Tail Symbolism in My Body – A Wunderkammer

In “My Body – A Wunderkammer,” one of the body parts that Shelly Jackson writes about–and certainly the most surprising–is her tail. The link appears on the first page of the hypertext, which shows a diagram of Jackson’s body, though the tail itself is not drawn in. Unlike some of the other body parts shown on this page, clicking on the word does not lead to a page about the tail, but instead reloads the diagram page. The user must instead navigate to this page by reading several other parts of the hypertext first.

In the “tail” section itself, Jackson states that she was born with a short tail, which her parents decided not to remove because she enjoyed playing with it so much as an infant and toddler. As she grew older, she grew ashamed and attempted to hide by sitting on it or clamping it with clothespins, as well as tying it to a doorknob and trying to run away from it. Eventually, it shrinks and lies limp due to lack of use. In high school, Jackson becomes re-interested in the tail, and begins trying to “coax it to move.”

As Jackson grows older, the tail becomes linked more explicitly with her sexuality. She has to “slouch into [her] bedroom to masturbate” after exercising it, and it begins to “explore” and “violate [her] shamelessly” in bed at night. In college, after accidentally exposing her tail to a female friend, the friend recognizes the tail’s sexual nature and “guides [Jackson] inside her,” “[sketching] out a new world” for Jackson.

Though several sections of Jackson’s hypertext are slightly shocking their raw physical descriptions, the tail is unique in that it is much more fantastical than the other sections, and ultimately may cause the user to question Jackson’s credibility: If the tail is fabricated, are the other parts of the story also fabricated? And what is the purpose of including the tail and adding this element of doubt?

Explained in plain terms on educational science website Newton BBS and Cecil Adams’s Straight Dope column, while all humans have a tailbone–the coccyx–attached to the pelvis where some other animals have tails, the tail bone does not protrude externally. Human embryos have tails, but the tail is absorbed into the fetus as the body develops. In rare cases, a baby could be born with a “soft tail,” which contains blood vessels, muscles, and nerves, but no vertebrae, and is usually removed at delivery. Human tails are therefore considered vestigial, meaning they have lost their original functionality through evolution. They are frequently mentioned in the debate between creationism and evolution as a support for the latter system. A Google image search of “human tails” will provide some visual examples.

Though it is possible for a human to have a tail, realizing that the movement that Jackson describes–the tail twitching and wagging on its own and “violating” her at night, for example–are fictional elements causes the user to look elsewhere for Jackson’s motivations in including them.

Other portions of Jackson’s hypertext shed light on her decision to include the section on the tail. In the “back” section of the hypertext, Jackson writes, “Wings, tails, extra legs: I could cope with anything but the usual.” Jackson does not want to be considered ordinary, and though she is initially ashamed of her tail–or her unique characteristics–she comes to terms with the fact that they set her apart. Whether or not Jackson’s tail actually exists or existed in any form, her fictional interactions with it can be read as a manifestation of this desire.

The sexual implications of the tail suggest the importance of Jackson’s sexuality to her self-image. Other sections in the hypertext exhibit her sexual curiousness, like her efforts to climax by stimulating nontraditional body parts like her elbow, but the tail seems to speak for her deeper desires: explicitly, by initiating her first sexual encounter with a woman.

Tails are a familiar symbols in religion, mythology, literature, etc., and are often associated with sin, a return to basic instincts, and lust. In the biblical story of the conception of original sin, Eve is tempted by a snake. In Dante’s Inferno, a man becomes intertwined with a snake as a punishment. In Greek mythology, Satyrs–half-man/half-goats–are associated with both lust and wild freedom. While the sinful implications can be associated with the shame and dismissal of her tail that prevent Jackson from realizing her basic desires.

According to the Dream Dictionary for Dummies, tail symbols in dreams have similar meanings:

Physical: “You are focusing on maintaining balance, remembering something from your past, or you’re waiting for someone or something to catch up with you. You’re looking at basic vitality, male sexuality, and sexual needs. A situation is dragging out, taking too long.”

Emotional: “A curly tail means mischievous, sometimes lustful feelings. A switching tail means you feel annoyance, irritation, or occasionally pleasure.”

Mental-Spiritual: “You’re focusing on instinct and urges…Cutting off a tail ‘curtails’ access to the wisdom of the body and earth.”

The physical and emotional readings adhere with the tail’s obviously sexual implications (though the distinction of the “male sexuality” is interesting in that Jackson discusses at times being culturally associated with men by allowing her armpit hair to grow and maintaining a muscular physique–is having a tail somehow a masculine quality?). Also, just as the Mental-Spiritual symbolism of the tail suggests, when Jackson reconnects with her tail, she gains access to a more complete view of her body and its relation to her inner-self.

When viewed in the structural context of the hypertext, this aspect of the tail’s significance is further developed. Just as the user must navigate through several layers of the hypertext before reading this section, it is more difficult for Jackson to acknowledge and understand this complicated, at times hidden body part. The hypertext’s structure also guarantees that by the time the reader encounters this part of Jackson’s narrative, they will have developed an initial understanding of her that allows them to interpret the significance of the tail’s unusual presence.


~ by elisehawthorne on February 14, 2010.

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