Shelley Jackson’s My Body — A Wunderkammer is ripe with ideas relating to gender and identity. She addresses various aspects of femininity/masculinity in a manner which calls our attention to gender binaries. The work ultimately challenges and subverts these binaries, I think — celebrating the body for its flaws and deficiencies as well as its strengths and beauties. The text, however, is filled with insecurities regarding body image; specifically insecurities and conflicts which arise from her more stereotypically masculine traits.
Those traits — her muscular, football player arms and shoulders, for one example, are often described in relation to monstrosity. Jackson writes that her body is “just one jot off a Frankenstein monster.” She writes about having her gender interrogated by her peers when she was younger and wishing for “a third restroom, the one for monsters and hermaphrodites.” She occupies a space of otherness in her feelings of monstrosity and mixed femininity and masculinity, which provokes the reader to reconsider what these binaries mean and how they may shape our experience of the world.
Her discussions of body hair are another way that she frames this other space, as conventional gender binaries cast men as hairy, women as hairless. She illustrates her struggle between rebellion and conformity in her discussions of her leg hair, saying “I shaved my leg hair defensively, I grew it back dogmatically, I shaved it guiltily, I grew it back proudly, I shaved it experimentally, I grew it back humorously.” Her ever shifting attitudes as she grows up reflect her constant negotiation of the societal norms which influence the conception of gender.
And yet there is a curious disconnect between her accounts of feeling monstrous, her descriptions of the body as a cabinet of wonders, and her interwoven depictions of the body as a subject for art. The artistic gaze creates a view of the body as something simultaneously strange and familiar; it also offers a space to disconnect from societal perceptions. She writes that “drawing is an antidote to judgement,” where the process of thoroughly seeing and noticing the individual elements of the human body demands a kind of understanding not readily given in much of societal interaction.
Even in this there is conflict, and she acknowledges that she is herself susceptible to all the varying reactions a person may have towards the body — desire, disgust, curiosity, and so on. The work describes the continuous process of coming to know and understand one’s own body, and how that body is read by others. She offers up her own body for exploration, for an interrogation that is somewhat reminiscent of the locker room interrogations she recounts. But it is an important shift that she gives it willingly, in her own words with her own explorations and explanations, rather than in a defensive attempt to prove her worth and identity. This offering is ultimately a way of reclaiming her body and celebrating its reality outside of constraining gender binaries, pushing us to consider how often these binaries fall short of more complete truths.