My roommate and I talk about our shits over dinner. We recount our bowel movements’ consistency, color, and the ease with which they came out of us in much the same manner as a Sex and the City lunch date. It doesn’t rankle either of us to talk about bodily functions; we’ve been friends for about a decade now, and we piss with the door open. I suspect our code of honesty might ascend the usual bonds of friendship. Still, we’ve exhausted so many topics in our years of being friends, and the titillating particulars of private rituals are always fresh food for thought. (If defecation ever loses its appeal, we pivot to the overtones of our body odor.) In our household, TMI is essentially nonexistent.
We agree that the Grotesque Woman (a recurring figure in contemporary art) is our version of a prophetic truth-teller, unabashedly out of step with the ever-present Male Gaze. In front of the TV, we discussed Melissa Broder and her essay “My Vomit Fetish, Myself” from her collection So Sad Today. Even I, who can stomach Kathy Acker without blinking an eye, had to stop a few times while reading to collect myself before returning to the page. Broder, refreshingly adverse to self-censure, details vomit-related sexual fantasies with all the tenderness of a marriage proposal. “That’s my feminism,” my friend said from the floor. In a world where measuring up remains forever elusive, there is something to be said for throwing the whole damn script out.
Despite what the movies depict, a woman in the throes of coming undone doesn’t do it in her best panties and a smokey eye; actual implosion is never pretty. A body is a body, and a woman—regardless of her facial symmetry—shits. The candor of recent artists Melissa Broder, Ottessa Moshfegh, and film director Julia Ducournau dispels the patriarchy’s idea of womanhood as much as it asserts the reality of it. When we’re honest about the “grossness” of being female (body horror has long mined menstruation and childbirth for material), we reckon with their personhood.
My mind goes straight to Annie Hamilton, recently profiled in The New York Times, and her burgeoning Substack. For the mere price of $60 a year, you, too, can read her diaristic account of sleeping around, popping pills, and contracting a rare gum disease. Take, for example, her recollection of when a date refused to kiss her. “It feels like there’s a sickness inside your mouth like you’re unwell or something,” she remembers him saying. “I’ve never tasted or smelt anything like it.” I read the piece aloud to my friends, awed by her willingness to forego prettiness for the sake of honesty. For all my closed-door conversations about shit, I’m still remarkably vain. So when Annie Hamilton cries and pisses on a patio, to me it feels like something akin to rebellion.
As a figure of internet performance art, Cat Marnell is Hamilton’s closest predecessor. Coming onto the scene in the early 2010s at the height of blogs and Tumblr, Marnell chronicled her eating disorder, stimulant addiction, and generally chaotic lifestyle for the likes of VICE and xoJane. While addiction looks thrilling in print, there’s something grotesque in its nature. It conjures ideas of lack of control, a parasite capable of marring its host forever. In her early days, Cat Marnell was known as a woman on the brink, whose beauty and comparative privilege only added to the drama. Marnell, the daughter of a psychologist and a psychiatrist, grew up with a tennis court in her backyard and a penchant for staying thin. When artfully composed, a trainwreck is something to behold.
Ottessa Moshfegh became famous for penning such characters, catapulting the Grotesque Woman into pop culture. Moshfegh’s heroine in My Year of Rest and Relaxation takes a shit in the art gallery where she works. Employment, basic hygiene, and meaningful human interaction are mere distractions in her quest for self-annihilation. Compare this to the protagonists of her two other novels (one being an unstable 24-year-old prison secretary, the other an elderly widow quickly losing her grasp on reality), and you end up with a pretty clear picture of just how batshit women get when they stop servicing the male fantasy.
Moshfegh, in her 2018 profile in The Cut, lamented the degree to which women are allowed to engender disgust. “After I wrote Eileen, I just got so sick of everybody saying how gross and ugly she was. And I was like, well, would you say that if she looks like a model? So I was like, fuck you! I’ll write a book about a woman that looks like a model. Try to tell me she’s disgusting! And that just proves you’re a misogynist.” She reportedly kept a piece of paper with “VANITY IS THE ENEMY” taped to her window for years.
Conversely, women of color, especially Black women, have a long and disturbing history of being hypersexualized, while deemed “animalistic” and thus unclean. Outside of the realm of visual art, very few women of color have been able to sell grotesque narratives to the level of someone like Cat Marnell. Class, race, and sexual promiscuity have historically correlated with a woman’s perceived cleanliness. If a woman is dirty, it follows she must be dangerous, clashing against the (white, male) norms prescribed to her. We only seem to commend “bad” behavior when it emanates from a mouth of privilege.
Before the Grotesque Woman, there were the Dirty Girls, lovingly preserved in the short documentary by Michael Lucid. The film follows a group of 13-year-old Angeleno Riot Grrrls in 1996, derided for their unkempt appearance (thus the given name “Dirty Girls”) and grass-roots protests. “I have a right to be mad. I have a right to be sad,” an artsy-looking upperclassman girl laughs, quoting a featured poem in the zine. At a library table, another girl reads from the same issue, “Now I realize you killed yourself. I feel your plastic surgery, bleaching beautiful hair, and perfect figure—I thought nobody could be as beautiful as you.”
The Dirty Girls, headed by an orange-haired girl named Amber, reject the idea that women, especially young girls, must be subjected to sexual objectification and degradation, and their bodies, recently sexualized, seem to be safest when deemed undesirable. In the film’s final scenes, Amber confesses her experience with sexual assault, and her bullish, don’t-give-a-fuck attitude suddenly reads as defense borne from trauma rather than straightforward idealism. The documentary serves as an early blueprint of protest against a system that has failed you.
“Anyone can know about rape. However—how…” Amber trails off, getting visibly emotional for the first time. “It doesn’t matter how old you are,” she says quietly, as the documentary cuts to a montage set to Liz Phair’s “Batmobile.” It’s all very 1996, but the message still resonates: when stripped of her physical appearance, what, of a woman, is left? How much of her humanity can you acknowledge? The patriarchy demands that you play the game even when it’s a lost cause. The Dirty Girls are derided not for their physical appearance, but their unwillingness to perform femininity.
Today, as no social movement is safe from commodification, Instagram ads for razors showcase women with armpit, leg, and facial hair, celebrating “natural” bodies while selling cosmetic alterations for it. Be more YOU with this magic tool, they scream. Only $8.99 and five minutes lie between you and the REAL YOU. Beauty standards, like diet culture, have adapted to keep with the times, now emphasizing self-love while selling newer and better methods of physical metamorphosis. For all we tell women to love themselves, there seems to be an enormous amount of pressure to change.
I think of dieting and its new name, “clean eating,” and makeup’s alluring motif of personal expression. We repackage our conformity to better align with our politics, our motivations disguised as feminism rather than an inevitable result of cultural pressure. Rather than lessening the burdens placed on women and young girls, we ask them to juggle the old demands with the new, however contradictory they might be. The standards are just as stringent as ever, only now under the aegis of empowerment.
As a teen, I would wake up early to apply makeup before my boyfriends got out of bed. I would piss with the door closed and reserve bowel movement for the safety of my apartment. For years, I could not finish via oral sex, which stemmed from deep-rooted shame about experiencing pleasure. For all my progressive politics and queerness, I remained self-conscious of my own body—its mercurial smell and rough stubble from shaving—despite readily going down on other women, unperturbed by any of the concerns I held for myself. For the most part, I’ve gotten over it, and in recent years, sex has been refreshingly shame-free.
Still, there are days when I feel my body betraying itself. I run my fingers over the fine lines on my forehead, discerning which ones will one day morph into deep creases. Early in the pandemic, I spent hours watching YouTube videos about facial proportions and, as a result, considered filler for my chin at one point (thankfully, I decided against it). I make up my face in an empty house solely to prove that I am still beautiful, whatever my private monstrosities.
Burdened as I am by deeply-seated insecurity, I find the Grotesque Woman’s rebellion almost aspirational: it exists apart from strictures either degrading or Liberating with a capital “L.” Her rebellion feels unconcerned for polite society (or any society, really), evoking a kind of zen everyone fantasizes about but rarely acts on. I can only hope to experience such freedom. The Grotesque Woman is not an embodiment of the divine femininity, but a sack of bones, flesh, and blood who was taught a language and a way of being alive—an animal capable of inciting great disgust—who would love nothing more than to stop giving a fuck.
By Rebecca Loftin
Illustration by Yoo Young Chun