Ana Isabel Martinez | February 12, 2018
When I first arrived in Edinburgh, I had to stay for ten days at an Airbnb that was about a half an hour walk from the university. Every day, I had to walk up a hill and make my way through the new city. By about the third day, I started to notice some strange habits as I walked. The first was that for the first five minutes of the walk I would fuss about my clothing. I would think to myself “shirt? Ok, Hair? Fine, Pants? Maybe too tight, etc…”. The next part of the journey consisted of two things. The first was walking, staring, moving my arms and head, in a performative way. In a way that I felt looked right, attractive, or interesting.
The last but most crucial of the habits was this. Every time I was faced with the potential gaze of a man—no matter what age, size, or character—I would direct my gaze downward. It was almost as if, even though I was aware of and actively performing for the other’s gaze, I couldn’t bear the fact that I was being looked at. There it was, a kind of self-shaming that has existed in me from the beginning of time. The shame of inescapably and necessarily being an object of desire.
I blame it on my very Catholic, cis-feminine upbringing. But all of my life I have felt a sense of shame surrounding my body. I remember avoiding the mirror as a child as I walked into the shower as if through my eyes someone else was witnessing my tiny nakedness. And it felt bad. Let’s just say I never got over that first godly scolding after biting into the forbidden fruit. My body, even visually, was forbidden. And thus, in a sense, it had never belonged to me.
Body dysphoria and disassociation are problems with which many women struggle. When it comes to my body dysphoria, the dissolving starts at the point in the middle of my eyes. I am looking at myself in the mirror and all of a sudden, I don’t know who I am looking at. The phrase “this is you” feels like white noise and then I feel a numbness inside. As if my soul had floated out of the window. When I stop looking at the mirror and look away, I don’t know by what grace I can walk. My legs feel foreign, my entire body feels mechanical, and as soon as I encounter another person the problem doesn’t go away, it just stops mattering for the time being.
Dissociative episodes are a bit more frightening and I only realise I have had one after the fact, when hours have passed or I arrive someplace and I have no recollection of what has happened or how I got there. It is silly to think of a body being disconnected from a mind but with these problems it is not so much a disconnect but a strange neurosis. It is like a defence mechanism against the agony of being a body in the world.
After an agonizing few months alone in a new city, I began a project that started sporadically. I stood up, made my way to the window, wrapped a scarf around my naked body, and took a photograph. I looked at it for a long time. I thought I looked tired, confused, fed up, and ruined—but also a little bit curious. And this curiosity made me take another photo. In a sense, I had been bearing the burden of the gaze for far too long and I wanted to see what would happen if I just gazed back for a second.
I started a self-portraiture series entitled “Llorona Llorona” which in Spanish is a doubling of the term “the female one who cries”. The next few series of photographs were an exploration of many things. Primarily, they are a means through which I have slowly begun to reconnect with and recognise my body once again.
I’ve just recently started a website and instagram profile where I have been documenting my progress in the form of a public diary. It is public, not for the benefit of the observer but because I wanted to assertively re-establish my contractual relationship with the other’s gaze. So I invite anyone to follow along. I invite anyone who is asking themselves why they feel so lost inside their own bodies to truly ponder the intricacies of this state of being. I invite anyone, now, to look at me; to look at me now that I have begun to truly understand myself as a human simply trying to stay a human.
Ana Isabel Martinez is from Tijuana B.C., Mexico. She graduated in 2016 from the University of Chicago where she studied Comparative Literature. She is currently completing her MSc in CompLit at the University of Edinburgh. Her interests include modernist and experimental poetics, ethnopoetics, critical anthropology, and critical theory.
Article edited by Sarah Stewart and Emanuela Militello.