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3 July 2019updated 26 Jul 2021 4:19am

The pig-faced lady helped me understand why my own shifting body was a source of shame

By Megan Nolan

“Why are you so obsessed with pigs?” my ex-boyfriend once asked. He was looking over my shoulder while I should have been working, but instead I was reading about the legends of pig-faced women that emerged in the 17th and 18th century. It was a popular myth in Europe at the time, the pig-faced woman. They were said to be womanly in all other ways, soft curves and delicate hands, but with the monstrous face of a pig. Usually the story went that a mother had spurned a beggar on the street while pregnant, who had then cursed the unborn child with the most terrible fate of all: to be a hideous woman.

In the 1700s Griselda Steevens, a reclusive Dublin philanthropist who often wore a veil, became so upset by rumours she was pig-faced that she had a portrait commissioned of herself that she had hung in the lobby of the hospital she founded in Kilmainham, which still stands today. But it made no difference. Locals preferred a painting of her with a pig’s face that hung in a local pub. When others decide you are a monster, there isn’t much you can do to change their minds.

I was poring endlessly over illustrations of pig-faced women. I couldn’t get enough of them, these comic and poignant pictures of women in their finery, rendered horrific and shamed, sitting at writing desks or dining tables in gowns and gloves, tusks gleaming, snouts hairy and sweating. I couldn’t quite explain it, to my boyfriend or to myself, but I felt a deep spiritual kinship with them. I knew it had to do with shame, or shamelessness. It had to do with disgust, and dirt and untidy bodies. It had to do with awe at any creature being big and greedy and not being sorry for it.

I didn’t always like pigs. They weren’t an animal I’d grown up having any particular fondness for, except on my breakfast plate; I was more of a cat person. I liked that cats were sleek and elegant and moved around in shadows, that they didn’t make much noise and tended to be beautiful. I suppose back then I aspired towards silence and smallness, felt it to be my natural state. When my body got out of line, I beat it back into submission.

I think the worst thing about having a body is that it changes. I believe I could make some peace with my own if it was a single entity, a static presence whose terrain I could learn and learn to accept. But no body stays exactly the same, and mine in particular swings extravagantly back and forth with alarming ease, sometimes through no effort or will of my own. It’s hard to acknowledge, let alone love, something that you can’t trust.

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I have taken antidepressants sporadically throughout my adult life. When I have a long phase on medication, my body changes into something alien to me. I try not to mind too much, to remember that my brain needs that medicine and that’s the most important thing. But when I am honest, I admit that I am sick of my body veering wildly off in different directions without my permission, and I’m tired of not recognising myself when I look in the mirror. The shame of having a body I can’t control feels heavy and unmanageable.

It isn’t, in these times, that I believe I look objectively bad, it’s that I can’t handle the constant morphing. I can’t handle things happening to my physical form that I have no say in. And then there is the shame of having a mind so tediously convoluted and easily overwhelmed that it needs to be given extra chemicals to work in the first place. Why can’t all my parts just stay in place? Why can’t they function together in harmony as others do? Why can’t I be sleek and easy as a cat, instead of lumpen and screeching and unsightly as a pig?

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For my 26th birthday my friend Joe bought me a copy of Pig Tales: A Novel of Lust and Transformation by Marie Darrieussecq. It was the book I needed to explain the strange envy and intimacy I felt when I saw or thought about pigs and how that related to my own physicality and spirit.

In Pig Tales, the nameless and beautiful narrator is a perfume sales girl and concubine whose job is largely to “to look lovely and well groomed at all times”. All is well until our narrator begins to develop a frightening appetite. Her skin grows coarse and hairy, her flesh expands and becomes rounded and portly. Slowly but surely she transforms into a pig. Her new ungainly form repels many of her clients and boyfriends (and attracts some), until finally, when the transformation is complete, she has to go on the run from animal control, taking to the forest.

It’s an absurd, hilarious novel and became a commercial and critical hit in the author’s native France when it was published in 1996. What I loved about it, why I needed to read it, was that when the narrator transformed she was not ruined. Unlike the legends of the pig-faced women, who are cursed by their monstrosity, this woman was liberated by it. She becomes more sensual than she ever was, groomed and contained.

There is a kind of ecstasy in her abandon. Her needs are boundless and she makes no apology for them. Her ugliness to others is not a problem, because she is enjoying her body and its new sensations. Instead of denying her ability to disgust others, or her inappropriate outsize appetites both for food and sex, she leans right into them.

The pig cannot be made to feel shame for its size, its jubilant need, its right to be dirty and unsightly. It pushes through such ideas and finds that on the other side of them is pure joy, full troughs, endless fields of muck to roll in. There is relief for me in imagining a creature like that, a life like that. There is relief in the idea of a body whose wild swings and unpredictable shifts are not a cause for horror but curious enjoyment. 

Next week: Amelia Tait

This article appears in the 03 Jul 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn delusion