embodiment

The Ultimate Universal Union

                                         ’‘Behold the plant:
                                           It is the butterfly
                                           Fettered by the Earth.

                                           Behold the butterfly:
                                           It is the plant
                                           Freed by the Cosmos.“
             
                                                 R. Steiner

1) Start enjoying your body as a physical instrument. Girls are raised to view their bodies as a project they have to constantly work on and perfect for the adoration of others, while boys are raised to think of their bodies as tools to master their surroundings. Women need to flip the script and enjoy our bodies as the physical marvels they are. We should be thinking of our bodies as vehicles that move us through the world; as sites of physical power; as the physical extension of our being in the world. We should be climbing things, leaping over things, pushing and pulling things, shaking things, dancing frantically, even if people are looking. Daily rituals of spontaneous physical activity are a sure way of bringing about a personal paradigm shift, from viewing our bodies as objects to viewing our bodies as tools to enact our subjectivity.

2) Do at least one “embarrassing” action a day. Another healthy daily ritual that reinforces the idea that we don’t exist to only please others is to purposefully do at least one action that violates “ladylike” social norms. Discuss your period in public. Swing your arms a little too much when you walk. Open doors for everyone. Offer to help men carry things. Skip a lot. Galloping also works. Get comfortable with making others uncomfortable.

3) Focus on personal development that isn’t related to beauty culture. Since you’ve read Part 3 of this series and given up habitual body monitoring, body hatred and meaningless beauty rituals, you’ll have more time to develop yourself in meaningful ways. This means more time for education, reading, working out to build muscle and agility, dancing, etc. You’ll become a much more interesting person on the inside if you spend less time worrying about the outside.

4) Actively forgive yourself. A lifetime of body hatred and self-objectification is difficult to let go of, and if you find yourself falling into old habits of playing self-hating tapes, seeking male attention, or beating yourself up for not being pleasing, forgive yourself. It’s impossible to fully transcend the beauty culture game, since it’s so pervasive and part of our social DNA. When we fall into old traps, it’s important to recognize that, but then quickly move on through self forgiveness. We need all the cognitive space we can get for the next beauty culture assault on our mental health.

Whose bodies?: On public harassment and victim blaming

A few weeks ago a man approached me while I was downtown waiting for the bus. We both had just exited the 150, which runs from my campus and the Veteran’s hospital (both in La Jolla) to downtown San Diego. I was listening to music on my phone as I usually do, sunglasses on, unsmiling. I was not mad or unhappy in any way, just keeping to myself. The man walked up to me and waved his hand in my line of vision, smiling. 

“Hey lady!”

I smiled back, and then looked down at my phone. 

“Lady!” He motioned for me to take off my earplugs. 

“Can I help you?” I asked. 

“You should smile more often, you’re awfully pretty!" 

"Thanks,” I said, again looking back down at my phone.

“But I saw you on the bus though. You know what the problem with people is these days? You people don’t interact. You don’t smile! You just listen to your music and tune out the rest of the world! You should talk to people, honey, c'mon.”

I sighed. He went on. I smiled. I even agreed with him. I did and said anything I could think to do or say to indicate (politely) that the discussion was over and I didn’t want to talk anymore. But he was oblivious, or just didn’t care. I was basically stuck there, with all the women near me silent (probably thankful that they were not the subject of this dude’s tirade), wishing I could just tell him to shove it and walk away. I didn’t say anything like that though; it wouldn’t be polite. He eventually walked away and I chalked it up to a minor annoyance.

On the bus ride home that annoyance grew. I thought about what it means to be female-bodied in public, to be fat in public, to be any number of things in public that indicate to others that you and your body are available for comment. People feel entitled to my attention, and that makes me angry. Too often, people feel entitled to my body, and that makes me really fucking angry.

Yesterday, my good friend Kyla was groped while she was getting on the bus. 

I struggle with telling this story because part of me wants to paint a picture for you, to describe what Kyla looks like, how she usually acts in public, her femme style, what she was wearing yesterday. But I also know that these kinds of descriptions can be problematic, because they ultimately lend themselves to narratives about rape culture that lead to victim blaming. If Kyla was acting loud or taking too much space and wearing revealing or otherwise vibrant attire, she would be blamed for the sexual assault she experienced. If she weren’t–if she were wearing, say, a long skirt and a baggy cat sweater–then my fear is that the description would be read as an example of how Kyla really didn’t *deserve* to be assaulted (which is ridiculous because obviously no one deserves to be assaulted). 

Anyway, Kyla was groped. Against her will. And someone else saw it happen. 

When both Kyla and her groper exited the bus, he tried to approach her. 

She looked at him and said “if you ever touch me again I will kill you.”

The man immediately started yelling and making a scene. “WHOA WHOA WHOA WHOA! I did not GROPE you I was STRETCHING. DON’T THREATEN ME. Oh my god, someone get the cops this girl just threatened to kill me!”

He wailed his arms around until a disgruntled bus driver came to see what was wrong. The bus driver got the attention of a nearby police officer. The man told his side of the story first. (He was simply stretching, and later a crazy lady told him she was going to murder him.)

Kyla attempted to explain that she was sexually assaulted, but when she pointed to the other passenger who had witnessed the grope, he just shrugged and said, unhelpfully, “I don’t know, he could have been stretching I guess.”

Kyla was so frustrated she felt like crying, so angry she couldn’t see straight. 

“You look like a nice girl,” the cop said, as if to be helpful. “But nice girls shouldn’t threaten people.”

Then, the police officer proceeded to ask the groper if he would like to press charges against Kyla. 

Yes, you heard that right: the verbal threat of a woman is more powerful, more dangerous, and more criminal than the actual physical assault committed against her. 

When the groper “kindly” refused to, the cop left them with the following friendly advice: (to the groper) “you should be careful when you’re ‘stretching’ from now on” and (to Kyla) “you should be more careful when you enter the bus.”

This was, unfortunately, the second time that day that Kyla had been touched against her will by a man on a bus (the first guy felt her leg as he told her he liked 'natural’ women like her). 

Words cannot adequately describe the fucked up mix of anger and resignation I felt upon hearing Kyla’s story. Walking from my office on campus to the nearby bus stop, I listened as Kyla tearfully asked me “is it that I’m a woman? That I’m femme? That I’m fat? Why do people think that my body belongs to them?”

I was at a loss for words, because even though I know a dozen reasons why this kind of thing happens–why people feel entitled to the bodies of others, why a man thinks it’s okay to tell a woman she should smile, why we gawk at people whose bodies are different from ours and giggle about them in whispers with our friends–it doesn’t change the pain we feel. We might understand why it happens, but that doesn’t make the wound less deep. 

And even if we are well-versed in how oppression operates and all the fucked up -isms in the world that assert the dominance of some over others, we internalize this shit. We internalize the idea that our bodies are not fully ours. We internalize the 'rules’ for embodiment-in-public, and we internalize victim blaming. We blame ourselves, we blame each other. When I first received the text from Kyla that some guy had slid his hand down her ass to her thighs, for a brief moment I felt myself thinking “well, Kyla *does* dress to be noticed." 

Can you fucking believe that? She is one of my very best friends, and for a moment even *I*, a radical feminist and part-time misandrist, blamed her for being groped. 

What the fucking fuck. 

There is a pretty popular adage in anti-rape activism work that most of you have probably heard: "instead of teaching women how not to be raped, we need to teach men not to rape”. Part of this re-education needs to include an intersectional understanding of the entitlement people feel towards marginalized bodies who dare to live in public. Part of it needs to focus on victim blaming–understanding it and ending it. We need to teach ourselves best practices for un-internalizing (externalizing?) this shit, and we need to support each other when we feel shame anyway. If we feel up to it, if we have the spoons, we can participate in activist projects. We can tell our stories. 

And while I absolutely understand that sexual assault shouldn’t be conflated with general harassment (just as we should not conflate racially-based harassment with sexually-based harassment, etc. and so on) I think it’s important to acknowledge that this shit is related and, for many of us who live in bodies that are marginalized across several different axes, these experiences can’t be neatly separated out. 

I was thinking about all of this while I was on my own journey home yesterday. I got off the 150 at Old Town Transit Center and found myself at the very same stop Kyla had been at only three hours earlier.

I saw a familiar smiling face.

“Hey lady!”

I looked away, hellbent on not engaging him. 

He walked right up to me and laid a hand on my shoulder as if we were old friends. “Hey lady! Do you remember me? Come on, just give me a smile!”

Call for Photos

On March 25th I will be doing a presentation at Oakland University in Rochester Hills, Mi titled “Dissenting Bodies – Visibility, Fat Politics and Challenging Normal” during their Women’s History Month Series. Part of the presentation will center on people reclaiming their bodies by becoming visible. This will be very similar to what I wrote about in my post on selfies and how they can be used to challenge the gaze on your body by having control over how your body is visible.

Photo example, totally going to be in this presentation..

Since the theme of the series is to discuss feminist expression, I really want to tackle visibility by challenging feminist discourse on body image and reframe the discussion around people who don’t conform to beauty ideals. This will be done to show how focusing on what beauty ideals are and not the social consequences of what it means to live in a deviant or non-normative body has built body positive spaces around people with the most privilege, while also creating a movement that is often considered depoliticized or disconnected from systemic / institutional oppression.

A lot of the discussion will be about how fat bodies are viewed in society and imagery of fat people in the media but I want to start the discussion with how the bodies of marginalized people are viewed in society differently depending on the identities they possess. This is something that has been severely lacking from feminist politics and I want to give context to understand how constraints of visibility while they can differ between people all have a common thread, which is to restrict or limit difference.

If you want to be part of this presentation, send your photo to me via email (as an attachment) to fatbodypolitics_260b@sendtodropbox.com

I’m going to collect photos until March 10th and I should have more information about the talk soon.

**Just an fyi, the sendtodropbox email sends all of the email attachments and puts them into a dropbox folder. It’s super awesome and free.

From "The Brutalized Body: Masculinity on Film"

(Someone asked for some clips of a talk I gave last term for our “Love Your Body” week on campus. Here’s a few slap-dash cut-and-pasted bits, all pretty basic stuff if you do gender studies. The title of the talk was painfully (ha! pun) ironic–most of the other campus events were about women and body image, especially in regards to weight. How big or small a woman is can determine her self-worth in the culture’s eyes; my general point was the same can be said for men, though it comes from a different direction and involves a different kind of violence.)

Look at these two beautiful men, with their two kinds of beauty:

Obviously, these two tend to get cast in consistently different kinds of roles, and those roles both express and reinforce norms of gender and sexuality. On the one hand, we have the magnificently buff Daniel Craig, whose pectorals are a natural phenomenon. He’s got the action hero body, albeit less overinflated than a Vin Diesel or The Rock; you have to be a bit more elegant than that to play Bond. But his body certainly has the essential masculine ingredient—toughness. You can beat on this body, and it only gets stronger; it hardly seems to feel pain.

Ben Whishaw, on the other hand, is, well, a little slip of a thing. Most of his interviews mention how thin he is, and it’s hard to deny that he looks damn near breakable. “Fragile” is the most popular adjective, followed by “delicate” and “waiflike.” You beat this body up, and it hurts.

For this presentation the most striking (ha! pun) difference is the effect of violence on each.

In Bond’s case, the injuries done to his body–some of which he does to himself–tend to give him more power to act, not less; they are proof of his masculinity and strength. In Whishaw’s case, brutalization objectifies, disempowers, and often destroys him. That’s how these two different male types get coded, and that how they push masculinity toward a hard, emotionally impoverished place through abusive definition of the body.

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A Crazy Oculus Rift Hack Lets Men and Women Swap Bodies
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The great promise of the Oculus Rift headset the chance to inhabit fantastic new worlds. A group of researchers in Barcelona are already using it for something even more radical: inhabiting new bodies. BeAnotherLab, an interdisciplinary group of students at the University Pompeu Fabra, in Barcelona, has relied on an early version of Oculus Rift as part of an on-going research project called “The Machine To Be Another.” The concept is just what the name suggests. An early experiment let participants experience the creative process through someone else’s eyes, in real time. The latest undertaking is even wackier. It lets men and women swap bodies. (Note: The video below contains nudity.) (via A Crazy Oculus Rift Hack Lets Men and Women Swap Bodies | Wired Design | Wired.com)

Remembering is not only a mental event; it is also an act of embodiment and projection. Memories are not only hidden in the secret electrochemical processes of the brain; they are also stored in our skeletons, muscles and skin. All our senses and organs think and remember.
—  J. Pallasmaa (2009), Space, Place, Memory and Imagination, pp. 27
On Ben Whishaw's Body: a Visual Essay

So I’ve been thinking a lot about Ben Whishaw’s body lately (all together now: obviously). Not just in the fangirl way, but a little in the culture-crit way; not just enjoying how his body looks, so easy on the eye, but what it means. Because there’s something about his body type, and his particular body, that’s unnervingly provocative. It’s his thinness, most obviously; one of the longest-running Whishaw blogs is vulnerableandthin, and while the blog and its content are great, the URL, well, frankly the URL squicks me, and I’m not exactly sure why. Because he IS thin, and that thinness does feel terribly vulnerable. But what does it mean to fetishize that thin vulnerability? Is that what I’m doing when I search and blog and gaze at his pictures? What am I responding to? Because the response isn’t just aesthetic, it feels much more emotionally freighted than that, more moving, more unsettling.

Case in point: Whishaw’s first award-winning stage lead was Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi in a play adapted from Levi’s autobiography, If This is a Man. And that, right there, that could stand for what fascinates me: is this a man? Whishaw’s body provokes and unnerves because in its thinness, its spareness, its apparently fragility and suggestion of frailty, it seems to blur the boundaries between adult and child, male and female, and yes, perhaps even human and other. Whishaw’s body gives directors and photographers a tool with which to portray a certain tricky type of male embodiment. A male body is most often displayed in film to showcase its power, either oiled and beautiful or beaten and butch; think Arnold Schwarzenegger or Daniel Craig. But Whishaw’s body is treated very differently, not as an object of desire but of pity. Again and again directors get him naked and beat him up. I’m wondering how this works and why it moves me, and I’m wondering if it moves other people too. What follows isn’t an objective analysis, by any means, just a series of photos and meditations. (And let’s face it, an exercise on blatant objectification. Sorry but I’m not actually sorry.) I’d love to know how other fans see it.

(Note: some of the pictures in this essay are very disturbing. Please be careful. There are also spoilers for just about everything Whishaw’s been in.)

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