Narrator: You’re a girl, not an animal.
Valerie: A she-mammal or a female child. I was on the borderline between human being and chaos.
– Sara Stridsberg, Valerie
The Wild, Sublime Body
Learning how to be humanMelissa Febos
Narrator: You’re a girl, not an animal.
My mother had raised me vegetarian, and though I harbored no real desire to eat meat, sometimes, in summer, I would take a hunk of watermelon to a remote corner of our yard and pretend it was a fresh carcass. On all fours, I would bury my face in the sweet red fruit-meat and tear away mouthfuls. Sometimes, I’d rip handfuls out and cram them in my mouth, which wasn’t much like the way any animal I knew of ate. I was less playing a particular kind of animal than enacting a form of wildness that I recognized in myself.
I watched Wild America, a PBS show on which conservationist Marty Stouffer revealed the wildness of the animal world. Alone in the woods behind our house I had beaten my chest, acted out my own invented stories without a thought to how another’s gaze might see me. I sympathized with the jittery business of squirrels and fanatical obsessions of our golden retriever. I was confounded by silverware—why it should exist when we had such perfect instruments at the ends of our arms.
Walt Whitman claimed our distinction from animals to be that “they do not sweat and whine about their condition” and “not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things.” However often Stouffer imposed human narratives on the animals depicted (very often), it was still always clear that survival was the priority that assigned value to everything in the animal world. If the wild marten was overcome by her own feelings, she didn’t let it stop her from procuring dinner for her babies. I might have had to close my eyes during the part of the nature documentary in which the pack of hyenas felled an antelope, but they had no qualms about tearing warm mouthfuls from her while she still kicked with frantic life. I learned in elementary school that we were animals, but unlike other animals we did not seem driven by the instinct for physical survival. We were so far up the food chain that it was no longer even visible to us. We were beyond survival, in a dark and lofty realm wherein our obsolete instincts had been perverted into atrocities like capitalism and bikini waxing. I might not have been able to name this, but I recognized it.
Sometimes, when I momentarily detached from the narrative of human life that we all took for granted—the one that presumes that money, cars, shopping malls, pollution, and industry are not a demented and catastrophic misuse of our resources—and glimpsed it from an evolutionary angle, it seemed so bizarre as to be unlikely. Was this real life or some strange dystopian movie, a dream from which we would soon wake to resume our sensible animal lives—in which “nature” was not a television show category or an experience to cultivate a preference for consuming but the only thing, the everything.
In elementary school, however, we kids were not making an ontological study of late-twentieth-century middle-class American life. We were neither learning about capitalism nor reading Whitman. We were learning how to be human. We were learning the exact way in which, though we were animals, we should not look or act like animals. To call someone an animal was an insult. As my peers and I approached puberty, this was unfortunate, because I had trouble keeping track of the narrative. I was covered in scabs and bruises. I was sun-browned, full of sighs, and interested in every orifice. I was an animal.
By middle school, this felt like an especially disgusting secret, because I was also a girl.
At the end of fourth grade, my body mutinously exploded, flesh swelling from my chest and thighs before it happened to anyone else my age. I was enormous, I thought, Alice after drinking the wrong potion, busting through the house of what a girl should be. Girls were not supposed to be enormous. They were not supposed to be scabby and strong. Inexplicably, strong and big were what every animal wanted to be except us.
To be human meant that females were the cultivators of meticulous plumage. We competed to be the weakest and smallest and most infantile. We seemed to spend all our resources withering ourselves to be attractive to males. The goal was to be as soft and tidy and delicate as possible. It made no sense at all. I was not in the habit of withering myself. I was not tidy or delicate. I ate the same way I did everything—with speed and vigor. One day at lunch, after I polished off a soggy square of cafeteria pizza, the girl next to me stared with bald attention.
“What?” I said, self-consciousness radiating through me.
“You eat so fast. I can’t even finish a whole piece of that,” she said, with a touch of self-satisfaction. “It’s so big.”
Wild America had taught me that wolves could go more than a week without eating, but I could only make it through one day. I won’t eat anything but string cheese this week, I would promise myself. One Saturday, the only thing I consumed was a bag of sugar-free Jell-O powder. I licked my fingertip and dipped it into the tiny bag of red sand until it glowed crimson and my mouth was aflame with chemicals, as though I had poisoned myself. I would have poisoned myself if I had thought it would transform me into a smaller animal.
In hindsight, the extreme reversal of values—big and strong going from best to worst—shocks me. Men seemed to have it all, to be considered superior in every perceivable way, and yet we were discouraged from striving for any form of dominance deemed masculine. To be described as “manly” was the vilest of insults. Such adaptability was required of us to perform this internal U-turn, to conform our loyalties to this crackpot framework, rife with contradiction. What I needed to survive middle school happened to be the opposite of what I would have needed to survive on Wild America.
Instead of eating contests, we had starving contests. Instead of boasting of our strengths, we forged friendships by denigrating ourselves. Instead of arm wrestling each other, we compared the size of our arms, competing not for strength and size but for puniness. It didn’t take long for someone to point out that I had “man hands,” an insult I subsequently used to abase myself well into adulthood.
I inherited a lot from my mother, though I first recognized my hands. We have long fingers, wide palms, and strong nails. They don’t carry our ring sizes at mall kiosks. We shop for gloves in the men’s section of department stores. We don’t bother with bangles. In adolescence, it struck me as unfair because my mother was beautiful, with fine features and dizzying cheekbones. No one was ever going to be distracted from her face by her hands.
In school, I learned to talk less. I moved more slowly and hid my body in oversized clothes. I longed to be a smaller and cooler thing, less wanting, less everything. Though I felt gigantic, I wasn’t. It was not the first time I mistook the feeling for the object, and not the last. This is what happens when you give your body away, or when it gets taken from you. Its physical form becomes impossible to see because your own eyes are no longer the experts. Your body is no longer a body but a perceived distance from what a body should be, a condition of never being correct, because being is incorrect. Virtue lies only in the interminable act of erasing yourself.
My body, though fickle, was starvable, concealable, subject to the reconfiguration of desire—when someone thought it pretty, so it became. Not my hands. They were maps that led to the truth of me. I was no petaled thing. I was not a ballerina. I was a third baseman. I was a puller, a pusher, a runner, a climber, a swimmer, a grabber, a sniffer, a taster, a throw-my-head-back-laugher. They were marked by things and left marks. They would never let me become the kind of girl I had learned I should be.
Before I learned about beauty, I delighted in my body. I sensed a deep well at my center, a kind of umbilical cord that linked me to a roiling infinity of knowledge and pathos that underlay the trivia of our daily lives. Its channel was not always open, and what opened it was not always predictable: often songs and poems, a shaft of late afternoon light, an unexpected pool of memory, the coo of doves at dusk whose knell ached my own throat and seemed the cry of loneliness itself. It was often possible to open the channel by will, an option that I found both terrifying and irresistible. I would read or think or feel myself into a brimming state—not joy or sorrow, but some apex of their intersection, the raw matter from which each was made—then lie with my back to the ground, body vibrating, heart thudding, mind foaming, thrilled and afraid that I might combust, might simply die of feeling too much.
Though this state seemed obviously the most real and potent form of consciousness, I knew that it was not “reality.” I understood that you could not live with an open channel to the sublime inside of you; it was impossible to hold on to the collective story of human life with that live cord writhing through you, showering sparks like a downed wire in a hurricane. The channel that connected the wild in me with the wild outside could not be destroyed, but I did my best to seal it. I turned away from the real inside of me and oriented myself outward. I did not look back for a long time.
By the time I was thirteen, I had divorced my body. Not before or since have I felt such animosity toward another being.
There were moments, though. As a teenager, at night, alone in my bedroom, sometimes the illusion of autonomy from my body would crumble, and I would be flooded by the most profound sorrow and tenderness. I would look at my strong legs, each scar on my knees a memory. My soft little belly that had absorbed so much hate. Even my hands—like two loyal dogs that no amount of cruelty would banish. I suddenly saw my body as I would any animal that had been so mistreated. My poor body. My precious body. How had I let her be treated this way? My body was me. To hate my own body was to suffer from an auto-immune disease of the mind. I was unspeakably remorseful, as I imagine any abuser would be in such a moment of self-appraisal. I sat in the dark and hugged myself. I’m sorry, I whispered and squeezed my own shoulder. I love you, I said. While I slept, the veil would draw once more. In the morning, I rose from my bed and looked in the mirror with disdain: You again.
My first girlfriend, Lillian—we were sixteen—confused me. Her short, matted hair and carpenter pants. The duct tape that sealed the rips in her down coat. Her soft voice and easy tears. Her delicate hands like flesh feathers that rustled thoughtlessly in her pockets or against my face. Even paint-flecked, with perpetual crescents of dirt under her nails, she was more girl in this way. I wanted to kiss her all the time. I also envied her the freedom of that ethereal form. In it she could be herself and still be beautiful. What did I think would happen if I did the same? I’d be seen as an ogre, all my hundred hands exposed. I needed Lillian to love me, and that meant I had to hide the aspects of myself that I suspected might repel her.
I spent the majority of my time in her company tense with control. My body was bigger than hers, and I feared drawing attention to this fact by being too flagrant in my movements, my laughter, my opinions. I had successfully internalized the belief that all my animal aspects—including and perhaps most of all the inherent vigor with which I approached life itself—were an affront to my femininity and should be annihilated if possible or, failing that, vigilantly suppressed and camouflaged. With her, I could be openly queer, wearing men’s shirts and battered Doc Martens, but I was still in disguise.
After observing us together, a friend of my mother’s once commented that I seemed so much more mature than Lillian. There was something childlike in the way my girlfriend inhabited her body. She sat with her legs either akimbo or improbably knotted, fidgeted restlessly, ate with her hands, and stared into space for whole minutes. I found her seeming lack of self-consciousness mesmerizing and worshipped it as yet another corporeal ideal unattainable to me, a freedom that could be afforded only by those more finely constructed. Because she was beautiful, she could be uninhibited, even slovenly.
One day, we lay on a blanket in the grass of her backyard. The trees hummed with insects, the air hazy with pollen. I read a novel, peering over it occasionally to watch her dip a paintbrush in a slick of watercolor and drag it along her sketchpad, the wet tip like a tiny black tongue, streaking the white with purple.
Eventually, she tore out the paper and handed it to me.
“For you,” she said and kissed the top of my head.
I took the paper, suddenly buoyant with hope. I had not known enough to want this, but still it had found me. For a moment, anything seemed possible. Even my own happiness.
I smiled at her and then turned to study my gift. Next to the colorful figure of a woman’s nude form and a tree with tangled branches she had painted a short poem.
Sometimes you touch me more like a bear than a butterfly, read one line. I froze, understanding that despite all of my efforts at control, she had seen my wildness. Shame shot through me in hot streaks.
In her essay “Uses of Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” the poet Audre Lorde defines the erotic as “a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling.” Oppression, she claims, is predicated on the suppression of this resource and its inherent power. “As women we have come to distrust that power which rises from our deepest and nonrational knowledge.” I had read the essay in college and loved it, without comprehending the full breadth of its relevance to my own life.
In my early thirties, I became conscious of the fact that I had been in consecutive monogamous relationships since my teenage years. I was a person so habitually attuned to the charge of attraction that I accidentally got into committed partnerships. Being partnered was a comfort, a perpetual reassurance that I was lovable, unrecognized in my more grotesque qualities. Despite my prolific dating history, I had never fully graduated from the inhibitions of my first love. I still fastidiously monitored my body, especially during sex, as if some telltale clue—a bearish touch, a too-loud moan—would expose my feral nature and drive my beloveds away.
“Don’t you think you should take a break?” my mother asked me when I was thirty-two. I had just ended a three-year domestic partnership.
“Probably,” I said, though I had already begun the next one. When it ended, I decided that I really ought to take a break.
It was hard, at first. I had to restart a few times. But when I committed to the quest of being alone and of turning inward, the change was immediate. Like a plant growing toward the sun, my life began to open. I wrote all day, until I wasn’t sure if I even remembered how to talk to other humans. My days were a strangeness that I inhabited first with trepidation and then glee. I bought a new bed, and every morning I woke alone and gently patted myself down, as if taking inventory of my valuable cargo. It was just us, for three whole months, and then the better part of a year. Eating whatever I hungered for. The late-night reading and list writing. The silvery wordless mornings. I reread Lorde’s essay (“the erotic is not a question only of what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing”) and sighed with recognition.
How wrong I had been about freedom. I had mistakenly thought that I must succeed at erasing myself in order to be myself. In fact, it was the opposite.
Six months into a new relationship, as we strolled down a sidewalk on a Saturday, I explained for the first time the ways I had for so long loathed my own body, how I was still embarrassed sometimes by my big hands. My partner stopped and turned to face me before she responded, her voice gentle but firm. “Little friend,” she said. “I am charmed by your proportions. Just because you have an issue with them doesn’t mean that anyone else does.”
Part of learning to receive things is learning to do so when you haven’t even asked for them. Intimacy, I’ve found, has little to do with romance. Maybe it is the opposite of romance, which is based on a story written by someone else. It is not watching lightning strike from the window but being struck by it.
Sometimes, during our sex, I step out of myself, like a wheel that’s lost its track. I see my body crouched over her, thighs flexed, hands slick and enormous, face dumb with desire, mouth open—and I shudder, ready to tuck it all back in and make myself small again. To do that would mean leaving her here alone in this bed, leaving this here that exists only between both of our bodies. So I don’t.
One afternoon, as we lay washed onto the shore of the bed, slack and salt-crusted, wrecked by pleasure, she said, “There is a word in my mind, but I don’t know if I can say it. It’s going to sound silly.”
“Tell me,” I said, my head on her chest, mouth briny with her.
“Sublime. Sometimes our sex feels like the sublime.”
I laughed and rolled onto my back, threw my arm over my eyes.
“We call that sublime,” Kant wrote, “which is absolutely great” and “beyond all comparison.” A thing that can inspire us to feel a fearfulness, “without being afraid of it.” An earthquake, for example, Kant understood as a sublime event.
I knew exactly what she meant, but I had no words to name it. My knowing was from a time before I knew such experience was speakable, when all I knew was that deep well inside me, the channel that connected everything to the pulse of my own wild heart.