Figuring out how something started can be a waste of time. It can also open up whole new ways of approaching an issue.
Recently, the subject of boundaries is on my mind: where I maintain them, where I don’t, and how it has affected my life. At a party this weekend, I had a long conversation in a hot tub with a woman I’d just met. The subject was not boundaries, but rather art and self exploration. She told me about her recent, strong desire to fling paint at things, and I discussed what I was learning about expressive arts therapy.
The next day, I helped her make a salad in the kitchen. We were having trouble finding salad tongs in this vacation house, and remembering last night’s conversation, I said to her, “You could also just hand toss it. Your hands are clean.” Her face looked at me guiltily, like a child about to steal a cookie, but she proceeded to plunge in. Bits of beet and broccoli started to tumble over the sides of the bowl.
Her shoulders immediately shot up to just below her ears. I was fascinated. “Do you notice what’s happening with your shoulders?” I asked, gently curious. She stopped, released them, and sighed. “I just have such a hard time making a mess. It makes me so anxious.”
“Understood,” I replied. “But is there anything just below or next to that anxiety?” She started mixing again. “It’s really…powerful.”
She seemed surprised by her word choice, and this morning it has me thinking about boundaries and gender. It is generally accepted that men have more practice, and thus an easier time, with boundaries, but how and why? Could it be, in part, because girls aren’t given permission to make a mess when they’re young?
Messy little girls are often called tomboys. Girls are more harshly scolded for getting their clothing dirty, if for no other good reason than girls clothing costs more. Stereotypical girls play is also indoors. I know these norms have been in dramatic flux during my lifetime, but the fact that we still recognize them as norms means that they’re not out of our collective system yet. A few days before I coached my anxious salad tosser, a dear friend of mine said to me, “We don’t know where the boundary is until we hit it.” Is labeling and then encouraging little boys to be messy creatures, also encouraging them to start learning boundaries early?
It seems to me that girls and women crave mess just the same, and that we often find destructive ways to experience it when we’re discouraged from simple messes. Gossip, girl drama, chasing boys and men who don’t want you or aren’t good for you to a whole host of disastrous consequences–just to name a few.
Of course, this is not to argue that all little girls who did make messes will employ that knowledge in constructing healthy boundaries. I think of my own younger sister, a consummate tomboy when little. As an adult she became a master manipulator, which requires an intricate understanding of boundaries, minus the healthy enactment.
The permission to make a mess clearly isn’t the only factor in boundary creation, but I wonder if it is an ignored one. When I started painting large canvases in November, I quickly realized that part of what I loved about the process was ending up covered in paint. During that same time period I started camping consistently, for the first time as an adult. On these trips, I often notice the desire to slide down hills and rocks, cross streams, even pick up handfuls of dirt and rub them on myself. I don’t believe that my parents would have restricted my mess making access as a kid, but the bookworm in me did it to myself for years.
As a teacher I often worried about kids who were forced to play a sport or pick up an instrument against their will, but now I wonder if maybe my position on that was too absolute. If my parents had dragged me, kicking and screaming, to some field to play some sport, would I have gained proficiency with boundaries earlier? If they took the book from my hand and made me play outside, would I be able to more quickly and firmly define my ‘no!’?
My mess making side is obviously calling to me these days, and I am listening. Last night I covered the wild boar statue in my apartment with gold paint. Number one, I’ve been really enamored with gold paint lately, and number two, I just wanted to see what would happen if I carried out this whim. I laughed and smiled the entire way through, and yes, it felt…powerful.