Note: I actually wrote this post a couple of years ago, but it felt too personal at the time to release.
I’m in my kitchen, slicing fresh corn off the cob, swaying my hips and stamping my feet to a Carolina Chocolate Drops cover of “Hit Em’ Up Style.” Body memory integrates — a rare occurrence — with the present moment, and I am brought back to my Southern childhood by the scents of fresh vegetables and the familiar rhythm of a solo dance. I am not my own audience — I prefer not to observe my movements as an outsider would — but dancing with no focus on form or appearance is its own satisfaction. I am briefly grateful for this body, the one wrapped in an old sundress with a scarf around the waist that sways as I do, the one that appreciates the taste of fresh food and the sultry song of a tuned-up fiddle. In this moment, I’m not thinking about dance-class rejections or the pain of my trans experience. For a few minutes, I’m just experiencing my own self, and the joy of creating something — both dance and meal — that can never be precisely duplicated.
In recent months, I’ve struggled to locate myself as a creative, living with an amazing writer and artist who pours creativity into everything they do. I feel outside of that world, too logical and focused on organization to claim creativity. The meal I’m eating as I write this piece, the one I’ve just created, was guided by a Blue Apron recipe, and as much as dance has guided my life, I have to face the fact that I essentially failed as a choreographer. The innocence of my mom’s always-available garden and a childish form that was constantly in motion feel remote as an adult who knows the price of organic vegetables and the pain of living in a trans body. Typically I distance myself from that body, because it’s too complicated, and because I trust my mind. Trusting my body is much harder.
As feminists share tips, stories, and body love today, I am pleased to see that some are also highlighting the negatives of the body-love imperative. While fighting body-negative messages is crucial, it is important to recognize that the goal should be acceptance of others’ bodies, not unqualified love of one’s own. For many people, including transgender, genderqueer, and intersect people, people with disabilities, people with a history of eating disorders, and those with a history of sexual assault, body love may not be a comfortable or appropriate goal. It’s important to realize that for some of us, a body is an inconvenience or a hindrance, and that experience is just as valid as body-love.
So what tips would I share on Love Your Body Day?
1. Speak to others in a thoughtful, compassionate way about bodies. Recognize that people’s relationships with their bodies vary widely and respect that. Don’t speak in absolute terms or offer advice when it’s not wanted or needed. For example, don’t sing the praises of exercise–many feel that while it’s wrong to criticize someone’s weight, exercise is right for everyone, and that simply isn’t true.
2. Be gentle with yourself if you have difficulty with body-love. Sometimes our bodies are disappointing. They might not function how we’d like them to. It might be hard to gain or lose weight. We might have health problems we can’t control, or a body that doesn’t feel right for our gender. If nurturing your body isn’t appropriate for you, try nurturing your mind or your spirit. A lot of body issues are mental health issues, and it can help to have a safe space to talk those out, even if they aren’t “fixable.”
3) Look for and give support where you can. It might be helpful to share experiences with others who have similar body issues. This doesn’t have to be a formal support group–I’ve seen plenty of this on Twitter and Tumblr.
4) Think of ways to visualize yourself or express your creative spirit–this doesn’t necessarily have to involve your body. For example, you might design an avatar or a work of art to represent you, make a spirit wall, practice creative visualization to envision yourself in some way other than the embodied, or use fashion to cover your body or make it less noticeable than what you’re displaying on it.
5) Assert your right (and others’) to take up space in a way that works for you. It’s okay to say that your body fucking sucks. You have a right to be sad, hurt, or angry. Anyone who insists that you love your body, get over your issues, or make more of an effort to love yourself is practicing emotional abuse. You have a right to inhabit physical space as well. You have a right to accommodations that you need. You have a right to say no to anything that makes you uncomfortable. You have a right to tell others not to say things about your body that they think are positive, and not to touch your body. These are all parts of bodily autonomy.
Just for fun, I decided to Google and see if I could find some sexy lingerie that isn’t “cute” or girly–maybe boyshorts and a flattering sports bra? I wasn’t too surprised to find this to be a challenge, but I was particularly disappointed by one hit from Woman’s Day magazine.
We’ve all seen this kind of thing, but I think it’s ubiquitous enough to escape our notice when a magazine or advertiser pulls it on us. In this example, an article on lingerie gives a number of options for women with different “body types.” The common thread, though, is that all the body types are described in the language of problems, not assets.
Woman’s Day suggests lingerie for “too much tummy,” “no curves,” and “small chest” to either add or take away from whatever curves a woman has. Even the seemingly positive or neutral categories “big bust” and “full hips” focus on minimizing the chest or drawing the eye to the chest and away from the hips. The idea is that whatever you have, there’s something wrong with it. The grass is always greener on the other end of the lingerie aisle.
Where are the underwear advertisements that celebrate a woman’s figure? How about playing up a round tummy, hips that are curvy or square, breasts of any size, curvy or straight? It’s not difficult to design lingerie to flatter body parts as they are–in fact, probably easier than trying to hide whatever you have. No wonder we’re all running around trying to heal from our insecurities, when we can’t even buy underwear without being told how deficient we are.
For day five of the Blogging “Yes” project, I read the essay “How Do You Fuck a Fat Woman?” by writer and fat acceptance blogger Kate Harding. This is a fantastic essay that I can’t recommend enough about Harding’s own experiences and how narrow beauty standards lead to the appalling suggestion that “rape is a compliment” for fat women, as well as reducing fat women’s own self-worth. I have just a few thoughts to add, particular concerning beauty standards, self-worth, and confidence in a very heteronormative world.
I attended an interesting talk today at the CRT at 20 conference on the topic of medical education and cultural competency, focusing especially on women of color’s experiences with gynecology. I started thinking about a tangential topic that I think is sometimes overlooked in LGBT studies: lesbians’ experience with sexual and reproductive health care services.
Later I will probably post some comments on how lesbians experience sexual and reproductive health care generally and differently from heterosexual women. Just now, though, I had a thought about the construction of the female body and how badly this jives with feminism and with lesbianism.
There has been a lot of talk among feminists about how the female sexual organs are reduced to their reproductive function, and how women’s sexual pleasure can be effectively erased from a discussion about women’s anatomy. My thought is that the woman’s body is sexualized, but it is sexualized only with reference to the man/the male body.
When you think about this part of the body, it’s likely that one of your first thoughts concerns the vagina. My guess is that gynecologists and other health care professionals see the vagina in two ways: as a receptacle for the penis (focusing on sexual health, contraception, disease, etc.) or as a passageway for a child (focusing on pregnancy, fertility, etc.) I think this is also true of the culture in general.
One problem is that the vagina is, for many women, not the site of sexual pleasure (or not the sole site), and so there is a separation between health and pleasure. I would posit that it is difficult to celebrate and enjoy the experience of health and health care when it is separated in this way from sexual pleasure. I think most of us experience our body in vastly different ways in the bedroom and in the doctor’s office. Another problem is that it makes the healthcare experience irrelevant for lesbian women, especially lesbian women not interested in giving birth. Our concerns may be difficult to express because society and our health care experiences have not given us a language to express them. I know that I find the gynecologist fairly irrelevant to me – I get an annual pap smear and I get birth control for migraines, but that’s it. My doctor is not necessarily someone I trust, nor do I associate him with my overall health.
I think that this disconnect may also have something to do with why lesbian women often do not go in for services such as pap smears, mammograms, and STI tests. STIs are often conceived of as a penis-in-vagina consequence. Even if we know that STIs can be transferred through any fluid contact, the lesbian community tends to see barrier methods as weird. If not weird, they’re just a pain. I’d guess that many of us haven’t asked our health care provider for advice concerning sexual health. I’ve had experiences with a female gynecologist who told me I only needed pap smears if I were having sex with a man, and a female resident whom I asked about sexual health and she said she didn’t know anything about STI risks. I’ve also had a lot of frustrating experiences when I’m talking with a health care professional about PCOS and he or she tells me repeatedly about my fertility options and forces literature on me, even though I say that I am not interested in having children, ever. I was even once told “oh, you’ll change your mind.” I find this condescending, and the lack of agency makes me fearful of healthcare.
I’m not sure exactly how this could be fixed, but I do think that in anatomy courses and wherever else medical students learn about the female body, the woman should be construed as a whole person, and her experiences of her body considered fully. I want health care professionals to think of women’s sexuality in terms of her own body, and all of it – not in terms of a penis and a vagina, plus possible “alternatives.” I also think that healthcare professionals need to learn how to have effective dialogues that do not make assumptions about sexual practices or reproductive choices. I don’t know how we get there, but I hope it’s where we’re going.
Forgive the radio silence over the past few days (and thank you all the new commenters for dropping by and saying hello!)
I’ve been thinking for a while of doing a post about butch and femme, but it turns out I have more to say than I thought on the subject, so I’d like to ruminate on that for a while.
Somewhat related, though, is a little sidebar about self-worth and appearance. Of course we all hear a lot about how the media portrays women as stick thin and gorgeous, how detrimental the narrowing of “acceptable” fashion is to young girls, etc. All completely true. But I think it’s interesting as someone who’s an adult and not a fashion follower by any stretch of the imagination to notice how societal norms affect my own body image.
I no longer have a problem with my weight, which is a minor miracle. Though I’ve always known intellectually that I was healthy and not overweight, I had a lot of trouble with it for a very long time. These days I find myself relatively happy with my figure, especially when I’m clothed, and at least not freaking out and crying or going on a diet immediately when I’m not. But then the old self-confidence zapper popped up where I least expected it.
I got a haircut yesterday. I actually am coming to terms with it, as I normally do after a day or so, and though I don’t love the style I’ll live with it until it grows out. But yesterday, it got worse and worse. Everytime I looked at the mirror, little doubts crept into my head, until I was imagining just how unattractive and undesireable I looked and had to push back tears. This is so strange to me, because I don’t value myself on how I look at all. It’s not that it’s androgynous – I like androgyny! I think it’s just that I left the realm of conventional beauty and some little inner me was saying “good job, loser. You’ll never get a date.”
Of course, that’s how society trains women to view themselves. Your self worth is measured by your ability to attract others. I’ve always felt good and better about myself when I felt like others were attracted to me. The silly thing, though, is that I’m not particularly wound up in love and sex right now. I’m not on the market for a relationship. If someone asked me out tomorrow, I might say yes, but if someone said “hey, let’s get serious right away!” I’d run in the other direction. So why on earth should my self-worth be tied to how likely my current appearance is to get me a date? Popular culture, really. I am not amused.