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Radical Reading: Embodied Resistance

I read Embodied Resistance, an anthology that just came out from Vanderbilt Press (editors Chris Bobel and Samantha Kwan), with a certain degree of skepticism in mind.  As a friend reminded me when he read the Amazon blurb, people are often perceived to be resisting when they are simply living their lives.  Transgender people, for example, are seen as “deviant” whether they want to be or not.  It’s simply the cost of appearing to be different in a society that can often be very cookie-cutter about its body norms.I was pleasantly surprised to find that many of the chapters in this volume did, in fact, tackle the question of intentional resistance.  A chapter on the bear subculture among gay men, for example, notes that “[t]he degree of intentionality behind the embodied protests of bear and big men’s groups varies.”  In a short essay on how she came to write about fat sex, Hanne Blank notes that “[a]s I wrote I began to realize that I have a knack for pointing out things that to me are glaringly obvious but that other people seem to have a hard time spotting–that I exist, that people like me exist, that there are millions and millions of fat people in the world, and despite all rumors to the contrary, most have love and sex lives.”  Embodied Resistance does, then, at least in some of it chapters, acknowledge that “resistors” may simply be living their lives, and that the body as a protest may not be intentional but rather constructed through others’ perceptions of “normal” bodies.  Ideally, I would’ve liked to have more discussion of what it’s like to be in this situation, rather than simple acknowledgement, but it is a first step.

I did find it interesting that in some cases, those perceived as resisting were actually using a group of “resistors” to normalize their bodies.  In many groups made up of non-normative body types, the members talk about the safety of that group space, whether it’s roller derby girls embracing their size and propensity towards “unladylike” injuries or women with body hair talking about their experiences in the somewhat artificial setting of a classroom experiment.  This first chapter of the book on female body hair was actually the most relatable for me, as a female-perceived person who does not shave underarms or legs.  For many women, this is an intentional form of protest, but for many of us it is simply a natural state, and others’ attempts to define us as intentional resistors can be uncomfortable.

On the whole, Embodied Resistance is a good overview of a wide range of topics related to non-normative or resisting bodies.  The book does tend towards mostly white subcultures in the US, but there are exceptions.  There is also a fair balance in documenting the experiences of different genders.  From belly dancing while pregnant to the female dominatrix to the transgender “bathroom question,” the book will prompt plenty of interesting classroom discussions.

Note: I was bothered by the inclusion of a chapter on pro-ana, and need to mention this as a trigger warning for some readers.  The authors of this chapter acknowledge the problematic nature of the movement, but it nonetheless may be very hard to read–it was for me.