Women’s bodies have always been political objects, as headlines have reminded us all too often lately. But what can get lost in the stories of society’s roll-back of reproductive rights, refusal to punish those who commit abuse, and shaming and harassment of women who speak out, is the intimate experience of actually living in a woman’s body. With Stories Of: Women, author and activist Whitney Bell is hoping to do something about that.
Described as a “vulnerability variety show,” Bell has created a platform for women she knows and admires to share personal stories on stage. Each event features several guests mixing longer stories, poetry, comedy, and music, and revolves around a theme. Past editions have included jealousy, fear, and grief.
This weekend, she brings the traveling event back to Los Angeles for Stories Of: My Body. The show will feature Roxane Gay and other special guests discussing what it means to exist in a woman’s body today. In advance of the performance, we spoke with Bell about the project.
What inspired you to launch the Stories Of: Women series?
Stories Of: Women originated because I tell my own story a lot. I talk about my own life, my own abortion. I use storytelling as a tool because I think the first step is showing how normal these issues really are. But, as a white woman in the activist community, my story can only go so far. The most effective way I can help is by giving a stage to have stories different from mine. Different privileges, fewer privileges, different lives.
Public vulnerability is immensely powerful, especially taboo topics, emotions we don’t often speak of, and things we might be ashamed to share. Stories Of: Women explores how our most painful experiences have driven us and allows both audience and performer to find catharsis in one another’s experiences. The incredibly special part of this series to me is the fact that these are not stories often told by our speakers.
At our very first show, Shirley Manson was backstage, her hands were shaking. “There’s only like 400 people out there,” I told her. “You’re used to playing to entire stadiums. What’s going on?” And she told me, “Yeah, but I never talk about my own life.”
At Stories Of: Jealousy, Nadya Okamoto, told a story she’d never told before, one she said she’d never even been fully honest with herself about. Her father emotionally and sexually abused her, taking her shopping for sexy clothes at 12 and bringing her to fancy work events as his “date.” When he started actually dating, while she was a teenager, she felt immense jealousy towards his girlfriends, because she wasn’t being given that sexual attention anymore. I have never heard anyone tell a story like that, let alone unpack it on stage in front of hundreds of strangers.
Why did you develop the ‘variety show’ format for this?
It took me a second to figure that out. I knew I wanted it to be storytelling, but storytelling on its own can get a little bit stagnant. There are many different ways to express emotions. I’ve been really lucky to be surrounded by a great group, both here in Los Angeles and in New York, of very talented women who work in all different mediums, and I wanted to be able to support them all. I wanted speakers, I wanted poets. Having comedy at a show like this, which is so emotional, is kind of imperative, because it gives the audience a chance to breathe.
We can showcase a really established poet next to a new poet. We’ve had teenage poets speak at every single event, that’s something that’s really important to me. The point of that is to give those young women exposure to an audience that’s coming for Roxane Gay or Shirley Manson, but is going to leave knowing the name of a 16-year-old poet.
How did you link up with Roxane Gay for Stories Of: My Body?
I had been in touch with Roxane Gay’s manager for about a year and a half leading up to this. I’m trying to be chill. This is my biggest celebrity moment. There is nobody else I would rather meet and be able to talk to. Maybe Michelle Obama. Maybe.
I don’t think there is any person living or dead who has impacted my feminism more than Roxane Gay. I’ve been a feminist my whole life but Bad Feminist really taught me about my privilege. It taught me about perspectives on feminism, particularly black feminism, which I had never considered before. It’s a book I gift to almost everyone in my life, especially older generations.
And then Hunger taught me about myself. It helped me see how I treated my body after sexual trauma, it taught me about how I punished myself, how it’s a life-long struggle. She introduced me to the idea of the survivor versus victim complex.
This show is taking place within the context of We Rise L.A., which is all about mental health awareness. Can you talk a bit about the connection there?
I’ve always been very open about mental health in my own life and publicly. I’ve been involved with this festival in years past as well and I think that it’s really important, particularly in raising awareness around mental health for youth, which is the focus. Depression and anxiety rates among Gen Z have spiked higher than ever, making it a really important time to talk about this.
When I first started having symptoms of mental illness, I was 18, 19 years old, and I didn’t even know what it was. I just thought I was lazy and unmotivated and a shitty person. It made everything worse. I wish I had an event like this to learn from.
When We Rise asked me to do this, it was pretty last-minute, but I immediately jumped on board. As it turned out, that very morning, I had been talking to a friend about how I have a lot of sexual trauma and how that made me never want to be present in my body growing up. I had gotten so used to disassociating that it became a constant part of my life. I didn’t want to exercise or do yoga or eat well or do anything positive for my physical body because I didn’t want to engage with it. And it took decades for me to recognize that and change it in myself.
I had to think a lot about the tie between the body, the physical form, and the experience of trauma. I told my friend that I wished I had a public forum where we could talk about that, and then this opportunity came up later that day. It was just one of those kismet things.
Stories Of: My Body takes place Sunday, May 26 at 3 p.m., in conjunction with We Rise L.A. at 1262 Palmetto Street, downtown. Admission is free; online RSVP is recommended.