I recently reviewed an excellent and highly readable academic textbook by Caroline Magennis, Northern Irish Writing After The Troubles. One of the quotes I pulled from it set me thinking.
“To move your body out of pleasure is to assert that you think your body matters. That you matter. It is an assertion of pleasure, of pride and of autonomy.”
This was on dancing, which Ian Paisley preached was sinful. Growing up as I did in Northern Ireland, many pleasurable activities were regarded this way. Sex was the obvious one. At home, at school and at church it was drummed into girls that to indulge in sexual activity would be to bring down not just the wrath of God but also shame on the family – one of the worst things it was possible to do. No mention was made of consent. Short skirts were an indication that the girl was up for it. Boys were portrayed as creatures incapable of controlling their urges. Looking at pictures of myself as a teenager, I often dressed like a middle aged woman.
At this point I will admit that, having escaped to England and lived to be a middle aged woman, I now regularly wear short skirts. It took a long time for me to understand that my sex life should be nobody else’s concern.
What really hit me in the quote above was that it alleged a woman could matter. This, to me, was radical thinking. Women existed to serve – the family, the Lord, husband and children. To consider self was selfish, frowned upon.
In Belfast I was expected to be a good girl, to keep secret any behaviours deemed suspect such as drinking alcohol. This, despite the fact my parents and their friends were regular imbibers. Many aspects of how we lived were certainly never to be mentioned when duty visiting the wider family. It made it hard to have natural conversations with them.
It was expected that, in time but while still young, I would marry a nice boy from a similar background. Not too rich as his family’s affluence would make my parents feel inferior. Not too poor as my parents had successfully risen from this. And definitely not a Catholic, although no other religion was even considered a possibility.
It was vital that, on marriage, I hold on to my husband. To this end, staying thin was more important than academic or professional attainment. Throughout my life, my mother expressed more delight when I lost weight than any other of my achievements. I was expected to be submissive and pleasing – in looks and behaviour.
At a work team building event I was once asked to share with the group something I was proud of achieving. I could think of nothing except pride was a sin. In many ways I had done everything my parents asked of me, other than stay in Ireland. I could never shake the need to please – not a bad thing in itself, of course, but beneath that is the belief that my needs and desires do not matter greatly.
My English mother-in-law had an unshakeable belief in the rightness of her opinions. This attitude entirely flummoxed me. Women deferred, took up as little space as possible, whilst ensuring others’ wishes were met without fuss. When I occasionally pushed back, refusing to do something that was expected of me as I recognised it would be personally damaging, my perceived selfish intransigence caused rifts that may never fully heal.
To matter requires that one be valued. To this day I struggle to accept that I am worth anything more than the services I provide. I know I am loved but am less sure of being intrinsically valued for what I am as an individual. Being of use brings me pleasure, but to be able to dance through life without being derided must feel amazing.
Another book I reviewed recently, Aurochs and Auks, placed humans in the wider context of our planet – just one species among many, although highly damaging in our behaviour. This chimed with me. It matters how we behave because of the potential damage caused by self-entitlement, to our life support system and also each other. My upbringing focused on being pleasing for the benefit of church and family. Perhaps to add value, and therefore to matter, is to live more in tune with our place in all the spaces we impact.