Trigger warning: This piece talks about sexualized violence and rape culture and it also deals with a white person’s process regarding feelings of guilt and shame in response to being called out. It’s possible folks of colour may not want to read this, especially if they are disinterested in engaging with the emotional labour of white folks with regards to racism. Which is, I feel, a totally reasonable boundary to hold.
“unapologetic. no small in her silence. no quiet in her thunder. she swallows oceans when she speaks, and hugs you like it ain’t nothing. like she didn’t just turn your body into molten liquid.
like fruit flies aren’t flying around where your head used to be.”
– Shirin Cameron
Pretty Girls Keep Their Mouth Shut
In kindergarten I was called “bossy”. At my elementary school graduation I won the leadership award. As I crossed the stage to give my speech, papers shaking in my tiny prepubescent hands, the boys whispered behind me, “the only reason she won is that she was sleeping with Mr. Walters”. In high school I was voted “talks the most” 2 years in a row and everyone let me know: that’s something I should be ashamed of. The clearest sense that my 14 year-old heart could make of the situation was that my ideas made me unpopular and what I should really be focusing on was my appearance and how desirable I was to the boys. They’d say things to me like, “you know, I know everyone else thinks you’re a bitch, but I think you’re pretty hot.”
I am a sagitarius with a leo moon and a sagittarius sun. I am no stranger to speaking my mind. I have a very open throat, energetically. I process with words. That’s why I’m a poet and an author. And why I’ve been well equipped for years of theatre, activism, facilitation and community organizing. My voice and how I take up space are some of my greatest gifts and one of my toughest challenges in terms of self love and compassion. Most people in my life, especially those who don’t know me well, think being outspoken comes easily to me. That it’s just a natural extension of how I am. And you know, they aren’t totally wrong. But often people don’t understand I have struggled with shame for how much I talk, and how much space I take up, basically my entire life.
And I know I’m not the only person who has navigated through the murky waters of feeling like their “too much”.
This past month I spent quite a bit of time doing harm reduction work. I do this work in the context of large outdoor gatherings and dance parties (as well as in community youth spaces and activist contexts). A large part of my work is being a trip sitter for people on unexpectedly intense psychedelic missions to the depths of their sub-conscious. Recently I was hanging with a bud of mine who took some acid and was having a more intense trip than she bargained for. She cycled through a lot of topics, as a person on acid is likely to do. And as she jumped from idea to idea – her truth pouring from her mouth as quickly as she could articulate it – she kept apologizing. Saying sorry for talking. Saying sorry for taking up space. Saying sorry for being the center of attention in her time of need.
In witnessing and comforting her I noticed, I was also witnessing and comforting a part of myself: the part of me that feels intense shame and judgement for the volume, content and tone of my voice.
This shame accumulates in my body and my spirit, telling me relentlessly: you are too much. no one will ever love you because you can’t keep your fucking mouth shut. no one likes you and no one ever will.
Sometimes the voices are louder than others, whispers as opposed to screams, but they are almost always there.
My Desperately Hiding Heart
For the past 7 years I’ve struggled with intense muscle tension, where my right shoulder is almost constantly tight. I think the tension has probably been there most of my teenage and adult life, but I was often quite dissociated, so, only my body really knows.
This tension is triggered to increase in severity when I feel stressed or exhausted. When I am in a situation that involves conflict, or unresolved interpersonal tension, or shame, I can feel my shoulder creep up towards my face. I can feel both my shoulders reach forward to allow my heart to cave in. In this state, if I drop into my body I can feel my heart seeking desperately to be protected. At it’s worst the tension will travel down my arms, into my arm pits, up my neck and across my head, even into my eyes. It’s kept me up nights; crying and writhing and popping muscle relaxers just to bring some kind of reprieve.
I’ve explored many different strategies to help with this pain. Yoga, acupuncture, reiki, herbs, massage therapy, energy healing. All of them have helped relieve the pain temporarily, but none of them have actually assisted my body to respond consistently in a more gentle way. Recently my new massage therapist told me that underneath the initial outer layers of tension in my body, there seems to be a mat of tension. A layer that keeps me contained and restricted. She advised me, “you might want to try allowing yourself to take up more space.”
Upon hearing this I actually laughed out loud. Face down on the massage table I could feel the tears and tightness of breath huddled nervously behind the laughter. This all seemed totally absurd to me. This advice ran counter to the discipline of every cell in my body. I could feel it so palpably; just entertaining the idea made me uncomfortable. I told her I’ve been told more times than I can count that I take up too much space. That I’m too loud and too much.
And now she’s telling me to take up more space. What kind of cruel joke was this?
Voice, Affirmation and Privilege
Lately I’ve been reflecting a lot on what it means to have a voice – and to use it. What it means to take up space. What it means to feel shame about speaking. What I’ve come to understand from processing all of this is that for me, speaking is a process of self affirmation. I speak because I am. I feel. I know. I understand. I question. I wonder. I need. I care. This process allows me to feel real. To understand myself. To understand the world. To make sense of things and to ask for help.
Where this understanding becomes most complicated is when I put it in conversation with how I understand my social location. I have lived most of my life as a woman – more specifically a survivor of gender-based sexual violence and I have white privilege. I am queer and gender non-conforming and neuro-a-typical and I’m a settler who is from a financially comfortable family. My identity is a tangle, like most people’s, of being oppressed and holding power over others. Of being told to “shut the fuck up” and that my voice is more valuable, important and worthy than the voices of, for example, people of colour. And then I’m given the same messages in the exact opposite way by activist and anti-oppressive communities. To be honest untangling all of this feels confusing as fuck most of the time.
And it’s undeniably related to how I understand call out culture.
In the times when I have been intensely and publicly called out I felt suicidal, which has not been a regular occurrence for me since I was in high school. I remember sitting in the acupuncturist’s chair, stifling my deep gulping tears and wanting more than anything else to not exist. To simply cease to take up space, especially space that others could judge as harmful. I was drowning in my shame and my guilt – in so much pain I could barely take care of myself, let alone actually meaningfully respond to the call outs.
This is the part where my truth becomes slippery, tangled, elusive and uncomfortable to talk about. This is where I feel nervous and tender and raw. So please, hear me out. Know that I am coming from a place of love. Maybe if you are also a white woman (former, current or hopeful) you’ll be able to take something away from this terrifyingly vulnerable admission. Here goes:
When I have been called out often it feels, in my body, indistinguible from being silenced within the context of rape culture.
Now, hear me out for a minute, because this idea is much more complicated that it seems on the surface.
From what I have observed, call-outs operate with intentional force to silence someone who is saying or doing something oppressive. That is their purpose and function: to check the behavior of people who are holding or reinforcing power in violent ways. And often, call outs are given in public and intentionally humiliating ways in order to hurt people and cut them down. I have received call outs that were so vicious, so cruel, so dehumanizing that they teared my life apart. These kinds of call outs are harsh, violent and often closely mimic the logic of and prison industrial complex: You did something wrong. Something is wrong with you. You don’t belong and you have no one you can trust or rely on. You are unforgivable.
These kinds of call outs are way more common than I think we want to admit to ourselves. I’ve given call outs like this. It gave me rush of power when I did it. I was passing on the trauma someone else had given to me, that’s how the cycle of abuse works.
That does not mean that I think call-outs shouldn’t happen, or that they are not fundamental to the forwarding of social justice agendas. Sometimes people need to be called out. I have needed to be called out. Especially on my racism, to help me check and reel in the entitlement that naturally flows from my whiteness. And i’m not arguing that those call outs need to be call ins or be gentle,. not at all. Sometimes calling out is part of survival. Sometimes people just don’t have the capacity to be patient and kind and gentle, especially when they are struggling under the enormous weight of oppressive power structures. And let me tell you, in my experience, the people who do manage that kind of composure are working much harder than most outsiders could ever comprehend.
And even though my minds understand the necessity of call outs, my uncomfortable realization remains the same: my body can not tell the difference between being shut-down in the context of a patriarchal rape culture, and how it feels to be aggressively called out (whether the call out is totally legitimate or unnecessarily violent).
Sure, my mind can tell the difference – and there is, undeniably, a difference. A monumental, tremendous difference. Anyone who thinks I’m arguing otherwise misunderstands the fundamental concept I am arguing. And yet, even with my mind firmly grounded in that truth, another tender truth is that my body registers the shame of being shut down or called out as the same physical pain in the epicenter of my shoulder. My energetic body registers the emotional pain of shame in the epicenter of my heart, no matter what triggered the feeling in the first place. My reaction to being called out and being shut down both make me collapse into myself. Both feel totally smothering, debilitating and counter intuitive to my desire to exist.
That is how shame and guilt work in my body.
And the way I hold onto that shame reinforces the net of tension across my body – holding me in and disciplining me to take up less space.
And I know I’m not the only person who has felt some version of this, because I’ve witnessed it over and over again. I see it in the people I do harm reduction work with and I see it with folks I offer mutual support, aid and solidarity to. And I see it in women all the time. Understanding this, knowing I am on some level constantly trapped in the box of feeling like I’m “too much” and I take up too much space, I have been pondering: how can I learn to hold my loud, fierce-femme self with the gentleness and love I so need to heal?
Re-imagining What it Means To Take up Space
Remember my massage therapist from earlier? Who told me I need to take up more space? Well, after I told her that I’ve been told for as long as I can remember that I talk too much, and I take up too much space she said, “That’s not what I mean. What I mean is our physical bodies are much smaller than our energetic bodies. That’s how astral travel is possible, our spirits aren’t limited by physical form. Allow yourself to take up more space. Fill a room. Feel a plant. Allow yourself to just be.”
I have been thinking about this every day since she said this to me. I’ve been breathing into my bodies. Physical. Energetic. Spirit. Taking up space with my breathe. With my right to be here. With my ability to listen, intuite, synthesize. Allowing myself to be: to speak, to feel, to be wrong, to be complex, to be conjuring faith, to be learning, to bathe in moonlight. And in this allowing I find myself more gentle, more patient, more able to understand the perspectives of others and witness myself compassionately. From this place I have come to a quiet, steady appreciation for myself.
A new, deep rooted and slowly sprouting sense of being real and believing I deserve to exist.
Holding myself with more open energy lets me see the mirrors and messages around me, reminding me that I am worthy of love. For example, at a party recently I ran into a friend who was having a conversation with my partner. They were talking about a mutual friend who reminds me of how I imagine myself to be as an adult. She’s a powerful witch with a vibrant energy who is valued and well loved in her community. It is a rare gift, I think, to have an intergenerational, real life role model.
Our friend was talking about how often this woman I look up to comes over to his house and speaks loudly while his partner needs to rest or has a headache. He spoke about how he would bring her outside and talk to her, to offer his partner some space – and then he said something like this:
“she is just so full of life energy, it just comes beams out of her. It’s really incredible to be around.”
When I heard this I was speechless. I wanted to cry and felt like I couldn’t move. And at the same time everything felt like a deep, sweet peacefulness.
What I love about his approach is that he didn’t erase how her presence can be challenging, but he still held the essence of who she is in a gentle, compassionate, appreciative and loving manner. His words demonstrate a way of understanding loud and powerful women/people that I often find challenging to access when I’m thinking about myself. And here it was, being mirrored for me.
It was incredibly healing to witness.
And you wanna know the most magic part about it? When I am showing up to listen to myself, to love myself, to wade in my feelings of shame in order to breathe through and release them, I become more discerning and more capable of gracefully hearing critiques, even call outs. I feel more capable of holding myself in such a way that I am not so easily paralyzed by shame. And I feel more capable of speaking up when men are attempting to silence me. I have a greater well of life energy to draw from when I am not constantly sitting in judgment of myself, penning myself in.
And I’m not perfect. This emotional process didn’t instantly heal me. It’s a practice.
every. single. day.
Just like breathing.
To close I’m going to share with you a quote from Starhawks book, the Fifth Sacred Thing:
“”You move like someone who’s never questioned her right to have a body. To exist, to breathe, to take up space. I’ve been watching you all night. It’s not arrogance, like the rich people. It’s not the hard, elegant gesture, like the Angels. It’s just-solid. Sure. As if you’d never learned to look down on someone or bend to someone who looks down on you. Oh, I’m jealous. When I look at you, I feel so jealous I could cry, or hate you. But I don’t. I would like, just once in my life, to be in a place where everybody stood and moved and walked like you.”
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