(Cover of Sara Ahmed’s 2014 Willful Subjects)
I had never been in better shape in my life. There I was, for some reason playing intramural flag football with a team from my first-year dorm, sprinting around the field feeling lean and strong. After about twenty minutes of play against a neighboring dorm, we had scored several touchdowns and smelled victory. As we lined up on the makeshift line of scrimmage, our quarterback planning to throw it to me long, I heard an opponent yell, “Get the big girl. Cover the big girl!” It wasn’t until after the touchdown that I registered the exhortation and realized that the opponent was referring to me. I think it was at that very moment when lean, sinewy me decided to embrace the big girl. I didn’t articulate it to myself (I wasn’t the most introspective back then), but I think I knew that, if my fit, active self was still “the big girl,” then so I would be her, fully her. Not just big and muscular (and now fat, too), but also loud and hungry for life and full of opinions.
With each passing day, being the big girl became more and more entertaining, more and more natural—more and more, just me. It is no accident that I’m listening to Lizzo’s “Feeling Good as Hell” as I write this. (Oh my God, I love the line in Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” of “That’s the sound of me not calling you back.”) In Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace, I discuss having seen the film Julie and Julia and marveling at Julia Child’s taking ownership of how others perceived her—recognizing her height and stature and funneling that into her joie de vivre. Many years ago, my then-boyfriend (now-husband) and I, both teachers, read Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia. Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. We joked that my book would be called Subduing Ophelia, but we also took very much to heart the ways in which adolescent girls learn to shrink.
If it were just us big girls here on earth, then I think we would remain big and hungry and laughing and experimenting—curious about the world and loving towards it. Lamentably, though, even the biggest and loudest of the big girls can become invisible. Although individual blame can surely be placed (no need to mention here Weinstein and Trump as metonymy for all the power-hungry rapists who disappear women), I find it most useful to understand invisibility as social structure and institutional habit. I write about this copiously, and from both theoretical and practical perspectives, in the Gender Shrapnel book. In the book, invisibility is part of an intersectional paradigm of and with gender, and it plays against visibility (being invisible at all the wrong moments and then too visible, too scrutinized at other moments).
My sister and I, two girls of the seven children in our family, have laughed often about sitting in the stands, watching a brother play a sport, and hearing others talk about our family. “Yeah, that number 12, that’s one of the Mayock boys. They have seven kids, all boys.” We told each other we looked fabulous and that we were the hottest of the seven Mayock boys. When I made the All-District (or whatever they called it back then) basketball team, my brother, who was in the same year of high school as me, did as well. We were delighted for each other. I was too naïve to be concerned when the local paper wrote about my brother in the blurb about me and wrote about my brother in the blurb about him. But I started to understand when one of my mother’s best friends wrote a letter to the editor complaining about it. She didn’t use the term “invisibility,” but that was surely what she disliked—the erasure of an adolescent girl’s accomplishments and the double offering of an adolescent boy’s accomplishments. None of the sexism from back then felt personally motivated or enacted. It felt institutional, habitual, natural.
I am 54 now. I started teaching when I was 21. I have taught a lot of students in a lot of different classes in many different contexts. I think you could call me a professional, someone who knows her stuff and cares about how she does her work. I am bigger than I used to be—a “bigger girl” in some ways. But I’m reminded each day that invisibility is still an institution, a habit. Many of my students call me “Mrs.” or “Señora,” while they call my male colleagues “Professor” and “Doctor.” Just the other day, I replied to an email from a colleague at a neighboring institution. His email signature indicated he was a colonel, and so I addressed him as “Colonel So-and-So.” I included my formal email signature. In Colonel So-and-So’s reply, I was “ma’am.” In meetings, I have found that I no longer even stick up for myself, cementing my own invisibility, because it’s exhausting and because it brings on the kind of visibility that I’m tired of attracting.
A colleague recently said I was being “willful” when I asked for more information about a decision our group was making. Of course, the word transported me immediately to Sara Ahmed’s brilliant Willful Subjects (Duke UP, 2014). In the introduction, Ahmed writes, “Willfulness is a diagnosis of the failure to comply with those whose authority is given. (…) Willfulness involves persistence in the face of having been brought down.” She adds that, for women, “to be identified as willful is to become a problem” (3). For me, the big girl is the willful subject, whose very assertion of self is constantly scrutinized, criticized, and erased. The repetition of removal affects the individual herself and all those who witness it, coming to understand the price of willfulness.
It is within this context that I think about Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy to become the Democratic candidate for the President of the United States. While the major woman candidate before her was “locked up,” again and again, institutional structures (Russia’s interest in U.S. elections; the Democratic party itself; Bernie Bros; traditional and social media; debates designed to have candidates go after each other; etc.) functioned for some crucial weeks to silence, or make invisible, Elizabeth Warren, whose big brain and detailed plans should make her perhaps the most visible of the remaining candidates. Thomas Friedman, in his February 25th (2020) op-ed titled “Dems, You Can Defeat Trump in a Landslide,” made clear that either Sanders or Bloomberg will be the white male savior, and that everyone else should fall in line in their secondary roles. Super Tuesday is this coming Tuesday, and I’m not yet ready to join the invisibility train for the person I believe to have the best of the best of what all candidates can offer. (Of course, I will support and vote for whoever wins the Democratic nomination. That should go without saying.)
This big girl wants to see Elizabeth’s Warren big brain, huge heart, detailed plans, and willful ways occupy the White House. Fingers crossed for a Super Tuesday.