A letter to a “Naked woman on a sofa” – Lucian Freud, 1984-1985

Image

I really like this painting. It expresses a deep truth for me, as an embodied being. It strikes me as a painting of a real woman. Not just body, but body and mind. Not merely an image, a simulacrum or a cultural sign.

Something is very familiar to me in this painting. It evokes something in my past, in my childhood, even though it seems to me that today I’m younger than this woman when she was drawn. It makes me think about mother-daughter relationships, and more broadly, about multi-generational bonds between women.

It reassures me, makes me calm. Even though she is naked, drawn through the eyes of a male painter (Lucian Freud), I don’t feel like I’m a voyeur. I can identify with her, with the marks of time on her body. She seems serene to me, and strong in a way. I wish that I was surrounded with such images as a girl, as a teenager, without having to hate my body that will never conform to the images that did surround me at the time, and still do!

Why do I enjoy this painting so much? Clearly – and even though she meets some cultural norms of beauty (she is white, she seems to have an average size body) – she fails to meet others : her breasts are soft (too soft, our culture says), her tummy is loose (our culture says, too loose). I find in her body solace that I cannot find in the muscular images of men I like to identify with so much (consciously and to spite others) because they are strong, tough, not soft. I am her more than I am tough.

Flushed areas are marked on her face and she has big, wise eyes, which seem to me be absorbed in the here and now, like time itself is her lover. I feel as though this painting tells me something valuable and old about my identity, my flesh and my mind, as a woman. I am already her, she is a part of me.

Stop oppression in the name of health

Fat studies researchers and activists aim to understand the dominant reference to fatness as pathological and as a health problem in its broader social, cultural, political and economic context. They argue that the medical terminology and logic both conceal and reinforce social power relations that underlie any definitions of ‘normal’ or ‘proper’ body sizes, as well as the corresponding  social stereotypes and prejudices surrounding fat bodies (See, Wann, 2009). Researchers argue, for instance, that different factors, such as economic status, mediate the alleged correlation between fatness and ill health; that health should be viewed as a holistic concept that includes more elements than a person’s weight, such as general life style; and that the pressure to lose weight, and the measures that reinforce this pressure, are more damaging to health then fatness itself (Burgard  2009; Ernsberger 2009; Lyons 2009).

One study, for instance,  compared two groups of fat women: one group was encouraged to diet and exercise, while the other was encouraged to eat a healthy diet, to listen to one’s bodily cues, to engage in fun activities and to participate in a fat acceptance group. After one year, the health of the second group improved significantly, e.g. their blood pressure and cholesterol levels decreased (although they did not lose any weight).  The participants of the first group lost weight but did not improve their health to a significant extent.  Most of them eventually regained the weight they initially lost (Farrell, 2011).

Historians and cultural critics, such as Amy Farrell (2011), Hillel Schwartz (1990) and Peter Sterns (1997), argue that the social rejection of fatness and the pressure to lose weight were connected to underlying social trends that characterized late modernity in the West. They also argue that the social rejection of fatness preceded and then became intertwined with explicit medicalization of fatness.

Fat people’s health is none of your business. You should not publicly dissect and analyze the risk factors presumably associated with fat, just as we (as a society) don’t target other social groups. If you really care about fat people’s health, you won’t take part in media humiliation and vilification of fat people, see, for instance, “Headless Fatties“.

If you are interested to learn more about the social stigma of fat and its’ implication, you should read UCLA Professor Abigail Saguy’s new book “What’s Wrong with Fat”. To see some of my published works on the subject, visit my page on Academia Edu or Google me on ScholarGoogle.

Bibliography:

Burgard, D. (2009). “What Is “Health at Every Size?””. In: E. Rothblum and S. Solovay (Eds.), The Fat Studies Reader (pp. 41-53). New York & London: New York University Press.

Ernsberger, P. (2009). Does social class explain the connection between weight and
health? In E. Rothblum and  S. Solovay  (Eds.),  The  fat studies reader (pp.  25–36).  New York,  NY & London, England:  New York University Press.

Ferrall,  Amy E. (2011). Fat shame:  Stigma and the fat body in American culture. New  York: New York University Press.

Lyons, P. (2009). Prescription for harm. In: E. Rothblum and S. Solovay (Eds.), The Fat Studies Reader (pp. 75-88). New York & London: New York University Press.

Schwartz, Hillel. Never satisfied: A cultural history of diets, fantasies, and fat. Free Press, 1986.

Stearns, P. (2002). Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West. NYU Press: NY.

Wann, M .(2009). Fat Studies- an Invitation for a Revolution. In: E. Rothblum and S. Solovay (Eds.), The Fat Studies Reader (pp. xi-xxvi). New York & London: New York University Press.

Exposing the marks of male physicality in our intellectual discourse

Yesterday I read an op-ed about the psycho-physical problem in philosophy. As I was reading the article I  was startled by the following paragraph (translated from Hebrew by me): “…Some stimuli are prioritized by the brain from the entanglement of environmental stimuli (e.g. pain, a beautiful women, a friend, a foe)”. I felt instantly transformed, from a thinking subject reading a philosophical text, to a mute chicken on a plate. What made me feel that way?

Refering to a beautiful woman as a “environmental stimulus” is common in texts written by men. It exposes something important about spoken and (especially) written language, higlighting several cultural assumptions, that are usually taken for granted:

a)     The general, unspecified, default reader addressed by the text is a man.

b)     That the general, unspecified, default reader addressed by the text is a heterosexual man.

c)    It is culturally acceptable for men to mark the texts they write with the signs of their physical sexed bodies and desires.

d)     Rational and intellectual modes of argument in our societies have been historically shaped by men.

These assumptions stem from a reality in which education, and writing, have traditionally been males’ territory. Today, when women express their opinions in writing, they are expected (and in fact have no choice) to inhabit this presumably “neutral” (but in fact sexed) subject position. When we write texts, we are expected to leave the marks of our physical and sexed body out of the text. And so, if I was writing a text for a respectable outlet, I would never have written: ” Some stimuli are prioritized by the brain from the entanglement  of environmental stimuli (e.g. pain, the bare chest of a well-built man, a friend, a foe)”. (The demand that women leave their corporeal bodies out of the text is reminiscent of the demand that we avoid using our personal (supposedly biased) experiences as a source of authority. For a critique of this demand, see Sandra Harding’s “Strong objectivity”).

 How would a language, a mode of argument and intellectual discourse shaped by women’s sexed bodies look like? Perhaps our daughters will  teach us.

Update: this is an example of using a beautiful women as an environmental stimuli.

Widening the range of women’s representations

Image

This portrait simply makes me happy. Right now this representation is so rare that it feels like science fiction. But it goes to show us how we would feel, if we had the male privilege of being surrounded by images of strong, wise , mature, smiling with confidence members of our sex , whose beauty does not stem from the their photoshopped, extremely thin, young naked bodies.

We can see just how deeply we’re absorbed by “Disney” and “Barbie” like representations for women by looking at this disturbing work of art. This made me think to myself “Your Disney strips away my humanity”!

Free me from gender binaries

A couple of days ago I posted on my facebook wall that I hate being assigned to the category of a woman. One facebook friend referred me to a plastic surgeon she knows, writing that he could “help me become re-assigned to the other category”. Another posted: “Then, what category would you want to be assigned to?”, implying again the male category.

Despite the fact that scholars from various scientific disciplines have challenged the notion that the human race is divided into two complementary, opposite sexes (see Lacquer and Fausto-Sterling, for example), most people continue to stick to a binary idea of gender and deny the existence of biological, social and cultural gender varieties or continuums.  Gender or sex is a very complex phenomenon which depends on a correspondence of at least a number of levels: hormonal , genetic, anatomical , the appearance of external genitals and psychological and subjective identities. There are many instances in which this correspondence does not exist (for example, queer identity, XXX females or Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome). A recent study found that most “gender normative” individuals do not identify solely or even mostly with their assigned gender. Just recently, a female friend from martial art class asked me whether I think that she has too much testosterone because she likes to fight.

Whenever I point this out in a conversation, I’m told that these examples are mistakes of nature, or, when I’m talking to an extremely liberal person, that these are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Imagine that we would recognize only extremely tall or extremely short individuals. Everyone in the middle would have to correct themselves by some medical procedure. Or that we would have accepted the existence of only brown and green eyed individuals. The rest would need to wear contact lenses.

I propose that instead of talking about gender in a binary way, we would talk about gender continuums, or genres (This is the suggestion of French philosopher Luce Irigary).

What will we (as a society) gain from using this terminology?

We will be able to recognize and accommodate persons with physical attributes that are now (under the gender binary) labeled as belonging to the opposite gender- such as males with gynocosmetics, or women with certain patterns of facial and of body hair.

We will be able to accommodate intersex and other persons with ambiguous sexual/gendered features.

We will allow people to express and develop traits that were hitherto associated with the opposite sex (men would be able to be tender and women could be physically aggressive).

Sex based segregation systems, for example, in ultra-orthodox Jewish  communities (see this for one aspect of gender based segregation of ultra Orthodox Jews) or occupational segregation (crowding women into low paying jobs and in charge of emotional labor, for example) , will be undermined and harder to maintain.

Compulsory heterosexuality would become largely meaningless, if we don’t limit our identities or our partners’ identities to an either/or sexual identity.

What will we lose by abandoning gender binary?

We will lose most of our known cultural mediation mechanisms of organizing relationships between men and women, and people in general in our society. We would have to conceive, imagine and cultivate new modes of connection and communication. A lot of hard work. Glancing over the history of most known (patriarchal) societies, I would say that this would be a good thing.

And this  is a very useful link: Judith Butler explains the idea of gender performativity in three minutes.

Why do people find it so important to deny others’ social oppression?

Why do individuals, who do not belong to certain social groups, insist on denying that these groups are oppressed? Some men, for example, conduct acrobatic intellectual maneuvers and go to incredible lengths to claim that they are just as oppressed as women on the basis of appearance because men are expected to groom their facial hair, or that men are harmed from pornography just as much as women because they are also expected to meet unrealistic expectations.

A friend told me yesterday that this insistence is helpful to deniers because it keeps them from wondering whether they take part in oppression themselves. Activists and scholars in critical fields (such as gender studies and fat studies) are no less biased – we were raised and we live in the same society; and we harbor misogyny, fat hatred and racism. However, we are supposed to be aware of such biases and show humility by not denying the oppression of other social groups, without bothering to learn in depth about those groups and their situation.

The Fantasy of pure resistance

Many times, people criticize those who participate in various political/social struggles, or identify with them, for failing to live up to a notion of a “full” or “complete” consciousness of resistance. If you criticize the beauty myth, for example, you are not expected to diet, to lose weight unintentionally, or to express dissatisfaction with your appearance. As a social activist, or a feminist, you are expected to demonstrate consistency that is not expected from those who are not involved with social struggles. Also, if you manage to gain from some form of existing social relations (for example, a feminist who receives support from a male partner) this discredits your other accomplishments.

I believe that the expectation to express a unitary resisting consciousness results from a specific conception of modernity, that ultimately serves to preserve the social order as it is. I have written about “the Fantasy of pure resistance” in one of my articles, which addresses the issue of fat acceptance in Israel:

…Alternative communities, as a collective, often display deep intolerance toward such ambivalence… When activists or scholars argue that individuals have absolute control over the value they assign to their identity, this can also be oppressive (Murray, 2005). Many activists feel that they are the only ones who are not able to practice complete self-acceptance. As a result, they are caught “in a new web of shame and guilt” (Cooper, 1998, p. 56)…

When a subject is embedded within an oppressive social context, a consciousness of pure resistance or pure self acceptance is neither possible nor necessary (Murray, 2005). Subjectivity is multivocal, plural, contradictory, and constantly changing, for those who practice fat acceptance, as much as for everyone else (Murray, 2005). The ambivalent nature of resistance is not a deformity or a deficiency, but rather emblematic of the inner dynamics by which resistance manifests itself over time. Accordingly, acts of subversion and resistance need not be considered antagonistic or mutually exclusive with acts of social conformity. The interplay between elements of conformity and resistance is continuously taking place.

You can read the full article here.

Why are we afraid of women competing with men in sports?

Lindsey Vonn, one of the most successful skiers the United States has ever produced, requested the opportunity to compete against men at the prestigious Lake Louise competition. The International Ski Federation rejected her request because “one gender is not entitled to participate in the races of the other.” If men are biologically stronger and faster than women, why is there a need to shelter them from competition with women? Skiing is not a contact sport – one races against the clock and the slope.

Professor Mark Stoddart from Memorial University of Newfoundland argues that skiing is charged with gender associations, as risk-taking and speed are associated with masculinity, whereas caution and control are interpreted as “feminine”.

This is hardly surprising: the belief that there are inborn, permanent and biological differences between genders is the foundation of social order, not only in relation to sports but also to sexuality, parenting, work and combat.

In this context, the gendered and sexual identities of women who excel in “masculine” professions often come under scrutiny. Just last year, it was decided that South-African middle-distance runner, Caster Semenya, must undergo a “gender verification test” before she can participate in the World Championship competition, a test which she eventually passed successfully.

Nonetheless, in marathons and golfing, women have already been permitted to compete against men, following legal action. This has not just changed the lives of women who practice these sports, but also these sports’ gender biases and masculine codes, and gradually, our society in general.

There are many ways to create gender-equitable sports contests, yet still match equivalent competitors, such as introducing an “open weight” category, and adding another gender-open competition, alongside the separate ones. These changes are a necessary and positive adaptation and manifestation of women’s gain in physical and social capital.

Women in the martial arts

My interest and experience in the sociology of the body, embodiment and gender and the body as a site of resistance has led me to undertake  a sociological inquiry into women’s involvement in martial arts. While women’s involvement in many sports has the potential to challenge normative gender roles, participation in martial arts is especially significant, as it confronts women with activities that are strongly associated with masculinity in Western societies (such as fighting or initiating physical contact).

My project relies on in-depth interviews with men and women who practice or teach martial arts, as well as my own experiences as a trainee.

Here is an excerpt from a recent proposal I wrote:

 I have been interested in gaining physical strength and in being able to protect myself for most of my adult life. Practicing weight training for several years, I became convinced that developing the size and strength of my muscles alone will not significantly enhance my ability to defend myself against the physical strength of others. The thought of practicing a full-contact sports in a mostly male group was at first inconceivable for me. As a fat child, gym classes, and the presence of others during physical activity became associated with teasing and embarrassment. Close physical contact with men seemed intimidating and uncomfortable as well. My experience with martial arts has significantly changed my own experience of gender embodiment. First, I have learned to feel comfortable with close physical contact with the men in my group. I experience the group as a space for forging physical relationship between men and women that is not based on sexuality or motherhood. Second, practicing martial arts has allowed me to express parts of my body (e.g. wide and forceful movements) and my personality (e.g. competitiveness and assertiveness) in ways that are not compatible with gender norms. Third, I learn, and am still learning, to accept my body’s limitations, usually through pain and injuries. Pain, I have come to learn, is one of the most difficult experiences for me to write about in ethnography.