By Mandisa A. Wood-Fall, M.A., M.F.A.
There are many ways we observe and create taboos, those complex rules set in place to align our behaviors with our beliefs. We all have different superstitions and customs, which bring order to the chaos of life. In fact, even the discussion of sacred rituals or private matters could be considered taboo. In this article I will share a bit of my unique perspective and experience and I encourage you to reflect and share your own experiences so that we may engage in a dialogue.
Taboo has negative connotations for many people, mostly because the word is linked to social and religious rules that are dictated by doctrine or esteemed political leaders. There is evidence as far back as the Neolithic and Paleolithic era that humans abstained from taboo foods, behaviors, customs or sexual acts to avoid extreme consequences like physical punishment, or backlash. Taboos are very much about POWER and POTENCY. They are culturally specific and they highlight beliefs about what is clean or unclean as well as what is auspicious or highly desired. Women in particular have specific taboos that vary based on age, race, nationality and many other factors. Taboos can bring us closer or further away from a higher power and they directly reflect the way society views our bodies, our ability to bleed, create and heal.
Take a moment to reflect back to your childhood. Can you share with me your earliest memory of a taboo or rules? What sort of punishment or backlash have you experienced in life when you knowingly or unknowingly went against these beliefs?
My earliest memory is of an amazing tree fort built in the branches of a huge walnut tree. There were two ways to access my magical castle in the clouds, by ladder or by rope and you guessed it! I preferred the more dangerous option for entry into my magical queendom. Yet I was not allowed to use the rope, because I was a girl. This infuriated me! One afternoon my rambunctious little brother was injured during one of his rapid descents down from the fort. He lost his grip and somehow ended up hanging upside down, with the rope wrapped around his neck. Although I was three years older than my brother, my overbearing stepfather said I was “not strong enough to climb up or down this rope, ever!” I was amazed my brother was not punished or forbidden to use the rope, even when he nearly killed himself. It was taboo to argue with my stepfather and many of his decisions were biased. I quickly lost interest in this magical tree fort.
The main image at the top of this blog post comes from Saigon, Vietnam and depicts of a nun affectionately leaning against the face of Buddha. The blog where I found this image states, “It is totally taboo in Buddhist culture. A female is not supposed to touch the Buddha nor should a female touch a Monk. Yet, the portrayal of the act in this painting speaks to me of a devotion and a love so deep as to make defiance of tradition and custom not only possible but eminently obligatory.” Silk Roads and Siamese Smiles. I chose this image because it addresses the subject of spiritual taboo as well as the rules and restrictions on women. Addressing this taboo through the medium of art allows the artist to make a strong statement without speaking a word. Image is a powerful and transformational vessel for our messages.
Yet taboo is much more than rules and regulation. In many indigenous cultures we see tapu, the original Tongan spelling, which means “sacred” or “holy,” often in the sense of being restricted or protected by custom or law. In Indigenous West African traditions, priests might abstain from certain foods because it is part of the tradition to honor a deity by offering them specific foods (in addition to other ritual acts like prayer, dance or song.) Those foods become sacred and taboo for the practitioner, but again, out of pure respect for the deity who enjoys those foods. Sometimes it is wise to abstain from things that can save our lives later, even if we really love those things. The power and potency is magnified over time, as you have restricted your access to those foods, behaviors, colors, or places in nature that are sacred. In this manner we see why a taboo can be understood as both sacred and dangerous.
Pictured in this photo are lava rocks from a volcano in Hawaii. The tourists who took these rocks home mailed them back to Hawaii apologizing for breaking the taboo, about taking rocks off the island. It is said that Pele, the goddess of the volcano, becomes particularly angry when this happens. Many people state that they experience bad luck until they return the rocks. What part of this story is myth and what part is a cultural taboo that we should honor?
Personally speaking, it has been challenging at times to adhere to my personal taboos and dietary restrictions because they draw attention to me in ways that I don’t always have time to deal with or explain. I have often felt that staying true to my sacred beliefs has caused others to see me as weird and unpredictable, though these opinions are irrelevant to my existence. To take our exploration of taboo further, I want to highlight the way I embrace and discard certain social taboos. Every day I step out into the world I fully embody a taboo prevalent in what some might generalize as, North American culture. I am a big, successful and confident black woman. A dancer that is not skinny but, is passionate about health and wellness. A painter who only creates women of substance and a teacher who knows that sharing our stories allows for just as much transformation as opening a book. I love myself exactly as I am, more and more each day. I am alluring and mysterious yet compassionate and loving. I am NOT sorry for the space I occupy in this world.
My daily revolutionary act is that I just, don’t hate myself!
The assumption that big women have no self-confidence is a myth. The comedienne and actress Margaret Cho says “when you don’t have self-esteem you will hesitate before you do anything in your life. You will hesitate to go for the job you really wanna go for, you will hesitate to ask for a raise, you will hesitate to call yourself an American, you will hesitate to report a rape, you will hesitate to defend yourself when you are discriminated against because of your race, your sexuality, your size, your gender. You will hesitate to vote, you will hesitate to dream. For us to have self-esteem is truly an act of revolution and our revolution is long overdue.” This revolutionary act is actually the focus of my article today, more so than the discussion of taboos. Why is it taboo to love ourselves exactly as we are?
I no longer hide inside of myself or shrink my personality because my body takes up space. In the book Borderlands the legendary lesbian Chicana poet and neplantera, Gloria Anzaldua said, “The soul uses everything to further its own making.” My biggest gift to women and girls is to model and discuss, different methods for growth. Until you can be comfortable in your own skin, unafraid of fear, judgment and other people’s perceptions you can’t grow. Find a way to be OK right now then shed your skin and laugh. You are not even the same person you were at the beginning of this article! So again I ask you, why is it taboo to love ourselves right now, as we are? Because this is the heart of the healers revolution. This is the way we can change the world.
Women, just like taboos can be sacred and dangerous. Our love, our power and our potency orders the cosmos. I share an affirmation for you my sisters, so that you may love yourself right now. How will you do this revolutionary work?
Leading women to create balance in their lives and take steps towards inner peace our hearts ablaze with the untold prayers of women who never got the chance to be radiant, to be bold or heard. We are passionate about clarification and anti-stagnation, moving past our past, and weaving a bright and bold future. We have a unique inner radiance with a vibration that is designed to heal. We choose to awaken our intuitive knowledge and work with these light blessings, and in the company of like-minded, positive and creative sisters, and therefore this work is not just manageable but enjoyable. We are dynamic, vivacious and our dreams are envisioned and manifested with ease.
This blog post is part of a series of articles on Taboo originally posted at Cosmic Cowgirls Magazine.