BY ALISHA EBLING
In a yoga class, on a Sunday, I’m sweating on my mat next to a man sweating on his mat. The class is difficult; an advanced level hot flow. The room is set to ninety-eight, but with the twenty or so bodies in the room, it’s well over one hundred. The man next to me may or may not notice me, and that is not my interest here, but I notice him. Not because he’s topless and has sweat dripping off what is surely a nicely structured back that I have full view of in Warrior Two, but because we’re an hour into class and he’s so far smacked me gently on the hand, stretched his body long enough to hover over my mat, and once (nearly twice?) kicked me in the head. He does this all accidentally, but without apology. When class ends and there’s the perfect opportunity to say “sorry,” to laugh at how crammed in we are, to joke about the craziness of attempting extreme poses in such a crowded class in the first place, he does none of these things. In the hallway, as we all exit, I listen as every female (roughly 95% of the class) apologizes for being in each other’s way as we all reach for our bags and coats.
There’s safety in this world for this man. He doesn’t need to fear moving through it in any way other than largely, loudly. This, of course, is privilege. And I wish I could be him. I wish I could be that comfortable taking up space in the world. I wish we, women, weren’t taught to constantly apologize for our existence.
Something else: I listen to NPR while I’m brushing my teeth, preparing my face for the day, and learn that men are more likely to succeed as entrepreneurs not because they are necessarily better at business or financials or leadership, but because they are willing to hear “No” one thousand times and still have the confidence to think, “I can do this.” Women, on the other hand, are more humble, more likely to take rejection personally. Thus, their presence is not taking up space in the business world.
When I was in middle school, I was tormented daily by a boy named Frank. Frank made fun of me because I was skinny. But Frank was skinny, too. The hypocrisy of this, never mind our skinny-obsessed culture, isn’t lost. When I say I was skinny, I don’t mean it to be flattering. This was not an attractive skinny. This was a super-flat-chested-rib-cage-poking-knees-nobbing-actually-pretty-gross-looking skinny. But I wasn’t trying to be skinny. I actually ate quite a lot, and quite a lot of terrible foods, in retrospect. Still, Frank had learned the term “anorexic” in some health class lesson and found it the perfect weapon to use against me. And I had nothing to retaliate with, because he’d made me feel small enough to believe that looking at my body was actually repulsive.
Around the same time, I was diagnosed with scoliosis. I wore a back brace at night, the creation of which involved a trip to a hospital in another state, a full body cast, and a strong adult male literally pressing his fist into the curve of my spine that needed to be straight. Fixing me. It was a terrible, painful, confining contraption that restricted my breathing but eventually straightened my spine without the use of surgery. In one of these hospital visits during the few years that I needed to wear the brace, a well-meaning male doctor, following an examination and with my mother in the room, put his arm around my shoulders and led me to a full-length mirror on a door. Gently, he asked me, “What do you see when you look in the mirror?”
In other words, Why are you so thin? You must want to be this thin, don’t you?
In the United States alone, 20 million women suffer from an eating disorder at some time in their life, double that of men. The best-known contributor to this is body dissatisfaction. By age six, girls especially begin to worry about their weight, and 40-60% of elementary school girls are concerned about their weight or becoming too fat, something that often follows through their entire lives. Just how many of these girls had been meant to feel small, asked to stay small, pushed to be unheard, is yet unmeasured.
There is nothing to hold her in place, nothing to whittle her smaller, writes poet Paula McClain.
I didn’t have a voice to articulate how much my own body frustrated me, or how small the doctor, just like Frank, had made me feel. Like there was something inherently wrong with me, where it was one’s job to point it out and the other’s to try and fix it.
I tried to eat more. I filled myself with Oreo’s, ice cream, chicken, bread. I ate Snickers bars, peanut butter cups, pizza. I ate until my stomach cramped, screamed Please, stop! But nothing happened. I simply couldn’t take up enough space.
In her 2013 spoken word poem, “Shrinking Women,” Lily Myers explores the phenomenon of women taking up less and less physical space by examining the women and men in her family. As she watches her mother drink wine out of a measuring cup while her father’s body bulges, she ponders: I wonder if my lineage is one of women shrinking, making space for the entrance of men into their lives. She considers how this burden has been passed onto her: I asked five questions in genetics class today, and all of them started with the word ‘Sorry’. Sorry for occupying deserved space, sorry for even believing it is deserved.
I first started drinking sometime a few years later. I attended a high school in a small rural community, and drinking and using were rampant from ninth grade on up. Those who didn’t were excommunicated from the social order. The only exception to this was a boy named Jeremy, who was kind and handsome and somehow treated like a deity for his decision to not touch a drop of alcohol. The girls who didn’t, however, were ignored.
The circle of friends I found myself in liked to drink. That their parents were the community’s doctors, dentists, businessmen, plastic surgeons, etc. did not necessarily factor into this decision, but it helped. In comparison to the relatively high poverty level that plagued other places in the county, these friends had money. Someone’s parents were always away: spending a weekend in New York, on a business trip in Chicago, on a vacation on an island. There were no shortages of large, empty houses with stocked liquor cabinets to spend a Saturday night.
Our favorite activity was to build a fire on the property of a friend whose dad sold somewhat bogus car warranties. This friend lived in perhaps the largest house any of us had ever seen. Around the fire we each took turns sipping from a fifth of vodka mixed with lemonade known to us as “The Jug of Life.” This wasn’t necessarily ironic; being drunk injected its own life force. It turned us into different, more interesting versions of ourselves. This was a version of myself I loved because she did not have to answer to me, my sober self. No matter how reckless she acted, it was somehow erased in the morning, because it was never me, it was always her. What happened during those long nights never mattered the next day save for the new inside jokes and knowing glances come Monday morning.
Truthfully, I loved alcohol. I loved the new status it gave me. I loved how confidently it allowed me to take up space: I could be loud, and no one would care, I could make a joke, and someone would laugh. I could cry over a boy who’d broken my heart, throw a chair at him on his friend’s back porch, and it was all justified. Alcohol was the medium that allowed me to fill up space.
I arrived at college—a large expanse in a city five hours away from home—having no positive way to exert the energy my newfound independence had given me. There was just no way to hinder the simple fact that I could drink whenever, wherever, and as much of a quantity as I wanted. Coming from a place where everyone drank until they passed out, I hadn’t yet developed a measure of what constituted “too much.” I simply drank until I felt good, and then continued to drink until the newer version of me appeared, and then I’d drink some more.
This other version of me had zero inhibitions. She would dance on a table and fall off of it and not find this embarrassing. She would drink some purple drink that had been mixed in a bathtub and handed to her by a guy she maybe recognized as being in one of her Gen-Eds. She would take shots of disgustingly cheap whiskey to prove that she could. She would sneak into bars before she was 21 and attempt to flirt her way to more drinks. She would suck tequila out of strangers’ belly buttons. She would let unworthy boys say awful things to her. This girl would drink until her legs gave out. Until her poor, forgiving friends were forced to find someone to carry her home.
If this girl could explain, she would tell you she felt beautiful, and confident, and she could let her cheeks turn red and her voice cry out and laugh and yell and argue about something she learned in her philosophy class and break down doors with her energy and fill all four corners of the room with how happy and wonderful and free she felt.
For writer Sarah Hepola, drinking is a God-shaped hole, a yearning, a hunger to be complete. Alcohol was this and more. It was to be full. To be noticed and acknowledged and welcomed. To not need to say ‘sorry.’
I wasn’t discerning in my alcohol choices: I drank vodka to get the job done. I drank tequila to prove I could. I drank wine to feel like a classy lady. I drank beer when none of these other options were available. I couldn’t reconcile how much I was drinking with how little my closest friends were drinking. Mostly, I was too drunk to realize that they were drinking far less than me. I took enough shots to keep up with boys three times my size. I needed to prove to myself that I was capable. I needed to prove to them that I was worthy of their time.
It sounds insane now, I know.
Joan Didion says we tell ourselves stories in order to live. Up until the point that it wasn’t, my story was that of the cool (re: non-self-pitying, non-self-analyzing) girl who could drink with the boys and still maintain cohesion in the rest of her life.
Once, I allowed a boy I didn’t care enough about parade me around at a party and tell his friends he was taking me home with him. I didn’t protest when he handed me a new drink before I’d finished the first one and encouraged me to keep up with him, even though he easily had 100 pounds on me. I simply gave in, followed him back to his room like he wanted. When the other version of myself emerged, lying in his bed and staring at the brown blooming stains the air conditioner produced on the ceiling, she didn’t protest. She just fell asleep.
There are countless images, frozen on digital cameras before smart phones, of this girl. Most of the time, she looks happy—red cheeked, puffy faced, mid-laugh, happy. I look at these images now and wonder how much of this happiness was real, and how much was just desperate to believe it.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, about four out of five college students drink, and half of those binge drink. Each year, students report negative consequences from their drinking, including: assault, sexual abuse, injury, health problems, suicide attempts, and most ubiquitously, academic problems.
I dropped from an A-B student in high school to a B-C student my first semester at college. I’d claimed Economics as a major because it was the only mildly interesting class I’d taken that year, aside from English classes, which I loved but was positive wouldn’t get me anywhere. But I didn’t care enough about Economics. I couldn’t study my way through a hangover the way my friends could. I could open the pages of a textbook and merely stare, wearing my headache and red eyes like some kind of badge. I was proud to be a drinker. I thought it said something about me, something that invoked coolness, or at least don’t-give-a-fuck-ness. School mattered less to me than how invincible I felt when I drank. My whole week was centered on waiting for Thursday, when it felt acceptable to start drinking again.
Lesly Jamison writes, We shouldn’t have to disclaim—I know, I know, pain is old, other girls hurt—in order to defend ourselves from the old litany of charges: performative, pitiful, self-pitying, pity-hoarding, pity-mongering. The pain is what you make of it.
By the winter of my freshman year, I was regularly drinking until I couldn’t stand. Once, I tripped while leaving a frat house and hit my face on the concrete. My first reaction was to cry out of desperate shame and self-pity. But I couldn’t let anyone know the true reason for my tears, so I let them think it was for physical pain. Though I wouldn’t feel anything until the next morning. Another time I nearly cracked my head open on the sidewalk after leap frogging over, not onto, the back of a friend who was determined to carry me home. I laughed then. The pain is what you make of it.
The story I told myself ended. It became clear the other version of me wasn’t so cool and sexy when she appeared. She had become sloppy. She was vomiting in upstairs bathrooms at frat parties. She was saying things to people she would later regret. She was losing large gaps in her memory: people she’d met, embarrassing incidents she’d partaken in. She was showing up still drunk to breakfast with her parents and aunt and uncle, who’d come from the other side of the state to see her. She was sneaking drinks alone and leaving parties to wander home without her friends. She was drunk texting, drunk calling, drunk showing-up-at-apartments. She was changing: her clothes no longer fit, her cheeks were permanently red, on a trip home she was asked by her mother why her face had grown so puffy. She was steadily noticing she was no longer the center of attention. There were other women who didn’t drink quite so much, who looked at her with pity. These were the women that boys fell in love with. She wasn’t getting the boys to fall in love with her, just merely to like her enough to get her to stay the night. And yet she still valued boys’ attention as the measure of herself. It was no longer perceived as attractive and fun for a woman to be drunk, instead a means to an end. And here you were thinking ugly only got as loud as you let it, writes poet Paula McLain.
My pursuit to fill up space wasn’t just one of drinking, it was a slow turn toward acting in the culturally normalized behavior of men, but which is not culturally normalized behavior for women. But I could see now that I was floundering. Sober, I was meant to answer to this girl and her weekend behavior, but I found I had no words.
Pain that gets performed is still pain, Leslie Jamison reminds us. My pain was on display, loud and ready for anyone to view it. In my quest to become bigger, I’d become pain performed. I’d become voiceless and small. Infinitesimally, microscopically, impossibly small.
In one of their earlier studies, the husband and wife team of Richard and Sharon Wilsnack found that “those girls who rejected conventional ideas of female behavior tended to drink more.” Subsequent studies concur: even removing the effects of gender roles, the gap between male and female alcohol use narrows. The studies show how alcohol excess is viewed as normal for the “masculine” stereotype, and problematic for the “feminine” stereotype. The question here becomes, what is the conventional “feminine” stereotype? Is she quiet? Reserved? Unassuming? Does she take up space? Is it too much for us to see her suddenly loud, boisterous, declaring herself?
Why must we harm ourselves in order to be heard?
In a class on memoir, now my junior year of college, I confessed to my professor, a poet, that I majored in Econ but hated it. I confessed that I loved writing but couldn’t make a living off of it. She asked me why I believed this. She asked me why I would pursue something I didn’t like.
In other words, What are you trying to prove?
I like pleasure, says a female protagonist in Mary Miller’s short story “Not All Who Wander Are Lost,” I’ve just developed this whole detachment thing because I’ve been protecting myself for so long.
And like that, a light turned on. It seemed to me that my choice of study was just another example of me detaching myself from my true desires, trying to prove myself worthy to someone or something else—this “other” that loomed large and dictated my decisions. But now there was something ahead of me that had purpose, something that I desired and couldn’t possibly care what it meant to anyone else. I stopped taking Econ classes the next semester.
We tell ourselves stories in order to live. And now, my story was changing.
Soon after, at 21, the drinking slowed without much fanfare, and at the same time, writing took over. Friday nights were no longer spent dancing wildly in a dirty basement with a boy’s hands all over my flailing body, because a hangover-free Saturday morning meant more clarity to write. A small wine buzz on a Saturday evening supported a short story far more than vodka-induced drunken scrawl. With writing, I had power, and a voice. I could fill up blank pages with my words. While reading my work aloud in a small seminar, I could fill the air with the sound of my voice. I could have an opinion, could debate a text. I could find a way to examine myself and those in my life, could filter them through the page. I could naturally take up space.
I think of all the ways I’d been made to feel small, by both my own doing and by others. I think of my desperation in butting against this, to make myself bigger, to be loud, to be heard and seen and felt. I think of all the ways I’d come down from this artificial confidence, only to be met head-on with my own smallness. There is nothing to whittle her smaller. And it’s true it’s exhausting to even talk about. It’s a loud shrug of the shoulders, an eye-roll and a sigh, to complain about not being heard or seen or feel worthy. We don’t want to seem petulant. We don’t want to repeat ourselves. We don’t want you to hear us repeating ourselves. We just want the same respect given to the other half of the population.
I’ve found a way to be loud, to be present and unapologetic when necessary, to be comfortable in my space and confident enough for others to acknowledge it. I don’t need the other version of me to do this. I can be present when I’m angry. I can yell. I can cry when I’m upset. I can laugh until the room shakes. I can speak my mind, shout my opinions, write about it. I can have a say.
But back to my sweaty yoga man. I can’t be mad at him for his confidence, for his space taking, for being so comfortable with his own body that he can forget others’. Because space taking is something we all deserve. Some of us just have to work a little harder to get it. Some of us just have to break down some doors.
Alisha Ebling lives in Philadelphia. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Head & The Hand Press: Breadbox Chapbook Series, Bangalore Review, Crabfat Literary Magazine, Stockholm Review, Dhaka Tribune: Arts & Letters, Apiary Magazine, as well as anthologies in Philadelphia and Oxford, U.K. She holds a Master of Arts in Creative Writing from Oxford Brookes University in Oxford, U.K. She was a 2015 Resident of Art Farm.