Joyous Body: The Wild Flesh

· Beyond Fear of Differences, Essays · , ,

by Clarissa Pinkola Estés

I have been taken with the way wolves hit their bodies together when they run and play, the old wolves in their way, the young ones in theirs, the skinny ones, the fat ones, the long-legged, the lop-tailed, the floppy-eared, the ones whose broken limbs healed crookedly. They all have their own body configuration and strength, their own beauty. They live and play according to what and who and how they are. They do not try to be what they are not.

Up in the northlands, I watched one old wolf with three legs; she was the only one who could fit through a crevasse where blueberries were branching. I once saw a gray wolf crouch and leap in such a flash it left the image of a silver arc in the air for a second afterward. I remember a delicate one, a new mother, still fulsome in the belly, picking her way through the pool moss with the grace of a dancer.

Yet, despite their beauty and ability to stay strong, wolves are sometimes talked about in this way: “Ah, you are too hungry, your teeth are too sharp, your appetites too interested.” Like wolves, women are sometimes discussed as though only a certain temperament, only a certain restrained appetite, is acceptable. And too often added to that is an attribution of moral goodness or badness according to whether a woman’s size, height, gait, and shape conform to a singular or exclusionary ideal. When women are relegated to moods, mannerisms, and contours that conform to a single ideal of beauty and behavior, they are captured in both body and soul, and are no longer free.


In The Instinctive Psyche, The body is considered a sensor, an informational network, a messenger with myriad communication systems—cardiovascular, respiratory, skeletal, autonomic, as well as emotive and intuitive. In the imaginal world, the body is a powerful vehicle, a spirit who lives with us, a prayer of life in its own right. In fairy tales, as personified by magical objects that have superhuman qualities and abilities, the body is considered to have two sets of ears, one for hearing in the mundane world, the other for hearing the soul; two sets of eyes, one set for regular vision, another for far-seeing; two kinds of strength, the strength of the muscles and the invincible strength of soul. The list of twos about the body goes on.

In systems of body work such as Feldenkrais method, Ayurveda, and others, the body is understood variously as having six senses, not five. The body uses its skin and deeper fascia and flesh to record all that goes on around it. Like the Rosetta stone, for those who know how to read it, the body is a living record of life given, life taken, life hoped for, life healed. It is valued for its articulate ability to register immediate reaction, to feel profoundly, to sense ahead.


The Body Is A Multiligual being. It speaks through its color and its temperature, the flush of recognition, the glow of love, the ash of pain, the heat of arousal, the coldness of nonconviction. It speaks through its constant tiny dance, sometimes swaying, sometimes a-jitter, sometimes trembling. It speaks through the leaping of the heart, the falling of the spirit, the pit at the center, and rising hope.

The body remembers, the bones remember, the joints remember, even the little finger remembers. Memory is lodged in pictures and feelings in the cells themselves. Like a sponge filled with water, anywhere the flesh is pressed, wrung, even touched lightly, a memory may flow out in a stream.

To confine the beauty and value of the body to anything less than this magnificence is to force the body to live without its rightful spirit, its rightful form, its right to exultation. To be thought ugly or unacceptable because one’s beauty is outside the current fashion is deeply wounding to the natural joy that belongs to the wild nature.

Women have good reason to refute psychological and physical standards that are injurious to spirit and which sever relation- ship with the wild soul. It is clear that the instinctive nature of women values body and spirit far more for their ability to be vital, responsive, and enduring than by any measure of appearance. This is not to dis- miss who or what is considered beautiful by any segment of culture, but to draw a larger circle that embraces all forms of beauty, form, and function.


A Friend And I Once performed a tandem storytelling called “Body Talk” about discovering the ancestral blessings of our kith and kin. Opalanga is an African American griot and she is very tall, like a yew tree, and as slender. I am una Mexicana, and am built close to the ground and am of extravagant body. In addition to being mocked for being tall, as a child Opalanga was told that the split between her front teeth was the sign of being a liar. I was told that my body shape and size were the signs of being inferior and of having no self-control.

We are each thinking the other is so mysterious-looking in such a beautiful way, how could anyone have thought otherwise?

In this concurrent telling about body, Opalanga and I speak of the slings and arrows we received throughout our lives because, according to the great “they,” our bodies were too much of this and not enough of that. In our telling, we sing a mourning song for the bodies we were not allowed to enjoy. We rock, we dance, we look at each other. We are each thinking the other is so mysterious-looking in such a beautiful way, how could anyone have thought otherwise?

When I first met Opalanga, we felt we had known each other, as tellers often do, not for a lifetime but for eons. We fell into a conversation about our most personal stories. How amazed I was to hear that as an adult she had journeyed to the Gambia in West Africa and found some of her ancestral people, who, lo! had among their tribe, many people who were very tall like the yew trees and as slender, and who had splits between their front teeth. This split, they explained to her, was called Sakaya Yallah, meaning “opening of God” … and it was understood as a sign of wisdom.

How surprised she was when I told her I had also as an adult journeyed to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico and found some of my ancestral people, who lo! were a tribe with giant women who were strong, flirtatious, and commanding in their size. They had patted me and plucked at me, boldly remarking that I was not quite fat enough. Did I eat enough? Had I been ill? I must try harder, they explained, for women are La Tierra, made round like the earth herself, for the earth holds so much.

So in Opalanga’s and my performance, as in our lives, our personal stories, which began as experiences both oppressive and depressive, end with joy and a strong sense of self. Opalanga understands that her height is her beauty, her smile one of wisdom, and that the voice of God is always close to her lips. I understand my body as not separate from the land, that my feet are made to hold my ground, my body a vessel made to carry much. We learned, from powerful people outside our own United States culture, to revalue the body, to refute ideas and language that would revile the mysterious body, that would ignore the female body as an instrument of knowing.

Photo by Mona Johansson

Photo by Mona Johansson


To Take Much Pleasure in a world filled with many kinds of beauty is a joy in life to which all women are entitled. To support only one kind of beauty is to be somehow unobservant of nature. There cannot be only one kind of songbird, only one kind of pine tree, only one kind of wolf. There cannot be one kind of baby, one kind of man, or one kind of woman. There cannot be one kind of breast, one kind of waist, one kind of skin.

My experiences with women of size in Mexico caused me to question the entire set of analytic premises about women’s various sizes and shapes and especially weights. One old psychological premise in particular seemed grotesquely erroneous: the idea that all women of size are hungry for something; that “inside them is a thin person screaming to get out.” When I suggested this “screaming thin woman” metaphor to one of the majestic Tehuana tribeswomen, she peered at me somewhat alarmed. Did I mean “possession by an evil spirit? Who would have put such an evil thing inside a woman?” she asked. It was beyond her comprehension that a woman would be considered by “healers” or anyone else to have a screaming woman within because she was naturally big.

Photo by Frank Janssens

Photo by Frank Janssens

While compulsive and destructive eating disorders that distort body size are real and tragic, they are not the norm for most women. Women who are big or small, wide or narrow, short or tall, are most likely to be so simply because they inherited the body configuration of their kin; if not their immediate kin, then those a generation or two back. To malign or judge a woman’s inherited physicality is to make generation after generation of anxious and neurotic women. To make destructive and exclusionary judgments about a woman’s inherited form, robs her of several critical and precious psychological and spiritual treasures. It robs her of pride in the body type that was given to her by her own ancestral lines.

If she is taught to revile this body inheritance, she is immediately slashed away from her female body identity with the rest of the family. If she is taught to hate her own body, how can she love her mother’s body that has the same configuration as hers?—her grand-mother’s body, the bodies of her daughters as well? How can she love the bodies of other women (and men) close to her who have inherited the bodies of their ancestors? To attack a woman thusly destroys her rightful pride of affiliation with her own people and robs her of the natural lilt she feels in her body no matter what height, size, shape she is. In essence, the attack on women’s bodies is a far-reaching attack on the ones who have gone before her as well as the ones who will come after her.

Instead, harsh judgments about body acceptability create a nation of hunched-over tall girls, short women on stilts, women of size dressed as though in mourning, very slender women trying to puff themselves out like adders, and various other women in hiding. Destroying a woman’s instinctive affiliation with her natural body cheats her of confidence. It causes her to perseverate about whether she is a good person or not, and bases her self-worth on how she looks instead of who she is. It pressures her to use up her energy worrying about how much food she consumes or the readings on the scale and tape measure. It keeps her preoccupied, colors everything she does, plans, and anticipates. It is unthinkable in the instinctive world that a woman should live preoccupied by appearance this way.


It Makes Utter Sense To stay healthy and strong, to be as nourishing to the body as possible. Yet I would have to agree, there is in many women a “hungry” one inside. But rather than hungry to be a certain size, shape, or height, rather than hungry to fit the stereotype; women are hungry for basic regard from the culture surrounding them. The “hungry” one inside is longing to be treated respectfully, to be accepted, and in the very least, to be met without stereotyping. If there really is a woman “screaming to get out” she is screaming for cessation of the disrespectful projections of others onto her body, her face, her age.

The pathologizing of variation in women’s bodies is a deep bias endorsed by many psychological theorists, most certainly by Freud. For instance, in his book on his father Sigmund Freud, Martin Freud relates how the entire family actively disliked and ridiculed stout people. The reasons for Freud’s views are beyond the scope of this work; how- ever, it is difficult to understand how such an attitude would assist a balanced viewpoint toward women’s bodies.

Yet, suffice it to say that various practitioners of psychology continue to hand down this bias against the natural body, encouraging women to turn their attentions to a constant monitoring of body, thereby robbing them of deeper and finer relationships with their given form. Angst about the body robs a woman in some large share of her creative life and her attention to other things.


This Encouragment To Begin trying to carve her body is remarkably similar to the carving, burning, peeling off layers, stripping down to the bones the flesh of the earth itself. Where there is a wound on the psyches and bodies of women, there is a correspond- ing wound at the same site in the culture itself, and finally on Nature herself. In a true holistic psychology all worlds are understood as interdependent, not as separate entities. It is not amazing that in our culture there is an issue about carving up a woman’s natural body, that there is a corresponding issue about carving up the landscape, and yet another about carving up the culture into fashionable parts as well. Although a woman may not be able to stop the dissection of culture and lands overnight, she can stop doing so to her own body.

The wild nature would never advocate the torture of the body, culture, or land. The wild nature would never agree to flog the form in order to prove worth, prove “control,” prove character, be more visually pleasing, more financially valuable.

A woman cannot make the culture more aware by saying “Change.” But she can change her own attitude toward herself, thereby causing devaluing projections to glance off. She does this by taking back her body. By not forsaking the joy of her natural body, by not purchasing the popular illusion that happiness is only bestowed on those of a certain configuration or age, by not waiting or holding back to do anything, and by taking back her real life, and living it full bore, all stops out. This dynamic self-acceptance and self-esteem are what begins to change attitudes in the culture.

Clarissa Pinkola Estés is a post-trauma specialist, Jungian psychoanalyst, poet and the author of several books, including an eleven-volume series of audio books on myths and stories.

From Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype. Copyright © 1992, 1995 by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Ph.D. Reprinted by permission of Random House.

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