Well Dr. Sungold, you have succeeded. Your class has so infiltrated my brain, that I found myself responding today to an eye-roll-and-head-shake-evoking display of hegemonic masculinity with the immediate thought, “I should blog about this!” And so here goes…
I came to my office a few hours ago with the goal of preparing for classes next week while watching the OU football team play Rutgers on ESPN3. I threw my unbrushed hair into a sloppy bun ontop of my head, tugged a plain gray sweatshirt (that may or may not be clean) over my raggy t-shirt and athletic shorts, pulled on my running shoes and headed to campus. Halftime rolled around and I could feel my energy lagging, so I decided to use the break to run uptown for a little caffeine jolt.
As I neared my destination, I heard the unmistakable jeering that could be nothing other than the drunken slurs of college boys shouting at passers-by from a rooftop balcony. Sure enough, as I turned the corner, I saw a gaggle of guys leaning over a railing, shouting after two young women. One of the women tugged down on her tunic-like top to cover a bit more of her gray tights. The edges of the women’s mouths tugged up in something like a smile, but the tension in their eyes and the plastic rigidity of their expressions communicated their embarrassment to me. I heard one male voice from above yell, “We’re no dummies, we cum on the tummy!” And, amid a chorus of laughter, I heard someone say, “Seriously! You should come up here!”
The balcony boys couldn’t see me yet and I felt a little nervous as I approached. I suddenly felt hyper-conscious of my frumpy appearance today. I worried that they’d jeer at me, make fun of me, clarify that they were inviting the cute girl in the tights up– not the slob in the oversized sweatshirt. I didn’t WANT to be invited up; I just wanted to be invisible to them. I ducked under the awning of my destination coffee-shop, grateful to have escaped their gaze. As my stomach unclenched, my mind jumped to the reading I had just completed.
This week’s readings deal with issues of outward appearance– fashion, clothes, plastic surgery, skin-deep beauty. Kathy Davis describes the experiences of women who, after “years of suffering because of bodies (or body parts) that are experienced as too ‘different’ or too ‘abnormal’ to be endured,” seek surgical solutions. In many ways, I have avoided this sort of suffering in my life. In fact, when “surgical solutions” have been suggested for my thrice-broken nose or my slightly mis-set jaw, I have happily declined. I’m not experiencing pain or discomfort and I like the way I look! My youthful, fit body conforms to social definitions of “normal.” In fact, I seem to have collected all the dominant genes between my parents, resulting in a very “normal” appearance. I am average height, average weight, with a fairly average Caucasian-American appearance.
My average body has been something of a neutral mannequin for trying on whatever aspect of my identity I choose to make salient. As Young notes, “One of the privileges of femininity… is an aesthetic freedom, the freedom to play with shape and color on the body, to don various styles and looks, and though them exhibit and imagine unreal possibilities” (p. 74). Certainly, every morning I wake up and decide whether I want to wear that dress that flatters my figure, that sweatshirt that announces my college affiliation, that outfit that emphasizes my professionalism (or my athleticism or my feminism or my… whatever). So I think about my clothes. And I think about my appearance. But for the most part, I take it for granted.
As I walked toward those boys (yes, boys– I am intentionally infantilizing them) shouting from the balcony, I thought about my clothes, I thought about my appearance, and I thought about this question that Young poses at the very beginning of her discussion of dress: “Is it that I cannot see myself without seeing myself being seen?” (p. 63). This question reverberates through all of the readings. Why do I care what other people think when they see me? More specifically, why do I care what these drunken strangers think when they see me? Am I that shallow? That needy of affirmative evaluations of my appearance? Or is it, as Lucy Grealy notes, “not that we are all so self-obsessed, it is that all things eventually relate back to ourselves, and it is our own sense of how we appear to the world by which we chart our lives…” (p. 72).
I relay the story of my walk to the coffee-shop as an example of how women’s outward appearances can be overdetermined by others; as an example of how these evaluations can be internalized. These internalized feelings of shame and embarrassment, or even (on the flip side) pride, are not static evaluations of who we ARE. But also, equally important, these internalized feelings and these external appearances are not irrelevant to how we construct ourselves in world with others.