My Words: A Collection of Bodies (Big Table Publishing), Amye Archer and Loren Kleinman gathered contributors to share stories around body image. The book’s website cites statistics that motivate the editors: “20 million women and 10 million men will suffer from a ‘clinically significant’ eating disorder in their lifetime,” adding that 40–60% of girls worry about their weight before age six. Archer and Kleinman praise “an explosion of books” on the body, and indeed, My Body, My Words joins a growing genre. Its goal is to bring together many, varied voices in one place, and to expand the “body positivity” discussion beyond just weight loss, to include things like disability, aging, gender identity, and sexual preference.

The compendium features emerging writers, as well as familiar faces like Beverly Donofrio (Riding in Cars with Boys) and Martha Frankel (Hats & Eyeglasses), who authors the Introduction. My Body, My Words aims to look at more than weight, but that’s where it starts. Frankel opens with an internal drama many will recognize—the experience of perusing old photos of herself and remembering how she’d felt when they were taken. “I was worried—about my weight, or the way my hair looked, or the way my clothes bunched around my belly. I remember sucking in, or jutting forward, or turning to the right, to hide an overbite that now seems charming.” This way of writing about the body doesn’t start a far-reaching conversation, but it exposes personal dialogues often left unspoken—and sets the book’s tone. Most essays favor self-exploration over cultural criticism, revealing internal dramas and exposing harmful thought patterns complicated by bodies and our expectations for them.

In the haunting essay “The Weight of Silence,” Heidi Stuber pairs a fluctuating number on a scale with the negative self-talk that accompanies those measurements. 142.6 lbs is “Acceptable, barely,” while the note, “Disgusting. Immediate action necessary. Cut all carbs and sugar,” follows an increase to 145.4 lbs. For anyone who has struggled with binge dieting, this story’s familiarity is meaningful. It’s hard to believe you’re the only one beating yourself up when the sentences read like they were pulled from your own head.

My Body, My Words delivers on its promise to change the way young girls see themselves, especially in coming-of-age narratives. In “Water,” Megan Culhane Galbraith’s “weightless” body with its jutting hip bones figures as a character in her account of skinny dipping as a camp counselor. And in the gut-wrenching “The Fat Filly,” Wynn Chapman reveals how her mother’s worry that she has too many “male hormones” crushes her self-image.

A handful of men feature in My Body, My Words as well. In the touching piece “Hey, Old Man,” Dinty W. Moore laments: “What bothers me most at this juncture are the age spots.” Men, he says, aren’t supposed to worry about wilting, “But we feel it too.” Jim Warner’s piece “Melt” meditates on how poor self-image and sexual dysfunction stunt a relationship: “Resting heart rate under sixty. Poured heart from a gelatin mold. 115 pounds lighter and I’m more afraid to be naked.” Males struggling with confidence issues after massive weight loss don’t typically get the spotlight. Still, the most impactful pieces reveal how much more complicated body relationships can be for historically marginalized groups.

In “Thigh Gap (or Lack Thereof),” Eloísa Pérez-Lozano longs for “the supposedly ideal hourglass figure assigned to the stereotypical Latina woman,” but comes to terms with legs that won’t conform. She doesn’t just encounter typical beauty standards—she must reconcile what she sees in the mirror with a narrow vision of what she should be. E.R. Zhang’s beautiful piece exposes what it feels like to fill out a simple form when neither “Male,” nor “Female” feels quite right. “My friend checks ‘female’ without a second thought,” Zhang writes, “She doesn’t know what it feels like not to know.” It’s a vivid picture of gender fluidity: “I wake up and it’s a boy day. / I wake up and it’s a girl day. / I wake up and it’s a day. / I wake up and it’s day.” While cis women might feel overweight and invisible, gender-variant bodies are literally written off. Monique Antonette Lewis’s letter, addressed from her hair to herself, captures how she finally stopped battling her locks into submission to fit into a white patriarchal ideal: “You want to set me free but some say I am unwelcome in a white man’s world.”

At times, My Body, My Words defines “body issues” loosely, and looks more at how our corporeal selves interfere with who we imagine ourselves to be. In “Teddy Bear Theater,” Kaylie Jones confronts her own impulses after slapping her daughter for refusing to put on her coat after school—as if her arm had its own volition. Instead, she learns that, left unchecked, anger issues can influence her actions despite her best intentions. Molly Pennington’s “Sensitivity to Light” depicts life as “a hostage” to migraines in a medical system that under-medicates and invalidates women in pain. And in the interesting piece “Miscarriage,” Bryne Lewis learns to trust her biology, even when it seems wrong. “On the back porch, I realized my body had made that decision, the right decision, for me.”

With fifty-four essays sharing such a broad sweep of experiences, the collection succeeds in looking beyond weight loss journeys, and manages to be both meditative and playful. However, the breadth of coverage underlines just how open a topic “the body” is for one volume, and just how much more there is to say.

If My Body, My Words is about what Frankel calls “the whole mess of being human,” another new anthology takes a different approach, dialing into the more specific experience of identifying as trans or non-binary in a culture that labels you “Other.” Written on the Body: Letters from Trans and Non-Binary Survivors of Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence focuses on depth rather than range, specifically making space for what organizer and contributor Dean Spade calls “gender rule-breakers.” Editor Lexie Bean, a writer and TeenVogue contributor, garnered support for the project with a GoFundMe campaign. The result is a collection of letters to specific body parts, by anonymous contributors from the gender-variant community.

Unlike much popular writing about trans and non-binary experiences, Written on the Body is neither cultural criticism nor coming-of-age memoir. Rather, the letters reveal slices of identities in progress, not yet polished for the public eye. Most of the works don’t follow a clear arc—because they’re not stories. Instead, they offer private, narrow windows into a life. They don’t explain. Often, it’s unclear what gender a writer identifies with, what their sexual preferences are, how they were assigned at birth. In this gender-bending house of mirrors, a new way of being emerges, where the writers are people with genders, rather than gendered people. As the writers tell fundamentally human stories while declining to “place” themselves in a gender, how they identify becomes secondary to their personhood. They cast gender as a private experience rather than a public classification system.

Each essay is addressed to a single feature: hands, ribs, necks, and yes, genitals. Ieshai Bailey, one of the project organizers, explains that writing to a body part, instead of about it, can offer distance. It allows writers to zero in on a single feature, she says, “which may have once been objectified, misused, abused, dehumanized, medicalized, hidden, and hurt.” Some pieces, like “To my fifteen-year-old chest,” do just that. In practice, however, most of the letters cover less explicitly sexualized terrain, like editor Lexie Bean’s beautiful poem “To My Back”:

the chiropracter didn’t touch you

instead she said to the rest of us

what you used to protect yourself

years ago

is now only hurting you

if you keep making yourself small

your back is only going to get worse

i wish i knew

how to stop

making you small

i am sorry

i never stretch you towards

the sky

i am sorry

i care more about hiding my breasts

than your wellbeing

i am sorry

every possible solution to your pain

seems temporary

i am sorry

everything that still hurts

keeps climbing up your ladder…

 

Narratives of sexual assault don’t typically center around the back, but exploring the repercussions of trauma through a spine highlights just how pervasive and long-lasting a violent or abusive act can be. It emphasizes what is likely obvious in the trans and non-binary community—identity isn’t just about coming to terms with birth sex or sexual preference. Another letter, “Dear Eyes,” relives abuse through the pupils that witnessed it. “You’ve seen him. You know he’s not as strong as I am. You also saw him hit me.” These letters move the focus away from taboo body parts and allow the writers to figure as whole people.

While much of Written on the Body occupies private thoughts and spaces, for those living outside the old-fashioned definitions of “he” and “she,” perhaps it’s difficult to separate the personal from the political. The provocative critique of feminism, “Dear You-Who-Must-Not-Be-Loved,” objects to legislation like the Bathroom Bill, reminding readers that trans women are the people most at-risk in public restrooms. It demands that feminist upheaval against sexual assault include the trans community: “Society often doesn’t believe cis women when they say they’ve been raped. Society even (and sometimes especially) feminist society, doesn’t believe that trans femmes can be raped.” It reveals how easily—even with the #MeToo movement in full-swing—trans women might be left out entirely, or worse, vilified. “Patriarchy,” the letter continues, “means that cis women are identified with blame or victimhood or survival, transmisogyny means that trans girls are identified with violence.”

Aging seems especially complicated here, too. “We non-binary people in our 50s are thin on the ground still,” reads one note, regretting that in popular imagination, the gender-variant community is exclusively young. “Nonsense, we’re everywhere and everyage.” Another pens their story of traveling to Thailand at age sixty-seven for gender reassignment surgery. Even without the logistics of transitioning, several writers describe a poignant belatedness when coming into their own after coming of age. “A Song for My Voice” reads, “I too have felt like a permanent child until I started to step into my ‘true’ gender, if such a thing exists. It feels like a second puberty.” These letters show that for non-binary and transgender people, growing up is a minefield of personal hurdles and cultural expectations, far more tangled than just “coming out” or transitioning.

Written on the Body comes with a trigger warning, and the writing often has a raw, experimental quality. It makes sense; the letters are designed to help the writers heal themselves, and part of that process is experimenting with the language they use to convey their stories. “For gender rule-breakers,” writes organizer Dean Spade, “finding words and images about our bodies and sexuality that ring familiar is a matter of survival. We need different words, different images, different frames for understanding ourselves and our parts and reclaiming what is stolen by meanings that have been forced on us.”

By no means are the letter-writers chronically wounded, though. Some essays are embraces like “Dear tender squishy wonderful belly.” Others, like “Ode to My Trans Penis,” are triumphant explorations of sexuality. Often, the book reads like an anthem: “Body, we both know who owns you, no matter what they told Carrie Buck or Henrietta Lacks . . . Body, we claim you every single day as we flow through gender, uncomplicated.” But we learn from the Written on the Body that selfhood is actually incredibly thorny for the gender-variant community. That these self-investigations are anonymous underscores the real danger trans and non-binary people risk when they claim their identities publicly.

While the book is designed to be a healing tool “by and for trans and non-binary survivors,” it’s also a much-needed education for anyone looking to better understand and support the gender-variant population. Ieshai Bailey, LMHC, CST, includes a “Guide for Professionals and Mentors” at the back of the book that cis-gendered readers would do well to inspect. “First, I implore you to put aside everything you may think you know about the Gender Variant Community,” Bailey writes. “You have a unique opportunity to do the single most important thing I am going to ask you to do right now, and that is: LISTEN.” And there is a lot to listen to.

Both of these new, important books interrogate what it means to inhabit yourself in a political and social landscape where safety, acceptance, and rights aren’t guaranteed to all. My Body, My Words sets out to bring more voices and stories to discussions of body image that typically focus solely on women, weight loss, and sexism. The resulting volume is a valuable collection, especially for educators. And beyond the engaging essays, the book is worth purchasing, as half of the proceeds will go to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. But there’s a lot more to say than will fit into one volume, especially from more marginalized voices. Written on the Body effectively makes space for a specific community that is often othered. It’s a powerful exercise in claiming a narrative and processing trauma, but when writers share their stories anonymously, there’s still a long way to go. Despite the boom in body image books, we need small presses to keep publishing underrepresented perspectives like this, until they’re no longer relegated to the margins.

Contributor

Randle Browning

Randle Browning is a writer in Brooklyn, NY. She holds an MA in English Literature from Boston College and has written for Electric Literature and the Los Angeles Review of Books. Her website is https://www.randlebrowning.com/.

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