Words by Delilah Kealy-Roberts
Art by Daisy Macari
The unknown is also the unseen; the avoided, the obscured and the denied. We can learn to ‘unknow’, closing the shutters nice and tight and filtering out the slightly distasteful. We can, and we do. The unknown is selective, it is “eww too much information” and it is pretending we are above the human bodily elements that, let’s be honest, affect us all. It is choosing to see the pretty, airbrushed picture and locking the grizzly reality nicely away in a box.
What I want to talk about is the (chosen) unknowns of the body: the flesh and blood and gooey bits that make us human. The ‘gross’ parts behind the pretty faces, the burps and farts and shits, the gluttony and the sweat, the body hair and the periods, those human elements that- in the face of society- we have chosen to unknow. Ok, that was a sweeping statement, we haven’t chosen to unknow universally… of course we’ve decided to focus specifically on photoshopping the female experience. We have denied the gluttonous woman, the belching woman and the hairy woman; I would like to reintroduce her, she is called the Rabelaisian woman.
Rabelais was a French writer, physician, Renaissance humanist, monk and Greek scholar (quite the C.V) who was so distinctly stylistic in his gross, bodily naturalistic writing that he coined the whole genre. To write in a Rabelaisian way is to refuse to tiptoe around the earthy human aspects of life and the bodily functions and the unsavoury impulses we’re so ashamed of. To be Rabelaisian is to be overindulgent, to give into your desires and deny aloofness. To eat and drink in excess, to burp and fart without shame and to be big, taking up the space with your exuberance, not caring to give a shit about the inconvenience that you might cause.
Originally, the ‘pure’ woman myth was probably rooted in the desire to celebrate women. The female form has been a muse for so long that it has been elevated to uncomfortable levels. Thus, creating the illusion that women are otherworldly mystical creatures that transcend any undesirable human aspects. Men are allowed more facets- they have humour and the ability to be a bit gross for comedy value without the worry that it’ll take away from their sex appeal. Women on the other hand seem to be under the obscure societally driven opinion that if they pee with the door open then- poof! – sex appeal has died forever. It’s a weird game of keeping up appearances, the first rule of which seems to be “don’t let them know you’re a living breathing shitting burping bleeding human”. If we all try and collectively hide this from the men then maybe, just maybe they’ll still find us attractive. But why must female attractiveness and societal value be so caught up in purity?
Women have, throughout the centuries been portrayed as angels- often quite literally given wings in art and literature which take them away from the dirty, earthy, rabelaisian realities of humankind. We have been put on a pedestal, but it is a grossly uncomfortable place to be. Ever since Eve slipped up (that one time), any woman with less than pure desires (and actions to boot) is condemned. The same made-up rule that denies us overt sexual desires also restricts our farting, burping and swearing (how un-ladylike!), while contrastingly, we are faced with Homer Simpson-esk male characters who get away with vulgar activities unquestioned and are in fact rewarded for comic value.
After discussing this topic with a friend, she recounted a conversation she’d had with an elderly relative: after about fifty years of marriage the woman stoically stood by the fact that hr husband had NEVER heard her fart. Never. After fifty years of living under the same roof. To me this seems unlikely, but true or not, the shame attached to such basic bodily functions is absurd (and almost entirely gendered). To her husband of fifty years she was desperate to conceal the fact that she had a normal functioning human body- making normal processes unknown, unrecognised and solidly denied. I’m not saying that vulgarity should become a necessity in day to day life, just that we shouldn’t be quite so desperate to ‘unknow’. No wonder women can come to feel so much shame over their bodies: we’re taught that we’re so otherworldly and such natural born ‘ladies’ that it’s probably a worrying abnormality to burp after a meal and sprout hair on our legs (wait, yours aren’t naturally silky smooth?).
To finish I want to leave you with a section of the poem that got me thinking about the Rabelaisian woman in all her shame and glory in the first place: The Lady’s Dressing Room by Johnathon Swift. The poem follows the story of a man, Strephon, who is snooping around his lover’s abode, finishing the tour in her bathroom. While wishing only to be received by purity and roses, Strephon instead uncovers the horrible truth- Celia, his lover, is in fact human (and a rather messy, smelly human at that):
Thus finishing his grand survey,
The swain disgusted slunk away,
Repeating in his amorous fits,
“Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!”
— “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” Lines 115-118
Yes, Celia shits. Yet we choose to ignore and to leave the facts of human nature optionally unknown. Desire is not unanimous with purity, worth is not unanimous with desire, and we can all be a little bit gross sometimes, let’s be honest. It’s time to hang up our wings, kick up our hairy legs, and embrace our inner rabelaisian woman.