Nineteen Voices: Part of Me, Not All of Me
Welcome to Nineteen Voices, Shakti’s blog post series on body image healing! I’ve got some stuff for you to think about before reading.
Nineteen Voices started out as talking to women about their bodies and has morphed into a discussion on patriarchy, race, love, exhilarated living, prana, parents, rebellion, fear, white privilege, diet culture, comparison, sexual assault, eating disorders, grief, forgiveness, and deep, scarring wounds.
It’s impossible to condense an entire woman’s story into a fashionable sound bite or blog post. Hold each story within the context it was born into and within the context of something bigger.
Nineteen Voices is not representative of the entire female experience. My experience is not representative of what marginalized groups experience on a day to day basis.
My goal is to uplift women’s stories, NOT minimize, compare, or rank women’s trauma on a scale of 1 to 10… and, in the same hand, understand that specific groups of people experience this trauma on a systemic, institutionalized level.
This series is messy, sticky, & grey. I’m not going to get it right! You can listen to my story (as an able-bodied, cisgendered, white woman) and find solace while advocating, for example, for the safety of Native American women (Natives are 2x as likely to experience sexual violence compared to all races1), trans women (Transgender women are estimated to face more than 4x the risk of becoming homicide victims than the general population of all women2), and people of color (Police violence disproportionately affects young people, and of those affected, a disproportionate amount of POC3).
Set aside at least 15-30 minutes to read the post -- set aside another five for self care
I am writing this series to show women that they aren’t alone, that we never know the whole story, and that vulnerability heals, saves, and creates.
Many of these women you’ve met at the studio or seen around. You’re going to learn things about them (about me) that will change how you see us. In that way, we all had something to lose. Keeping our courage in mind, I invite you to read (or listen) with an open heart. To believe. To mourn the losses, grieve the traumas, and get fucking angry right alongside us. Breathe it all in. Don’t shy away from what it brings up for you.
We love you.
Part of Me, Not All of Me
*Keep yourself safe: this blog post contains recounts of sexual violence, miscarriage, eating disorders, and intimate partner violence.
Let’s talk about Shame. With a big S. What does Shame feel like in your body? Take a few moments to feel that. (Really, do it.) For me, it feels like an almost-crying, sick feeling in my throat. Like my heart all of a sudden weighs 100 pounds. Plus all of the physical stickiness that comes with confusion, doubt, and disgust. Shame and its accompanying sensations creep around specific parts of my story. Especially parts of my past that feel foreign.
It feels like some other girl living inside of me went through these bad things and now sits at the back of my mind, piping up every once and a while to remind me, “Hey, this bad thing happened, remember?” Soon to follow is a bombardment of memory that I haven’t thought about in ages. Stories that I never “marked” in big red ink, TRAUMA! ASSAULT!, are now flipping through the front of my mind in cutting, blurry, surreal, and visceral detail.
My first experience like this came my senior year of college during CranioSacral Therapy (kinda like Reiki). I realized that I hated to have my shoulders touched because an ex-partner gripped my arms when he yelled at me. Through the aversion to touch, I recognized a piece of my past that I’d completely blocked out. But now, I had the label of someone who’d experienced intimate partner violence. A label I did not want.
More recently, in the two-or-so weeks with the Kavanaugh hearings, two memories resurfaced, both instances that I now categorize as non-consensual. Originally, I wrote out here a brief description of those memories, but they felt identifying. And I’m not ready for the consequences of putting that information on a public platform. (Leaving me feeling cowardly, weak, and ashamed.)
It feels confusing to share that. Because, 1) I’m worried my colleagues, parents, peers, and students will see this and judge me/find me unprofessional/deem me an “oversharer;” 2) I’m not ready to share my abusers’ names, so I don’t deserve to share how they affected me (false!); and 3) Because my trauma doesn’t feel “big enough” to share.
More on #3. My inner voice looks like this: He didn’t slap me, so the abuse wasn’t “that bad.” I only had two or three memories of him emotionally manipulating me, so I shouldn’t be that upset about it ... Well, I was in a relationship, so it was probably just “a bad hookup.” Am I even remembering it correctly? ... Maybe that night wasn’t “sexual assault” and I’m just “working it up” so I can feel more justified about how disgusted and violated I felt.
So, when I went into these two conversations with Emily and Jaclyn, there’s my context. A deep, nasty part of me yelling that my trauma wasn’t “good enough.” That I should be ashamed of what I went through, but not too ashamed.
These conversations pulled me into an entirely new way of thinking.
“We're both a work in progress and perfectly complete all at the same time… You aren't your story, you aren't the bad things that have happened to you. You're carrying them.”
-- Emily Nicholos
The first time I connected with Emily Nicholos was after a yoga class. I had noticed her crying in savasana (who hasn’t been there, am I right?), and we ended up talking for a few minutes about her experience. She shared with me that she’d had a daughter, Dakota, who was stillborn, and a meaningful anniversary was coming up. Emily talked to me about her body journey, so months later, I was ecstatic when Emily decided to share for the blog.
Emily has this way of talking that makes you feel safe. She’s gentle but focused. She embodies surety when talking about her past. So I wasn’t surprised when I asked her about emotions she felt surrounding the interview, and she responded, “The idea about my body and my story is constantly evolving. So I’m curious about what will come up today… Remembering that I’ve done the work to think through and it never ends, but the big parts of my story are ready to be released. They’re doing more good out… I don’t feel too much fear.” Her words felt like one big, “I got this. You got this. We got this!” plus a hug on the side.
To give you some context, Emily has shared Dakota’s story at a Rabbit Box telling, but she says that “Dakota is one piece. And to articulate the portions of my story about embodiment and coming home with my body, those are things I don’t share.” So that’s where I want to hone in while still paying tribute to the importance of Dakota in Emily’s life. “The conversation about how we nourish ourselves and how we take care of ourselves seems so relevant to me,” Emily says. “The rules we're applying further this separation between ourselves and our minds and our bodies instead of bringing those closer together, and I think that's where actual healing and community happens.” Nailed it.
But Emily hasn’t always felt this at peace with her body. “So I never paid attention to anything with my body except for hating it.” Emily swam in high school and was an active kid, and she felt like she was feeding herself in a way most kids at that age do. But a switch flipped. “I remember at some point being like I am eating too much, but I don't feel willing to give that up, but I do feel willing to exercise. So not only was I swimming six times a week, but on Sunday nights I'm going to run. And that became this shift...punishment for the deeds and misdoings of the previous week.”
Most of the women I interviewed shared a similar narrative. A “making up for” mindset. Emily’s next words hit home for me: “Shame is the consistent motivator for not paying attention to what we're putting in our bodies or the scripts inside of our mind.” Shame with a big S.
And Shame motivated Emily to look a certain way. Emily described her arms and stomach as “her two,” the parts of her body she would check on. “Depending on what it looked like, I got a green light or red light. And then I adjusted according to that. I remember I would have breakfast and then at lunch I would have a bar and that was it. My body was something that I told what to do. I would go without my period for six months and I was like, that's awesome. I had a lot of pride in that.”
At this point, Emily was engaged to her then-fiance, and he asked her how much she’d eaten that day (a banana, more or less). “It was an unhealthy relationship, so this wasn't a conversation had in safety or in a place where I felt like I could be vulnerable.” When she shared, “It upset him a lot, and I remember thinking, that upset to you? You either get this version of me that's not eating, or a different version of me that I'm not sure you're going to love as much. One that has more flesh to her.”
And then Emily became pregnant. “That's the moment where my body turned up the volume. My body was like, ‘We need things, we will tell you that we need things, and we will not stand for you to not listen.’” Emily’s pregnancy was complicated, and she wasn’t allowed to exercise. That caused a lot of anxiety, which looked like: “What will this mean for my body, will there be more of me? I was growing another human being inside of me, and yet I didn't want there to be more of me. Those things don't go together.”
Throughout her pregnancy, Emily had a lot of concern over eating enough. “That was attached to some blame, like our daughter's sick because you're not eating enough, and so that was the perception, that shame around not that I wasn't eating enough or not eating correctly, but that I didn't have it figured out what was healthy enough.” Emily was gaining weight and was getting full from what she was eating, but still. That shame lingered.
“And then I woke up in the morning with this pain, that I later find out are contractions, and four hours later I’m at the hospital and they’re telling me there’s no heartbeat and I have to birth this child that’s not alive. So I still have to go through this process, but the ending isn't the same as everyone else’s. And so in birthing Dakota--and then after, I mean my placenta was so unhealthy that it’s a birthing process of its own--I felt like my body was broken, and even at breaking, it still didn’t do what it was supposed to.”
I’ve never been pregnant, and I can’t begin to imagine the effect this had on Emily’s life. Even now, trying to write and connect the dots of her story, I’m left blank, wondering how someone could go through a loss so deep and bodied and be sitting in front of me, continuing on.
Immediately after giving birth to Dakota, Emily developed a severe pain in her back and became septic. She fought the infection for the next six days. At that time, she describes being relatively unaware of how serious it was. Luckily she healed, and after leaving the hospital, Emily went to a chiropractor for the back pain, which the doctor suggested was an emotional rather than structural wound. For Emily, this felt like the beginning of her mind-body connection. “I think for the first time, I could acknowledge that I wasn't safe in my body and my relationship with my husband. So after Dakota passed, I left that relationship and decided to get divorced. I could feel in my body--it wasn't like a big explosive episode--simply, ‘I’m not safe.’ And it was only then, in that moment, that I had tools and the awareness and the strength to say that I need to take care of myself.”
Tools. Awareness. Strength. A connecting and coming together of everything Emily had undergone to feel safe. That moment for her, I imagine, felt like an incredible support that allowed Emily to continue her journey. Free. “I would say the first time I felt truly embodied was a month or two ago. That feeling of being so at home and at peace with myself, it was a new equilibrium. Authentic Movement was like counseling for my body, being able to move and then using our voices as this conduit through which we can release. It's beautiful in the same way that we all meet at the end of yoga. Not understanding cognitively what's happening, but allowing it to flow through me.” So often yoga feels this way: a transformation occuring from the strange, graceful, powerful movements we do each class, but still feeling like something changed. “What it released was deep sadness, which then leads me to a place where I have more consistent joy that's less associated with a rock bottom or a high.”
It’s hard to feel small after talking to Emily. Her style of empowerment is an embodiment in itself, and I’m so grateful for her presence at Shakti. “The amount of heartache and frustration that I've had over a quarter inch here or there… What wasted energy. And not only from energy that I could’ve given to myself, but love I could have given to someone else. And that's a great tragedy, and yet now a great opportunity to change the script because there is so much energy and goodness to share. Emily, there's wind in your sails. If you wake up and you assume and presume and act as though there's wind in your sails, how will that change and move you forward?”
After talking with Emily, I felt the wind in my sails. I described that feeling to her as “being held,” like the universe was guiding and cherishing my journey. In this sharing, in these moments of feeling raw, vulnerable, and uncomfortably open, I remember Emily’s words: “The more we share, the more we collectively heal, understand, and have compassion.”
“If I can show love for myself and convey that with my words for other people, for students... I hope they can have an experience of getting present to their bodies.”
-- Jaclyn Nolan
Jaclyn and I started out our interview talking about white feminism (more to come on this in later blog posts). Jaclyn had an idea to lead a women’s empowerment yoga class, but she was feeling like it wouldn’t land, like she wouldn’t be able to create an environment for that growth to happen. She wanted to be deep in the work, authentic in her sharing, and representative of her truth. Understandable that she was nervous about the undertaking!
But it’s funny, because when I think of Jaclyn, I think of subtle, spunky, honest empowerment. I think, Hell yes, LEAD that women’s empowerment class! Jaclyn’s a lecturer AND a yoga teacher, not to mention incredibly intelligent, hilarious, and loving. Plus she kicked fear to the curb to talk to me about an incredibly personal part of her story. “Right when I saw your post on Instagram I was like yes, sign me up! And then last night, I started getting nervous and was like...I should cancel.” I asked Jaclyn what she was nervous about, and she responded, “Sharing things that are hard to talk about. Even though I'm open to talking about them. Worried that it’s going to be harmful to me, while also knowing I'm equipped to do it. The reason I said yes was because I know that a lot of my story is not unique, and if I do this then maybe that's one small thing I can do to tell someone that they're less alone or their body story deeply resonates with my own. That we're okay.”
At this point, I knew Jaclyn had something important to share. It’s hard to convey the way Shakti’s office space felt in that moment; part of me thinks there is a deep knowing between women when energy takes a shift towards big. I told Jaclyn that it’s okay, she’s safe, she’s right here, right now. And if you need those words, reader, take a moment for yourself, too.
Jaclyn and I talked for a few minutes about her trepidations, and then we moved into conversation about her discomfort growing up around being tall (“I always wanted to be petite!” Jaclyn said, and 5’1” me is thinking, “I always wanted to be tall and elegant!”) and looking different than the mid-90s beauty standards. At this point, I felt like there was a story beneath the story warming up.
When I asked Jaclyn about life after high school and what that looked like for her body, that story rose to the surface. “For me,” Jaclyn said, “my body story was when I was in college and I turned 21. I was in Australia studying abroad and I had a good time. I can say that honestly and authentically and mean that. Um, but when I was in Australia, um, it's hard to say.” It feels important to include the exact language Jaclyn used. I want you to know and see in her words that this was not easy for Jaclyn. She continued, “When I was studying abroad in Australia my junior year, I was raped, and that event fundamentally shifted my relationship with my body.”
I nodded, felt, and let Jaclyn continue. Nothing I could say could ease the pain. Nothing I could do would change what happened to her, would take away the hurt. So Jaclyn shared.
“Before, my self esteem wasn't high. I didn't like being tall. I didn't think I looked beautiful compared to these other standards. I wanted to get out. So I got out, I got a little bit more confidence. Is it total self love and acceptance? No, but it was a young woman doing her thing. That event changed my relationship to my body so, so deeply. It rocked me to my core. Of course it's the trauma of going through it, but the aftermath was really hard on me. I can remember the next day looking in the mirror and feeling like I wanted a new body. I wanted to live outside that body that had that experience, that event.”
Wanting a new body. Jaclyn didn’t want to be in the body that had experienced something incredibly traumatizing, and she would anything to leave that body behind. To me, that’s rational as hell.
“I started engaging in a lot, a lot of disordered eating. I started to abuse exercise almost immediately, like next day. I lost a lot of weight. And that was how I dealt with that. I remember a lot of counting. Like this many crackers or I won't eat this...having a lot of rules and those rules became a way to get through it, a way to keep it a secret.”
I related hard to this. When my eating disorder was at its height, I refused to eat cooked food before 4pm. I wouldn’t eat chicken, oats, or pasta ever. Hearing Jaclyn put her disordered eating into the context of her trauma put together a few puzzle pieces together for me, too.
“I came home and my mom was like, ‘You're so thin, what happened?’” Here, Jaclyn did a fantastic impression of her mother, another instance of her making me belly laugh seconds after feeling like my heart was being stretched up-down, side-to-side. Laughter subsided, and Jaclyn shared that her mother threw out guesses at what could be wrong, finally landing on rape. Her mom did the best she could to help, but, “I was living at home and keeping it inside. That was really all I felt like I wanted to do. I didn't go out. I don't know, I must have seen my friends. I don't really remember. I was so focused on having that new body. It became a full time job.”
I asked Jaclyn how going back to school affected her disordered eating, and she remembers being deeply within the “trauma of it all,” still engaging with disordered eating and exercise behaviors. But she remembers relationships she had during that time fondly. “I was letting a few friends know what happened, and I had good support in that way. I was learning this technique where someone would say your full name: they'd be like, ‘Emily Unwin, you are safe.’ And I can remember them doing that for me, which is so huge.”
And since then? “I don't think I'm gonna wake up one day and be like, oh, I'm okay now. But [the trauma] has been through a series of stages. Coming to terms with saying the words ‘I was raped,’ this happened to my body, being acutely aware of a lot of really bad choices I made [in regards to secrecy, disordered eating, abusing exercise, etc.]. Slowly it becomes a part of your life. I learned to carry it with me in a way where it wasn't everything. But that's taken a really long time and I think in that learning, that whole original idea about needing another body, has dissipated.”
About two years passed until Jaclyn felt like the “raw” trauma morphed into a “deep wound.” During this time, and to this day, the actual memory of the rape shifted, as well. “When certain parts of it started to fade, that got scary too. Forgetting something I used to recall in great detail and thinking ‘Oh, I'm losing it,’ which intuitively should feel like a good thing...Living outside of it felt at once like something I wanted, but it was a scary thing, too.”
With the passing of time, healing made its way into Jaclyn’s life, and she met her now husband. “I'm really grateful for that because I was like, this rape has ruined me. I'll never be capable of having that kind of relationship, receiving that kind of love. I couldn't believe I had met this person who wanted to love me when I felt so unlovable, still working to connect to my body in a way that was healthy.” Finding love helped Jaclyn heal, but the echoes of the trauma and subsequent coping mechanisms are still felt. “It's an unraveling. I recognize that person, a woman who made those choices, but I no longer feel like I have to give energy to that. But I certainly still catch myself taking a log. But it’s not as sharp, and I know that I’m going to be okay.”
Jaclyn has shared some of her yoga story with me, but I’d never realized that, for Jaclyn, teaching yoga was a way of self-love. “If I can show love for myself and convey that with my words for other people, for students... I hope they can have an experience of getting present to their bodies.” Teaching from a place of honest, authentic love for herself, Jaclyn makes a differences in her students’ lives.
But for Jaclyn and, I imagine, millions of other women, making a difference doesn’t stop with our inner healing. It cascades out into movements, politics, and revolution. So, I asked Jaclyn about the Kavanaugh hearings, about #MeToo, and feminism.
“Everything that's happening with #MeToo… it’s taking me back. It’s making me feel like I should talk about it out loud because I know that I'm not alone. It's an awareness of how deeply connected I am to other survivors. I’m connected to a whole group of people I don't even know. You're in this special group you don't want to have a membership in. But I carry it with me. It's not all of me anymore.” With that membership comes the question, the self-doubt: “Am I surviving this in the right way?”
In recent weeks, I’ve tried to categorize, dictionary-define, and compartmentalize what I’ve been through. I’ve flip-flopped between sharing my experiences and bottling it up. And I keep wondering the exact same thing Jaclyn, does. Am I doing this right? Deep in this work comes my old habits, old exhaustion, old Shame.
I shared a story about my eating disorder voice to Jaclyn. I’d eaten a scone (previously one of my “off limits” foods) the day before and had a mini celebration about it. And I was excited, hell ya, but I also felt unbelievably frustrated that a fucking scone has so much meaning and work surrounding it. Jaclyn explains how this shows up in her life: “Why do I have to work hard at this? I survived. I survived that rape. Why do I have to do anything else? Even just saying that doesn't sound rational, I know that's not speaking in an empowered way. But I catch myself doing it. Sometimes it feels like kinda good to go there.” It feels really good to go there. I asked a similar questions during the Kavanaugh hearings: Why does Dr. Ford have to do anything? How fucked up is it that she has to sit there and recount her assault in front of a room of people itching to tear her apart?
Jaclyn felt strongly about it, too. “He's going to get confirmed like no problem.” (I interviewed Jaclyn a week before Kavanaugh was confirmed. So. Yeah.) “He will be in this high position of power, and we're saying we're okay with it. Why can't we honor her for coming forward? Why can't we believe her without it having to be this huge circus?”
“It doesn't matter how much time has gone by. You remember. I remember. I remember his blonde hair. I remember his red shirt. I remember his khaki pants, his black shoes. You remember. And even if you don't, putting her on the defensive feels so wrong, and it hits me with charge. It takes me back to being in this dorm room in Australia.”
And how does Jaclyn feel? “It makes me feel angry. It makes me feel sad that we can't just treat this person with dignity and respect. It makes me feel like we need to keep talking about it.” I asked Jaclyn what it would be like if society supported victims. “Can we just make it a fact. We know these things happen, we need to breathe life into it. Let's listen to her story. It's not hard. Maybe I wouldn't be a statistic then; you know, I didn't report it. We have all the structural conditions we need to make it as simple as the air we breathe, and it would become so much more easily speakable.”
I told Jaclyn that when I heard about Dr. Ford being in academia, the first thing I thought was, Wow, she’s so fucked for work. I felt a rush of shame from that. I didn’t think, What a terrible thing. I feel so sorry. This is a tragedy. First thought, first instinct, was that her career was now torn to shreds. I’m not sure where that comes from in myself. Maybe my own terror around job security when speaking out vulnerably. Maybe it was my own defensive mechanism at how terrible and excruciating her experience was. But my first thought wasn’t rage at Kavanaugh, sorrow for her grief... it was fear for her career. I’ll be unpacking that for a while.
“What if that was me?” Jaclyn said. “What if I was really verbal about my story and I went back to work?” I asked Jaclyn if she had similar fears about this blog post. “I thought about it. Yeah. Even when I left, I said bye to Pete, and I wasn't like, ‘Bye. I'm going to go talk about this rape and my body.’ I said, “I think I might be talking about some really hard things.’” The fact that Jaclyn did decide to share with me is a testament to her courage. Reflecting on her words, on her strength, I feel immensely blessed to have Jaclyn in my life.
“I'm imagining you sending a message,” Jaclyn confided. “My heart's going to skip a beat. Holy Shit. But it's not the nervous feeling I had before coming to talk to you. It feels exciting. It makes me feel valid. It makes me think, What could I be capable of? Look at all of our stories.”
What could you be capable of?
Healing and moving forward
I interviewed 18 women on their body image story. My own coming to terms and my own integration of these interviews took all of me. All of my emotional energy, all of my patience, all of my generous listening. By the end, I felt exhausted. Exhausted, and so m-f*cking awake.
Not only to my own integration (shame, labeling, being enough), but to the horrors, beauty, longevity, teachings, passion, gifts, love, and resilience of humans. Of these nineteen women, myself included.
There are parts of me I haven’t integrated as “Emily Unwin.” Emily Unwin: yoga teacher, master’s student, writer, and... victim? That last bit stills feels undeserved. Uncertain. Like what I experienced wasn’t enough to “count.” But I’m not alone. I know that deeply in a way that I hadn’t experienced before talking with these 18 women about things that really matter. We are all going through intense hardships. We are all feeling.
No one person is better. No one’s experience is “more deserving” of pain. Dropping the comparisons and standing in our strength takes the power away from whoever dares challenge us.
In the end, my healing is happening in waves, releases, and layers of good/bad, happy/sad, joy/grief. And what I’ve found, at least right now, is that I need something in between the duality. It's not positive or negative. It's compassion, an inherent neutral. Understanding, loving, and giving to myself in a way that expects nothing.
Maybe I don’t need to be done with Shame. Maybe my trauma doesn’t need to be enough, be “correctly labeled” to anyone except myself. Maybe those labels don’t define me, even if the experiences make up who I’ve become.
Maybe we don’t have to feel, or act, or be a specific way.
What if we all set our raw, vulnerable stories wild?
What would be possible?
If Emily and Jaclyn can put something on the line, we can, too.
Every single resource UGA offers for victims of sexual assault and partner violence: https://eoo.uga.edu/sites/default/files/sar_resources_chart_1.pdf
More information on the US’s government’s failure to protect Native women: https://www.amnestyusa.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/mazeofinjustice.pdf
A beautiful proclimation: http://hillarylmcbride.com/dear-body-im-sorry-i-love-you/