Bodies

I am on a diet.

I am also reading Susie Orbach’s Bodies.

Anyone who has read Bodies will immediately see my dilemma. Anyone who has not read it should, right now. Orbach talks about how we are increasingly encouraged to think of our bodies not as part of ourselves but as a project that we should constantly work on with the goal of reaching some imagined perfection. She also looks at the detrimental effect this has on our physical and mental health. She talks about the dangers of homogenisation – the ideal being a westernized standard of beauty as being white, thin, tall and so on. This is why we see the boom market across Asia for skin whitening creams and plastic surgery to create a western eyelid. This is why Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o prayed to wake up with lighter skin each morning and had to fight against the homogenised images she saw to finally accept herself as beautiful.

In a previous post, I talked about how these homogenised images have even pervaded the fight against a homogenised westernized standard of beauty as being white, thin, tall and so on. Instead of coming together and saying that each body type is wonderful, each body type pits itself against the other. Women rail against thinness and thin women as though they are the reason that they feel dissatisfied with themselves. It is homogenisation that makes us feel ugly and unworthy, because a standard has been set that we do not meet. It is not thinness itself, but the fact that thinness has become one of the beauty standards.

We are not allowed to love ourselves. We are constantly being sold products that will help us to continue to work on the ‘project’ that is our body.

I remember an advert for a deodorant that really annoyed me. I don’t remember the brand and I couldn’t find the advert but it said something like ‘70% of women agree that when they have beautiful underarms they feel more confident’. What kind of world do we live in where we feel bad about whether or not our armpits are beautiful? The advert was claiming to solve a problem that I wasn’t even aware that I had – unattractive armpits.

This website even has a handy armpit care guide!

This picture comes from a website that even has a handy armpit care guide!

When I was searching online for that advert I found one even more disturbing for Dove Whitening deodorant. The advert implies that if you don’t have beautiful, white underarms, you shouldn’t wear sleeveless tops.

Our bodies are amazing. They allow us to experience the world. Our eyes, that we may wish were different colours or shapes, that we may wish were framed differently, enable us to see. Our lips, that we may wish were plumper, allow us to kiss and be kissed and to feel every sensation, physical and emotional, that that act implies. Our skin, that we may hate the shade of, can feel. Have you ever just marvelled at how amazing skin is? How wonderful to brush past a soft fabric or feel the sun on your skin? When you actually think about it, it’s fantastic.

Our bodies give us so much. And yet so many of us hate them and wish they were different.

These campaigns are designed to make us feel ashamed about parts of our body that we previously had no issue with. We add this new shame to all the existing shame we have heaped upon us.

I know all of this, and yet I am on a diet.

I do not want to care that I am not thin and I know that even if I achieve the goal of thinness I will not suddenly love my body, and yet I am on a diet.

I hate my sloping shoulders. I hate the shape of my breasts. I hate the long, thin fingers I have often been teased about. I hate the scoliosis that causes my rib cage to stick out at awkward angles and my hips to be misaligned. I hate the permanent dark circles under my eyes. I hate my neck. I hate my natural hair colour. I hate my dark leg and underarm hair. I hate the way that anything I do to remove this offending hair causes my skin to go red and blotchy. In short, I do not feel beautiful.

Sometimes, I feel that I am closer. When I dress up for a special occasion, like a wedding or party, and I go all out and spend hours preparing myself and submitting to being uncomfortable in the name of beauty, I feel a little closer. Sometimes, I feel like the painful waxing, the bleaching, the make-up, hair style, control underwear, uncomfortable clothes and punishing high heels have come together to produce an admirable result. Not perfect, but better at least. I am pleased with the effect I have been able to produce, but not for long. I cannot do this every day. But for that special evening, I am pleased. And because I am pleased and have proven to myself that with effort I can get closer to beauty I continue to buy the anti-aging creams, to try out the next cellulite busting miracle product, to continue my search for a hair removal product that will solve my hair ‘problem’ without hurting my skin, I continue to diet, I continue to work on the ‘project’ that my body has become.

I know that the real solution is to learn to love my body, to make friends with it again and enjoy it and all that it offers me, but I cannot. I am an intelligent women and I know I am being tricked – the creams, the diets, they are all a con – but I want to believe. I want to believe that if I work hard enough, if I make my body a project to be worked on, perhaps I too can be the type of beautiful that is so revered.

The sad truth is, I am not self-confident enough to be comfortable in my own skin, especially when the women who publicly don’t conform to the beauty standard expected of them are so lambasted for daring to be their natural self. I still vividly remember the media coverage of Julia Roberts armpit hair in 1999. Something the Metro described as “cringe-worthy” and a “mistake” when it was repeated by singer Pixie Lott.

So is it any wonder that we worry?

Fear of Failure

[N.B. This post was written sometime in January, not long after the post preceding it, it’s just taken me a while to get around to putting it up here.]

Following on from Real Women and Creative Writing, I wanted to talk about another thing that struck me in the experimental writing I did based on Magrs’ exercise. It is nothing new to me and I have known for a long time that it holds me back, but I was surprised by just how much it holds me back.

I have an almost debilitating fear of failure.

When writing on the topic The Earth’s Core I found myself hesitant. There were things that I thought I knew about the Earth’s core but without looking it up I wasn’t 100% sure that I was not misremembering. You would think that this wouldn’t matter. I was writing in a private notebook that no one else needs to see if I don’t want them to. It doesn’t matter if my science is bad. If it turned out that I actually knew very little about the centre of the Earth and ended up just making stuff up no one ever needed to know.

Instead of following the brief and just randomly firing out everything and anything that popped into my head on the subject for five minutes straight I slowly danced around the topic. I tried to bury my ignorance into the folds of flowery language that meant very little and said absolutely nothing. The resulting vague attempts at being poetic should, frankly, be more embarrassing to read than stating an incorrect assumption as though it were fact would have been (as such, I will not reproduce them here!).

I thought the core was solid iron, but I would not write this down. The only reason I am writing it now is because I have looked it up. It turns out it is actually a iron-nickel alloy, possibly with some gold, platinum and other siderophile elements thrown in.

Now that I know that I was very close to the truth I can admit that I thought it was iron. I haven’t studied sciences since my GCSEs so I think it’s ok that I was close, but didn’t quite have all the finer details. Without that confirmation that I wasn’t just completely wrong and woefully ignorant I couldn’t bring myself to write about that lump of iron that I thought was there. I was unwilling to risk looking stupid IN A BOOK NO ONE ELSE WILL READ!

I was so busy dancing around my fear of my potential lack of knowledge that it didn’t even occur to me that, not only was it ok to write something not quite factually sound, it was also ok to just completely make stuff up. In his description of the point of the exercise Magrs says that it is completely ok to drift off topic or even to make very little sense, the important thing is to just write. I could write anything. I could ignore the truth all together and write just plain fantastical things if I want to. Like the Tibetan tunnelers in Pratchett and Gaiman’s Good Omens there could be anything down there.

 

*        *        *

 

It is a little known truth that the Earth’s core is, in actual fact, a perfectly spherical Malteser and between the magma and the malty, crunchy, sort-of-biscuit-but-not-really-a-biscuit core is a layer of unstable, semi-melted chocolate. And that, my friends, is what causes mud volcanoes.

Real Women and Creative Writing

I’ve been reading the articles and doing some exercises from The Creative Writing Coursebook. Though I don’t officially have any new year’s resolutions, you could say that trying to write more is an unofficial aim this year (along with all the usual exercise and healthy living plans).

One of the suggested exercises (on page 18, in my copy) was to write a page each on a series of given topics. The idea is to look at the topic and then just write solidly for at least 5 minutes. Write anything and everything you can think of, allowing yourself to meander off topic if it happens naturally, but otherwise the aim is simply to keep writing.

Extract from Paul Magrs' article 'Clearing Some Space' in The Creative Writing Coursebook

Extract from Paul Magrs’ article ‘Clearing Some Space’ in The Creative Writing Coursebook

When I started writing about Marilyn Monroe I surprised myself by going into a rant about stereotypes for women and not feeling as though I fit any of the good ones. I don’t have anything against Monroe, but her image is persistently used in the anti-skinniness lobby so instead of thinking of Some Like it Hot and how “Well, nobody’s perfect”, I ended up ranting about beauty standards, and that is a real shame!

[SPOILER ALERT – do not watch this clip if you haven’t seen the film!]

Here is the piece I wrote:

blog vedettestore com 2013 03 real-women-have-curves

Image borrowed from here.

Marilyn Monroe

‘Real Women Have Curves’. This is the caption that now always seems to accompany pictures of Marilyn Monroe on social media. The reality of Monroe includes her mysterious death by overdose, do ‘real women’ die young, too? I’m sure she never expected to be a role model so I’ll overlook her unsuitability for the part. The truth is, the people who post those pictures (are they memes?) don’t mean that they want to die like her – though mysteriousness and nudity may seem a glamorous way to go! They want Monroe’s curves to validate their own body fat – and what’s wrong with that?

I find this frustrating for two reasons. Firstly, glorifying a particular body type should not come at the expense of pretending that it is ok to be unhealthy. Many of the women who post these pictures are either actually very thin and may have body dysmorphia or they are overweight. Monroe had curves, and curves require fat, but she was not obese.

She was a perfect hourglass – big boobs, jiggly bum, tiny, tiny waist. And this is my second problem. Slimness is beauty, according to our magazines and movies. But there is another, curvier beauty that is allowed – as long as it’s hourglass. Gloria in Modern Family, the red-head in Mad Men, Jennifer Lawrence, any plus-sized model – all women who are not ribs-out skinny. But their curved bottoms and fuller thighs taper to a comparatively small waist and are then balanced out by an impressive bosom.

Where are the role models for us pears? I’m not obese and my bum might even, for all its jiggle, be smaller than Monroe’s was, but my waist is certainly larger and my boobs are dramatically smaller. I’m not an unhealthy weight. It’s true it could be healthier, and I’m working on that, but it’ll never, no matter how hard I work on it, be an hourglass, or skinny. It’s ok for real women to have curves, as long as they are the right kind of curves, in the right places.

Hourglass

I found these pictures here, here and here.

So that was my unexpected 5 minute rant inspired by the topic ‘Marilyn Monroe’. I wanted to post this because I think body shaming is wrong. I think that Christina Hendricks, Sofia Vergara and Jennifer Lawrence (pictured) are stunning, but I also think that Keira Knightly is stunning. Saying ‘Real Women Have Curves’ is basically a way of trying to make one group of women (curvy) feel better by saying that another group of women (skinny) are not ‘real’. I understand that many women, myself included, feel under pressure to be thinner and most of us consistently feel that we fail to measure up to that skinny ideal but saying that curves are better or thinness is unattractive or un-womanly is counter-productive. It is just continuing the stereotyping and homogenisation that makes most women feel excluded from the definition of beauty. Not all women are curvy. Not all women are skinny. Not all curvy women are hourglasses.

 

As this was written in a short space of time with no time to really think about what I was saying, it doesn’t say everything that I would want to on the subject and what it does say it doesn’t say well. Monroe’s death was a tragedy and that short piece of writing sounds flippant about it in a way that I feel ashamed of to look back on. I also feel that in suggesting that many women are ‘unhealthy’ about their weight I fall into the trap of fat shaming that I was trying to avoid. But if there is anything that I would hope people might take from this, it’s that a healthy body is a beautiful body whatever it’s shape or size and, above all, a confident body is a sexy body – so let’s stop trying to make ourselves feel better by continuing to perpetuate stereotypes that make others feel worse.

As a final note, I like this post at Geek x Girls that shows the ridiculousness of memes designed to shame different body types. Go check it out.

Different Horizons

It seems like an impossibly long time ago that I was studying for a Masters. The course was called Reception and Critical Theory and I am sad to report that it does not exist anymore, but I was still able to find the original brief description of the course aim online:

This MA is designed to give students the best possible training in reception and critical theory; it equips students with the knowledge and skills necessary for understanding works of art through their reception by historically and culturally situated readers, viewers and listeners; students learn how an understanding of reception transforms our approach to study in the arts and humanities, through a sustained engagement with critical theory. – JustCourses.com

If you are completely new to Reception Studies I’ve included the Wikipedia link here but I should add the warning that this is a very brief and unfulfilling article and I would hate for someone to be put off learning more by this very dry description. I have only added the link for those who want a very brief outline, rather than to sell the theory.

While the Wikipedia article may lack depth, it does mention Hans Robert Jauss, so to further express what is at the core of Reception, here it is in his own (translated) words:

To believe that it is possible to gain access to the alien horizon of the past simply by leaving out one’s own horizon of the present is to fail to recognize that subjective criteria, such as choice, perspective, and evaluation, have been introduced into a supposedly objective reconstruction of the past. – Hans Robert Jauss,

‘The Identity of the Poetic Text in the Changing Horizon of Understanding’

Jauss believes (and I’m with him on this) that we all approach a text/image/artwork/film/piece of music with our own ‘horizon of expectations’ and that horizon is made up of all of our experiences up until that moment of contact. We bring our ideas, our culture, our personal and social biases, our memories, and every other text we have previously read to our new readings and with each new reading our horizon changes.

Another quote that I love is from Wolfgang Iser. In it, he alludes to the ways that we have mapped the stars and the different shapes that we could make if we made different connections. In The Implied Reader, he says:

The ‘stars’ in a literary text are fixed; the lines that join them are variable.

For me, studying Reception wasn’t just about acknowledging the bias that we bring to our readings and the way we cannot, however hard we may try, read objectively. It was about the value that we place on certain readings. If all readings are subjective, then why is one type of reading often highlighted as better than the other?

I’m writing this post because I found a little scrap of writing in a half filled notebook I had recently started using again. I wrote it not long after I graduated because I was frustrated about one of the most common criticisms I had been getting in the feedback on my essays, including my thesis. This is what I wrote:

A major criticism of my MA thesis was that I ignored the boundaries between theory and un-academic resources. I skipped between talking about the ideas of respected academics and philosophers of modern thought and the random blogs of unknown internet users with no respect for the distinctions between the two. If, like a research postgraduate, I had been given the opportunity to defend my work in a viva voce I would have simply said, I know. Isn’t it lovely?

Obviously they disagree, and would have done so in the viva. And I would have defended my actions. Why? Because I am a Reception Theorist.

I have a great respect for the wonderful works of Roland Barthes, the fascinating ideas of Jean Baudrillard, the honest and amusing Pierre Bayard, and the other theorists who featured in my thesis. These thinkers really helped me to shape my own ideas and understand how I wanted to approach my topic. But I am no less interested in the reactions of others; of people academics might deem ‘less informed’.

Can you really be less informed? Really, I think non-academics are just differently informed. They are informed by other things. This raises the question of how we value information. Why is being academically informed superior?

 (Circa late 2011/early 2012)

Disclaimer: Obviously, you can really be less informed and we see people acting on poor information or having rants about things that in truth they know nothing about all the time, but that isn’t what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about how people receive art and literature. You can dislike Citizen Kane, you can be disappointed when you see the Mona Lisa, and I don’t care if you have never read or seen Hamlet. These are all examples I have come across of people feeling that their opinions on art don’t matter because they felt that way about something that has been deemed a classic. They felt that they had had the wrong reaction because their reaction didn’t conform to the cultural expectation that these are some of the great works of western art. Their opinions matter to me.

We don’t have to agree, our horizons might be too different for us to take the same ‘reading’ from something, but that doesn’t mean that anyone should stop trying to make their own readings.

Origin Story

This is my fourth attempt at a blog. I’ve learnt something from each and every attempt I’ve made. The first blog was a film review blog called Marmite Flavoured Popcorn. There were two problems with this blog. The first was that I had been new to it all and been quite naive and hasty. I didn’t research well enough what sites I could use and ended up with something that was actually quite expensive when my needs could be met by the free options that are out there. The second problem was that I didn’t go to the cinema or rent new films often enough to have something regular to review. I think in the end I only had about three reviews on there!

I started the second blog when I had been severely depressed. It was such a dark and stressful time in my life that I don’t even remember what I called it. It was supposed to be a space where I could honestly talk about how I was feeling and explore the effectiveness of the therapy I was getting at the time. Once again I fell for the sales pitch of a hosting site that offered 3 months free trial and then a monthly subscription cost, so after the three months expired I decided to let the project go. I thought about transferring the information to a free blog but realised that the blog was making me focus too much on dark thoughts and it was not conducive to recovery. I found that focusing on the negative thoughts and feelings that I was having helped me to further bury myself in them. This led to me setting up my third blog, a wedding inspiration blog called Something Borrowed.

I wasn’t engaged and hadn’t been married, so it might seem like a strange choice, but I did because it made me happy – it was a kind of therapy. Working on Something Borrowed was pure escapism. I wasn’t even blogging on my idea of my own perfect wedding; I was just letting my imagination run wild and spending my time looking up really pretty things. My other half knew I was doing it and was very supportive, even though it must have been strange for him to watch me looking up all these wedding related things when we weren’t getting married! I think that is why I so self-consciously chose not to blog about the wedding I would like. I’d want that to be a mutual experience, anyway. For the blog, I would choose a theme and then run with it, putting together mood boards for an imaginary client who might want that style of wedding. This was a free blog and at first I was very keen and regularly updated it but then one day I got a very aggressive message from a florist saying that I had stolen her copy-righted images. I removed her images immediately and I apologised to her and explained I hadn’t meant to steal her idea, but I was pretty shaken and I felt really bad (as it happened, even if I had properly referenced where I’d gotten the image from, it wouldn’t have led back to her because I found them on the site of someone else who’d also used them without permission too so referencing might not have spared me from the aggressive email in that case).

Again, this shows my naivety. I’d just been looking stuff up in Google Images without properly thinking about copyright or linking back to where I’d found them. I started trying to do this but I had used so many images on the blog that it was too big a task to try to track down where I’d found each image from – and some of them I just couldn’t seem to find again. I’d just been doing this blog to cheer myself up and had never wanted to upset anyone or steal anyone’s ideas. I’m so non-confrontational and was still in such a vulnerable place so I started to really worry about whether I was going to get any more angry emails from people. I wanted to take down the whole blog but my other half persuaded me to just put a disclaimer on the ‘About’ page clarifying that I owned nothing and for people to get in touch if they thought I’d used an image of theirs and wanted me to credit them or to remove the image. I still feel nervous about it, though.

To my knowledge, there is no trace of the first or second blog out there in the ether anymore. Something Borrowed still exists, for now at least, but I don’t know if I’m going to add any more to it. If I ever get another really angry comment then I think it will be time to remove it completely. But I have learnt something from each of these blogs and I haven’t been put off yet!

Hopefully, thanks to the failed blogs that came before it, I won’t get into such a muddle with this one!