I have been thinking frequently about trauma, about what perpetuates suffering and what supports the arduous journey of transforming traumatic experiences, especially in the aftermath of traumas of human design. The violation of bodies lies at the heart of such traumas. Thus, how we practice behaviors that refuse to denigrate bodies are critical and necessary to alleviating suffering and promoting the body’s dignity.
This idea of restoring the body’s dignity after trauma is magnified by the reality that trauma remains, stored in our bodies as a residual reminder of the traumatic event (s). Bessel van der Kolk reminds us, “The body keeps the score.”Reflecting on trauma, and thinking not only about the traumatized body but also about how we honor bodies, I wonder, “How do we symbolize the working through of trauma enacted on bodies? What symbols in our lives mark the processing of trauma?” This processing does not imply that we are free of the trauma itself but that we integrate the traumatic event in different ways into our lives. The memories – body or conscious – begin to loosen their grip, and triggers elicit less affect.
At the risk of asking more questions than I can explore here, I press on: when we chose symbols to represent the rejection of trauma – recollect Mary Daly’s Labrys, the sacred double-headed ax cutting through patriarchal myths to exercise women’s power – whose bodily dignity do we defend?
In probing how we might reject trauma on the bodies of the most vulnerable, along with keeping in mind the perennial inquiry about what makes trauma “trauma” in the first place, I recall a recent phenomenon that I think brings bodies and trauma to the fore: the wearing of the pink pussyhats at the Women’s March on Washington January 21, 2017.
The pussyhats, while having morphed into a symbol of solidarity related to the Women’s March, represent, at the heart, Donald Trump’s lewd comments made about women’s bodies to Billy Bush on Access Hollywood. “Grab them by the pussy,” Trump says. With money and fame, “You can do anything.” My spine tingles as I write these lines, just as deep sadness and nausea swept through me as I watched the video to make sure I quoted Trump correctly.
Did the man who was elected president actually say these words? He did. And while I’d like to respond in a way that declares his words are but an exception, in truth, this speak about women’s bodies is not rare. In fact, movies, advertising, music videos, the Internet, magazines, etc, etc, communicate that women’s bodies are accessible to the male gaze and reachable with the right combination of assets and skills. Trump’s declaration actualizes and supports sexual violence against women. And being grabbed by the pussy is a trauma. Trump’s words evidence that trauma.
Disturbingly, Trump’s comments echo the voices of many personifying what bell hooks calls “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy” and its presumption of power to own bodies – in this case, women’s bodies. If Trump, with his money and fame, can do anything he wants, including grab my most sacred, sensitive, vulnerable body part, then he can claim possession of my body. His words are at once a threat and a plundering of the most intimate self – interpreted in his conversation with Bush as a mere feature, up for “grabs” or belonging.
I reject this presumption. It angers me. Actually, it enrages me. Then I see the hats. Do they represent resistance against such “locker-room” banter that supports rape culture and encourages the ravishing of women’s bodies? How do the hats manifest as a symbol that rejects the mistreatment and abuse of women’s bodies by imperialism, white-supremacy, capitalism, and the patriarchy?
Watch sex educator Erika Hart speak at the Philadelphia March – topless with the scars of her double mastectomy visible. In her rousing speech she queries, “Who are the hats for?” Asserting that “black women, cis, and trans women, femmes, and non-binary individuals” suffer violence and body terrorism, she challenges those on the march wearing the pink pussyhats: do they represent ALL of us? Do the hats in fact work as a symbol that proclaims all bodies have dignity?
Madonna wore one (a black one). So did Jessica Chastain. The women on the View donned the hats on TV and at the march. The D.C. police showed their support wearing the hats. As did Cate Blanchett. The designers, Krista Suh and Jayna Zweiman, articulate that they chose the “loaded word” (pussy) for their projects because they wanted to reclaim the terms as a “means of empowerment.” They intend the hats as a way of honoring the body, and truth, and standing-up for human rights. Do the hats achieve this worthy message?
Besides Erika Hart, very few people, as far as I can tell, disputed the hats. Writer Shobhaa De, questioned the hats’ ability to get us any further for women’s rights. She argues, “Women’s voices get routinely ignored. Pink caps get us nowhere. They make good photo-ops, and that’s about it.” Yes, the hats were good for the photos.
Not wearing a hat, Angela Davis offers another viewpoint useful to consider. Perhaps the hats serve as evidence of a protest which is the starting point for becoming more “militant in our defense of vulnerable populations.” She makes a good point in a later piece of reflection on the march – we have to figure how to show-up. For each of us, this “showing-up” is different. What does it mean to show-up with a hat? Or without one?
In my opinion, to honor the human dignity of the traumatized, most vulnerable bodies, the hats must represent a way of working through trauma incurred on the body by human design. In order to promote empathy towards those who have been sexually victimized, the hats as a symbol of hope must provide an outlet of the fear and shame held in the body after trauma. Do the hats achieve this? Or do they more simply remind us of Trump’s quote, from which I think they cannot be completely dissociated? If that is the case, I see in the hats a message I would like to subvert.
Stephanie N. Arel is currently a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion (IBCSR) at Boston University working on the Sex Differences in Religion Project. Her teaching and research interests focus on the intersection of theology, psychology, and philosophy. She is the author of Affect Theory, Shame and Christian Formation (Palgrave Macmillan 2016) and co-editor of Post-Traumatic Public Theology (Palgrave Macmillan 2016).