So I had this revelation the other day that probably wasn’t actually all that revolutionary…in fact, I know it wasn’t because I’ve read this shit before. You know when you read something, maybe even write or say it, but then you finally get it? Like, it finally sinks into your body and makes you go, “OH! Holy shit, THAT’S what that means? I GET IT NOW!” It feels like you’re some sort of genius in the moment when that lightbulb goes on…but in reality, you’re just another person getting hip to some idea that’s already been kicked around by people far smarter than you can ever hope to be.
This post is exactly that.
A while ago, I had a patient that was acting up in my office. She was pacing around, vocalizing, climbing, touching things, falling on the floor…and her parent kept giving her instructions: “don’t touch the window!”, “don’t stand there,” “don’t touch the doctor’s papers!”, “don’t make that noise,” “don’t sit on the floor!”, “stop climbing on that!” I provided psychoeducation about how to place effective commands. I made some suggestions about how to phrase directions to help the child listen. I modeled effective demands. And, session after session, this continued. The child acted out and the parent told her all the things not to do.
One session, I tried a different tactic. The parent continued their litany of “don’t” and “stop” instructions, and I said, “you know, I’m really confused.”
The parent looked at me, skeptical.
“Kiddo is not supposed to stand there, not supposed to be by the window, not supposed to sit on the floor, shouldn’t climb on the table…I’m wondering where exactly she IS supposed to be right now? What is she supposed to be doing? Because honestly? There aren’t many choices left.”
“Sit at the table and play with the puzzle,” they answered (with an implied “duh!”).
“OH!” I said dramatically. “Can you tell her that?”
“Kiddo,” they said. “Sit at the table.” They handed her the farm animal puzzle. “Time for puzzles.”
“Time for puzzles!” chirped the child. And, lo and behold, she stopped climbing and yelling and falling on the floor and – she did the puzzle, at the table.
When we take something away, it creates a void that has to be filled. The parent was taking away the child’s options of activities, so she filled the void with tantrum and challenging behavior. When we filled the empty space, there was no need for her to fill the void. She knew what to do, knew how to get her caregiver’s attention in a positive way (by completing the puzzle), knew how to fill her time and space.
“My body is not wrong, my body is not shameful
if you don’t like what you see, turn around, turn around.
I’m dancing just for me, for this body I am grateful
If you don’t like what you see turn around, turn around.”
As a frequent reader of all manner of feminist materials and someone who hangs out with feminists pretty much all the time, this message isn’t a new one for me to hear. Hell, I’ve even written this message before. I’ve said it, heard it, sung it, written it so many times.
For some reason, though, this just hit me differently. I felt like someone had hit me in the chest. Oh.
This isn’t just a thing we say, I realized. This isn’t just a thing we write. It’s not just a message we speak in the context of WHY THE PATRIARCHY SUCKS or WHY BODYSHAMING AND RAPE CULTURE AND SLUT SHAMING ARE WRONG.
This is actually the thing we’re supposed to fill ourselves with. This is actually the thing we need to embody. This is actually the message I’m supposed to find a way to LIVE.
When I write it, it sounds so simple. Duh. Why else would we say it?
However, it is so easy to think of this message in terms of “this is the way we reject sexism/patriarchy/rape culture.” This is the way we say NO to body shame: by rejecting it.
But that’s only step one. Step one is naming and rejecting what you do not want. Step one is hollowing out the harmful messages and tropes we ingest from the day we’re born. Step one is scooping away the harm we have embodied.
And step two? Step two is embodying what you do want. Step two is filling yourself up with what you create. Step two is welcoming in everything the harm prevented you from knowing.
And THAT is the resistance. Living your created message, being filled with it, believing it so thoroughly there is NO ROOM for anything else. This belief needs to crowd your head, your body, your cells.
Yes, calling out and naming rape culture, body shaming, slut shaming, misogyny, the patriarchy – it is important. It is powerful. It is one way of reclaiming voice and body and spirit in a world where it sometimes feels you weren’t meant to survive, but this is only half of the journey. If we say no to those messages, we need something else to fill us up. Nature abhors a vacuum: it will find a way to fill us. If we do not fill ourselves, the dominant message will continue to pour into us. There is no other choice.
So, change has to come not only from rejection of the dominant paradigm, but also from the direct, purpose-driven, active, and personal intention of filling the void. This process of filling has to be constant: nature also loves homeostasis and will attempt to pull any and all outliers back to equilibrium. It is not enough to reject and articulate how you want to fill the space. You have to constantly create, and create, and create that reality.
I want to live in a world where black lives matter. It is not enough to reject racism. I also need to co-create a space in myself and my world where I fill the space racism took with anti-racist actions.
I want to live in a world where the lives of my transgender siblings matter. It is not enough to reject transphobia. I also need to co-create a space in myself and my world where I fill the space transphobia took with positive action.
I want to live in a world where female bodies and minds matter. It is not enough to reject sexism. I also need to co-create a space in myself and my world where I fill the space sexism took with empowerment and voice.
I want to live in a world where I believe my whole self is worthy. It is not enough to reject the stories that tell me I am not. I also need to create a space in myself and my world where I fill that space with my self.
We do not write, and sing, and speak only to reject that which we do not believe. We write, and sing, and speak to fill the empty spaces. We write and sing and speak to truly know everything the harm prevented us from knowing.
*Featured image at the top of this page is from https://mymodernmet.com/riveting-story-behind-that/. The statue is called “Expansion.”