Friday, December 05, 2008

Femininism: A Double Book Review of Sorts

Discussed in this "review":
My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor
Eating in the Light of the Moon by Anita Johnson

I know. All the alternative women's magazines, especially Bitch, fight it. "Feminist" doesn't necessarily mean hairy hippie lesbians, but it CERTAINLY doesn't mean make-up or high heels." This, they imply, is "feminine" as opposed to "feminist." But I wonder, where has the deeper meaning of "feminine" gone?

From Chogyam Trungpa, sent out this week on "Ocean of Dharma":
"Feminine inspiration projects a world which it can regard as workable and friendly since it is its own creation.....An aspect of feminine inspiration is regarding what you have created as sacred. You have created Buddhism, Christianity, Sufism -- it is your production. Since it is fully yours, respect it, work with it. These teachings did not come from somewhere else; your own openness gave birth to them. Moreover, you gave birth to pleasure and pain. You built Paris, London, New York City. You produced the president of the United States. These things are the product of feminine inspiration."
From "Femininity," in THE COLLECTED WORKS OF CHOGYAM TRUNGPA, Volume Six, page 564.

Recently I have read two books which really opened me to the other. One was the super popular current book My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor (TED talk here in case you haven't seen it) and the other was a student recommendation, an older book, called Eating in the Light of the Moon by Anita Johnson. On the surface, these books aren't that similar. Taylor is a neuroscientist, who had the mis/fortune to have a massive stroke, and be aware enough to notice it as it was happening, then learn an awful lot about the brain and humanity throughout her recovery. Johnson writes about helping folks (especially women) who have problems with "disordered eating" (all the standards: bulimia, anorexia and overeating, but also anything related to a dissociated relationship with eating, which means, well, most of us). Her main approach is to use myths and stories so we can enter into healing through non-linearily connecting with our actual feelings, instead of stuffing or starving them.

What both women do, through this language or not, is accentuate and elaborate on the "feminine" in the deeper sense - non-linear, creative, round and not straight, circular, spiral-y nature of those traits associated with the feminine. Both point out, REGARDLESS OF GENDER that all of us, men and women, often suffer at the hands of linear judgment, both inside our own minds and also in society. Bolte spends a lot of time emphasizing that we need our orderly mind (her left brain, the home of the critic and also the necessary part of you that knows you put socks on before shoes, is what she lost in the stroke) as much as we need our creative mind, but the right brain (organic, cyclical and associative) goes vastly underutilized and offers a chance to access our own sense of grace, appreciation and creativity every moment, if we just tap into it.

In using stories and myths for healing, Johnson emphasizes just this point. As Chogyam Trungpa says in the excerpt above: "Feminine inspiration projects a world which it can regard as workable and friendly since it is its own creation." Knowing that nothing has true order, in the left brain sense, that though putting one's socks on before one's shoes is most beneficial, one need not, say, write a book or even run one's entire life in that kind of order, is of more than therapeutic value. Both authors point to "dysfunction" or "disruption" as a learning place, where the system breaks down (because of medical or social reasons) we can rebuild, and in doing so, appreciate that our lives are far more sustainable if they are organic, feminine and follow the order of creation (small c).

I have often had a bit of a hard spot for "feminine-ity." Though I wear skirts and occasionally even put on make-up (see social definition), my gut reaction isn't against the exterior manifestation, rather my internal self-judgment that letting things go, allowing the flow to take me along is both weak and passive. Both are bad, by the way, in case you weren't sure, according to my left brain. defines "feminine" in six ways, most of which refer to dress and gender appearances. But these two point to where the trouble truly has been for me, and I think, for many others:
2. having qualities traditionally ascribed to women, as sensitivity or gentleness.
3. effeminate; womanish: a man with a feminine walk.
What's wrong with sensitivity and gentleness? Heck, I try to cultivate those constantly nowadays, sitting on the cushion, wishing love and smoothness for everyone and when I feel disassociated and removed or depressed trying to be sensitive to my own feelings. Why do I have to do all this work if it's inherent to being a woman?
Because it isn't. Because it's socialized out of everyone as being weak. Because the second definition begins to point to a division in gender, and the deep automatic values: what is male is good, what is woman isn't. What is male is strong, what is feminine isn't. What is orderly and masculine is good, what is creative and feminine isn't. Unfortunately that last bit really isn't that much of a leap.

I described this to the student who loaned me Eating in the Light of the Moon as the following example, the way "gender" makes this kind of problem scratch under our radar without notice, followed by another example I thought of since:

It took me years of dating to realize that line from the Police song: "Every (woman) I go out with becomes my mother in the end" is true for me - but not just for the women I date - also for the MEN I have dated. How could that be? In fact, I'd have to say most of my old girlfriends were less like my mother than my boyfriends. Huh? I only figured this out in the last couple of years looking at one particular male ex, through therapy, who was - still is - highly narcissistic. My therapist pointed out that my mother was this way as well, and all of a sudden my surface level associations - carefully constructed out of left brain logic - fell apart in the muddy river of organic right brain world and I realized he was right. Gender doesn't matter, not when it comes to this level of energy.

On a slightly more surface level, how is it that I can feel like I am in DRAG when I dress up? Not in a skirt - I do that often enough, but say, putting on a bridesmaid gown or fancy dress. Heels. Make-up. Hairdo. The whole nine. I am a woman, why is this a "problem," because that is sure what it feels like. As if someone is going to see the real me AND IT IS NOT GOING TO BE PRETTY. My inner masculine energy rails against all that femininity - in the alternative feminist sense - it's not ok to wear these things because they are associated with the "bad" parts of women.

Tell you what. There are no bad parts. To any of us. Even that logical order has its function, but neither brain side nor feminine/masculine energy works for everything. Like anything else, skillful application is necessary. And full recognition of our entire toolbox enables that skillful application. So go read yourself some guidebooks for how to work with our entire mind and spirits - Taylor and Johnson lead the way.


  1. Interesting thoughts, Miriam.

    I never could identify much with femininity (or its stereotypes) myself. I don't even feel as part of the 'creating gender' - I never had kids, never wanted them, maybe that's why?

    I do feel like a woman, yet I can more comfortably identify with typically male traits: Strength, cleverness, logic, practical skills, straightforwardness, wit - creativity too, but that, as such, doesn't have a particularly female connotation for me. After all, there are lots of great male artists. I do have difficulties with some typically female traits and disregard them maybe too often in myself: Softness, gentleness, non-linearity, weakness (and the strengths that lie in all of them).

    Maybe it's my upbringing: Single mom with two jobs, supported by an older friend living in the same household and playing grandma and nanny to us kids. Hot-tempered father ran off with another woman when I was 5 and didn't stay in touch, no matter how hard I tried with my humble means back then.

    I learned early that men are an unreliable species and that it can't hurt to acquire some of their 'practical' traits to survive on my own. I buddied more with boys than with girls - in part because tree climbing and roller skating were more fun than dressing Barbie dolls, in part because I wanted to acquire their skills and needed to know I was just as good as them - the strong gender - so that I could really really take care of myself, should there be the need to. I even won a 'pi**ing contest' when I was 11 - with all-male competitors (here's the secret: You need both hands to do it, but it works) ;-)

    Later, I didn't even see it as a need anymore to be like that, it had just become a fact in life: Independence - financially, emotionally, in practical matters. I did have relationships, even shared households with men since I was 20 - with a short period of 3 years in between -, yet I never lost my conviction that it's important for me to stay independent. No way would I have married - and still wouldn't.

    If there's one thing stereotypically feminine I can totally relate to, it's crying. I am a total cry-baby, all kind of deep feelings make me cry: Sadness, happiness, emotion - hell, even anger. But that's actually something which feels okay for me.

    I know that 'in drag' feeling too, but already when in a skirt - come to think of it, I feel in drag when I wear anything but jeans, sneakers and a tee or shirt (okay, sweater in winter) - and wearing heels is totally out of question since I neither can walk in them nor would it make any sense at 5'11 to wear them. I just don't feel comfortable in anything that's restricting my motion or making me feel dressed up. But that's okay, I don't have to wear skirts, luckily. I don't find it has to do with not seeing me as pretty - but maybe with a different, more individual understanding of how I find myself pretty. And that is - well, in jeans, tee and sneakers ;-) In that way, there are really no 'bad parts'.

    No idea where this amount of incoherent rambling came from - it just spilled out. I won't mind if you delete it - after all, I have that horrible male tendency to make everything about me even if it isn't ;-)

  2. i know the 'in drag' feeling and wifey never fails to describe our wedding gowns as 'going in drag' ...

    damn, i'm in pain now, so i'll just thank you for this and say that it is helpful and thought provoking... relates a lot to the whole ADD concept... you'll remember i talk about my 'webby brain.' i think webby brain is more 'natural' to humans but it gets beaten out of us... ok more later, maybe when we tlak on the phone.

  3. Gabi: thanks for your comments! I think your response is fine - just one aspect of the picture. I approached it less from gender viewpoint and more from a broad use of words like "feminine" but there certainly is a very personal aspect to all of this, and I appreciated your experiences...

    birdfarm: webby brain for SURE! And this relates even to "Deep Survival" in that way, and "My Stroke of Insight" (reviewed a bit in this - would be cool for you to read!). I also love the double-drag aspect of your wedding!