Just wanted to pop in to share an article I came across this morning. I think this type of approach to early education is a step in the right direction to changing things for the next generation to expand understandings of what gender can be (or how it’s OK not to fit into the categories we’ve been taught).
At one point in her discussion of the doubling of the pregnant self, the unique split subjectivity of pregnancy, Iris Marion Young notes that pregnancy may be a time when women are able to escape the objectifying gaze. “The leer of sexual objectification regards the woman in pieces, as the possible object of a man’s desire and touch. In pregnancy the woman may experience some release from this alienating gaze. The look focusing on her belly is one not of desire, but of recognition.” (54) In this view, the woman has finally achieved the biological mandate for which she supposedly exists. Her accomplishment of visually discernible fertility allows others to view her in a positive light for no other reason than her clear contribution to the human race.
While I think there is some merit in this discussion of the change in the gaze, I think there is a much bigger issue to address in terms of objectification and pregnancy that Young does not discuss. While a woman may not be viewed as a sexual object once she is noticeably pregnant, I would argue that she is just as much an object as the sexualized woman, if not more so.
The women in our class who have experienced pregnancy will likely attest to the fact that people seem to feel a strange right to access a pregnant woman’s body that does not have parallels in regular embodied experience. How often do complete strangers walk up to a pregnant woman and touch her, rub her belly, and request information on her unborn child? I have not yet experienced pregnancy, but I have witnessed this behavior in random public locations (as well as with my sister-in-law’s two pregnancies), and it has boggled my mind why people think this is OK. I have a hard time believing that an average (sane) person would ever think they have the right to walk up to me on the street and fondle my hair or rub my breasts, but this personal invasion is apparently completely acceptable once a woman is sporting a noticeable bump.
I have always said that the person who touches my belly during pregnancy without my consent will pull back a stump. However, this seems to be an overarching issue that may be difficult to overcome through my own harsh response (although I’m sure I’ll get some inappropriate pleasure out of shaming people who make this mistake). What are the foundations to this idea that the public at large has such access to the pregnant woman? At what point does Young’s recognition turn into entitlement? Along the same lines, is my pregnant experience in some ways not my own but rather society’s at large?
While I think these views on the availability of the pregnant woman’s body (whether she wants to be available or not) come from a kind-hearted place, the implications on the politics of the female body could be pretty intense. Maybe I’ll feel OK with softening my approach once I am actually pregnant, but maybe my intense response could also make people aware of the absurdity of their actions. I guess I’ll see….
From our discussions in class and my own experiences, it seems that most of us would deny any sort of Cartesian mind/body split – we experience the world around us and understand ourselves, if not entirely then at least to some extent, through our bodies. For women, I would suggest this necessarily includes our breasts. The articles that we read about breast cancer would seem to follow this track – women who lose their breasts through mastectomy often end up feeling an acute sense of loss for a part of their bodies that they may not have realized before helped to shape how they see themselves. When I read Amy DePaul’s article, I was angered by the suggestions that a woman going through breast cancer treatments would of course want to go up in size when she had her breasts reconstructed, but I also wondered how I would respond if I were to face this situation someday. How would I feel about myself if my breast felt different, moved different, looked different? They are a feature of my body that I have often taken for granted, but I’m sure my relation to my body would be fundamentally changed if I suddenly had to lose them.
With this intensely personal breasted experience (because of course my experience of my own breasts must be different than any other woman’s, because of not only physical differences but also our different histories in growing, changing, and living with breasts), I was baffled by some of the things discussed in Iris Marion Young’s article On Breasted Experience. On page 80, Young talks about the cultural concept that a woman’s breasts don’t really belong to her, stating “It’s hard to imagine a women’s breasts as her own, from her own point of view, to imagine their value apart from measurement and exchange.” The only point of view from which this makes sense to me is a male view, for really, if we’re thinking from a woman’s point of view, how can we image a woman’s breasts as anything but entirely her own? She may share them with others (lovers, babies), but in reality they are always inevitably part of her. I can choose to expose my breasts to my lover or keep them to myself. I can breastfeed or rely on formula. I not only experience my breasts as uniquely mine, but I appreciate them in a way that is completely apart from a phallocentric, objectifying sexuality. I don’t always see my breasts, but I can feel them move with me, sense the smallest shifts in size and shape that wouldn’t be noticeable to anyone else.
Understanding my own breasted experience as personal and unique, I also wonder at Young’s discussion of breasts within the context of motherhood. She suggests that we embrace an erotic understanding of motherhood in order to reunite motherhood with sexuality, but I wonder why this particular approach is necessary. If we allow women’s individual experiences of their bodies to be acceptable, why can’t a woman enjoy her embodied experience of motherhood and her existence as a sexual being without combining the two? In the end, I think I just have problems with any expression of what my embodied experience should or should not be. Why can’t my own unique experience be honored and accepted as just what it is – unique?
With the Halloween celebration approaching this weekend, Athens seems to be buzzing with excitement. Today I was held up in traffic for half an hour while cute little kids ran around uptown getting candy from local businesses, but there will be a very different kind of frolicking on the same streets come Saturday. While I admit to loving Halloween (and am looking forward to dressing up and having fun with my friends this weekend), I have long been annoyed with the expectation that women exploit their own bodies during this celebration. However, the news stories flooding the internet today about STARS’ (an OU anti-racism student group) Halloween campaign have drawn attention to another issue which I think has some interesting connections to our readings for this week.
For anyone who has not yet heard about this campaign, STARS created posters stating “We’re a culture, not a costume. This is not me, and this is not okay” and featuring OU students holding photos of racially or ethnically offensive costumes.
While all the “sexy/slutty” variant costumes available for women get a lot of negative attention this time of year, I honestly have not heard any commentary about racially offensive costumes until now, and I wonder whether or not this reflects an overall apathy about the seriousness of stereotyping and caricaturing racial/ethnic groups.
I posted a link to an article about this campaign on Facebook today, and a high school friend challenged the story’s assertion that ethnic costumes are offensive. She compared the Mexican in a sombrero or geisha with a cowboy or zoot suit mobster costume, and while she wasn’t trying to say that none of these costumes are negative, she clearly thought that this is an issue that is overblown. While I respect this friend, I think her comments did reflect a general opinion that we don’t have a problem with race in our country anymore and, therefore, anyone making it an issue is making a mountain out of a molehill or being overly sensitive.
While I would never claim that donning a costume for Halloween that draws on a cultural stereotype is on the same level as the problems discussed by Schiebinger (such as exploiting black people by making exhibitions out of them and parading them around like zoo creatures), I think these situations do share a certain racial antipathy that sees other racial or ethnic groups as an exotic Other that can be objectified for pleasure or entertainment. I also wonder how the white students/individuals who don’t think this is a big deal would respond to a black student making themselves up in white-face and caricaturing the “preppy frat guy/sorority chick” or something like that. Would it still be funny, or is there a double-standard in place for what cultural groups are open to objectification on Halloween?
I’m proud of the students who created this campaign and started a national discussion about racial stereotyping and negative representations. I just hope that the message is not something that is so easily brushed off as “overly sensitive.” And I hope to see less “dirty Mexicans” and “sexy eskimos” this Saturday.
One of the last questions that came up in class today had to do with the idea of freedom in Riki Wilchin’s essays on gender. It seems that, even within the transgender community, there is disagreement over how trans people should present themselves and how they should want to be seen by others. While some just want to transition and live within the cultural constructs of masculinity or femininity, others specifically seek to be political and to be viewed as queer, existing on the margins. While I want to approach issues of identity and gendered experience with an open mind and avoid judgment, there is still something about the purposefully marginal, political approach that does not sit comfortably for me. When I initially read this essay, I brushed this off, thinking it was likely just the intended response (after all, someone who seeks to live on the margins and, in some ways, “in your face” is trying to push buttons, ruffle feathers), but after our discussion in class today, I am still somewhat troubled by this approach and would like to propose a more critical view on this mindset.
Another practice that could also be brought into this conversation is the proposal to use neutral pronouns, maybe not only for trans or gender queer individuals, but for everyone as a way to level out relations of power in language. We talked about some of the practical complications of this type of change (such as the fact that many languages are so deeply founded in the gender binary that it is literally impossible to speak without drawing on masculine or feminine words), but someone also mentioned the critique that this would also function to erase gender for those who clearly identify as female or male and would be troubled by this type of erasure of their identity.
With both of these issues, what troubles me is that these approaches to gender identity do not open up possibilities for acceptance within society, but limit and narrow the possibilities for action for individuals both within and outside the normative expectations of the gender binary. While I respect the right of individuals to voice their experiences and make their own decisions about how they want to be perceived and related to, I think what is most beneficial for everyone is if we are somehow able to create more “boxes” for people to check or develop a greater comfort and acceptance for gray areas.
When I think about how this can be accomplished, I’m still somewhat stumped, but I’m pretty sure that it won’t be achieved through any type of action that maintains male and female as the power-laden binary or narrows the possibilities for how we can relate to our bodies and society. This, in the end, is why I have a problem with these two examples. Seeking to live on the margins still reinforces the central categories, and instating gender neutral language to the exclusion of current practices limits the ways in which we can talk about and understand gender. I’d like to see more suggestions for ways that we can expand possibilities, not limit them.
There were two particular comments that came up in class today that really reflected my own thought process over the last few days about how I relate to my body in terms of thinness/fatness and my own behaviors to shape my body.
“To some extent, I think we all likely engage in some disordered eating.” There were several examples given in class for types of disordered eating that don’t necessarily come out of a goal to be as thin as possible. Whether these habits come from overloaded schedules, financial constraints, environmental constraints, or other sources, I think it is helpful to realize that not all “disordered eating” results in anorexia, bulimia, or obesity. It is, however, important to analyze our reasons to understand where our behaviors are coming from and how our relationship with food might impact our life/health/conceptions of self.
The question posed in class that really summed up the questions I have been weighing over the weekend was “Where do we draw the line?” When do we decide that an individual is too thin/too fat? Even if they appear to be a normal/healthy weight, where do we draw the line of what behaviors are healthy or unhealthy? And, I think most importantly, how do we define health?
In my own experience, I’ve struggled on and off over the years with my weight. When I graduated college, I was at my heaviest weight and was overweight according to most official scales/measurements. While I understand that scales like BMI are highly problematic because they don’t take into account the composition of someone’s weight, I was not comfortable in my own skin. I had spent my senior year having a lot of fun with my friends, drinking, eating, and rarely exercising, and my figure showed it. I have since lost almost 20 pounds, but it’s still a struggle to get to my “goal.” While I’m in much better shape than I was a few years ago, I still want to be more fit, more trim, and get to where I would see myself as being in “fantastic shape.” However, lately I find it harder and harder to take any more weight on, no matter how hard I try.
I’m starting to wonder whether I might just be at what is a natural, healthy weight for me. As all of the “fat acceptance” authors discussed, there is no one “right” healthy weight or size. So if I have to push my body to the point of discomfort to lose weight and keep it off, maybe I’m not supposed to lose more weight.
Coming back to the question of “where do we draw the line,” I wonder again how we decide what a healthy body looks like. How did I get this idea that to be healthy, to be fit, to be in “good shape” means to be skinny? While I would broadly say that I think Bordo puts too much weight on the impact of the media on our body image, I have to conclude that this is the main source of my ideas. I don’t get these ideas from my life – I know women of all sizes who are healthy and fit – and when I think of images that are explicitly supposed to be about women’s healthy bodies, they are exclusively thin bodies. Look at any cover of Fitness, Shape, or Self magazines, and they exclusively feature tiny celebrities. We never see an example of a more substantial healthy body.
For my own goals, I hope to remind myself that I feel good and am proud of what my body can do. But it would be nice to see some examples of healthy bodies that are not exclusively defined as thin bodies.
Although I hadn’t previously given the myriad implications of cosmetic surgery much thought, our readings from Davis, Stevens, and Grealy this week each brought to my attention some of the tensions that exist in how we perceive these elective surgeries and the those who choose to go under the knife. While each article came from a different perspective (theoretical versus personal, plastic surgery as a practice of identity formation/effacement versus a solution to unavoidable life changes versus a process of regaining some sense of normalcy), they all brought one overarching issue to the forefront for me – namely, who decides which surgeries are acceptable and which are not? How do we come to these conclusions that plastic surgery is acceptable in situation A but deplorable in situation B? Where do we draw the line?
In Kathy Davis’s article, Surgical Passing, I appreciated her clarification on the idea that plastic surgery is not merely an attempt to conform to broader societal beauty norms, but rather is a way for an individual to alleviate their suffering over the offending aspect of their appearance. Her description of her feminist colleagues’ reaction to different types of surgeries seems to mirror many others’ reactions (including, in many cases, my own). There are some situations in which plastic surgery is OK, but overall we are critical of surgical procedures that seem to be done for purely aesthetic reasons. But even this distinction is not so easy. Davis herself offers up a question concerning this distinction – “Aren’t all recipients of cosmetic surgery, regardless of gender, ethnicity or nationality, sexual orientation or age, engaged in negotiating their identity in contexts where differences in embodiment can evoke unbearable suffering?” (p. 75) So how do we decide which situations are acceptable? When does an individual’s suffering become “unbearable”?
In recent years, several television shows have featured individuals undergoing numerous surgical procedures in dramatic makeover transformations. Interestingly, I think the critical and popular acceptance (or rejection) of these shows follows similar lines to many feminist distinctions of what kinds of plastic surgery are OK. The common judgment seems to be that surgeries done in order to correct some “deformity” or other characteristic that marks someone as different and non-normative provide significant life improvements, whereas surgeries done for aesthetic reasons (to conform to beauty standards) are superficial and can be roundly criticized.
The show Extreme Makeover (airing for 4 seasons from 2002-2007) focused on a different individual each episode with some sort of life-history sob story. They really detailed the ways their appearance had negatively affected their lives (causing them suffering), and they were given dramatic makeovers (not limited to plastic surgery, but often strongly depending on it) that were supposed to improve their personal standard of living. While the show did receive some criticism over the standards of beauty used to shape their makeovers, the show was largely framed as a service to really help these individuals.
On the other end, the show Bridalplasty aired on E! last year. For those who are not familiar with this show, I’ll let this promotional trailer speak for itself:
None of the women on this show had obvious physical characteristics that would mark them as targets for negative attention or ridicule. I watched the first episode out of curiosity, and I remember thinking “they all look pretty cute!” The show received massively negative critical attention, and the reactions I saw online (on discussion boards and online communities) were overwhelmingly vitriolic. People not only disliked this show, but they were deeply offended by the premise and the messages the show communicated about beauty, love, and women’s self-worth.
Without rambling on much longer, these examples bring me back to my question – how do we decide how much suffering is enough to warrant surgical intervention? We clearly make judgments about these choices, but who is to say that the girl who looks in the mirror and thinks her nose is too big doesn’t (or does) suffer enough to undergo surgery? Just as we want to be critical of the forces that motivate women to undergo dangerous procedures to change their appearance, I think we also need to be critical of the impulse to criticize and the foundations of those criticisms.
It’s only natural that in reading about menarche this week, I was reminded of my own first experience of menstruation. On the last day of fourth grade, I woke up and went to the bathroom to discover the red mess that I had not yet been prepared to expect. While I always looked forward to the last day of school with excitement over the fun and games in store, I told my mother what had happened and convinced her to call in sick for me. As I remember, I didn’t really feel unwell, but I was not prepared to spend the day with my peers after this discovery. I was only ten years old.
My mother had talked to me some about what would happen when I got my period, but I had heard so little about it elsewhere that it was still a bit of a mystery to me. My exposure to the realities of “becoming a woman” in popular culture was mainly limited to ads for feminine hygiene products that were about as informative as Tina Fey described hilariously in her memoir Bossypants (“nowhere…did anyone say that it wasn’t a blue liquid!”). Being so young, none of my friends had started their periods, and even our school-sponsored “sex ed day” would not come until the next year. While my mother tried to talk to me about the physical aspects of growing up, this was clearly a topic that she was not comfortable with and these few conversations were quite brief and basic.
My experience of my period has shifted several times over the years as I’ve moved through different phases. Young described this type of changing experience of menstruation during different times of life (teenage years, adult years when the ability to have children is either embraced/pursued or avoided, menopause), and I can identify several different relations to my menstrual cycle that I have experienced over time.
Despite my rocky start, I soon came to appreciate the connection I felt with my body. Even as a teenager, I could track my cycle based on how I felt, pinpointing ovulation and being able to predict the start of my period reliably each month. Janet Lee described menarche as an experience of alienation from one’s own body – something that happens to a young woman rather than within her – but my continued experience actually made me feel more aware of and connected to my body. I enjoyed this intuitive understanding of my own body that I developed, despite the pain and discomfort that sometimes came along with it.
As I grew older and became sexually active, my experience of my period changed again. I became aware of my menstrual cycle as intimately tied in to my reproductive potential. Every late period was experienced as panic over potential pregnancy, and my monthly bleeding was greeted with relief and reflection over my readiness (or lack of readiness) to become a mother.
Eventually I started taking birth control pills, and my experience changed once again. Although I came to appreciate more piece of mind over the control I felt over my own body, I no longer felt my intuitive connection with it. Just as the pill moderated my cycle and muted my menstrual pains, I also no longer knew or felt exactly what was happening within my body at any given time. This last step – one that it could be argued have me the greatest agency over my physical condition – actually caused me to feel more alienation from my body than even menarche did.
I often wonder how these experiences would have changed if our culture had coming-of-age rituals for girls like those found elsewhere in the world. If we had celebrations when young women achieved menarche (celebrations that actually recognized it as an achievement rather than something gross or dirty), would young girls like me feel more prepared and excited about this significant milestone? Would my mother have felt more comfortable talking to me about my changing body? These are questions I will need to keep in mind and consider in my own role as mother. How can I normalize and celebrate this fact of life if/when I have my own daughter? I may not be able to change our culture as a whole, but I can consciously influence how my own children relate to their bodies.
In reading the article by Sandra Lee Bartky this week, I was struck by my own identification with so many of the practices that she enumerated which, in their own ways, produce a disciplined female body. I could see myself in these actions, these requirements to give so much attention to the body to create an appearance and bearing that are acceptable and pleasing to an Other (male, or even general). Without a doubt, my own routines and rituals that focus on primping and preparing my body for the view of the outside world constrain my time and take attention and energy that could be expended elsewhere, but I also take pleasure in this self-focused attention and my feminine/feminized persona. How do I, as a feminist and young academic, reconcile these realities in my own life? Is the answer to shun the expressions of femininity that I have cultivated from adolescence, or is this even possible? And while I take some amount of pleasure in these pursuits, at what level am I being disciplined and my time regimented through the ever-present knowledge of some hypothetical male gaze?
In pondering these tensions, I take an inventory of an average morning for me – what actions or activities consume my time and attention that are aimed at reaching this ever-unattainable “feminine ideal”?
I wake up. Stumble to the bathroom and turn on the shower. The hot water pouring over my skin is both jarring and comforting, slowly bringing me into this new day.
I reach for my shampoo – this is a new brand, bought specially to manage my long hair and keep from getting dreaded “split ends.” I follow with conditioner, special face wash (to avoid adult acne), and perfumed body wash.
After I step out, towel off, inspect myself in the mirror, I begin my daily ritual of applying products. Toners, lotions, creams for my face and body. Conditioners, potions, serums for my hair. Immediately after washing off the previous day’s residue, I cover my body with products bought to correct different imperfections or perfect that which is already “good.”
Out comes the makeup. Tickly little brushes apply concealer, foundation, powder, blush. If I’m feeling particularly sassy, mascara, eyeliner, and eyeshadow are applied as if to say “Look at me, I dare you.” I assess myself in the mirror and, pleased with the results, go off to face the day.
While these activities take up a small portion of my day – less than an hour – I am still left wondering why I really do them. Would it be such a travesty if I left the house without any makeup? Obviously not (as mornings when I am particularly sleep-deprived prove). As I’m considering myself in the mirror and choosing how to present myself each day, am I thinking about how the men I encounter in my life (or “society” as a whole, whatever that means to me) will react in approval or disapproval? No, but isn’t invisibility the mark of hegemony? The amount of beauty products on my side of the bathroom versus my partner’s is laughable, and although I use less than half of them on a regular basis, isn’t their presence (or necessity) in my life cause for concern?
I struggle with the tensions between societal expectations and theoretical approaches to my femininity, and I do not expect this confusion will resolve itself easily or quickly (if, indeed, ever). But at least I am aware of it.