culture

Book Review: BODIES by Susie Orbach

Single sentence synopsis: Bodies does for our visual culture (& our bodies), what The Omnivore’s Dilemma did for food.

And, as a matter of fact, just as The Omnivore’s Dilemma explores the disconnect between us and our food, so too does Orbach explore the disconnect between us and our bodies and its consequences.

Susie Orbach is a British psychoanalyst who has done much work for, and within, the feminist and women’s health communities, and this book is a social-psychological look at bodies, underpinned by the very feminist tenet that bodies are socially constructed and discursively materialized.

Ok, that’s a mouthful, I know, but let me explain: That is not to say that feminists are of the opinion that bodies magically materialize out of discourse, or are actually (i.e. literally) constructed limb by limb, organ by organ, out of “society.” This perspective merely holds (though there is nothing “mere” about it) that “a body…is inscribed and formed by the accretion of myriad small specific cultural practices… in certain respects, there has never been an altogether simple, “natural” body. There has only been a body that is shaped by its social and cultural designation.”

Did that help make any more sense to anyone? If not, perhaps this is a better explanation:

The point is that our very hand gestures, symbolic physical gestures, our facial expressions, our gender performativity, what we wear, how we speak , everything about the physical body— all of these material, physical aspects— are shaped by our social surroundings and cultural influences. This is what it means to say that the body is socially constructed and discursively materialized. In Orbach’s words, “Every gesture we make, the very way we move, our grace or lack of it, our physical confidence or unease, reflect both the country and local culture we have grown up in and the particular interpretation of our gestures that our mothers and those close to us have passed on.”

It is in this way that many feminists hold that there is actually no such thing as a “natural,” or “organic” body— because each body is informed, shaped, and defined within its particular social context. I think once you read the following descriptions of this book this may all make more sense… *spoiler alert: I cannot recommend this book enough*

Bodies is broken up into the following chapters:

  • Bodies In Our Time
  • Shaping The Body
  • Speaking Bodies
  • Bodies Real And Not So Real
  • And So To Sex
  • (&) What Are Bodies For?

She begins the first chapter by introducing us to Andrew, a case study of sorts. He wants to “do away” with his legs.

IMG_3607

I found this book in my local library, read this first page of the first chapter, and immediately checked it out and bolted home. It did not disappoint.

This first chapter is an examination of people “in the wrong bodies.” Whether it’s Andrew, who cannot feel whole unless he has rid himself of his legs, or Michaela, a prison inmate who wanted to be/ felt he was a woman. In these cases, “Biology and psychology had not melded as expected,” says Orbach.

She also proceeds to give a really great overview of the rest of the book in showing us why Bodies In Our Time is her starting point:

“Our bodies no longer make things… Our relations to the physical and physical work are shifting… Our bodies are and have become a form of work. The body is turning from being the means of production to the production itself.”

In her words, “an obsessive cultural focus on the body” has resulted in “the search for a body, disguised as preoccupation, health concern or moral endeavour. Almost everyone has  a rhetoric about trying to do right by their body which reveals a concern that the body is not at all right as it is…”

Chapter 2, Shaping The Body, is just as fascinating as the first chapter. It explores the hows and whys of the social physical world affecting an individual’s physicality. It’s about how one’s physical world/ physical upbringing can shape them, not just emotionally, but physically. There are some reeeeeally interesting case studies in this chapter, such as Victor, the boy raised by wild animals in France, found in 1799, as well Gina, a modern-day young girl who was moved from foster home to foster home. And don’t even get me started on her discussion of mirror neurons and how they play into all of this. It is insanely engrossing and does not require you to have a background in science in order to understand it (Lord knows I certainly don’t).

Speaking Bodies (Chapter 3) veers into a discussion of therapy itself, as well as the role the therapist plays. And, once again, there are a couple of very interesting case studies here.

Bodies Real And Not So Real ends up taking on a wealth of topics in addition to what I thought it would be about. Not only does she discuss avatars and computer-based relationships, but also, cosmetic surgery, dieting, pregnancy, the controversial French Artist, Orlan, and more. Did you know that, “Diets, it turns out, promote chaotic eating”? As a matter of fact, according to Orbach’s research, “Diets can cause people to gain weight. They are not a wise response to “overweight,” but are part of the destabilising of the ordinary processes of eating.” Furthermore, “overweight people who exercise have a lower mortality rate than thin people who do not. So [as Orbach postulates] one is led to wonder why thin has erroneously become the gold standard for health.” Another significant fact: “In 1995 the World Health Organisation, under pressure from the International Obesity Task Force, revised the BMI in such a way that 300,000 Americans who had previously thought they were “normal” weight woke up to find themselves reclassified. Brad Pitt and George Bush, for example, were now overweight… and George Clooney and Russell Crowe were obese.” And this is just the tip of the iceberg to this chapter alone. These are mere brushstrokes to the greater work she is painting with this book…

She begins the second to last chapter, And So To Sex, with an anecdote almost as galvanizing as the first story of the book (Andrew’s story), except, of course, this time it involves sex. I can’t help but think that this chapter should be read by every person on this planet that has sex. Maybe even those who don’t. But then again, I also think everyone should read this book. That’s just how much I loved it.

And finally, with What Are Bodies For?, she leaves us with the culmination of this work in its entirety. And it’s really relatable. I suppose that’s why I loved the book so much in the first place, and why I couldn’t help but think upon finishing it, “BY GOD, EVERY HUMAN BEING IN THIS COUNTRY NEEDS TO READ THIS BOOK!” It’s relatable. It’s about all of us. It is pertinent to our very individual and collective existence.

If I haven’t succeeded in making you want to go out and read this 179 page book yet, I don’t know what else to say except that… it’s intriguing, insightful, possibly cathartic, significantly relevant, and ultimately, if you have a body, it’s about you.

Now isn’t that worth reading?

 

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A Vindication of the Rights of Pin-Ups

hilda

“America’s Forgotten Pin-Up Girl,” Hilda

 

I am really feeling the sting of woman on woman deprecation today.

And in the name of feminism no less!

First there was the article on how straight feminists hate lesbian feminists, (which, thankfully, was sufficiently rebutted by others’ comments) and then almost immediately after, I came across this post condemning women that are fond of pin-ups and/or like to dress up in the pin-up style. The following words are in response to the currently trending popularity of this pin-up character from the past, “Hilda” (pictured above).

 

Here’s what the post said (taken from this article):

“We currently live in a “pin-up” culture where women are only granted visibility when they display their bodies for public consumption; therefore, most women are groomed and disciplined from young ages to have pin-up ready bodies.

That’s what white-centered postfeminism is all about. A vision of sexual liberation that hinges on the male gaze and male approval. Now we can sit here and have that long, uncritical, derailing conversation about women who “choose” to strip and enjoy being “pin-ups”; but I’m going to spare myself a stroke and move on, because talking about “individual agency” is irrelevant when we’re discussing hegemony.

When women fight to end negative media representations of women in contemporary culture, yet still circulate vintage images of white, female, pin-ups, they’re missing how the culture surrounding vintage pin-up girls largely informs the sexism that we’re trying to fight today.

This is what happens when we only focus on the individual and not the system that conditions the individual.

If we have a superficial surface-level understanding of oppression, then we will have superficial surface-level solutions. It’s that simple. Posting up any sized sexualized woman on your wall, originally created for men, won’t solve the reality that systemically, women are degraded, dehumanized, and are robbed of understanding their sexualities organically. It also teaches men that sexualizing “diverse” or “alternative” bodies is progressive and therefore acceptable.

Additionally, as I reiterate all of the time, the idea of publicly displaying your sexualized body is largely a white enterprise and endeavor. Black women are not granted the same privileges when we showcase our bodies because we’re viewed as public property; evidenced through our high rape rates and low pay-rates in spaces of sex work, etc.”

 

I think it goes without saying that I do not like this attack on pin-up girls/pin-up culture.

More importantly than what I do, or do not like, however, is the fact that saying, “talking about “individual agency” is irrelevant when we’re discussing hegemony,” ignores the very multi-faceted world of pin-up culture as well as the individuals participating within it— which is relevant. (Since when is talking about the parts of a picture irrelevant to the picture as a whole?) While the author’s critique invokes the rhetoric of “hegemony,” he or she is creating a hegemonic feminism of their own, in which all other feminists who like to participate in and enjoy pin-up culture are castigated.

The feminism I learned about was more accepting than this. While I do understand the perspective from which this author is writing (I did study gender politics at Berkeley after all), I choose to not make such sweeping generalizations about people, or groups of people (except Republicans, of course… Just kidding! I actually do really like Meghan McCain, so there). To imply that just because someone likes to wear pretty dresses and curl their hair, they “have a superficial surface-level understanding of oppression” is extremely insulting.

For me, the recognition of various forms of subjugation (via studying feminist theory) has meant the ability to see through such cultural patterns and influences, actively resist them, and perhaps even become self-definitional if such a thing is possible. Just because I indulge in pin-up fashion on occasion does not mean that I don’t know the history behind it, nor does it mean that I don’t understand the gendered, sociopolitical implications of it. And I’m willing to bet that I’m not the only one (okay I know for a fact that I’m not). As a matter of fact, there is a vast array of modern day pin-ups out there that take the original concept of pin-up beauty and culture, and turn it on its head, thereby subverting the entire set of traditional notions behind it— the very sexist “white enterprise” that the above author is citing. Just look at the Suicide Girls (started by a woman and still largely run by women) which, may I remind you, began as a counterculture of “alternative” beauty.

Moreover, my brand of feminism is about choice. Just as I’m not going to castigate any woman, feminist or not, for being a stay at home mom, I’m also not going to do the same to a woman that chooses to delight in her femininity through replicating pin-up looks. Not only does it not, in my opinion, seem in keeping with the basic tenets of feminism (though, yes, I know, there are a myriad of different feminisms) but honestly, it’s also just not polite.

 

 

HAWAI’I: An Exploration of Relationships, Cultural Dissonance, & Catharsis

Hawai’i

(pronounced ha-vai-ee)

Hawai'i ("The Big Island")

A beach on the “Big Island”
Original photo taken by yours truly

As some of you may or may not know, one month ago I had my wedding reception, followed by a week of work, then 16 days in this tropical paradise within the U.S. we call Hawaii.

A few interesting factoids about Hawaii:

  • It is the only state in the U.S. made up entirely of a chain of islands
  • It is one of only two states in the U.S. that do not observe daylight savings time
  • It was the last state to join the U.S. in 1959

A couple of particularly interesting facts about that last point (taken from wikipedia):

  • [One] factor against statehood was a strong possibility of a non-white senator and their opposition to Racial segregation.
  • In March 1959, Congress passed the Hawaii Admission Act and U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed it into law.
  • On June 27 of that year, a referendum asked residents of Hawaii to vote on the statehood bill. Hawaii voted 17 to 1 to accept. The choices were to accept the Act or to remain a territory, without the option of independence. The United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization later removed Hawaii from theUnited Nations list of Non-Self-Governing Territories.

*bold and italics added by me for emphasis

For most of us here in the United States, we will learn about colonialism throughout primary and/or high school (i.e. K-12) as historical fact— something that happened in the past— which is, of course, true. However this does not preclude the possibility of extant colonialism. This does not mean that we live in a post-colonial world. Far from it. I believe Hawaii to be a demonstration of that fact. After all, one of the former Big Five powerhouses (what some would call the former oligarchy of Hawaii), Alexander & Baldwin,  still oversees sugar cultivation in Hawaii, is still one of the largest landowners in the state, and owns dozens of income properties in Hawaii as well as the mainland.

My husband and I spent the bulk of our honeymoon (13 days) on Hawaii’s “Big Island” (the island actually named “Hawaii”). It’s the largest and least touristy of all the islands, which can also mean a higher local to tourist ratio. It was so interesting to be in a U.S. state where English was not the dominant language. Over the loudspeaker in a grocery store I heard Hawaiian. Between vendors at the farmer’s market I heard Hawaiian. Walking down the street, (usually only between local adults but not so much with the children) I heard Hawaiian. We rented a car so as to be able to travel all around the island, and naturally, I wanted to listen to the local radio station instead of the ol’ regular pop/rock you hear everywhere else (“Hawaii’s native island music” as they announced on the radio) and guess what I heard….

That’s right! A lot of great music. But also— yes— many songs sung in Hawaiian. Even more interesting were the many songs I heard that sang of Hawaiian history: songs about King Kamehameha, Queen Liliuokalani, the history and tradition of respecting their land with the utmost reverence, and how they lost their right to the land due to the power and influence of the Big Five.

As one DJ said at the end of a certain song [of one of these historical ballads], “That was [musician’s name] with [song name] singing about King Kamehameha… and yes, as __________ said in that one right there, let us ‘never forget, never forget’…” While I did not encounter a single unfriendly person, local or otherwise,throughout my vacation, hearing this on the radio definitely gave me that unmistakeable feeling of being a tourist on foreign land, perhaps somewhere I wasn’t meant to be.

In addition to this contrasting language and music, there is also the overall difference of lifestyle, values, tradition, all that constitutes the very fabric of culture itself. People there will call friends (or even customers…?! I observed this in a radio shack store between a salesperson and very elderly customer) “uncle” or “aunt/auntie” as a term of endearment. (Which is also, oddly, much like Spain where people call one another “tia” or “tio,” Spanish for aunt and uncle, respectively)

Hitchhikers also abound on the Big Island. When my mom first told me that she picks them up once in a while (she has what I call a “hippie shack” over there- solar powered, no plumbing, grows a lot of her own food) I flipped out, naturally. She said, “Oh but everybody does it. Everybody hitchhikes, and everybody gives them rides. It’s fine. Besides, I always have them sit in the bed of the truck back there.” Needless to say, this did not assuage me. I told her to knock it off and that if she’s going to do that she had better at least have some pepper spray or mace on her. She gave me the “ok, but sheesh you really just don’t get it” look and that was it. Well by the end of our 13 days there, seeing hitchhikers almost on the daily (and quite frankly, yeah, they all looked harmless) I got it.

It’s about community and trust.

I thought about reading the U.S. Constitution side by side with a Native American tribe’s constitution for a class at Berkeley (sorry, I can’t remember which tribe, it was 4 years ago). The stark difference between the two, other than the central issue of property, was trust. Ours was based on an implicit lack of it, while the Native Americans’ was based on an implicit understanding of it. Hawaiians, I believe, are culturally operating on a similar level: everybody hitchhiked, and everybody picked up hitchhikers, because their culture is one of trust, and let’s not also forget, one of respecting the land and only using what is necessary, thereby making hitchhiking actually quite conducive to environmental values as well.

Such thoughts would, on occasion, bring me back to why I was there in the first place.

I was on my honeymoon.

I had never been on a trip outside of 4 days tops, in Las Vegas, with my now husband. We were now on an island, with just each other, for 16 days straight. Of course it was fun and amazing and all of that, but it was also a learning experience (and not just sociologically speaking). It was like an exercise in team-building. And having to really, really, confront where you may be falling short on this team, then figuring out why, and then figuring out how to go about fixing it. An implicit understanding of trust is an important thing, both socially and personally.

Even more important is knowing when and how to trust yourself.

Sources:

Katt Williams’ International Adoption

This morning I heard on the radio that Katt Williams is finalizing his adoption of a six-year old Russian boy named Vladimir. This will be Mr. Williams’ 8th adoption. He already has 8 children, 7 of whom are adopted, 1 of whom is a biological son.

I, personally, don’t really know much about Katt Williams except for the fact that he had a very recent, and very public, ostensibly drug-induced meltdown here in Oakland, and that he has a laundry list of other legal troubles as well, including custody issues.

While I think it can be indicative of a very big heart to want to adopt so many children (I’m one of those “always give ’em the benefit of the doubt” people), international adoptions are a whole other ballgame, often fraught with an entirely unique set of social, cultural, and political issues. But opinions aside, I can’t even wrap my head around how this is legally feasible. I don’t care if the man is Tom Hanks, or Saul Perlmutter, the fact is, with a record like Williams’ this story just defies logic. And really, if this issue interests you at all, I highly suggest you read the article in that last hyperlink.