Elisa and Dorothea

Steinbeck, Mills, and the female body and mind

“In the kitchen she reached behind the stove and felt the water tank. It was full of hot water from the noonday cooking. In the bathroom she tore off her soiled clothes and flung them into the corner. And then she scrubbed herself with a little block of pumice, legs and thighs, loins and chest and arms, until her skin was scratched and red. When she had dried herself she stood in front of a mirror in her bedroom and looked at her body. She tightened her stomach and threw out her chest. She turned and looked over her shoulder at her back.” (John Steinbeck, ‘The Chrysanthemums’)

Women share a peculiar relationship with their bodies. Just as no outsider can gaze at a woman more admiringly than herself, simultaneously nobody can violate a woman's body as she can.
     The more I think about it, the more confused I am. On many occasions, I too have stood in front of the mirror either admiringly tracing the bones that stand guarding my lungs, or measuring the weight of my breasts. I like how soft and firm and white they look in contrast to my gorgeously dark nipples that center them appearing like ripples due to the crumpled skin. I have lovingly traced my own neck with my hands, in order to detect uninterrupted pathways that go right down to my legs, I have followed my veins that roll like streams carrying the sign of life, pumping the elixir that allows my heart to breathe. I have touched fine strands of hair growing between my legs and have myself felt a deep exhilaration. In those moments I have loved myself.

However, on other occasions, I have been cruel. I have tortured my body. I have tried to cut my skin and scrubbed myself violently while bathing and did not stop until I was bleeding. I've burned my hand with cigarettes and pulled my own hair. I've slapped my cheeks with great force and cried myself to sleep. I have criticized my own scars, tried to hide my own flaws as if I were ashamed, and thus insulted my efforts, prostituted my own growth as a woman.
     And I am sure all women have done both to themselves. But I don't understand why. Why are we so appreciative of ourselves at times while we treat our bodies as trash at other times?

Elisa, Steinbeck’s protagonist, too does the same. She punishes her body when she is rejected by a man. While Dorothea, in Twentieth Century Women, the 2016 movie written and directed by Mike Mills, with Annette Bening, reserves the mundane act of bathing as her moment to reflect upon life. In a sense both women employ their bodies as a weapon for inner growth. While one uses this weapon to prepare herself for the world, the other uses it to inflict wounds upon her own self. In a sense, all women contain within themselves both Elisa and Dorothea. However, the issues that we encounter with respect to Elisa seem to be on the rise especially in today’s day and age. The entire cycle of body-shaming is so twisted and negative, even addictive, that Women often unconsciously embrace this behavior as a lifestyle. But, the issue is so complex that I do not know who to blame and thus I remain perplexed as to how someone, who otherwise shares such a healthy relationship with her own body, can occasionally become so violent and ruthless.

If I am to think about all this more intently, I suppose this is exactly what both Steinbeck’s Chrysanthemums and Mike Mills’ Twentieth Century Women is trying to convey. By presenting us a spectrum of unconventional women both these texts are trying to express the idea that femininity does not limit itself to the clothes one wears or the way one acts or the profession one chooses or even the way one chooses to live his/her own life. Real femininity is about sensitivity that expresses itself in every situation. It is exactly this that we fail to extend, both when it comes to others and especially when it comes to ourselves. 

(John Steinbeck, The Chrysanthemums, 1937/ Mike Mills, 20th Century Women, 2016)

(Painting - 2015 - by Will Yu, Taiwan)

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