On the irreversibility of pain

Merleau-Ponty wrote about the inherent reversibility of the hand shake: both hands, both bodies touch each other and are being touched at the same time. The movement is reversible; the bond that’s created is mutual.

This is true whenever I touch another person (except when I’m using an object to touch the other person). The reversibility of the movement- the fact that both of us touch and are being touched at the same time- is essential to the bond between us.

When I induce pain in another body through my touch- this bond is ruptured.The Other  now feels an intense stimulus that takes control over her or his attention. He or she feels something very strong. What I feel becomes close to nothing. The intensity of the pain the felt by the Other minimizes my own weaker and more mundane sensations. The movement is no longer reversible. The bond is ruptured.

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The force of a flickering light-bulb

I want to feel that I truly inhabit my body. But I only experience it very rarely. When I move or execute movements automatically I’m as far from inhabiting my body as one can be. So maybe expressing doubt, indecisiveness, pondering – through the body – is one mode of inhabiting it.

This occurs in situations when you’re not sure what to do with your body or part of it. Or if you are trying to change some form of bodily habit, a former way of moving, adapt yourself to something new. Your movement is tentative, faltering. Your muscle tonus oscillates, tenderly changing, from one moment to another, like a flickering light bulb.

Regardless of your will, you now express something new with your body. It is precisely the indecisiveness and doubt that communicates this fact to you and others. You make an effort; moored in time and space, because you lack confidence and authority.

This experience is inextricably bound to imagining new ways of inhabiting ones’ body, and to a genuine willingness to change. This experience needs to be sheltered to take place. Aggression, humiliation, pressure, social or physical, dictation will strangle it like putting a glass over a little flame. When it comes to human sexuality, I believe that the spread and force of symbolical and material erotization of violence, and more broadly, of hierarchy and power relations ( along with the accompanying construction of human sexuality as genital penetration) suffocates this potential mode of inhabiting one’s body through sexuality. By definition, this mode of sexuality or eroticism, would not lend itself to commercialization or consumption.

My body and death

When I touch my body with my own hands, I live and express the duality of the subject and object- I touch and I’m being touched, I’m touched because I touch, and vice versa.

When I touch my body with both of my hands I connect with my mortality. When I touch my body I recognize and meet again in my present body my past body, the way my body used to be, when I was a baby and a toddler and a girl. When I was born, I was completely dependent upon the two humans who created me with parts of their flesh. In one act they in motion the myriad of potentialities that would become me.

Before I was born I fed on my mother’s flesh. After I was born, she became everything and everyone to me. My body, small and amorphous. Still hasn’t been exposed to the light of the sun. Today, some of what were then potentialities have materialized, others never will. I think that when you’re 30 you begin to grasp that it’s not likely that you will undergo a dramatic change. When you die you will be, more or less, who you are today.

If I do not die young, my  future body will return to being an amorphous bundle of need dependent on others. This time I will not be adorable and sweet, but a sign of decay and disgusting to others. Exploited minorities will be paid to touch my flesh. Medical tubes will pierce my body, many more artificially produced chemical compounds penetrate my blood flow daily, my insides monitored and checked.  When I write this or think about it, I shed tears. Is it still crying if you shed tears in silence? I read about crying in Wikipedia. It says: “[T]he act of crying has been defined as “a complex secretomotor phenomenon characterized by the shedding of tears from the lacrimal apparatus, without any irritation of the ocularstructures”

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.

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.