My mother spoke to me often of a particular memory. It was set in Virginia, at the local pool with her mother’s group. Her flaxen hair was kept dry underneath a baseball cap, that’s at least how I imagine it. And I was likely wearing my black and white polka dot bathing suit, it was the only swimming costume I owned at the time that would have fit me as such a young baby. It has ruffles that swam away from my rounded baby’s tummy in the water like a ripple. My mother was laughing, in the shallow end with the other mothers, as she looked away only just for one moment. Suddenly, there was a split-second-sinking and when her eyes came back to me, my yellow inflatable tube was empty. She said that my blue eyes shined back at her through the water even more lively than when they were above it, and insisted that the chlorine didn’t seem to bother me one bit. Still she recued me swiftly, made sure I was alright. Repeated so often, this story is now the mythical fable used to explain why I’ve loved the water so much since such a young age.
Like a legend, this story was only told to me through and elder’s voice, the voice of my mother, alongside the pictorial evidence that the family albums offered me. On the beach with my leggings rolled up jumping over waves, in the hotel pool during a holiday with my legs draped over the edge with the rest of my body submerged, even testing the ice on the pond’s seasonal freeze moments before it’s inevitable crack. These images reiterate in various locations with slightly different poses, but while there are plenty of me, there are far less photos of my mother in water.
I often go back to albums older than me to find hidden-holiday-treasures of my mother. As a mother, she was always watching over, a lifeguard behind the camera. Even before she had children, she is almost always seen watching the water, close to it, but rarely actually in it. Most of the analogue photos I found are just variations of this one picture from 1983. In it, she sits on a folded-up towel, still wearing her glasses, on the shoreline about three meters from the green-yellow water. It is a photo taken somewhere in Cornwall with a grass-covered rock wall and its stony beach. My father is in the water holding the camera, risking the soak, to capture the memory of dryland. For me it is a familiar perspective, of me watching my mother from the water, watching me from the shore. It is almost always the same photo, a constant amongst the different beaches, different years, and different bikinis.
Water, with crystalline purity, has long been a lens (regularly used by men) to portray women with. As if it’s reflective properties worked like a mirror. Thus, water can be used as a filter to trace a lineage of what and who might define a woman. Yet when you find yourself outlined by someone else, the representation becomes altered. It is as if you were to look in the mirror and raise your right hand, only to find your reflection’s left hand swinging up instead. Distorted. In Ancient Greek mythology, for example, the fountain at Kanathos was said to restore Hera’s virginity annually. The word ‘spring’ in Greek itself is tangled with female sexuality as the word originates from ‘nubile maiden’. Often met with desire, associating women with water has also given them dangerous power – like Calypso, one of the nymphet daughters of Oceanus, who trapped Odysseus for seven years – which develops into the need for men to diluting, quelling the strength women possess in the proximity of water for the benefit of men. I call this the glass bottle effect.
Female vitality and strength seems to be framed in gold, such as in Botticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus’, objectified and with parameters – something that doesn’t quite fit the geography of water and its untamable spillage. The sea and its sirens have long been a sailor’s call for adventure, but with storms and sea monsters, glass-bottled ships have become a way to capture the unforeseen rapture of ocean storms. It is better to have boarders, limitations to something so powerful and objectifying something does this safely. So women, like a ship’s mermaid figurehead, have been deemed safer to look at through the purity of cut class and cleansed water, than to freely shape themselves give them the fluidity of their true image. With caution and shame, the representation of the woman was subsequently confined to the male gaze which defined their fate. This was at least the case for Western literary history which creating ripples which can still be identified today. In other words, the source matters when we define ourselves through such stories.
This pervasive depiction throughout art and literature is seen in the reoccurring image of the drowning female either through self-sacrifice, martyrdom or as a signifier of their transgression. Instead of giving them fluidity, autonomy, power, water (formerly a source of cultural strength for women) was instead used as a trope in 18th and 19th century Western culture to objectify females, particularly through death and the resulting vulnerability. The dominant voice of men in Western literature, politics, society has essentially been the screwing-of-the-cap over a freshly trapped victim. As Elizabeth Bronfen states in regard to the image of female death, ‘They [images of the death] delight because we are confronted by death, yet it is the death of the other.’ Seeing the ‘other’ die produces an even thicker aesthetic and cognitive situation as such representations engendered a ‘cultural obsession’ that can be seen in the representation of Hamlet’s Ophelia, John Everett Millais’s dying pale muse, the Romantic Sappho and more.
Such watery terminations were intensely cruel not only because they objectified the female form, but also because it made women passive to it, unworthy of an ending. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia is punished by the untimely death by drowning. Queen Gertrude imparts the news and describes the scene as: ‘an envious silver broke / When down her weedy trophies and herself / fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide, / and mermaid-like… pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay / to muddy death’. Even in her death, Shakespeare’s literary representation of Ophelia yields a passive behavior, echoing the life she lived manipulated by Hamlet by emphasising her beauty as ‘mermaid-like’ and objectifying her further in the bone-whiteness of death. Instead of a as funeral, male writers favoured the drifting off of women into the ocean, the river, the spring without a proper closure.
This 17th century cannon in literature echoes Sappho’s famous 6th century suicide. The ancient poet’s suicide by jumping off a cliff into an ocean’s bed of rocks, later saw a revival during the following two centuries. In the Victorian period, Romantic writers like William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge and Lord Byron used the artistic idealisation of female suicide to represent a sense of emotional fanaticism. Lord Byron, in ‘The Isle of Greece’, writes: ‘Place me on Sunium’s marbled steep / Where nothing, save the waves and I, / May her our mutual murmurs sweep; / There, swan-like, let me sing and die’. In his adaptation of the myth of Sappho, the verbosity is given to something outside of the body and even the waves. ‘Let me sing and die’; the narrator is in need of mercy, with no autonomy over the actions. The attention is stressed on the visuals, like ‘heroic bosom beats no more’ and the reoccurring motif of wine, rather than the verbs, the actions. It is the glass bottle. The myth. A monster.
Women are made scared out of dunking their heads under water, scared into submission because of this pervasive image of them reemerging from the water without their breath.
A friend of mine told me of her reoccurring nightmare, one of a massive tsunami. She has never been caught in it, but is trapped as the witness and forced to observed how others lose their life and loved ones to the water. In her latest dream, a young boy drowns and his weeping mother covers him in tears instead of soil – a burial of a mother’s sorrow.
When I was a child, I would practice holding my breath in case anyone would try to drown me. It was an irrational practice, a failing act to make water my shelter, or at least to prepare me for the local springboards. It is worth noting I was not afraid of much as a child, but the fear of drowning, of losing myself in the place I loved the most, scared me. So I asked my father to jump off the ten-meter-tall diving platforms in hopes that holding his hand would give me the courage to jump. My mother discouraged us, the watchful sunbather she was, said she thought my father’s weight would pull me down too deep for my shallow lungs to hold out long enough for. She had a point, we agreed, and planned to let go of each other’s hands as soon as we hit the water. And we did, but I was still dragged down by my own body and the newly formed bubbles deeper than I wanted.
I remember that feeling, of looking up, looking out, through the clear blue waves and elastic fizzles. And the pressure on my chest, as I kicked my way to the stirring surface. Despite my love for swimming, I couldn’t ignore fear of drowning as I faced to find the surface – and neither can the historical lens with which men depicted women through water.
Yet women still express their own lives through similar modes, repeating this motif of the drowning, sinking, the pulling of ocean. Water, the deep and unknown of it, its overpowering nature, its tides of male view, these images remain with us. Overtime, the tides of the patriarchy have begun to shift through women reclaiming their own representation. It is as if they are attempting to work within the trapped-female trope, and this is what I am so interested in: when the glass bottle is cracked to elucidate the literary representation of women.
The 18th century English poet, Mary Robinson was amongst the early female writers who began to shift the tone of female suicide and the overwhelming control water culturally possesses in literature. Known as the English Sappho, Robinson wrote a series of sonnets enabling her to dictate female sexuality through the voice of a lovesick Sappho. In ‘Bids Farewell to Lesbos’, she writes through Sappho’s seaborne crests of emotions: ‘Breathe soft, ye winds; rise slow, O! swelling wave! / Lesbos; these eyes shall meet thy sands no more: / I fly, to seek my Lover, or my Grave!’ In these closing lines, she leaps off the cliffs to either find a cure for her love or to be welcomed to death by the ocean. Opposed to male Romantic poets, I experience the movement, the sovereignty, in the lyrics of Mary Robinson. There is a subtle difference in this having been written by a female that cannot be overlooked. While suicide is futile, she works within the system of oppression, to use her craft to demonstrate an escape to the water – rather than a consumption by it. Thereby, it is no surprise that Robinson later when on to write Letter to the Women of England against Mental Subordination and became a huge force of nature amongst other writers such as her predecessor Mary Wollstonecraft.
Since then society and literature have changed, found new currents. Still, it all functions within the same closed system and female writers continue to build on these same tropes to appropriate their image through water, just as elements fuse together to create chemical compounds. Water continues to be a source of inspiration as well as female revelation in books such as Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, Sophie Mackintosh’s The Water Cure, and Maja Lunde’s The End of the Ocean. The power remains and female authors have learned to harness its strength by using it to express their own positions in society. In her 1975 novel Woman at Point Zero, the Egyptian feminist activist and writer, Nawal El Saadawl, crafts a story based on a female prisoner in Qanatir Prison. She writes:
‘But I kept falling, buffeted by the contradictory forces that kept pulling me in different directions, like an object thrown into a limitless sea, without shores and without a bed, slashed by the waters when it starts to sink, and by the wind if it starts to float. Forever sinking and rising, sinking and rising between the sea and the sky, with nothing to hold on to except the two eyes.’
The prisoner, Firdaus, has essentially been captured in a glass bottle and muted by the reigning dominance of men. In Saadawl’s exploration of woman in faith, family and policy, the image of water becomes something violent, threatening, all-encompassing. Again, we see women not in water, but underwater – drowning. It is a powerful book originally published in Arabic in 1975, validates the ways woman feel even in the West through carrying through it this notion of the glass bottle effect of being trapped, imprisoned by the standards men have for a woman’s purity.
Surgery in itself is a process of purification. To have a medical operation, an incision, to remove a disease, or at least stop the bleeding, is the sanitation of one’s body by another. Few people see what lies beneath their own skin, but for a surgeon, this gaze is systematic. Yet this process of physical purification is an act of allowing yourself to be vulnerable, but having recently gone through my first operation –this experience can also flush someone back into the pressures of drowning.
It was an ovarian cyst. A dermoid cyst, eight centimeters in size. And it was being taken out of my body through a gash in my bellybutton in a plastic bag, in a green-tired room that felt much like the public pool I went to as a child. Going into the operation theater, I did not know how damaged by body would be, if my period would ever be normal, if I would leave with only one ovary. In these unknowns, I lost my stability, slipped deep into hospital gown, and began to experience dryland drowning.
After the days I lost to the surgeon, I began to search for this same strong pull of water through the words of other writers. I knew it was a sinking feeling, the recovery from of having gone under, and soon I began to find other women who associated the motif of water, and of drowning, with their experiences of being in hospital. As soon as I read ‘Tulips’ by Sylvia Plath, I began to view literature, and women, through the foggy water goggles and to understand the struggle women faced in representing themselves. ‘My body is a pebble to them, they tend it as water / Tends to the pebbles it must run over, smoothing them gently’. In the poem, a woman recovers from an unknown operation in the hospital, in a crisp white room like ‘winter’, a room pure like snow. And then, I came across this motif of drowning:
Scared and bare on the green plastic-pillowed trolley
I watched my teaset, my bureaus of linen, my books
Sink out of sight, and the water went over my head.
The vivid tulips eat my oxygen.
Before they came the air was calm enough,
Coming and going, breath by breath, without any fuss.
Drowning, like being trapped in a fish bowl, like pressing against the glass ceiling, is a dreadfully specific notion to arise in the hospital, to develop from a woman’s experience of being in the hospital. It carries with it decades, centuries, millennia of male authority over the female voice, body and representation. Yet it also fights against the outdated cannon, not in a way to perpetuates female vulnerabilities, but in a way that gives weight to their prose and poetry. That is why Shulamite Firestone, the Jewish feminist activist known for writing The Dialectic of Sex, wrote fifty inconsequential short stories of women in and around mental hospitals under the title Airless Spaces, no doubt an allusion to the male gaze’s on drowning.
Similar to this, my own surgery was a pressure, but also a release. It might not have been drowning, but nor a rising. It was a suffocation, asphyxia at the hand of a thousand tiny tips of the silver scalpels forming the glittering foam-breaks of a hospital wave.
Water, sickness,and the female notion of drowning was shared by another, by Virginia Woolf, the woman often labeled by suicide in the River Ouse. Before that, she wrote in her essay ‘On Being Ill’ that, ‘the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers.’ It is hard not to read into these words a desire to die by way of water, but sickness brings out these near-death metaphors. It might even idealise it. And considering this, amongst the long lineage of women being oppressed by their male counterparts through the lens of water, purity and desire, women writing of their own drowning not only fight the male gaze, but solidify their often untold (or, previously, told by men) stories.
Even though it was likely too damaged to produce any more eggs, I still wanted to keep my ovary. Its full removal meant the possibility that I could lose my production of estrogen and progesterone – a worst-case scenario for an otherwise routine operation, but still a potential outcome that cause me great anxiety. Now that I have recovered, I have the clarity to distinguish this concern from other hospital hesitations I had about the surgery. I knew I didn’t want to take hormonal substitutes in fear of them making me less woman; the root of this fear was linked more to gender identity than to actual health concerns.
I already had some shame about having a dermoid cyst, for my reproduction to potentially be prevented before I could even do anything to counteract it. Being a cis-woman, I have not been forced to think much about my gender. I would joke about still having the body of a teenage boy at the age of 16, 18, 20, 22 without thinking much of it. And I always had long hair, hip-length, to project my gender for me – to balance out my harsh jaw feature and protruding chin. But having my female hormones removed along with my cyst, my now seized ovary, was a blow to the femininity I didn’t know I associated so strongly with. Would taking female hormonals supplements make me even more of an ‘other’? I still feel guilty for having thought like this – for my internal prejudicial definition of what a woman is.
I needed the validation of my gender identity from my functioning hormone receptors, but in the process of awaiting surgery, I excluded postmenopausal or transgender women from my own definition of what it means to be a woman. Whether it be through hysteria, sexuality, the dryness of menopause, the experience of being a woman often becomes too complex to describe in a few short lines. Women in literature often become ‘other’ because of these differences, but that is why it becomes so important of women to recover these variations through accounting their own experiences, emotions, conditions. I have never read a book discussing hormonal treatments nor do I know a cis-woman who openly discusses this, I didn’t know what to expect. What I feared most about surgery was not the going under, but not fitting into the long lineage of trickled-down expectations of womanhood society has made standard through literature, art, and politics.
This troubled me. Did I really believe in the gender binary so strongly? I wanted to be more tolerant to myself and others, but the discrimination was still present.
The guilt continued after my surgery because I was lucky enough not to heal completely, little eggs like beads visible in both my ovaries on the gynecologist’s black and white monitor and all. So I decided I would have to consciously change my definition of what a woman is. And, again, I did that through water.
My brother is a chemical oceanographer and he knows far more about the complex ocean patterns than the majority of our planet. Yet, what I have been able to grasp from his research is that water is a thing, shapeless, and dynamic. Through hurricanes, and oil spills, even the shift of continental drift, water changes and is forced to change under different conditions. I find this fascinating, this spontaneity of nature because, like the ocean and like water, women too are ever-changing. Through waves and flow of monthly hormones that come with the first patch of blood that leaks onto the bed sheet, to the way women have been described in literature, to the changing role women take up in their lives. Womanhood is like the deep-ocean: beautiful, powerful, expansive and vast.
To be portrayed and self-portrayed through water reflects this fluidity that crosses both biology and culture. Being a woman is more than reflecting certain desires or imposed standards of purity; being a woman is about changing with every breaking wave. Even with the water’s blurred boundaries and difficult-to-tame-nature, the variations become a kind of consistency of uncertainty, its inherent mystery and strength. All of which remind me of my mother.
The only image I was able to find of my mother actually in the water is from 1982, fourteen years before I was born. It was from a trip my parents had taken to Spain. In the photo my mother’s sandstone-coloured hair is permed, bobbing just along the ocean’s waves. Ripples distort her reflection. My mother holds her chin above the water and looks off camera, likely to the shore. Her cheeks resemble mine, coral and plump. It is one of the only photos where I can see any similarity. The image was once sky-blue, but now what used white is a buttery yellow and the ocean blue has become lavender. The photo has changed – the saltwater portrait becoming more like a watercolor painting with time.
Too deep for her toes to touch sand or the slippery weeds, she swims expeditiously through water. And I treasure this photo more than the rest I have found of her so far because of it. While the other photos reflect her more tranquil side, the observant and attentive woman I have known my whole life, this images represents a fiercer, wilder woman who has overcome the many spaces of her life she has asserted herself in – from being in full-time employment at the age of sixteen, to being a mother, to being a widow, to being a role model.
-  Bronfen, Elisabeth. Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992. Print. p. x
-  Brown, Ron Brown. The Art of Suicide: London: Reaktion Books, 2001. Print. p. 154
-  Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992. Print. p. 235, 4.7.169-179
-  Byron, George Gordon. ‘The Isle of Greece.’ The Oxford Book of English Verse. Oxford: Oxford Press, 1919. Online. Stanza: 91-94
-  Byron, Stanza: 95
-  Byron, Stanza: 28
-  Robinson, Mary. ‘Bids Farewell to Lesbos.’ Sappho and Phaon. Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, 2004. Print. p. 27
-  Saadawl, Nawal El. Woman at Point Zero. London: Zed Books, 2015. 3rd ed. Print. p. 21
-  Plath, Sylvia. “Tulips.” The Collected Poems. Ed. Ted Hughes. 1St ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1981. pg. 160-162
-  Plath, p. 160
-  Plath, p.161
-  Woolf, Virginia. ‘On Being Ill.’ The Moment and Other Essays. London: Hogarth Press, 1947. p.32
Nina Hanz is currently a MA writing student at the Royal College of Art. She is based in both London, UK and Essen, Germany researching post-industrial landscapes, the body and nature. Before completing her philosophy degree at the University College of Maastricht, Nina lived in Singapore and the United States of America. Recent publications include Ache Magazine, NOIT 5, Latest Magazine, The Double Negative and The Kindred Voice.