Saturday, February 23, 2008

[For] Crying Out Loud, the Fat Lady's Singing in Front of the Funhouse Mirror

I admit that I was uncomfortable while reading the articles for Thursday’s class, and I’ve avoided writing this blog entry because I haven’t been able to dodge the issues. In Fleeting Images: Women Visually Writing the Web, Gail E. Hawisher and Patricia A. Sullivan quote Tina: “The very idea of choosing a face to accompany my online words horrifies me” (268). I wrote “Yes!” in the margin, and double-lined and starred the lines. I feel like hiding my face, my body, all of me, and as Hawisher and Sullivan argue, “it is difficult to hide visible markers of difference” (270). For me, the marker is big(ness), obesity. If I could hide my body, I could represent myself textually as an intelligent woman who has fun (sometimes) and has led a full and active life. But when a photo is called for—as a way to identify myself to someone I know professionally and will meet at a conference, as a graduate peer interested in a writing project, as a newbie MySpace and Facebook member—I am traumatized. I look for photos I can crop to a head-and-shoulders view, or one in which the scenery dominates. And as long as the photo is available, I am uneasy. I find Bordo’s “everyday interpretation through two analytical moves”—homogenization and normalization—a difficult concept to apprehend when representations lie far outside the socially constructed and accepted normal and “how [images, photos, visual representations] go about representing that which the self continually measures, judges, disciplines, and corrects itself by” (271). Such measuring, judging, and discipline results in episodic self-flagellation because even when attempts at weight loss and conformity are successful for a time, the 75% to 95% recidivism[i] rate[ii] can seldom reach the goal of normal. (Compare weight loss recidivism to the 2003 Bureau of Justice Statistics indicating 5.3% recidivism rate for sex offenders within 3 years of release from prison.) What about the social construction of normal creates a non-productive, even detrimental climate for body image among the obese?

Laura L. Sullivan writes in Cyberbabes: (Self-) Representation of Women and the Virtual Male Gaze that she

believe[s] that the objectification of women’s faces and bodies pervasive in mainstream mass media forms one of the cornerstones of women’s oppression. Women internalize this objectification and in turn feel bad about ourselves (how we look gets translated into who we are and how much (self) worth we have), because no woman can ever measure up to the stereotypes promoted by mass mediated images.” (192)

Every month, women’s magazines next to the grocery checkout counter promote quick weight loss and decadent chocolate desserts on covers that feature a famous/beautiful/successful/normal woman, someone that other women want to emulate. I don’t see those models as mindless—they inspire a certain amount of envy; a feeling of loss, even grief. I think that those models’ images were meant to speak to women “as objectified images to be consumed by the largely [fe]male viewers” (192, I have substantially changed the context of Sullivan’s statement by replacing male with female). Sullivan’s concern with the male gaze on female images online is legitimate as long as the demographic profile shows males’ access and use exceeding that of females. And her emphasis that “the public nature of this medium is not to deny the way that sexism, classism, and racism influence and limit access to the technology of the Internet…[and] may reinforce and amplify such oppressions in new ways” (193). One of these ways is through weightism, yet for at least 20 years, movements such as Big is Beautiful have existed. Leonard Nimoy, in an interview for the New York Times about The Full Body Project: Photographs by Leonard Nimoy, a book of photographs featuring nude obese women, talked about how he became interested in the project and his initial difficulty: “The nudity wasn’t the problem,” he said, “but I’d never worked with that kind of a figure before. I didn’t quite know how to treat her. I didn’t want to do her some kind of injustice. I was concerned that I would present this person within the envelope of an art form.” I don’t intend to critique Nimoy’s art nor to question the result of his efforts. I found his book when I decided—with great trepidation—to see what popped up in a web search for “obese women photos.” While not as bad as I feared, I wonder whether a man behind the lens can avoid viewing any woman without a trace of male gaze.

Susan Romano writes in On Becoming a Woman: Pedagogies of the Self about textual construction of online female identity in a sometimes hostile male environment. Male antagonization requires that females “accept, refuse, ignore, or challenge” the male characterization of women as a group, and each option “carries an array of immediate discursive consequences for the women students undergoing this form of interrogation. Indeed, the onus placed on women is striking” (255). Romano calls on Haynes and Le Court in her construction of “a new rhetoric of the self—for feminist performances in online environments” (257). I don’t quite understand what she means by this because she skips immediately to explaining the classroom example later in the essay. She calls her tactics reformist as opposed to Haynes’ and Le Court’s revolutionary mode (257). Roman’s posit of the “metaphors of recombination” offers hope for synthesizing a self-awareness, self-possibilities, and self-esteem (265).

  1. I opted out of the first wave of feminism and didn’t know that a “new “feminism had arisen until four years ago. Now I hear there is a third wave. Where is this wave in its evolution?
  2. I’m not sure how Romano’s “new rhetoric of the self” differs from “healing the inner child” or “building self-esteem.” Is she simply renaming preexisting programs in feminist terms?

[i] Recidivism is an appropriate term for a lapse of behavior that returns the person to previous habits, but a strong connotative association with relapse into criminal behavior demonstrates how obesity is viewed in the medical field and in society.

[ii] Rosenbaum, Michael. Physiological Barriers to Weight Loss Maintenance. Medscape General Medicine. 2007; 9(3):18. Accessed 23 Feb. 2008 .

1 comment:

kristin said...

Oooh, interesting stuff. I wrote my MS (it was an MS and not an MA...weird really) about women's online weightloss narratives. The whole sense of before and after photos and the way in which "bigness" (of which I am no stranger) is represented is pretty appalling. The before person is always stuffing cake into their mouth while wearing sweat pants, whereas the after person is always happy, makeup-laden, and bikini clad (or business suit). More than anything what interested me in these stories and photos was the way in which "control" was referred to, not only terms of what people ate but also in terms of the way in which the body was represented.

I also totally hear in in looking for online photos. I've learned if I lift my head up really high my double-chin is nonexistent, so if I just do a head shot with neck extended like some weird alien, I almost look like a skinny person with big head. Wow, the time we devote to worrying and considering such issues is kind of upsetting, no?

I'm curious to hear from you and others in the class (I hope to do this tomorrow) if we can at all link up these discussions of normalized bodies and identities with the issues we've been discussing in class thus far? If so, how? Is the concept of online self representation something worth discussing and engaging with in class? If so, how? Do we go so far as to enact an assignment like Alexender's? I'm not entirely sure I'm comfortable with that, but it'd be interesting.

Imagine an anonymous online chat with students where the prompt is: imagine you wake up tomorrow in a society where the fatter you are the more attractive you are. What would you do?


Thanks Donna.