The following is my third course autobiography for the course I am taking on women’s writing. I just have to write one more of these and then a 20-page final paper, and my homework will be done for the semester! In this piece, I wrote about how I would use this text to create a framework for a creative nonfiction essay assignment. I think this would also make an excellent writing prompt!
The Embodiment of Labels
In Plaintext, Nancy Mairs explores how individuals embody the labels that are placed on them by society. In her essay, “On Being a Cripple,” Mairs chooses to define herself as a “cripple” regardless of the fact that others may wince at the word. She says, “Perhaps I want them to wince. I want them to see me as a tough customer, one to whom the fates/gods/viruses have not been kind, but who can face the brutal truth of her existence squarely. As a cripple, I swagger” (9). She challenges the politically correct euphemisms that others use and would have her use to describe herself. In many ways, she refuses to meet society’s expectations of her as a cripple, even seeking to change the meaning of the word. I would like to teach this text in a writing course where I could ask students to examine their own labels, how they embody their labels, and how societal expectations based on these labels impact the individual, as well as how the individual can impact society by either meeting or shattering those expectations.
The first task I would assign to students would be to make an extensive list of the labels that are applied to them both by society and by themselves. These labels could be based on physical attributes that may be noticed upon first meeting a person (male/female, skin color, weight, etc.) or they could be less apparent labels such as those that are applied to domestic violence victims, mental health service users, etc. Some students might also choose to argue that they would most often be labeled as “normal,” and I would allow those students to explore that label.
I would then ask students to choose one specific label to write an essay on in an effort to explore the concept of embodiment from their own personal point of view. Students might first discuss what it is like for them to live in a labelled body, whether it is a female body, an afflicted body, or a body that has been abused. Students should then analyze the context in which their individual bodies exist and how societal expectations influence their views of their own bodies. Do they hate their bodies for being less than ideal, or like Mairs, will they learn to accept their bodies as they are?
Although Mairs is sometimes horrified by the appearance of her “abnormal” gait when she catches a glimpse of herself in a mirror, she also says, “The self-loathing I feel is neither physically nor intellectually substantial. What I hate is not me but a disease” (17). From writing their own embodiment narratives, can students learn to accept that they are not their bodies even though they are doomed (or blessed) to live within those bodies for an entire lifetime?
Finally, I would ask students to reflect on how their personal embodiment narratives might impact their readers, whether those readers may be suffering the same “affliction” or are “normal” people. Will students believe they can be a force of change in society simply by sharing their individual stories and humanizing the labels that they embody? Additionally, will students believe that they should share their embodiment narratives in an effort to change society? I would be interested in reading the essays that would result from such an assignment.
Mairs, Nancy. Plaintext: Essays. Tucson: U of Arizona, 1986. Print.
Read With Me
The next text I will be reading for this course is Child of the Dark: The Diary of Carolina Maria de Jesus by DeJesus.