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Making Women's Pain Legible
How do we flatten our experiences to make them recognizable?
On Thursday, I’ll share highlights from your discussion of when women and children are treated as “defective adults.” This week, I have a feature on women’s pain and how we communicate it.
In the Creatures issue of Plough magazine, I have a feature on women’s bodies that I couldn’t have written without Other Feminisms. I’m very grateful for this community. For me, it recaptures some of the best things about blogging.
Your comments are thoughtful and point me in new directions. And the discipline of posting every week on the broad topic of feminism keeps me actively looking for interesting work and readings and seeing how they fit together. It helps me ask more of what I read.
Plus, I’m grateful for the nearly fifty of you who have become paid subscribers. Other Feminisms is free to all, but the people who can afford to and choose to subsidize it for everyone make it a lot easier to say no to some paid freelance work so I have the time to work on this project.
In my piece “Let the Body Testify” for Plough, I’m talking about the work women do to make their bodies and their pain legible to a world that is not prepared to see them. I borrow the concept of legibility from James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State.
He describes legibility as a central problem in statecraft – the larger the state, the more effort it must put into being able to standardize its people so that they can be “seen” by the state apparatus. Legibility is why states assign last names to people who previously lacked them or addresses to locations that were described solely by reference to local landmarks.
Scott is suspicious of projects to render people and places legible, finding that they often oversimplify and flatten natural relationships. A planned, gridded forest may suffer soil collapse due to the lack of complementary plants which were treated as irrelevant weeds. Scott recommends cultivating a degree of illegibility, in order to remain more independent of state programs and oversight.
Unchosen illegibility, however, means being overlooked. Women are not more free because they are less thought of.
I also draw on Ethan Watters’s Crazy Like Us, a book about the exportation of American expectations of mental illness and suffering. Watters has a provocative idea—that some illnesses, like anorexia, aren’t universal. We tutor people in how to express distress and suffering. He backs his theory up with case studies.
Women are particularly vulnerable to pressure to make their ailments conform to expectations. Watters cites Canadian scholar Edward Shorter’s theory for this pressure to conform. As Watters explains it, “People at a given moment in history in need of expressing their psychological suffering have a limited number of symptoms to choose from – a ‘symptom pool.’” Without actively intending it, people in distress rely on our expectations of illness to find a way of being recognized.
My own middle-school health classes veered close to this approach. With the best of intentions, the teachers gravely instructed us that many girls experienced disordered eating, that high-achieving girls might be drawn to calorie-counting as one more thing to excel at, that it could be an exhilarating way of experiencing control if you lacked it elsewhere. It became a tutorial in how to suffer correctly.
I’ll be taking questions about the piece live on Wednesday, June 23rd in a zoom event with Plough. I’d love to see some of you there, and I’d love to hear your own questions or reactions to the piece in the comments below.