Extravagent Bodies

December 14, 2006

No matter what
size we are, most of us have at some
time in our lives doubted the beauty of
our external self. All my life I was a
skinny woman with large breasts and a muscular
body and then perimenopause came and I am now
a plump woman with even bigger breasts and a
belly that is competing with them for
prominence! My thighs rub together when
I walk – ugh!

One sleepless night when I
was obsessing over “all things Clarissa”
I found this interview published in
Radiance Magazine.

Radiance: The Magazine for Large Women
Women Who Run with the Wolves
An interview with author and analyst
Clarissa Pinkola Estés

By Isabella Wylde

From the Radiance Winter 1994 Issue

“I am built close to the ground and of
extravagant body.” So writes the Jungian
analyst and cantadora storyteller Dr.
Clarissa Pinkola Estés in her number 1
New York Times best-seller, Women Who
Run with the Wolves (Ballantine Books,
1992). Remaining on the prized list for
one year (as of August 1993), her book
uses multicultural myths and folk and
fairy tales to help women reconnect with
their instinctual selves.

Having struggled with body size most of
my life, I was especially curious about
Dr. Estés, and fascinated by her book
and audio tapes (available through
Sounds True, Boulder, Colorado). In
Denver bookstores, where brochures and
fliers announce upcoming workshops, I
found that several local women had begun
to offer workshops and ongoing groups to
facilitate “finding the creative Wild
Woman.” Dr. Estés’s work was catching
on. Further proof came when her name
appeared as a clue in a New York Times
crossword puzzle!

I was eager to attend a conference for
women where Dr. Estés was scheduled to
speak in Boulder. After the
introductions, a large woman in a black
dress with a blue yoke climbed the stage
steps. Her dark hair was pulled back and
adorned with a red bow at the nape. The
audience began to applaud immediately.
Suddenly, everyone stood up, clapping
and yelling to honor this woman who had
not, as yet, spoken one word. It was
obvious that many women at the
conference had been touched deeply by
Dr. Estés’s work.

Though skeptical when I had first bought
her tape, I found myself listening to
“The Wild Woman Archetype” over and over
again. I gained emotional strength from
each hearing. I began to feel more
alive, excited, empowered. I told
friends about it, I bought her book, and
I soon found women in all walks of life
who were being strengthened by Estés’s
words, by the stories that she calls
soul vitamins.

They seemed to reach me at a
subconscious level. The stories affirmed
my inner core self and reminded me that
I am valuable, creative, important. Her
stories and interpretations strengthened
my resolve to dig out more of my own
inner feelings and desires, and to put
time and energy into them; to value what
my sometimes rigid family and community
do not – creativity, vision, personal
power; and to trust my own oft-trampled
intuition, my wounded “inner child.”

Estés was raised in the rural midwest
near the Great Lakes. She describes her
childhood environment poetically in the
introduction to her book. “There,
thunder and lightning were my main
nutrition. Cornfields creaked and spoke
aloud at night. Far up in the north,
wolves came to the clearings in
moonlight, prancing and praying. We
could all drink from the same streams
without fear.”

This early exposure to nature and a
later study of wildlife biology,
focusing on wolves, led Estés to make a
comparison of women to wolves. “Healthy
wolves and healthy women share certain
psychic characteristics,” she writes.
“Wolves and women are relational by
nature, inquiring, possessed of great
endurance and strength. They are deeply
intuitive, intensely concerned with
their young, their mate, and their pack.”

Her analogy continues: “Yet both have
been hounded, harassed, and falsely
imputed to be devouring and devious,
overly aggressive, of less value than
those who are their detractors.
Separation from the wildish nature
causes women to become confused and lose
their way.”

And when women hear the term wild woman,
it is like “the fairy-tale knock at the
door of the deep female psyche” and “an
old, old memory is stirred and brought
back to life. The memory is of our
absolute, undeniable, and irrevocable
kinship with the wild feminine, a
relationship which may have become
ghosty from neglect, buried by
overdomestication, outlawed by the
surrounding culture, or no longer
understood anymore. We may have
forgotten her names,” Estés writes, “but
in our bones we know her, we yearn
toward her; we know she belongs to us
and we to her. A healthy woman is much
like a wolf: robust, chock-full, strong
life force, life-giving, territorially
aware, inventive, loyal, and roving.”

In her book, Estés explains that she
uses the word wild to mean living “a
natural life, one in which the criatura,
creature, has innate integrity and
healthy boundaries.” She stresses that
balance is necessary and good, and that
women should beware of overdoing it in
any area of their lives, even in
creative work.

The wild and instinctual nature means
“to establish territory, to find one’s
pack, to be in one’s body with certainty
and pride regardless of the body’s gifts
and limitations, to speak and act in
one’s behalf, to be aware, alert, to
draw on the innate feminine powers of
intuition and sensing, to come into
one’s cycles, to find what one belongs
to, to rise with dignity, to retain as
much consciousness as we can.”

Estés put herself through college and
then earned a Ph.D. in psychology after
a divorce and a year spent on welfare
with her young daughters. She next
earned a postdoctoral diploma that
certified her as a Jungian analyst.
Working as a psychotherapist, Estés soon
recognized that traditional psychology
looked at women as men would have them
be, missing the “deeper issues important
to women: the archetypal, the intuitive,
the sexual and cyclical, the ages of
women, a woman’s way, a woman’s knowing,
her creative fire.”

In 1976 Estés developed the first
psychology course on women in Colorado
and taught it at a local community
college. She had seen women in her
psychotherapy practice with a similar
problem. They, like the larger
patriarchal society surrounding them,
did not value women’s creativity but
rather their “niceness.” This
effectively squashes, and drives deep
within, women’s true nature and creative
gifts. In her practice, Estés found that
telling stories worked better than
traditional psychology in helping both
women and men find their strengths.

Each of her ethnic heritages – Mexican
and Hungarian – has contributed to
Estés’s love and immense knowledge of
stories and myths. In her adult years
she traveled and spent time with people
of many cultures, including Native
Americans from the north, throughout the
west, and down to Central and South
America. She writes in her book that she
became a “gypsy scholar” traveling in a
little trailer in which she would “drive
down any dirt road [she] could find and
see who was at the end of it.”

I’ve traded stories at kitchen tables
and under grape arbors, in hen-houses
and dairy barns, and while patting
tortillas, tracking wildlife, and sewing
the millionth cross-stitch. I’ve been
lucky to share the last bowl of chili,
to sing with gospel women so as to raise
the dead, and sleep under stars in
houses without roofs. I’ve sat down to
the fire or dinner, or both, in Little
Italy, Polish Town, the Hill Country,
Los Barrios, and other ethnic
communities throughout the urban Midwest
and Far West, and most recently traded
stories about sparats, bad ghosts, with
storytellers in the Bahamas.

In Women Who Run with the Wolves, Estés
uses nineteen folk tales to empower and
enlighten women. She attempts to
reconnect us with the Wild Woman hidden
somewhere deep within each of us. From
the tale of “La Loba – The Wolf Woman,”
through “Bluebeard,” “Vasalisa The
Wise,” “The Ugly Duckling,” and “The Red
Shoes,” to “The Handless Maiden,” Estés
offers solutions to the common pitfalls
of women’s lives.

Originally Dr. Estés attempted to
publish her work with the Jungian
presses, but was rejected. She then made
several audio tapes available by
mail-order, which sold well by word of
mouth. Luckily, one of her tapes reached
a New York editor, and the publisher
came to her.

Dr. Estés is now writing a second book,
one of several in the works. It is
called When This Tree Has Stood Winter:
Myths and Stories of the Wise Woman
Archetype. A former executive director
of the C. G. Jung Institute in Denver,
Estés currently spends time writing and
keeping a small practice. In addition,
she is a longtime human rights activist
who has developed and heads the
Guadalupe Foundation, which has as one
of its missions broadcasting
strengthening stories via radio to
troubled areas throughout the world.

During the open microphone sessions at
the conference I attended, many
participants thanked Estés further for
her book. One woman said that no book
had helped her deal with the
aftereffects of a rape as much as Women
Who Run with the Wolves.

“That’s because it isn’t self-help!”
Estés exclaimed.

Several days later, when I had the
opportunity to interview Dr. Estés, she
explained what she had meant.

“People are starved for poetry, starved
for things that strengthen them,” she
began. “There are any number of
so-called self-help books and tapes on
the market, but I don’t think that
people are needing or wanting self-help
as much as they want to be strengthened.
It is useful, most definitely, but it
leaves out the underworld, the deep
inner life. Deep inner life,” she
emphasized. “It also leaves out the spirit.”

Estés described for me her method of
healing. “I come from the Curanderisma
healing tradition from Mexico and
Central America. In this tradition a
story is ‘holy,’ and it is used as
medicine. The story is not told to lift
you up, to make you feel better, or to
entertain you, although all those
things, of course, can be true. The
story is meant to take the spirit into a
descent to find something that is lost
or missing and to bring it back to
consciousness again. For some people
that may sound mystical . . . and it
is!” she added, laughing.

I recalled the advice for her daughters
that Estés had listed at the conference.
1) Be friendly but never tame. 2)
Misbehave with integrity. 3) Don’t let
the bastards grind you down! I asked if
she thought her own daughters were Wild

“I would say that they have a good start
as pretty strong pups. They have a
really good connection to their
instinctual life,” she answered. “What I
mean is not that they live within that
bound all the time, but that they know
immediately when they are out-of-bounds
and make actions to correct it.

“The injunction in our culture is to ‘be
perfect,’ which is ridiculous,
impossible, and not only that – it is
boring! Perfection means that you have
to be totally still, that nothing can
ever change. To live that way would be

Estés explained how our egos interfere
with our instinctual nature by
convincing us of false paths. “A
gorgeous person walks into our lives and
we drop everything and go off. Or we
take a job we hate for the money we
love, or think that if we just do
something, that somehow life will be
made miraculously better. That’s the
kind of out-of-boundary that most people
struggle with. If you don’t have a sense
of the instinctual nature, then
sometimes you are outside of your own
cycles rather than in them.

“The cycles are birth, light, and
energy, and then depletion, decline, and
death. Then incubation and new life
comes. Cycles, that is how we are
supposed to meet everything,” she
emphasized. “Our children, our work, our
lovers – everything goes through that
cycle. There is the time to say that is
enough, to incubate, and then to come
back with new energy and new life again.

“And when a woman is in that mystical
and practical sensibility called the
instinctual nature, then she knows when
it is time to make things live and time
to let things die.”

Estés told me two life circumstances
that had contributed to her unusually
strong self-esteem in relation to body size.

“I was born of Mexican heritage and
adopted as an older child by Hungarian
immigrants,” she began. “My adopted
family had bought the culture lock,
stock, and barrel. They did not want
people to know that they could not speak
English very well, that they could not
read or write. They also bought into the
cultural injunction against the natural
female body, so my foster mother and her
sisters all tried to starve themselves –
to be thin, to wear to church the pointy
high heels, and girdles – all the
devices of torture.

“After the Second World War, when I was
about eight or nine, my foster father
searched throughout Europe for any
living relatives who might have survived
the war. He found four of his sisters
who had lost their husbands and all of
their children. He managed to bring them
to the United States.

“Here they came off the train in
Chicago.” Estés laughed as she went on.
“These four big women. And I mean huge
women. Their clothes were hanging on
them, which means that they had been
even bigger before they were starved.
They were tall and broad. They came here
with hair down to their ankles, braided
and wrapped around their heads, and with
only a few clothes.

“They treated me as though I were a
‘Child of God,’ because I was the only
living child in the family. They could
not hug me enough. I can remember them
hugging me and hugging me and hugging
me. They were always wanting to hold me.
I was older, but they carried me around
like I was a baby.” She laughed out loud
at this memory. “I just loved them –
they were so wonderful!

“They grew bigger and bigger as they
were recovering, and they returned to
their natural size, which was big. I was
just so thrilled with them. They raked
and hoed and spaded and seeded and
watered and harvested. They spun and
wove and chrocheted and tatted, and they
made lace.

“I can remember sitting beside them at
night as they told stories with their
arms around me, and their large hips –
how big and how comforting the aunts
were. How safe I felt near them.

“You know the phrase thunder-thighs?”
Estés asked. “‘She makes thunder when
she walks’ – you are supposed to be able
to hear a woman coming by her thighs
brushing against each other – that is
what my aunts taught me!”

The second event that influenced her
life occurred when Estés was in her
early thirties.

“I went back to the Isthmus of
Tehuantepec in Mexico to meet some of my
ancestral family members. I found this
huge group of big women. They thought I
was too thin and they were astounded at
the idea of a ‘diet.’ Astounded. They
kept trying to put dieting into a
religious context – like purification,
or strengthening oneself in a spiritual way.

“I said to them, ‘No, no, only so that
you can attract men.’

Estés continued, “They are the Tehuana.
They are a matriarchy, and they would
put their hands on their hips and would
say, ‘Que?’ (What?) And they were really
not only puzzled but also outraged.
‘They do this to women far up north?’
they asked me.

“‘Yes, women do it to themselves far up
north,’ I said to them.

“My blessing that I received from them I
would call a rebirthing for my own body.
They lived in a way that I found I could
also live by seeing the body as a
vehicle. Some people naturally have a
small body, and that is their vehicle.
But some women and men have very large

After that visit, Estés stopped dieting.
“I never, ever again went on a diet,
because I felt that my body was meant to
be large. I also saw that I came from a
long line of women who were proud and
stood tall. They were totally empowered,
and they also had large bodies.”

Estés added, “I think that it is all
right if people want to control their
weight, as long as they don’t make
themselves sick about it. But I also
think that there is something to be said
for not causing a woman to spend a huge
amount of her entire life preparing
food, shopping for food, fixing food,
and eating food in order to maintain a
weight that’s less than her body would
like to be.

“Robbing women’s creative life from them
– to set them after a foolish task –
that happens in fairy tales and in
mythology a lot. It shows the separation
of the person form their own soul life.
The person is set upon a foolish task,
and finally in the midst of their life
they wake up and say, ‘Oh, my, this is a
foolish task.'” Estés laughed.

“I can’t even imagine that we were put
on the face of this Earth in order to be
thin. I think most of us are here on a
mission different from a job or a
career. I think we’re here to do helping
and healing and discovery and creation.

“I think the idea of body size is a
diversion and a distraction from the
real work. The process of being here is
the most important, and we must honor
that with respect and love.”

I was reminded of an incident I had
observed at the Boulder conference.
Estés had been invited to join the panel
of presenters on the stage after a lunch
break. As she ascended the stairs, she
noticed only one empty chair. She hesitated.

Glancing from the chair to the audience,
she said, “One thing large people learn
is to check out a chair with arms before
sitting, or else when you get up you may
be wearing it!” She walked bent over,
demonstrating how she would look with a
chair stuck to her backside.

The humorous way she handled what could
have been an embarrassing moment was
refreshing to me. Later, when I
mentioned this to her, she said, “It’s
like with shoes. I have a size 9 foot,
and I wouldn’t try to put it into a size
7 shoe.” Simple, no excuses.

At the closing ceremony of the
conference, when a Native American woman
began performing a ritual with drums and
chants, Estés had already gathered her
things and left the stage. Hesitating at
the foot of the stage, she looked as
though she wanted to make a hasty exit,
but still didn’t want to miss anything.

The drumming and chanting proceeded.
Estés suddenly kicked off her shoes, put
down her purse and glasses, and, with
her arms raised high, swayed and danced
to the drumbeat. As she continued to
move around the large auditorium, other
women left their seats to dance with
her, and one of the women on the panel
left the stage to join in.

Such life, such beauty in her movement!
Estés’s glorious large body was dancing
with abandon and grace. This image has
stayed with me, this image of a woman
who truly loves and cherishes her own body.

For information on the audio tapes
available by Clarissa Pinkola Estés,
write to Sounds True Audio, 735 Walnut
Street, Boulder, CO 80302, or call

ISABELLA WYLDE is a free-lance writer
and social worker who is trying to live
up to her new last name. She is
currently working on a book about women
and alcoholism.


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