Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being. Focused with precision it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change.
Every day a student tells me a story that broadens my world view.
Last week, a young woman told me about working at a bakery counter in a chain restaurant. Every single day, women come up to the counter and look through the glass with wide eyes. Alone, or in pairs, they pace back and forth, talking to each other (or themselves), as if they’re about to commit a crime. The ones who come up to purchase something look at her with pleading eyes, asking her not to judge them. They are buying for their children, they say, or an office party or their book groups, and they explain the details. If they’re buying just one or two items, they offer a rationalization,”I worked out this morning,” or “I’m just going to have this one macaroon,” or “I’m celebrating” or “It’s my cheat day.”
I asked her what men say if they ponder over a baked good. She tossed her head and laughed out loud. “Never. I have never heard a man give me a reason why he’s buying a pastry. He gets one or he doesn’t, but there’s no explanation or weird ass shame.”
The next day, a student told me she’s in cognitive therapy to cope with a persistent sadness left over from childhood trauma. Her therapist suggested maybe she’s depressed because she’s overweight. My student told the therapist she’s trying to lose weight, but when’s she’s depressed, all she wants to do is eat. Instead of encouraging her to see her emotional eating as a strategy to manage repressed anger, the therapist put her on her scale and recorded her weight. Every time she came in, she would weigh her, and if the number on the scale didn’t go down, she would scold her for not making more of an effort. My student asked me if I think it’s ok that she stopped going to therapy.
In her newest book Hunger, Roxane Gay details the way she is treated publicly for living in a fat body, “where the open hatred of fat people is vigorously tolerated and encouraged.” She tells the story of being gang raped at age 12 and how it changed forever her relationship with her body: “I was marked after that. Men could smell it on me, that I had lost my body, that they could avail themselves of my body that I wouldn’t say ‘no’ because I knew my ‘no’ did not mater. They smelled it on me and took advantage, every chance they got.”
It’s nearly impossible to feel safe in our bodies after we’ve been sexually assaulted. Most victims initially react by turning their anger inward and blaming themselves. Whether the perpetrator is known or unknown, it feels too dangerous to fling it outward, even among family or friends. There are centuries of social conditioning to keep us quiet.
Anger is difficult for many of us to recognize or name. Because it’s more socially acceptable for a woman to be sad than angry, female anger rarely looks like the “norm” of male anger. Other than the rare times women snap and “lose our shit” (coming across as a raging, crazy woman), we frequently turn our anger inward, registering as depression. And sometimes we construct a blockade of protection against whatever it is that has made us angry. This protection can be layers of extra body weight, self-medicating through various addictions, or overcompensating to make a bid for love (codependency).
Psychologist and columnist Avrum Weiss argues that “Men have always had a problem with anger in women.” He quotes studies that show how “boys are socialized to feel OK about their anger, while girls are taught to feel ashamed. Angry women make men feel uncomfortable, even threatened. Sad women make men feel gallant and protective.”
Through a yoga practice, I have worked to recognize and acknowledge my feelings, positive and negative. But even after years of dropping into my body to feel, I still struggle with anger. When it begins to surface, I panic.
After being molested repeatedly as a 7 year old child, I learned to live outside my body. I no longer possessed the ordinary sensors healthy people do. I could withstand hunger and thirst and other sorts of deprivation by watching the girl who felt them, as if from a distance. For years, when I would get injured, I did very little to defend myself or to heal. When sick, I never took time off. And when confronted with violence, I made myself small, burying the feeling part of me so deep, I didn’t recognize it as mine. I compartmentalized myself so completely, the girl who was being abused wasn’t me. I could feel sorry for her, and sad, but not angry. By 16, I struggled with anorexia and a suicide attempt. After two hospitalizations, I learned to perform normalcy through the more subtle self-abuse of bulimia.
I had become caught in a cycle of repressed anger and self-punishment. I had so much unresolved pain, when it began to hurt, I didn’t think about how unjust the situation was that brought me there. I just wanted it to go away. And so I ate whatever I could find that would fill the gaping hole in me. Then I would experience intense feelings of guilt and shame and vomit it up. Guilt and shame reinforced self-hate, which told me I deserved the pain. I didn’t know how to be angry at the pain in my past; instead, I was angry at myself for causing pain in the present, and that feeling of anger would send me right back to shame.
Audre Lorde says that “Anger is loaded with information and energy” and we can “tap that anger as an important source of empowerment.”
In my second semester of college, I took a course in the humanities and the assigned reading included The Bell Jar, Surfacing, The Women’s Room, and The Feminine Mystique. The professor made us write an analysis that required us to look back at the past 100 years of women’s magazines, including Ladies’ Home Journal and Good Housekeeping (circulating since 1883 and 1885, respectively). The products advertised in these publications varied over the years, but the majority of the slogans and hooks were frighteningly similar. She encouraged us to to notice how the advertising was aimed toward getting women to feel inadequate so they would to spend money. I began to see the the institutional ways we are taught to feel bad about ourselves. And I got dramatically angry.
I haven’t counted a calorie since.
When I began to acknowledge the systemic cause of my anger, something significant shifted. Recognizing the rationale, I was freed from its control. As a result, I adopted a more intuitive eating style. Since early college, I haven’t gained or lost more than 10 pounds (except during pregnancy). I eat what I want, when I want, and I never step on a scale. I’m not perfect about my choices. Sometimes I binge on sugar or forget to eat altogether, but I no longer allow my weight or anyone else’s perception of it to dictate what I put in my body.
Both genders suffer from the scripts we’ve been handed. When we perform gender, we limit access to our full humanity. Our expectations that we should narrow our field of emotions to those we’ve been told are appropriate for a good woman (or nice lady) limits our ability to combat shame and to integrate disparate pieces of ourselves into a cohesive and healthy personhood.
I asked the two students this week what they thought about their scenarios. They both declared vehemently that it was fucked up. I told them I didn’t have the answers, but the first step toward healing is recognizing there is something wrong.