[ NSFW…because it involves bodies and that apparently rates a warning. ]
Body image is a topic that haunts my paper doll series. Paper dolls are, after all, predicated on the idea that you can build a universal and interchangeable set of outfits.
One artist I consulted this summer suggested redirecting this series to address the discrepancy between the icons we wish to imitate and the limitations of our own bodies. (One example would be that page I made of David Bowie’s costumes from Labyrinth. I was making those for my own paper doll, which of course ignores a profound difference in body types.)
What really kicked my interest into this topic (and how it intersects with gender) was a blog post (“Female Bodies: A Weighty Issue”) on the gendered implications of the BMI. Here, have a quote:
“[The BMI] uses the same measurement for both men and women. In fact, it was originally formulated based on studies of white male populations only – which means that BMI is fundamentally predicated on judging female bodies against male norms. As such, and as useless as the BMI is anyway in terms of individual diagnosis, it’s especially harmful to women and POC, whose morphology and metabolisms it was never meant to accommodate.”
It sounds a bit odd at first to read (in gender theory texts like Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble) about philosophical trends of thought that define women as either “the other” or an emasculated/inferior man. In art, however, we can see proof of this mental construct.
This has been going on in art for ages. I realize that the costume in this post is from Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, but Michelangelo graced art history with the most obvious examples of assuming the male form to be the base form of humanity. On the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling and elsewhere, he tended to depict women as men with boobs. I’m a bit proud of identifying this without being told about it beforehand (back in those undergrad days when I rarely trusted my own opinions about these things). Here, however, is an excellent run-through of how Michelangelo’s women suggest that he didn’t bother to draw women differently than men. (It is an essay in two parts.)
I have a lot more research to do on this subject of body image in art, but for now I’ll just skip around the ideas I have run across so far.
Gender bending fiction is an interesting approach to this whole business.
I rather love Dustin Hoffman’s account of his own paradigm shift via Tootsie. If you don’t have time to watch the whole clip, consider what he took away from the experience: “there’s too many interesting women I haven’t had the experience to know in this life because I have been brainwashed.”
I can’t quite imagine how this works, but the idea of having people gender flip their bodies via virtual reality devices in this sci fi manner is pretty intriguing too.
Who makes the rules? Who defines normal?
I have tried not to link to A R T L ▼ R K too often (because I fear I would never stop), but this post on Paula Modersohn-Becker is a fantastic glimpse into what women artists do to expand how we see bodies.
(Yes, there is that whole “are women artists more preoccupied with bodies than male artists” debate. I decline to whole-heartedly enter that debate until we have greater gender parity in our artistic canon. Arguing it now is a chicken-or-the-egg debacle. Namely, is this a topic with which women are overly obsessed, or does our insistence on talking about it address a true shortcoming in extant art and writing?)
Here are a few more links to artists’ work related to women’s bodies and body image:
- Aleah Chapin’s Aunties Project
- Esther Honig’s Before & After
- Megumi Igarashi (aka Rokudenashi-ko)’s vulva kayak (and her arrest for making it contrasted with the Kanamara Matsuri, Japan’s annual “Festival of the Steel Phallus“)
- Casey Jenkins’s Casting off my Womb (NSFW performance artwork…although, isn’t the outsized disgust/pushback rather a sign that we need this sort of uncomfortable artwork?)
Women’s bodies as a taboo subject
I’m not trying to suggest that objectifying women is okay, but how many of our gendered body image problems relate to the fact that we have no neutral history of speaking honestly about women’s bodies? Women’s bodies get talked about in a sexual manner, or else they’re almost never talked about at all.
Your average citizen of the USA has a more nuanced and accurate vocabulary (visual and verbal) for men’s genitalia than women’s. Even when people try to fix this, the language is often wrong or imprecise.
(This makes me really want a copy of Gay Men Draw Vaginas, a coffee table book that is a “sort of gay vagina anthropology.” The Kickstarter video describes a rather fascinating project.)
I know the main takeaway from the following video is to normalize the idea of women knowing their own bodies, but I seriously doubt they’re looking at their vaginas much in this setup. Vulvas yes, vaginas…not so much. Also, can we have a little talk about how the meaning of this sort of thing is affected (or not affected?) by being organized by a man?
For a more verbal approach to this taboo, here’s Dominique Christina’s excellent “Period Poem”:
And then there are beauty expectations, like those shown in Dr. Lisa Wade’s post “In Hollywood, Leading Men Get Older; Love Interests Don’t.“
There are also the weird double standards about body hair. I quit shaving my legs around 2004, when I realized that there was something alarming about the fact that I was repulsed by the sight of my legs in their natural state. The expectation that women’s legs should be hairless is so strong that it’s hard to remember that it is also a mere social convention. (It’s a recent one, besides.) Plenty of other people have written on this subject, so I’ll just end by saying that forcing myself to quit all those years ago has since left me feeling like smooth legs are odder. I’m not quite so free of bias as to feel normal while wearing feminine skirts and shoes with my legs as they are, but I never liked to wear that genre of clothing anyway.
Slightly less well-worn territory is bralessness. I know plenty of people for whom wearing a bra is simply a way to avoid physical discomfort, but there’s an entire range of smaller-breasted women who have to wear the blasted things all the time because jiggling or the evidence of nipples is socially unacceptable. (It is also, as a classic example of victim-blaming, potentially unsafe.) Gabrielle Moss’s think piece on the subject of bras (and not wearing them) is well worth a read. The connotations of people in public detecting your lack of bra are of course quite different than when they notice a woman with hairy legs. Been there, done that.
I haven’t chopped the long locks of hair off my head yet. I am aware of the nonsensical-but-real benefits I enjoy from long hair, which are rather well explained by this bit of writing titled “Laurie Penny on Hair: Why Patriarchy Fears Scissors–For Women, Short Hair is a Political Statement“. When I wanted what Autostraddle dubs an ALH (alternative lifestyle haircut), I went with the arguably passe undercut. I like it because I enjoy the paradox of simultaneously long and short hair, but I am also aware of the cowardice inherent in having a haircut whose asymmetry can be hidden by merely parting my hair differently.
I’ll never be a fashionable lady, but I am excited to think that we could make more mental room for women who are beautiful without fitting neatly into the cis/white/young/etc. format. Running away from fashion is not the silver bullet, as this essay titled “Modesty Made Me Fat” (which shows how obsessively avoiding vanity can conversely reinforce its influence over your life). This push to make women cover themselves so nobody else is disturbed by their bodies’ existence reminds me of this article on Zentai (aka full body suits).
[ Obviously this post was more of a brain dump than an essay. I’ve dedicated all of my organizational and editing energies to my monster of a MFA thesis paper, so…I’m sorry? Or perhaps, since informality tends to be more enjoyable…you’re welcome. ]