Each month we speak to an Australian writer about writing, feminism, and the connection between the two. This month we speak to Lee Kofman, whose new book, Imperfect, explores the concept of physical perfection and what it’s like to live in a body that deviates from the norm.
What does feminism mean to you?
This is such a big question… I’ve already written about this a lot in my creative works, particularly because I often feel I practise my own version of feminism which differs from current dominant feminist discourses. But I can’t possibly unpack this version in a short interview, so here I chose to answer this question intuitively. The first thing that springs to my mind is the word ‘sisterhood’. Not in the ideological, camaraderie sense of this word, but in the intimate sense. I’ve always felt much closer to women than to men; my most important friendships have been with women, and the truth is I’m more likely to enjoy a conversation with a woman than a man. On this primal level, then, feminism for me is simply about being around other women, relishing their company, plus collaborating with them creatively.
Was there a particular moment you can pinpoint that was crucial to the development of your perspective on feminism?
I don’t have a ‘fixed’ perspective on feminism; it is always a work-in-progress, so I can’t pinpoint a particular moment in this sense. But I can easily trace the beginnings of my identification as a feminist. I became an ardent feminist as early as the first years of primary school (these unfolded in the former Soviet Union). I was a weird child who loved adult literature above all else – my first attempt at reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace was at the age of eight… By that time, I’d already read many other Russian, and also French and English, classics – by Chekhov, Walter Scott, Victor Hugo, and so on. So, my head was full of fainting ladies and gallant gentlemen rescuing them continuously. It was also full of various common wisdoms about gender that those books were filled with, such as the old Russian proverb that roughly translates as: ‘If the hair is long, the wisdom is short.’ The more I read, the angrier I became. The last straw was The Three Musketeers. At first, reading this novel excited me, as I’d finally come across a proactive and non-fainting, heroine, Milady. But once I got to the point where Dumas had her beheaded (by men, of course), my conversion to feminism was complete…
In Imperfect, you combine memoir and cultural criticism to explore the concept of physical perfection, and this pressure. Did you learn anything surprising in your research?
My book is, actually, more of an exploration of physical imperfection – my term for appearance that deviates from what western and westernised societies currently consider to be ‘normal’. I wanted to see if appearance can shape our lives, including our psychological makeup, especially when we have imperfections. Based on my own experience, I have always suspected that our looks are more than skin-deep. My body harbours a constellation of disfiguring scars resulting from multiple surgeries I underwent as a child, and I know that this fact has significantly impacted my life. For example, I haven’t experimented with my sexuality as much as I’d have liked to, out of shame, and for the same reason I’ve avoided most outdoor activities, and generally become secretive. In the course of 10 years of interviewing other imperfect people, I found that my experience wasn’t unique, that our selves are often more entangled with our flesh than we might want to believe. But I also found many things that surprised me. Perhaps I’m naïve, but I was astonished, for example, by the extent of the mockery and other abuse that is the lot of many imperfect people. Meeting people with various imperfections which are (unlike mine) impossible to hide – people with dwarfism, albinism and Marfan Syndrome, larger people and people with facial disfigurements – made me realise that dehumanisation is far more prevalent than I assumed. I also learned a lot about the world of extreme body modification. Before writing this book I knew nothing about it and I wanted to find out why someone would intentionally ‘un-perfect’ themselves. Initially, my mind was full of the usual prejudices. I assumed that these people were criminals or suffered from serious mental illnesses. What I found was that sometimes this holds true. But I also found, to my great surprise, that for some other extreme body modifiers, changing their bodies was a way to empower themselves, find contentment and sometimes even succeed vocationally. In short, I realised that occasionally extreme body modification can be actually a sensible choice.
What considerations do feminists need to make when talking about body image; what is the current conversation missing, and how can we be more inclusive?
One of the main reasons I wanted to write Imperfect was because I feel that the current conversation about appearance – and by all means it’s not only a feminist conversation – is missing a lot. I think it’s time we began talking honestly about the impact of appearance on people’s, and particularly women’s, lives. As much as there is sky-high pressure on women to be beautiful, paradoxically, at the same time, as a society we have gone too far in trying to pretend that looks don’t matter. At least in the more so-called progressive circles, we like to say that beauty is skin deep and that all bodies are beautiful. We like urging women to accept themselves as they are. I know these messages are meant to counter the pressures of beauty and I’ve known women for whom hearing this is liberating. But I know even more women, many of whom I’ve interviewed for Imperfect, who – like me – feel burdened not only by the imperative to be beautiful but also by these additional expectations for unconditional self-acceptance. To say that everyone is beautiful glosses over the very real feelings of anxiety and inadequacy, sometimes caused by the hostile reactions of others, that many women, particularly those with imperfections, experience. As a result, appearance-related grief becomes disenfranchised grief – a psychological term for socially invalidated sorrow. Moreover, women who like beautifying themselves, or choose to undergo cosmetic treatments for other reasons, often experience ambivalence and guilt and keep their procedures secret.
So, I don’t think we can truly promote bodily diversity before we acknowledge that what we look like does matter, and before we stop minimising the difficulties women, particularly women with imperfections, often experience. I’d like us to stop holding women accountable for how they present their bodies or feel about them. To do so, we need to shift the conversation about appearance away from a body image discourse, which is currently the most common way of speaking about looks. When we talk about body image, we talk about our perceptions of, and feelings about, our own appearance, which is just another way of blaming the victims. Instead, I’d like us to focus more on interventions at the social level. For example, how to make imperfect bodies more visible – in the media, in our cultural narratives and even in the fashion world. I believe that high, and positive, visibility will help to expand social norms around appearance, make our society more inclusive.
What are the challenges for you in writing memoir, and how do you ‘shift modes’ between your memoir and fiction writing?
By nature I’m a confessional writer; even my fiction is usually based either on my life or on the lives of people I know. Whereas when I write memoir, I employ many fictional techniques – dialogue, scene setting, descriptive details etc. So, I actually don’t so much shift as blur modes between memoir and fiction.
In memoir, however, I feel my responsibilities to be far heavier than when I write fiction. This genre is a minefield of ethical challenges. I often become daunted at the necessity of relying on an unreliable memory, feel shame about exposing my various shortcomings and, worse, about violating other people’s privacy while telling my own story. Sometimes the weight of this responsibility has paralysed me so that I’ve stopped writing altogether. However, no paralysis has lasted longer than several months. I’ve come to realise that these struggles, as gruesome as they have been, actually invigorate me artistically, because they keep me on my toes. So, what I try is to deepen my writing by pouring all this blood and tears I spill in my ethical struggles into my narratives. Instead of allowing them to become narrative stoppers, I write them into the work itself. One of the themes running throughout Imperfect, for example, is the shame I’ve felt while admitting in my writing my desire to look beautiful.
Which women or non-binary writers do you think everyone should read?
At the moment I’m particularly infatuated with several American and English creative nonfiction writers (some of them write fiction too): Katie Roiphe, Elif Batuman, Meghan Daum, Rachel Cusk, Zadie Smith, Emily Gould, Jan Morris and Maggie Nelson.
Lee Kofman is the author and editor of seven books, including Imperfect, a work of creative nonfiction (2019, Affirm Press), and Split (2019, Ventura Press), an anthology of memoir featuring prominent Australian authors. Her blog The Writing Lifewas a finalist for Best Australian Blogs 2014. leekofman.com.au