Rationality. It exists in the mind, not the body, the white man scholar who lives in the ivory tower declared. The female body in particular is made of flesh that can steal rationality or tilt the balance upon which rationality rests. Women are constantly written off for being emotional, irrational, because of our bodies. Rather than be in our bodies, we need to get outside of them, survive them, be awesome in spite of them- be emotionless and rational and neutral in spite of the female body (read: endeavor to be like a man, and call it neutral, even though it’s not, its thinking/being/doing like a man). Patriarchy has built a particular looking glass, and in this looking glass, being enmeshed with the body is a function of being woman, or being other than man. Elizabeth Grosz, one of my favorite feminists, writes of this patriarchal looking glass, “Women are somehow more biological, more corporeal, and more natural than men” (Grosz p.14). Challenges of the body- embodiment, the body and knowledge, knowing from the body, knowing without the body, knowing through the body, knowledge traveling through the body- figure large in feminist arguments about the construction of knowledge that dismantle the way that rationality has been heralded as an out-of-body, emotion-less, male quality.
As a scholar, I try to stay in my body. I try to acknowledge the way my embodied privilege informs my writing. And as a breast cancer patient, I notice all kinds of tensions happening in between my body and my mind. I’ve disengaged from my breast. In preparing to have it removed, I’ve stopped relating to it entirely. Sometimes, I am frustrated I care so deeply about a breast, and I roll my eyes at myself, rationalizing the decision and feeding my mind statistics and information. I shouldn’t care. I know gender is socially constructed. I’m a feminist, I know I am more than my breasts. I tell myself to be rationale: this breast actually tried to kill me, of course it should be kicked to the curb. Just the other day, I admitted to an ardent feminist who had breast cancer, that I wish I didn’t care, I shouldn’t care, a feminist should know she didn’t need to care. I shouldn’t care.
But I do. And in the tension between stats, information, and surgeries I recognize that my own disregard for feeling and for my embodied experience of my breast and breast cancer is reflective of so many of the rationality/embodiment/gender conversations feminists have been having for decades. There is very little space, in the medical world, to account for the embodied experience I am having. I am constantly showered with opinions, stats, rationale decision-making, suggestions, ideas, recommendations. I am tired of rationality and I am tired of being told rationality is neutral. I am tired of being given stats and listening to numeric explanations. I want to shake some of these people, and ask them to stop trying to rationalize my body away. My body is here.
I am a body. A body marked female at a birth. A body that is supposed to have a pair of breasts. A body that has cancer growing inside one of those breasts. I am also a scholar, a partner, a friend, a kitten-foster, a writer, a dissertation candidate with an external identified for my defense, a lover of artichokes, a crafter, a world traveler, an organizer. But here in cancerland, my body is constantly assaulted with rational claims, claims that, even though they are about my body, deny my embodiment. The onslaught of claims are launched at me, the cancer patient, and the claimants mostly refuse to acknowledge me, everything else. So much is denied, and in the end, even my body as a cancer patient is denied, and I’m supposed to acquiesce to someone else’s mathematical calculation of what I need. Seriously.
Just this morning, I stood on a treadmill at the cancer-gym and prepared to start my cardio. A grad student came over (I’m part of a study and there are all these grad students/volunteers who run the exercise programs) and asked me if I wanted to try intervals. Actually what I wanted to do was read the book on my kindle, but what was I to say? So she stood there, and she narrated this whole story about knowing exactly what rate and incline I needed to get to a particular heart rate from my previous exercise test. She went on and on. And then she wrote this information down on a yellow sticky, smiled, and left me to do her perfectly calculated intervals. Stupid calculations. I didn’t get my heart-rate up to my target, even though I followed their calculations exactly. And worse? Then I didn’t get the work-out I wanted, so I was pissed off.
Who cares? Me. I care. I care that I cannot fit myself into a calculation.
As this grad-student-person’s words came at me, staccato and punchy and happy-happy, I willed myself not to roll my eyes. She has no idea. A calculation can’t account for the horrible cold I had during the test she is calculating from, or for my late-night Easter escapades, or for the fact that I only got on the treadmill at all because my cancerfriend was on the one next to it. A calculation can’t account for my body. It seems absurd as I write this, that someone would actually believe they could tell me how hard I should work to achieve a physical goal, from outside my body, doesn’t it? I mean how could she possibly have that information? Obviously, she didn’t. The calculations were wrong. I knew they would be from the second she stuck that stupid yellow post-it with the stupid smiley face on my treadmill. And that is how it always is. People telling me all kinds of shit about my body, that they apparently know because they are some kind of expert.
Any feminist can tell you that expert knowledge is situated, embodied knowledge. And that the person most situated, most embodied, most full of expertise about a body is the person living in that body. And yet- here I am, day in and day out, being denied expertise about my own body. People telling me, every single step of the way, that they know better about my own body than I do. The world of breast cancer is absolutely excellent at stripping from each patient her own set of relationships to her body, her knowledge, her epistemology. In this warped world, smiling and “helpful” people, fliers, information is available at every turn to share with me their particular expertise about my body. Not about their body. About my body.
My body is constantly being assaulted by these staccato pieces of information from “helpful” people. It’s not the doctors. Nurses. Family. Friends. Grad students. Do this, try that, maybe this, maybe that. I feel like a tin can, and each directive feels like a tiny bullet has been launched from a slingshot. My tin can is riddled with pings. It’s a battle of tiny assaults, a residual wearing down until I’d rather just hide my tin can somewhere away from all these helpful people. Most people have not even looked closely enough at the tin can to know what kind of tin it is, or how the light glints off of it in the late afternoon, or how it’s anchored to it’s base. No one else is inside the tin can, so continuing to ping me with slingshots only increases the ping marks, even if the pings are meant to help me rally back into a good-tin-can shape.
It reminds me of an old song, about a pile of tin… “I”m a little pile of tin, nobody knows what shape I’m in. Got four wheels and a running board, not a Chevy, not a Ford.” Yep, no one knows what shape I’m in. And so they try to ping me into the shape of an older woman with breast cancer. Fail. And so they try to ping me into the shape of a healthier young woman. Fail. And so they just keep pinging. And it’s beyond intrusive.
My body is tired and riddled with helpful, stupid, pointless, smart, weird tidbits everyone unleashes onto me all the time. And so when I think about my pending amputation, and how I shouldn’t care, it’s also like I don’t want to care, I don’t want to feel and know from inside this banged up and out of shape tin-can-body. I don’t want to justify that I’m not being irrational. Patriarchy is so seductive, and I’d rather slink out of this body and slither around without a body, only a mind, and then I can use patriarchy’s rationality to know that all is well. Knowing from my gendered body, knowing from a feminist place, knowing I am terrified to know in such a way that engages the breast to be amputated. Knowing that I am angry and it is easy to reach to my bookshelf and disappear in critical texts that explain things away. Knowing that I don’t want to do embodied, knowing that inside of me, misogyny is alive and well, embodied in my sometimes-refusal to engage with my body. Knowing that patriarchy is alive and well in the breast cancer world. Knowing that I will write from this embodied place, and that soon, I will write from another kind of body all together. Knowing.