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Body Talk: The female body as an instrument of knowing

Posted on March 20, 2012 by ari

I’m reading Clarissa Pinkola EstésWomen Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, an empowering and healing experience. This morning a passage made me cry in empathetic joy, so I thought I’d share it:

A friend and I once performed a tandem storytelling called “Body Talk” about discovering the ancestral blessings of our kith and kin. Opalanga is an African American griot and she is very tall, like a yew tree, and as slender. I am una Mexicana, and am built close to the ground and am of extravagant body. In addition to being mocked for being tall, as a child she was told that the split between her front teeth was the sign of being a liar. I was told that my body shape and size were the signs of being inferior and of having no self-control.

In this concurrent telling about body, we spoke of the slings and arrows we received throughout our lives because, according to the great “they,” our bodies were too much of this and not enough of that. In our telling, we sang a mourning song for the bodies we were not allowed to enjoy. We rocked, we danced, we looked at each other. We were each thinking the other is so mysterious-looking in such a beautiful way, how could anyone have thought otherwise?

How amazed I was to hear that as an adult she had journeyed to the Gambia in West Africa and found some of her ancestral people who, lo! had among their tribe, many people who were very tall like the yew tree and as slender, and who had slits between their front teeth. This split, they explained to her, was called Sakaya Yallah, meaning “opening of God” … and it was understood as a sign of wisdom.

How surprised she was when I told her, that as an adult, I had journeyed to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico and found some of my ancestral people, who lo! were a tribe with giant women who were strong, flirtatious, and commanding in their size. They had patted me and plucked at me, boldly remarking that I was not quite fat enough. Did I eat enough? Had I been ill? I must try harder, they explained, for women are La Tierra, made round like the earth herself, for the earth holds so much.

So in the performance, as in our lives, our personal stories, which began as experiences both oppressive and depressive, end with joy and a strong sense of self. Opalanga understands that her height is her beauty, her smile one of wisdom, and that the voice of God is always close to her lips. I understand my body as not separate from the land, that my feet are made to hold my ground, my body a vessel made to carry much. We learned, from powerful people outside our own United States culture, to revalue the body, to refute ideas and language that would revile the mysterious body, or that would ignore the female body as an instrument of knowing.

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